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Cats cradle, p.17
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       Cat's Cradle, p.17

           Kurt Vonnegut
 
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  So what?

  I wondered where the dead could be. Mona and I ventured more than a mile from our oubliette without seeing one dead human being.

  I wasn't half so curious about the living, probably because I sensed accurately that I would first have to contemplate a lot of dead. I saw no columns of smoke from possible campfires; but they would have been hard to see against an horizon of worms.

  One thing did catch my eye: a lavender corona about the queer plug that was the peak on the hump of Mount McCabe. It seemed to be calling me, and I had a silly, cinematic notion of climbing that peak with Mona. But what would it mean?

  We were walking into the wrinkles now at the foot of Mount McCabe. And Mona, as though aimlessly, left my side, left the road, and climbed one of the wrinkles. I followed.

  I joined her at the top of the ridge. She was looking down raptly into a broad, natural bowl. She was not crying.

  She might well have cried.

  In that bowl were thousands upon thousands of dead. On the lips of each decedent was the blue-white frost of ice-nine.

  Since the corpses were not scattered or tumbled about, it was clear that they had been assembled since the withdrawal of the frightful winds. And, since each corpse had its finger in or near its mouth, I understood that each person had delivered himself to this melancholy place and then poisoned himself with ice-nine.

  There were men, women, and children, too, many in the attitudes ofboko-maru. All faced the center of the bowl, as though they were spectators in an amphitheater.

  Mona and I looked at the focus of all those frosted eyes, looked at the center of the bowl. There was a round clearing there, a place in which one orator might have stood.

  Mona and I approached the clearing gingerly, avoiding the morbid statuary. We found a boulder in it. And under the boulder was a penciled note which said:

  To whom it may concern: These people around you are almost all of the survivors on San Lorenzo of the winds that followed the freezing of the sea. These people made a captive of the spurious holy man named Bokonon. They brought him here, placed him at their center, and commanded him to tell them exactly what God Almighty was up to and what they should now do. The mountebank told them that God was surely trying to kill them, possibly because He was through with them, and that they should have the good manners to die. This, as you can see, they did.

  The note was signed by Bokonon.

  121

  I AM SLOW TO ANSWER

  "WHAT A CYNIC!" I gasped. I looked up from the note and gazed around the death-filled bowl. "Is he here somewhere?"

  "I do not see him," said Mona mildly. She wasn't depressed or angry. In fact, she seemed to verge on laughter. "He always said he would never take his own advice, because he knew it was worthless."

  "He'd better be here!" I said bitterly. "Think of the gall of the man, advising all these people to kill themselves!"

  Now Mona did laugh. I had never heard her laugh. Her laugh was startlingly deep and raw.

  "This strikes you as funny?"

  She raised her arms lazily. "It's all so simple, that's all. It solves so much for so many, so simply."

  And she went strolling up among the petrified thousands, still laughing. She paused about midway up the slope and faced me. She called down to me, "Would you wish any of these alive again, if you could? Answer me quickly.

  "Not quick enough with your answer," she called playfully, after half a minute had passed. And, still laughing a little, she touched her finger to the ground, straightened up, and touched the finger to her lips and died.

  Did I weep? They say I did. H. Lowe Crosby and his Hazel and little Newton Hoenikker came upon me as I stumbled down the road. They were in Bolivar's one taxicab, which had been spared by the storm. They tell me I was crying. Hazel cried, too, cried for joy that I was alive.

  They coaxed me into the cab.

  Hazel put her arm around me. "You're with your mom, now. Don't you worry about a thing."

  I let my mind go blank. I closed my eyes. It was with deep, idiotic relief that I leaned on that fleshy, humid, barn-yard fool.

  122

  THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON

  THEY TOOK ME to what was left of Franklin Hoenikker's house at the head of the waterfall. What remained was the cave under the waterfall, which had become a sort of igloo under a translucent, blue-white dome of ice-nine.

  The menage consisted of Frank, little Newt, and the Crosbys. They had survived in a dungeon in the palace, one far shallower and more unpleasant than the oubliette. They had moved out the moment the winds had abated, while Mona and I had stayed underground for another three days.

  As it happened, they had found the miraculous taxicab waiting for them under the arch of the palace gate. They had found a can of white paint, and on the front doors of the cab Frank had painted white stars, and on the roof he had painted the letters of a granfalloon: U.S.A.

  "And you left the paint under the arch," I said.

  "How did you know?" asked Crosby.

  "Somebody else came along and wrote a poem."

  I did not inquire at once as to how Angela Hoenikker Conners and Philip and Julian Castle had met their ends, for I would have had to speak at once about Mona. I wasn't ready to do that yet.

  I particularly didn't want to discuss the death of Mona since, as we rode along in the taxi, the Crosbys and little Newt seemed so inappropriately gay.

  Hazel gave me a clue to the gaiety. "Wait until you see how we live. We've got all kinds of good things to eat. Whenever we want water, we just build a camp-fire and melt some. The Swiss Family Robinson--that's what we call ourselves."

  123

  OF MICE AND MEN

  A CURIOUS SIX MONTHS followed--the six months in which I wrote this book. Hazel spoke accurately when she called our little society the Swiss Family Robinson, for we had survived a storm, were isolated, and then the living became very easy indeed. It was not without a certain Walt Disney charm.

  No plants or animals survived, it's true. But ice-nine preserved pigs and cows and little deer and windrows of birds and berries until we were ready to thaw and cook them. Moreover, there were tons of canned goods to be had for the grubbing in the ruins of Bolivar. And we seemed to be the only people left on San Lorenzo.

  Food was no problem, and neither were clothing or shelter, for the weather was uniformly dry and dead and hot. Our health was monotonously good. Apparently all the germs were dead, too--or napping.

  Our adjustment became so satisfactory, so complacent, that no one marveled or protested when Hazel said, "One good thing anyway, no mosquitoes."

  She was sitting on a three-legged stool in the clearing where Frank's house had stood. She was sewing strips of red, white, and blue cloth together. Like Betsy Ross, she was making an American flag. No one was unkind enough to point out to her that the red was really a peach, that the blue was nearly a Kelly green, and that the fifty stars she had cut out were six-pointed stars of David rather than five-pointed American stars.

  Her husband, who had always been a pretty good cook, now simmered a stew in an iron pot over a wood fire nearby. He did all our cooking for us; he loved to cook.

  "Looks good, smells good," I commented.

  He winked. "Don't shoot the cook. He's doing the best he can."

  In the background of this cozy conversation were the nagging dah-dah-dahs and dit-dit-dits of an automatic SOS transmitter Frank had made. It called for help both night and day.

  "Save our soullllls," Hazel intoned, singing along with the transmitter as she sewed, "save our soulllllls."

  "How's the writing going?" Hazel asked me.

  "Fine, Mom, just fine."

  "When you going to show us some of it?"

  "When it's ready, Mom, when it's ready."

  "A lot of famous writers were Hoosiers."

  "I know."

  "You'll be one of a long, long line." She smiled hopefully. "Is it a funny book?"

  "I hope so, Mom."


  "I like a good laugh."

  "I know you do."

  "Each person here has some specialty, something to give the rest. You write books that make us laugh, and Frank does science things, and little Newt--he paints pictures for us all, and I sew, and Lowie cooks."

  " 'Many hands make much work light.' Old Chinese proverb."

  "They were smart in a lot of ways, those Chinese were."

  "Yes, let's keep their memory alive."

  "I wish now I'd studied them more."

  "Well, it was hard to do, even under ideal conditions."

  "I wish now I'd studied everything more."

  "We've all got regrets, Mom."

  "No use crying over spilt milk."

  "As the poet said, Mom, 'Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, "It might have been." '"

  "That's so beautiful, and so true."

  124

  FRANK'S ANT FARM

  I HATED TO SEE HAZEL finishing the flag, because I was all balled up in her addled plans for it. She had the idea that I had agreed to plant the fool thing on the peak of Mount McCabe.

  "If Lowe and I were younger, we'd do it ourselves. Now all we can do is give you the flag and send our best wishes with you."

  "Mom, I wonder if that's really a good place for the flag."

  "What other place is there?"

  "I'll put on my thinking cap." I excused myself and went down into the cave to see what Frank was up to.

  He was up to nothing new. He was watching an ant farm he had constructed. He had dug up a few surviving ants in the three-dimensional world of the ruins of Bolivar, and he had reduced the dimensions to two by making a dirt and ant sandwich between two sheets of glass. The ants could do nothing without Frank's catching them at it and commenting upon it.

  The experiment had solved in short order the mystery of how ants could survive in a waterless world. As far as I know, they were the only insects that did survive, and they did it by forming with their bodies tight balls around grains of ice-nine. They would generate enough heat at the center to kill half their number and produce one bead of dew. The dew was drinkable. The corpses were edible.

  "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die," I said to Frank and his tiny cannibals.

  His response was always the same. It was a peevish lecture on all the things that people could learn from ants.

  My responses were ritualized, too. "Nature's a wonderful thing, Frank. Nature's a wonderful thing."

  "You know why ants are so successful?" he asked me for the thousandth time. "They co-op-er-ate."

  "That's a hell of a good word--co-operation."

  "Who taught them how to make water?"

  "Who taught me how to make water?"

  "That's a silly answer and you know it."

  "Sorry."

  "There was a time when I took people's silly answers seriously. I'm past that now."

  "A milestone."

  "I've grown up a good deal."

  "At a certain amount of expense to the world." I could say things like that to Frank with an absolute assurance that he would not hear them.

  "There was a time when people could bluff me without much trouble because I didn't have much self-confidence in myself."

  "The mere cutting down of the number of people on earth would go a long way toward alleviating your own particular social problems," I suggested. Again, I made the suggestion to a deaf man.

  "You tell me, you tell me who told these ants how to make water," he challenged me again.

  Several times I had offered the obvious notion that God had taught them. And I knew from onerous experience that he would neither reject nor accept this theory. He simply got madder and madder, putting the question again and again.

  I walked away from Frank, just as The Books of Bokonon advised me to do. "Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before," Bokonon tells us. "He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way."

  I went looking for our painter, for little Newt.

  125

  THE TASMANIANS

  WHEN I FOUND LITTLE NEWT, painting a blasted landscape a quarter of a mile from the cave, he asked me if I would drive him into Bolivar to forage for paints. He couldn't drive himself He couldn't reach the pedals.

  So off we went, and, on the way, I asked him if he had any sex urge left. I mourned that I had none--no dreams in that line, nothing.

  "I used to dream of women twenty, thirty, forty feet tall," he told me. "But now? God, I can't even remember what my Ukrainian midget looked like."

  I recalled a thing I had read about the aboriginal Tasmanians, habitually naked persons who, when encountered by white men in the seventeenth century, were strangers to agriculture, animal husbandry, architecture of any sort, and possibly even fire. They were so contemptible in the eyes of white men, by reason of their ignorance, that they were hunted for sport by the first settlers, who were convicts from England. And the aborigines found life so unattractive that they gave up reproducing.

  I suggested to Newt now that it was a similar hopelessness that had unmanned us.

  Newt made a shrewd observation. "I guess all the excitement in bed had more to do with excitement about keeping the human race going than anybody ever imagined."

  "Of course, if we had a woman of breeding age among us, that might change the situation radically. Poor old Hazel is years beyond having even a Mongolian idiot."

  Newt revealed that he knew quite a bit about Mongolian idiots. He had once attended a special school for grotesque children, and several of his schoolmates had been Mongoloids. "The best writer in our class was a Mongoloid named Myrna--I mean penmanship, not what she actually wrote down. God, I haven't thought about her for years."

  "Was it a good school?"

  "All I remember is what the headmaster used to say all the time. He was always bawling us out over the loudspeaker system for some mess we'd made, and he always started out the same way: 'I am sick and tired ...'-

  "That comes pretty close to describing how I feel most of the time."

  "Maybe that's the way you're supposed to feel."

  "You talk like a Bokononist, Newt."

  "Why shouldn't I? As far as I know, Bokononism is the only religion that has any commentary on midgets."

  When I hadn't been writing, I'd been poring over The Books of Bokonon, but the reference to midgets had escaped me. I was grateful to Newt for calling it to my attention, for the quotation captured in a couplet the cruel paradox of Bokononist thought, the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it.

  Midget, midget, midget, how he struts and winks,

  For he knows a man's as big as what he hopes and thinks!

  126

  SOFT PIPES, PLAY ON

  "SUCH A DEPRESSING RELIGION!" I cried. I directed our conversation into the area of Utopias, of what might have been, of what should have been, of what might yet be, if the world would thaw.

  But Bokonon had been there, too, had written a whole book about Utopias, The Seventh Book, which he called "Bokonon's Republic." In that book are these ghastly aphorisms:

  The hand that stocks the drug stores rules the world.

  Let us start our Republic with a chain of drug stores, a chain of grocery stores, a chain of gas chambers, and a national game. After that, we can write our Constitution.

  I called Bokonon a jigaboo bastard, and I changed the subject again. I spoke of meaningful, individual heroic acts. I praised in particular the way in which Julian Castle and his son had chosen to die. While the tornadoes still raged, they had set out on foot for the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle to give whatever hope and mercy was theirs to give. And I saw magnificence in the way poor Angela had died, too. She had picked up a clarinet in the ruins of Bolivar and had begun to play it at once, without concerning herself as to whether the mouthpiece mi
ght be contaminated with ice-nine.

  "Soft pipes, play on," I murmured huskily.

  "Well, maybe you can find some neat way to die, too," said Newt.

  It was a Bokononist thing to say.

  I blurted out my dream of climbing Mount McCabe with some magnificent symbol and planting it there. I took my hands from the wheel for an instant to show him how empty of symbols they were. "But what in hell would the right symbol be, Newt? What in hell would it be?" I grabbed the wheel again. "Here it is, the end of the world; and here I am, almost the very last man; and there it is, the highest mountain in sight. I know now what my karass has been up to, Newt. It's been working night and day for maybe half a million years to get me up that mountain." I wagged my head and nearly wept. "But what, for the love of God, is supposed to be in my hands?"

  I looked out of the car window blindly as I asked that, so blindly that I went more than a mile before realizing that I had looked into the eyes of an old Negro man, a living colored man, who was sitting by the side of the road.

  And then I slowed down. And then I stopped. I covered my eyes.

  "What's the matter?" asked Newt.

  "I saw Bokonon back there."

  127

  THE END

  HE WAS SITTING ON A ROCK. He was barefoot. His feet were frosty with ice-nine. His only garment was a white bedspread with blue tufts. The tufts said Casa Mona. He took no note of our arrival. In one hand was a pencil. In the other was paper.

  "Bokonon?"

  "Yes?"

  "May I ask what you're thinking?"

  "I am thinking, young man, about the final sentence for The Books of Bokonon. The time for the final sentence has come."

  "Any luck?"

  He shrugged and handed me a piece of paper.

  This is what I read:

  If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.

 
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