Cat's Cradle, p.4Kurt Vonnegut
"Now suppose," chortled Dr. Breed, enjoying himself, "that there were many possible ways in which water could crystallize, could freeze. Suppose that the sort of ice we skate upon and put into highballs--what we might call ice-one--is only one of several types of ice. Suppose water always froze as ice-one on Earth because it had never had a seed to teach it how to form ice-two, ice-three, ice-four ...? And suppose," he rapped on his desk with his old hand again, "that there were one form, which we will call ice-nine--a crystal as hard as this desk--with a melting point of, let us say, one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit, or, better still, a melting point of one-hundred-and-thirty degrees."
"All right, I'm still with you," I said.
Dr. Breed was interrupted by whispers in his outer office, whispers loud and portentous. They were the sounds of the Girl Pool.
The girls were preparing to sing in the outer office.
And they did sing, as Dr. Breed and I appeared in the doorway. Each of about a hundred girls had made herself into a choirgirl by putting on a collar of white bond paper, secured by a paper clip. They sang beautifully.
I was surprised and mawkishly heartbroken. I am always moved by that seldom-used treasure, the sweetness with which most girls can sing.
The girls sang "O Little Town of Bethlehem." I am not likely to forget very soon their interpretation of the line:
"The hopes and fears of all the years are here with us tonight."
THE MARINES MARCH ON
WHEN OLD DR. BREED, with the help of Miss Faust, had passed out the Christmas chocolate bars to the girls, we returned to his office.
There, he said to me, "Where were we? Oh yes!" And that old man asked me to think of United States Marines in a Godforsaken swamp.
"Their trucks and tanks and howitzers are wallowing," he complained, "sinking in stinking miasma and ooze."
He raised a finger and winked at me. "But suppose, young man, that one Marine had with him a tiny capsule containing a seed of ice-nine, a new way for the atoms of water to stack and lock, to freeze. If that Marine threw that seed into the nearest puddle ...?"
"The puddle would freeze?" I guessed.
"And all the muck around the puddle?"
"It would freeze?"
"And all the puddles in the frozen muck?"
"They would freeze?"
"And the pools and the streams in the frozen muck?"
"They would freeze?"
"You bet they would!" he cried. "And the United States Marines would rise from the swamp and march on!"
MEMBER OF THE YELLOW PRESS
"THERE IS SUCH STUFF?" I asked.
"No, no, no, no," said Dr. Breed, losing patience with me again. "I only told you all this in order to give you some insight into the extraordinary novelty of the ways in which Felix was likely to approach an old problem. What I've just told you is what he told the Marine general who was hounding him about mud.
"Felix ate alone here in the cafeteria every day. It was a rule that no one was to sit with him, to interrupt his chain of thought. But the Marine general barged in, pulled up a chair, and started talking about mud. What I've told you was Felix's offhand reply."
"There--there really isn't such a thing?"
"I just told you there wasn't!" cried Dr. Breed hotly. "Felix died shortly after that! And, if you'd been listening to what I've been trying to tell you about pure research men, you wouldn't ask such a question! Pure research men work on what fascinates them, not on what fascinates other people."
"I keep thinking about that swamp...."
"You can stop thinking about it! I've made the only point I wanted to make with the swamp."
"If the streams flowing through the swamp froze as ice-nine, what about the rivers and lakes the streams fed?"
"They'd freeze. But there is no such thing as ice-nine."
"And the oceans the frozen rivers fed?"
"They'd freeze, of course," he snapped. "I suppose you're going to rush to market with a sensational story about ice-nine now. I tell you again, it does not exist!"
"And the springs feeding the frozen lakes and streams, and all the water underground feeding the springs?"
"They'd freeze, damn it!" he cried. "But if I had known that you were a member of the yellow press," he said grandly, rising to his feet, "I wouldn't have wasted a minute with you!"
"And the rain?"
"When it fell, it would freeze into hard little hobnails of ice-nine--and that would be the end of the world! And the end of the interview, too! Good-bye!"
THE LAST BATCH OF BROWNIES
DR. BREED WAS MISTAKEN about at least one thing: there was such a thing as ice-nine.
And ice-nine was on earth.
Ice-nine was the last gift Felix Hoenikker created for mankind before going to his just reward.
He did it without anyone's realizing what he was doing. He did it without leaving records of what he'd done.
True, elaborate apparatus was necessary in the act of creation, but it already existed in the Research Laboratory. Dr. Hoenikker had only to go calling on Laboratory neighbors--borrowing this and that, making a winsome neighborhood nuisance of himself--until, so to speak, he had baked his last batch of brownies.
He had made a chip of ice-nine. It was blue-white. It had a melting point of one-hundred-fourteen-point-four-degrees Fahrenheit.
Felix Hoenikker had put the chip in a little bottle; and he put the bottle in his pocket. And he had gone to his cottage on Cape Cod with his three children, there intending to celebrate Christmas.
Angela had been thirty-four. Frank had been twenty-four. Little Newt had been eighteen.
The old man had died on Christmas Eve, having told only his children about ice-nine.
His children had divided the ice-nine among themselves.
WHAT A WAMPETER IS
WHICH BRINGS ME to the Bokononist concept of a wampeter.
A wampeter is the pivot of a karass. No karass is without a wampeter, Bokonon tells us, just as no wheel is without a hub.
Anything can be a wampeter: a tree, a rock, an animal, an idea, a book, a melody, the Holy Grail. Whatever it is, the members of its karass revolve about it in the majestic chaos of a spiral nebula. The orbits of the members of a karass about their common wampeter are spiritual orbits, naturally. It is souls and not bodies that revolve. As Bokonon invites us to sing:
Around and around and around we spin,
With feet of lead and wings of tin ...
And wampeters come and wampeters go, Bokonon tells us.
At any given time a karass actually has two wampeters--one waxing in importance, one waning.
And I am almost certain that while I was talking to Dr. Breed in Ilium, the wampeter of my karass that was just coming into bloom was that crystalline form of water, that blue-white gem, that seed of doom called ice-nine.
While I was talking to Dr. Breed in Ilium, Angela, Franklin, and Newton Hoenikker had in their possession seeds of ice-nine, seeds grown from their father's seed--chips, in a manner of speaking, off the old block.
What was to become of those three chips was, I am convinced, a principal concern of my karass.
THE MAIN THING ABOUT DR. HOENIKKER
SO MUCH, FOR NOW, for the wampeter of my karass.
After my unpleasant interview with Dr. Breed in the Research Laboratory of the General Forge and Foundry Company, I was put into the hands of Miss Faust. Her orders were to show me the door. I prevailed upon her, however, to show me the laboratory of the late Dr. Hoenikker first.
En route, I asked her how well she had known Dr. Hoenikker. She gave me a frank and interesting reply, and a piquant smile to go with it.
"I don't think he was knowable. I mean, when most people talk about knowing somebody a lot or a little, they're talking about secrets they've been told or haven't been told. They're talking about intimate things, family things, love things," that n
"What were the main things?" I asked her.
"Dr. Breed keeps telling me the main thing with Dr. Hoenikker was truth."
"You don't seem to agree."
"I don't know whether I agree or not. I just have trouble understanding how truth, all by itself, could be enough for a person."
Miss Faust was ripe for Bokononism.
WHAT GOD IS
"DID YOU EVER TALK to Dr. Hoenikker?" I asked Miss Faust.
"Oh, certainly. I talked to him a lot."
"Do any conversations stick in your mind?"
"There was one where he bet I couldn't tell him anything that was absolutely true. So I said to him, 'God is love.'"
"And what did he say?"
"He said, 'What is God? What is love?'"
"But God really is love, you know," said Miss Faust, "no matter what Dr. Hoenikker said."
MEN FROM MARS
THE ROOM that had been the laboratory of Dr. Felix Hoenikker was on the sixth floor, the top floor of the building.
A purple cord had been stretched across the doorway, and a brass plate on the wall explained why the room was sacred:
IN THIS ROOM, DR. FELIX HOENIKKER,
NOBEL LAUREATE IN PHYSICS, SPENT THE LAST
TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS OF HIS LIFE. "WHERE HE
WAS, THERE WAS THE FRONTIER OF KNOWLEDGE."
THE IMPORTANCE OF THIS ONE MAN IN THE
HISTORY OF MANKIND IS INCALCULABLE.
Miss Faust offered to unshackle the purple cord for me so that I might go inside and traffic more intimately with whatever ghosts there were.
"It's just as he left it," she said, "except that there were rubber bands all over one counter."
"Don't ask me what for. Don't ask me what any of all this is for."
The old man had left the laboratory a mess. What engaged my attention at once was the quantity of cheap toys lying around. There was a paper kite with a broken spine. There was a toy gyroscope, wound with string, ready to whirr and balance itself. There was a top. There was a bubble pipe. There was a fish bowl with a castle and two turtles in it.
"He loved ten-cent stores," said Miss Faust.
"I can see he did."
"Some of his most famous experiments were performed with equipment that cost less than a dollar."
"A penny saved is a penny earned."
There were numerous pieces of conventional laboratory equipment, too, of course, but they seemed drab accessories to the cheap, gay toys.
Dr. Hoenikker's desk was piled with correspondence.
"I don't think he ever answered a letter," mused Miss Faust. "People had to get him on the telephone or come to see him if they wanted an answer."
There was a framed photograph on his desk. Its back was toward me and I ventured a guess as to whose picture it was. "His wife?"
"One of his children?"
So I took a look. I found that the picture was of an humble little war memorial in front of a small-town courthouse. Part of the memorial was a sign that gave the names of those villagers who had died in various wars, and I thought that the sign must be the reason for the photograph. I could read the names, and I half expected to find the name Honikker among them. It wasn't there.
"That was one of his hobbies," said Miss Faust.
"Photographing how cannonballs are stacked on different courthouse lawns. Apparently how they've got them stacked in that picture is very unusual."
"He was an unusual man."
"Maybe in a million years everybody will be as smart as he was and see things the way he did. But, compared with the average person of today, he was as different as a man from Mars."
"Maybe he really was a Martian," I suggested.
"That would certainly go a long way toward explaining his three strange kids."
WHILE MISS FAUST and I waited for an elevator to take us to the first floor, Miss Faust said she hoped the elevator that came would not be number five. Before I could ask her why this was a reasonable wish, number five arrived.
Its operator was a small and ancient Negro whose name was Lyman Enders Knowles. Knowles was insane, I'm almost sure--offensively so, in that he grabbed his own behind and cried, "Yes, yes!" whenever he felt that he'd made a point.
"Hello, fellow anthropoids and lily pads and paddlewheels," he said to Miss Faust and me. "Yes, yes!"
"First floor, please," said Miss Faust coldly.
All Knowles had to do to close the door and get us to the first floor was to press a button, but he wasn't going to do that yet. He wasn't going to do it, maybe, for years.
"Man told me," He said, "that these here elevators was Mayan architecture. I never knew that till today. And I says to him, 'What's that make me-- mayonnaise?' Yes, yes! And while he was thinking that over, I hit him with a question that straightened him up and made him think twice as hard! Yes, yes!"
"Could we please go down, Mr. Knowles?" begged Miss Faust.
"I said to him," said Knowles, " 'This here's a research laboratory. Research means look again, don't it? Means they're looking for something they found once and it got away somehow, and now they got to research for it? How come they got to build a building like this, with mayonnaise elevators and all, and fill it with all these crazy people? What is it they're trying to find again? Who lost what?' Yes, yes!"
"That's very interesting," sighed Miss Faust. "Now, could we go down?"
"Only way we can go is down," barked Knowles. "This here's the top. You ask me to go up and wouldn't be a thing I could do for you. Yes, yes!"
"So let's go down," said Miss Faust.
"Very soon now. This gentleman here been paying his respects to Dr. Hoenikker?"
"Yes," I said. "Did you know him?"
"Intimately," he said. "You know what I said when he died?"
"I said, 'Dr. Hoenikker--he ain't dead.'"
"Just entered a new dimension. Yes, yes!"
He punched a button, and down we went.
"Did you know the Hoenikker children?" I asked him.
"Babies full of rabies," he said. "Yes, yes!"
GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
THERE WAS ONE MORE THING I wanted to do in Ilium. I wanted to get a photograph of the old man's tomb. So I went back to my room, found Sandra gone, picked up my camera, hired a cab.
Sleet was still coming down, acid and gray. I thought the old man's tombstone in all that sleet might photograph pretty well, might even make a good picture for the jacket of The Day the World Ended.
The custodian at the cemetery gate told me how to find the Hoenikker burial plot. "Can't miss it," he said. "It's got the biggest marker in the place."
He did not lie. The marker was an alabaster phallus twenty feet high and three feet thick. It was plastered with sleet.
"By God," I exclaimed, getting out of the cab with my camera, "how's that for a suitable memorial to a father of the atom bomb?" I laughed.
I asked the driver if he'd mind standing by the monument in order to give some idea of scale. And then I asked him to wipe away some of the sleet so the name of the deceased would show.
He did so.
And there on the shaft in letters six inches high, so help me God, was the word:
"MOTHER?" asked the driver, incredulously.
I wiped away more sleet and uncovered this poem:
Mother, Mother, how I pray
For you to guard u
And under this poem was yet another:
You are not dead,
But only sleeping.
We should smile,
And stop our weeping.
And underneath this, inset in the shaft, was a square of cement bearing the imprint of an infant's hand. Beneath the imprint were the words: Baby Newt.
"If that's Mother," said the driver, "what in hell could they have raised over Father?" He made an obscene suggestion as to what the appropriate marker might be.
We found Father close by. His memorial--as specified in his will, I later discovered--was a marble cube forty centimeters on each side.
"FATHER," it said.
AS WE WERE LEAVING the cemetery the driver of the cab worried about the condition of his own mother's grave. He asked if I would mind taking a short detour to look at it.
It was a pathetic little stone that marked his mother--not that it mattered.
And the driver asked me if I would mind another brief detour, this time to a tombstone salesroom across the street from the cemetery.
I wasn't a Bokononist then, so I agreed with some peevishness. As a Bokononist, of course, I would have agreed gaily to go anywhere anyone suggested. As Bokonon says: "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God."
The name of the tombstone establishment was Avram Breed and Sons. As the driver talked to the salesman I wandered among the monuments--blank monuments, monuments in memory of nothing so far.
I found a little institutional joke in the showroom: over a stone angel hung mistletoe. Cedar boughs were heaped on her pedestal, and around her marble throat was a necklace of Christmas tree lamps.
"How much for her?" I asked the salesman.
"Not for sale. She's a hundred years old. My great-grandfather, Avram Breed, carved her."
"This business is that old?"
"And you're a Breed?"
"The fourth generation in this location."
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut / History & Fiction / Science Fiction / Humor have rating 5.3 out of 5 / Based on32 votes