Cat's Cradle, p.9Kurt Vonnegut
Newt looked up at H. Lowe Crosby innocently. "You sure the name was Hoenikker?" And, in order to eliminate any chance of mistaken identity, he spelled the name for Crosby.
"I could be wrong," said H. Lowe Crosby.
AN UNDERPRIVILEGED NATION
THE ISLAND, seen from the air, was an amazingly regular rectangle. Cruel and useless stone needles were thrust up from the sea. They sketched a circle around it.
At the south end of the island was the port city of Bolivar.
It was the only city.
It was the capital.
It was built on a marshy table. The runways of Monzano Airport were on its water front.
Mountains arose abruptly to the north of Bolivar, crowding the remainder of the island with their brutal humps. They were called the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, but they looked like pigs at a trough to me.
Bolivar had had many names: Caz-ma-caz-ma, Santa Maria, Saint Louis, Saint George, and Port Glory among them. It was given its present name by Johnson and McCabe in 1922, was named in honor of Simon Bolivar, the great Latin-American idealist and hero.
When Johnson and McCabe came upon the city, it was built of twigs, tin, crates, and mud--rested on the catacombs of a trillion happy scavengers, catacombs in a sour mash of slop, feculence, and slime.
That was pretty much the way I found it, too, except for the new architectural false face along the water front.
Johnson and McCabe had failed to raise the people from misery and muck.
"Papa" Monzano had failed, too.
Everybody was bound to fail, for San Lorenzo was as unproductive as an equal area in the Sahara or the Polar Icecap.
At the same time, it had as dense a population as could be found anywhere, India and China not excluded. There were four hundred and fifty inhabitants for each uninhabitable square mile.
"During the idealistic phase of McCabe's and Johnson's reorganization of San Lorenzo, it was announced that the country's total income would be divided among all adult persons in equal shares," wrote Philip Castle. "The first and only time this was tried, each share came to between six and seven dollars."
WHAT A CORPORAL WAS WORTH
IN THE CUSTOMS SHED at Monzano Airport, we were all required to submit to a luggage inspection, and to convert what money we intended to spend in San Lorenzo into the local currency, into Corporals, which "Papa" Monzano insisted were worth fifty American cents.
The shed was neat and new, but plenty of signs had already been slapped on the walls, higgledy-piggledy.
ANYBODY CAUGHT PRACTICING BOKONONISM IN SAN LORENZO, said one, WILL DIE ON THE HOOK!
Another poster featured a picture of Bokonon, a scrawny old colored man who was smoking a cigar. He looked clever and kind and amused.
Under the picture were the words: WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE, 10,000 CORPORALS REWARD!
I took a closer look at that poster and found reproduced at the bottom of it some sort of police identification form Bokonon had had to fill out way back in 1929. It was reproduced, apparently, to show Bokonon hunters what his fingerprints and handwriting were like.
But what interested me were some of the words Bokonon had chosen to put into the blanks in 1929. Wherever possible, he had taken the cosmic view, had taken into consideration, for instance, such things as the shortness of life and the longness of eternity.
He reported his avocation as: "Being alive."
He reported his principal occupation as: "Being dead."
THIS IS A CHRISTIAN NATION! ALL FOOT PLAY WILL BE PUNISHED BY THE HOOK, said another sign. The sign was meaningless to me, since I had not yet learned that Bokononists mingled their souls by pressing the bottoms of their feet together.
And the greatest mystery of all, since I had not read all of Philip Castle's book, was how Bokonon, bosom friend of Corporal McCabe, had come to be an outlaw.
WHY HAZEL WASN'T SCARED
THERE WERE SEVEN OF US who got off at San Lorenzo: Newt and Angela, Ambassador Minton and his wife, H. Lowe Crosby and his wife, and I. When we had cleared customs, we were herded outdoors and onto a reviewing stand.
There, we faced a very quiet crowd.
Five thousand or more San Lorenzans stared at us. The islanders were oatmeal colored. The people were thin. There wasn't a fat person to be seen. Every person had teeth missing. Many legs were bowed or swollen.
Not one pair of eyes was clear.
The women's breasts were bare and paltry. The men wore loose loincloths that did little to conceal penes like pendulums on grandfather clocks.
There were many dogs, but not one barked. There were many infants, but not one cried. Here and there someone coughed--and that was all.
A military band stood at attention before the crowd. It did not play.
There was a color guard before the band. It carried two banners, the Stars and Stripes and the flag of San Lorenzo. The flag of San Lorenzo consisted of a Marine Corporal's chevrons on a royal blue field. The banners hung lank in the windless day.
I imagined that somewhere far away I heard the Hamming of a sledge on a brazen drum. There was no such sound. My soul was simply resonating the beat of the brassy, clanging heat of the San Lorenzan clime.
"I'm sure glad it's a Christian country," Hazel Crosby whispered to her husband, "or I'd be a little scared."
Behind us was a xylophone.
There was a glittering sign on the xylophone. The sign was made of garnets and rhinestones.
The sign said, MONA.
REVERENT AND FREE
TO THE LEFT SIDE of our reviewing stand were six propeller-driven fighter planes in a row, military assistance from the United States to San Lorenzo. On the fuselage of each plane was painted, with childish blood-lust, a boa constrictor which was crushing a devil to death. Blood came from the devil's ears, nose, and mouth. A pitchfork was slipping from satanic red fingers.
Before each plane stood an oatmeal-colored pilot; silent, too.
Then, above that tumid silence, there came a nagging song like the song of a gnat. It was a siren approaching. The siren was on "Papa's" glossy black Cadillac limousine.
The limousine came to a stop before us, tires smoking.
Out climbed "Papa" Monzano, his adopted daughter, Mona Aamons Monzano, and Franklin Hoenikker.
At a limp, imperious signal from "Papa," the crowd sang the San Lorenzan National Anthem. Its melody was "Home on the Range." The words had been written in 1922 by Lionel Boyd Johnson, by Bokonon. The words were these:
Oh, ours is a land
Where the living is grand,
And the men are as fearless as sharks;
The women are pure,
And we always are sure
That our children will all toe their marks.
San, San Lo-ren-zo!
What a rich, lucky island are we!
Our enemies quail,
For they know they will fail
Against people so reverent and free.
PEACE AND PLENTY
AND THEN THE CROWD was deathly still again.
"Papa" and Mona and Frank joined us on the reviewing stand. One snare drum played as they did so. The drumming stopped when "Papa" pointed a finger at the drummer.
He wore a shoulder holster on the outside of his blouse. The weapon in it was a chromium-plated .45. He was an old, old man, as so many members of my karass were. He was in poor shape. His steps were small and bounceless. He was still a fat man, but his lard was melting fast, for his simple uniform was loose. The balls of his hoptoad eyes were yellow. His hands trembled.
His personal bodyguard was Major General Franklin Hoenikker, whose uniform was white. Frank--thin-wristed, narrow-shouldered--looked like a child kept up long after his customary bedtime. On his breast was a medal.
I observed the two, "Papa" and Frank, with some difficulty--not because my view was blocked, but because I could not take my eyes o
That girl--and she was only eighteen--was rapturously serene. She seemed to understand all, and to be all there was to understand. In The Books of Bokonon she is mentioned by name. One thing Bokonon says of her is this: "Mona has the simplicity of the all."
Her dress was white and Greek.
She wore flat sandals on her small brown feet.
Her pale gold hair was lank and long.
Her hips were a lyre.
Peace and plenty forever.
She was the one beautiful girl in San Lorenzo. She was the national treasure. "Papa" had adopted her, according to Philip Castle, in order to mingle divinity with the harshness of his rule.
The xylophone was rolled to the front of the stand. And Mona played it. She played "When Day Is Done." It was all tremolo--swelling, fading, swelling again.
The crowd was intoxicated by beauty.
And then it was time for "Papa" to greet us.
A GOOD TIME TO COME TO SAN LORENZO
"PAPA" WAS A SELF-EDUCATED MAN, who had been major-domo to Corporal McCabe. He had never been off the island. He spoke American English passably well.
Everything that any one of us said on the reviewing stand was bellowed out at the crowd through doomsday horns.
Whatever went out through those horns gabbled down a wide, short boulevard at the back of the crowd, ricocheted off the three glass-faced new buildings at the end of the boulevard, and came cackling back.
"Welcome," said "Papa." "You are coming to the best friend America ever had. America is misunderstood many places, but not here, Mr. Ambassador." He bowed to H. Lowe Crosby, the bicycle manufacturer, mistaking him for the new Ambassador.
"I know you've got a good country here, Mr. President," said Crosby. "Everything I ever heard about it sounds great to me. There's just one thing ..."
"I'm not the Ambassador," said Crosby. "I wish I was, but I'm just a plain, ordinary businessman." It hurt him to say who the real Ambassador was. "This man over here is the big cheese."
"Ah!" "Papa" smiled at his mistake. The smile went away suddenly. Some pain inside of him made him wince, then made him hunch over, close his eyes--made him concentrate on surviving the pain.
Frank Hoenikker went to his support, feebly, incompetently. "Are you all right?"
"Excuse me," "Papa" whispered at last, straightening up some. There were tears in his eyes. He brushed them away, straightening up all the way. "I beg your pardon."
He seemed to be in doubt for a moment as to where he was, as to what was expected of him. And then he remembered. He shook Horlick Minton's hand. "Here, you are among friends."
"I'm sure of it," said Minton gently.
"Christian," said "Papa."
"Anti-Communists," said "Papa."
"No Communists here," said "Papa." "They fear the hook too much."
"I should think they would," said Minton.
"You have picked a very good time to come to us," said "Papa." "Tomorrow will be one of the happiest days in the history of our country. Tomorrow is our greatest national holiday, The Day of the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy. It will also be the day of the engagement of Major General Hoenikker to Mona Aamons Monzano, to the most precious person in my life and in the life of San Lorenzo."
"I wish you much happiness, Miss Monzano," said Minton warmly. "And I congratulate you, General Hoenikker."
The two young people nodded their thanks.
Minton now spoke of the so-called Hundred Martyrs to Democracy, and he told a whooping lie. "There is not an American schoolchild who does not know the story of San Lorenzo's noble sacrifice in World War Two. The hundred brave San Lorenzans, whose day tomorrow is, gave as much as freedom-loving men can. The President of the United States has asked me to be his personal representative at ceremonies tomorrow, to cast a wreath, the gift of the American people to the people of San Lorenzo, on the sea."
"The people of San Lorenzo thank you and your President and the generous people of the United States of America for their thoughtfulness," said "Papa." "We would be honored if you would cast the wreath into the sea during the engagement party tomorrow."
"The honor is mine."
"Papa" commanded us all to honor him with our presence at the wreath ceremony and engagement party next day. We were to appear at his palace at noon.
"What children these two will have!" "Papa" said, inviting us to stare at Frank and Mona. "What blood! What beauty!"
The pain hit him again.
He again closed his eyes to huddle himself around that pain.
He waited for it to pass, but it did not pass.
Still in agony, he turned away from us, faced the crowd and the microphone. He tried to gesture at the crowd, failed. He tried to say something to the crowd, failed.
And then the words came out. "Go home," he cried strangling. "Go home!"
The crowd scattered like leaves.
"Papa" faced us again, still grotesque in pain....
And then he collapsed.
THE STRONGEST THING THERE IS
HE WASN'T DEAD.
But he certainly looked dead; except that now and then, in the midst of all that seeming death, he would give a shivering twitch.
Frank protested loudly that "Papa" wasn't dead, that he couldn't be dead. He was frantic. " 'Papa'! You can't die! You can't!"
Frank loosened "Papa's" collar and blouse, rubbed his wrists. "Give him air! Give 'Papa' air!"
The fighter-plane pilots came running over to help us. One had sense enough to go for the airport ambulance.
The band and the color guard, which had received no orders, remained at quivering attention.
I looked for Mona, found that she was still serene and had withdrawn to the rail of the reviewing stand. Death, if there was going to be death, did not alarm her.
Standing next to her was a pilot. He was not looking at her, but he had a perspiring radiance that I attributed to his being so near to her.
"Papa" now regained something like consciousness. With a hand that flapped like a captured bird, he pointed at Frank. "You ..." he said.
We all fell silent, in order to hear his words.
His lips moved, but we could hear nothing but bubbling sounds.
Somebody had what looked like a wonderful idea then--what looks like a hideous idea in retrospect. Someone--a pilot, I think--took the microphone from its mount and held it by "Papa's" bubbling lips in order to amplify his words.
So death rattles and all sorts of spastic yodels bounced off the new buildings.
And then came words.
"You," he said to Frank hoarsely, "you--Franklin Hoenikker--you will be the next President of San Lorenzo. Science--you have science. Science is the strongest thing there is.
"Science," said "Papa." "Ice." He rolled his yellow eyes, and he passed out again.
I looked at Mona.
Her expression was unchanged.
The pilot next to her, however, had his features composed in the catatonic, orgiastic rigidity of one receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor.
I looked down and I saw what I was not meant to see.
Mona had slipped off her sandal. Her small brown foot was bare.
And with that foot, she was kneading and kneading and kneading--obscenely kneading--the instep of the flyer's boot.
"PAPA" DIDN'T DIE--not then.
He was rolled away in the airport's big red meat wagon.
The Mintons were taken to their embassy by an American limousine.
Newt and Angela were taken to Frank's house in a San Lorenzan limousine.
The Crosbys and I were taken to the C
The Crosbys and I were both upset. Our consternation was expressed in questions we had to have answered at once. The Crosbys wanted to know who Bokonon was. They were scandalized by the idea that anyone should be opposed to "Papa" Monzano.
Irrelevantly, I found that I had to know at once who the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy had been.
The Crosbys got their answer first. They could not understand the San Lorenzan dialect, so I had to translate for them. Crosby's basic question to our driver was: "Who the hell is this pissant Bokonon, anyway?"
"Very bad man," said the driver. What he actually said was, "Vorry ball moan."
"A Communist?" asked Crosby, when he heard my translation.
"Has he got any following?"
"Does anybody think he's any good?"
"Oh, no, sir," said the driver piously. "Nobody that crazy."
"Why hasn't he been caught?" demanded Crosby.
"Hard man to find," said the driver. "Very smart."
"Well, people must be hiding him and giving him food or he'd be caught by now."
"Nobody hide him; nobody feed him. Everybody too smart to do that."
"Oh, sure," said the driver. "Anybody feed that crazy old man, anybody give him place to sleep, they get the hook. Nobody want the hook."
He pronounced that last word: "hy-u-o-ook-kuh."
I ASKED THE DRIVER who the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy had been. The boulevard we were going down, I saw, was called the Boulevard of the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy.
The driver told me that San Lorenzo had declared war on Germany and Japan an hour after Pearl Harbor was attacked.
San Lorenzo conscripted a hundred men to fight on the side of democracy. These hundred men were put on a ship bound for the United States, where they were to be armed and trained.
The ship was sunk by a German submarine right outside of Bolivar harbor.
"Dose, sore," he said, "yeeara lo hoon-yera mora-toorz tut zamoo-cratz-ya."
"Those, sir," he'd said in dialect, "are the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy."
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut / History & Fiction / Science Fiction / Humor have rating 5.3 out of 5 / Based on32 votes