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Cat's Cradle, Page 11

Kurt Vonnegut


  JULIAN CASTLE AND ANGELA went to Newt's painting. Castle made a pinhole of a curled index finger, squinted at the painting through it.

  "What do you think of it?" I asked him.

  "It's black. What is it--hell?"

  "It means whatever it means," said Newt.

  "Then it's hell," snarled Castle.

  "I was told a moment ago that it was a cat's cradle," I said.

  "Inside information always helps," said Castle.

  "I don't think it's very nice," Angela complained. "I think it's ugly, but I don't know anything about modern art. Sometimes I wish Newt would take some lessons, so he could know for sure if he was doing something or not."

  "Self-taught, are you?" Julian Castle asked Newt.

  "Isn't everybody?" Newt inquired.

  "Very good answer." Castle was respectful.

  I undertook to explain the deeper significance of the cat's cradle, since Newt seemed disinclined to go through that song and dance again.

  "And Castle nodded sagely. "So this is a picture of the meaninglessness of it all! I couldn't agree more."

  "Do you really agree?" I asked. "A minute ago you said something about Jesus."

  "Who?" said Castle.

  "Jesus Christ?"

  "Oh," said Castle. "Him." He shrugged. "People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order, so they'll have good voice boxes in case there's ever anything really meaningful to say."

  "I see." I knew I wasn't going to have an easy time writing a popular article about him. I was going to have to concentrate on his saintly deeds and ignore entirely the satanic things he thought and said.

  "You may quote me:" he said. "Man is vile, and man makes nothing worth making, knows nothing worth knowing."

  He leaned down and he shook little Newt's painty hand. "Right?"

  Newt nodded, seeming to suspect momentarily that the case had been a little overstated. "Right."

  And then the saint marched to Newt's painting and took it from its easel. He beamed at us all. "Garbage--like everything else."

  And he threw the painting off the cantilevered terrace. It sailed out on an updraft, stalled, boomer-anged back, sliced into the waterfall.

  There was nothing little Newt could say.

  Angela spoke first. "You've got paint all over your face, honey. Go wash it off."



  "TELL ME, DOCTOR," I said to Julian Castle, "how is 'Papa' Monzano?"

  "How would I know?"

  "I thought you'd probably been treating him."

  "We don't speak ..." Castle smiled. "He doesn't speak to me, that is. The last thing he said to me, which was about three years ago, was that the only thing that kept me off the hook was my American citizenship."

  "What have you done to offend him? You come down here and with your own money found a free hospital for his people...."

  " 'Papa' doesn't like the way we treat the whole patient," said Castle, "particularly the whole patient when he's dying. At the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle, we administer the last rites of the Bokononist Church to those who want them."

  "What are the rites like?"

  "Very simple. They start with a responsive reading. You want to respond?"

  "I'm not that close to death just now, if you don't mind."

  He gave me a grisly wink. "You're wise to be cautious. People taking the last rites have a way of dying on cue. I think we could keep you from going all the way, though, if we didn't touch feet."


  He told me about the Bokononist attitude relative to feet.

  "That explains something I saw in the hotel." I told him about the two painters on the window sill.

  "It works, you know," he said. "People who do that really do feel better about each other and the world."




  "That's what the foot business is called," said Castle. "It works. I'm grateful for things that work. Not many things do work, you know."

  "I suppose not."

  "I couldn't possibly run that hospital of mine if it weren't for aspirin and boko-maru."

  "I gather," I said, "that there are still several Bokononists on the island, despite the laws, despite the hy-u-o-ook-kuh...."

  He laughed. "You haven't caught on, yet?"

  "To what?"

  "Everybody on San Lorenzo is a devout Bokononist, the hy-u-o-ook-kuh notwithstanding."



  "WHEN BOKONON AND MCCABE took over this miserable country years ago," said Julian Castle, "they threw out the priests. And then Bokonon, cynically and playfully, invented a new religion."

  "I know." I said.

  "Well, when it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies."

  "How did he come to be an outlaw?"

  "It was his own idea. He asked McCabe to outlaw him and his religion, too, in order to give the religious life of the people more zest, more tang. He wrote a little poem about it, incidentally."

  Castle quoted this poem, which does not appear in The Books of Bokonon:

  So I said good-bye to government,

  And I gave my reason:

  That a really good religion

  Is a form of treason.

  "Bokonon suggested the hook, too, as the proper punishment for Bokononists," he said. "It was something he'd seen in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's." He winked ghoulishly. "That was for zest, too."

  "Did many people die on the hook?"

  "Not at first, not at first. At first it was all make-believe. Rumors were cunningly circulated about executions, but no one really knew anyone who had died that way. McCabe had a good old time making bloodthirsty threats against the Bokononists--which was everybody.

  "And Bokonon went into cozy hiding in the jungle," Castle continued, "where he wrote and preached all day long and ate good things his disciples brought him.

  "McCabe would organize the unemployed, which was practically everybody, into great Bokonon hunts.

  "About every six months McCabe would announce triumphantly that Bokonon was surrounded by a ring of steel, which was remorselessly closing in.

  "And then the leaders of the remorseless ring would have to report to McCabe, full of chagrin and apoplexy, that Bokonon had done the impossible.

  "He had escaped, had evaporated, had lived to preach another day. Miracle!"



  "MCCABE AND BOKONON did not succeed in raising what is generally thought of as the standard of living," said Castle. "The truth was that life was as short and brutish and mean as ever.

  "But people didn't have to pay as much attention to the awful truth. As the living legend of the cruel tyrant in the city and the gentle holy man in the jungle grew, so, too, did the happiness of the people grow. They were all employed full time as actors in a play they understood, that any human being anywhere could understand and applaud."

  "So life became a work of art," I marveled.

  "Yes. There was only one trouble with it."


  "The drama was very tough on the souls of the two main actors, McCabe and Bokonon. As young men, they had been pretty much alike, had both been half-angel, half-pirate.

  "But the drama demanded that the pirate half of Bokonon and the angel half of McCabe wither away. And McCabe and Bokonon paid a terrible price in agony for the happiness of the people--McCabe knowing the agony of the tyrant and Bokonon knowing the agony of the saint. They both became, for all practical purposes, insane."

  Castle crooked the index finger of his left hand. "
And then, people really did start dying on the hy-u-o-ook-kuh."

  "But Bokonon was never caught?" I asked.

  "McCabe never went that crazy. He never made a really serious effort to catch Bokonon. It would have been easy to do."

  "Why didn't he catch him?"

  "McCabe was always sane enough to realize that without the holy man to war against, he himself would become meaningless. 'Papa' Monzano understands that, too."

  "Do people still die on the hook?"

  "It's inevitably fatal."

  "I mean," I said, "does 'Papa' really have people executed that way?"

  "He executes one every two years---just to keep the pot boiling, so to speak." He sighed, looking up at the evening sky. "Busy, busy, busy."


  "It's what we Bokononists say," he said, "when we feel that a lot of mysterious things are going on."

  "You?" I was amazed. "A Bokononist, too?"

  He gazed at me levelly. "You, too. You'll find out."



  ANGELA AND NEWT were on the cantilevered terrace with Julian Castle and me. We had cocktails. There was still no word from Frank.

  Both Angela and Newt, it appeared, were fairly heavy drinkers. Castle told me that his days as a playboy had cost him a kidney, and that he was unhappily compelled, perforce, to stick to ginger ale.

  Angela, when she got a few drinks into her, complained of how the world had swindled her father. "He gave so much, and they gave him so little."

  I pressed her for examples of the world's stinginess and got some exact numbers. "General Forge and Foundry gave him a forty-five-dollar bonus for every patent his work led to," she said. "That's the same patent bonus they paid anybody in the company." She shook her head mournfully. "Forty-five dollars--and just think what some of those patents were for!"

  "Um," I said. "I assume he got a salary, too."

  "The most he ever made was twenty-eight thousand dollars a year."

  "I'd say that was pretty good."

  She got very huffy. "You know what movie stars make?"

  "A lot, sometimes."

  "You know Dr. Breed made ten thousand more dollars a year than Father did?"

  "That was certainly an injustice."

  "I'm sick of injustice."

  She was so shrilly exercised that I changed the subject. I asked Julian Castle what he thought had become of the painting he had thrown down the waterfall.

  "There's a little village at the bottom," he told me. "Five or ten shacks, I'd say. It's 'Papa' Monzano's birthplace, incidentally. The waterfall ends in a big stone bowl there.

  "The villagers have a net made out of chicken wire stretched across a notch in the bowl. Water spills out through the notch into a stream."

  "And Newt's painting is in the net now, you think?" I asked.

  "This is a poor country--in case you haven't noticed," said Castle. "Nothing stays in the net very long. I imagine Newt's painting is being dried in the sun by now, along with the butt of my cigar. Four square feet of gummy canvas, the four milled and mitered sticks of the stretcher, some tacks, too, and a cigar. All in all, a pretty nice catch for some poor, poor man."

  "I could just scream sometimes," said Angela, "when I think about how much some people get paid and how little they paid Father--and how much he gave." She was on the edge of a crying jag.

  "Don't cry," Newt begged her gently.

  "Sometimes I can't help it," she said.

  "Go get your clarinet," urged Newt. "That always helps."

  I thought at first that this was a fairly comical suggestion. But then, from Angela's reaction, I learned that the suggestion was serious and practical.

  "When I get this way," she said to Castle and me, "sometimes it's the only thing that helps."

  But she was too shy to get her clarinet right away. We had to keep begging her to play, and she had to have two more drinks.

  "She's really just wonderful," little Newt promised.

  "I'd love to hear you play," said Castle.

  "All right," said Angela finally as she rose unsteadily. "All right--I will."

  When she was out of earshot, Newt apologized for her. "She's had a tough time. She needs a rest."

  "She's been sick?" I asked.

  "Her husband is mean as hell to her," said Newt. He showed us that he hated Angela's handsome young husband, the extremely successful Harrison C. Conners, President of FabriTek. "He hardly ever comes home--and, when he does, he's drunk and generally covered with lipstick."

  "From the way she talked," I said, "I thought it was a very happy marriage."

  Little Newt held his hands six inches apart and he spread his fingers. "See the cat? See the cradle?"



  I DID NOT KNOW what was going to come from Angela's clarinet. No one could have imagined what was going to come from there.

  I expected something pathological, but I did not expect the depth, the violence, and the almost intolerable beauty of the disease.

  Angela moistened and warmed the mouthpiece, but did not blow a single preliminary note. Her eyes glazed over, and her long, bony fingers twittered idly over the noiseless keys.

  I waited anxiously, and I remembered what Marvin Breed had told me--that Angela's one escape from her bleak life with her father was to her room, where she would lock the door and play along with phonograph records.

  Newt now put a long-playing record on the large phonograph in the room off the terrace. He came back with the record's slipcase, which he handed to me.

  The record was called Cat House Piano. It was of unaccompanied piano by Meade Lux Lewis.

  Since Angela, in order to deepen her trance, let Lewis play his first number without joining him, I read some of what the jacket said about Lewis.

  "Born in Louisville, Ky., in 1905," I read, "Mr. Lewis didn't turn to music until he had passed his 16th birthday and then the instrument provided by his father was the violin. A year later young Lewis chanced to hear Jimmy Yancey play the piano. 'This,' as Lewis recalls, 'was the real thing.' Soon," I read, 'Lewis was teaching himself to play the boogie-woogie piano, absorbing all that was possible from the older Yancey, who remained until his death a close friend and idol to Mr. Lewis. Since his father was a Pullman porter," I read, "the Lewis family lived near the railroad. The rhythm of the trains soon became a natural pattern to young Lewis and he composed the boogie-woogie solo, now a classic of its kind, which became known as 'Honky Tonk Train Blues.'"

  I looked up from my reading. The first number on the record was done. The phonograph needle was now scratching its slow way across the void to the second. The second number, I learned from the jacket, was "Dragon Blues."

  Meade Lux Lewis played four bars alone--and then Angela Hoenikker joined in.

  Her eyes were closed.

  I was flabbergasted.

  She was great.

  She improvised around the music of the Pullman porter's son; went from liquid lyricism to rasping lechery to the shrill skittishness of a frightened child, to a heroin nightmare.

  Her glissandi spoke of heaven and hell and all that lay between.

  Such music from such a woman could only be a case of schizophrenia or demonic possession.

  My hair stood on end, as though Angela were rolling on the floor, foaming at the mouth, and babbling fluent Babylonian.

  When the music was done, I shrieked at Julian Castle, who was transfixed, too, "My God--life! Who can understand even one little minute of it?"

  "Don't try," he said. "Just pretend you understand."

  "That's--that's very good advice," I went limp.

  Castle quoted another poem:

  Tiger got to hunt,

  Bird got to fly;

  Man got to sit and wonder, "Why, why, why?"

  Tiger got to sleep,

  Bird got to land;

  Man got to tell himself he understand.

that from?" I asked.

  "What could it possibly be from but The Books of Bokonon?"

  "I'd love to see a copy sometime."

  "Copies are hard to come by," said Castle. "They aren't printed. They're made by hand. And, of course, there is no such thing as a completed copy, since Bokonon is adding things every day."

  Little Newt snorted. "Religion!"

  "Beg your pardon?" Castle said.

  "See the cat?" asked Newt. "See the cradle?"



  MAJOR GENERAL FRANKLIN HOENIKKER didn't appear for supper.

  He telephoned, and insisted on talking to me and to no one else. He told me that he was keeping a vigil by "Papa's" bed; that "Papa" was dying in great pain. Frank sounded scared and lonely.

  "Look," I said, "why don't I go back to my hotel, and you and I can get together later, when this crisis is over."

  "No, no, no. You stay right there! I want you to be where I can get hold of you right away!" He was panicky about my slipping out of his grasp. Since I couldn't account for his interest in me, I began to feel panic, too.

  "Could you give me some idea what you want to see me about?" I asked.

  "Not over the telephone."

  "Something about your father?"

  "Something about yow."

  "Something I've done?"

  "Something you're going to do."

  I heard a chicken clucking in the background of Frank's end of the line. I heard a door open, and xylophone music came from some chamber. The music was again "When Day Is Done." And then the door was closed, and I couldn't hear the music any more.

  "I'd appreciate it if you'd give me some small hint of what you expect me to do--so I can sort of get set," I said.

  "Zah-mah-ki-bo. "


  "It's a Bokononist word."

  "I don't know any Bokononist words."

  "Julian Castle's there?"


  "Ask him," said Frank. "I've got to go now." He hung up.

  So I asked Julian Castle what zah-mah-ki-bo meant.

  "You want a simple answer or a whole answer?"

  "Let's start with a simple one."

  "Fate--inevitable destiny."



  "CANCER," said Julian Castle at dinner, when I told him that "Papa" was dying in pain.

  "Cancer of what?"

  "Cancer of about everything. You say he collapsed on the reviewing stand today?"

  "He sure did," said Angela.