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Cat's Cradle, Page 8

Kurt Vonnegut

  "Oh, no! He died in our cottage, in a big white wicker chair facing the sea. Newt and Frank had gone walking down the beach in the snow ..."

  "It was a very warm snow," said Newt. "It was almost like walking through orange blossoms. It was very strange. Nobody was in any of the other cottages ..."

  "Ours was the only one with heat," said Angela.

  "Nobody within miles," recalled Newt wonderingly, "and Frank and I came across this big black dog out on the beach, a Labrador retriever. We threw sticks into the ocean and he brought them back."

  "I'd gone back into the village for more Christmas tree bulbs," said Angela. "We always had a tree."

  "Did your father enjoy having a Christmas tree?"

  "He never said," said Newt.

  "I think he liked it," said Angela. "He just wasn't very demonstrative. Some people aren't."

  "And some people are," said Newt. He gave a small shrug.

  "Anyway," said Angela, "when we got back home, we found him in the chair." She shook her head. "I don't think he suffered any. He just looked asleep. He couldn't have looked like that if there'd been the least bit of pain."

  She left out an interesting part of the story. She left out the fact that it was on that same Christmas Eve that she and Frank and little Newt had divided up the old man's ice-nine.



  ANGELA ENCOURAGED ME to go on looking at snapshots.

  "That's me, if you can believe it." She showed me an adolescent girl six feet tall. She was holding a clarinet in the picture, wearing the marching uniform of the Ilium High School band. Her hair was tucked up under a bandsman's hat. She was smiling with shy good cheer.

  And then Angela, a woman to whom God had given virtually nothing with which to catch a man, showed me a picture of her husband.

  "So that's Harrison C. Conners." I was stunned. Her husband was a strikingly handsome man, and looked as though he knew it. He was a snappy dresser, and had the lazy rapture of a Donjuan about the eyes.

  "What--what does he do?" I asked.

  "He's president of Fabri-Tek."


  "I couldn't tell you, even if I knew. It's all very secret government work."


  "Well, war anyway."

  "How did you happen to meet?"

  "He used to work as a laboratory assistant to Father," said Angela. "Then he went out to Indianapolis and started Fabri-Tek."

  "So your marriage to him was a happy ending to a long romance?"

  "No. I didn't even know he knew I was alive. I used to think he was nice, but he never paid any attention to me until after Father died.

  "One day he came through Ilium. I was sitting around that big old house, thinking my life was over...." She spoke of the awful days and weeks that followed her father's death. "Just me and little Newt in that big old house. Frank had disappeared, and the ghosts were making ten times as much noise as Newt and I were. I'd given my whole life to taking care of Father, driving him to and from work, bundling him up when it was cold, unbundling him when it was hot, making him eat, paying his bills. Suddenly, there wasn't anything for me to do. I'd never had any close friends, didn't have a soul to turn to but Newt.

  "And then," she continued, "there was a knock on the door--and there stood Harrison Conners. He was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. He came in, and we talked about Father's last days and about old times in general."

  Angela almost cried now.

  "Two weeks later, we were married."



  RETURNING TO MY OWN SEAT in the plane, feeling far shabbier for having lost Mona Aamons Monzano to Frank, I resumed my reading of Philip Castle's manuscript.

  I looked up Monzano, Mona Aamons in the index, and was told by the index to see Aamons, Mona.

  So I saw Aamons, Mona, and found almost as many page references as I'd found after the name of "Papa" Monzano himself.

  And after Aamons, Mona came Aamons, Nestor. So I turned to the few pages that had to do with Nestor, and learned that he was Mona's father, a native Finn, an architect.

  Nestor Aamons was captured by the Russians, then liberated by the Germans during the Second World War. He was not returned home by his liberators, but was forced to serve in a Wehrmacht engineer unit that was sent to fight the Yugoslav partisans. He was captured by Chetniks, royalist Serbian partisans, and then by Communist partisans who attacked the Chetniks. He was liberated by Italian parachutists who surprised the Communists, and he was shipped to Italy.

  The Italians put him to work designing fortifications for Sicily. He stole a fishing boat in Sicily, and reached neutral Portugal.

  While there, he met an American draft dodger named Julian Castle.

  Castle, upon learning that Aamons was an architect, invited him to come with him to the island of San Lorenzo and to design for him a hospital to be called the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle.

  Aamons accepted. He designed the hospital, married a native woman named Celia, fathered a perfect daughter, and died.



  AS FOR THE LIFE of Aamons, Mona, the index itself gave a jangling, surrealistic picture of the many conflicting forces that had been brought to bear on her and of her dismayed reactions to them.

  "Aamons, Mona:" the index said, "adopted by Monzano in order to boost Monzano's popularity, 194-199, 216 n.; childhood in compound of House of Hope and Mercy, 63-81; childhood romance with P. Castle, 72 f; death of father, 89 ff; death of mother, 92 f; embarrassed by role as national erotic symbol, 80, 95 f, 166 n., 209, 247 n., 400-406, 566 n., 678; engaged to P. Castle, 193; essential naivete, 67-71, 80, 95 f, 116 n., 209, 274 n., 400-406, 566 n., 678; lives with Bokonon, 92-98, 196-197; poems about, 2 n., 26, 114, 119, 311, 316, 477 n., 501, 507, 555 n., 689, 718 ff, 799 ff, 800 n., 841, 846 ff, 908 n., 971, 974; poems by, 89, 92, 193; returns to Monzano, 199; returns to Bokonon, 197; runs away from Bokonon, 199; runs away from Monzano, 197; tries to make self ugly in order to stop being erotic symbol to islanders, 80, 95 f, 116 n., 209, 247 n., 400-406, 566 n., 678; tutored by Bokonon, 63-80; writes letter to United Nations, 200; xylophone virtuoso, 71."

  I showed this index entry to the Mintons, asking them if they didn't think it was an enchanting biography in itself, a biography of a reluctant goddess of love. I got an unexpectedly expert answer, as one does in life sometimes. It appeared that Claire Minton, in her time, had been a professional indexer. I had never heard of such a profession before.

  She told me that she had put her husband through college years before with her earnings as an indexer, that the earnings had been good, and that few people could index well.

  She said that indexing was a thing that only the most amateurish author undertook to do for his own book. I asked her what she thought of Philip Castle's job.

  "Flattering to the author, insulting to the reader," she said. "In a hyphenated word," she observed, with the shrewd amiability of an expert, 'self-indulgent.' I'm always embarrassed when I see an index an author has made of his own work."


  "It's a revealing thing, an author's index of his own work," she informed me. "It's a shameless exhibition--to the trained eye."

  "She can read character from an index," said her husband.

  "Oh?" I said. "What can you tell about Philip Castle?"

  She smiled faintly. "Things I'd better not tell strangers."


  "He's obviously in love with this Mona Aamons Monzano," she said.

  "That's true of every man in San Lorenzo I gather."

  "He has mixed feelings about his father," she said.

  "That's true of every man on earth." I egged her on gently.

  "He's insecure."

  "What mortal isn't?" I demanded. I didn't know it then, but that was a very Bokononist thing to demand.

  "He'll never
marry her."

  "Why not?"

  "I've said all I'm going to say," she said.

  "I'm gratified to meet an indexer who respects the privacy of others."

  "Never index your own book," she stated.

  A duprass, Bokonon tells us, is a valuable instrument for gaining and developing, in the privacy of an interminable love affair, insights that are queer but true. The Mintons' cunning exploration of indexes was surely a case in point. A duprass, Bokonon tells us, is also a sweetly conceited establishment. The Mintons' establishment was no exception.

  Sometime later, Ambassador Minton and I met in the aisle of the airplane, away from his wife, and he showed that it was important to him that I respect what his wife could find out from indexes.

  "You know why Castle will never marry the girl, even though he loves her, even though she loves him, even though they grew up together?" he whispered.

  "No, sir, I don't."

  "Because he's a homosexual," whispered Minton. "She can tell that from an index, too."



  WHEN LIONEL BOYD JOHNSON and Corporal Earl McCabe were washed up naked onto the shore of San Lorenzo, I read, they were greeted by persons far worse off than they. The people of San Lorenzo had nothing but diseases, which they were at a loss to treat or even name. By contrast, Johnson and McCabe had the glittering treasures of literacy, ambition, curiosity, gall, irreverence, health, humor, and considerable information about the outside world.

  From the "Calypsos" again:

  Oh, a very sorry people, yes,

  Did I find here.

  Oh, they had no music,

  And they had no beer.

  And, oh, everywhere

  Where they tried to perch

  Belonged to Castle Sugar, Incorporated,

  Or the Catholic church.

  This statement of the property situation in San Lorenzo in 1922 is entirely accurate, according to Philip Castle. Castle Sugar was founded, as it happened, by Philip Castle's great-grandfather. In 1922, it owned every piece of arable land on the island.

  "Castle Sugar's San Lorenzo operations," wrote young Castle, "never showed a profit. But, by paying laborers nothing for their labor, the company managed to break even year after year, making just enough money to pay the salaries of the workers' tormentors.

  "The form of government was anarchy, save in limited situations wherein Castle Sugar wanted to own something or to get something done. In such situations the form of government was feudalism. The nobility was composed of Castle Sugar's plantation bosses, who were heavily armed white men from the outside world. The knighthood was composed of big natives who, for small gifts and silly privileges, would kill or wound or torture on command. The spiritual needs of the people caught in this demoniacal squirrel cage were taken care of by a handful of butterball priests.

  "The San Lorenzo Cathedral, dynamited in 1923, was generally regarded as one of the man-made wonders of the New World," wrote Castle.



  THAT CORPORAL MCCABE and Johnson were able to take command of San Lorenzo was not a miracle in any sense. Many people had taken over San Lorenzo-- had invariably found it lightly held. The reason was simple: God, in His Infinite Wisdom, had made the island worthless.

  Hernando Cortes was the first man to have his sterile conquest of San Lorenzo recorded on paper. Cortes and his men came ashore for fresh water in 1519, named the island, claimed it for Emperor Charles the Fifth, and never returned. Subsequent expeditions came for gold and diamonds and rubies and spices, found none, burned a few natives for entertainment and heresy, and sailed on.

  "When France claimed San Lorenzo in 1682," wrote Castle, "no Spaniards complained. When Denmark claimed San Lorenzo in 1699, no Frenchmen complained. When the Dutch claimed San Lorenzo in 1704, no Danes complained. When England claimed San Lorenzo in 1706, no Dutchmen complained. When Spain reclaimed San Lorenzo in 1720, no Englishmen complained. When, in 1786, African Negroes took command of a British slave ship, ran it ashore on San Lorenzo, and proclaimed San Lorenzo an independent nation, an empire with an emperor, in fact, no Spaniards complained.

  "The emperor was Tum-bumwa, the only person who ever regarded the island as being worth defending. A maniac, Tum-bumwa caused to be erected the San Lorenzo Cathedral and the fantastic fortifications on the north shore of the island, fortifications within which the private residence of the so-called President of the Republic now stands.

  "The fortifications have never been attacked, nor has any sane man ever proposed any reason why they should be attacked. They have never defended anything. Fourteen hundred persons are said to have died while building them. Of these fourteen hundred, about half are said to have been executed in public for substandard zeal."

  Castle Sugar came into San Lorenzo in 1916, during the sugar boom of the First World War. There was no government at all. The company imagined that even the clay and gravel fields of San Lorenzo could be tilled profitably, with the price of sugar so high. No one complained.

  When McCabe and Johnson arrived in 1922 and announced that they were placing themselves in charge, Castle Sugar withdrew flaccidly, as though from a queasy dream.



  "THERE WAS AT LEAST ONE quality of the new conquerors of San Lorenzo that was really new," wrote young Castle. "McCabe and Johnson dreamed of making San Lorenzo a Utopia.

  "To this end, McCabe overhauled the economy and the laws.

  "Johnson designed a new religion."

  Castle quoted the "Calypsos" again:

  I wanted all things

  To seem to make some sense,

  So we all could be happy, yes,

  Instead of tense.

  And I made up lies

  So that they all fit nice,

  And I made this sad world

  A par-a-dise.

  There was a tug at my coat sleeve as I read. I looked up.

  Little Newt Hoenikker was standing in the aisle next to me. "I thought maybe you'd like to go back to the bar," he said, "and hoist a few."

  So we did hoist and topple a few, and Newt's tongue was loosened enough to tell me some things about Zinka, his Russian midget dancer friend. Their love nest, he told me, had been in his father's cottage on Cape Cod.

  "I may not ever have a marriage, but at least I've had a honeymoon."

  He told me of idyllic hours he and his Zinka had spent in each other's arms, cradled in Felix Hoenikker's old white wicker chair, the chair that faced the sea.

  And Zinka would dance for him. "Imagine a woman dancing just for me."

  "I can see you have no regrets."

  "She broke my heart. I didn't like that much. But that was the price. In this world, you get what you pay for."

  He proposed a gallant toast. "Sweethearts and wives," he cried.



  I WAS IN THE BAR with Newt and H. Lowe Crosby and a couple of strangers, when San Lorenzo was sighted. Crosby was talking about pissants. "You know what I mean by a pissant?"

  "I know the term," I said, "but it obviously doesn't have the ding-a-ling associations for me that it has for you."

  Crosby was in his cups and had the drunkard's illusion that he could speak frankly, provided he spoke affectionately. He spoke frankly and affectionately of Newt's size, something nobody else in the bar had so far commented on.

  "I don't mean a little feller like this." Crosby hung a ham hand on Newt's shoulder. "It isn't size that makes a man a pissant. It's the way he thinks. I've seen men four times as big as this little feller here, and they were pissants. And I've seen little fellers--well, not this little actually, but pretty damn little, by God--and I'd call them real men."

  "Thanks," said Newt pleasantly, not even glancing at the monstrous hand on his shoulder. Never had I seen a human being better adjusted to such a humiliating physical handicap. I shuddered with admir

  "You were talking about pissants," I said to Crosby, hoping to get the weight of his hand off Newt.

  "Damn right I was." Crosby straightened up.

  "You haven't told us what a pissant is yet," I said.

  "A pissant is somebody who thinks he's so damn smart, he never can keep his mouth shut. No matter what anybody says, he's got to argue with it. You say you like something, and, by God, he'll tell you why you're wrong to like it. A pissant does his best to make you feel like a boob all the time. No matter what you say, he knows better."

  "Not a very attractive characteristic," I suggested.

  "My daughter wanted to marry a pissant once," said Crosby darkly.

  "Did she?"

  "I squashed him like a bug." Crosby hammered on the bar, remembering things the pissant had said and done. "Jesus!" he said, "we've all been to college!" His gaze lit on Newt again. "You go to college?"

  "Cornell," said Newt.

  "Cornell!" cried Crosby gladly. "My God, I went to Cornell."

  "So did he." Newt nodded at me.

  "Three Cornellians--all in the same plane!" said Crosby, and we had another granfalloon festival on our hands.

  When it subsided some, Crosby asked Newt what he did.

  "I paint."



  "I'll be damned," said Crosby.

  "Return to your seats and fasten your seat belts, please," warned the airline hostess. "We're over Monzano Airport, Bolivar, San Lorenzo."

  "Christ! Now wait just a Goddamn minute here," said Crosby, looking down at Newt. "All of a sudden I realize you've got a name I've heard before."

  "My father was the father of the atom bomb." Newt didn't say Felix Hoenikker was one of the fathers. He said Felix was the father.

  "Is that so?" asked Crosby.

  "That's so."

  "I was thinking about something else," said Crosby. He had to think hard. "Something about a dancer."

  "I think we'd better get back to our seats," said Newt, tightening some.

  "Something about a Russian dancer." Crosby was sufficiently addled by booze to see no harm in thinking out loud. "I remember an editorial about how maybe the dancer was a spy."

  "Please, gentlemen," said the stewardess, "you really must get back to your seats and fasten your belts."