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A Desperate and Despicable Dwarf: Section Eighteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, June 23, 2004 00:22 EDT



CHAPTER [whatever]. In Which...

    In the event, the savants' perusal of the long-sought Catalogue of Fallen Angels was delayed by yet another social occasion, this, the maudlin and mawkish reunion of the Tullimonstrum with its old friend Teddy Jones, the which rheumatic ancient proved, indeed, to have been the sole inspirator and creator of the legendary (but now revealed to be not, properly speaking, mythical) Stacks.

    "Oh, yes," snuffled the decrepit oldster, blowing his nose from the gross residue of his teary reunion with the prehistoric monster, "I did it all by myself, yes indeed! My life's work, you know. I just adore books, and I was always so dissatisfied with the public libraries. They're always cutting the budgets, you know, and after they eliminated Sunday hours—well! What was a self-respecting bookworm to do?"

    Zulkeh cleared his throat. "Quite so, quite so." Grudgingly: "Indeed, quite commendably so." A rare hesitation came upon the mage's face. "But—forgive my asking so personal a question—these Stacks"—here the wizard made a vague gesture which seemed to encompass the enormous dimensions of that library beside which all others in creation pale to insignificance—"well, what I mean to say—I fancy myself quite the bibliophile, you see, and—oh!" He threw up his hands. "How long did it take?"

    Teddy Jones frowned in thought. "Oh, quite a long time. Very long time, actually. Let me think. I've such a bad head for dates!"

    The wizened old librarian's wrinkled lips moved soundlessly. He began counting on his fingers, but after recounting all the fingers on both hands innumerable times he apparently abandoned that approach in favor of scratching his neck. Finding no aid there, he began to sigh as if in despair of ever remembering the answer when, of a sudden, he clapped a liver-spotted hand to his liver-spotted scalp.

    "Oh—of course! Silly me!" He peered at Zulkeh through watery eyes. "How long's it been now since God froze poor old Joe in that flash ice age?"

    The wizard gaped. After a long silence, Uncle Manya cleared his throat and said, rather weakly: "Difficult to say, exactly. By my best estimate, somewhere between twenty and thirty thousand years."

    Teddy Jones nodded his head. "Yes, yes, that seems about right. Such a long time! Anyway, that's how long I've been collecting books. Plus three years. Oh! You must see it! I have it right here!"

    The oldster scuttled across the room and returned a moment later, clutching a tattered slender volume. Bound in bark, by all appearances.

    Teddy Jones held the thing up proudly. "This is it! My first book!" Then, with that wheezy pride which is such an unpleasant affliction of aged humans: "The first book, actually. The one Joe made after he decided to invent books, after I wheedled him into him."

    He held the horrid thing out. "See? It's his book—Joe's book."

    The wizard Zulkeh slowly extended a hand, the which, all Alfredae present noted with astonishment, was actually trembling.

    "May I?" he whispered, thereby eliciting the utmost astonishment from all Alfredae present at the scene, which learned lice had never once before, in all our many years of Zulkeh-watching, heard the mage either whisper or speak a polite phrase.

    "Oh, certainly! By all means! You needn't worry about harming it—I know it looks as fragile as old leaves, which isn't surprising since that's a lot of what it's made from, but I assure you it's quite indestructible. Bound to be, of course. Joe made it himself."

    His hands now positively shaking, Zulkeh opened the cover of the book and gazed upon the first page. There, in crude and coarse printed letters, were scrawled the words: JOE—HIS BOOK.

    Zulkeh turned a page. And again, and again.

    "I'm afraid I can't make out the words," he said softly, "even though they are written in quite large letters. I believe those are letters."

    Teddy Jones smiled and shook his head. "Oh, you'll never read them! I can't even read them, and I've had that book since—well! Joe had the worst handwriting in the world, you know. We always teased him about it, even though it wasn't really fair since he invented handwriting in the first place so you'd have to expect his handwriting would be the worst of anybody who ever lived. Being the first, and all."

    Teddy Jones chuckled—a most horribly decrepit sound!

    "It got him in so much trouble in school with the teachers after he invented schools and teachers! I declare! He became a student, of course, after he invented students. He said he felt obliged seeing as how he didn't know anything and he couldn't face up to the kids who were purely furious with him unless he went through it with them. School, I mean. But he was absolutely the worst student there ever was! Flunked everything. The only way he ever got out was by inventing graduation, and then it was touch and go."

    Teddy Jones smiled slyly. "Actually, he cheated, you know. First he tried to claim his term papers were brilliant except nobody could tell because of his handwriting, but the teachers saw right through that one! So the next year he hit on the idea that I would write his papers for him, and that's what did the trick, except it was such a chore trying to make my handwriting almost as bad as his except just barely legible. But I was glad to do it, even so. He was a good friend, was Joe, and besides—the year before he'd invented schoolyard bullies because he decided things needed to be spiced up a bit, and—oh!—they picked on me dreadfully since I was always the littlest kid, and so the deal I made with Joe was that if I wrote his papers he'd tell the bullies to lay off. Which they did, of course. Nobody ever tried to bully Joe until God froze him in a flash ice age and, oh boy, do I feel sorry for that Punk when Joe comes back. He's dog food, He is."

    Zulkeh coughed explosively.

    "Are you all right?" inquired Teddy Jones anxiously.

    Zulkeh waved a hand weakly. "Yes, yes! Just a moment's—I must say, my good man, that in a long lifetime of careful theologic study I have never actually encountered anyone referring to the Supreme Deity as—as—"

    "A punk?" Teddy snorted. "That's what He is. A lousy, loud-mouthed, sneaking, dirty, rotten, spoiled brat punk too big for His britches. As He'll soon enough discover!"

    "You seem quite certain that Joe will return," said Alf. "Why? I mean to say—he's been gone a very long time, now."

    It was odd, then, how the oldster's rheumy blue eyes, for just that one fleeting moment, seemed to shine with all the depths of the sea.

    "You never knew Joe," he said coldly. "I did. He'll be back. He promised me, you see, and Joe always kept his promises."

    "You heard Joe's last words?" exclaimed Uncle Manya excitedly.

    Teddy giggled. "Oh, dear me, no! I wasn't there when he got froze."

    "But you said—"

    "His promise? Oh, that was something else entirely. It's the book, you see."

    Seeing incomprehension in the faces about him, Teddy reached out and took the book from Zulkeh's hand. He flipped through the pages to the very end and held it up.

    "See? See how the last two pages are blank? I was always complaining to Joe about it, telling him how it wasn't fit and proper that the very first book shouldn't have been finished. So I made him promise that he'd finish it, but he never did on account of being frozen. So far as I know, it's the only promise Joe never kept. But, you see, Joe always keeps his promises. He has to, actually—he invented promises in the first place. And that's why I'm still alive, of course, even after all these years."

    "Pardon?" asked Uncle Manya.

    Teddy frowned. "Well, I should think it was obvious. I'm—what?—twenty, going on thirty thousand years old. How many people do you know ever lived that long."

    There was a collective clearing of throats. Inevitably, the wizard spoke. "'Tis said, in numerous scared tomes, that the ancient prophet Methuselah Laebmauntsforscynneweëld was the longest lived person of all—"

    "What crap!" snapped Teddy. "I knew that character. Couldn't stand him. One of the Old Geister's original toadies, he was. He died when I was still working on my first million books. I know! One of the few times I've ever left the Stacks since I started making them. I just couldn't resist—I sneaked into the cemetery at night and pissed on his grave."

    He looked down at the book. "I'd better put this back, now." As he shuffled off, he said, "Anyway, that's why I'm still alive. I can't die on account of if I did Joe couldn't keep the promise he made me."

    From a distance, softly: "And Joe always keeps his promises."

    Silence reigned until the oldster's return, and for some time afterward. Savant gazed at savant; scholar queried scholar with sceptic uplift brow; 'twas all nonsense, of course, plain as day to man and louse alike—so imagine then, dear reader, the final astonishment! When the wizard Zulkeh said: "The logic is impeccable. And being so, be true." Then, with unwonted gentleness: "Believe it, friends." (Absurd. Zulkeh had no friends.) "We are in the very center of the maelstrom."

    The wizard suddenly shook himself; then, addressed the ancient fool.

    "Sirra, Teddy—our need is this, and is what explains Uncle Manya's recent excitation. We seek to learn Joe's last words, the which, or so we are led to believe, were heard by three beings only: his old lady Sally, who's subsequent whereabouts and adventures are lost to the ken of man; God, Who, it goes without saying, is keeping it to Himself; and the single arch-angel who was present as God's witness. This latter wight, we are led to believe, was yclept Athaniel and was, immediately thereafter, cast by the Lord into damnation for the sin of being present at the Almighty's behest when that selfsame behest proved subsequently awkward for that selfsame Supreme Being."

    "Yes, yes," agreed Teddy. "As they say: 'fallen angels tell no tales.'"

    He scratched his bald head. "Well, now. Well, now! That's pretty much the way it was, from what I heard at the time. Sally was there, that's sure—and, boy! was the Lord pissed when she made a clean getaway." He cackled. "Not surprising at all, if you knew Sally. Shrewdest woman who ever lived. Shrewdest person who ever lived, actually. Smarter than any of the men were, even Sam. Way smarter than Joe, of course."

    Uncle Manya spluttered. "Joe was the person who invented everything!"

    Teddy looked puzzled. "So? Oh, Joe wasn't any dummy, don't get me wrong. He could hold his own in the wits department, well enough. But he wasn't really any smarter than anybody. And he never thought he was, either! No, sir! Say what you want about old Joe, he never had a swelled head. Uh-uh. Not at all. He sure never thought he was smarter than Sally, not on your life."


    Teddy wheezed with what, in anyone not aged beyond reason, would have been called senile laughter.

    "Hee, hee, hee. You're mixing up apples and oranges, that's what. Joe wasn't smarter than anybody, it's just that he was—well, more confident, maybe. No, no, that's not really it. What it was, see, is that everybody else was afraid of the secret of the universe, deep down, whereas Joe—oh, he went and invented it right off. First thing he invented, of course, so he was never afraid of it at all. It was his natural way of seeing things, and doing things, and—well, and everything."

    As one savant, three voices: "And what is this secret of the universe?"

    The oldster gaped. "You don't know? Things change, of course. What else could it be?" A senile giggle. "It was so obvious, after Joe invented it."

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