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A Desperate and Despicable Dwarf: Section Twenty Two

       Last updated: Monday, August 2, 2004 22:41 EDT



CHAPTER [whatever]. In Which ...

    "'Tis an outrage!" spoke the mage. "An outrage!"

    "Certainly is!" agreed Uncle Manya. "You'd expect better from God, wouldn't you think? And He has no excuse, either! You can't blame this on a proof-reader or a type-setter, given to mortal error. Look—right here on the frontispiece. And I quote: 'First edition. The Lord's Press.' Written in lambent, glowing letters of golden glory, to boot."

    Teddy shuffled up. "What seems to be the problem, gents?"

    Zulkeh held forth the offending tome. "Look here, sirra! The volumes of the Catalogue of Fallen Angels are organized alphabetically, are they not?"

    "Oh, yes," replied Teddy.

    "Then why is the name Athanial not listed?"

    Teddy scratched his head. "Sure you got the right volume?"

    "Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Am I an illiterate, who cannot distinguish 'aardvark' from 'zygote'? Look for yourself! The Catalogue of Fallen Angels, Volume 346—Atgioth to Athariel. 'Tis the right volume, sirra—be sure of it. Yet nowhere in its nine hundred odd pages is there a mention of Athaniel! An outrage! An outrage!"

    The oldster took the tome and examined the pages.

    "By golly, you're right. Here's Athaniek, right enough: 'Blinked in the blinding light of Heaven; condemned for wavering faith; cursed by the Lord, Year Eight Thousand, Day Two Hundred and Nineteen, on the eleventh minute of the third hour; damned to infernal torment for one million years; sentence to be served in Hades.' And right after's Athienela: 'Succored a child found abandoned in the desert; condemned for questioning God's Will; thrice cursed by the Almighty, Year Fifteen Thousand and—etc., etc.; damned to infernal torment for ten million years; sentence to be served in the 664th level of the Abyss.' Oh, my! The Old Geister must have been in a bad mood that day—He really threw the Book at her! Questioning God's Will doesn't usually get more than five million years torment, and He usually lets the fallen angel serve it out in one of the country-club levels of the netherworld—Tarterus or Pandemonium. It's pretty much considered a white-collar crime, you know. Not like the really serious blue-collar type offenses—blasphemy; heresy; idolatry; eating seafood that doesn't have fins and scales; not breaking an earthen vessel after it's been touched by the carcass of a weasel, mouse, tortoise, ferret, chameleon, lizard, snail or mole; letting a woman into church less than one week after bearing a male child or two weeks after bearing a female child; that sort of thing. But the Abyss? And the 664th level? Whew!"

    He scratched his head again. "Well, let me think. There's no point looking in the Daily Addendum to the Catalogue. Or The Week's Wicked, or the Monthly Review of Rebels, or even the Annual Proceedings of the Almighty's Sword of Righteousness. The Lord's Press issues a new edition of the Catalogue every decade, so any angel who's fallen more than ten years ago will be in the Catalogue itself. Good thing, too. The recent updates to the Catalogue fill a whole stack. The Lord's quick on the trigger, you know."

    He continued scratching his bald pate. "Let me think, let me think. Ah! Let's check the index under Angels, Cursed." He shuffled over to the Index to the Catalogue of Fallen Angels, which, oddly enough, consisted of more volumes than the Catalogue proper. The librarian's practiced fingers fairly flew through the pages, despite their decrepit palsy.

    "Oh! Silly me!"

    "What's the matter?" asked Alf.

    "I forgot—they're all cursed. What we need are the angels which have been eternally cursed. That'll be under Angels, Eternally Cursed."

    A few moments of flickering fingers.

    "Here we go! Yes, yes. Two whole volumes of them, but—nope! No Athaniel. It's odd, really. The Catalogue's normally quite reliable. The Lord never forgets, you know. He certainly never forgets a wrong done to Him! Odd, odd."

    Scratch, scratch, scratch—then, slapping his head: "Oh! Of course! How could I forget?"

    "Forget what?" demanded Zulkeh, visibly and vigorously impatient.

    "When an angel really gets damned—first degree, so to speak—he gets his name taken from him. That's why there's no Athaniel listed. Of course! We'll have to look for him under Angels, Anonymous, Eternally Cursed."

    The ancient plucked forth a different volume and swept through the pages, all the while wheezing and gasping in a most alarming manner.

    "Yes! Here it is!" Proudly, he offered the tome to Zulkeh, open to a page.

    "It'll be one of these—you can be sure of it!"

    Zulkeh snatched up the proffered volume. Intently, his eyes scanned the page. A frown appeared. He turned the page. The frown deepened. He turned another page, and another, and another, and—suffice it to say, perhaps three score pages. By the end, his frown resembled a thundercloud.

    "Bah!" he oathed. "Of what use is this? There are well nigh a thousand anonymous angels listed herein! How are we to find the one we seek amidst this promiscuous plethora?"

    Teddy looked puzzled. "But—it'll be obvious. Look for the date."

    A "bah!" began to spring from Zulkeh's lips, died aborning. Were it not impossible, one would say the wizard was astonished in his mind.

    He began feverishly scanning the rows of names. Quickly, page after page was turned. Then—a cry of triumph!

    "Yes! Yes! Here it is!"

    "What does it say?" asked Uncle Manya eagerly.

    "It says: 'Anonymous (#883): Offended the Lord for reasons held in privy by the Lord; condemned for impeding the smooth flow of predestination'—"

    Teddy whistled softly. "He's a goner!"

    "—but here's the key!—'cursed by the Almighty, Year One, Day One, in the first minute of the first hour."

    The wizard danced a little jig.

    "We have him! We have him!"

    Alf the heretic asked, puzzled: "I don't get it. That date has to refer to the very beginning of Time, when the Old Geister created the Universe. That was way before Joe was even born."

    As one, Zulkeh and Uncle Manya goggled at Alf.

    "Is such stupidity possible?" demanded Zulkeh.

    "He's a heretic, sure," commented Uncle Manya, "but I didn't think he was an imbecile."

    The portly faux-maniac addressed himself to Alf as if he were speaking to a toddler.

    "Look here, Alf. On one hand, we have God, who says he created the Universe. On the other hand, we have Joe, who actually did invent God Himself. Now, let's think about this for a moment. Doesn't it—"

    Alf's face turned red. "Enough with the insults! I didn't say I agreed with the way the Old Geister reckons the date, but it's still the way He does it and He's the one who puts out the Catalogue. So it stands to reason that He'd put Day One of Year One and all that way back before Joe!"

    "Bah!" oathed the mage. "Let us have some small measure of respect for the Almighty! Do you really think the Supreme Being is as witless as His parsons? Do you really think the Allwise is such a cretin as not to notice that according to the official account He moved across the face of the waters before He created the waters? To mention only one of a multitude of contradictions in the Holy Writ! Bah! I say again—bah! The chronology of the Universe as laid down in the Word of God is for public consumption only. Much like the public financial report of a great enterprise, which, needless to say, maintains quite a different set of books for its own purposes. No, no, heretic, be sure of it—the Allpowerful does not keep the stars in their courses by forgetting the real date! No! He knows when He really created the Universe, and that was the moment He disembarrassed Himself of His inventor. Be sure of it—this fallen angel is the one!"

    Alf fell into surly silence. After a long moment, Uncle Manya interrupted Zulkeh's eminent self-satisfaction.

    "Yes, but—how do we find him?"

    "What?" demanded Zulkeh. "It says where to find him right here! I quote: 'damned to infernal torment for Eternity; sentence to be served'—what's this? But what is this?"

    "What does it say?" asked Teddy.

    The wizard's mien was choleric anew. "It's balderdash! Rank pettifoggery! It says: 'sentenced to be served in the lowest place of all.'"

    He clapped shut the book. "And just what is that fiddle-dee-dee supposed to mean?" he demanded.

    "Well," said Alf, "I assume it means exactly what it says—the lowest place of all. I don't see the problem. All we have to do is go to the lowest place there is and we'll have our fallen angel."

    The wizard examined the heretic with a look of great disfavor.

    "Indeed?" he demanded. "It is so simple a task as that? No matter that this precise problem has pre-occupied the attention of scores of the world's greatest sages since time immemorial! And with no certain conclusion, despite the most vigorous and energetic—even, though it grieves me to say so of other scholars, caustic and intemperate debate."

    He waved a hand airily. "What boots it—says the heretic! We shall solve the riddle in a snap!"

    Alf, be it said, did not attain his status as the world's most despised heretic by excessive timidity. The sneer which even now creased his face fairly matched the wizard's own.

    "If I may quote a certain caustic and intemperate scholar: 'bah!'. I am quite aware of the long-standing wrangle in pseudo-philosophical circles concerning the question of the lowest place on earth. I quote again: 'bah!' It's all a pile of metaphysical mishmash, beginning with that dolt Plato Laebmauntsforscynneweëld's On Depth."

    The wizard spluttered with indignation. "What's this? What's this? Did I hear you refer to the immortal Plato Laedm—"

    "—as a dolt. Yes. A dolt and a dunce." In a sarcastic singsong: "Oh, there's no such things as low places, folks—no, sirree! There's just places that more or less approximate the ideal Lowness."

    "I see! No doubt you think no more kindly of the great—"

    "Don't bother me with a long recitation of a list of fools! It's all tommyrot! The problem's not philosophical, it's scientific—and as such, easily resolved. If you hadn't wasted your time with all that airy stuff you could have studied to good advantage the immortal Hutton Sfrondrati-Piccolomini's Theory of—"

    "What? What? Do I hear me a-right? Did I hear you begin to praise the wits of a so-called scientist who concludes an examination of the problem of depth by saying, and I quote: 'The result, therefore, of our present inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a top—no prospect of a bottom?'"

    The wizard stretched up his arms and raised his head as if in praise of Heaven. "Oh, wonder! Oh, wonder! The heretic's empiric science has led him to the conclusion that there is no conclusion. Oh, wonder!"

    We shall spare the gentle reader a full recitation of the debate which ensued, a debate in which, it is our painful duty to report, the wizard Zulkeh did oft violate his own condemnation of caustic and intemperate discourse while, for his part, the heretic Alf conducted himself in no such manner as to modify the world's general view that arch-heretics are a contentious and choleric lot. Suffice it to say that, in the end, the mage held firmly to his opinion that the lowest place of all could only be found by following through to the end the full self-negation of the notion of downward, while, for his part, Alf the heretic was no less immovable in his contention that the lowest place of all was a certain sinkhole in the far distant deserts of Kankr, accurately described, or so he claimed, by the famed geologist "Moho" Sfrondrati-Piccolomini.

    'Twas, alas, at this point that Uncle Manya entered the fray.

    "You're both going at this the wrong way."

    As one, Zulkeh and Alf transferred their mutual glowers onto Uncle Manya. Yet, the portly faux-maniac seemed singularly undaunted.

    "You'll never get anywhere trying to figure out the lowest place. Oh, no—no, no, no! Gets you into an endless wrangle, that does. No, gents, the right way to go about this is to figure out what's the lowest thing of all. Once you've done that, of course, it's easy to figure out where that thing is located."

    "Indeed?" demanded Zulkeh. "And precisely how do you propose to determine the lowest thing of all?"

    Uncle Manya snorted. "Everybody knows that! It's whale shit lying at the bottom of the ocean."

    "By golly, he's right!" exclaimed Teddy.

    "Bah!" oathed Zulkeh.

    "I quote: 'bah!'" sneered Alf.

    "What do you mean—'bah' and "'bah'"?" demanded Uncle Manya hotly. "It's an established fact! Oh, sure, most people think the lowest thing of all is dwarf shit, but a study of precisely this question has been undertaken by the renowned oceanographer Piccard Sfrondrati-Piccolomini, in which he clearly establishes that the lowest thing there is is whale shit lying on the bottom of the ocean."

    "Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "The woolly-brained claim advanced by Piccard Sfrondrati-Piccolomini in his, admittedly pathfinding but seriously flawed, Popular Prejudices Withered By the Harsh Light of Scientific Scrutiny, was no sooner published than it was refuted by Beebe Laebmauntsforscynneweëld in his classic defense of orthodoxy, Popular Prejudices Upheld and Made Solid as a Block of Granite by Scientific Scrutiny as Understood by Every Scholar Save the Lackwit Piccard. In this much-acclaimed tome, Beebe disproved Piccard's thesis not once but twice, showing, first, that as squids are regularly eaten by whales it is actually squid shit that falls lower than whale shit, and secondly, that as tossing dwarfs into ravenous squid-infested waters is a popular sport in waterfront alehouses, it is actually dwarf shit which winds up lower than squid shit."

    "And besides," interrupted Alf, "Piccard's cousin Cousteau Sfondrati-Piccolomini just last year returned from a mission to the bottom of the ocean, where he discovered strange worms dwelling near sulfurous vents in the deepest marine trenches, whose shit must now be recognized as the lowest thing there is."

    "Meaningless!" spoke Zulkeh, waving his hand. "Cousteau's claim has not significantly affected popular or scientific opinion as: firstly, Cousteau is a notorious glory-hound; secondly, Cousteau is a notorious dwarf-lover, and, finally, the question is, in any event, of a fundamentally moral rather than oceanographic character."

    Alas, the earlier fruitless debate now seemed destined to escalation. Fortunately—and fortuitously, we might add—the Tullimonstrum intervened.

    "What does that infernal twittering mean?" demanded Zulkeh.

    Alf replied: "It said: 'Why don't you just go look?'"

    The three savants stared at the prehistoric beast.

    "What do you mean?" queried Uncle Manya.

    Twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter. Alf translated:

    "It says that the lowest tier of the Stacks has a basement annex that's got the lowest literature ever written and it has a porthole that looks out into the bottom of the Tongue Trench which, as everybody knows except—well, I'll skip over the insults—is the lowest place of all."

    Twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter.

    "Those are the directions on how to get there."

    Three pairs of scholarly eyes now settled on Teddy. The oldster scratched his scalp.

    "Well, golly! You know, I'd forgotten all about that. Tully's right, though."

    He grimaced. "I haven't been down there in ages. Horrible stuff down there—the lowest, basest, foulest, most disgusting stuff ever written. The lowest tier is filled with sado-masochist novels and the basement below it holds all my copies of The Bridges of Madison County."

    A collective shudder.

    "But there is a porthole—sure enough! And it does look out onto the very lowest part of the Tongue Trench—sure enough!"

    Silence reigned. Indeed, silence ruled.

    Twitter, twitter, twitter, twitter.

    "And now what is the infernal creature saying?" demanded the mage.

    "It says you're going to have to swallow your overweening pride sooner or later and go look, so why don't you do it now and get it over with."

    Twitter, twitter.

    "So we can have lunch."

    "Bah!" oathed the mage. He turned and stalked from the room. Uncle Manya followed; Alf brought up the rear, with the Tullimonstrum perched, as always, upon his shoulder.

    Twitter, twitter, twitter --

    "Turn left at the third stack, go straight on five hundred and eighty-two—"

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