Good ‘n’ Evil, or, The Once and Future Thing

This is my confession.

On this 13th day of the Third Moontide of the Smoldering Beagle Year, at the urging of both Professor Tadmonicker and my own troubled conscience, I, Maven Minkwhistle, set pen to paper. Never again will I type a single character; the mere sight of the clumsy old Underwood fills me with self-loathing for the misdeeds I have done, the falsities I have perpetuated in this already too-false world. I pray that this manuscript will not meet with incredulity in a public that has learned to doubt my word—indeed, my very name. It is not an apology, for I know that society finds such fawning to be more offensive than any crime. Nor is it an eleventh-minute attempt to polish my reputation with further pleas of innocence. I am more concerned for my father—dear Father! I never wanted it to end like this.

After all, it was begun for his benefit and carried out with his tacit approval. When the first bit of truth emerged, he smothered it and pressed me to keep on in my misguided way, knowing that he would benefit in some wise from my crimes. But it may have been that he truly did not suspect me. Certainly he never understood my intentions.

He is a good man, as I will vouch. He raised me to the best of his ability, single-handed in this endeavor after my mother died of the Laughing Sickness when I was still in swaddling clothes. We lived with several other of his tenants in our ancestral home on Downer Street, where I received acceptable tutoring at his hands. My father was a self-taught man and his education was a bit of patchwork, rather threadbare and bound to come unraveled if you nagged at it for too long; yet he was full of enthusiasm for history, and for literature in particular. Because I loved him and wanted to please him in any way that I could, I allowed myself to become infected with this obsession of his. My servility was unconscious, of course; much as I ran to fetch the beanbags which he tossed for our amusement, so I learned to read the fragmentary texts that lined the tottering shelves in his library. And it was here, on those long and lonely days when father labored in the streets, hawking his “Smokable Weeds” and “Restorative Spices Suitable for the Treatment of Mutant Gout, Twisting Fits, and Cumulative Genetic Damage,” that I discovered the old authors of Prior History.

What wonders I uncovered in these ancient, charred tomes! The very pages, redolent of mold and nitrogen, recalled the lofty-spired cities of legend, so unlike our squat towns. I fell in love with this collection of stray, unconnected pages, salvaged from ruins that had long since lapsed into the alkaline mud of their own ashes. For me, these few thousand lines of text, these brittle pages brimming with mystery, were as vast and fantastic as the world humanity had burned to the ground. My father’s shelves seemed another Wonder of the World—a veritable Hanging Library of Babel!

The reading public will understand my love for these works; have they not shown, by their very willingness to be duped, how much we all prize those masters and masterpieces lost in the Turbulation, known only by reputation and a few fragments of prose? Who can forget his first encounter with the timeless, tireless phrases of Sindy Sheldonyx, Jacques Collins, Lousi L’Amorgue, the sage Garfeld, Herold Rubbins, and the Master himself—Strapon Thing?

My father adored this man and his work. At the core of his library were two prized relics, which my father on occasion, after a draught or two of his home-brewed absinthe, had been seen to put to his lips as he knelt intoning their contents, which he knew by heart. They were two treasures delivered from the roaring destruction that had obliterated every library, every book-rack, and reduced each shopping mall to a ring of fire.

They were authentic pages from the Master’s works, deemed such by the literary experts of our day, including Professor Tadmonicker. My father had long since had them impregnated with preservative chemicals and mounted them between sheets of transparent plastic, the better to withstand his reverent kisses and the fevered friction of his worshiping palms.

I remember well the day he brought them down from the locked chest on the highest shelf. His face was aglow with pride; his white whiskers trembled like the mandibles of the pallid pulp-eating beetles that were his bane.

“Maven, my boy,” he said, “this is a very special day for you. A day of great honor! I know you have read every word on these shelves, have committed them to memory like your old father before you. But I hold here two pages of value unmatched, which you have not seen. Touch them lightly, read them slowly. For these, my only son, are the words of the Master!”

Cool was the touch of those plaques to my hands, yet the words within them seemed to burn like black fire. I nearly reeled backward from the force of the scriptures. Scriptures, I call them (and I am not the first), because such was the holy purity of those lines that they spoke directly to my soul, singing of a world forever lost and a heritage that would last until eternity. “Men fear time,” it is written. “But time fears Strapon Thing.” In the few square inches of legible text between the grey spots of mold which had nearly claimed these precious sheets before Professor Tadmonicker’s lamination arrested their voracious spread, I saw revealed such insight into the human condition that my mind began to spin. It was too much! I was hurled forcibly from my body and drifted into a sightless realm composed purely of words. In my swoon, I imagined I could hear the Master speaking the words of his tale….

As my fit passed, I realized that it was my father’s voice I heard. He had caught the plaques as I fell, and now he stood in the shaft of light from the study’s single window, chanting such of the text as was visible. I lay as one in a trance, hardly believing my ears, fearing that I must have died and gone to join the plentiful souls of the dead; for surely, no living man could have written such words. I hardly knew them as meaningful syllables. They seemed like cosmic music to me then.

After a time my father replaced the plaques in their chest, locked the box, and returned it to its place of honor above our heads. Then he turned on me a knowing gaze, half a smile, and crouched on the floor beside me.

“I know what you must be feeling, boy,” he said, putting a hand on my brow. “Such a loss, all those voices, in the Turbulation. And his was the greatest of them.”

I found my voice at last. “Father… Father, where did you find those pages?”

He nodded, thinking back toward darker days. “Hm. Once it was possible to find such things in the markets; they were little valued, except as tinder. I shudder to think of how many complete works of Thing and Cartbland were lost in the fires of illiterate gypsies, thousands of lines of classic prose going to warm a botulous can of creamed corn…. I found one tucked into a telephone directory, if you can believe that. The other was folded in half and glued with mucilage to the last page of an ancient insurance calendar. No human hands had done it, of course—it was the random chaos of the Turbulation, the same force that drove sewing needles into marble pillars, buried corks in steel girders, and sent cotton balls rocketing through the walls of bank vaults. But Chaos was kind to me on the days when I found these treasures. I was no older than you at the time. Even so, I had heard tell of these works; I had seen other fragments in the Museum. I thought I recognized them as the words of Strapon Thing, and I was soon proved correct. A distinguished head of the College studied them for several months, and then announced that they were missing pieces of two great works, Pet Seminary and Salem’s Lost.”

“The Museum?” I asked, starting to my feet. “You mean, there are more like these? Father, will you take me? Won’t you show me, please?”

“Ah, my boy, I have weeds to sell and tonics to distill. You must be patient. Soon we will go, I promise you that. And it would hasten things, you know, if you helped me with my work. I am getting slow and crabbed these days; it pains me greatly to stoop and pick the weeds I need from the sidewalks and the vacant lots. Why don’t you come and help me for awhile? It is time you learned a trade.”

Eventful day! The sight of those pages acted as a catalyst, bringing immense changes in their wake. For even as my father tried to coax me into his profession, I was already thinking of another shop I had seen down the row. There was a sign in the window, advertising for an apprentice. A typewriter shop, it was, where the ancient engines were refurbished, repaired, and pressed back into the service of mankind. I realized that I would never be happy unless I could live day to day with the sight of the black, unchanging characters of the Nigglish language beneath my nose. And so, defying my father (but gently, so as not to wound his pride in his own profession), I presented myself that very afternoon at the shop of Dorky Coxset.

Old Coxsets shop was dark and musty, smelling of dust and machine oil. Everything in the place seemed lightly furred with clumps of greasy lint, much like the innards of the machines he restored to working order. Coxset walked with a perpetual hunch from bending too long over the bowels of his clanking, toneless instruments. The old gentleman proffered a blackened, oily hand and listened politely to my enthusiastic bid for his instruction. I explained that I had always loved the printed word and that no other occupation would serve me so well as typewriter repair.

“Well, now,” he replied, after a moment’s thought, “I know you from the neighborhood and you’ve always seemed a likeable boy enough…but this work is not as glamorous as you might suppose. An apprentice rarely touches a typer ‘til he’s been at the trade for three years, and sometimes four. First you must learn to repair the old ribbons and sew new ones from strips of cloth; then there is the mixing of inks from oak gall and the inking of those ribbons, and the winding of them on spools. There’s much reaming of tiny hieroglyphs in dim light, which will give you the poor eyesight of a mool by the time you are my age; add to that plentiful tightening of springs and a small bit of brightwork to be polished on occasion. Yes, it will be a good long while before you venture into the workings of the actual machine.”

I assured him that I understood this perfectly. Merely the presence, the ineffable aura of print, would carry me through years of unrewarding toil.

“It’s not completely unrewarded,” he said. “In return for your services, if all goes well and you prove compatible, I’ll give you a slight stipend—not much at first, mind. And in my spare time, little as there is of it, I’ll also teach you how to type. Would you like that?”

“To type!” I gasped. “You mean…as the old authors did?”

“Yes, yes. You’ll see your thoughts transformed to printed words. It can be a heady experience for a young lad, as I well remember.” He chuckled at my expression, but I think he scarcely suspected the depth of my awe. To write…to type…to emulate the Master. This would be my life’s work!

“Are you interested, then?” he asked.

Without a word I thrust my hand into his and pumped it rapidly. The bargain was sealed. So it was that with the loftiest of intentions, I set forth on the lowest path that fate could possibly provide me.

My father was distressed when I gave him the news, but he did his best to hide it, and even expressed some happiness. That night he brought out his private stock of absinthe and I had my first taste of that bitter potion. I slept unsoundly, caught between the worlds of wakefulness and dream, yet my thrashings were full of nightmarish images, distant voices growing nearer, and the first intimations of my foolish ambition. I remember, it was on the following morning that my eyes sprang open, and this thought floated from my eyes: I shall learn to type like Strapon Thing!

With a diligence that surprised my master Coxset, I threw myself into the trade of typewriter repair. For a matter of weeks I had no other thought than to become expert in every task that he passed my way, whether it was collecting and bagging the piles of dust that he scraped from the bars of old Olivettis, or rubbing ink and sewing patches into the faded ribbons which his regular customers brought in for repair. At night I would eat a few bites of my father’s healthful salads of boiled nettle and tender young foxtail, then I would leap into my sack and dream of typewriters with gleaming keys, silver hammers spattering onto sheets of fairy-white paper.

It was some months later that Dorky Coxset announced a holiday. He was traveling up to Mazmere to visit his widowed sister. It seemed she had contracted a bad case of the languish, and Dorky was concerned for her. He handed me the keys to the shop, in case of an emergency, and said that he would return in three days’ time.

The moment he left me alone, I remembered what I had been intending for months. Taking a few trading stamps from my weekly stipend, I hurried downtown to the Museum and bought myself a ticket.