The Wonderful O


  “All they have is fifes and drums and cymbals,” gloated Black.

  “And zithers and guitars,” said Littlejack. “And dulcimers and spinets, and bugles, harps and trumpets.”

  “Much good they’ll get from these,” said Black, “or any others. I haven’t finished with the O’s in music, in harmony and melody, that is, and compositions. They’ll have no score, and what is more, no orchestra, or podium, or baton, and no conductor. They can’t play symphonies, or rhapsodies, sonatas or concerti. I’ll take away their oratorios and choirs and choruses, and all their soloists, their baritones and tenors and sopranos, their altos and contraltos and accompanists. All they’ll have is the funeral march, the chant and anthem, and the dirge, and certain snatches.”

  “They’ll still have serenades,” said Littlejack.

  Black made an evil and impatient gesture. “You can’t serenade a lady on a balcony,” he said, “if there isn’t any balcony. Let them hum their hymns and lisp their litanies.” Black’s eyes began to glow as he named O-names that would have to go: “Scherzo, largo, and crescendo, allegro and diminuendo. Let the lyric writers have their Night in June. Much good it’ll do ’em without the moon.” He crushed an imaginary moon in his hand. “At least the people cannot dance the polka, or the schottische, or gavotte. I wish they mourned their loss, here on R, but they do not.”

  “R?” asked Littlejack.

  “I’ve taken the O’s out of Ooroo,” Black explained. “Isles with O’s in their names are few, and invariably unlucky, such as the Isle of Lyonesse, which sank into the sea. I’ve made a list of isles still standing, none of which has a trace of O. It must mean something.” He pulled a parchment from his pocket and read the names of O-less isles aloud: “Iceland, Greenland, England, Wales, and Ireland; Jersey, Guernsey, Man and Wight; Capri, Crete, and Cyprus; Elba, Malta, and St. Helena; Madagascar, Zanzibar, Sardinia—”

  “St. Helena and Elba,” said Littlejack, “were not too lucky for Napoleon.”

  “Napoleon Bonaparte,” said Black, “was born on Corsica. His bad luck started there.” And then he resumed the reading of his list: “Bali and the Baleares, the Philippines and Celebes, the Fijis and the Hebrides, Cuba and Bermuda, the East Indies and West Indies, the Lesser and the Greater Antilles, Martinique and Trinidad, Easter and Jamaica, the Virgins and Canaries, Sicily and Haiti and Hawaii. And add a T to Haiti for Tahiti.” His voice gave out before the list was finished.

  Littlejack closed one eye and said, “You left out one. A friend of mine named Gunn lived there, if you could call it living.”

  “Its name,” breathed Black, “is Treasure.”

  That night the people of the town and those who lived in the country met secretly in the woods. They had been called together by a poet named Andreus, who read aloud, or tried to read, a poem he had just had printed at the printer’s. It was called “The Mn Belngs T Lvers,” but the poetry had died in it with the death of its O’s. “Soon Black and Littlejack,” said Andreus, “will no longer let us live in houses, for houses have an O.”

  “Or cottages,” said the blacksmith, “for cottage has an O, and so does bungalow.”

  “We’ll have to live in huts,” the baker said, “or shacks, or sheds, or shanties, or in cabins.”

  “Cabins without logs,” said Andreus. “We shall have mantels but no clocks, shelves without crocks, keys without locks, walls without doors, rugs without floors, frames without windows, chimneys with no roofs to put them on, knives without a fork or spoon, beds without pillows. There will be no wood for our fires, no oil for our lamps, and no hobs for our kettles.”

  “They will take my dough,” moaned the baker.

  “They will take my gold,” moaned the goldsmith.

  “And my forge,” sighed the blacksmith.

  “And my cloth,” wept the tailor.

  ‘‘And my chocolate,” muttered the candymaker.

  At this a man named Hyde arose and spoke. “Chocolate is bad for the stomach,” he said. “We shall still have wintergreen and peppermint. Hail to Black and Littlejack, who will liberate us all from licorice and horehound!”

  “Hyde is a lawyer,” Andreus pointed out, “and he will still have his fees and fines.”

  “And his quills and ink,” said the baker.

  “And his paper and parchment,” said the goldsmith.

  “And his chair and desk,” said the blacksmith.

  “And his signs and seals,” said the tailor.

  “And his briefs and liens,” said the candymaker.

  But the lawyer waved them all aside. “We shall all have an equal lack of opportunity,” he said smoothly. “We shall all have the same amount of nothing. There must be precious jewels, or Black and Littlejack would not have come so far to search for them. I suggest we look in nooks and corners and in pigeonholes ourselves.” Some of the men agreed with Hyde, but most of them took the poet’s side.

  “We must think of a way to save our homes,” the poet said. And they sat on the ground until the moon went down, trying to think of a way. And even as they thought, Black and Littlejack and their men were busily breaking open dolls, and yellow croquet balls, and coconuts, but all they found was what is always found in dolls, and yellow croquet balls, and coconuts.

  The next morning Andreus was walking with his poodle in a street whose cobblestones had been torn up in the search for jewels when he encountered Black and Littlejack.

  “You are both pets now,” sneered Littlejack, “for the O has gone out of poet, and out of trochee and strophe and spondee, and ode and sonnet and rondeau.”

  The poodle growled.

  “I hate poodles,” snarled Black, “for poodles have a double O.”

  “My pet is French,” said Andreus. “He is not only a chien, which is French for dog, but a caniche, which is French for poodle.”

  “Chien caniche,” squawked the parrot. “Chien caniche.”

  “Then I will get rid of the other domestic creatures with an O,” cried Black, and he issued an edict to this effect.

  There was great consternation on the island now, for people could have pigs, but no hogs or pork or bacon; sheep, but no mutton or wool; calves, but no cows. Geese were safe as long as one of them did not stray from the rest and become a goose, and if one of a family of mice wandered from the nest, he became a mouse and lost his impunity. Children lost their ponies, and farmers their colts and horses and goats and their donkeys and their oxen.

  Test cases were constantly brought to court—or curt, as it was called. “Somebody will have to clarify the law for everybody, or nobody will know where anybody stands,” the people said. So Black appointed Hyde lawyer, judge, and chief clarifier. “The more chaotic the clarification,” said Black, “the better. Remember how I hate that letter.”

  This was right up Hyde’s dark and devious alley. “Chaotic is now chatic,” he said, “a cross between chaos and static.” He decided that farmers could keep their cows if they kept them in herds, for cows in herds are kine or cattle. And so the people had milk and cheese and butter. He decided in favor of hens and eggs, if hens were segregated. “Keep them out of flocks,” he said, “for flocks are not only flocks, but also poultry.”

  “We have no corn or potatoes, or cauliflower or tomatoes,” a housewife said one day.

  “In a vegetable garden,” said Hyde, “the things that grow are ninety-five per cent without an O. I could name you twenty such,” he added cockily, “and then you’d scream in unison for broccoli. Almost all the fruits are yours to eat, from the apple to the tangerine, with a good two dozen in between. I’ll stick to those that start with P to show you what I mean: the pear, the peach, the plum, the prune, the plantain and pineapple, the pawpaw and papaya. But you will yearn for things you never ate, and cannot tolerate—I know you women—the pomegranate, for one, and the dull persimmon. No grapefruit, by the way. I hate its
bitter juice. I have banned it, under its French name, pamplemousse.”

  Another wife took the stand one day to complain of the things she hadn’t. “Cloves and cinnamon,” she said, “and marjoram and saffron.”

  “You still have dill,” said Hyde, “and thyme and sage and basil, vinegar, vanilla, and sarsaparilla, salt and pepper and paprika, ginger and the spices. You can’t have coffee, but there is tea; to sweeten it, there’s sugar.”

  A seamstress raised her hand to ask about the O’s in textiles, fabrics, and in clothes. “You’re denied a few,” admitted Hyde. “Corduroy and bombazine, organdy and tricotine, calico and crinoline. But you have silk and satin, velvet, lace and linen, tulle and twill and tweed, damask and denim, madras and muslin, felt and chintz and baize and leather, and twenty more for cool and warm and winter weather.”

  Now the boatswain of the crew was a man named Stragg and the cockswain was a man named Strugg, and the former was allergic to roses, and the latter was allergic to phlox. So Black decided that even the flowers with an O in their names were against him, and he ordered his crew to get rid of roses and phlox in the gardens of the island, and oleanders and moonflowers and morning-glories, and cosmos and coxcomb and columbine, and all the rest with O’s.

  “But my livelihood is violets and hollyhocks and marigold,” a gardener complained.

  “Lilies are nice for livelihood,” said Hyde, “and more alliterative. There are also lilacs and the like. I crossbreed certain things myself, with more success than failure. Forget-me-nots, when crossed with madwort, lose their O’s. I get a hybrid which I call regret-me-evers. Love-in-a-mist, when crossed with bleeding hearts, results in sweethearts’ quarrels.”

  “It’s blasphemy or heresy,” the women cried, “or something!”

  ‘‘You haven’t heard the half of it,” said Hyde. “Black-eyed Susans, crossed with ragged sailors, give me ragged Susans. Jack-in-the-pulpit, crossed with devil’s paintbrush, should give me devil-in-the-pulpit. And think of the fine satanic chimes that will emerge from hellebore crossed with Canterbury bells.” At this the women rose in anger and dismay and left the curt without a curtsy.

  “Why not get rid of all the flowers?” demanded Black one day. “After all, there is an O in flowers.”

  “I thought of that,” said Hyde, “but we must spare collective nouns, like food, and goods, and crops, and tools, and, I should think, the lesser schools. I have taken the carpenter’s gouge and boards. It still leaves him much too much, but that’s the way it goes, with and without O’s. He has his saw and ax and hatchet, his hammer and his chisel, his brace and bit, and plane and level, also nails and tacks and brads and screws and staples. But all he can build is bric-a-brac and knickknack, gewgaw, kickshaw, and gimcrack. No coop or goathouse, no stoop or boathouse.”

  “I would that I could banish body; then I’d get rid of everybody.” Black’s eyes gleamed like rubies. “No more anatomy, and no morphology, physiognomy, or physiology, or people, or even persons. I think about it often in the night. Body is blood and bones and other O’s, organs, torso, abdomen, and toes.”

  Hyde curled his upper lip. “I’ll build you a better man,” he said, “of firmer flesh and all complete, from hairy head to metatarsal feet, using A’s and I’s and U’s and E’s, with muscular arms and flexible knees; eyes and ears and lids and lips, neck and chest and breast and hips; liver, heart and lungs and chin, nerves and ligaments and skin; kidneys, pancreas and flanks, ankles, calves and shins and shanks; legs and lashes, ribs and spleen—” Black had turned a little green, and then Hyde held up both his hands. “Brains and veins and cells and glands—”

  “Silence!” thundered Black. “I wish that more things had an O.”

  Hyde sighed. “There is no O in everything,” he said. “We can’t change that.”

  “I will not take their vocal cords, or tongues, or throats,” said Black, “but I shall make these jewelhiders speak without the use of O in any word they say.”

  And so language and the spoken word diminished and declined as the people were forced to speak without the use of O in any word. No longer could the people say Heigh-Ho, Yoohoo, or Yo ho ho, or even plain Hello. The theater in the town was closed, for Shakespeare’s lines without an O sound flat and muffled. No one could play Othello when Othello turned to Thell, and Desdemona was strangled at the start. Some sentences became so strange they sounded like a foreign tongue. “Dius gre gling minus gress” meant “Odious ogre ogling ominous ogress,” but only scholars knew it. Spoken words became a hissing and a mumble, or a murmur and a hum. A man named Otto Ott, when asked his name, could only stutter. Ophelia Oliver repeated hers, and vanished from the haunts of men.

  “We can’t tell shot from shoot, or hot from hoot,” the blacksmith said, in secret meeting with his fellows.

  “We can’t tell rot from root, or owed from wed,” the baker said.

  “It’s even worse than that,” said Andreus, “for oft becomes the same as foot, and odd the same as dodo. Something must be done at once, or we shall never know what we are saying.” And he was right. Some people said that moles were mulls, while others called them emmels. The author of a book called Flamingo Stories read Flaming Stries aloud to his wife, and gave up writing.

  “I still hear laughter,” Black complained to Hyde one day. “After all I’ve done to them I still hear laughter.”

  “There is no O in laughter,” Hyde reminded him, “or in smile, or grin, or giggle. There is, of course, an O in chortle, but none in chuckle or in snicker.”

  “Don’t play games with me!” snarled Black. “Games,” he repeated, chewing the word as if it were candy. “Take their Yo-yos and diavolos and dominoes; throw their quoits and shuttlecocks away, and everything pertaining to croquet; shuffleboard and crokinole must go, Post Office, Pillow, and ticktacktoe. Ping-pong—”

  Hyde raised his hand in quick dissent. “Table tennis,” he said, “is played with O-less paddles, balls and net, upon an O-less table.”

  Black went on naming the names of what were now illegal games. “Let them play tiddlywinks,” said Black, “and mumblety-peg.”

  Hyde recruited a dozen men, and soon a dozen others were helping them to keep the people from playing certain games at night in cellars—leapfrog, hopscotch, and Pussy Wants a Corner.

  “We live in peril and in danger,” Andreus told the people, “and in a little time may have left few things that we can say. Already there is little we can play. I have a piece that I shall read. It indicates the quandary we’re in.” And then he read it:

  “They are swing chas. What is slid? What is left that’s slace? We are begne and webegne. Life is bring and brish. Even schling is flish. Animals in the z are less lacnic than we. Vices are filled with paths and scial intercurse is baths. Let us gird up ur lins like lins and rt the hrrr and ust the afs.”

  “What nannibickering is this?” cried the blacksmith. “What is this gibberish?”

  “English,” said Andreus, “without its O’s.” And he read the piece again with all its O’s and double O’s. Many had figured webegne was woebegone, but none could tell that begne was obegone.

  “How shall we dispel this nightmare of flishness?” demanded the baker, who could not say f for of.

  “The answer must lie,” said Andreus, “in what has been written. I suggest that we all read what we have left in libraries, searching the secret, hunting the scheme and spell that may bring an end to Black and Littlejack.”

  It was dark in the woods that night, and Andreus and his followers did not realize that Hyde listened to their plans, concealed behind a tree. He had been barred from bar and meetings by his colleagues and his countrymen. The next morning the outlawed lawyer went to Black and told what he had heard.

  “Destroy all books that might be helpful,” commanded Black, “especially those dealing with studies and sciences that have O’s in their names: geograph
y, biography, biology, psychology, philosophy, philology, astronomy, agronomy, gastronomy; trigonometry, geometry, optometry, and all the other ologies and onomies and ometries.”

  The crew set about their new task with a will, and before they were through they had torn down colleges and destroyed many a book and tome and volume, and globe and blackboard and pointer, and banished professors, assistant professors, scholars, tutors, and instructors. There was no one left to translate English into English. Babies often made as much sense as their fathers.

  There walked in beauty on the island a maiden named Andrea. In her father’s library one night, searching for the secret and the spell that might confound the vandals and in the end get rid of them, she found an ancient book of magic. The next night Andrea brought the book to the secret meeting in the woods. Andreus was fearful, for women had not been permitted to take part in the meetings. The poet was afraid that women might be banished from the island because of the O in women and in woman.

  “They would banish mothers, too,” said Andreus, forgetting to speak in words without an O.

  “A maiden is safe as a maiden,” Andrea pointed out, “and as a lass, or girl, or damsel, and as virgin and as spinster.”

  “And as a darling and a dear,” said Andreus. “But still you are a woman.”

  “I could become a bride and wife,” said Andrea. “Bride and wife are more than woman.”

  “Then you would be a matron,” said Andreus, “without the hope of tot or toddler, boy or moppet.”

  “Enough of this puppybabble and pussyfret,” the wheelwright whined. “I have no spokes for my wheels, and wheels without spokes are like words without O’s.”

 
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