The Wonderful O

“I have no tallow for my candles,” complained the candlemaker, “and candles without tallow are not candles.”

  “Be not afraid to speak with O’s,” said Andrea at last. “We cannot live or speak without hope, and hope without its O is nothing, and even nothing is less than nothing when it is nthing. Hope contains the longest O of all. We mustn’t lose it.” Thereupon she gave Andreus the book she had found in her father’s library.

  “It is called The Enchanted Castle,” said Andreus.

  “I know the book,” quavered an old man with a white beard, “and I can tell you what it says, and spare you the time and trouble of reading a book aloud that has no O’s in any word.”

  “Then tell us what it says,” cried Andreus, “for it is full of footnotes which are now called ftntes.”

  The old man cleared his throat and spoke. “Listen, my children, and you shall hear of a magical castle which will appear one month from tonight in this very year.” And he told the tale of the enchanted castle, while the others listened in silence. “There was a king upon this island once, a thousand years ago, but he was driven from his castle by such a crew of bashlocks and shatterclocks as plagues us now. They took the castle apart and down, stone by stone, searching for precious jewels or a map which were not there, or, if they were, could not be found. The king was banished from the island, but as he left he put a wondrous spell upon the ground where once the castle stood.” The old man stopped to scratch his head.

  “How runs this spell?” demanded Andreus.

  “Perhaps the maiden here remembers. My memory is no longer what it was,” the old man said.

  “Every hundred years the castle shall appear again,” Andrea said, “in semblance and in seeming, an enchanted castle, such as children see when they are dreaming.”

  “And who may enter there?” asked Andreus. “And why and wherefore?”

  Andrea raised her hands and let them fall. “The last page of the book is lost,” she said.

  “The last page of the book contained a map,” the old man murmured. “My memory isn’t what it was, but I remember that.” He stood awhile in silence, then went on. “Whoever finds the map will find a jewel in everything he opens. My memory isn’t what it was, but I remember that.”

  “Where is this map?” asked Andreus. “Can you remember that?”

  The old man thought and thought before he spoke. “It’s on a wall, I seem to recall, an old wall in the castle. Whoever finds it will find a certain jewel without which men are lost.”

  “Then we shall be first upon the scene when the castle reappears,” cried Andreus.

  The old man shook his head in gloom. “Only evil men may enter there,” he said. “So runs the royal spell. I know not why, and if I ever knew, I have forgotten.”

  “Then we are lost,” said Andreus.

  “We can’t be lost when lost has lost its O,” the old man said. “Or can we?”

  The others turned away lest they reveal the look of doom upon their faces. The old man spoke again. “I seem to hear a strange new bell, an old familiar bell, a bell I never heard before, a bell that I remember.”

  The others turned to him and stared. And in the gloom Andrea whispered, “A bell of triumph, or a knell?”

  “Time,” the old man sighed, “will tell.”

  The vandals spent the next day breaking into cupolas and cracking open cornices and cornerstones, smashing gargoyles into bits, and razing marble columns, Ionic, Doric, Gothic, and Corinthian, and everything baroque or rococo. In one cool, cloistered corridor Black himself smashed with an ax marble busts of Homer and Horace and Plato, Ovid and Omar and Cato, Diogenes and Damocles, Socrates and Hippocrates, and Demosthenes and Aristophanes. Not a single sparkle sparkled in the rubble.

  “Why don’t we open tombs?” Littlejack inquired one day. “Jewels are often hid in tombs.”

  “Tombs are in cemeteries,” Black replied. “I have come to hold a great respect for words that have no O. That is why we shall invade no shrine, or church, or chapel.”

  “Perhaps you have a certain dread of ghosts and ghouls,” said Littlejack. “They howl in O, you know, and so do goblins and hobgoblins. But spooks and phantoms have an O we cannot touch.”

  “I hate all O’s I cannot touch,” Black muttered with a shudder.

  “The alphabet has taken over,” Littlejack complained. “What was the letter of the law is now the law of the letter.”

  “Nonetheless, we search no place without an O,” said Black. “That is why I’ve left untouched the jungle and the desert and the swamp, the wilderness and wasteland. Besides, they’re full of animals with A and E and I and U in all their names: the camel and the elephant, the aardvark and the platypus, the yak, the zebra, and the gnu, the tiger and the jaguar, the panther and the puma and the lynx. I have a certain liking now for creatures of this kind.”

  “I have a certain fear of animals with O,” said Littlejack, “I know not why.”

  “I happen to know there are no animals with O,” said Black. “I’ll tell you why. There is a man named Filch among the crew.”

  “A sticky-fingered lad,” said Littlejack.

  “Whose sticky fingers found an ancient document somewhere among the ruins we have made,” said Black.

  “How goes this document?” asked Littlejack.

  Black showed his lower teeth. “It tells of how a king in olden times, whose niece was bitten by a crocodile, banished all the larger animals with O from desert, swamp, and jungle—the crocodile, the lion, and the boar, the python and the cobra and the boa, the gorilla and the gibbon and the wolf. Orangutans and baboons disappeared. The porcupine, the mongoose, and the sloth, the dingo and the leopard and the potto were driven from their tree, or cave, or grotto.”

  “The rhinoceros and the hippopotamus?” asked Littlejack.

  “Gone with the otter and the kangaroo,” said Black. “There are no creatures left with O here on this island, except a few so small they cannot plague us.” And once again that night he said, seated in the tavern, “There are no animals with O to plague us.”

  A barmaid heard his words, and when her work was done she joined the others at their secret meeting in the woods and told them all what Black had said. And at this moment Hyde appeared among them, as if from nowhere. “Your furred and finned and feathered friends with O are either gone, or quite extinct, or never were!” he cried. “The dinosaur and the brontosaurus, the mammoth and the behemoth, old ichthyosaurus and the pterodactyl, the dodo and the mastodon.” He turned to Andreus and said sarcastically, “The only other animals with O are mythical. Why don’t you call on them for help?”

  “What animals are these that never were?” the old man asked. “My memory isn’t what it was, you know. I find it very hard to think of things that haven’t been.”

  “The unicorn, the dragon, and the Minotaur,” said Hyde, “demons out of legend and of lore—the griffon and the cockatrice, the Phoenix and the Gorgon and the roe, the ogo-pogo and the monster in the Loch. And if these ten don’t make a quorum, why, call upon the cockalorum.” The moon had gone behind a cloud and the people felt cold and fearful, as if they had lost, somehow, their only allies. “The animals with A and E and I and U are on the side of Black and Littlejack,” said Hyde, “and that is all there are. Unless, of course, you count the creatures with an O one finds in fairy tales and fantasies—the tove, the mome rath, and the borogove, the whiffenpoof and wogglebug and Dong, the Pod, the Todal, and the gorm.”

  “I never heard of gorms,” the old man said, “or Todals.”

  “That’s because they never were,” said Hyde, “except in books, where they are not your friend but foe, since each of them has lost its O.” He left the group and disappeared among the trees, and they could hear his mocking laughter as he went.

  Andrea had fallen silent, but now she spoke as if reciting something: “There are four word
s with O. You musn’t lose them. Find out what they are and learn to use them.”

  “Hope is one,” said Andreus.

  “And love,” said Andrea.

  “And valor, I should think,” the old man said. And then they tried to find the fourth, naming courage, thought, and reason, devotion, work, and worship.

  “None of these is right,” said Andrea. “I’ll know it when I hear it.” And so, until the setting of the moon, they tried out words with O—imagination and religion, dedication and decision, honor, progeny, and vision. “None of these is the word,” said Andrea. “I’ll know it when I hear it.”

  “I hope,” the old man said, “we think of it in time. Perhaps the word is wisdom.”

  “An austere word,” Andrea said, “but surely not the greatest.” And they spent the rest of the night searching for the greatest, trying youth and joy and jubilation, victory and exaltation, languor, comfort, relaxation, money, fortune, non-taxation, motherhood and domesticity, and many anotherhood and icity. But Andrea shook her lovely head at every word the people said, rejecting soul and contemplation, dismissing courtship and elation, and many anothership and ation.

  “I miss the O,” the old man said, “in faith and truth and beauty. The O belongs, alas, to lost and gone, forsaken and forgotten.” The others felt forlorn at this, but still the search continued, in all the hopes and dreams of men, from action to euphoria. The old man stroked his beard and said, “Sic transit verbi gloria.”

  There still were those who spoke with O’s, and one of these was a boatwright, a man of force and gusto. “You are still my spouse and not my spuse,” he told his fearful wife, “and this is my house and not my huse, and I make boats, not bats, and I wear coats, not cats. What,” he asked his youngest son, “did you learn today in school?”

  “It’s schl,” his son replied.

  “Never hiss at me,” his father cried. “When I want aloes, I don’t want ales, I hate such names. And cameos are cameos, not cames. Yesterday I met a man who wanted four canoes—”

  “Fur canes,” his son put in.

  “Silence!” his father shouted. “What did you learn today in school?”

  “That mist is always mist, but what is mist isn’t always mist,” his son recited.

  At this his father rose up like a storm, put on his hat and cat, and stalked to where the door had been, and reached for where the knob once was.

  “Where are yu ging?” whispered his anxious wife.

  “Ut!” the boatwright cried, and ut he went.

  “What did yu say t yur father that made him leave the huse?” the mother asked her son.

  “Mist is always moist,” the boy replied in whispers, “but what is moist isn’t always mist.”

  And other odd occurrences occurred. A swain who praised his sweetheart’s thrat, and said she sang like a chir of riles or a chrus of vires, was slapped. And so it went, and some lads lost their lasses, and most men lost their tempers, and all men lost their patience, and a few men lost their minds.

  Then Black called Hyde one day in consultation. “Some of the people salute me as I pass,” he growled. “Do you know why?”

  “O-lessness is now a kind of cult in certain quarters,” Hyde observed, “a messy lessness, whose meaninglessness nonetheless attracts the few, first one or two, then three or four, then more and more. People often have respect for what they cannot comprehend, since some men cannot always tell their crosses from their blessings, their laurels from their thorns. It shows up in the games they still can play. Charades are far more work than fun, and so are Blind Man’s Buff and Hide-and-Seek, and Run, Sheep, Run. O-lessism may become the ism of the future, and men from far and wide, pilgrims on a pilgrimage, may lay their tributes on your grave.”

  Black showed his teeth and made a restless gesture. “Taking a single letter from the alphabet,” he said, “should make life simpler.”

  “I don’t see why. Take the F from life and you have lie. It’s adding a letter to simple that makes it simpler. Taking a letter from hoarder makes it harder.” With a small shrug and a little leer, Hyde turned on his heel and walked away.

  Black watched him go and scowled. “He’s much too smart,” he said aloud, “for his own good and for mine.”

  There were no clocks to mark the passing hours, for Black had smashed them all. It was October now, but no one knew what day, for Black had torn from all the calendars the months with O’s, October and November. Little enough was left upright, unbroken, or unravaged, and the town without its towers, and the countryside without its fountains and its pools, and the woods which had lost their oaks and hemlocks seemed deserted. The robins and the orioles had gone, and even the whippoorwill no longer sang. Then came the night the old man had predicted.

  Black and Littlejack were at their table in the tavern when they heard a hue and cry, and children calling. Dogs without an O, the beagles, bassets, and the spaniels, set up a mournful howling. A wondrous light filled all the sky.

  “What revelry is this?” demanded Black.

  “I know not what,” said Littlejack, “but I don’t like it.”

  “I don’t like it, I don’t like it,” squawked the parrot, and Black squcked his thrug till all he could whupple was geep.

  “Geep,” whuppled the parrot.

  Black and Littlejack strode to where the door had been, walking on earth because the floor was gone, and stared up toward the sky. An enormous castle, lighted as by the light of many moons, stood upon a hill a mile away.

  “A castle!” cried Black. He rubbed his gloves together and he gloated. “The jewels!” he cried. “The emeralds, the rubies, and the sapphires!”

  “Not so fast,” warned Littlejack.

  “Faster!” cried Black, and he hurried through the night, stumbling on the torn-up cobbles of the streets, his shining eyes upon the shining castle.

  “Not so fast,” warned Littlejack again. “I smell the smell of trickery and ruse.”

  “I smell the smell of jewels,” Black exclaimed. “I smell a map.”

  Their crew had gathered round them now with their axes and their spades and their cudgels, yelping like a pack of hungry hounds, and they all surged toward the castle, urged on by Stragg and Strugg.

  From where they stood in the shadow of a broken column, Andreus and Andrea watched them go. “This is their wildest night, and I hope it is their last,” breathed Andreus.

  “Keep saying hope,” the old man said, appearing out of nowhere, “for we shall need it.”

  “There is a footnote in the book,” said Andrea, “which I forgot to mention.”

  “How does it read?” asked Andreus.

  “That if the men who seek their heart’s desire within the castle find it not before the hour of noon tomorrow, their cause is lost.”

  “It gives them two long hours and ten, and they must have a hundred men,” said Andreus.

  “I could find a map in half that time and all alone,” the old man said, “if I were young.”

  “The map is not their heart’s desire; it is the jewels,” said Andrea. “And there is something in the book about a vast frustrating forest.”

  “How goes that part?” asked Andreus.

  “It was written all in O, or nearly so, and all the O’s are gone,” said Andrea. “When coat is cat, and boat is bat, and goatherd looks like gathered, and booth is both, since both are bth, the reader’s eye is bothered.”

  “And power is pwer, and zero zer, and, worst of all, a hero’s her.” The old man sighed as he said it.

  “Anon is ann, and moan is man.” Andrea smiled as she said it.

  “And shoe,” Andreus said, “is she.”

  “Ah, woe,” the old man said, “is we.”

  Black and Littlejack and Stragg and Strugg and all their men scattered through the castle like a band of mad baboons, and their shouti
ng and their clamor shook the shields upon the walls. “Find the jewels or the map!” cried Black and Littlejack. “Find the jewels or the map!” shouted Stragg and Strugg and all their men. And they used their axes and their cudgels on every lock and every door, breaking into cupboards, cracking open closets, prying off the lids of boxes, smashing clocks with spades. The hours went on and the clangor rose. Everything that had an O was opened, ransacked, and pulled apart—sofas, and couches, and ottomans, things made of onyx and ormolu, ivory and ebony, gold and chalcedony, crocks and bowls, pillows and cushions and footstools, and even flagons and goblets. The men drank wine from bottles, white and red and rosé, and then they smashed the bottles. Boards were taken up, and marble floors, but no jewels came to light, or any map, no glow or gleam or glitter, no sight of parchment.

  The moon went down; the sun began to climb the heavens. The clamor and the clangor ceased. Everything that could be broken had been broken. Glass and splinters, bits and fragments lay upon the floors, or where the floors had been. Then the wild-eyed Black raised his clenched gloves toward the sky and in that moment saw the map. It hung upon a wall, the only one left standing.

  “I have not seen this wall before,” cried Black.

  “It was not here a moment since,” cried Littlejack. “I’d lay to that.”

  They took the map down from the wall and spread it on a plank and bent above it, and in the end deciphered all its marks and crosses.

  “The treasure lies five thousand feet from where this skull is grinning,” shouted Black. “We come first to a stricken oak and count off fifty paces.”

  “Nor’, nor’east,” cried Littlejack.

  “The jewels are ours,” Black gloated. “We’re princes!”

  “Kings!” bawled Littlejack. And Stragg and Strugg and all their men echoed “Kings!” But there was no echo to their echo, for all the walls were gone. They saw before them now a dark and gloomy forest, stretching on and on, and on and farther.

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