The Wonderful O
“Spades!” commanded Black. “And follow me!” Then each man seized his spade and followed Black and Littlejack and Stragg and Strugg into the dark and gloomy forest.
“How goes the day?” cried Black.
“It lacks two hours of noon,” said Littlejack.
“I hate the sound of noon,” said Black. “I know not why.”
“Perhaps because it has two O’s,” said Stragg.
“Perhaps because the day grows hot,” said Strugg.
“And treasure should be dug up in the night,” said Littlejack.
“Silence,” thundered Black, “and follow me. The weather here is strange. I hate this weather.”
“Why is it so hard,” asked Littlejack, “to stay together?” And even as he spoke he found himself alone. He called and got no answer.
“This way,” cried Black, “and all men follow me. I feel the jewels burning in my hands. I have the map and a compass. Find the stricken oak!” His voice ended in a gurgle and a croak. And then his eyes grew wide with fear, his fingers trembled, for he stood all alone, like all the others. The going underfoot was slow and oozy, for burrowing moles had devoured the roots and softened the soil.
“There are no outlets and no openings,” cried Black. “It’s soggy and it’s boggy.”
A million moths hovered above his shoulders and countless chameleons changed color on gloomy growths. Glowworms glowed around and about, and Black could not make out where he was going. Then came the butterflies. “Butterflies do not have O’s,” cried Black, but he was wrong. The monarchs and the morning cloaks, the clouded yellows, and all their colleagues and their fellows made up the throng. The sun went out and it seemed night again.
“What is this woeful wood?” Black whimpered, and no one answered.
“What is this woeful wood?” croaked Littlejack, lost and all alone in another part of the forest. The dark was deep as midnight all around. “Whence comes this humming and this buzzing?” wailed Littlejack. And then he saw the source of the ominous sounds: locusts and hornets and dragonflies, yellowjackets and honeybees. They came in clouds and hosts and squadrons. “Black never thought of little things,” mourned Littlejack, “when he was issuing edicts.” He groped his way slowly into an outlandish grove, but there his way was clogged by a growth of toadstools and mushrooms and monkshood and bloodroot, foxglove, wolfbane and aconite, orchids and opium poppies, and the roots of mandragora. Spanish moss drooped down and Spanish bayonets shot up. “What are these woeful worts?” muttered Littlejack, now up to his ankles and his knees in worts: bloodwort, dragonwort, goutwort, hogwort, holewort, hoodwort, lousewort, moonwort, moorwort, scorpionwort, throatwort, toothwort, and woundwort.
“What woeful wood is this?” squealed Hyde, lost and all alone in another part of the forest. Odd lights blinded him with their glow and glare and glitter: St. Elmo’s fire and foxfire, will-o’-the-wisp and phosphorus, and the aurora borealis. “These are the lights of night, and not of day,” moaned Hyde, “and yet I thought I saw the dawn a few hours since.” He stared up at the sky, seeking the sun, and the cold O of Canopus stared down at him. The Southern Cross seemed to point its stars at him like fingers, comets and meteors flared like flaming arrows, and Virgo blazed, Capricorn, and Scorpio, the Major Dogstar and the Minor, and so many others, Hyde lost count of stars and constellations.
Then the lights went out and darkness reigned once more, and in the darkness came a show of fireworks: rockets dropping colorful balloons, Roman candles, flowerpots, and golden showers, and silver fountains. And now there were owls and crows, loons and woodcocks, herons and flamingos, cormorants and condors, and one albatross with an arrow from a crossbow in its feathers, swooping and stooping about his head like bombers. He stumbled on, plagued by a scourge of mosquitoes, microbes, and microorganisms, through sycamore and hemlock, cottonwood and hickory, black and honey locust, oak and giant redwood, and underfoot, frogs and toads in woad hindered and hampered and harassed his going. “Incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial,” he murmured, and all the other lawyer talk that lawyers talk in triplicate. Suddenly a swoop of swans attacked him. “Objection!” Hyde implored. “Swans have no O’s.” Then he recalled the cob and cos, or male and female swan. “Confusion on creatures without an O that have an O in their alias,” shouted Hyde, and even as he spoke a lynx was snarling at his feet. “The bobcat,” whimpered Hyde. A puma showed its gleaming fangs. “The mountain lion,” quavered Hyde. “But here’s a camel! I can ride!”
“I am the dromedary,” the camel said, or seemed to say, and then it closed one eye, and opened it, and went away.
“Imponderable, impalpable, and improbable,” shouted Hyde. A nightingale beat its wings before his eyes. “Je suis le rossignol,” it sang.
“Impossible,” raved Hyde, “irreverent and unfair.”
Three bears transpired, in legal lingo, which means they happened, took place, and occurred. “Les ours, in French!” Hyde screamed. “Moreover, furthermore, and too: the cinnamon, the polar, and the brown.” He took four wobbly hops and toppled and fell down.
All of a sudden the way grew clearer for Black in his dark part of the forest, and the sun shone bright. The earth beneath his feet seemed firmer. The threatening trees had disappeared except for one, all that was left of a stricken oak, standing in a clearing. And then he saw the long gaunt form of Littlejack, and Stragg and Strugg, and all their men, gathered about a certain spot and pointing with their spades, bitten and stung, and ruffled and rumpled, but screaming in glee and delight.
“This is the place!” cried Littlejack.
“Dig,” croaked Black. And the men were about to dig with their spades, but their hands were stayed as they raised them by an ominous clamor and clangor, a snow of arrows and a sound of armor. Many figures of men loomed up, afoot or on horses, and they rode and ran among the crew, and the crew let drop their spades.
“These are but figures of fantasy,” cried Black. “These men have no blood in their veins.”
“Dig,” bawled Littlejack, but no man dug. They stood as if rooted in the ground and gazed at the apparitions.
“Ink runs in their veins, immortal ink, the ink of song and story.” It was the voice of Andreus.
“Ink can be destroyed,” cried Black, “and men who are made of ink. Name me their names!”
They came so swiftly from the skies Andreus couldn’t name them all, streaming out of lore and legend, streaming out of song and story, each phantom flaunting like a flag his own especial glory: Lancelot and Ivanhoe, Athos, Porthos, Cyrano, Roland, Rob Roy, Romeo; Donalbane of Birnam Wood, Robinson Crusoe and Robin Hood; the moody Doones of Lorna Doone, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone; out of near and ancient tomes, Banquo’s ghost and Sherlock Holmes; Lochinvar, Lothario, Horatius, and Horatio; and there were other figures, too, darker, coming from the blue, Shakespeare’s Shylock, Billy Bones, Quasimodo, Conrad’s Jones, Ichabod and Captain Hook—names enough to fill a book.
“These wearers of the O, methinks, are indestructible,” wailed Littlejack.
“Books can be burned,” croaked Black.
“They have a way of rising out of ashes,” said Andreus.
“I have a woeful feeling, as if the double O of doom were sticking in my throat.” Black’s voice, though choked, grew brighter. “The phantoms pass,” he cried. “Take up your spades!” But as if this were a signal or sign, the air was filled with sudden laughter, and other figures began circling above and about the vandals like laughing Indians riding ponies, led by Mother Goose astride a broom.
“Who are these spawn of nightmare or of fever?” demanded Black.
This time it was Andrea’s voice that answered him: “Little Jack Horner come out of his corner, Tommy Trout and the cat he pulled out, poor Cock Robin and Bessy Brooks, Simple Simon and Tommy Snooks, Dr. Foster come home from Gloucester, Little Boy Blue and King Cole, too, and a certain old
“These are but shadows,” quavered Black. “I ripped the O from heroes and from fools!”
“But not from love,” said Andrea, “or from affection, and not from memory or recollection.”
“Pick up your spades!” ordered Black, laughing so his men would laugh, but no one laughed. Then other shadows rode like thunder from the skies: the Argonauts and Myrmidons and Amazons, Adonis and Endymion, Apollo and Hyperion, and high above them, flying faster, Pollux and his brother Castor, burning like a flame in spars, lighting up the sky like stars.
Then came the great O giants: Cormoran and Blunderbore, Goliath and a hundred more, the Cyclops, hurling peaks at Noman, and even the Abominable Himalayan Snowman.
The men were prostrate now upon the ground, and all their eyes were closed against the visions from the sky.
“Dig,” croaked Black, “or I shall slay you!” He drew his pistol from his belt, and Littlejack his cutlass. Fearing death far more than apparition, the men began to dig, and as they dug, a clock began to strike, an unseen clock. The earth was suddenly hard and cold, and the blades of spades were bent and broken. “You’ve struck a chest,” cried Black, “an ironbound chest and oaken.” But what the men had struck was carbonate and carborundum, conglomerate or puddingstone, and something known as oölite or dogger. The clock continued striking. “I destroyed all clocks,” cried Black.
“All clocks save one,” said Andreus, “the clock that strikes in conscience.” The deep tones of the clock went on until the clock had struck eleven. And on this stroke a curious phenomenon occurred. Upon the ground, and all around, appeared a score of objects, each one different from the others.
“Containers!” Black’s voice was hollow. “I should have destroyed containers, and the things contained therein. A curse on Hyde and his collective nouns!”
“What is in these things I do not know, but not a single one of them contains an O.” Littlejack’s voice was bleak as he gazed at the odd collection: a chest, a trunk, a valise, and all sorts of cases, a barrel, a bag, and a bin, and all sorts of vases.
“A sack, a bucket, and a basket,” cried Black, “a crate, an urn, and even a casket.” His eyes grew dark and then they lit with a fiendish lightning. “The jewels!” he cried. “The precious stones!”
And Black and Littlejack, and Stragg and Strugg and all their men began opening the O-less containers, and in each one they found a single sheet of paper. And on each sheet a single word appeared, that gleamed and glowed and glittered. The clock struck twelve.
“It’s noon,” cried Black, and all the people echoed, “Noon!”
Then they heard the ringing of a distant bell, sounding near and sounding nearer, ringing clear and ringing clearer, till all the sky was filled with music as by magic.
“Freedom!” Andreus cried, naming the gleaming word the men had found, the word that glowed and glittered.
“Freedom!” Andrea echoed after him, and the sound of the greatest word turned the vandals pale and made them tremble.
“I knew the word could not be doom,” the old man said, “or sorrow. I was afraid that it might be tomorrow.”
And then, as by a miracle of motion, the vandals stood upon the shore, and all the people of the island stood about them.
“Your hour has struck,” said Andreus. “Here is your ship. Begone.”
“The gangway and the decks are oozy with oysters!” cried Black, “and Portuguese men-of-war, and lobsters and an octopus. And swordfish are sawing something below the waterline, urged on by a horrid school of chortling porpoises!”
Hyde was suddenly up to his ankles in phantasmagoria. “Crabs, crayfish, prawns, shrimps,” he howled, “alias the decapods. Centipedes and spiders, alias the arthropods. Snails and slugs, alias mollusks and gastropods.” He thought he saw crickets, too, alias orthoptera, and a score of zooming bats, alias chiroptera. He turned and ran, pursued by rodents small and big, the rat, the rabbit, and the guinea pig.
The unseen clock struck one. “The mouse is running down the clock. I see him run,” said Littlejack. And all the crew saw things that weren’t there as they clambered aboard the ship and set her gloomy sails, and headed slowly out to sea. And then, beyond the far horizon, the great O storms began to rage and roar, the hurricanes,* the typhoon and the monsoon, the cyclone and tornado, and there were cloudbursts and waterspouts and fog and snow, and whirlpools and maelstroms, and other odd phenomena, each with its O. The night came on and in the light of lightning there were those on shore who saw, or thought they saw, the head of the giant Orion rising out of the sea. And there were those on shore who saw, or thought they saw, the vengeful ships of the great explorers: Columbus, De Soto, Cortez and Balboa, and all of the others since Jason and since Noah.
No word was ever heard of Black or Littlejack again, or Stragg or Strugg, or any of their men. A broken spar was washed upon the shore one day, and one black glove, but that was all. The outlawed lawyer Hyde, looking for a loophole in the law through which he might escape, was caught in one whose O’s collapsed and buried him beneath its wreckage. And as he fell he heard another O, sounded by an old owl in a mossy oak, a little like an oboe obbligato.
Working with valor and love and hope, the islanders put the O back in everything that had lost it. The name of Goldilocks regained its laughter, and there were locks for keys, and shoes were no longer shes. A certain couple once more played their fond duets on mandolin and glockenspiel. Ophelia Oliver, who had vanished from the haunts of men, returned, wearing both her O’s again. Otto Ott could say his name without a stammer, and dignity returned to human speech and English grammar. Once more a man could say boo to a goose, and tell the difference between to lose and too loose. Every family had again a roof and floor, and the head of the house could say in English, as before: “Someone open (or close) the door.” Towers rose up again and fountains sparkled. In the spring the robin and the oriole returned. The crows were loud in caucus, and the whippoorwill sang once again at night. The wounds that Black and Littlejack had made were healed by morning-glories, columbine, and clover, and a spreading comforter of crocuses. One April morning, Andreus and Andrea were wed.
“It could have been worse,” the old man said, riding back home from the wedding. “They might have taken A. Then we would have had no marriage, or even carriage, or any walks to walk on.” He wiped a tear from his eye. He was worrying about the loss of I, if I had been forbidden, when he came upon the lovers in a garden. “What would have happened,” he asked them both, “without indivisibility?”
“Or, for the matter of that,” said Andreus, “invincible?”
“Invincible,” the old man said, “is a matter of O.”
“What O?” asked Andreus and Andrea together.
“The O, lest we forget,” the old man said, “in freedom.”
Suddenly their thoughtful silence was changed to laughter. “Squck his thrug,” they heard the parrot squawking.
“He must have missed the ship,” said Andrea.
“And now he has the freedom of screech,” said Andreus.
And they took the green parrot in to their cottage, and in the end he was squawking, “Watch the sea!” And whenever they heard this warning and alarm, the islanders sprang to their ramparts and their towers, and scanned the sea for sinister ships with sinister sails.
Many years went by, and then one day a very old man with a long white beard stood at the base of a towering shaft of marble, surmounted, high up in the sky, with a single letter of the alphabet that glowed and gleamed and glittered in every light and weather.
“What a strange statue,” a little boy cried. “A statue to a circle.”
“What a strange monument,” a little girl laughed. “A monument to zero.”
The old man sighed and scratched his head, and thought and thought, and then he said, “It has a curious and wondrous history.
“Was it a battle? And did we win?” the children cried.
The old man shook his head and sighed, “I’m not as young as I used to be, and the years gone by are a mystery, but ’twas a famous victory.”
The sun went down, and its golden glow lighted with fire the wonderful O.
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* Connie, Dorothy and Flora, Imogene and Josephine and Nora.
James Thurber, The Wonderful O