I wrote this story in my sophomore year of college, just for fun. I had no idea where it would lead, but a curious thing I noticed about it when it was done is that it starts out ridiculous and woolly, and gets gradually more serious and slow-paced and it goes along. I seem to have a penchant for doing that--taking absurd starting points and making them respectable. I see the same thing happen in a lot of webcomics. The strangest ideas can turn out to be salvageable.
Once upon a time, there was a wizard called Penicillin,
who was fighting the good battle against another wizard who was also named Penicillin,
but on account of being six years younger was officially known as Penicillin
the Lesser by the Wizards’ Council. Now, Penicillin the Greater was known
as the Red Wizard because he had once been a communist, but now favored a more
transcendentalist view of life, and therefore resented the label fervently.
The younger Penicillin was known as the Lungfish Wizard because he liked lungfish
a lot. He also resented his label but tolerated it so that he didn’t come
off as curmudgeonly to his admirers. Anyway, Penicillin the Greater threw
a spool of thread at Penicillin the Lesser, who ducked and threw back an eggplant.
Penicillin the Greater ate the eggplant without using his teeth and cast up
a great raging wall of flame. Penicillin the Lesser countered by conjuring
up a fierce and loathsome beast made entirely out of Spam, which leapt through
the flame and besought the elder wizard. However, Penicillin the Greater
teleported himself to a spot behind his nemesis, whereupon he took into his
agile hands a pair of drumsticks, and made a tom-tom of the other’s crown with
blinding motions. Penicillin the Lesser in his surprise tumbled backwards
and slipped on the spool of thread his enemy had inexplicably hurled earlier,
thus revealing the dire purpose which had been contained therein, and flinging
his body into the bulk of the fire. Before he was consumed, however, he
summoned an anvil from the midst of chaos, which fell directly on the Red Wizard’s
drumsticks, cracking them. A great volley of splinters was sent flying
back into the wizard’s face, causing him to tumble out the window into a Great
Sea of Boiling Mustard which had been commissioned for the holidays and wouldn’t
have been there except for an oversight. And so it was that both wizards
Alone in the smoldering room, dark and isolated in the abandoned factory, the Spam monster raised its head and peeped around. It was terrified and confused. It had no memory and no perceptible instinct but to destroy the Red Wizard, which had been done. Its life seemed to have no further purpose.
It left the building and went searching for a life in the wide countryside beyond the Boiling Sea. Soon it came upon a group of children playing jacks. One of them bounced a rubber ball and picked up fourteen of the jacks, linking them with a flick of the wrist into a grand and majestic arch of metal interweave, not unlike the great bridges made by carpenter ants or the lattices of a well-known radio tower the children still tell stories about. He slung the mammoth chain behind his back and jumped it as a rope fifty times, and then reenacted a bawdy chariot race, using the chain of jacks as a terrible whip. Dropping the chain, he then reached out to catch the rubber ball, only to find that the Spam monster had seized it out of midair. “Please, sir,” she pled, having decided in the interim to assume a feminine identity, “don’t harm that ball any more. It’s done its duty to you.”
“Who are you?” asked the children all at once.
“I don’t know. I haven’t got a name,” said the Spam monster.
“Then I shall call you Dinah,” said the curious one, “and you shall be mine forevermore. Oh, the times we shall have!”
“But you can’t keep me as your own,” she said. “I’m a monster.”
“Is that a challenge?” asked the curious boy. “I’m Harold, in case you’re wondering, and I have quite an appetite. It would be a shame for you to end up on a toasted biscuit, now wouldn't it?”
Dinah could hardly help but agree, and so she served the boy Harold as a slave for seventeen years, at which point he went off to take over the family business in the city, and Dinah was left to oversee the domestic servants. They suggested that they celebrate by having a picnic, and that Dinah should serve herself as the main course, but Dinah was not partial to this idea, and so she fired all the servants and was left as the sole caretaker of an oppressively large estate, with the responsibility to have it cleaned whenever the boy or any member of his family should happen to return. She despaired, as the task was next to impossible to complete on her own. She therefore decided to live in the house as long as she could, until one of the family came to use it and found it in shambles, whereupon she would undoubtedly be dismissed.
As she had acquired a rather adept mind for science in the seventeen years of her service, she spent her days in the laboratory, studying her own body and trying to figure out how such a homogeneous construct as herself was able to live. It seemed a complete mystery, as no trace of chemical activity could be found. She also researched the Lungfish Wizard by whom she had been spawned, but came no closer to understanding her own identity in the process.
After a few weeks had passed, the neighborhood action groups began to visit
Dinah. She always contributed to their causes from the household treasury,
and on an invitation from one of the nicer solicitors she decided one afternoon
to visit the local park. The group was protesting the disease of dysentery
by playing music and selling balloons, and Dinah bought a balloon and had a
delightful conversation with one of the members, a quietly enthusiastic botanist
in his late thirties named Raúl, and was just about to relax and enjoy
the band when a Representative of Dysentery showed up and demanded a public
debate with the leader of the group, a nice, generally sedentary but ambitious
woman named Theresa, who promptly accepted. The platforms were prepared,
and before long the Representative of Dysentery was making his opening speech,
a long, boorish piece about the importance of including abdominal pain and bloody,
mucousy feces as a part of the common culture. His points were easily
and casually rebuffed by Theresa, however, and it was not long at all before
the crowd had booed him down and was calling for vengeance.
“What will we do to him?” Raúl asked. “Hanging him would be too sweet.”
“Well, we’ve got a monster with us today, haven’t we?”
“Hey, yeah! Why not let Dinah eat him?”
“Dinah? Want to do your part and help the group out?”
Dinah looked dubious. “I’d love to pitch in, but I’ve never eaten anything before,” she said.
“You haven’t?” Theresa exclaimed. “But how do you survive?”
Dinah shrugged. “I get along.”
“Well, what better time to start than now? Go and devour the man.”
The Dysentery Representative was struggling madly to escape the clutches of the action group, and when he saw Dinah reservedly approaching, he went into hysterics. Dinah frowned and looked at her friends. “I don’t really feel like eating this man,” she said. “I don’t think I could stomach him, even if I wanted to.”
The action group was disappointed, but tried to hide it so that they would not offend their new affiliate. “That’s all right, Dinah,” said Raúl. “We still love you.” But Dinah had a sour taste in her mouth, which was odd since she had never eaten anything sour.
Dinah went home feeling rather down. Unable to confront her anxiety directly, she immersed herself in her work, and by the end of the week she had created the perfect mousetrap, which was all the more perfect since in her neglect she had let the mansion become infested with mice. While some mousetraps exacted a steep price from their quarries, that of life itself, others professed to be more humane, whatever that might mean, and to this measure spared the lives of the mice they trapped. Dinah’s contraption took a different approach; rather than simply kill or entrap the mouse that seized its bait, her machine was designed to put the creature through a complex and medically thorough set of enhancement procedures acting on a drugged piece of graham cracker which would eventually result in the mouse’s development of sophisticated speech faculties and an evolved social conscience. Dinah heard a noise in the middle of the night, and when she reached the parlour, she discovered that her creation had worked.
“Sakes ‘a mighty!” babbled the mouse as it sprang from chair to chair, a small creature furred unfortunately in a muddy gray-brown coat. “And what unmerciful god created thee? What a beastly countenance, if you don’t mind my saying so, a truly idiosyncratic aberrance! Well, hast thee any answers?”
“My name is Dinah,” interrupted the monster, “and you would do well to treat me with a little more respect. I’m perfectly aware of my odd metabolic state, thank you, and I might add that if it weren’t for me, you’d still be an ordinary mouse—insensible to the higher pleasures of life.”
The mouse stared at her, poised on an armrest. “And that’s supposed to be a favor you’ve done me, then? You’ve done me the kindness of delivering me from my natural place in things, alienating me from my family and community, and all I had that was dear, and you want me to show you a little respect on account of it? I’d advise you to think twice the next time you go doing someone a favor! What kind of rank matter are you made from, anyway?”
Dinah sat down patiently on the staircase. “Ham and shoulder pork,” she answered. “The flesh of pigs . . . with a little salt and a little nitrate, for coloring.”
The mouse’s stare became poisoned.
“Well, don’t stare at me like that. I didn’t choose to be made of Spam. And I realize you must be going through a rather shocking period, but believe me, the new possibilities I’ve opened up for you are worthwhile. You just have to give yourself some time to look around . . . talk to people. Social intercourse can be quite satisfying.”
The mouse began to mutter. “I’m the victim of a classic abuse chain. Some bizarre force draws a creature into existence out of ground-up tendons and pink chemicals, and naturally, she decides her only fitting sort of child is another freak of nature with no roots. Alas!”
“I don’t contain any more than ten percent ground tendons,” objected Dinah crossly. “And I resent what you’re trying to say. I didn’t create you out of nothingness, like I was created. I don’t bear the responsibility for your existence. I just tried to give you a gift, to make what you had better. I live all by myself in this huge mansion—can you blame me for wanting a companion?”
“No one can blame another for wanting,” answered the mouse, “but to simply take what you want, without asking first, now that’s a recipe for contempt. How am I supposed to face my brothers and sisters again, now that I’m the way I am? We’ll never see face to face again, I’m near convinced.”
Dinah came across the room and bowed her head. “I’m sorry for acting impulsively,” she said. “Won’t you forgive me? I’ve grown so lonely these past few weeks, never knowing whether my master Harold or his kin will come home tomorrow and find the house a wreck, never knowing how much longer I have before I’m cast penniless out into the world. Won’t you comfort me, even if I’ve done you wrong?”
“Well, I won’t fluff your pillows. You’ve made a mess of your life, it seems, which is hardly surprising. What relation exactly do you have with this Harold chap?”
So Dinah told the story of her service to Harold; of laboring for ceaseless hours in order to anticipate his every whim; of growing ever closer to penetrating his secret dreams, and yet always remaining distant from their source; of rising slowly through the ranks until the bright morning she was finally appointed majordomo; and by the time she was finished, the mouse had somehow managed to brew some tea, and the two sat beside the fireplace talking about the situation. Dinah was never able to soften the mouse’s heart, but she did win its sympathies, and in time they came to see eye to eye on the issues surrounding their own actualization, and were not the worst of companions.
Some few weeks later, Dinah had Raúl over as a guest. She was
showing him the laboratory, and the two were discussing botany when a telegram
arrived. “LOST BUSINESS. FORTUNE DOWN DRAIN. RETURNING FRIDAY.
Dinah nearly went pale. “It’s over,” she moaned. “My days of provision are over, and I’ll be cast out, left to fend for myself! What am I to do, Raúl?”
“You could join our fight against hideous diseases,” suggested the botanist. “We could always use another vigilant monster in our ranks to devour the unfaithful.”
“But I don’t eat, Raúl,” she reminded him.
“Oh, that’s right. Well, if you don’t eat, that makes things a peck easier on you, doesn’t it? All you have to do is find a place to sleep at night.”
“I don’t sleep either,” she said.
“You don’t? Well then, Dinah, what’s the problem? You can do what you want to do, go where you want to go! What does it matter if you don’t have a position anymore?”
“Oh, Raúl,” she said, and fell in the general direction of his arms. “A position’s all that I ever had. I know I don’t need it to survive, but I do need something to convince myself that I’m earning my time on this planet! Those who scrape by from meal to meal can at least take pride in the scraping! What am I to do?”
“There, there,” said Raúl, who was rather overwhelmed by trying to hold and comfort his friend. He tried to arrange her arms so that they were over his shoulders, but Dinah’s anatomy was confusing, and when he found he had hold of her lower jaw instead, he gave it up and set her upright once more, or as close to it as she normally came. “Pull yourself together, Dinah! You’re a very worthy creature and a good friend, and I’m sure you could find a post in any scientific laboratory in the country. Show them that mouse you worked on. I guarantee they’ll be impressed.”
“They’d probably decide to dissect me instead.”
“Oh, come now. You could put a non-dissection clause in the contract. Don’t be so diffident. You’ve become too attached to this mansion. If you wanted to, I’d wager you could even get a job in my botany laboratory.”
“But I don’t know anything about plants!”
“I daresay it won’t matter. The scope of our projects is wide, and I’m sure your knowledge would end up helping us out. Do consider it, Dinah.”
Dinah agreed to keep her options open. She saw him out soon after with a hug, and that night she traversed the halls idly, putting things slowly in their places, dusting where she could, but she knew all the while that the house was far too large and sullied to be put right in a single week. She began humming to herself, perhaps hoping that the rhythm of the composition would lead her spirit onward to conquer her next vocation, whatever it might turn out to be.
“Match of rummy?” asked the mouse, popping out of a nearby fault in the baseboards. “I think it’d do you good.”
“I can’t, Eekweek,” she replied, Eekweek being the mouse’s name. “Useless though it may be, I’ve got to do what I can for the abode. Master Harold’s coming home Friday.”
“Oh, the Master’s coming, is he? And as usual, the mere thought of judgment on how you’ve spent the spring sends you into a daze. Dinah, why don’t you just tell the man why you had to send the servants away and be done with it? I’m sure he can’t blame you for preserving your own life.”
“You don’t know Master Harold,” Dinah replied. “He’ll have wanted me to send word as soon as I’d fired the others, he’ll have wanted me to find replacements. He’ll have no sympathy for me.”
The mouse sat up, looking thoughtful. “Call me inconsiderate, but the more I hear of this Harold, the more I look forward to meeting him,” it said. “I’ve been looking through his records. His father made quite a fortune in the jack industry, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” said Dinah, “but Harold seems to have lost it. He always had a hand for jacks, but I suppose a mind for business is another matter entirely.”
“Even so, he knows when a servant’s shirked, now doesn’t he? So go ahead and take what’s spooned out to you, Dinah. Do yourself proud. But don’t waste your time tidying up what’s not meant to be tidied. Have a heart for those who are here at the present moment and deal out a hand of rummy instead.”
So Dinah whiled away the remainder of the week in idle sport with the mouse,
and when Friday came, she felt so liberated that she rather capriciously left
Eekweek to answer the bell and went on a vacation in the countryside.
Her path took her over a tall hill bedecked with jumbled bushes and shrubs which,
though disorderly, were pleasing to pass through, and on to a town on the open
plain, where a dance was being held for all the eligible young folk. Dinah
sat near the pavilion and watched the dance, enjoying the energy in the air
and comparing the musicians to the ones she knew who played for the local action
groups. Before long, an exuberant young man in tasteful suede presented
himself and asked Dinah to dance. “No special experience required,” he
“You want to dance with me? A monster made out of Spam?”
“It ain’t no use bein’ picky in the springtime, ma’am. And I haven’t got nothin’ against canned food, unlike to some of my kinfolk.”
“Well,” laughed Dinah, taking the young man’s hand, “I’m certainly touched by your compassion. But I’m not at all sure I can dance.”
The young stranger shrugged, and with a flip of his limber arms he extended the shrug into a wild twirl, in which he and the monster effortlessly changed places across the length of the pavilion and into the field, laughing like pinwheels all the way. Dinah, who had no proper legs, but rather a set of sliding treads of diverse sizes juxtaposed over the posterior of her body, which she utilized in varying patterns of alternation to achieve locomotion, was able to raise and lower herself in ways she had never before attempted, and felt no misgiving at taking the young stranger for a ride.
When the music was over, the young man found his balance with a chuckle, headed for the edge of the pavilion, and sat with Dinah away from the stares of his comrades, where he complimented her on her dancework. “Mighty saucy for a first try. Mind if I ask your name?”
“I’m Halbert. Pleased to meet you, Dinah, honest I am. I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward here, but you’ve gotta understand, I have an interest in folk like you. My old man, bless his soul, when he was alive and kicking he made monsters for a living!”
“Oh? Was he a bioengineer?”
Halbert shook his head dismissively. “Naw. Wizard. He died before I made it to eight years, but even before then his work took up most of his attention. Between conjuring and lungfish, he hardly could scrape himself together any time to raise me!” And the young man laughed. “So I got brought up, practically speaking, by my grandparents. Nice old folks, they taught me proud.”
Dinah was left gaping in astonishment. She glanced at the roof of the pavilion, suddenly amazed at her surroundings, and looked back at Halbert. “The son of the Lungfish Wizard,” she spoke, half inwardly. “You live here.”
“You knew my pop, then! Well, black my boots and color me purple, it certainly is a blessed small world, ain’t it? Did you know him personal or just by reputation, Dinah?”
“I was created by his hand,” said Dinah softly. “He drew me into existence just before his death.”
Halbert was left frowning without an answer for just a second, but his smile flew right back and he threw out his hand for a handshake. “Is that so? Wouldn’t you know it, I’ve been dancing with my sister! Mighty pleased to make your acquaintance, Dinah, and I must say it’s a right pity you never got to know the old man better. He could be a real ghoul in the middle of a battle, but talk to him when he wasn’t busy, and he’d keep you riveted all the evening. He could sure tell a story, my pop could.”
Dinah shifted politely and accepted the handshake as well as she could. “Well, to tell the truth, it was over so quickly I didn’t even get a chance to say hello. He was burned to death.”
Halbert’s face darkened and his eye acquired a twinkle of a tear. “Burned, you say? He must’ve been burnt well nigh to a crisp, I guess . . . that must’ve been why there was nothing left to find. Poor old pop.”
“You have my sympathies, Halbert. I expect living as a wizard’s son must have been a trial, and you appear to have come through it about as well as one might hope for.”
“A trial? Well, yes, at times. Other times it was magical, no better word to describe it.” Wiping his eyes on his shirt-sleeve, he peered up at Dinah and confessed, “I don’t really feel like dancing any more, Dinah. Can you imagine that?”
“I understand,” said Dinah.
“Would you like to stop off at my home awhile? It’s brand new—that is, brand new for me. The old house’s been standing awhile . . . but I just moved in a few weeks ago. My folks and I all agreed it was about time I got myself married, and what better attraction for a prospective wife than a bright empty house? Even if it ain’t so bright as all that.”
“And you were hoping to find a wife at this dance?”
Halbert shrugged. “Here or there, I’ve got to find one eventually.” With a blink he hopped up to his feet and forced a smile onto his face. “But I don’t have to worry about it all the time. I mean, here I’ve just found a sister I never knew I had! Want to visit and get to know each other better?”
Dinah scooted forward with enthusiasm. “I would love it!” she exclaimed.
Halbert turned out to live within a mile of the pavilion, and so he and Dinah arrived without the aid of mount or vehicle within the half-hour. Dinah explained that she had done a bit of research on Penicillin the Lesser, but that it had not illuminated her existence much, and therefore that she was overjoyed to have found a close relation to the man. Halbert understood her difficulty, but professed to be unable to shed much light on her inner nature, as he lacked proficiency in the arts of magic. “But if you haven’t figured it out in seventeen years,” he added, “there may be no hope for you. Or contrawise, could be you’ve got it all figured out already.” And he poked her playfully in the shoulder.
They arrived at the house, which was cozy both within and without. It consisted of a single story and was furnished with a single bedroom, but the furnishings were tastefully plain and caught the sunlight well. Halbert sat down on a vinyl sofa and patted the spot beside him, but Dinah elected to remain upright. She took pleasure in examining a set of glass vials on the sideboard, each of which contained a crystalline substance of a different hue and texture.
“What are these, Halbert?”
“Those are something they found in my dad’s lab. He was keeping ‘em in a real central place, so they seemed pretty important, but no one knows just what the things are. You have any clue?”
“No . . . but I wish I had. Halbert, there’s a laboratory in the mansion I live in. I could test these substances to see what they are. Shall I take them?”
“Yep, you can go ahead and take them, and if you’re willing, you can take me too! I’ve always wanted to see a mansion up close.”
“Well . . .” Dinah turned to face Halbert reluctantly. “I’m afraid that my master might be home. He sent word he’d be back today—oh dear, I hope he doesn’t turn me out before I get a chance to use the laboratory. I suppose I could always call on Raúl . . .”
“A scientist I know. But I really don’t think you should come home with me. I’d prefer to call as little attention to myself as possible.”
Halbert spread his hands. “If that’s what your best judgment’s telling you, I’ll fly by it. But don’t take the vials just yet, not unless you’re in an awful hurry. Don’t you have time for a drink of something and a little rest?”
“I don’t drink, but thank you, I will stay awhile,” said Dinah. In the coming hours she enjoyed a very pleasant stay indeed at Halbert’s house, and, in response to his natural questions, she passed on the story of her life to the son of her creator, just as she had passed it to her own creation only weeks before. When she finally left, the afternoon was but a memory.
“You can feel free to live here with me, if everything breaks loose,” Halbert offered. “Until I find myself a wife, that is, and maybe after, depending on her feelings about it.”
“I am grateful,” said Dinah, and with that, she bowed and took the vials of seeming crystal with her on her way, through the town and onto the plain, up and over the brackened hill and through the countryside, all the way back to her lonely home, where she found, to her surprise, that Eekweek was trapped on a chair in one corner of the sitting room, beleaguered by a soot-gray cat, barely grown. “Help me!!” he cried when Dinah’s arrival became apparent.
Dinah hurried into the sitting room and drove the cat away, and when it had gone, she shut the door so that it could not return, and asked the mouse what had occurred.
“Well, there’s your telegram for you, Dinah my sweet, and it’s not the bad news you dreaded, though it nearly took my life from behind when I wasn’t ready. Bad things happen in unexpected ways, don’t you know, it makes them all the worse.”
“What are you talking about, Eekweek?”
“The telegram. You remember: ‘Lost business, fortune down drain, returning Friday, Harold.’ And you read the thing and assumed the worst. Oh, very good, Dinah, and you’ve taken to calling yourself an optimist.”
“I like to think that optimism is one of the few virtues a creature made of Spam can claim for herself.”
“Well this is all your telegram amounts to: Master Harold didn’t lose possession of the business, he just misplaced the blighted thing. Apparently he had trouble meeting all his incoming orders for jacks in different parts of the city, so he set the business on wheels—a recreational vehicle, to use the common term. And one bloody day he forgot where he parked the thing, so instead of being a responsible executive officer and retracing his steps, he just sold the title to the highest bidder and decided to invest in something else until he could earn enough to buy it back. So the fellow spent all his money on a specially commissioned jack made all out of platinum, to avoid losses from inflation, don’t you know, and he grew so fond of the thing that he took it everywhere he went—even to the shower. Well, what do you expect but that one day he drops it, and bloop! His fortune’s down the drain. All’s not lost, though: he hires a plumber to come and retrieve his curio. Problem is, the operation takes weeks, seeing as how jumbled up the plumbing is in that house he’s got, and all the sawing and sluicing and drilling looks likely to fill the air all full of dust and noise and make the house no place to live in. So he finds a nice hotel room and moves in for the meantime. But wouldn’t you know it, the place doesn’t allow cats. So he’s got to send his precious young kitty Friday back home to stay with Dinah until the plumbing’s done. At least, that’s what it said on the note the cat’s got around its neck.”
Dinah stared at the mouse in amazement, and then flung open the door and went searching for the cat. She did not have to search long, as the rambunctious feline was practically pawing at the door, and when given the opportunity it sprang once more for Eekweek. Dinah served once more as the mouse’s savior, but managed to shoo the cat into the hall this time, and not out of doors. She then followed it and fed it, and within a few hours she had managed to groom the unsightly thing and make it feel comfortable, whereupon it promptly fell asleep.
Dinah was beside herself with relief. Her first impulse was to set out the sterling silver in its display cases, the way it had once been, and this she did, humming a merry tune, until her better senses took possession of her once more, and she realized that even if Harold was not returning straight away, to clean the house unassisted was still beyond her capacity, and that therefore her problem remained unsolved. Somewhat sobered but in charge of herself once more, Dinah closed up the display cases and went to the laboratory, where she spent the remainder of the day in determined analysis of the vials she had brought from Halbert’s house.
“So you’ve taken on a new project,” observed the mouse that night from the
lower ventilation grate, which system it had taken to perusing.
“Yes, Eekweek. And I think that by the merest chance, it’s going to pay off.” She told it then all about meeting Halbert, and about receiving the multicolored vials from his father’s laboratory. “And I think I’ve discovered what they are, or at least what category of study they fall under. These vials were used in experiments with homogeneous life!”
“Homogeneous life,” muttered the mouse. “Much like the life I lead here, I expect. The same tunnels to tread, the same cupboards to scavenge, the same doleful monster as my only company day after day. Why anyone would want to research such a thing I can’t imagine.”
“No, I mean living things made of the same material throughout. Like me, Eekweek! Life at the atomic level—or something like it, anyway. But organized at a higher level in a way that lends the entire body cohesion. The thing is, there aren’t any cells in the contents of these vials, and there’s no difference at all in a sample taken from one part or another, not even a subtle difference in the way the units are connected. These substances are all living things, if one takes a broad view of the word, despite being pure chemical constructs.”
“Well you’ve baffled me once again, Dinah, once and twice and thrice, and no end in sight. I don’t understand what you’ve said and I won’t pretend I do, but let me ask you this: why would a wizard need to do scientific research at all? Doesn’t a chap like that use magic? And not test tubes?”
“I suppose he used science to supplement his spellcasting,” answered Dinah. “How incredibly fascinating. I wonder if any others like me have survived.”
“I certainly hope not. If the complexity of a being’s makeup has aught to do with the quality of the music it makes, which certainly doesn’t seem impossible with you in mind, then if they all came here to live with you, I’d go entirely out of my mind. I wouldn’t be able to stand the humming.”
“Are you quite certain you wouldn’t want to go out of your mind,” Dinah scolded. “You haven’t shown terribly much appreciation for it since I gave it to you.”
“When you bestow an unexpected gift on an unwitting recipient, don’t be surprised if a compliment is not immediately forthcoming,” said the mouse. And with that, it bowed slightly to show that it was still in good humor despite appearances, and scampered off through the woodwork. Dinah was left alone with her discoveries.
The next Monday, Dinah had Halbert over to the mansion, and true to his word,
he loved every minute of it. She was only barely able to pry him away
from the trophy room and lead him into the sitting room, which was just as captivating
if less impressive, with its covered octagonal settees and ancient armchairs
of graven mahogany. His eye immediately fell on the cat Friday, and he
hustled over to its chosen bench and took it into his lap with only a dash of
effort. Dinah watched him with admiration.
“Sweet little thing,” he murmured. “Always loved cats, I have. There, there, you just loosen up and relax.”
Dinah opened the drapes, and the sun entering the sitting room did wonderful things for the cat and its comforter. She stood, watching, for several moments, and the moments grew into peaceful minutes, and then she spoke.
“Halbert. I’d like to take up magic.”
He looked up askew at her, his eyebrows raised. “Magic? You want be a magician, Dinah?”
“I do, Halbert. I’ve decided that it’s the only way I can come to understand myself fully. And Halbert, that’s what I want more than anything else, more even than staying on as a servant to Master Harold.”
“You want to know how you were made,” he said knowingly. “Just like a woman wants a child so she can take a look at her childhood from another angle, so to speak. I daresay you’ve got yourself a smidgen of maternal instinct, haven’t you, Dinah?”
Dinah found herself moved emotionally; she came closer to Halbert and lowered herself to his height; she stroked the cat gently. “I do,” she answered.
“Well, that’s wonderful,” said Halbert. The moments passed, and within half a minute they both found tears in their eyes, though Dinah’s were nothing more than saltwater. The cat mewed, and life went on: Halbert walked down the hallway after Friday, Dinah followed, and soon the cat was fed and sleeping, and the two were sitting in the parlour, industriously discussing the trades of magic. Halbert had said that he was unlearned in the art, but turned out to know more than he thought. He waved his arms and described the great moment of a wizard constructing a spell, prolonged thirtyfold in the telling, as Dinah listened, mesmerized.
“And just how long does a body have to study for such nonsense to become sense?” asked the rough voice of Eekweek from the next room. “It can’t be easy, that I’m sure of.”
“If it were easy, why, most every other profession’d get pushed out before long. Put enough magic in the world and there’s no need for the farming type, for starters; sooner or later we’d figure out how to churn out food faster than we could eat it—once a maker of something, a manufacture man, once he got an idea out into the world we’d have wizards copying it until the poor inventor went out of business. No sir, magic ain’t easy, and I hope I don’t live to see the day it is. But that’s enough of an answer, I think, and now you could introduce yourself. I’m Halbert, son of Penicillin the Lesser.”
“Dinah told me about you. I’m her first attempt at understanding herself, if that means anything to you, and a rather bungled one at that, seeing as there’s no real parallel between us, though we both might delude ourselves on that measure from time to time.”
“That’s one mighty swell name you’ve got there, friend. Is there anything I could call you for short, do you think?”
“Yes, you can call me Eekweek. So Dinah’s going to be taking up magic, is she? No doubt to try again, and who knows? This time maybe she’ll patch together something grateful for her factitious motherhood—the world has seen stranger offspring.”
“I don’t like the way you’re talking, especially seeing as how you’re a mouse, and mice don’t talk all too much in my experience.”
“You’d go to visit a friend and silence her housemate who’s only trying to make sense?” retorted the mouse. “Blame Dinah for my busy tongue, if you’d blame someone. She gave it to me on a piece of graham cracker. I can’t stop dreaming that someday she’ll learn something from it.”
“That’s enough, Eekweek,” said Dinah, standing up gravely. “I haven’t determined to create another homogeneous life form yet, so don’t go on your old tangent.”
“But you will be doing something?” asked Halbert. “Something with the stuff in those old vials?”
“I may. For now, I have to learn the basics. So, if you will, Halbert, continue with what you were saying.”
Eekweek did not leave them alone, but did not make more of a nuisance than was advisable to keep the interest of teacher and student alive, and by the time the evening had given way to night, Halbert had taught Dinah everything he knew about the art. “And this time I mean it,” he said.
“I don’t know how I can repay you,” said Dinah. “It’s not that I don’t have means—you can help yourself to any article in the house. It’s that I don’t yet know how much your help will turn out to be worth. But I suspect it will be worth quite a bit, Halbert, perhaps more than anything I ever received. Time will tell. Would you accept a hug from a beast made of solid meat?”
“I’d accept a hug from plumb near anything, long as it’s lovin’ me and not trying to kill me,” Halbert answered with a radiant grin. He hugged Dinah, heedless of the oily texture, and departed, taking nothing from the mansion.
Halbert had not taught Dinah how to do magic of any sort, but he had taught
her the appropriate state of mind to be in if magic was to happen. She
performed the exercises he had taught her all through the night and into the
morning, perfecting them as far as her wisdom would allow, until her meditational
reverie was violated by a ring on the bell. She came to herself quickly
and hurried through the hallways and down the stairs. When she answered
the door, an unfamiliar manservant stood before her, trim, poised, and unbelieving.
“Heavens!” the man exclaimed. “So it’s true what young Harold’s done! If you’re the head caretaker of this estate, you must have an ungodly good hand with the movables and fineries, madam. Otherwise I don’t see why he’d keep you on.”
Dinah, needless to say, was amazed at the man’s impropriety, and nearly too much so to speak. She sighted, however, a carriage on the promenade, and realized that her time of judgment had come. “I suppose you’re with the family—” she murmured, looking hard at the carriage in order to determine whose it was, “—and that you have a excellent talent for mendacity, for I can’t imagine your master could be so shortsighted as to mistake your actual opinions for courtesy.” Her words were soft, but not missed, and the servant took on a tremendous scowl.
“You will bring your master or mistress here at once,” said Dinah, taking control before he could speak, “and will not set foot in this house until this is done.”
The servant turned about without disputing this, and soon he returned in attendance upon an aging woman whose well-tailored gray and blue apparel suited her perfectly, and whose face and hair were wrinkled and grayed even in excess of her probable age, yet did not efface the worthy bearing she maintained. She carried no burden but the expression on her face; her servant carried her bags. She walked the full distance to the front door and looked Dinah in the face, whereupon she frowned.
“May I help you?” asked Dinah politely.
“You may help me to your utmost capacity,” answered the woman, “and then you may continue to help me, once you have rested. You are in my employ, after all, and that is what employees do: they help their employers. I am Asaia Gambolin, aunt to your master Harold, and I will be taking up residence here indefinitely.”
“Naturally,” Dinah said meekly, “but you may be disappointed at your relocation. The house has not been kept in condition.”
Stiffness overtook the woman’s jaw. “Not in condition,” she repeated. “And why not? Did Harold relieve his staff of that duty?”
Dinah shook her head. “The staff has been relieved of all duties, but not by him. It was by my direction that they have all gone elsewhere. I found I could not work with them.”
“You could not?” asked Gambolin intensely. “And so it was they who left, and not you?”
“I am the majordomo,” pled Dinah. “And they threatened to eat me. I had no choice.”
“That is an excuse I have heard one time too often,” replied Gambolin. “Your choice, even if all is as you say, was to leave yourself, rather than condemn the residence to unlivability. Is this house, then, entirely unprepared for my arrival?”
“Yes, madam. Though I will extend my greatest effort to accommodate you in any manner you desire.”
The Lady Gambolin straightened herself, though she grew looser in the same motion, and walked inside. She passed through the foyer with a few cursory glances, and Dinah followed, sandwiched between the lady and her servant. Gambolin walked down the hallway, peeked into a side room or two, dusted off a doorframe, and walked straight into the dining room, where she squinted into the sunlight, which was filtering through the blinds, it seemed, directly into her eyes. Turning, she paused before the first case of sterling silver, and stooping, she examined the display. It met with her approval. Dinah stood by with satisfaction as the aunt of her master circled the room, looking over the cases she had pleasured herself by arranging only the preceding Friday. At last, the woman came to face Dinah, and she wore a smile on her jowls, if not on her stiffened mouth.
“You have not allowed it to slip too far,” she said, “and under the circumstances that is commendable. I see that my nephew has finally given up his antiquated preference for orderly arrangements in favor of the more modern style of asymmetrical gravitation, which is a load taken from my mind. The furniture has been kept pleasantly rustic, which is a relief; I was worried Harold would have polished it. In short, you seem to have done a fine job all by yourself, and I am not displeased.”
Dinah was caught in a quandary as to whether she should answer honestly, but she was saved the trouble of a decision by Gambolin’s next comment. “It seems, contrarily to what I expected, that one servant is enough to maintain this house. This is a useful surprise, and I shall take full advantage of it. My attendant, of course, will remain, being something of a friend to me. You are released from service, majordomo.”
“Released from service?” echoed Dinah, bewildered by how pleasing it sounded on the surface. “But—but I thought my work appealed to you! Surely you can’t expect to keep this entire mansion in order with one man alone!”
“And what can’t a man do that you can?” inquired Gambolin fiercely. “Strange creature. Do you think you were cut out for service? Look at yourself, majordomo.”
Dinah sank two inches into herself, and then turned and quit the room. She found Eekweek and quietly said goodbye, and then she left the mansion, carrying nothing but a single case of odds and ends from her work in the laboratory, including the collection of vials from the collection of the Lungfish Wizard. Her path was erratic at first, but she soon found her way to the laboratory at which Raúl worked, as she burned inside to do more with what had become her only possessions, and she had no laboratory at her disposal but his. She knocked at the door, and was met by a doorguard who saw her to Raúl during his next period of leisure, which was only a half hour’s wait. He was unnaturally pleased to see Dinah.
Why, Dinah! Have you come to motivate us onward with your sinister visage? We need the impetus, you know.”
“Don’t joke, Raúl, please. Not now! I’ve just been turned off for the most absurd reason, Raúl. I’m without a home, and I still have so much to do!”
Raúl bowed his head and laid his hands across his chest. “I’m sorry, Dinah.” Looking up, he gestured to the lobby in which they spoke, adorned with plants, unusual and usual alike. “This can be your home now, if you wish it.”
“Yes,” said Dinah softly. “Yes, this will be my home . . . or at the least it will be where I spend most of my time.”
“Your home,” said Raúl. “And whether you seek out a paying job will be up to you. I’ll introduce you to all the proper people, and in due time I imagine you’ll be making yourself quite useful. And not as an experiment.”
“Ah, but you have me wrong,” Dinah answered. “At this point in my life I would prefer nothing more than to be an experiment. But I wish to be chief experimenter myself, Raúl, and to have access to all the tools you yourselves would have in studying me. It pains me not to ask for a way to earn my stay, truly it pains me. But—I don’t have time. I must impose myself on you.”
Raúl smiled sweetly and adjusted his collar. “As you will have it, Dinah. After all, we study plants here, and you don’t seem quite a plant.”
“Thank you, Raúl, I’ll never forget this.”
“Go look around, will you? See what you can find, and at the end of the day I’ll give you a more formal tour. And good luck to you.”
Raúl took his leave of Dinah, and she wandered the halls of the extensive
laboratory, her case clutched closely at all times. She perused heated
rooms full of seedlings, cool and humid rooms festooned with pinnate whitish
growths and their nutrient mixes, rooms full of cultures, slide samples, microscopes,
experiment records, and furthermore, she found nearly every tool she was accustomed
to, in one form or another. Dinah was quite pleased with her new surroundings,
and with a quick contortion of the mind, threw herself into them completely,
dropping all melancholy for her old house, and it was not until after Raúl
had given her his promised tour and left her alone that it struck her how unperturbing
the shift had been. She lay herself back then in the uniform halflight,
and thought of Eekweek with the new mistress of the house, and cried salt tears.
Dinah did not go out much from then on. She made friends among the botanists, and learned a little of their science, and taught them some of hers in return, and it was as true an exchange as ever there had been, or so it felt to Dinah. She went to visit Halbert four times: first, to tell him the news of her relocation, and thereafter thrice for a change of atmosphere after a difficult period. He opened his doors to her every time, and when she caught him working, he left off immediately for the visit, as Halbert’s job was one which could be done on his own hours. And she went to the meetings of the action groups whenever Raúl went. She no longer felt any strong emotion at these gatherings, but went as a sort of duty toward herself, though she wasn’t sure what that might be. And she went to the library sometimes in the evening, searching for new knowledge concerning the practice of magic. But most of the time, she stayed in the laboratory, studying her precious vials, continuing her precious work, and searching for the elusive link between her basis for existence in science and in magic.
Her notes were often indecipherable, as she used her own shorthand and shared no projects with the other scientists, but some were written in plain language, and read thusly:
Am I possible? Intuition says no—intuition may declare life impossible
as whole. Circulatory system: unnecessary in case of continual nourishment
or very quick saturation rate. Otherwise center receives nourishment last,
may become hypertonic swollen. Endocrinal system: nonexistent. No
apparent chemical transfer; how is information transmitted? Cerebral region
indistinguishable. Sense organs: likely rooted in area of high percentage
fine-grind based on weight, liquidity. Skeletal system: coated rough-grind
region, low hydration. Muscular contraction, elongation absent.
Respiration present, pervasive. Possible universal source for circulation.
Possible transfer of information through inherent dependence on units to be integrated in predetermined body shape? Hypothesis: no interaction between subcellular units, specially formed for particular shape. Surface area serves as brain, stores memory of contacts, controls entire body, which is able to follow because of predicted body shape. Nervous system unnecessary.
These notes were scattered across Dinah’s rooms, and
some were buried in the files of her colleagues, who shared her interest but
could make no more headway than Dinah herself. The experiments whence
her hypotheses came were no less prevalent, and they migrated here and there
within the laboratory, many even leading to other, peripherally related discoveries
in which Dinah had no part. The spring turned into summer, and the summer
passed Dinah by out of doors, where she was not watching for it. The breezes
grew chill, and though the gloomy autumn weather distanced Dinah’s resolve from
her heart, it only solidified in the cold; it did not break.
At last, the longest week of Dinah’s life faded from the moment, and Dinah was left with her result, wondering what it meant and how far she had left to go. She was standing before a phylogeny of life, posted conspicuously on the white column between two doors in a room littered with coffee remains and tattered magazines, upon which her friends had honored her by drawing in her classification in red pen. It had been easy to do and had revealed nothing; since she had no living cells, the clade she belonged to was distinct from all else, a separate domain of life. Porcus uniformis, read the diagram, with the name “Dinah” in parentheses beneath. But the domain remained a nameless line on the chart.
Dinah drew a deep breath, let it out, and drew another. As always, it permeated her body end to end and front to back, but she had rarely noticed it so much before. Slowly, the business and stress of her work over the past week filtered out, and the significance was left in stark simplicity. She stood there, numb with thought, and then took the red pen and reached up to add the name to her lonely domain: MAGICIA.
Then she stood back, looking at the chart, and presently she walked out of the room and began to hum.
“Raúl!” she shouted when she reached his station. “I’ve done it. I’ve found the answer!”
“You have! Dinah, I’m so happy for you!” He set down his tongs and removed his gloves, and then gave her a sweet embrace. She felt as if she were lifted off the ground, though she weighed far too much for that. Raúl stood back and looked her over, and waited for her explanation.
“I’m not possible,” said Dinah.
“Not without magic, Raúl! I feared, no, I didn’t fear, I hoped, that a thing like me was feasible.” Dinah laughed. “I can see it now, all the way back—I’ve been wondering about this my whole life. Maybe the reason I’d lived on after my creator died was that the only time he used magic was in drawing me into being—not in making me work! Maybe there was a way my units—I can’t call them cells, because all the true cells are dead—my units could already know the shape of my body and react to anything that touched me, making my whole body into one . . . giant . . . highly complex muscle. But now I know that’s all preposterous. It’s a little bit of a disappointment, but . . . but now I know!”
“But how do you know?” asked Raúl jovially.
“I could spend the whole day explaining. But the key insight was when I created an MFE for one of the crystalline substances.”
“A magic-free environment?”
“Yes, that’s right. It took what seemed like forever to attune the box to the specific brand of magic I suspected was being used in the vial. But when I extracted the vial after an hour in the box, it had died.”
“I hope you used tongs and didn’t just stick your hand in,” said Raúl, concerned.
“Of course I did,” said Dinah in good spirits. “I’m going to be very wary of MFEs in the future, now that I know they can kill me. This has been such a revelation!”
Raúl patted Dinah on the arm. “So you’ve finished your personal quest. I’m terribly proud of you. Will you be taking a position at the laboratory at last?”
Dinah became a touch gloomy, and shook her head no. “I’ve had enough science for a lifetime,” she murmured.
“Oh, but you can’t mean that, Dinah! You’ve got one of the most brilliant minds for this work I’ve ever encountered. Stay, please, and don’t waste it.”
“I—I wish I could,” pled Dinah, “but I’m just not a scientist. I’ve helped the rest of you when I could, but I’d be lying to say that was anything but a civil desire to earn my welcome. Science just isn’t my passion, Raúl. I’m much better suited to the domestic life.”
Raúl was by this time wringing his hands. He looked deeply into Dinah’s eyes, and asked, “Even if you don’t follow up on anything you’ve done in the biological sciences to this day, will you then consider starting anew? I know you haven’t any need for a wage, as you don’t need to eat, but if your position here means anything like what your position at the old mansion did, then please, drop by from time to time. You can join whatever project you want, I’m sure of it, and of course we’ll pay you if you make a good job of it. Come visit us and take pleasure in the scraping, so to speak.”
Dinah shook Raúl’s hand solemnly. “I will. I’ll remember.”
She then nodded peacefully and left the building.
The mansion of Asaia Gambolin had changed quite a bit over the summer, and
most of it for the worse. The gate was unoiled; the lawn was untended;
the roof was crumbing. Dinah walked charily up the path and rang at the
door, and was answered by the odious manservant, who asked her business.
She answered that it was a visit, and was reluctantly admitted.
Dinah went straight to the laboratory, however, and locked herself within for the duration of the afternoon and the beginning of evening, and when at last she was finished, she put away all the materials which the lady of the house had not bothered to sort into their respective cupboards, and then cleaned all of the surfaces which had been defiled in the long process of her work, and pushed in the chairs and turned out the lights. The laboratory was bare once more, as it has been when Dinah had first found it.
Dinah went along the baseboards, tapping where she knew the woodwork was light, and trying her best to avoid being perceived by the lady of the house, who presumably knew that she was there, but had not seen her. She was nearly ready to try the second floor when at last she heard a scuffle within the wall, and a moment later, beheld the mouse Eekweek as it popped out shakily into the hall. It was disheveled from head to tail. Staring at Dinah, it raised his tail above its head and stood up firmly. “You! At last you’ve come back! Go ahead, ask me how many times I spent the night listening in the parlour for your return, waiting at the door even, ask how many times I revisited the paltry goodbye you gave me in my thoughts, wondering what you could have meant to make it so brief! And now you come back! Do you think the lady Gambolin is any sort of fit companion for me? Do you think I would dare play cards with her man in waiting without fearing a lethal motive behind it? Heavens, Dinah, you may not have created me but you certainly put me in a fix, and then, easy as if to drop a problem were to solve it, you left me all alone, by any civilized standard! Mice of the world, forever misdoubt the attention of creatures that never learn to put away their toys! They’ll leave you stranded, not knowing what hit them, not knowing what left them.” And with that it shuddered, and its four legs gave at the knees.
“Has it been so awful?”
“It’s been a dreary void, Dinah. I go to my old family, I drift through their rooms and say hello, but they don’t recognize my intentions. They drive me out or just ignore me as often as not. I’ve lost the instinct for wordless communication, and my dear family isn’t my family anymore. I’m lonely and I’m miserable. Gambolin’s even trained the cat, that Friday, to hunt me. I’m not even safe in my own house.”
“I wish I’d known, Eekweek, I truly do! I would have left my studies and come sooner. Please, forgive me for taking so long to finally come and deliver your present.”
The mouse looked up and sat heavily for such a light creature. “My present? Tis a bribe, is it, Dinah? Is that what you’ve come to give?”
With a gentle motion, Dinah set down the object she bore on the floor in front of the mouse. She then waited wearily, hunched forward, but without tension.
Eekweek sniffed at the piece of graham cracker before it. Looking up at Dinah, it asked, “What’s this, then? A morsel?”
“It’s the antidote to my trap,” answered Dinah. “It didn’t take me too long to make it—all I had to do was arrange to reverse the process I once put you through. You’ll be a normal mouse again, able to rejoin your family. You may even grow to like the lady Gambolin—I’m sure she leaves numerous scraps around the kitchen.”
She was answered with a scowl from the mouse and a cautious claw tapping on the floor. Eekweek was wordless, but far from motionless. He pawed at the graham cracker, crumbling a piece of the corner, and at last he sat up and looked at Dinah. “It’s an unwanted gift, Dinah,” he said.
She only watched him warily. “You mean you’re not going to eat it?”
“I’ll have no part of it, Dinah. Such a blazing strong arm you think you have, giving thoughts to people’s brains and taking them away, never knowing when to go or stay, never giving the gifts you ought to. Now that you’ve brought me to this place, I’d daresay you need me. How can I take this cracker? Pah!” He kicked it away. “You still need my advice, and you certainly can’t escape it that easily. I won’t have it.”
Dinah brimmed with emotion, but said only “You’ll willingly waste my whole afternoon’s work.”
“Oh, will I? And you’d have wasted everything if I’d eaten that graham cracker! Which is better, the great waste or the small one? Is there any question of your not needing me if you have trouble with a poser like that?”
Dinah leaned forward and let her head fall. “Eekweek, I adore you, and you’d never conceive how I value your advice. Come with me, out of this place. You’ve lived here long enough.”
The mouse returned to its feet and nodded curtly, nothing more. Eekweek and Dinah walked out of the house, not paying the lady Gambolin any more mind than a crumb of graham cracker, and they never went back.
Eekweek refused to be carried; given its way, it might just as soon have carried Dinah out of that place. And so she had to wait for the mouse all the way, and at night to stand by and watch over it as it slept, but Dinah didn’t tire of watching her companion breathe in and out, nor of traveling just ahead and looking back as it wound its way through the bramble and underbrush, over a tall hill bedecked with jumbled bushes and shrubs and on to a town on the open plain, where on the next morning Dinah and Eekweek arrived at a one-story house, and beheld an unfamiliar carriage standing by the curb.
“Halbert!” called Dinah from the front door. “Are you in?”
There was a little bit of rustling inside, and a moment later Halbert opened the door, bedecked in a modest but agreeable purple suit, looking as cheery as ever a man could look. “Dinah!” he exclaimed. “You’re not a minute too early, nor a minute too late! Come in—I’ve got someone I want you to meet.”
Halbert introduced Dinah to his brand new wife, who turned out to be none other than the daughter of Theresa, whom Dinah knew from the action group. She was full of life and thrilled to meet Dinah, and didn’t even squirm when Dinah introduced Eekweek to the happy couple. The four of them could never remember afterwards at what point they decided, without even the use of words, to become a family. They just knew that it had happened like a snap of the fingers. No one had had to breach the subject; it had opened to their hearts all on its own, and would likely never close. Halbert, his wife, his “sister” and her personal advisor—they lived under one roof and never questioned life again. Dinah gave up her study of magic but never lost her curiosity in it, and Halbert eventually took up the slack himself and began to look into following the path his old man had laid for him all those years ago. They all went to the action groups when Halbert’s mother-in-law was speaking or organizing, and Dinah saw Raúl there from time to time, and always told him that she hadn’t forgotten to consider returning, and that there was still room for it in the future. She still occasionally studied biology by night and sent her results to the people who could use them, but by day she played jacks, and hummed merry tunes, and built sculptures of strange beings out of Spam, which she set on the table as centerpieces until Eekweek happened along with his rapacious teeth and tunneled right through them.