The Alphabet Game

We ask into the matter of the bear.

White heat and light annihilate the store. Shoppers become ghosts in an instant, inundated and incinerated by that light. Their forms swell with it before they vanish. Shelves of books and food and toys and jeans fall over. One Talkie Sally doll crawls feebly across the floor with its vocal circuit and both legs crushed; it mumbles and crumbles as it crawls, the sound of it “clerp. Clerp. Clerp.”

The power dies.

Susan is there. She seizes an armful of boxes from the shelves before she begins to run. She does not want them destroyed.

That is her impulse in the apocalypse: to save what she can.

Broken glass scores her face. She isn’t sure from where. There is a red and soft white glow off to the east so she heads in that direction, dodging around a crumbled ceiling. She scrapes out through a crack in the wall when she reaches the building’s edge. Most of the boxes tumble from her arms as she squeezes through.

She is on the second floor.

“Ah—” she says, looking back for a moment, as she falls.

The building shimmers, swells, and shatters.

Susan hits the grass hard and her vision goes black.

On the first morning after the apocalypse, she opens her eyes. The world is desolately empty. There are no sounds of cars or people or even birds. There is only the rushing wind.

“Oh,” she says.

Her arms are clenched around the last few treasures that she has saved. Painfully she releases her grip. She sits up. She sets them down. She dusts herself off.

They are a Fisher-Price carpentry playset and a talking learn-the-alphabet game.

“You saved us,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game.

Susan smiles tiredly.

What a strange toy, she thinks.

“Because you saved us,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game, “we will help you survive this grim post-apocalyptic world.”

Ah, Susan thinks. I have gone insane.

“It is not necessary,” she says, politely. “I have already learned the alphabet.”

“There are more than twenty-six letters,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game. “There is also soph.”

Soph,” says Susan.

“Now you know your A-B-Cs!” declares the talking learn-the-alphabet game. “Next time won’t you sing with me?”

“I will,” Susan says.

So they sing the alphabet together, including soph, in an empty world.

When they are done, Susan stares off to the east, where through the vacancy of buildings she can see a woods.

“You are troubled,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game.

Susan picks it up. She hugs it to her chest. She says, “What has happened to the world?”

“It is the apocalypse,” says the game.

“Oh?”

“There are those who meddle with things that they do not understand, and they are dangerous. More dangerous yet are those who meddle with things they understand, but none too well.”

“Oh,” Susan says.

“This is the work of the Fisher-Price Ultimate line,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game.

The sky swirls and there is an impression of death and sorrow.

“In their laboratories they built a child’s toy prototype for ultimate evil—a toddler’s first ultimate evil, as it were. The final product would have had safeties, seals, restrictions.”

Susan sees the direction of this speech.

“But not,” she says, “the prototype?”

“It has sent forth its destruction to devastate the kingdoms of the earth.”

“It has left us desolate,” Susan says.

The talking learn-the-alphabet game sighs, “Ah.”

Susan folds her legs in the tailor style. She closes her eyes. For a time she thinks; and this stretches for so long that the talking learn-the-alphabet game becomes uncomfortable in the silence.

It makes small bleeping sounds.

In the distance, in the woods, these are answered by the shaking-maracas sound of insects.

Then Susan says, “What is to be done?”

“Live,” says the game.

Susan shakes her head.

“No?”

“Evil cannot go unchallenged,” Susan says.

The game considers.

“Then,” it says, “you must travel east to the palace of the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil beyond the world, and destroy it there.”

“Agreed,” says Susan, “save that I will not destroy it.”

She rises.

“No?”

“I don’t think it’s right,” Susan says.

And she gathers up the carpentry playset and the talking learn-the-alphabet game and she walks east.

Through the forest she walks, through the green-made gloaming and the patches of brilliant sunlight where the leaves are thin. There is dampness and there are scurrying things yet and where the insects do not sing there is mostly silence.

She comes to a wall.

It is high, twenty yards high, and made of slick rainbow glass, with a thousand colors trapped inside it. It stains her rainbow and casts its multicolored shadow all around her.

She sets down the carpentry playset and touches her hand to the wall. It is slick but it is warm and there is a beating to it like a heart.

“Use me,” says a thick and wooden voice.

Susan looks down. She sees that the carpentry playset has fallen open. The hammer of it has slipped from its place. It lays there on the grass.

Now this hammer is plastic and it has a button on its handle. There is a speaker on its head and a place for batteries in the back.

Susan reaches for it, most delicately. She picks it up.

“Use me,” it says again.

She pushes the button, and the hammer’s speaker makes a sound: tap, tap, tap like the pounding of a hammer on nails.

It grows louder.

Tap, tap, tap. Bang, bang, bang.

It thrums, there in the forest at the edge of the world.

The sound from it rises until it is the sound of the cyclopes in their forges beating out the thunderbolts in the dawn of the world. It is the sound of great ringing blows.

“Touch me to the wall,” it whispers.

“But—”

“Trust me,” says the hammer from the Fisher-Price carpentry playset.

So Susan touches its head to the wall and there is a shivering in the glass and a chiming that rises to match the ringing of the hammer’s sound. Then, convulsively, the wall tears itself apart: not shattering, not ripping, but rather severing, and the two halves bucking away from the center like angry horses or two great flailing arms.

After a moment it is still.

The wall is open, its sleek rainbowed surface curving up in two tracks to either side. It is like a sculpture. It is strange and it is beautiful and beyond it there is the sun.

The hammering noise falls silent.

“Thank you,” says Susan.

“You must leave me here,” says the hammer.

Carefully, Susan sets the hammer down.

“Don’t you want to know why?” it asks.

Susan shakes her head.

“I trust you,” she says, and she walks on.

There is still green twilight but the sun is more common now beyond the wall. The forest is thinning.

There is a bear.

It is great and it is terrible, larger than a person, larger than four people—larger, really, than a tank.

It roars and its roar terrifies her.

And from the Fisher-Price carpentry playset comes a sharp and metal voice, “Use me.”

She reaches into the playset. Her hand hesitates over the tools, then pulls out the saw. Its grey plastic shines.

“Push the button,” it says, “to make answer to your problems.”

The bear stands up. Its shadow falls. It stands between our Susan and the sun.

“Pardon,” says Susan to the saw, and she is trembling, “but what will you do?”

“I am a saw,” the Fisher-Price saw says.

The bear steps forward.

“I am the sharp cutting tooth of the world,” says the Fisher-Price carpentry playset saw. “I am the relentless, the cutter, the killer, the ravager of flesh. I cut the grain of wood. I separate the ligaments from the meat. I carve through bone.”

The bear steps forward.

“Bear? Do you hear me?” cries the saw.

And though Susan has not pushed the button there is the zzz-zgg, zzz-zgg, zzz-zgg noise rising all around. It is the terrible metal cheering of the saws that cut forever at the foundations of the world.

Where the sunlight touches saw the sunlight bleeds.

“Do you hear me, bear? You are meat!”

But Susan is kneeling. She is setting down the saw, carefully, on the grass. She is saying, “I am sorry, Fisher-Price carpentry playset saw, but I cannot use you in this fashion.”

And in the pause that follows that the sounds of saws go still and there is a mist that runs along the lowness of the ground.

“Then die,” says the saw, and it is silent.

Softly, the talking learn-the-alphabet game begins to sing, “Ey bee cee dee ee eff gee.”

The bear steps forward and it is now within paw’s-reach of Susan’s head.

And Susan is singing, “Aitch eye jay kay ell emm enn oh pee.”

Together they sing, “Queue arr ess, tee you vee, double-you ecks, soph why zee.”

Susan’s eyes are closed. She does not know why she is not yet dead.

There is a curious snuffling sound from the bear.

“Now I know my A-B-Cs, next time won’t you sing wit—”

There is a force like a hurricane or a car crash, irresistable, defying the lie that Susan’s will controls her flesh; touched by the paw of the bear, her hand falls open, her arm falls back, and her entire body seems to jump through the air, arcing out of control, to land slumped against a tree.

It is a moment of clarity and pain.

There are bloody marks all down Susan’s arm. The talking learn-the-alphabet game is on the ground. The bear stands over it, making a low crooning growl in its throat.

Susan aches.

The bear licks the game. Then it growls softly and nips it.

“A?” offers the game.

The bear rumbles something that is not an A.

“B?”

The bear rumbles something that is similar in some respects to a B.

“You want to learn the alphabet?” asks the game.

The bear picks the talking learn-the-alphabet game up in its jaws.

“No,” says Susan weakly. “No.”

The bear turns to go.

Susan staggers to her feet. Her mind is full of sloshing fuzz in staticky white and black. She stumbles after the bear.

With horror the game realizes that she is coming to save it.

“No, Susan,” it says. “No, you must leave me.”

“You are not made for bears,” Susan says. “You are a choking hazard. And I do not want it to take you if you do not want to go.”

The bear begins to walk away.

“It is all right,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game.

“All right?”

“I choose this over a rescue.”

And so Susan stumbles to a stop and falls to her hands and knees, breathing hard, for still she is winded from the touch of the bear.

The bear carries the talking learn-the-alphabet game away.

When Susan recovers, she finds there is not much left of the world. The edge is right there, not one hundred meters away, ragged and broken.

A tree has fallen. It is a great tree, not Yggdrasil but one of its older children. It has fallen to form a bridge between the world and the palace of the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil.

It is long and thin and lean and it crosses over an infinite depth.

Susan stares at the tree. She is still wobbly. Her gaze turns hopefully to the Fisher-Price carpentry playset, but the drill that is all that is left in it is silent.

“What do I do?” she asks.

The back of her head is damp with blood.

And there is a wind from the edge of the world and the shaking-maracas sound of insects, and Susan concludes, softly, “Ah. I am to practice courage.”

She holds her hands before her, touching finger to finger, her hands circling an empty place.

She stares into that void.

She tells herself that there is a button there; that she may press it and become a thing as marvelous as the Fisher-Price hammer and its saw.

She visualizes it: a red dot surrounded by the sky.

She pushes it.

“I am Susan,” she says, swaying there at the edge of the world. “I am a house painter. I am a woman. I have a degree in English literature. And I will make answer to the evil in that keep.”

Her voice is pulled away by the hollowness and the vastness at the edge of the world.

She sets down the carpentry playset. She cannot carry it across the void. She takes off her shoes. Swaying, she begins to walk to the palace of the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil.

It is grey and blue and its towers are tall.

She stumbles on a knot and falls, but her hands tangle in the roughness of the bark and keep her from the void. She pulls herself back up. She continues walking.

There are strange yellow figures on the walls, their heads geometric, their hands without fingers.

The wood splinters under her foot. She staggers. Her foot bleeds. But she continues.

The insects hum.

The wind blows.

She staggers into the courtyard of the palace of the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil, and there she stands facing it, the enemy of the world.

He is tall and handsome and clad in black armor and there is nothing fake about him. His hair is long and thick and black and it blows in the wind. His teeth are sharp. His eyes are fierce.

He is beautiful in ways that no mortal not made by Fisher-Price will ever be beautiful.

He is terrible in ways that not even Fisher-Price should have tried to build.

And he says, “I have seen you coming; but what will you do now?”

Susan says, “I will say, ‘prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil, set aside these hostilities against the world.'”

The wind rises and she staggers and almost falls, and the creature catches her and sets her down and kneeling down close and looking into her face it says, “But why should I do that?”

“What age,” asks Susan, “are you suitable for, oh prince of all ill doings?”

And this stumps the creature for a moment, before it says, “Safety labels are a thing of the past.”

“What virtue,” asks Susan, “is there in playing with you, oh suzerain of sorrow and despair?”

And the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil’s face grows tight, and there is a pain there.

Susan gasps, “Oh! —No, I do not mean that, oh evil thing.”

Yet it is turning away.

It is haunted by the death shouts of the Fisher-Price scientists who created it: “You are no toy!”

She does not know this but she feels it.

“I do not mean,” she says, “that you are unworthy for a child to play with, Ultimate Evil.”

He breathes softly, “Oh?”

“I mean only that there is no toy without its purpose in learning or in joy. So what is the purpose of playing with evil, oh king of false desiring?”

He thinks on this.

“To learn to conquer it?” he asks, his voice unreadable.

“Some would say that,” Susan says.

“Not you?”

“We play,” says Susan, “so that we may understand.”

“Ah.”

Some of the tension leaves him with that sigh.

“But to destroy the world,” Susan says. “That is not play. That is—”

She considers carefully what she will say.

“That is error.”

And her words strike home. He looks back to her and she sees a terrible clarity in his eyes.

“I didn’t know,” he says. “Fisher-Price . . . in striving to create the ultimate evil, they lost sight of the meaning of play.”

“They meddled carelessly,” Susan agrees.

And she pulls herself up and she takes his hand, the cold unyielding plastic of it, and says, “But it is not too late.”

And there is laughter and joy and ultimate evil for a time, in the palace beyond the world.

3 thoughts on “The Alphabet Game

  1. >>And the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil’s face grows tight, and there is a pain there.
    >>Susan gasps, “Oh! —No, I do not mean that, oh evil thing.”

    That… is a stumble in the pattern of answer and reply and there’s something neat about it. Accidental misunderstanding, even in a legend.

  2. And there is laughter and joy and ultimate evil for a time, in the palace beyond the world.

    That may be one of my favorite Hitherby endings…

  3. I am a house painter. I am a woman. I have a degree in English literature.

    Up till there, I’d thought of Susan as about 11 or so — a child, but old enough to know words like “prototype” if she’s well-read. I’m not sure exactly why…maybe I was thinking of Susan from the Narnia books. I had to go back and re-read the entry from the beginning with her true age in mind.

    It occurs to me that if I wanted one single entry for someone to read, to decide if Hitherby was for them, this would now be the one. It encapsulates the entire nature, purpose, and methods of Hitherby Dragons in a lovely miniature.

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