[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]
In Sarous’ kingdom it is always gay: the atmosphere is one of conviviality and festival. Streamers hang between the great stone buildings. The lamps writhe with glowworm-given light.
Minister Jof is drunk, or, rather, let us say, considering his station, “in quite good cheer.”
His hat sits askew upon his head.
A streamer winds around him, caught on his long nails.
“The only problem,” he confides to the barkeep. He leans forward. He’s whispering. “The only problem in this whole great happy ending is a niggling moral unease.”
The barkeep polishes a mug.
He used to be a mole, this particular barkeep. He used to be a mole. But he grew up, here in the crust of the world, and now he is a man.
This barkeep has evolved, and now may speak on moral issues.
“You might want to get that looked at,” he suggests.
“Ain’t no need to have moral unease in Sarous’ kingdom,” says the barkeep. He gestures with his nose to the shops across the street. “Sawbones there’ll fix it all up, if’n there’s a qualm.”
Minister Jof looks.
There’s a sign. It’s hanging from the sawbones’ shop. It says, “Jimmy Q, the Sawbones, Physicker and Qualmer. I can make your problems disappear!”
“I love this kingdom,” Minister Jof exclaims.
Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.
Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.
It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.
The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”
The Island of the Centipede
Minister Jof brushes in past the dangling beads of the door and Jimmy Q looks up.
“Moral or physical?” he asks.
Minister Jof hesitates. He looks a bit aback. He harrumphs.
“Right, then,” says Jimmy Q, as if Minister Jof had answered.
He’s a slate of a man, is Jimmy Q, born right from the rock, and he’s still got a sharp bit of stone for one hand. His other hand, though, it’s as dextrous as you please, with long graceful fingers, pale and smooth. He pulls down a breath mask from a shelf and puts it on and he walks up interestedly to Minister Jof.
“Worm?” says Jimmy Q.
“I mean, before. Before you grew in moral stature. You were a sniveling little worm, right?”
Minister Jof’s lips thin.
“I don’t see—“
Jimmy Q grins with his even grey teeth. “Don’t nevermind that. Just getting my bearings on your physiology. What’s on your mind?”
He taps Minister Jof’s knee but isn’t surprised when it doesn’t kick. He takes Minister Jof’s pulses—a man’s got six pulses, down here in the weary kingdoms beneath the world, and Jimmy Q knows how to take them all. He looks at Minister Jof’s tongue.
“It’s eh moragh calm,” Jof explains around the tongue depressor.
“There was this girl,” says Minister Jof. “This very devil of a girl. I couldn’t keep up with the things I’d been doing once I met her. Everything got all shaken up— are you, I mean, you’re not going to cut me, are you?”
He’s just noticed the bottles of preserved organs along the wall, and in particular, the one labeled, “Treachery.”
“Not for a qualm,” Jimmy Q says. “We don’t have to cut people to get out a moral qualm, here in Sarous’ kingdom. Best damn moral medicine in the world, here. Why, anywhere else I’d have M.D. after my name and not a Q; not that I’m complaining.”
Minister Jof is a bit fidgety.
“I don’t know much about this moral medicine at all,” Minister Jof admits.
“There’s nothing like it in all the world!” declares Jimmy Q. “Why, this is the only place in all the world and sound where a man can feel guaranteed of getting up in the morning and going to sleep at night in a state of total moral confidence. Braces you something fierce, morality does. And if you don’t spit it out, my friend,” he says, and he’s turning towards his vials and his decanters, “I can certainly use an emetic.”
“I told the nurses she was going to kill God,” says Minister Jof in one long burst of sentencing. “I told the nurses she was going to kill God or at least ‘whomever’s sitting on the throne of all this world.’ That she was a destroyer. And they paid me for it!”
“Nurses,” mutters Jimmy Q.
He looks fiercely at Jof.
“Were you lying?”
“Well—” says Minister Jof. Slowly, his dignity gathers around him. “Well, no.”
Minister Jof nods.
Jimmy Q laughs. “Kill God, eh? And you’re feeling guilty about turning her in?”
“They said they were taking her to the ziggurat to be bled,” says Minister Jof.
The sawbones is still laughing. He’s sorting through his pills but he’s laughing, these chuckles that come and go, and Minister Jof flushes.
“Laughter is the best medicine,” he says, “but not when you are doing it to the patient.”
Jimmy Q tosses Jof a conscience pill.
“Boy,” he says, in complete disregard for the Minister’s station, “if they’re taking her up the ziggurat, then she’s in an advanced state of moral decay. Riddled with degeneracy! Now, you can’t honestly think that someone in that condition wouldn’t have betrayed you, can you?”
Minister Jof stares.
“Gulp it down,” Jimmy Q says.
So Minister Jof puts the pill to his mouth. He swallows. He continues to stare.
Slowly, the burden lightens from his heart. Slowly, it sinks in.
“Of course she would’ve,” he says.
“You’re a good qualmer,” he says.
Then he glares.
“You’re laughing again.”
“You cut a man open,” says Jimmy Q, “and rip the malign nerves right from his chest, and people say, ‘you old sawbones! That’s nothing much.’ But give a man a pill and a few good words, and he’s all ‘damn fine! Good God, that’s fine qualming!’ Here! Here in Sarous’ kingdom! Here where there’s the best medicine for morality in all the world!”
Minister Jof feels obscurely guilty.
“Well, it’s not like I’d want the malign nerves ripped out of my chest,” he says. “I mean, I’m a Minister.“
It’s a tactical error, he realizes. It’s the kind of thing he wouldn’t have said, were he not in such good cheer.
He licks his lips.
“Not that I have any,” he says.
But Jimmy Q doesn’t seem to have noticed his error. The sawbones is lost in his own salugubrious thoughts.
“It’s the cuttin’ that I like,” admits Jimmy Q, not like he doubts the rectitude of Minister Jof, but more like it’s a tragedy.
- The histories of Ink Catherly continue TOMORROW, with:
THE GOLDEN AGE