(narrated once by a long-deceased whaleman, or some-such)
The old sea-dog—I see the sea, and smell the sea, on him now. Briny, weathered skin—a human pickle with a pickled nose and a cap that seemed stapled to his scalp. Always entering in the clothing that had been washed and dried by the Natural Laundress, Ocean, much more often than by human machine. On the inner lining of his coat, somewhat ironically, he had stitched tiny leathern flags from the nations whose coasts he had touched upon. A nose that would never drip—though an eye that often would, through no ocular defect, but rather through the over-nostalgic defect that is common to his kind. Why this patron chose me, I’ll never know but, whenever he set foot in the library, he sought me out. After a phrase or two of insincere pleasantry, he would begin regaling me with the history of common words and names, and would follow me around the stacks reciting these names in living and dead tongues, as if somehow the ever-sinking lists made the idea of his own passing more buoyant.
“All languages that speaketh of Inquiry, of searching and of seeking Knowledge, must needs include the essential Root & Foundation ‘quest’ [inside that language’s variant] of the appellation ‘Question’—any Tongue that does not so match these two link’d Ventures is false to the right true Spirit of the Endeavour.” –Sir Robert Browne
ਸਵਾਲ ਦਾ Punjabi
câu hỏi Vietnamese
Chapter 1: Looms
Very few of us remain.
Those who do, like me, scurry about these catacombs like moles, blindly panning for specks of gold amongst the dry pebbles.
This was all before the Gold Rush of the Internet Age, back when the only option for us was to submerge, navigating the tombs and combing through the spines, wearing out our own backs and eyes in the process. There was a certain kinesthetic joy about it, a joy combined with pain that I’m not sure any would understand now. I don’t even understand it, and I have lived my life through it. With it.
You can call me Mahl, by the way. I know what you’re about to say—“That’s a fake name if I ever heard one.” Maybe it is. Maybe all true names are. But that’s all you’re going to get from me, now or ever.
Like I wrote, this was some time ago—I won’t date myself by dating the story. The above-mentioned Gold Rush was just a trickle then: we were not promptly informed that it was now the Information Age and that our long-standing sentinel existences would soon be simultaneously more needed and more obsolete.
Break-time loomed ahead, and like the rest of them I yearned for it. But like the rest of us, my reasons were to dive yet again, not to re-surface for air and self-numbing respite. I looked forward to the breaks to escape their company: all that social “stuff,” the drama, the hallways, the hierarchies of those busy bees oozing out sweetness and sting at the same time.
The breaks seemed well-timed: whenever pep rallies and dances and other pagan rituals became just barely bearable, when the bathroom stall became more of a home than the gym or the auditorium or wherever else the queens oversaw their hives, when our pre-Columbine jokes about massacring the student body (and the well-meaning but wholly-ignorant faculty while we were at it) became a little bit too disarming even for us, the FLEETs called.
Called and culled us all to libraries throughout the country, though most densely concentrated in the women’s colleges of New England, for obvious reasons. The Female Learning, Enlightenment, and Erudition Teams had been established about a few generations before for just such a milieu of young women, those who hated to be called “young ladies” or, worse, “girls,” but for whom at the time of the FLEETs’ founding the outrightly-feminist tides had not yet rolled in. Of course, for us, the FLEETs might as well have been established in colonial America, because generations for a high school student are not two or three decades, but two or three school years. The secret-society-like history was just another layer of filter in separating the wheat from the chaff. Looking back on it, the pedigree and exclusivity of the group was rather ironic, given the just-as-exclusive groups we were fleeing during our FLEETing time.
The biggest difference, of course, was not in the exclusivity, but in the qualifications for such. As break-time was designated FLEET time since time immemorial, we naturally gathered forth a healthy contingent of international students who fit in as both social outcasts and knowledge-hunters of the most discerning variety. Why should these females leave their scholarly Mecca-nation to return to their respective home countries and pretend to care about old-school acquaintances and familial relations? No matter where we came from, we were the sort that would have no problem with staying at our school’s library during an entire break, provided we had enough food and little enough disturbance from the banal society in which we found ourselves. So, when we discovered an organization that provided us with just this, it put the Christmas back in Christmas Break, the holy in holidays.
During the school year, it was tolerable enough, provided one escaped to a cerebral world in an age bracket focused nearly completely on the physical realm and the infantile obsessions associated therewith. It was like living in a universe filled with babies, neonatals who had more than enough difficulty with the round pegs and round holes given them by the faculty. Some toddlers walking the halls were cute enough and did seem to have a sense of depth perception, but most were easily enough distracted by the games of peek-a-boob played over and over again by mindless movies, malls, and military recruitment disguised as video games.
As the monks in the Middle Ages, we had found an institution that shielded us and protected us from the miseries of the day, offered transcendence by sailing the seas of black lettering over the unending starchy white pages of Life itself. We were the Sor Juanas or Hildegards of the 20th century: cloistered females who found scholastic outlet somehow, underneath the layers of male bluster and blubber—or perhaps the Cathars would be a better parallel, as we hoped to escape gendered constructions altogether.
I remember once, sometime towards a college break, holding on to and weighed down by the bound tools of our trade, I was aimlessly wandering—and, so, with nowhere else to go, my aimed shore was the university library. A car full of uncouth youth passed on the street and, as it was the middle of winter’s beginning and my clothing offered little clue, they assumed I was a male geek of some sort. “Hey nerd—why don’t you go to the library?!?” was the shouted greeting I received, rather clipped due to the car’s speed. I doubt the carload heard my response: “Thank you; I was doing just that, my good man.”
Of course, this particular yarn I’m going to spin was much, much before all that—in fact, it was my first sojourn on a FLEET, when I was not quite green, but close enough. I had gone on plenty of trips with (male-dominated) “academic challenge” or “trivia club” teams, but these—as I later found out—were seen as almost worse than no experience at all in the field.
What drew me to this particular team, doomed as it was? Of course, after the fact, I see signs of the impending disaster everywhere in the weave and woof of my life and, indeed, in the entire universe leading up to that setting-forth. My fabric wove itself with that of the team members, that of its captain, that of the labyrinthine cavernous college library where we dug, that of the foreboding break-time which was true to all senses of its name. Like the three feminine Fates of old, the cross-hatches of necessity, chance, and free will stitch us all in tight. The deeper I dive, the more I realize that the depths represent merely another surface, another faceless face to face. Like the captain herself, I have yet to re-surface, and no desire to. Perhaps that is why I sojourned at all at such a tender age, hoping never to return or, if I did, to return like the ghost spaces between all written marks. Regardless of my wishes at the time, that ghostly, featureless, curled mark has stamped itself upon my shelved self ever since, ineffable like phantom knowledges that are known with such certainty in the most distinct of nightmares.
Chapter 2: Book Bag
I had scraped up some extra capital—not believe it or do—as a tutor to some of the more affluent failing members of my middle school class. This sent me into spirals of loathing so tightly-bound that, as soon as the final final passed, I packed my book bag with some essentials and, before heading for the bus station with my dearly-earned tutoring cash in hand, left a note for the Units. (I will rarely mention Them here, and hope Their absence tells the tale sufficiently.)
It was a Friday night, and it was simple enough to navigate the bus line to the college campus. I felt like some Shakespearean comedic character, arrayed in a hoodie to escape suspicion of a lone middle-school girl traveling so far on her lonesome. As it so happened, though I rode the same long route, not only the passengers but also the drivers failed to stay on-board all the way along the line, so no one noticed me sitting there long enough to question me.
I already smelled the tightly-packed, long-discarded volumes long before I set foot inside any one of the antiquated college’s buildings. It was dreary December and, with the hoary frost in the wind setting me quickly from college dorm to hotel to motel, I soon realized the ill-planned nature of my hopes: with the FLEETs soon assembling and then departing into the campus, there was not a room to be had. Nearly every one was booked by some unquestioning concierge for an under-aged middle or high school-aged gaggle of females. (I have often determined to tell this story before, but could not figure out how to suspend the disbelief of any reader or listener on this particular point—no one outside of FLEETdom could token the idea of young women having so much autonomy as we FLEETers did, overtaking and running that campus as if we were the true owners of the college, completely disregarding our minor status as minors and our precarious situation as minors of the female persuasion.) As all the rooms were booked by those more experienced and less impulsive than I on this first venture and as my own single nature demanded a single room or nothing, it seemed I would be soon enough seeking shelter in some vestibule for the night.
However, one last sign greeted me, in just such a desolate, sketchy vestibule: an unlit, smeared sign for “The Sis’er-Feehan Inn.” Would a huge boulder greet me as I opened the door? There was but one way: in, and so in I went, driven by the winter inside and out.
Chapter 3: The Sis’er-Feehan Inn
The missing “t” from the hanging sign in the vestibule raised my suspicions about the true Catholic nature of Sister Feehan and these suspicions would very soon be confirmed by the presence of Sr. Feehan herself. That she was once a nun and had somehow lapsed in more ways than one was agreed upon generally by anyone who stayed at her small, dusty inn. Despite my numerous stays at the same inn since, however, I cannot get over a surmise that the proprietress continues to pray the rosary nightly. Such an openly-devout individual would stand out in the ultra-critical company of the FLEETs and, while we did have our share of the parochial plaid-skirt-wearing variety, these were usually looked upon with disdain. Their belief in a perfect knowledge anywhere, even in the great Beyond, was seen as a stubborn hindrance to unfettered never-satisfied inquiry.
Before I met Sis’er Feehan on that first occasion, what primarily greeted me after stepping into the entrance, besides the fact that it was only slightly less cold inside than out, was a giant painting, seemingly done by one of the Abstract Expressionist set of yesteryear. The setting of the painting, in a shadow-filled hallway, and the age of it adding layer and layer of dust and grime, only served to further abstract and distract the viewer. After staying at the inn more times than I care to count, I came upon the conclusion that it depicted a lone female figure impaling herself upon a row of ultra-sharpened pencils. But perhaps that’s just me.
I drew nary a glance upon entering the main cramped lobby-like/study lounge area, as FLEETing glances were otherwise directed to books, study guides, encyclopedia and, of course, mark-ers. Though I will propound further upon this latter item later, I feel it only proper to digress at this point to explain the importance of the hyphen. Markers, of course, were no prized possession, at least not by females of our self-upbringing. We did not adorn our folders with Sharpie-flowers or names of subjects with every t crossed and every i dotted with a perfectly-symmetrical heart. Mark-ers, instead, were the prizes of FLEETing victories. As fonts used in prompts were far from uniform, it was deemed custom some long time before that the victor of a question was entitled to trace the question mark of the successfully-answered prompt on her own scratch paper. These “mark-ers” became signs of adeptitude, the size of the collection being proportional to the undefeatedness of that particular teammate. Of course, it would be easy to dissemble and merely copy down question marks of a multitude of varieties on any scrap paper but, to my knowledge, the Code of honor that we all necessarily followed as prerequisite for joining any FLEET prohibited such deceit.
The mark-ers were often re-traced again and again, however, with the original tracings going into the trash or, in this case, into a small fireplace centrally located in the lounge. So every so often a crackle of questions long since vanquished would emit from the room. Other than that and the studious sounds of pencils and fingernails scratching and pages turning, it was silent. A room of discipline, of intense focus and concentration, of total willed ignorance to common feeling for the sake of individualized fact. In short, a room of FLEETers. I had found home at long last.
The matter remained to be settled, though, of lodging in the inn. I trod on into the next room, which was the natural consequent of the first: after laboriously preparing for the next rounds and solidifying one’s victories from the previous, some nourishment was required. Hence, a bar was squatted in the corner of the next room—a particularly dusty and dark corner, but the glint of various cans and bottles signaled any FLEETer entering that this was the place for Energy repletion. Not a drop of alcohol was served, but rather the carbonated predecessors to RedBull popular at the time, mixed in various amounts with artificial fruit juices and other sugar- and citric-acid-instilled beverages. The bartendress never once took a seat at the stool located for her convenience, but rather Oedipea (for this was what she was called, in honor of the great Sphinx riddle-answerer of yore) seemed to have already imbibed her entire store of Energy, for she ceaselessly was mixing new concoctions. Perhaps she was more similar to an alchemist than she was aware, for she constantly strove to exchange the lead that filled all of our hands, bones, and eyes, into liquid gold. Current medical science might advise against such and, instead, for a more balanced sleep pattern in addition to more regular exercise. But this advice would have been dispatched as quickly as a true/false question. There was always the next dig, the next round, the next potential mark-er in your book.
More curious than Oedipea’s energized supply of cheap Energy in plastic cups was the shape of the bar itself, for it was not one marble slab, but rather curved in a curlicue shape. Punctuated by the unoccupied raised black stool, this resembled more than anything a giant question-mark itself.
Punctuating my wallflower thoughts about this set-up was the entrance of an entire FLEET just then returning from the long-haul. The first sight of stars, the first smell of the brisk frost outside, the first foot-crunch on the piling snow, had just greeted these entering females seconds before. They had spent a three-day dig in the nearby computer science library for a CS-intensive round, or so was recited by lookers-on as they entered. This set had obviously been released for break somewhat earlier, and so did not waste any time, and the FLEET administration was happy to test out some SATII-like material on these high-flyers. After nigh-72 hours on the trail, these females rejoiced in the sight of Oedipea and her cornucopia of artificially-induced alertness in liquid form. One of the FLEETers (it was miraculous that it was only one, considering the above) complained to Oedipea of a head-cold, at which without further ado Oedipea removed a bottle from a lower shelf of pure corn syrup and, removing a pipette-full from a glass bottle with a crossed-out label (which from its viscosity I can only assume was cough syrup) stirred the mixture vigorously and told her patient that it was to be imbibed in one gulp and that she would wake up a new woman in the morn. This resulted only in increased jollity from the patient and her teammates.
One FLEET member, however, was not quite as social as the others. She was one monolithic bulk—the largest high school female I had ever seen—and her humorlessness combined with her tan revealed her somewhere from the South, though I didn’t catch her accent then to confirm this. She did not once look up from her plastic cup, did not once tell a witness of the CS library’s adventures, and did not once even speak. Of course, she gained my sympathetic interest and I wanted to know more of her but, before I could step closer, she had disappeared, likely to her room to crash, or so I thought (this thought would later be contradicted, as shall be revealed). I only learned of her name when her fellow FLEETers, staving off entropy in something approaching sociability, turned around to raise a toast of Energy with the words, “To Bulky! To Bulky! … Say, where did that Amazonian trull scowl off to?”
Though intrigued by Bulky, I had my own business and, with the FLEET just arriving as it did, I highly doubted if I could find the solitary room that I had so wished—I’d even take a closet at that point. Though our gender is supposed to be enamored with sleep-overs and the like, we were obviously of a different stock than the pillow-fighting, gossiping, ex-boyfriend-voodooing type. Call it an idiosyncrasy, but up until that point I had never slept with anyone or anything since the age of four, as I promptly eschewed all blankies, stuffed animals, and the like in one momentous decision. I never sought refuge in Their bed and, like E. Dickinson, my only frigate was a book, even during the summer months, as I never once set off for the ridiculousness squared of summer camp.
My suspicions were confirmed when I found myself in the dining room and queried the landlady, Sis’er Feehan herself. She laughed in my face, then said, “Come on, now, I thought you gals were supposed to be smarter than that. Didn’t you see that FLEET just arrive? They all booked here four nights ago before setting off.”
I turned around and would have found sleeping quarters in some snowbank had not she addressed me again before I left the room: “Come on now, girl, you’ve got to have more moxie than that if you’re going to survive here. You’re not going to press me? Not going to dig deeper? Say to Sis’er Feehan, ‘You’re going to give me something or I’ll leave my mark-er in your book of a face’?”
I faced her again: “No, that had not crossed my mind.”
Laughing again, she pulled me to her side and confided: “Listen, greenie, I’m telling you this because you have the looks of a lost puppy, but I’ve got half a bed. One of your top FLEETers this side of the Adirondacks has the other half, but she won’t be in ‘til later, if at all, so it’s all yours, at least for the next few hours but probably for the whole night.”
“No, thank you. I prefer not to share a bed, if it’s all the same.”
“It’s all the same to me, girl. Just not sure if it’s going to be all the same to you, what with freezing your butt-fat solid.”
With that, she brusquely returned to setting up dinner, and I looked around the room. I spied a space between two of the wall benches and, out of desperation, addressed her for a third time, saying “Are those benches taken for the night?”
Before returning yet again to her boulder of comestibles, Sis’er-Feehan said over her shoulder: “All yours, lil’ sis’er. That’ll be ninety-five ninety-nine.” This was followed by a shout to one of her underlings to finalize the bill.
After settling my account—nearly all the earnings from my uninspiring career as after-school tutor—I sat down at my sleeping-place for supper. The food was hearty stuff, I must admit, and the company was excellent: though FLEETing acquaintances surely abounded, no one said a word throughout the entire meal. Like monks of old, indeed. My type of people. Though these females had the answers to most questions with answers, social interaction at table-side still proved an unassailable obstacle. So, they kept their minds where they belonged: cataloging mentally and in some cases with sharpened pencils the litany of facts most recently received, to be shelved with the strata of those thousands of others already accumulated. I saw one pallid specimen actually use her pencil as fork, as it saved her time from switching between writing utensil and dining utensil. (Graphite in such doses is harmless, by the way.)
Shortly afterwards, all the FLEET members and prospectives settled down for the evening, as tomorrow was the main Drawing Session and all wanted to be on their cerebral toes. I, of course, remained in the deserted room as the plates were stacked by Sis’er Feehan and washed by unseen busgirls.
It was towards midnight that I gave up. The only possible way I could sleep on such a narrow species of bench was to angle it against the wall and, then, the gap between bench and wall and floor created a perfect chilling draft right to my midriff. Hearing Sis’er still clattering around in the kitchen, I said: “I’ve changed my mind. Has that FLEETer come back yet?”
“No. I reckon she’s still talking to her head.”
“… I’m sorry? Talking to her head?”
“Yeah. Sometimes takes it off and has a half-hour chat with it.”
“Pardon me, but do you mean this in the literal sense?”
“Not sure that metaphors are much use to a FLEETer, are they? Even the humanities gals don’t readily catalog figurative language express—”
“Sis’er Feehan, it’s quite late, and I should like to know, if it’s perfectly all right with you, if the woman I am sharing a bed with is either a) headless, in which case, dead, or b) insane, believing that she can have colloquy with her own head and that the selfsame head is capable of independent intelligent thought sufficient to discourse with her. In either case, this interlocutor is not to be my bed-mate, and it would be certifiably actionable in most courts of law if you knowingly lodged a minor with such a person.”
Sis’er Feehan, for the first time since I had made her acquaintance, stopped doing what she was doing. “My,” she said. “You are a born FLEETer, missy. You got something of the style of the Parent Superior.” Laughing heartily, this comment made me even redder in the face and, seeing my flustered state, Sis’er Feehan touched my shoulder, took out the largest key ring I have ever beheld, and led me upstairs with a small flashlight, as all the lights were put out and had been for several hours.
“What I meant to say, miss,” whispered Sis’er Feehan as we ascended, “was that this ink’d lady has a strange sort of companion in her pencil’s head and, affixing an everyday eraser to it, believes it contains some sort of mystical power.”
“So, I repeat, why are you lodging a minor—”
“Peg is the best in this business, kid. You can’t do any better. Like I said, it’s after midnight and she’s probably not coming back. Probably making out with that pencil head of hers right now. Regular Onana, that one, I’m sure of it… You’ll have the bed to yourself, youngling.”
By this point, we had entered the cramped room, and it looked like Sis’er Feehan was right. Without saying a word, she departed, and I was left to rummage through this Peg’s belongings. Though I spotted some strange articles, nothing screamed madwoman and so, despite her rather bizarre fetish for pencil-heads, she seemed to offer no real danger should she return. At this point, that prospect seemed unlikely, so I deposited my own belongings and fell into a deep and deeply-needed sleep.
I awoke jarringly to the sound of a lock being opened and beheld the outline of this Peg stepping into the room, none too quietly. (I hoped this was the Peg that fit the room’s hole, at least.) While not the bulk Bulky was, Peg certainly had a commanding presence, if her silhouette alone was any indication. Apparently Sis’er-Feehan had laid down her boulders for the night and retired, because Peg walked into the room as if she could expect no one else occupying it or her bed. I pulled up the heavy top sheet tight, and kept as still as I could, while I kept my eyes locked on the figure. She removed a small Mag-Lite, and set it on the counter, depositing her coat and various outer layers there as well.
As she undressed to get into some sort of old-fashioned nightie/pajamas-type outfit, I saw that nearly every square inch of her body was tattooed. This, apparently, was the “ink” that Sis’er Feehan had alluded to—and not, as I thought, the fact that she used a pen in lieu of a pencil as her weapon of choice. (I was perplexed by the comment, particularly when juxtaposed with the remark about the fascination that pencils held for this Peg creature.) The ink appeared to be random numbers and abbreviations until I examined the markings more closely in the light of the small flashlight: they were short-hand for Bible verses, ex: “Jon. 2:42-44,” for, I can only assume, the Book of Jonah, Chapter 2, Verses 42-44.
I began making all sorts of logical, non-religious explanations for the markings—perhaps they were Peg’s personalized code, or her way of cataloging different times and years during which prominent FLEETs with which she was involved were victorious, or… But there was no use to these excuses: this female was a religious one, it was obvious, and therefore my suspicions were raised and I felt the sweat trickle on my lip, not from the weight of the cloth upon it, but from the weight and weightiness of these ideas. Sis’er Feehan had lied to me, in all her Catholic conspiratorial ways, and had knowingly given me a room with a Bible-toting, verse-memorizing proselytizer emerging from somewhere in the Pacific, judging from her melatonin readings in that low light. As my eyes got adjusted, I was sure that this creature marked “Other Pacific Islander” in the Ethnicity blank on the PSAT’s. Not that I’m a bigot.
But this religious thing scared me. One of these crazy Christians, to boot. Probably full of sweet grace and charity to conceal her condescending judgments of all of us sinners, who study the Bible only as the most-alluded-to text in Western Lit. I was unsure if I would make it out alive—anti-spiritually, at least. Next thing you know, she would get me seeing the whole scheme of the FLEETs as some sort of accursed allegory…
But then, prompted by the sight of it, I recalled Sis’er Feehan’s jesting remarks about talking to heads—pencil heads in particular. There it was, the plebeian pencil in Peg’s digits, but at the top, an eraser head of such precisely-carved detail that I thought it was a mark-er of the greatest glory in the FLEETing world.
“Joy, O. Joy, O. Joy, O,” repeated Peg in whispering hushed tones over and over to the eraser head. Then, she removed it carefully and “fed” it pencil shavings which she collected in a small pouch. I was unsure of the significance of this, but still hypothesized (rightly, as it would later turn out) that the ritual was meant to transfer the “energy” of other FLEETers into this idol named Joy, O. For consistency’s sake, I thought it should have been eraser shavings and not pencil shavings but, hey, I was relieved to see her take out an eraser-head idol and not a Bible.
This ritual performed, and “Joy, O.” intoned several more times, Peg dressed herself in the nightie, lifted up the covers, and joined me in the bed.
I then began to scream my own non-eraser head off. Her presence next to me did not allay my fears of an early-morning proselytizing. Far from it.
“Sis’er Feehan, Sis’er Feehan! Save me from this Christian menace!” I shouted, not really appreciating the irony of calling none other than a nominal nun to perform such a task.
Sis’er Feehan easily kicked open the door and shined her big flash-light on both of us. Peg, it turned out, had grabbed for her eraser deity, and was praying to it just as I was praying to Sis’er. She had the business-end of the pencil, therefore, dangerously close to my person, so that I jumped out of bed upon seeing it pointed in my direction.
“Peg, Peg, what have you done?”
“Nothing at all, Mum,” said Peg in a most refined yet obviously-learned dialect of the English language. “Just saying my bedtime prayers to Joy, O. when this little thing starts up.”
“Get that pencil away from me!” screamed I.
“How dare you attack the integrity of Joy, O.’s holy shrine!”
“Now, Peg. Imagine the situation from her point-of-view,” said Sis’er Feehan, concealing a smile but none too well.
“All right, then,” said Peg, throwing the pencil, eraser and all, in a way that showed me that the entire Joy, O. business must be some sort of on-again, off-again ruse.
“Thank God,” I whispered to myself.
Peg gazed at me quizzically. “What are you, some irrational religioner?”
“Now, go to sleep, you two. Drawing Sesh is tomorrow, as I needn’t remind ye.”
With that, Sis’er closed and locked the door, Peg said, “G’night, little fish,” and we both slept a sleep like a death after life after death.
Chapter 4: The Weight of Memory
I awoke sometime in the early morn with this Peg’s arm thrown over me in a tight hold that could only be described as affectionate. As such, I tried to wriggle free of this disgusting display, even if it were unconscious on the part of my bed-mate.
As Peg possessed a girth and brawn that made my struggling futile, I was left—as always—to my thoughts. In this case, though, in lieu of the spewing-forth of knowledge tid-bits which I could expect at any conscious moment, I was instead greeted by a vague stirring of affect, suggested by the touch of this stranger upon my person.
Worse than that, an unmistakable imprint of a childhood memory. It was from my fourth or fifth year, when I had failed yet again to express the remotest interest in athletic or any other non-academic field enforced upon me. I had also failed to test positively for any Asperberger’s-like condition, which the Units at that time assumed could be the only rational explanation for my informational proclivities to the exclusion of all else at such an early age, when usually concrete matters alone arouse interest or excitement. Of course, such measures for the autism-spectrum of symptoms were far from positivistic back then, but I had failed to answer any questions put me by behavioral psychologists in ways other than within normal range. (As it turned out, quite ironically, this would be among the few subsets of questions posed to me in my lifetime that I would fail to answer in a “correct” manner.)
Anyway, when I didn’t register an athletic/affective/non-heuristic interest in whatever was deemed so terribly important and life-foundation-forming, I was sent to the spare bedroom until the following morning. This, however, was at two o’clock in the afternoon. The prospect of that elongated of a bedtime aroused all manner of affectations of affections and apologies, but the Units were united and would have none of it. I was sent to bed only a few hours after noon. What was far worse: I was to be confined for all that time in a room without any books at all.
I suppose that that is where my future-FLEET aptitude really stepped it up several degrees. For, finding myself with but my own information-soaking brain for that half-day and more, I went through every entire fact that I had learned up until that point.
All was going swimmingly until I came to a “fact” that was shaded in mystery and uncertainty. So much so that I could not even remember what the kernel of truth was that had led it to be deposited in my child’s memory. This impression—that there was a fact that was no fact at all, but rather a piece of intellectual pyrite meant to deceive knowledge-hunters everywhere—laid upon me like a weight, and I found it difficult to breathe. Indeed, that afternoon and almost the entirety of the evening saw me lying stiffly in bed, wrestling with this haunting phantom of a certifiable truth.
With Peg’s arm laying just so, preventing any but the most shallow breaths, the weight of that half-remembered, half-mystifying fact came back, in full force, and I once again struggled with capturing it, a useless struggle so many years after the fact.
Peg got up shortly—or perhaps several hours—afterwards, and she quickly removed her arm, thus assuring me that she was all right and had meant no affection at all in the gesture. This was only confirmed as we dressed in complete silence and then ate breakfast with the other guests in a silence, somehow, even more complete. I was assured yet again that I was among my own kind for the first time in my life, and the weight of memory was soon lifted as I returned, like all of them, from the shadowy world of Fancy into the rigid edifices of Fact. Despite all the skin-colors that we had there represented, we became one gray mass as we filed through the streets towards the campus; despite all the languages we spoke, the loudest sounds emitted were the crunches of our footsteps on the fresh snow of the college walkways. And so, just as we ate, we all made our way just as silently—bleak black human words on the austere white pages of the morning—into the largest edifice on campus.
Chapter 5: The Chapel; the “Sermon”
The chapel was indeed massive: one of those flying-buttress affairs meant to echo the grandness and ungraspable nature of deity. Despite our rather large numbers as we walked towards the heart of campus, or so I thought amongst the throngs, we only filled up a third of the seats.
Before entering and seating ourselves—silently of course, though not from reverence or respect, but through a type of secular holiness at the commencement of this venture before us—the veterans amongst us paused before certain postings in the narthex. These seemed cuneiform to us neophytes, but upon closer inspection revealed the rankings from previous rounds—indeed, the stats were so extensive that these might have been the entire recorded standings from all FLEETs to ever set forth.
Occasionally, one heard the only vocal sound emitted from the veterans—a type of hushed inhaling through front teeth—that signified the brutally-cold justice of a team entirely sacrificed due to one question-hunt that went horribly afoul. This occurrence was rare enough to elicit shock and awe simultaneously. These particular FLEETs had been—the harshness of the word was apt—“stumped” and stumped soundly for both a team-wide ignorance and a stubborn decision by the team’s captain to monomaniacally attack the prompt repeatedly, futile dig after futile dig into the shelves, as the round dwindled, all in vain. These females had no recognition, no memorials, no honors—just this succinct listing at the next big tournament—and no invitations for any of them to return. You did run into such a disgraced one from time to time, who somehow got back into the game, but these usually could be trusted to desert every team thereafter, out of a certain survivor’s-guilt aimlessness. I knew none of this at the time, of course, and took the stats to be some sort of memoriam for some Miriam or other who passed on, as many of the FLEET Founding Mothers’ daughters’ generation were just then dying off.
Eventually, veteran and rookie alike all had seated ourselves and were then waiting—still in silence—as the Parent Superior entered through the narthex from the increasingly-flurried outside world. Formerly by previous generations called “Mother Superior,” this reverend figure presided over all question-makers, who themselves were usually former captains. It was said that this particular Parent Superior ran an especially tight ship and, as such, the collection of soon-to-be FLEETs now assembled was in for a highly-regimented, brow-furrowed formal introduction by way of homily.
True to form, the Parent Superior ascended to the lectern and flipped through the Bible with nothing less than disdain. Finding a passage that gave her wrinkles wrinkles (which we took to be a brief sign of mirth), her stern aspect returned as she addressed us. She had obviously memorized this verse, but made as if to pronounce every syllable as if coming across not just these words but any words for the first time:
“ ‘ “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.” ’ Cute. ‘Noble things?’ ‘Price above rubies?’ Not as far as I can see, as our History specialists here assembled can no doubt confirm.”
With this she closed the book tightly, and from the closing book the sound of a belch echoed through the chapel, as if the Parent Superior had digested the entirety of Genesis through Revelations and had trouble stomaching the contents.
“Ladies, women, females: you are on the brink of realizing the nobility of not just the gender, but of the race itself. And you will be ignored by this time and all ages hence.
“Trivia. Triv-i-a. That is what they call it, what we devote our lives to. True, for some of you this is merely a nice way to advance into the cutthroat world of college, another feather in your résumé, as it were. To those, I wish you the best: you will get to the limited benchmark ye set for yourselves. Welcome to your first and last FLEET. But for those who realize the true power possessed in these FLEETs—the connections you are making here setting a yet-higher trajectory than you could possibly fathom—you know what we do, how great is our power and our responsibility when gathered together here from across the nation. For those of ye true FLEETers, cursed be she who sees her own individual fate as somehow of a different order than the collective domain of the ceaseless enterprise that ennobles us. If you pursue questions and pursue answers, you cannot but be one of us. If you pursue yourself, thinking self-knowledge will enable you to escape your calling like a—like a Jonah of the myth—then you will find yourself all right, to your own torment and peril. And I speak not just for those who set the prompts and run FLEETs for our careers, as I and my fellow ministers do. I speak for the very highest echelons of power of womankind. True power, and not wealth, nor prestige, nor the fame which is promised and which consumes especially those of your age and leaves nary a trace. The true power that they call ‘trivial.’
“For those on the outside, trivia is what we engage in. From, of course, the three roads meeting together of Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic—the ‘Trivium’ of a classical education that those Renaissance men, ignorant set though they were, expanded significantly and thought themselves so very special for doing so. You ladies, you have fulfilled the promise of that Renaissance and all renaissances: you have broken through all distinction of discipline and specialty. Education? They knew not what it meant. Just the same for those pitiable male-dominated ‘clubs’ which can only hope to emulate us. Oh, could they succeed in their hopes! I’m sure you’re all familiar with the adage, ‘You must work twice as hard as men to get half the credit.’ My question to you now is: ‘Why set the bar so pitiably low?’ FLEET’s Founding Mothers did you no great service in eliminating competitors of the male gender, ladies—they took the guppies, the easy prey, out of the tank and kept the sharks in the water, as you can see if you look into the eyes of the females gathered here. We have to work twice as hard? Only twice as hard as that? We work exponentially harder than them, and receive practically no credit at all, but we pave the roads, ladies, while they tinkle over the curb!
“Trivia? To anyone outside this place, everything but the most vapid, superficial type of information is trivial. To us, no knowledge is trivial. Every conversation, even with the Cro-Magnon in our midst, every social interaction, every moment responding to any outside stimuli, whether bound or unbound—be it an overheard conversation, a radio commercial, a natural vista, some factoid laughed at by the plankton above—every moment of this life contains information, ladies, and we retain it. We do not catalog it, sift through it, re-arrange it to certain criteria which are bound to fail us over time. We hold it close and never—never—let it go. Our task is not for the faint of mind: When you go on a dig, you know not which footnote or sidebar digression will be the prompt awaiting you, staring you in the face the next day, the next break, the next year. This is what keeps the human race around, ladies. Keeps us evolving. Everything that they cherish is the true trivia.
“Women used to be told that their bodies were their greatest assets. That was never the case or, at least, never for long. Your bodies will decay—you only have to look up here to see it. Your body will let you down. Your body of knowledge is the most deadly weapon in your arsenal, ladies, and with it you can conquer worlds known and yet-to-be-known. Our individual knowledges, of course, will fall like—like fleeting snow—but our collective knowledge of the FLEETs themselves, this will sail us all, male and female, young and old, national and international, believers and the sane…” (A laugh here.)
“Today is Saturday morning. Sabbath, for somebody somewhere. And while God may be resting, ladies, we never can!” (And with this, she smashed her aged fist upon the Bible she had delicately closed earlier.) “We push on, and the test here is never over. No rewards or punishments await anywhere beyond. Question and Answer is not a game—it is Existence itself.
“One final word more, before I draw to a close and the Drawing commences. If I learned anything through my times here, a moral tying together the billions of data, it is this: There is no ‘I’ in FLEET. As I mentioned previously, anyone hoping to retain a wholly individual knowledge is wholly a fool. To give oneself over, to be true to the ‘T’ in FLEET, is very difficult for human beings of our discipline and of our exacting temperament. But anyone who seeks to be other than a teammate, any one of us who seeks to be one self rather than a part, is doomed to failure. This goes not just for you FLEETers, but for us at the top, for the question-makers especially. If we focus on our individual knowledges and individual subsets of knowledge only and think that the end-all, be-all, then what is the point? Will we not become merely as specialized as those self-congratulatory cohorts we find in every field under the sun? Or, what is worse, will we then use the FLEETs to make some sort of vain projection of our individual will, hoping for prestige and fame that will never outlive us, all for the sake of a ‘right’ question or a ‘right’ answer? We must never be satisfied with any question and—especially this—any answer, especially the right one. If all we do is seek to check all the boxes, what are we doing here? Take your mark-ers and go make a scrapbook. We must be satisfied with—no, more than that—we must feed off of failure, and the worst failure of all is an easy success. If we fulfill our hunger, develop some schemata for the universe, what is the difference? You might as well read this book then…”
With that, she sat down on the floor—a skill for someone her age—and took the Book with her, doing just what she had so spurned in her very last suggestion. As she flipped through page after page, her wrinkles-upon-wrinkles added yet a third layer and one could distinctly hear a cackle, which only those in the back, who knew her better, heard as our cue to leave. We left the Parent Superior there on the floor, laughing at the patriarchs, as we set about our charge.
Chapter 6: Biographical Sketch, For Those Interested
Of course it is only fitting, if one will spend much time at all with a certain figure, for a smattering of background information to be revealed, at some point or other, for the edification of the reader. I debated including this sketch earlier, but thought it right to first make introductions, and then expand more fully on a biography for the curiously-minded.
Be it stated furthermore here that all of this was not revealed about Peg in one conversation, as conversations betwixt us were few. The mysteries of such associations are vaguely understood by most, and even more vaguely felt by us FLEETers: there are many FLEETing acquaintances, but a FLEETing friendship is few and far between. Nonetheless, why of all possible duos in that panorama of background, ethnicity, and origin, we should be so of a mind at the first to strike such a harmony and then to remain inseparable, I know not—and indeed it more than a little consternated me as the hours of my maiden FLEET passed, that I should be monkey-roped together with such a FLEETer as this: certainly her skills were second-to-none, as will later be hinted, but obviously the idiosyncrasies in regards to her superstitions gave me some wariness. Nonetheless, with my qualms or without them, Peg and I were often labeled as “Doña Quixote and Sancha Panza” throughout that FLEET, even at the very early juncture when we exited our common room.
Being a devout atheist, of course I felt it my humanistic duty to attempt to talk some sense into Peg, as she showed many signs of being perfectly rational and discerning, outside of her attachment to Joy, O. Nonetheless, the more I reflected on it, the more I realized that the truest atheists out there very well might outwardly profess any dogmatic faith, so Peg’s association with her Joy, O. could not really represent the biggest paradox among the atheistic set. Furthermore, we all had our different superstitions and weighty significances concerning this or that random incident or other—so at least Peg’s beliefs were completely localized and contained within one pencil-eraser, rather than the entire FLEET into which she drew running the risk of having such similar but more universally-applicable beliefs wildly emerging in light of that or this coincidence in the middle of a dig, when one has enough trouble dealing with the avalanche of fact to navigate around a jutting rock of fantasy. (Another reflection, of course, is that all of us put our faith into something—an annoying middle school Science teacher and I once got into a heated discourse about just such a similar postulate: she claimed that more absolute than the most pious belief in any deity is the stubborn faith in inalienable fact, the sole locating of proof in and only in sense-perception, among the Scientist sects.)
Peg’s curious nearly-wholly-civilized attitude was especially noteworthy considering her upbringing in the midst of the most stubborn of willed ignorances, perhaps rivaling a whole wampum of Bible Belts. Peg was born into the upper echelons of a remote matriarchal and polyandrous Pacific Island society, still dealing with the legacy of colonial imperialism by stubbornly holding on to archaic animistic beliefs, even into the latter half of the 20th century. Her name was not Peg, at least not exclusively Peg: “peg” was merely the second syllable of her last name, the one most easily distinguishable amidst the nineteen syllables total of her names. (I later encountered some Thai females on digs, and thought their multisyllabic surnames “Smiths” in contrast with Peg’s sesquipedalian nomenclature.) In the face of Western civilization, even while A/C, T.V., and masculine supremacy came in with the tides, the indigenous society responded by only becoming more entrenched into its matrilineal religiosity.
The beginning of Peg’s awakening came innocently enough: an encyclopedia salesperson arrived on the island, selling wares. Peg’s mother was skeptical, but thought this the best way to intimidate a young child from Western knowledge, by in effect giving her a knowledge vaccine. Of course, it had the opposite effect: though Peg tried to hide her eagerness as the sale was transacted and the set of books arrived on the next tide, she dug in voraciously as she would continue to do throughout her life. Though originally she saw herself and her people above such trivial pursuits, in time she came to realize that knowledge was the way not only to transcend Western society, but to conquer it. Only later, when she had jumped ship with a group of fervent missionaries, did she realize that conquering Western society alone was not her goal: conquering all societies was. As she digested and tore apart the Old and New Testaments, she had tattooed on her person every contradictory, paradoxical, or down-right nonsensical verse she could find. Eventually, her body told the tale of her victory of the mind over the so-called “soul.” (She even had tattooed the verse in Leviticus that prohibits tattoos.)
Having ravaged the most fundamental and fundamentalist text in the West, she ditched the missionaries in California and worked her way east, hitching from library to library and conquest to conquest. She had never contacted her people again, and saw the vanity of their ways as representative of all ways to preserve group “tradition” at the cost of individual reason. By the time she arrived in the world of the FLEETs, she was captain material, even potentially question-maker material, but insisted on being digger for others, the better to symbolize her commitment to the knowledge rather than vain status in any society, even ours.
Was Joy, O. the only vestige of her people’s ways, or a new form of quasi-madness to cope with this plunge into adulthood’s tedium at a child’s age? I know not—I only know that I had gained a favored place in Joy, O.’s protection, and her mistress’ as well. While I did not intend to set out as a double-act, I soon realized the advantages of the attachment for a greenie like me, and went along. If I were consciously looking for a mentor in successfully and permanently deep-sixing one’s past life for the sake of pure knowledge, I could not have found a better. Or, rather, at that point could not have found a better.
Chapter 7: From Chapel to Cathedral
As we silently cruised, with an oddly-carefree type of anticipation, from the chapel and Parent Superior’s scene, Peg and I of course drew some attention, not as much for our respective figures as for our juxtaposition with each other, particularly as we began to discuss setting out together on the same FLEET. Again, I cannot precisely define how this association came to be so naturally but uncharacteristically communicative, but so it was, and I found myself glad of it, just as I had been unglad of any associations throughout my life leaning towards this (dare I write it?) domestic nature.
Peg had not heard the bulk of the “sermon”: having objected to quoting Proverbs, even in such a spirit of disdain and levity, she departed. But, surprisingly to me, she waited for me and me alone outside of the chapel, and only when by my side started towards all of our final destinations: the central Library on campus. I felt the weight once again of that childhood “fact,” but it was somewhat alleviated by the constant stares we received. For the first time in my life, I acutely felt the judgment of my peers, for these were truly my peers, as opposed to those life forms that I had previously encountered. I judged, however, that at least part of this staring was because our duet was joined by a third “voice.” Of course, Peg had her Joy, O. and consulted with Her and with me in regards to our drawing in together. But then, as surprisingly as we had begun our peripatetic journey side-by-side, Peg insisted that I continue solo. As there was no Beatrice to pick up this Virgil’s mentorship, I objected most vocally to this. As soon as I thought I had won the jackpot and would be putting in my meager ante riding with a shark, she up and abandons me to the waves.
At this point, we paused our travels, and Peg drew me, much too much by force for my taste, to the side of the walkway, towards a small graveyard, to have what must have looked to all passers-by like a lovers’ quarrel. (Of course, now I see this setting as too much of an omen, but in New England, cemeteries everywhere are nothing of note usually, the region having four centuries’ worth of bodies to dispose of.) We received even more stares than our walking side-by-side had, especially when Peg took my book-bag off of me and added it to her own belongings before departing back to the Sis’er-Feehan for, as she called it, her “Ramadan” of fasting and reflection in the lone presence of Joy, O., whilst all of us drew in. In fact, Peg insisted that this was just Joy, O.’s plan since the beginning, to leave the decision of which FLEET we drew in entirely up to my green judgment, apparently which judgment was always guided by Joy O.’s mojo, despite my only having made acquaintance just the night before with her sharpened divinity that ends all sketch’d-in shapes.
However, before she could effect this sudden departure, Peg was accosted by a group of freshwomen somewhat but just barely my senior. They began to pray to their own pencil-erasers and, despite my obvious sympathies with their parody rather than its subject, this new-found… friend-ship filled me with consternation, directed not at Peg but at them.
Peg dropped all of her belongings, and mine, and sized up these freshwomen as if to flout them with her intellectual prowess. Luckily for them, a captain of one of the FLEETs approached. “Hey there! Save that for the rounds, Queequeg.”
“What did she call me?” Peg turned around suddenly to me and, though I was on her side, even I was afraid to speak to her.
“I was referring to the character in—”
“Do you think I would waste any of my Joy-O.-given energy on these little fish? Let me ask you a question, ‘Capting.’”
It was lucky that most of the throngs had passed us by, particularly the administration, as this type of non-FLEET pre-round query was at least frowned upon if not outright prohibited.
The Captain replied, to cover her own fear: “I wouldn’t do that, idolater, not with these portentous spirits wandering around these graves. You’re bound to last as long as Elizabeth Amtou.”
The freshwomen at this point were bemused to the extreme, but this name-drop did not seem to affect Peg in the least. She smiled and then even some neck-verses of John joined her in giggling.
“Arnott, you mean? Elizabeth Arnott, Emily Dickinson’s roommate whilst she was a seminary student briefly on this very campus?”
“Good, you got the 100-level History reference, even if you didn’t get the name correct. Amtou.”
“Arnott. Died not even into her sophomore year, and buried, if memory serves, three rows behind and one plot to the left of you right now.”
The following silence took on a different character entirely than all those I had previously experienced in these college environs. We all tacitly agreed to confirm this fact, as the physical evidence was so nearby, and en masse walked to the grave that Peg mentioned. In doing so, the “Capting” conceded that whatever was on that grave would either be her victory or her besmirchment, for these freshwomen were the type not to keep any secret.
The grave spoke the answer in yelling letters: “ELIZABETH ARNOTT, 1830-1851”. A historical marker from the Daughters of the Revolution confirmed the rest of the tale. The disgraced “Capting” and the gaggle of freshwomen departed and we went back to the site of our bags to resume our colloquy. Instead of a face flush with victory, Peg seemed downright sad to prove this FLEETer—this captain no less—in the wrong. She gazed down at Joy, O., as if commiserating with the captain and all the other presumptuous foolish Christian-born white females claiming dominion over all knowledge as their birthright.
The grave lettering continued to shout into the white: “ARNOTT… AR NOT… ARE NOT!”
Chapter 8: The “Ramadan” and Its Consequences
However, no sooner had this victory been won than Peg abruptly deserted the field and, re-iterating Joy, O.’s and her own faith in my seemingly-random yet ultimately-preordained decision, took our belongings back to the Inn, where she vowed to spend an hour in absolute meditation on Nothing, concentrating on not one fact but purging her rational mind somewhat before the binge that would follow during the next few days. Despite my appeal to consider her thought-fast as irrationally slow-minded and in effect serving to make her all the more desperate for memory recall later on, she would hear none of reason but chose that moment to make her “religion” her raison d’etre—as I saw it, she chose that moment as an arbitrary stand against me and all that I and FLEETdom stood for, before she devoted herself to the utmost.
So, thus alone, I had all the more aspect of a pilgrim, traveling the deserted winter paths between campus buildings, directing my sluggish steps to the very heart of campus—not the outlier that the chapel was—to the true shrine, the true cathedral: the main library.
Chapter 9: The Library
As I approached, I slowed down as if in due reverence of approaching the presence of the divine. I took a deep, icy, trachea-burning breath before entering through the vast oak doors. Alone as I was, I felt immensely small in such a large cavernous space that greeted me. Though the exterior had been re-fashioned and perhaps even re-re-fashioned considering this particular sister school’s elite history and benefactresses, the interior resembled nothing less than a castle: imposing granite floors, rough gray stone composing the walls, and ceilings flat (not arched or buttressed) in an intimidating shade of white. There was nothing to distract one from the jewels: the stacks themselves, the largest collection I had yet seen of volumes arrayed in all directions through huge echoing halls, up metal spiral staircases, and down steep laddered stone steps. Though the building showed its monolithic Cistercian-like aspect, the shelves were of the most polished steel and were affixed to newly-implemented movable stacks, to be moved automatically with just a push of a button—ultimately to save room and cram as many volumes into these procrustean spaces as possible.
The library demonstrated its archaic nature too in the classification system: all 100% Dewey Decimal, not even one LC (Library of Congress to the laywoman) area. There was one pitiful “New Books” section near the front, but this is where our interests least lay, except for someone digging in prep for a vapid wild card question thrown in more for satire than anything else by the question-makers. Everything else in the library reeked of decay: the yellowed pages, re-re-bound volumes in new reflective plastic sheaths, the dust particles from who-knows-who’s skin scales in the nineteen-teens ready to spring like cilia-attacking vipers from an opened book. Perhaps the best part, and the rarest: there were no Special Collections. No librarian to get past in order to “request” a volume before a certain copyright date. It was all on display, all spines exposed to the open air to be dug into: all volumes shelved together, dinosaur next to mammoth next to sports-car. This is what I had lived my life for: to dig into these stacks and mine out the true gold of forgotten or never-wished-to-be-remembered-in-the-first-place Truth. The females who normally perused these stacks looking for an easy cite for a Medical Anthropology 5-pager had no idea what treasure-troves they daily ignored.
Had I been with Peg (as I had thought I would be) walking into such a holy place, perhaps it wouldn’t have grabbed me as it did. But, as it was, I had to hold on to a cold stone wall and literally push my mouth closed in the presence of such wonder. Luckily, I did not attract any attention at all at this point, not just because I was a fresh greenie instead of that “lil’ fish” reeled in by the Peg, but because the place was the wildest it ever would be: it was the Drawing Session, and FLEET sponsors arranged themselves all around the stacks, presenting a flimsy poster and pictures of the latest FLEETs of their sponsorship. Exciting, pounding boots on the metal staircases, intellectual interlocution, and our very bodies released such echoes that one would think that we were at a mall or some other gathering of stereotypically-ebullient adolescent females.
To write that I was intimidated is therefore something of an understatement. Between the environs revealed unto me and the activity of females seeking some access to them, I thought myself a lost cause without my Peg to latch on to. The only way now into this treasure-dome was to use some sort of wiles—had I any wiles?—to get both myself and Peg drawn up into some sponsorship. Then I reflected on—of all entities real and imagined—Joy, O. I was to be absolutely random, indeterminate, and arbitrary. The fact that I had sought shelter in a world of facts from just those very forces was overlooked by that deity-in-fake-rubber. After actually looking at some of the sponsors’ names—from some Savings & Trust to, of all things, a Unitarian Universalist congregation—I decided the best course was to close my eyes and wait until I tripped over/into something.
Chapter 10: The Table of the Mermen
“Who’s that there, knocking over my table?” I heard in a dialect with a good deal of critical Mass., though certainly nowhere near a Southie “Bahstin”-er’s.
I opened my eyes and saw an imposing college-aged figure. She had a no-nonsense appeal to me, and so I began right away: “I’m for drawing in here. Are you captain of this FLEET?”
“Supposin’ I am. What’s in it for you to draw here, greenie? What are you, seven?”
“I’m ready and eager to FLEET out, and figured the… the…”
“This is Pequods FLEET.”
“Wait—you mean, the coffee chain?”
“That’s right. We use the lingo so much, Pequods wanted in on the action. Besides, it looks good for all those open-minded socially-conscious old ladies who like their espressos to come with a fortune-cookie-sized business card telling them they’ve done the female cause well for the morning.”
I will address the “lingo” part of this response in a later chapter, but for now, surely you have heard of Pequods Coffee, and can suspect my doubting its sponsorship of something so… counter-counter-cultural as the FLEETs. As I looked around the table, I saw the terrible merman logo of this company, and beheld all the FLEETers over the years holding up styrofoam coffee cups with the mermen clearly parading on the front towards the camera. However, something else—or rather, someone— caught my more discerning attention: I saw a certain younger female age before my eyes as the years progressed and, just the past year, pose at the top position of the photo. (Be it known here that the “lay” of each FLEETer is the term for her position in the photograph—this particular female had climbed from the eighth or lowest lay to the first-most or captain’s position in just as many years.) Though her rapt look of increasing absolute attention—indeed, approaching supreme ardor or, under certain lights, even fury at the annoying nature of the universe not to reveal itself fully and completely to her at once—attracted me to this particular FLEET above all of those I had not seen, I could not get over that this was in fact some corporate coup to increase coffee sales. (Indeed, I heard it somewhere later—or was it before?—that the original name of Pequods Coffee was instead pitched as another name from the same literary universe, a trivia-club allusion centering upon a particularly upright supporting character from some plodding Great American Novel of some sort. “Pequods,” however, captured a certain Native American faux-originality, regardless of the fact that, had King Philip of the Pequods been more successful in his crusade against the puritanicals from England some four hundred years before, none of us would be standing in this library and the library itself would be instead a library from that other Good Book, the Book of Nature.) The fact that the table featured a small teepee did not ease my qualms, even though the mark-ers from previous years adorned the table entire, telling me that more than enough individual mark-ers had been recorded among the individual members of the crew if this many were for the sponsors and therefore that the Pequods-corporate-funded digs had yielded true intellectual riches for some time.
“Hello? … Missy? … Where are you from? Not from Mass. or anywhere hereabouts; I can tell that by the sound of you. Ever been on a FLEET before?”
“No, ma’am. Never.”
“Then what makes you—”
“But I have been on several trips with my school’s Academic Challe—”
“‘Academic Challenge’! Did you just say ‘Academic Challenge’? More like ‘academically challenged’ teams. Don’t you ever mention that around me, or anyone around here, greenie! What were you, some sort of token Romantic poetry and Brontë Sister specialist as the lone female of the group?”
When I told her that, as a matter of fact, I specialized in the sciences, particularly molecular biology and chem., she seemed a little more impressed and gave me another look over, not quite so suspiciously as before.
“All right, that’s a little better, I suppose. What think you of drawing into a FLEET now, though? What makes you think you can last for 96 hours straight with no pensive Heathcliff taking AP Physics as a freshman to bat your brooding eyelashes at?”
“Well, ma’am, I want to know what FLEETing experience is. I want to know everything in the world.”
“Want to know everything in the world, do ye? Know the whole world, eh? Go outside a minute and tell me what’s out there.”
“Ma’am, I hardly think—”
“That’s right, you hardly do. I’ll be waiting.”
After a brief grimace, I departed, resolved more than ever to return to the table and draw in on this FLEET. I would not be made a fool of in this least foolish of worlds by a corporate stooge of a college intern with some few years of FLEETing experience under her belt. In fact, I had set this specimen up as a straw woman to outperform and bear myself somewhat better on my very first sojourn out.
After doing my duty, I stood before her, ashy expression and all.
“Well?” asked she.
“That’s right. And what do you think you’ll see after 90-some hours of digging? It’ll be snowing all right, snowing before your eyes. You ever hear of these teeny-boppers who spend six, maybe seven hours chatting on AIM and then look at anything else? You’ll be seeing that times itself; you’ll be seeing a white blizzard before your eyes every place you look.”
Taking my time about replying, I spoke firmly: “I shall go FLEETing, be it on this team or another of more discerning qualifications for entry.”
“You talk the talk, all right. I knew missies like you during my day, well enough.”
“You mean you won’t be setting out with us?” I asked, hoping to disguise my hope.
“No, greenie. I keep the look-out for Pequods Coffee these days, making sure that we don’t let just any FLEETer on board the team. I’m Captain Paula. I was captain of a team for a brief while, but am no match for Captain Jesz.”
“Never call her that. Not ‘Jess’ for Jessica but ‘Jesz’ for Jezebel.”
“The same Jezebel who forged her husband’s papers and put on all her best make-up before getting fed to the dogs?”
Capt. Paula paused, scrutinizing me more.
“That’s right. For a Sciencer, you throw about some words, don’t you?”
“As someone named for an obscure Old Testament figure, I sympathize.”
“Mahalath. Esau’s wife. You can call me Mahl.”
“I’ll call you greenie, if it’s all the same. Anyway, you know enough not to blame Captain Jesz for her parents’ mistake in clapping her that handle, then. She was born a stone throw’s away from this very college, and her folks had some curses and blessings still tainting their line, so thought best to expunge them and their ancestors’ foolish religiosity by clapping their daughter with that cursed name. You seen her pictures here?”
“You insult my observational skill and photographic memory.”
“‘Photographic memory.’ Cute. All right, then.” Captain Paula then turned the tablecloth over, covering the pictures. “What’s so special about all but the first picture of Captain Jesz?”
“She’s a little taller. Or, it seemed, one side of her was a little taller.”
Impressed, Captain Paula turned the cloth back over. “You’ll do, greenie. Look a little closer near the bottom of the frame and you’ll see why.”
The impenetrable, penetrating gaze of Captain Jesz in all of the photos had captured my attention before, but now that I scanned the bottom of the images, I was indeed surprised that Captain Jesz’s bright red high-heeled shoe in all save the first had not before attracted my glance. High-heels were never worn at all on FLEETs, for practical reason that such a footwear would be highly difficult to navigate the stacks withal. Nonetheless, a captain of all positions might be able to get away with it, as she rarely dug into the stacks herself, but surely this Jesz did not attain that position for quite some time.
“That’s right—‘heel’ and not ‘heels.’ Just one of ‘em. Any idea why?”
“Was it lost on a dig?”
“‘Lost on a dig’? Found on a dig—from a dig. The deepest, longest dig any of us had ever heard of. Horrible. All from a question!”
The sympathy was audible in Captain Paula’s final exclamation—the only time during our dialogue when such a raised tone communicated sincerity and not its opposite. As such, I wished she would resume her traditional style and let me draw in already. I had hoped for any position in the photo other than last lay—forced to drop to a knee or, worse, even to lay horizontally at the bottom of the image, as various other younger FLEETers had been forced to do right below Captain Jesz’s blood-red stiletto.
“I respect truly Captain Jezebel’s accident, but do not in all honesty—”
“You have a soft way of talking, greenie. Are you sure you have any experience with answering anything boldly?”
“I told you before, I previously engaged in several Acad—”
“And I told you before, greenie, not to ever mention that boys’ club in my presence again! Do you feel yourself ready in any degree for a FLEET, which is something quite different? Answer that question, if you can.”
I gazed at her for a moment, my annoyance mixing now with humor, because I suspected all this bluster to be merely a show. “I do not feel. I know that my state of readiness or unreadiness is irrelevant to my competence but, regardless, to answer your question, I know myself ready as I knew myself ready to take my first breath—I’ll do it, ready or not, and continue for as long as I’m alive.”
Captain Paula softened somewhat, and I suspected that I had won her over. Nonetheless, it puzzled me that she would be so desperate, what with all this lengthy bombast with one as inexperienced as myself. Why had these barricades of empty rhetoric not been broken before by a would-be FLEETer more steely than I, as there undoubtedly were many fulfilling that qualification all around me? What kept them away? Was it something to do with this Captain Jesz and her one high heel? With the question behind it all? That last was the greatest, most pressing question… as would later be discovered.
Chapter 11: Lay, Lady, Lay; To Which Are Added Further Forebodings of the Unseen Captain Jesz
These questions for the present, however, had no time for proper rumination, for Captain Paula ushered me behind the table and there I saw a seated figure whose head was blocked by the teepee earlier. This figure, casually sipping a merman-adorned styrofoam cup while reading vociferously some volume, barely looked up when Captain Paula introduced me.
“Well, Captain Paula, you’ve struck gold again, I’m sure of it,” said this figure, without a hint of emotion.
“You’ll have to forgive Captain Marimum, Mahl; she’s got more FLEETs under her belt than I, and that’s given her something of a dullness and an edge at the same time. Captain Marimum, what lay shall this lady have in the photo?”
“Last, ‘a course,” said Captain Marimum without looking up—in fact, this sentence was sandwiched between whispered soliloquies inspired by (or perhaps from) the text she was reading. This Captain Marimum had the same tone as Captain Paula, the same Mass-holiness about her demeanor, with all the arrogance and boldness of her regionalism not attenuated but rather accentuated by the secluding forces of the FLEETs, making a character naturally made for parodies but, through her own gravity and sense of selfless immersion into the voidless texts of our trade, one who only constantly construes tragedies from her own unseen heroism mining the tedium of the universe, who must make all of life a morbid omen of death in order to continue such a deathless task.
I knew of such a one once who saw everything as a sign of impending doom, not only for the societies outside of the FLEETs (for this presentiment was very common among even the most congenial of us), but inside of them as well, seeing every question mark as apt symbol for our quest: churning around and around in a whirlpool of seemingly-endless spiral, but at the heart and foundation of it, a period as bold as the most tragic punctuation to the shortest complete sentence in the English language, the command that cannot be followed: “Be.”
In lesser degree, however, we have already been introduced to such a one here.
“Last! Last! This here’s a greenie of the greenest order, one of them lapsed members of the Church of A.C., and this is the welcome she gets to the world of the FLEETs, from her own gender-kind no less! I… can’t… even—”
“Steady on, Paula,” monotoned Marimum in between intonations of her text. “You always had a soft-spot for the young ones—the reason why we’re stuck with that crazed schoolgirl of color—and you’d think you were paving your way into Heaven, what with all the con-fidence you dispense like it were from the baptismal font.”
At this, Paula lost all semblance of control, and her act became so convincing that it swallowed her up in its own histrionics: “Heaven! Con-fid—You know the etymology of that godda— ‘With faith’! With fidele! How da—Baptism! I’ll give you a baptism of pen-ink, you…” With this, she took an intimidating step to Marimum, who did not even cast a glance away from her text, and then Captain Paula stormed to the other side of the library, attracting no great attention from anyone and, perhaps because she witnessed this lack of witnesses, she returned back to us in the perfect state of irascible sarcastic calm in which I had originally found her.
“All right, so, greenie, looks like it’s the last lay for you,” said Captain Paula. “But, no mistake, you couldn’t start out better for your maiden FLEETing with a captain like Jesz: tough as nails, like Marimum right here, goes off the rails at times, but nothing like me, and fair when it comes to digging and divvying up the marks. Questions everything ‘cept why we ask questions. Been to colleges across the country, and hitched everywhere doing it, soaking up knowledge of the academies and smarts of the streets—why, every year, she never touches her home town ‘til a week before this FLEETing. Mahalath ____________, you say your name was? Sign here, if you please.” This last was said with the pen in hand, my name already scrawled into the appropriate places on the contract.
“If it’s all the same to you, ma’am, I’d like to meet this Captain Jesz before I am to depart.”
With this, Captains Paula and Marimum exchanged glances. Paula, of course, spoke for them both: “Not sure if that will be possible, yet, at this hour. Ask around about Jesz, I tell you, though: her reputation’s well-known. You might hear tell of some stories in regards to her adventures this past week—they say she’s been acting strange recently, and that she’s taken fancy to a boy—a boy-friend at that! You’d think she’s a specialist in the Humanities only. Now, they might say she’s a bit somber of late in addition, but don’t you pay that much heed—be she boy-friended or no, mark me: she is the fairest captain you’re like to find and, if I were starting out again, I’d do it with this same Pequods FLEET. Besides, if a captain’s laughing it up with her team, what kind of FLEET captain is she? In addition to the good captain, now, we’ve got two of the best FLEETers womaning the digs, and then—”
“Speaking of that,” I said. “I can’t draw in without my… my friend.”
“Friend? What lay does she want in the picture?” inquired Marimum, once again while still intoning from the sacred text. “Can she even dig?”
“Can she dig?” I repeated, a little of Captain Paula’s style coming in unconsciously in response to such a demeanor as Captain Marimum’s. “She’s the best you’re like to find, at such short notice especially.” With this last point, I let them know that I knew that they were nearing-desperate. The Drawing Session had just begun but, even so, the slots were filling up fast.
“Well, what are you doing here, talking for her?” asked Marimum. “Get her here and we’ll talk. But hurry, greenie. Coffee’s gettin’ cold.”
“I like mine iced,” I imparted, having picked up some of the lingo (for which species of jargon my tutorial to you will have to wait).
Nonetheless, the pun of that last word dawned upon me as I dashed back once again to the Sis’er-Feehan. “Iced” captains, indeed. The interminable sadness of all the Jeszes pictured, even in the youngest iteration, somehow elicited an almost-affective response in me—at least, a curiosity mixed with awe. Despite all the warnings against it (the corporate affiliations, the bickering bi-polar captains, the eagerness to have one so green as I, to have [as it would seem] anyone to round out the photo op), I was drawn in to the Pequods FLEET and her captain, even before signing the drawing-in papers.
Chapter 12: The “Ramadan,” Revealed
Even with all the dark presentiments (or perhaps they are only now recognized as presentiments post-consequence), I thought that I had done Joy, O. good service, and Peg as well. With spots on the Pequods FLEET assured, I sprinted up to our room of the Sis’er-Feehan, all the other rooms of course at this point unoccupied. I thought I spied Sis’er cleaning out one of these as I passed. Seeing our own room’s door closed and finding it locked, I peeked in through the key-hole, but could only see the diminutive head of Joy, O. and not any sign of Peg herself.
“Peg,” I whispered, as I lightly tapped on the door.
One minute later, I spoke “Peg” quite firmly as I knocked.
One minute later, I shouted “Peg!” as I banged on the wooden door. This latter called forth Sis’er Feehan’s attentions, and she asked me what the matter was. I told her that it was Peg’s “Ramadan,” at which idea Sis’er-Feehan looked sincerely troubled.
“Had the same six, seven years ago—one of the best FLEETers came back to the room before the Drawing-In, and I found her dead.”
“Herself. Did something terrible for business. I thought of making a sign, ‘No suicides here,’ but later thought better of it. Looks like ‘thought worser of it’ is more likely now, though. I shoulda known, with all them inks on her. Let me get my keys.”
“Hurry, Sis’er!” I screamed as we both ran downstairs, and at last found the gargantuan key-chain; I took the chain and bolted back to the door, kicking it for some irrational reason after I failed to distinguish the key from the dozens of others.
“Gimme that, greenie. I hope we can catch her in time. Can’t imagine what this’ll do for my Easter Break business. I just hope this one rises again.”
“Hurry, Sis’er!” I stupidly repeated.
She found the right key and tried it in the lock: the unlocked door still refused to budge, however. Peg must have jimmied it from the inside and, facing Joy, O. door-wards as sentinel, hoped to join Joy, O. in the joy-ous land of make-believed-afterwards.
Inspired by Sis’er’s own barging-in the previous night, I took a few steps back. “I will pay for any damages, Sis’er; now out of the way.” I slammed into the door, but accomplished nothing but receiving a pained shoulder (thankfully, my left).
“I will pay no damages either,” said Sis’er, acknowledging my injury as she, without taking any steps backwards, battered down the door with one go, toppling over a wooden chair propping it closed.
Inside the room, we beheld Peg… in perfect silence, eyes opened, and concentrated on nothing in this earthly realm. I thought the worst, that she had somehow done herself in expeditiously and rigor mortis had set in with her seated in her crossed-legged attitude, but no: as I peered into her face, I saw her still breathing.
“Of all things,” exhaled Sis’er. “Good thing you two are FLEETing out starting tonight. If I still find you here when I get to this wing, I’ll throw you both out in the snow, even with her in her skivvies. All that hot-air, not to mention those males’ marks all over her, should keep her warm.”
Sis’er-Feehan then returned to her tasks, as she was wont to do (admirably so, I thought [and still do]). Nonetheless, I was left with Peg who, as Sis’er mentioned, was in her underwear and still in a state of meditative catatonics, or so it seemed. Nothing I would do, save brute physical force (which I was hesitant to exert considering my recent failure with another immovable object) could move her, not even a queg of it. I shouted, pleaded, whimpered, and eventually crashed on the bed.
I must have taken more than a cat-nap, because, when I came to, the striped tigress appeared completely clothed before me, holding my foot to awaken me. The avuncular (or at any rate, far from uxorial) nature of this awakening, unlike the previous one that morning, caused me to experience something close to comfort.
“Ramadan’s over, lil’ fish,” said Peg softly. I proceeded to expatiate the drawing-in-to-be which I had but half-effected for us both, emphasizing that we head over immediately to the Library, lest those two spots were filled and none were left on any FLEET.
“Joy, O. will see to it,” said Peg, kissing her Joy, O., packing her up with the rest of our things, and heading to the door.
Chapter 13: Her Mark
As I approached once more the Tent of the Mermen, the echoing activity throughout the library had much dissipated: prospective and veteran females had drawn in their FLEETs, and a few had drawn out entirely, taking a lonely bus home to try again when the time came to make a break for it.
Once again, let me re-iterate my hindsight conclusions here: I should have been much cautioned by the fact that Captains Paula and Marimum not only welcomed us back at nigh the eleventh hour of the Drawing Session, but furthermore seemed to be seeking us out, as if we were the FLEET and they the greenies, and not the years-experienced veterans now working the other side of the table for the particularly-phallic-centric merman-logo’d corporation.
“Is this the FLEETer you mentioned, Mahl?” asked Captain Paula with more than a hint of surprise, revealed even across her sar-chasm.
“This is Peg,” I introduced. “Don’t let the tats fool you—she’s part of the same Questioning Church we all belong to.”
“You get that one from Parent Superior?” asked Captain Paula.
“Pequods FLEET, eh?” sounded Peg at the same time. “Joy, O. works in mysterious ways.”
“Hold it right there, you ink’d proselyte,” said Captain Marimum, finally putting down her volume and looking up—she had no choice—into Peg’s face, and then over her neck and arms. “I’ll take no verse-quoting Huldah on the Pequods FLEET.”
“Quiet, now, Cap’n Marimum,” Captain Paula re-assured. “I’ve met many a fine religious fool who, in other specialties, showed herself mighty skilled. In fact, perhaps the religiosity makes them want to prove themselves all the more rational.”
“In any event, this FLEETer wants second lay?” Captain Marimum still was perusing Peg’s tattooed catalog. “What is your specialty, Christian fiend?”
“I am no Christian, nor any other religioner past, present, or future,” retorted Peg, very calmly. “I can specialize in anything you wish; for this FLEET now, let’s say it’s History.”
“History?” asked Captain Paula. “Good, we’re just in need of one of your kind.”
“Though not with those ‘blessed’ ways of yours. Come now, quickly: tell me in what year the French and Indian War did begin.”
“Veritably?” asked Peg, after several moments’ pause. “Is that what you test me with?” Turning to me: “I may just have to disobey Joy, O. and return to Sis’er’s for another Ramadan, if this is supposed to be the FLEET for us.”
“Come now, Captain Paula,” responded Captain Marimum. “We best look about—”
“Of course, the trick of your question, Captain, lies in the article,” commenced Peg. “You speak of the French and Indian War as if there were only one. The French and Indian Wars lasted throughout the late 17th and 18th centuries, being composed of several interrupted—separate—conflicts that spread to the North American continent, from whence the nickname ‘French and Indian War’ emerged, predominantly for the last and only American-caused of the set, being started by that bungler Lieutenant G. Washington. The French and their Native American allies attacked various English colonies—including Deerfield, Mass., not too far away from this very spot—but the English and the allied Iroquois Confederacy also inflicted much damage northwards in Canada and of course in the Ohio River Valley. Anyway, to get to your main query, the beginning dates of the largest conflicts were 1688, 1701, 1740, and 1754, with 1756 being the year of actual commencement of the states of war betwixt France and England, the war having started two years earlier by that aforementioned dunce Washington near present-day Pittsburgh. Of course, the actual name for that particular conflict in Europe was therefore the Seven Years’ War (not to mention the whole series of conflicts is called ‘the Intercolonial Wars’ in Quebec for obvious reasons) so the whole question stinks of Final Jeopardy to me, and I’d much rather take my skills elsewhere if it were indeed asked in earnest.”
Captain Marimum betrayed something close to a grin, and sat back down at her text. Captain Paula proceeded to embrace Peg and jump for joy. “Second lay, indeed! This girl is captain material, even if she is painted up with Holy Scriptures! Sign, both of you, sign right here.”
“Forgive me, Captain,” said Peg, taking a look at the blank allotted her on the papers, “but this blank is much too small for my given name. I’ll just use my mark, if you don’t mind.”
“Mark, mark-er, do what you will, as long as you’re drawing in the Pequods FLEET. Such skill, and diversity to boot—this will make Corporate quite pleased, Pog. Quite pleased.”
With that, Peg, with two strokes of the pen, produced an odd but wholly individualized mark: two curlicues of question marks facing away from each other, but sans periods and with nautilus spirals going endlessly towards the center. It looked for all the worlds like an infinity sign, but even more infinite in its pronouncement. Captain Paula wrote the words “Pog: Her Mark” underneath and, as soon as my name was signed, we received handshakes from both corporate captains and they commenced to fold up their table, teepee and all, as the FLEET with us was full and we were ready to lay in position as soon as the rest of the crew—and of course the captain herself—arrived.
“Won’t trade this pog for any other pog out there!” continued Captain Paula.
“Mighty fine,” said Captain Marimum, stepping between the two of them and handing a pamphlet to Peg. “But take this, I implore you. I see it as my duty to expunge heresy from the face of the earth.” The pamphlet was “Why Not?”, an atheist propagandist tract.
And so, with both of these captains under false assumptions, we were headed to take our photo and take our place among the Pequods FLEETs of yesteryear, to be captured forever inside a frame, incorrectly or correctly laid, the laying-in just as unknown to us inside the photo as Elizabeth Arnott’s had been in that vintage 1851 pine box.
Chapter 14: The Prophetess
“Have you drawn in on that FLEET, ye fools?”
We had just been left on our own, as Captains Paula and Marimum directed us to a specific location in the upper stacks for our laying-in as they rushed on ahead to prepare for the photographer, when I beheld a forefinger raised in the air (there is surely some significance to the upward-directed nature of this stereotypical raising of a pointed question) and heard a surprisingly-husky voice pronounce those words. I took a step back and beheld the figure entire: she was rather shabbily dressed and over-dressed, as still upon her shoulders was a coat that seemed to be over-insulated (as if her parents had purchased it for her when in elementary school, expecting her to grow into it, and yet she never had) and a dandruff-peppered winter hat, and underneath it a face covered in acne scars. Why she would be wearing such raiment in the well-heated (some would say over-heated) library was beyond me, and I fear my face gave away my disgust. She took another step forward as I took another back, and Peg seemed to be following my lead, for a change.
“I repeat: Have you drawn in?” the figure repeated.
“You mean, the FLEET sponsored by Pequods?”
“No, I’m referring to the other FLEET with an over-endowed macho figure as its logo, and with another mad captain at the helm.”
“Get away from me—from us,” I said, yet without a step back this time, as, though the figure herself was off-putting, her foreboding registered well with my own disposition—or, at least, registers well now with my hindsight into all the dark events that will follow.
“Yet again, I ask: Have you—”
“We just signed, catfish,” said Peg, as always a rock.
Nonetheless, the figure continued to address me, though Peg had just answered her: “You signed away, bodies and all?”
“Bodies? Let’s get away from this one, Peg,” I said.
“My thoughts exactly, lest we get shelved with her,” added Peg.
“Don’t tell me ye believe in ‘souls’ or any other spiritual quintessence, then? Plenty of you New Age gals around these days; guess a body is seen as a bit superfluous to you, as it seems to me from time to time. Don’t value existence at all, do ye, as your ‘soul’ will live on for eternity, or maybe—” and here she finally looked at Peg “—maybe you believe you’ll end up as an albatross or—”
“Good luck with the drawing, yourself, if you’re the FLEETing type—which I doubt,” I said, at this point walking side-by-side with Peg up a small spiral staircase to an upper level. Nonetheless, the figure would not stop, and actually by-passed Peg to continue her attack on my flank as we climbed:
“You talk like her, ye do; yes’m, you’ll do well enough in her FLEET, missy,” she said as she doggedly pursued us, even as we quickened our pace through the stacks to the assigned location of the Pequods FLEET photo. “Do you know about that heel of hers, and how she got it?”
“Now, I see, another gossiper about Captain Jesz. I heard enough,” said I, “heard enough from people knowledgeable enough, unlike you.”
“‘Knowledgeable?’ Ye know plenty, do ye? Don’t know enough, though, about Captain Jezebel and her heel. Just like you, she was, in more ways than one, when she was in the infirmary after first encountering that question. Didn’t know if she would make the rest of the FLEET that outing. And look at her now, eh? Come full about, knows so much—like you, just like you—but doesn’t know when to let go.”
“I wish you would let go of us,” I said.
“Too late for ye now, both of ye,” she said, as we approached Captains Paula and Marimum, barely discernible in the distance through the aisles. “Your bodies are lost, just like hers—symbols of the quest, the question that asks itself over and over. Ye—”
Just like this, the figure stopped her discourse and stood stock-still. Seeing the captains in the distance, it seemed she finally realized what was transpiring. “Ye have drawn in, have ye? Well, then, good digs to you, good digs to you both.”
I had to stop too at this, and so therefore did Peg. I spoke to the figure once more, who knows why: “You make yourself up as a great question yourself, what with your mysteries and secrets, but you are an open book, shelved under obsolescence. If you have some knowledge to impart, impart it precisely and specifically. If not impart, then depart.”
The figure paused, scrutinizing my own figure as if, only after hearing my style of speech, it now were truly before her. “You’ll serve her most well, ye will. Just like she, just like she was startin’ out.”
“Come on, Peg,” I said after a moment’s pause. “We’ve got to lay in.”
“Watch your own thighs, girls. Better send in your measurements for that heel before you FLEET out.”
I turned again, and approached the figure so that I smelled her rancid breath and beheld the frozen pus of her face. “I just have one question for you, fittingly simple for such a simpleton: What is your name?”
“Deborah,” said she.
I smiled at another obscure Old Testament figure brought forth by us FLEETers, this one the prophetess of old. “Deborah—should have known!”
“It’s too late to go Barak for you,” said she, almost under her breath, as if embarrassed by the wit of her allusion and pun.
“Come on, Peg—” I said, again turning to go, but then, I caught a flash of someone passing through the stacks, seemingly just having had a conversation with the captains clandestinely and also seemingly melting with the shelves in one quick blur. The speed of the figure belied that it was not Captain Jesz (who I had not yet seen), but nonetheless I felt that this new figure was somehow associated with her and the Pequods FLEET.
In the midst of these split-second reflections, I felt a mittened hand on my shoulder and impulsively withdrew.
“Get off me, and judge your own manners better, Judge Deborah,” I spat at her, allusive pun for allusive pun.
“You saw her, didn’t ye, through the stacks there? Or should I say ‘it’? See if ye can see her tomorrow or next day, though, youngling. She’ll be by Captain Jesz’s side soon enough, I tell ye.”
“I saw a member of the FLEET having a discussion with the captains about her laying-in, that’s all, no doubt.”
“No doubt? Member of the FLEET? Member of some fleet, I’m sure of it, and full of doubt herself. Well, what’s done is done. Good dig to ye—sorry I bothered ye. See you on the lists, ladies. See you on the lists at the next tournament, the next thigh-wound in the making…”
With that, Deborah at last departed and I was left contemplating the dark shadows where I had seen the dark shadow emerge before, sprinting behind the shelves as if stowing away in some deserted old ship.
Chapter 15: The Laying-In
As it was nearly the shortest day of the year, the winter night seemed to be upon us before we could think twice of it. All was a flurry of activity and last-minute double- and triple-checkings before we departed in our FLEETs for the next several days, to have no contact with anyone or anything outside of the library during that time. This type of sustained study is unmatched in any part of the globe—defending one’s doctoral dissertation or taking a multi-day exam to pass the bar, these were all laughably intermittent compared to the task that we had set for ourselves. Not the most studious of students in the most competitive of Far East Asian academies could take the type of travail that we insisted was fun.
Foodstuffs, though tacitly prohibited in libraries throughout the nation, were essential for making our stay at all bearable. Though “brain foods” like bagels were insisted upon by some, for the least discerning of us we could get by on do-it-yourself meals such as ramen and the like. The few microwaves available, therefore, had very narrow windows of access: every 5-minute interval for the next four days was clearly delineated on a chart held in a clipboard next to the device, and one was to initial when requesting, say, the 4:35-4:40 a.m. slot. Anyone caught dishonoring this—either by infringing upon another’s window or by simply requiring a collection of foodstuffs that took longer than five minutes to nuke—risked expulsion from this or any FLEET. This was all part of the Code, and no part was viewed as anything less than a microcosm.
Restrooms, obviously, could not be reserved in similar ways, but this is why the women’s colleges saw the most FLEETs: all bathrooms were women’s bathrooms, and even the paltry one-stall affair reserved to any males who might be teaching there or wandering by was given over to us. I remember seeing a female once, in the throes of absolute nephritic necessity, plant herself upon a urinal for some relief. One, therefore, learned to adjust one’s normal… routine, particularly of the digestive sort, rather quickly in order to make it comfortably through all 90+ hours.
To give you a sample of this style of life, I now have beside me a list drawn up by some female drawn in during the crest of the wave of the FLEETs (before my time, certainly). I found this scrawled list buried in a particularly esoteric section of the stacks, and have kept it upon my person ever since. Though crinkled up and smeared, the pencil marks read as follows:
“FOR FLEET SURVIVAL, [indecipherable month/year]: three (3) tampons, a half-dozen (6) 1.5-oz. individual serving-size bags of instant mashed potatoes, four (4) 6-packs (for a total of twenty-four ) [patented brand-name] ginger ale, one (1) emergency jar of PB for rounds, one (1) spork, one (1) plastic bowl, and one (1) pocket-mirror”
The only item that strikes me as strange on this list is the last: pocket-mirror? Looking at oneself was tacitly prohibited: that was what they did, and to care about the state of one’s coiffure or drooping eyelids or chapped lips was seen as commensurate with defeat. We prided ourselves on our four-day deterioration, and exited the library proud of our bag-lady-ness. (I could certainly detect this much when I beheld that returning FLEET at Sis’er Feehan’s, but it is something else—and something nobler and prouder—to experience the deprivation oneself.) Therefore, my guess is that this individual used the pocket-mirror for some other purpose: perhaps to peek behind corners or perhaps to allow two FLEETers to read the same text from different angles and thus avoid facial proximity and/or proximity to one another’s body odor, as would be a justifiable concern going into Day 3 or Day 4.
One item was provided to us all, like manna from the Lord in the wilderness, by the organizers of the FLEETs: Liquid Energy, of the sort that Oedipea had dished out in such voluminous portions. This variety of potent potable was to be seen everywhere. At this point, before the laying-in photograph, there were stacks and stacks in the stacks, just about everywhere one turned. Later on in the rounds, cans and cartons blocked one’s way to the extent that, in place of a seventh-inning stretch, it was necessary at the Day-3.5 mark for the rounds to stop entirely and for every female to pitch in in disposing of the debris to the properly-labeled waste receptacle: usually, a large dumpster was provided for this purpose, which the question-makers themselves would push into place, signaling to all that indeed a hiatus was upon us and that no one was to touch the stacks. Like everything else of this ilk, that rule of honor, as far as I have known or heard of in my time, was never once broken.
Therefore, it was doubly odd to see 1) a male, and 2) a male carrying a keg of beer, enter our laying-in area just before the photograph was to be taken and the FLEET was assembling. I had barely set eyes on the other members (these dramatis personae to be described in more thorough detail later) when I beheld this well-built male set down the keg for us. As was explained to me later, this character was Uncle Frank, an uncle of Captain Paula, some said. He thought it all a crazy prank, I suppose, in the style of his juvenile college days, and so wanted to give his salute the only way he thought fitting for a college campus. Innocent enough, I suppose (in retrospect). Shortly after we started out as a FLEET, Toe took a hold of the keg and rolled it out an upper library window. It remained in the snow for some time after (or so I was told), the warmth and cheer of Uncle Frank’s gesture providing for its own survival in the midst of the white torrents of emptying winter.
Now that all of us had our gear (there was a sizable interval that day when the females, in not quite a bulk as our entrance, exited to their respective inns to retrieve their articles) stacked in the corner, we arranged ourselves in position. I was last lay, but still kneeling thankfully, Squeak next to me, then Toe, the Engineer rounding out the kneeling row, and above stood tall Skietiff and of course Peg. A pile of books was placed, in symbolic tradition, in our center, upon which the captain was to be perched, brooding above us all. Nonetheless, we were told, abruptly, by the two sponsor-representing captains, that she was still getting the final adjustments ready and could be expected to join us at latest the following morning, when the doors were locked and the rounds were begun.
This, while not unheard of, was nonetheless very unorthodox. “Bonding” is such a loaded term, but still the captain was to start… co-existing with her crew during the last night of sleep any of us would get for some time. The fact that the captain would not sleep here, perhaps would not sleep at all, did not put any of us in the best of spirits, or the FLEET as a whole in the best of esprites d’corps. The fact that I had not laid eyes on the real human form of Captain Jesz did irk me somewhat, especially when I considered the bull-feces unloaded upon my person by that “Deborah,” who apparently had taken my advice and left the FLEET experience entirely, as I never saw her again. I longed to disprove her (and some of the crew’s) sense of foreboding.
Nonetheless, it was a symmetrical photograph, even without the top point of our isosceles triangulation in place. Both Captains Paula and Marimum managed to stand on top of the book pile, quite a feat considering their age and their double-weight. This was a happy sign for the commencement of our venture, even though Captains Paula and Marimum continued their double-act as we neared closer to the night.
Captain Paula saw everything stowed in its right place, going through all our articles and foodstuffs as if they were her own, while Captain Marimum went up to each member of the FLEET and gave her no less than five-dozen facts relating to her field, as if this last-minute reminder could possibly do any good. The facts were somewhat esoteric, but any FLEETer who was a FLEETer knew at least four-and-a-half dozen of them. Still, as a rookie, I held my tongue, and saw it as a sign that these two were truly concerned about the success of our FLEET, neuroses and corporate-obsessiveness and all. When at last the lights were turned out, the sign for those not on a FLEET to finally depart, they turned to us one last time.
Captain Paula, fakely wiping away a tear and looking into each of our sets of eyes, said: “Ladies, we’ll have as much Pequods Coffee as you can stomach when we see you again in four days’ time.”
Captain Marimum looked at her sternly, then said: “Get a hold of yourself, Captain Paula. Now, ladies, have a great Christmas, away from all that superstition and nonstop artificial joyousness of the outside world! Ha!”
With this, they both started their way down the spiral staircase, but then Captain Marimum, seemingly with tears in her own eyes, spoke up to us: “Now, remember, Engineer, that Ohm’s Law need not apply—”
Captain Paula forcibly pushed Captain Marimum further down, a display of brute force I was somewhat surprised at, given her bluster previously. “Away with ye, Captain Marimum. Let ‘em be. They’ll do us and Pequods Coffee proud, or die trying. Good digging to ye, ladies all!”
“Yes, yes. Good digging,” sobbingly bespoke Captain Marimum as both captains left our sight. I have never seen either of them again.
Chapter 16: Silent Night
We had a farewell present from the departing captains. Of course, though vain we were not, we all nonetheless leaned over to look at the Polaroid that was taken for our benefit with “Pequods FLEET” scrawled underneath in hard-font style from a Sharpie. We all looked closely at Captain Jesz’s absence and, while we didn’t speak of it directly, everything we did that night before we settled down communicated that we were body parts without a head. We arranged and re-arranged to our best ability, somewhat under “first mate” Skietiff’s command, but it was merely busy work. This prep night was really to catch up on sleep in preparation for the great losing to come. By now, we were mostly acquainted with the general lay-out of the stacks and the feel of our particular specialty’s section: the up-and-down motion of the spines big and small, fat and thin; which were the overcrowded shelves and which contained a superfluity of space; where in the Dewey Decimal system the next row began and how best to move the movable-shelf apparatus to deliver one to the golden contents even quicker, etc.
As we were nearing Christmas Eve itself, the sound from numerous Walkmans and portable radios (that reference alone dates me significantly) was of Christmas-pop, listened to mostly for mocking or campy anti-camp purposes. As I walked the near-deserted stacks approaching the night, all the lights off and the red EXIT signs casting a dark-room glow upon the corridors, I heard, ill-timed and ill-coordinated from numerous earphones and tiny speakers, the echoing lyrics of different covers of “Silent Night,” reverberating and recursing off each other to create a pantheon of dissonance. Yet, through all that cacophony, the lyrics resonated more profoundly then than they have ever since. This was a holy night, and all was well with the world in these hallowed stacks. I stopped somewhere around Lit. (the 818’s, to be specific), when I heard, from the midst of all these “Silent Nights,” Madonna’s “Holiday” ring out, trying to break through, assuredly played from some mix CD by a trenchant Lit. specialist amongst us.
I continued walking, mesmerized by finding myself here, when by all means I shouldn’t have made it in at such a tender age. I recalled Captain Jesz’s story and wondered if all this vague presentiment of mine was actually a good omen signaling a career like hers for me, albeit without the scars she held on to so dearly. Thinking of Captain Jesz, methought I could hear above or below me the sound of one vivacious high-heeled click, followed by a dead thud upon the stone ground. As opposed to the click-clack, click-clack of professional businesswomen, this staccato rhythm signaled something quite different, as the lively heel was constantly brought to its death-knell with the hard, out-of-rhythm pounding of a winter boot. Click… b-boom, click… b-boom, click… b-boom. I must have been the only one up at such an hour, particularly as I got closer to the Pequods FLEET area and saw my future FLEET-mates all asleep. Yet, someone was astir; I could sense it, when I didn’t hear it.
Before turning in, I picked up the photo one last time, wondering, yet again, why there were but seven of us, with the two captains’ departure. True, there were times when a crew was so hard-pressed (or, conversely, so aggregately-skilled) as to not need an eighth lay, but with Squeak and myself, this could not have been the case. Then, scrutinizing the image closely in the red glow of the EXIT sign, I beheld that same blurry shadow, seemingly caught in mid-flight but yet seemingly posed to the camera at the same time. Was this the eighth of us, the lay that lay outside of the lay-in?
Just then, I heard a quick pacing from the stacks beside me but, by the time I removed my gaze from the photo, it seemed as if the red-hued phantom-figure was imprinted on my retinas, for I could not look anywhere without seeing her/it. Even as I closed my eyes to turn in for the night, I saw the quick figure stealing away, somehow behind my eyeballs and into my brain and then, emerging from a phantom quite different but somehow related, the “Click… b-boom” echoing from a spiral stairwell, coming up to descend.
Chapter 17: Beyond Circulation
You may recall, some chapters ago, mention being made of a prodigious figure presenting herself, one aptly-named “Bulky,” who had just returned from a CS-dig with a gaggle of adventurous females, for whom the upcoming four sleepless days straight were not sufficient. I suspected that, her non-social nature disallowing a longer colloquy with her peers, she had retired for the night after imbibing a quick Energy dose concocted by Oedipea back at Sis’er’s.
This was not the case, as I discovered later. She had stolen into the library that very evening to get a head start at the main collections, her thirst for knowledge more unquenchable than thirst for energy drinks. She had found, through her height and agility combined with her resourcefulness, a way up some snow-bank and then, breaking into this bank, had broken into a fire-escape stairwell and found her way to an upper-tier window with an easily pryable latch. I thought I had beheld such a figure during my mid-evening red-lit walk, but discounted it to something else in the stacks—a large ladder, or something similarly massive and immovable.
You may surmise, therefore, at my own surprise when, walking upwards to that tier again after all the lights were turned on at 7:00, I beheld Bulky at a window, gazing out from the “mast” in prep for the first rounds. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I thought it another apparition of the sort that greeted me to sleep the night before. Staring again at her statuesque presence, however, I quickly realized it was that same she that I had beheld and admired at a distance around the question-mark-shaped bar.
After a three-day-and-night sojourn, to jump willingly back into the jaws of the dank pit, all for the sake of knowledge, more and yet more knowledge! O, Bulky, what a truer symbol of our spirit and our temperament you are! How I have looked for you over these years, and how futile that search, like so many others!
How pitiable are these exclamations at recovering the essence of this heroine. How sorry this brief tombstone-chapter is to commemorate her and her kind, almost nearly-vanished now from the depths as we were always banished from the surface. If only there were a Homecoming Reunion Weekend for our kind. But, then again, how useless that would be…
Home? What is our home, where can we find comfort? We sought home in a public place without a public any longer. To seek shelter there, where most seek to flee and hide to let the search engines run their speeding lives? We were all like Bulky, from break to break, breaking in library to library, circulating beyond any arbitrary due date, lest we crash into that peopled domesticity that we sought sanctuary from in the company of the dead and dying authors whom we counted as among our kind over great distances of time and space. To escape the present and live in that eternal sea was our goal and now, Bulky, have we not done just that? Do not our presences speak up from the pressured volumes of the depths to become our transcendent glory?
This is the only lasting truth I have ever discovered, though it made futile all our ephemeral hopes. To discover it so early—before actually setting out and discovering it again and again via experience—would be seen by some to be fortunate. The sentinel Bulky can tell you what great fortune that is, wherever she may be perusing the ethereal stacks of groundless, boundless knowledge.
Chapter 18: The Defense Counsel
As Peg and I are just setting out on this FLEETing journey and already I sense there to be some sniggering among the readership—as if this entire recollection is merely for the purpose of hyperbolic satire—and as the entire enterprise is clouded in so much mystery—the clouds mainly taking the form of stereotypical jeering and dismissal—I feel that the time has come to justify the FLEETs, even in the face of so much calumny.
Making my case boldly, as I am wont, I know that I do so to an ignorant public that sees such boldness as an intellectual affront, as perhaps the digging enterprise itself seems to those outside of FLEETdom. Not that you, reader, are in particular to blame if you come to this idea of FLEETing, and the digging that is our trade, with much such misconception. Perhaps we FLEETers are to blame, for we skate above such ignorance by further continuing our dives into esoteric knowledge rather than confronting the superficial superstitions of the outside world directly.
I think, as we have got to know each other somewhat, that my figure being thus presented—“speaking” to you at this moment—hopefully dispels some of the more injurious and disingenuous of the stereotypes of the FLEETing tribe. Nonetheless, some of you may still believe that I am just an extension of a little girl reading by flashlight far after her bedtime, adorned, perhaps, with some nightly headgear and holding the text on her knees, achieving a double pleasure from the hidden store of knowledge and the hiddenness of her enterprise—or, as imagery differs from reader to reader, you may rather think that I write this very tale from some study closet, surrounded by books and other tools of the trade, sitting on the carpet, away from view from the outside world, digging deeper and deeper holes into my own alienation.
We FLEETers are a solitary, private lot—this is true. However, just because we are non-social does not mean that we are anti-social. Bulky stood so high in my esteem not for that reason (alone). Discipline, navigating tedium, channeling relentless focus—how much of our popular culture raises these virtues to their true demigod-making status? Our American value-making-system, and not we, is to blame for our casting-away on these isolated shores. Sociability, constant discourse and “productive” dialogue, and above all histrionics and affectation—these are enemies greater than terrorist threats in the present day. For us to be viewed as subversive shows the inimical poison eating away at the true virtues that have supposedly led to the formation of the “American character.”
We are unthankable, and unthanked, by the unthinking lot that calls itself rational and civilized. The mention above in the apotheosis of poor Bulky—that of “search engines”—brings to mind the easy victories won by supposed seekers of knowledges every millisecond. Having the edge is seen as having the knowl-edge, and the “best” access thereto. But is the quickest, most efficient access the best? I could craft a grand metaphor in regards to “easy” access and adolescent females, but such bawdiness is—thankfully—beyond my ken. I’ll leave that ken for the Barbies of the gender, thank you.
You searchers, you do no searching. You merely skim the fat off the top and swallow it in one gulp, and expect for that to satiate you. We spent hours at those udders of knowledge, and you say “This milk tastes funny” if it’s out a few hours? You have no idea what a fact means, as you do not work to obtain it. You thrive off of our labor in these mines to win your trivial arguments about this or that tidbit, flitting from superficial knowledge of history to superficial knowledge of astronomy as if you are flipping through the pages of People.
How I sadistically enjoy seeing members of this sort when they encounter the fine print: the limits of the medical study, the conflicting reports from the third or fourth hit down on the list, the lacunae that the Internet is rife with. Do they have any idea how much of their casual searching was first performed after hours, days, weeks of hunting through the stacks?
It is we, we FLEETers, who provide the “easy” answers—we disposed of those questions long ago, and seek to dig further and further into the depths, and you water-ski on the surface and expect to stay buoyant? Yours is the sad existence, the true futility.
You parasites—for you, the question is an easy enemy, easily vanquished. We relished in questions and the questions they led to. This may be hard to believe, but we—well, most of us—held the question-makers in the highest regard, and never in my time did I hear one verbal attack against them. After all, these females were beyond vengeance, being as impersonal and indefinite as (believers would say) God. We were always to blame for our shortcomings, and we were the ones who received the most lashes when a question misled us. The beauty of the question was most revealed in the moment of its vanquishing and its rather quick, sudden demise—this, of course, was and is true—but the process, the chase, the dig—these held triumphs far grander than the “final kill.”
And yet, how many FLEETers are known by the outside world? How many know of the FLEETs at all, the females who empower the entire venture to continue? How easily conquerable it all is now, and how fleetingly so. Synthetic knowledges, patched together with neurons and apathy. We light the way into the dark, but it is a dark which warms and comforts. The superficial darkness, of our subterranean hours and days, this gives us a hope for the future. How bleak these easy answers must seem, as if asking the question and answering it occur in the same moment and are not cyclical but ephemerally linear, like flames meant to wear down the candle and never rise again. We female phoenixes carried such a hope with us—that is what becomes more and more apparent the more of this I write now—and we should have been the most hopeless.
How many of these questions would even be posed without us? How many centuries did we further the pursuit, even if the knowledge comes and goes? The advances in all these fields, performed by old men supposedly, how many of them came down to questions posed and asked by young women? Without us, will the world slow down? Will this species catalog all the answers and find—foolish though this prospect seems to be—that there is nothing more left to ask in our wake?
In the nineteenth century, scientists from every field felt that, after 20-30 years or so, there would be nothing new left to learn or discover. How terrible of a time that must have been—no wonder those men writing creatively at the time resorted to the focus on puerile mysticism and metaphysics, just when Physics had failed to prompt them to ask anything more of the universe.
We are on the ledge of knowledge now, and below waits the abyss—the abyss of satisfaction. Don’t you see, fools, that we are the fuel of your search engine? The male moles grow up to remain forever in their holes, and the precocious females—the would-be FLEETers of the next generation—get sucked in by the vortex of miasmatic PopCult.
Next time you pose that question in that window, may you be eternally frustrated by the facile response. That frustration inside the clamshell is the only hope for pearls—pearls to string these treasures around the neck of Mother Earth in the 22nd century.
Chapter 19: The Defense (Almost) Rests
Before we must return to the narrative, introducing the characters of this tale, my comments at the end of the last digressive chapter reminded me of digressions that further need to be treaded in their wake. As you may recall, a few inches ago I discussed gender differences, accurately but somewhat broadly.
The only representations of FLEETers to ever sink all the way up to the surface are not even of FLEETers: they are of males in similar but much more simple-minded fields, as uselessly juxtaposed as a sandbox located next to a beach.
The nomenclature for such sub-species may be evidence enough for the terrible inequities of popular representation…
Geek. Nerd. Dweeb. Dork. These terms all carry incredible stigma, to the extent that they have been self-applied of late in an attempt to destigmatize. However, all of them are nigh-exclusively labels for males. Surely, seeing them all in a list, you expected the subject to be male. There is no one-word term for females of our ilk—the only awkward necessity left is to take the word “female” or “girl” and affix them to the above.
The feminist revolution has yet to visit us (as most cultural movements have failed to have much impact as well. [As I mentioned, we needed not any civil rights movement, as our composition was naturally diverse and integrated from the get-go. Though drinking fountains, restrooms, and bus stations in the American South were segregated, Jim Crow and his fellows see books and libraries as immune to this type of treatment—those “living” in such institutions would be segregated automatically, anyway.]) And yet, the movement of popular feminism called in some circles “the second wave” depends—some would even write “was caused and effected by”—the development of the FLEETs.
Does it seem too lofty for me to claim such? Did I not just claim above that the entirety of contemporary knowledge is dependent upon the FLEETs, and will you now not addend to that accomplishment this paltry realm of politico-socio-cultural import?
Allow me to explain a little out of my field, and now attempt to portray a picture of the historical moment with some negligible embellishment. At roughly the time that Simone de Beauvoir was smoking sleek cigarettes with Sartre in such an attitude of put-upon ennui, the FLEETs first set out boldly into the stacks, where no woman had gone before. Ironically, those who kept college-aged women and younger females from entering the pantheons were female themselves: some of the most steadfast and unmovable guardians of the “Special Collections” alluded to previously were not dusty male figures with bridge-slipping spectacles, pocket watches, and neards, but rather librarians of our own gender, who saw it as their duty, I suppose, to be the sole females in these archives, and kept the precocious young things confined to escapism of the ilk of Nancy Drew and nonfiction along the lines of How to Make an Appropriately-Feminine Cocktail to Survive Your Life of Domestic Slavery (escapism of another breed, I hypothesize). Perhaps these spinsters saw it as their duty, furthermore, to ensure that pretty young ones did not share their fate—some irksome Christian “charity” or sense of self-sacrifice to keep these Pandoras from exploring their boxes. Instead, for generations boxes of a different sort were predetermined for our kind.
The founding is shaded in mysticism, mystique, mystery and self-importance, just as is the case with the founding of this nation. Just like those traitorous aristocrats, however, I suspect that the first FLEETers—the Founding Mothers—had no idea what they were doing or how it would all turn out. These Mothers discovered that the only time when the coasts were clear was during college breaks and, so, took it upon themselves to schedule tours of the sister schools. (First it was just this handful of sites—later to be expanded throughout the nation and, yea, the world entire.) During these tours—really reconnoitering missions, with the oldest-looking posing as young mothers—it was discovered that the walls of Troy were not quite as imposing as they had seemed from the outside. Unlike our Amazonian counterparts in the conflict, we quickly snuck in through the upper-tiered windows (Bulky was more like these Founding Mothers than any of us in my day), defenestrated Helen for being so predictably “feminine,” and raised an altar to Athena on the site of these ruins. We have been worshipping her ever since. The officialdom—the sponsors, the tacit approval of colleges, the shadowy alumnae organizations—all work towards assuring that us FLEETers continue to pull the intellectual strings: the cords that open the blinds of the gender.
So, now, at last, at least you can see our role deep under the surface. Without us, would those feminist icons have had the opportunity to ask those questions? There would have been no liberation without looking into these book-sized mirrors and beholding our own power we have over ourselves. The humanist mission was finally enabled thanks to the fact that, behind every spine, lay a female face and, like in Dante’s final epiphany in Heaven, we saw those faces were us. The knowledge contained in the books by the aggregate males of the past thousands of years was gender-neutral—one need not have exponentially-higher levels of testosterone in order to know, to seek more, to question the entire system.
Could such a movement as feminism, based on questioning the tenets of society, have arisen without the scrutiny to which we FLEETers examined questions? Are we exalted in the Women’s Hall of Fame besides Freidan et alia?
As I stated at the outset of my defense, we do not seek to dispel the rumors, the hearsay, the superficial celebrity attained by others. Still, a little recognition wouldn’t hurt, before it’s too late.
Who am I kidding? It’s already too late—else, I wouldn’t be writing this tombstone tome at all. Just like a tombstone, I try to encapsulate the “complete” story and, like everything else in this FLEETing world, I know that true completion is never feasible. (This enterprise, like every other one in my life, will be found wanting, not by others but by my harshest judge and jury: my own mind and her illimitable thoughts.)
On my tombstone, some time hence, I’d just like that five-letter acronym to appear. Instead of “Beloved Mother” or, worse, “Loving Daughter,” simply: “She was a FLEETer. May she never rest.” The FLEETs were my true feminist education, my liberation from my self and my body, and all I ever will be is thanks to them.
Chapter 20: First Ladies and Waiting-Women
The “first female” on the Pequods FLEET that year, only second to the command of Captain Jesz herself, was, as has been mentioned, a specimen by the name of Skietiff. Skietiff was always known by her surname only, and I suspect her Christian name was far too “girly” for her tastes, knowing her. Apparently, though the name of the family somehow through breeding became relatively new and Germanized, her stock descended back to Winthrop or some such like him (like Capt. Jesz in this regard, supposedly). Her temperament certainly could be stern and her face austere and commanding, so perhaps there is more to the genetic passage of affectation than is usually credited.
Her physical appearance was just as intimidating—neither Peg nor indeed Bulky could have matched her height, though her girth was barely broader than mine. Some joked (though never to her face) that she had some Pole in her family tree as well, to give her this tree-like May-pole appearance. Be it May or December, she was the reed that would never break, and stood with the wind or against it with the same stoicism.
Matronly valor is a quality, unfortunately, whose tide of esteem has been in low tide as the second, third, fourth waves and beyond of feminism roll in. While I would certainly never label any of us as a matron, I found Skietiff’s particular leadership style truly befitting of that official title for her position, “first lady.” Her readiness—one might even write “eagerness,” were it not out of key somewhat—was enviable during all hours, all days, all nights of the FLEETing sojourn. She was old-fashionedly plain and tall and something of a square at that, her jaws remaining squarely set in her skull no matter when, but would always do the job at hand as if the novelty of the enterprise had never eluded her, as it surely must have long before. I would hesitate to besmirch such valor and fortitude—were it not my unfortunate duty as historian-slash-narrator to do just that in the all-too-human course of events that will follow.
Skietiff was indeed rare among us, for she claimed descent from a matrilineal line of FLEETers going back some three, maybe even four, generations. No FLEETer in her right mind would ever “brag” of such a pedigree, and it somewhat surprised me that she had imbibed FLEETing with her FLEETing mother’s milk. Yet, it would seem that the FLEETers she came from were just like her: of the “academic” variety so frowned upon by Parent Superior in her diatribe to our tribe earlier. Skietiff merely saw FLEETing as a job to be done to get a job, the route beyond the FLEETs her ultimate prize, that prize being firmly secured with her connections she developed now in the FLEETing universe. (Her mother and mother’s mother were similarly-utilitarian, it was related to me sometime later.)
Nonetheless, for all this, her sense and sensibility were much valued and much needed with all the diversity of character aboard our team. Ours was a democratic enterprise if there ever was one: valuing no female for any other quality but equality before the fact, much more firmly attainable on this planet than equality before the law. Justice’s blindfold may be slipping elsewhere, but no FLEETer’s what-have-yous could or would get in the way of her intellectual skills. Be she the fairest of them all or nay, the mirrors that surrounded us on the stacks saw through to the heart of the mind of our matter.
“Wait,” I can hear you ignorant readers speak out—those few of you who remain this far in and those that are as yet somehow unconvinced by the true descriptions of this sanctuary of female fulfillment thus far described—“are you saying that you girls had to be smart?”
Smarts did not cut it. You could know how to pass the test, but here were ceaseless tests that could not be passed in the traditional sense—could not without an indefatigable gumption to stack up your paltry weight against the stacks of inhuman weightiness which then surrounded us. No one could dissemble. No one could affect such cunning intellectual prowess and agility. During FLEETing time, those library gates were St. Peter’s gates, and none who hoped alone dared enter there. It didn’t matter how much your daddy made—if you didn’t have the goods, you’d be drawn out with the backwash of the waves.
In such an environment, of course we were a lot of mutts with something to prove and plenty to hide. Who would dare brag of one’s lineage, one’s race, one’s heritage? We would not be the subject of any question coming from the question-makers, surely. As it should be written: “Knowledge, knowledge ye shall pursue.” Not covet, not steal, not bow down before, and never conquer entirely or permanently, but rather pursue, pursue with the graceful skill of a Skietiff and the pugnacity of a Peg and the jubilant-slash-depressing madness of a Jesz. By abandoning all distinctions save gender and age, we had found the nuance of distinction only developed previously by the Dark Ages Churchmen.
The “second lady,” as it were, of the Pequods FLEET was a corpulent little figure of a female nicknamed “Toe.” Her accent betrayed an Eastern European origin, and yet she spoke with the sass of a native-born American. It should be noted here, as before, that the diversity of these proceedings mirrored most American enterprises, but especially those of selective education: our best and brightest were actually not “ours” at all, but rather loaners from other continents around the globe. The fact that we had not one but two New Englanders in the figures of our captain and “first female” was remarkable enough but, in addition, the fact that the top officers were all three “white girls” (though what that term means in this muttish-land of ours I have little clue) was indeed more than unique, almost unheard-of. My years of FLEETing experience afterwards merely confirm and affirm this brand of oddity about the Pequods FLEET that year.
“Toe” received her appellative through numerous idiosyncrasies of character and mannerism, which I shall do my best to briefly expatiate upon presently. Firstly, after she got herself settled post-laying-in, she disposed of her shoes, and never would wear them again. She claimed that this made her more limber and agile in navigating the stacks during a dig, but all it seemed to accomplish for her in reality was an increased risk of stubbing upon railings, shelves, and the like. Secondly, her shape lent itself to this nom de guerre, as she looked indeed like a big toe at times, particularly when she got cozy with a volume in her lap: it seemed to be some sort of giant stretching down her big toe after removing her shoe, but the rest of the giant was gone and all that remained was this phantom digit. Thirdly, but not the most unusually, Toe had the habit of chewing upon a pen-cap in her mouth. This was a quite common move, particularly for those of us with longish hair and thus for whom the behind-the-ear posture of securing a writing instrument could not be long or safely maintained. Nonetheless, for Toe this habit was constant—at all times, even while snacking or napping, she would chew upon that nib of a pen cap. Without the pen-cap, Toe would be unrecognizable. It seemed to give her comfort, equanimity, and a bit of self-deprecating humor, and so the natural metaphor was of a baby girl fitting all her toes inside her mouth and giggling with glee.
Which brings me to the fourth and most characteristic raison d’etre for Toe’s name: it was self-given and self-applied. She would ceaselessly refer to herself in the third person, and the humor of the monosyllable—a naturally funny word if ever there was one—would not be lost in her affecting pronunciation. “Toe to Toe,” was her motto whenever opening a volume, as if the author were merely the reader herself and she were getting better acquainted with her own locked diary, even if she were merely boning up on the most esoteric of Cartesian axiomatic systems. (Be it here noted that Toe was our Maths specialist.)
Perhaps this last point made her so naturally butt heads with Captain Jesz, as shall later be seen. Indeed, perhaps this was the reason for Jesz’s sudden dropping of her own long habit in the “pen-cap incident” which was my first eavesdropping into the good captain’s inner world. Toe’s incessant buoyancy was the antithesis of Jesz’s vortex of pure gravity. The fact that Toe seemed to mock herself and the whole enterprise even while digging in most voraciously—this must have marked her as Captain Jesz’s annoying antagonist from the beginning, a minor fly in the way of the Bird of Prey. Nonetheless, there was not a better female to have with you on a dig than Toe, as her “Toe Fun-gus” (as she once called it, drawing out the second syllable) was infectious and would somehow get you to dig more sincerely, in the relief of such a mocking attitude. Toe took her losses with flippancy—again, setting her up in stark contrast to the feared captain. However, though she had much to say behind Jesz’s back, in the sight of the captain, Toe toe’d the line like the rest of us. (If even mighty Skietiff kowtowed low before Captain Jesz, none of us mortals would dare contradict her.)
The true “waiting-women” who served upon these “court ladies,” the above-mentioned inner-circle of officers, were Peg and the Engineer. Peg is already known enough, but “the Engineer” was another nickname, self-applied yet again. She was taciturn, but in the forbidding manner of the captain. The Engineer was from somewhere in Southeast Asia, judging from her appearance and accent, but she spoke and was seen so little that it was hard to discern precisely and one dare not ask her anything of a personal nature (which rule could really be applied to us all—as long as we did the job competently, it mattered not how many siblings one had or what one’s intended major was in college or what one’s doctoral thesis was going to be titled some years later). She was always tinkering, but much more productively so than Toe and her pen-cap. More of her will be described later, as she was drawn somewhat into Captain Jesz’s vortex, but for now all it behooves us to know is that the mechanical fields were her specialty, as should be obvious from her nomenclature.
So there we were, all seven of us FLEETers. (I, not alone, suspected that there were eight: this presentiment somewhat more confirmed by me, what with the elusive figure I witnessed the previous night.) We proceeded to get to know each other and ourselves the best way we knew how: dividing the library’s contents and starting to conquer them, spine after spine, row after row. But—oh, how my purposefully-faulty memory rubs salt into the wound—there goes little Squeak, the Senegalese young one taking her little golf pencil and playing a little percussion concert on the spiral staircase. Play on, Squeak, as you must be doing at this moment in some foggy state of mind and some ridiculously-visceral state of body. Your sounds, no matter how dissonant they sounded there in that cavernous library, assuredly resonate harmoniously in the little closet in which you now live, the little closet in which we all live, framed by our crania and double-gated by the broken-hinged doors of our teeth and lips, the lone light bulb above us ceaselessly on the blink and no extras to be found in such a confined, over-stuffed space.
Chapter 21: Jesz
Throughout all that first morning, Skietiff was in charge, according to the chain of command, and charge she did, making us follow suit and descend long after dawn had dawned and the flurries started to become heavy, heavy flakes descending with the mocking speed of floating, flapping sea-gulls. She collected us back up to the balcony several times to check over how the FLEETing was progressing, staring at each of us in turn, looking over our notes, and perhaps once or twice nodding in affirmation. That was all to be expected from such a demi-god, apparently set down upon these pages directly from the sagas of the cold, icy North. I was in thrall of her, of all of us, of those I had seen during my greedy descent, soaking up as much as my sponge could hold.
Nonetheless, each time we would re-ascend and begin to crack open our supply of victuals (the Energy flowing ceaselessly, as it would continue to do), we expected to see our good captain there instead of Skietiff. Every time I returned below, I looked out for Skietiff herself among the stacks, as this would be good sign that Captain Jesz had relieved her of command and would be impatiently, testily anticipating our arrival on “the bridge,” as I had started to call it. But, every time that early morn, Skietiff’s own tall, lanky form unsmilingly greeted me.
“Do you fear these collections?” she asked me on one such check-over.
“Yes, I do,” I replied.
“Good,” she coldly responded. “I wouldn’t have it otherwise in any FLEET of which I am a part. Lost many a girl down there, for hours and hours, those hoping to take all of it in one dig. You’ve got to know when to let ‘im go.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said I, and received a millimetric nod of the head in enthusiastic (for Skietiff) agreement. She sent me down again then with a movement I almost didn’t catch, moving her hand a few inches from her side in my general direction.
This did not bode well for any of us: though Skietiff was certainly high in my esteem, I longed to finally see the form of my captain in the flesh, the female under whom I toiled. The foolish though ambiguous words of Deborah kept resounding through my skull as I sifted through the debris of the fossil records. My certain presence in the moment—the ability to maintain Zen-like focus—was compromised by her uncertain prescience of the future.
As soon as I was convinced (as the iterations of this pre-dig digging multiplied throughout the morning) that Jesz was in fact not with us at all, that she had ditched us and the whole FLEETing venture for this “boy-friend,” upon my next ascent in the mid-morning I viewed at the balcony the figure of Captain Jesz herself. Her clothing was simple, with the exception of the blood-red heel that always kept her in an imperfect state of imbalance and literally kept her on her own (while figuratively kept us on our) toes, even Toe herself. Her outlook was constantly pained, as if the outward woe of this shoe and its serving as some sort of badge of shame was merely the tip of the iceberg that was lodged in her brain, stabbing every neuron and every calcium-deposited memory with the single haunting absence of The Answer on that hopeless dig of the recent past. Her glasses were slightly askew on the bridge of her nose, and the necessity of pulling them up again and again somehow brought her each time out of this scar of a consciousness and awakened her to the present reality, but in the wake of this gesture a devious expression would appear, as if the worst were yet to come, and it was all hers for the taking.
There was a scar, above her brow, that was readily apparent, and I earlier heard Toe give mention of it: “She was born with it, alright—the sign of a FLEETer from a baby, if ever one such as her could have been a baby. Some say she got it running up some iron-railed staircase with her pencil new sharpened, but that’s all lies, sure as the chapter-and-verse stuff is. But still, I don’t doubt that, if that yarn’s spun true, she’d be just the way she always is with the lead inside her: she’d see through the whole FLEET, for days, even after the blood ran into her eyes. But, no matter where it originates, there it is, for the world to see, a mark-er that marks-her eternal. Young Swirl, they once called her. Rhymes with ‘girl,’ so naturally she got rid of that nombre faster than she would an hombre. Guffaw, guffaw.” [Toe would actually say such things as “snigger” or “giggle” to punctuate her terrible jokes.] Now, I saw it imbued into the flesh of her forehead. She kept her hair in a tight bun at all times, as if showing it off: a swirl indeed, punctuated with a small circular scar. It was the very sign of a mark of our trade, there for all to see and question themselves. The fact that The Question had such a mark—that such a question and all its kin were in fact her twins—no doubt propelled her as deep as she went.
All of us—Skietiff now as well—were assembled and waited for our notes to be inspected. She barely glanced down at the papers and said nary a word, but her silence screamed at us to do better, dig deeper, be more attentive and studious than we ever thought possible. Her presence was so matter-of-fact, so scarily real, that if she would appear as the brooding banshee she was projected to be, that would have been far less intimidating than this average-looking pale youth in front of us, not photographed but in the life that was nowhere near still. With every other step, indeed, she seemed to find a hole to plant herself in the hard floor of the balcony area, as if the heel of vivacity was not lifting her up but instead dragging her down with its life which she sought to crush like a lively butterfly in a dead glass case. As her “click… b-boom” echoed and as the snow fell in torrents of flakes outside the window, there was an odd bliss and serenity to the scene, an anticipation for the rounds and questions to come, that almost caused me to smile. She was here, in front of me, and she was real. All would be well with such a fervent determination at the helm.
As she sent us back with one word only—“Okay”—I thought I could even detect on her stony face the appearance of what—on anyone else’s countenance—might be called a smirk.
Chapter 22: A Character-istic Scene betwixt the Captain and the Second Lady
Shortly, assuredly we would start our sentinel duty by the stained-glass window (to be explicated in a later chapter) and the questions would descend as readily as the snow outside and us in. Therefore, it behooved us and most other FLEETs to conserve our energy in prep for the first rounds—a brief hiatus from digging whilst our ridiculous bodies needed to re-charge our glorified brains. A strategy here, and during all pre-power-naps throughout FLEETing time, was to consume large amounts of liquid Energy immediately before setting one’s head down on jacket, backpack, or other excuse for pillow. This way, upon awaking, one would redouble one’s charge and truncate if not eliminate the foolish groggy period, lasting upwards of six minutes in some specimens, post-slumber.
Though Captain Jesz refused to join us, keeping her eyes upon the horizon at all times, as it were—no one ever saw her sleep and, before we set down for this nap, I heard her mutter, “What do you think I am, a toddler! Down, down to the closest we have to death here in kindergarten, children!”—she had a modicum of human respect to cease her “click… b-boom” across the hard ground during this time. At least, it so seemed as all six of us hunkered down in the relative darkness (the Engineer had somehow tinkered with the circuitry of the building to control at will the lights above our “berths,” as they were, without interfering with any of the other FLEETs’).
However, about twenty minutes in, I could feel and hear in my fitful dreams the heel and its spritely ghostly sound and its deadly weight of living through my skull. I awoke, and saw Toe crouching up beside me.
“Snigger, snigger,” whispered she. “If it isn’t the Flying Dutchwoman.” Seeing some others, including Skietiff, toss and turn, she got up and waddled carefully over to Captain Jesz.
“You know, Captain,” said she as she stood in the captain’s way. “You might want to have the Engineer take an aggregate of cotton balls to that heel, reduce somewhat the impact, audibly at least.” The mocking effrontery of this suggestion demonstrated Toe’s limited knowledge of the captain, at this early point of departure.
“Might I, Toe?” hissed Jesz. “Mighty Toe, might I get a giant ball of cotton candy? Where at this lovely fair do they sell elephant ears, I pray? … Sorry I forgot you kiddies were sleepin’, Toe. Back to your cubby, tubby.”
Jesz, though she had just apologized, set her heel all the more loudly and boldly upon the ground as she walked away from Toe and this bothersome encounter with another human.
Toe, however, would not leave it there (foolish Toe!), and so once again Toe stuck her toes out in front of Captain Jesz’s trajectory, nearly making her keel over, heel and all.
“I don’t half-mind being called a kiddie by such an experienced one as you, Cap’n. But ‘Tubby’ I will not stand—gar, gar.”
“Sleep, you ignoramus! Back to your bliss!” whisper-shouted Jesz, making as if to take her sharpened pencil out.
Toe, though she actually smiled at this, was clearly affected, though not so much as to give away her ground.
“I will not be called ‘Tubby.’”
“Will not? Your paltry mocking will defies mine, does it? Let me inform you what I will do. Lest you remain in ignorance, let me update your knowledge on this score: I will call you Tubby, or Bubby, or Hubby, or Stubby, or any name I please! Get out of my parabola, Miss Maths, or you shall cry, ‘Heel!’ when you find mine in your orifice, and then you can go find a kinder bitch to roll over for you. But not on my FLEET. Mark me,” and here she slapped her own mark on her forehead, “for my will will not be breached by the like of you, catfish.”
Humbled by this sotto voce tirade, Toe returned to her place in the “berths,” as Jesz patrolled “the deck,” the Mood still clearly in possession of her. As she settled back down for a few minutes more of rest, Toe stuck her pen-cap in her mouth and mumbled to herself. I think I caught the most of it, which I now translate:
“That’s an odd one, all right. Not sure how I take to that at all. My first command to myself is ‘Calculate,’ and my second ‘Masticate.’ That’s what I get, har, that’s what I get for violating those commands and opening my mouth to verbalize. I’d like to differentiate her some, but she’s an unbreakable formulation, she is. Wish she had kicked me with that heel of hers, ‘stead of that verbosity spouting off. I’d be able to stomach that more, could break the pain down into numbers, instead of those words, makin’ me want to appeal to secular humanists everywhere to debunk—take those cursed cursing words down from the Old Testament shelf and Gödel them into phrases that I can analyze. Ah well, might as well rest now, even if I can’t sleep, before these lights put us back in darkness. Giggley gig.”
Chapter 23: The Pen-Cap Incident, Which Has Been Heretofore Alluded To
Obviously, after all of that, I could hardly sleep myself and so, while Toe may or may not have settled down (the former being more likely, as later colloquy will testify), I couldn’t help but hearing Jesz’s halting paces and then, when it seemed that even that syncopated rhythm might lull me to a moment of repose, the sudden cease of it woke me up.
I turned my head and, in relief of the EXIT sign, all in red, Jesz’s form appeared, taking out a pen, removing the cap and, Toe-like, putting it in her mouth to masticate with abandon. However, just as it seemed this sign of common humanity could connect her with us, she removed it from her mouth, and gazed down at it. In the same harsh whisper, I heard her soliloquize:
“How many caps have I chewed in my time, and all in vain! How this distraction takes me away from my holy pain, and the imbedded reminder of my mission now. How like a palliating mark-er is this cap, easing the torment, removing the dread, distancing the self from the ceaseless task. Farewell, small, fleeting comfort,” said she as she threw the pen-cap over the edge of the balcony. “May I never rest until She is mine.”
With that, the cap echoed far below on the stone ground, sounding to my distant ears like a lone drop absorbed by the roaring ocean. The staccato pacing resumed, but this time I could not be lulled to sleep by it.
Chapter 24: Fortune Cookie
As the Engineer’s jury-rigging was installed with a very precise timer, just a few minutes later—after exactly 30 minutes of power-filled napping—we were up, ready to stand sentinel watch for the first round of questions coming sometime towards high noon from below.
“Mighty fine mechanism, that, Eng,” said Toe, as she put her pen-cap back in her mouth. “Tell me, what sky-entific significance does there be in dreams?”
“None that I am aware of,” said the Engineer, busying herself with some other task in her lap by this point.
“Gar, gar. Her, her. I take about as much stock in ‘em as I do fortune cookies. Mind if I regale you with mine, that I had just now?” Receiving no response one way or another, Toe continued, directing it more towards us all rather than the Engineer alone. “Well, it all came out exactly as before: I went right up to Young Jesz and then she did kick me with that red heel of hers. But then, just as I was about to give her tit for tat, guffaw, she turns into a giant book which cannot open up past the blank page after the title but before the copyright page. And I’m thinkin, ‘All right then, let’s kick this!’ And so I go on kickin’ and kickin’, giggley gigs, when all of a sudden from behind me emerges a bold, black, sans serif mermaid, with her tail in the shape of a question mark and, instead of scales, she’s got pencils sharp as BC Calc. ‘What are you kickin’ ‘er for?’ asks the mermaid. ‘It’s just a heel, not like it smarts your smarts none.’ And I say, ‘All righty, miss, I won’t be kickin’ you none, I see, just let me get back to this giant blank book, will ye?’ So she sorta shrugs, if a mark can shrug, and then asks, ‘Why not?’ and then that question perplexes me even more, but luckily she converts it into Maths, so I’m soon back to the blank book, right? And the mermaid keeps on saying, ‘Wise Toe you is, Wise Toe you is.’ And then we woke up.”
By this point, we all—Toe included—had finished our brief comestible break and were ready to start in earnest, to FLEET as I had been waiting for all this time: out in the stacks on a dig, prepping for the first round of the day.
“That’s rather… fanciful,” said the Engineer, barely looking up.
“Her, her, oh, ‘tis,” responded Toe. “Wise one I is, truly. Snigger. Best thing is to never have words with anyone, I realize now, ‘specially her over there by the balcony.”
“Get up, you janes!” shouted Captain Jesz. “The round’s ‘round the bend, and will sharpen your curves off your frames. Up to the watch, and keep a lookout for a Mocha in this first batch!”
“Did you hear that, Eng?” asked Toe. “A Mocha, first round? Who ever heard of that? She’s got blood in her eyes and on that heel, I tell you. Stay clear—uh-oh, here she comes. Outta my way—there’s something I dropped over there, I think. Chortle-sport.”
Chapter 25: Library Classification Systems: An Argument Against Folksontology
The nature of the previous remark—of nicknaming question types by coffee varieties—will be henceforth developed upon, as previously mentioned, but I feel that this is as good of a stopping-place as any to discuss the nature of DD, LC, Universal Decimal, Colon, Bliss, Swiss, Cutter, and the other variegated species of library classification. Library scientists around the globe, particularly during and after the 19th century, have been troubled by this issue, and it seems to have only gotten more byzantine with the development of the Internet.
How do we proceed in categorizing knowledge, when knowledge is always in need of revision and correction? How do we make a system to find just the nugget that we seek, without the labyrinthine dead-ends and frustrating amount of time lost to the searcher in pursuit, especially if she is in such a highly-pressurized environment as the FLEETs?
The answers to these questions, left to the librarians, who have time and leisure enough to devote their careers to answering them, are as hopelessly complex as the knowledges they seek to classify. Indeed, the only way to navigate knowledge systems of variegated disciplines seems to be to add a whole other genera of knowledge systems—that of library classification systems and their ridiculous taxonomies.
If we FLEETers had our druthers—which we never do, outside of the FLEETs—then we would propose an entirely new system of classification, rebelling against traditional folksonomy of any variety. As no other FLEETer puts herself forward to propose such a FLEET-centric system, I shall now take it upon myself to briefly sketch one out. Keep in mind that this is only a sketch and, if future generations (if such there are) wish to effect such a framework into practice, then they would need to add tendon, joint, muscle, and flesh to this skeleton.
Firstly, a word of caution for anyone attempting such an enterprise: as FLEETing time is so ephemeral, exhaustively fitting any collection to this type of stratification during a college break and then returning it to the “standard” LC or DD systems before the students returned would be yeowoman’s work indeed. (I remember, during one disastrous FLEETing venture, that the library was in the midst of switching from DD to LC. Too many FLEETs went down that break to record here.)
As new volumes come forth every day, offering modification, emendation, or outright falsification of previously-verified “truths,” the standard systems are doomed to play catch-up for the rest of the allotted time for this species. To attempt such neat classification systems as categorized by theme, genre, etc., seems to this FLEETer to be not just a lost cause, but a foolish one as well.
This is not to say that historical, extinct or endangered knowledges do not have their place in my currently-proposed system, however. One might claim just that of the current systems of classification: requiring removal into dusty archives or dustier trash-heaps of outdated volumes and all first editions from (at latest) one decade in the past and beyond. Library scientists must give themselves occupations, after all, so this system seems designed with their endeavors in mind: that of ceaseless re-classification and re-sorting of a library’s contents.
In a FLEET, however, historical truth is as valid as any other, perhaps even more valued, as these archaic “facts” have a certain holiness about them, a certain appeal of being just as unsought and unvalued as us FLEETers ourselves, yet without whom no future endeavor can proceed. Shoulders of giants, and so forth. Peg was held in such high esteem because she held in her massive key-ring all the keys to all other subjects, History being the mother and goddess of them all. August Kekulé’s dream of the structure of benzene, for instance, popped up I-know-not-how-oft times as an Espresso Shot with Soy prelude-type question in the area of molecular biology.
So, the system which I currently outline offers this palindrome perspective, of looking forwards and backwards simultaneously. As opposed to the esoteric and folksonomic structures of the other systems—as designed by males, I might superfluously add—I propose this sharpest of Occam’s Razors for cutting through the clutter of Cutter and the like:
The Entire Contents of a Library Shall Be Classified by Chronological Order of Publication.
For a FLEETer, such a system would be Paradise. She could shave off an entire half-day’s worth of surveying the stacks, and a FLEETing tournament of 4 days could ideally have as much content as one of 6 days (which, for reasons of sheer biological necessity, was unheard of in all of FLEETdom, with the exception of some dangerously-aided sessions in the late ‘60s, sending some FLEETers to local ERs after Day 5).
One would not have to re-acquaint oneself with familiar volumes, but be able, at a moment’s glance, to discover the lacunae in one’s knowledge published in a certain year. I, for one, can attest to how frustrating it can be to return to a certain familiar area of DD or LC and to discover a cover of the exact same height, bulk, and color of a volume one was hoping for, only to find instead a completely-different tract. With a firm memorization anchored in the historiography of one’s specialty—and which greenest among us did not ever possess this?—one may navigate the stacks like a new woman with new, keener eyes.
There are obvious issues with this system, the biggest of which being publication of commentaries and/or new translations of classical tracts. For instance, if one were looking for a new trenchant analysis of Raleigh’s failed voyage to Guyana in the formation of distinctly English (and not Spanish-copycat) foreign-policy vis a vis American colonies, or searching for a newer, more colloquial translation of Galileo’s Siderius Nunciae, I am not sure whether the date filed would/should be under the current year or with the rest the 1610’s: with the tempests of the present or the quarto of The Tempest. Another issue is that of editions in foreign language, but these are rarities most anywhere in the United States and so I will exclude discussion of them here.
The elimination of a Special Collections, New Books section, and Staff Picks would undoubtedly force librarians into part-time positions and, indeed, for most libraries this would mean that the most popularly-browsed sections would be near-empty come summertime, when the [current year minus five, and that is if one is crediting the reading public’s savvy in ancient volumes] shelf would resemble non-perishable food item shelves in a convenience store before a hurricane. As it is now, during summertime FLEETs (a rarity for reasons of which even I am unsure), FLEETers often complain of possessing not the upper body strength necessary to remove volumes from the more commonly-browsed shelves, as they are packed in too-tightly when all the students head off to summer rendezvous and apathy. During a semester, and particularly before final papers (i.e., for a Thanksgiving FLEET, or late Easter Break if such applies at the host college), one can actually hear these stacks “breathe” and sigh with relief.
But, if such a system of purely-chronological organization were to be effected (again, by some more enterprising and ambitious FLEETer than myself), I have no doubt that such would be the renaissance of FLEETing. Indeed, the possibility of including even younger FLEETers into the embrace of the FLEETing world would be more feasible. Such a young one could simply start at the beginning, during the time when there were no specialties and all was Philosophy and, skipping certain regions before and after the infectious rise of Christianity, she could receive the classical education that she has been historically denied. Then, for the last half-millennium, she would obviously have to get more choosy in regards to a particular specialty of choice and, as for the last 50 years, I would save that until she reached the 6th grade, at which time perhaps she might be able to hone her specialty even further. As it is, I often regret my own choice and wished I could have made it with much more precision, rather than sifting through the net and latching on to some of the more-palatable areas of contemporary molecular biology.
As it is now, I do not see a way of progressing with the currently-used systems in practice. Our specialties are becoming more and more special, and attempting to organize the current year’s batch is as simple as marshalling all the elements of chaos to create a child’s drawing of a butterfly. The only feasible way of going forward will have to be a system such as I outline, for only in viewing the recent past and its Hydra-headedness can one lop off one or two without running the risk of creating a hundred more categories and strata. Only with time can Time itself be vanquished and controlled. The present is not a gift: this present has a Gordian knot for a bow, and the wrapping paper is poison to hold. The only way to make sense of it is to view it like Nazca lines: from a thousand feet above.
The only way to make sense of it all is to do as I propose.
To do as I am doing right now.
But, assuredly I shall leave even this tract unsatisfyingly finished, for myself especially. As I wrote, I make the blueprints, and hope that the future will build the house. Whether the house may stand, I know not.
And so much for systems of classification.
Chapter 26: First Chair
However, while we are focused on organization and hierarchy, and while we are thusly in the midst of a narrative caesura, I will take this opportunity to make mention of a peculiar practice amongst FLEETs that is nowhere else to be found among any teams, be they academic, athletic, or social, in any level of curriculum or extra-curriculum. On Academic Challenge teams of which I was a member (I hope that you, reader, will permit such a breach of tact in this mention), the captain’s word was law, and no one was to contradict him. All such males run the tightest of ships, and permit not a degree of questioning.
While Captain Jesz may have indeed “out-manned” her male counterparts in this respect, yet there were FLEETing conventions that flouted traditional obeisance which even she condescended to allow in the Pequods FLEET. Chiefest among these was the idea of “first chair,” otherwise called “captain’s chair” in most trivia clubs. The “captain’s chair” is always naturally the most central, as that position is the sun about which all wandering teammates revolve (and yet none dare perform a revolution).
Yet, as the FLEETs depended so much on the entire team, and as each teammate might at any moment rescue her FLEETmates from (or, conversely, doom them to) perplexity, the most recent successful answerer was given this “first chair,” still (as it were) having the laurels about her head going into the next round. Yet, at just that point of utmost cockiness, there were the other six-seven FLEETers besides her to whisper in her ear sic transit gloria to any Gloria or Pamela or Michaela who felt this was a permanent position.
So, while Captain Jesz was far from social, she would perform the “captain’s dance,” as it was called, playing musical chairs with the rest of us as we sat down to divvy up mark-ers post-round. Her possible reasons for holding on to such a peculiar institution in the midst of such a quixotic quest as she would embark upon—these surmises shall have to wait for a future chapter.
As can be gathered from the above encounter—when Toe received a high-and-mighty stubbing after clumsily running into the captain—this “first/musical-chair” condescension aside (or, perhaps, because she still maintained an allegiance to this anti-hierarchical practice), Captain Jesz was an object of fear and awe, if not out-and-out worship. Even more so than the cockiest of senior-year varsity-letter-wearing male captains, you trembled under her rule, even as you strove to please her. She was not an imposing figure in the flesh, heel and all, and I still puzzle as to how command commands the way it does, without analytical rationale or any other outward or inward clue as to how these mystic first movers can move all under them, even their intellectual or physical superiors (as there might have been such in newly-docile Peg). How our empress impressed us into her service, I’ll never consciously understand; as the fellow writes: “For be a [wo]man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other [wo]men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base.”
Her majesty still parades before me, taunting me to give it subservient chase even now—a majesty not attained by crown, but rather exclusively by the oceanic depths and airy skies inside her uncrowned glorious head.
Chapter 27: The “Family” Table
Though such a “first chair” arrangement occurred during the great mark-er splicings and retracings after victories, meals soon became a more sullen affair and, as the ensuing narrative shall mainly skip over these repasts—as true visceral inconveniences in the midst of a moveable feast for our minds—I shall at this point, while the narrative still hibernates but is slowly re-stirring, enumerate our chain-of-command we soon developed. This was by tacit understanding, not by written code, but further demonstrates the absolutely feudal laying-out post-laying-in of our little “family.”
The family metaphor is an apt one for describing these brief interruptions for victuals. The Engineer soon figured out a way of juicing up the nearest microwave oven, such that we could heat up a bevy of foodstuffs in the same time that a nearby FLEET might make one mere portion of ramen. It should be noted that this was owing to a little contraption, innocent-looking enough, which could simply be attached to the vents near the rear. Eng never once shared it with other FLEETs but, true to the honor by which all of us were bound, never purposefully sabotaged anyone else’s meal preparations either, as she assuredly could have done and, with the aid of such a contraption as ours, given our FLEET an indefinite head-start on any round while the others were occupied with all hands reporting to the microwave or stricken with some digestive ailment upon consuming ill-heated comestibles.
As the hordes of foodstuffs would arrive up to “the deck,” Captain Jesz, troubled by this olfactory disturbance to her sense-less state driven into pure platonic intellectual realms, was the first to seat herself down and perhaps have a few bites with Skietiff and Toe in the carrel with her. Skietiff would always sit down first, however, and Toe would be sure that Jesz had her eyes fixed on that pole of a figure before she squatted down herself, in the hopes of sneaking by right under the captain’s nose, literally.
The “meal,” of course, was passed with pure silence, but not quite as pure as at the Sis’er Feehan, for the family dynamic of such a domestic arrangement produced so much angst and tension that it could not successfully be sliced through with plastic cutlery. With Jesz as the troubled, brooding-furious mother figure, self-medicating with depressants of all varieties—not from any external source, but rather from her own internal brain chemistry and disposition—how could it not resemble a Norman Rockwell painting set not in the mid- but rather in the late-20th century? Skietiff, due to her tall height, actually looked up after every chew rather than the usual child’s downcast gaze in the presence of such a domineering matriarch. Toe could never get more than a few bites—indeed, neither of them could, but, for Toe, due to her decision to only commence with food after Skietiff and Jesz had had an opportunity to get worser acquainted, her meal-times were truncated to just a nibble or two on this FLEET. Such is the fate of being a lower officer, I suppose.
Captain Jesz, feeding more off her own gloom than on any tangible stuff, always belched and then pushed the food away in disgust, setting off again with her “heel hop”—the only way to mollify the tragic gait was to give it this rather juvenile alliterative name. Skietiff and Toe, though they could have continued eating, always felt some sort of pressure to exit the premises shortly thereafter, a sort of eater’s guilt descending on them, like us infidels must feel during Ramadan (the real one, and not Peg’s version).
After Skietiff and Toe, Peg sauntered along and helped herself, stuffing in the food and giving a scrap or two to Joy, O. Peg was the Rosetta Stone for the rest of the crew, taking the untranslatable silence of the officers’ mess and converting it into a gluttonous, joyous, savage silence punctuated by masticating jaws and cow-like tongue movements. I would be the first to join her in the carrel, as I was seen as her apprentice/favorite of sorts very early on, and finally Squeak and Eng would join in, though Eng, like Jesz, saw food as distraction (unlike Jesz, from mechanical business instead of from metaphysical). Eng also liked last servings to convert into her next gadget: taking plastic and sometimes melting it down to serve new FLEETing uses and, on more than one occasion, using the grease in the bottom of our containers to power some new device.
Like true families, we scavenged off of each other and called it necessity. As much as we wished, though, we couldn’t feed off of what kept Jesz going: we would die from what kept her alive. Not even Eng could convert it to some academic use.
Chapter 28: The Massless Mast
Bulky has already been mentioned as standing at “the mast” very early in that morning, and this constant readiness to pounce on the questions before any could conceivably arrive—this behavior stands out chiefest in my admiration of her. There would always be FLEETers above us, at the very top of a library ladder or positioned in another such way to look out—or rather, in—the main windows next to us on the balcony. They were in position from shortly after the Drawing-In, and would be there all the way through, even during the Day-3.5 “clean-up” time hitherto-alluded—despite the fact that no questions could arrive from the question-makers during that interval. It was all—yet again—a matter of firmest principle, this standing representative of our intellectual hungriness and the constant need to fill up our knowledges even more to the brim so that overflowing cups would overfloweth beyond human powers of conception.
It was some time towards noon, when the weather outside was still still—or at least during the last flurried spell before the blizzard—that I took my first position at the “mast” myself. Seeing my heroine Bulky there as the first memory of a “mast-header” was somewhat intimidating, but I felt myself up for the task.
The term “stakeout” is well known among detectives and other officers of the law but, to my knowledge, the FLEETer term “stack-out” has never similarly caught on in wider circles of vernacular. One stands on the stacks, in some cases, facing outwards wherever the questions may first evince themselves as rising “to the surface” from the question-maker HQ. In the case of this library, with an enclosed wing of librarian offices, this proved a little more challenging, but those before us had paved the way: the best angle for ocular observation was actually very, very high up, so that one could use the large framed windows that descended from the balcony to the third or second floor as a giant reflecting surface, being capable—especially during night or during darkened stormy weather—of seeing via reflection directly to the copy machine located in the offices. During my time, I have seen Eng-like females rig up sound devices to detect the copier warming up or going through sleep cycles and even some contraptions designed somehow to transport the olfactory evidence of ink particles, etc., stirring above or behind the copy machine all the way to wherever the FLEET may be stationed at the time.
There was one chief disadvantage of this set-up: the campus building immediately across from the library was lit up, for reason that such an administrative college building must always be lit up (tuition dollars hard at work), even during break-times. Therefore, one’s biggest distraction came in looking through the window and not at its reflective surface. For us FLEETers so used to seeing beyond the surfaces and into the depths of the storehouses of knowledge, this was counter-intuitive.
Nonetheless, all six of us took turns: for Squeak it was literally a stack-out, as she climbed to the very top of the highest stack on the balcony; for Skietiff it was rather easy to tiff at the sky, and so she needn’t do more than stand at attention; for Peg, she only required a shelf or two of height alleviation; for Toe and Eng, the sight was by far the most quaint (Toe would stand upon Eng’s shoulders, with Toe soliloquizing upon some subject or ten and with Eng still at work, staring down at her latest gizmo or contraption all the while—so in effect Toe/Eng’s shift was double, but neither minded all that much).
I well remember my first duty, during that first day—I was engaged in nervously convivial chat with Peg, when all it took was a look from Captain Jesz to launch myself up to the “mast.” Being small for my age and my age being small itself posed a problem for me, a problem that could not be alleviated by Squeak’s solution, as I discovered I was just big enough not to fit in the crevasse between stack and ceiling. What I was forced to do, therefore, for the time being was to stack a chair on top of a table and move that table to the very edge of balcony.
I must confess here with all due shame that I was terrible on the stack-out. My greenness was only a part of it. True, I was as ignorant of the symbolic difference between a Petite Hazelnut Cappuccino and a Decaf Chai Latte Lite with Honey & Cinnamon as you are now upon reading this (once again, if I may deign to ask you to bear your patience in this delayed explication of nomenclature, for the present time). But, in addition, I think that this role and duty is completely incongruous with the type of personality and temperament that make the best FLEETer during a dig. To expect one to shift through the pitiful world of externalities, to gaze at a sheen of a reflection with such a keen eye—it is wholly at odds with the worship of the abstract fact and the deeply-penetrating insight that make us stand apart from the flocks around us.
Be warned, prospective FLEETing captains and sponsors reading this: never trust a greenie such as I with such a menial chore. We Aristotelians bring our own party, our own competition, with us wherever we go, inside our heads, ceaselessly cataloging the specimens we have encountered under certain brackets, strata, and/or gradations, satisfactorily giving our attention to one category before embarking upon the next, connecting idealized ligament to intellectual tissue. We are used to such escape routes at all times, this internalized digging serving as our ejector seats from banal societies, but such a superficial object—a copy machine, as reflected through the panes spreading down several floors below us—this is not worthy of thirty-second thought. And it is just such melancholic Aristotles that the FLEETs naturally welcome with their siren songs of the mind.
“Mahl! Molly! You’ve been three days up there, and not a question in sight? Where’s my Mocha?” I could imagine Captain Jesz berating me—in my head—for it had seemed like the first three days of myth’d creation, all nebulous and gloriously One, and I was cataloging with structured abandon rather than focusing on my gaze.
“Sorry, Captain, let me add that to the list.”
“List! Listen, Miss List: Should be the first on your list, lest you list to starboard and fall to your doom in such a Cartesian plane filled with whirling vortices. The floor is a long way down, if you’re not lista for this task, chica.”
But Captain Jesz never once addressed me, that day. It was said that she had her own ways of feeling a question—and, yes, I use this word “feeling” with all feasible intentionality of design. She could feel a batch coming through the copier floors below like the fabled Princess and the Pea—could feel her Mocha or lesser specimens through that long heel of hers, like a divining rod in the ground.
But, even had that powerful presence summoned my own, all the way up there, I would likely not have responded. I was not on a stack-out, I was on a stack-in. I felt inside the stacks, a part of them, and pushed in my shoulders, though I stood separate, to squeeze myself in amongst my sisters at such an ethereal altitude. I was pure knowledge, knowledge flowing out from and within me, and I categorized myself with all the facts that engulfed me. There was no Mahl any longer, no single life in the facelessness of such a mass of dead facts below, spines churning and mixing together in waves upon waves of particulate matter—I only maintained a modicum of individual identity, just enough to keep me precariously balanced on that chair on that table on the balcony. The imagined voice of Cap’n Jesz was right: Given a double-shift, Miss Aristotle would have likely categorized herself with the dead matter of the cold granite floor: a formerly-human question flightily descending those stories and beyond, all the way down to a de-storied ultimate answer, the one awaiting for us all.
Chapter 29: All Hands on Deck
Even from such nebulous heights, I could still hear Captain Jesz’s pacing heel-step reverberating, echoing as maddeningly as assuredly that one monomaniacal obsession did as it paced forever through her thoughts, derailing all other concerns to stubbornly lay down the two steadfast steel rails of her inner eyes towards that inscrutable vanishing point. If there were a soul in her, if there are souls in any of us, it strove to crack the shell of her body ‘til, at last, it emerged in all its ghastly, appealing horror.
It was not Captain Jesz herself who called me down, but Skietiff, Jesz having relayed this most unusual command through her right-hand woman. To abandon the post on “the mast,” to assemble all hands to one spot, was risking much in our trade, and signaled a portentous occasion.
However, when Skietiff had (somewhat reluctantly) performed her task of gathering all six of us together in a Big Crunch on the “deck” of the balcony, Captain Jesz seemed not to notice us at all, the entirety of her monolithic attention being directed towards hatching that which was inside of her, with a “bigotry of purpose” that would make the most bigoted of male specimens jealous.
Half-slouchedly, casting her eyes about like a case study in archetypal hysteria, Jesz would not cease her pacings, as if her true purpose, her true obsession, was in this peripatetic journey, and she wanted us to join her in her pacings or at least recognize the greatness of such an endeavor. As we all looked down at our own shoes, her heel stamped louder and louder yet, seemingly making holes in the hard stone floor, as if her tap-dance were really some performance art piece, significance to be revealed only after she had walked away and, through the settling dust, we could see the face of Marie Curie stamped in the ground.
It took a mocking aside from Toe to Engineer—“Is it to be calisthenics next? Har har.”—for Captain Jesz to cease and, just when I could swear she would deliver on her veiled threat to stamp Toe to a pulp with her stiletto, she burst into an eager-eyed grin, all the more ugly for its rareness.
“Females! What do you do when you see the green flash of the copier up there?”
Though this question convinced me that the coming diatribe was going to be directed towards me for assuredly missing a round and costing us all severely, even I could not help but snigger at such a question coming from this lady and mistress of question-answering. We looked around at each other before responding, unsure if this was some sort of Socratic ruse. When we returned our looks to Captain Jesz (or rather, to her midriff, as none of us at that point could meet her maddened eyes), we mumbled softly in turn something like:
“We cry out, go down to receive and read the question, and sprint down to dig.”
“Right!” cried Captain Jesz, pleased, as it were, with this most simple and basic of elementary-school responses. “That’s right. That’s my FLEETers, now. What do you do, then, when on a dig?”
Though there was an awkward pause yet again, we emerged in counterpunctual chorus somewhat more eagerly: “We dig until we find the answer.”
“That’s right, again! But what if you can’t find it? What then?”
Here there was no pause: “We dig until we do, until the question is answered!” This exclamation here, it shocks me to report, was our own now—we were as amazed that Captain Jesz had inspired such a feeling as we were to experience it. The delirium was contagious.
“That’s right. Now, females, look here.” At this Captain Jesz produced from her own disheveled clothing a piece of currency, which denomination we could not yet observe. “Whichever one of you first calls out for the question that turns out to be The Question, my very own Mocha, she shall receive this!” At this, the good captain unrolled and uncrumpled the bill, revealing it to be the Madison $5,000 note. “Do you see this bill, females? Do you see it? Skietiff, fetch me a tack somewhere.”
Our amazement and, yes, our delirium, continued, producing just the effect that Captain Jesz wanted, and we all knew the magician’s secret but could not but be sucked in to the illusion of such showwomanship. We murmured like preschoolers and Captain Jezebel had just shown us the gold star we could earn if we identified all the state capitals by the end of the month. It sickened us but, like a roller-coaster, the nausea only added to the tremendous excitement. Jezebel seemed most pleased, hunkering down and—as she crossed her heeled leg over her non- and, on her heeled thigh, flattened out the bill—crisping the Madison up to wow us even further in its presence while she—this was perhaps most shocking of all—hummed a tune, a simple childish tune that seemed to come from some deep recesses in her affective regions—the tune sounding for all the world like “Baby Beluga.”
Skietiff, though she took her sweet time about it, returned with the tack.
“Mark this, females,” said Captain Jesz as she tacked the bill to the highest point of the main study carrel. “Whosoever among you first calls out for the question that turns out to be that most faintly-printed Mocha, this Madison shall be hers!”
We all… cheered. Yes, reader, we were still FLEETers and we verbally cheered. I was unsure what any of the other FLEETs would think of this outburst, but I didn’t care—didn’t care about the opinions of anyone save the succubus in front of us.
Peg, surprisingly, was the most ebullient at this, celebrating with Joy, O. in her hand. She took an additional step towards Captain Jesz—unconsciously, we had all closed the ring tighter sometime during these theatricals.
“Captain Jezebel,” said Peg, “do you mean the, the same faintly-printed, serif-fonted question they call a Mocha-Rich?”
Captain Jesz took a step towards Peg now, and Peg actually obliged her by hunkering her head downwards a little so that they could see each other eye-to-eye. “Miss _____peg__________________, do you mean to tell me that you have come across the Mocha-Rich?”
Peg actually struggled with this question posed her, before answering: “I have heard references of Her, Captain, but never seen Her in the print.”
Repeating Peg’s unpronounceable full surname, in addition to her first name, Captain Jesz lowered her voice and I saw both their sets of lips quiver—no typos here, reader—and commiserate somewhat with each other in this. It was clear that Jesz had Peg in her crazed palm, just as she had nearly all of us. She said, somewhat louder: “My dear ‘Peg,’ everything you describe is true. That’s The Question that we’re after.”
“Is this the same question, Captain,” asked Skietiff, the only one to remain somewhat outside the ring, “that gave you that high heel some time ago?”
“Who told you that?” spat out Jesz, turning towards Skietiff. Then, gaining some control, the captain turned again towards the rest of us. “Yes, my females, everything that this ‘First Lady’ says is true. The Mocha-Rich gave me this,” and with this she stamped her heel and emitted an animalistic cry, clutching her thigh. “Mocha-Rich left me a souvenir I will keep with me forever.” With this, she raised her hands in the air. “And for that, I will never stop digging for Her! I will dig for Her through Philosophy, and all the Sciences Hard and Soft, and the depths of History, the breezes of the Humanities, the ice of Technology, even to the airiness of Theology. I will not stop digging until I come upon The Answer and the Mocha-Rich’s mark-er is in my book, and not my leg! What do you say, females, are you with me? Will you lock implements with mine?”
At this, all of us save Skietiff were stolen away from ourselves—we shouted “Yes! Answer the Mocha-Rich!” as if we were a squad of petulant cheerleaders and the other team had taken a stupid small object from us.
Captain Jezebel seemed on the border of weeping with joy at this, our vociferous response which echoed through the library as our captain’s heel was wont to do. “From your lips, females, to the question-makers’ ears. Skietiff, get us an Energy shot there,” barked the good captain.
Skietiff once again, as a tree bending in the wind, moved about her business with leisure. She returned with the can at her side, and Captain Jesz grabbed it from her grip and produced her own highly-sharpened implement.
“Now, for an old tradition, from my family,” she sneeringly pronounced. “You don’t come from a line of alcoholics without picking up a thing or three. Gather around, females, and imbibe.”
She stabbed the bottom of the can and, removing it and placing her thumb in the hole, proceeded to lick the pencil clean, her tongue coating with gray-black. She then placed the can up to her lips and un-did the tab, sucking in a jolt of Liquid Energy that actually seemed to mollify her somewhat temporarily. She passed it to Peg next, who passed it on to the rest of us.
“Around and around the Energy goes: where the Mocha-Rich stops, we all know!” We dumbly laughed yet again.
Skietiff, however, still appeared quite sullen, and would not imbibe with the rest of us.
“First Lady Skietiff,” spoke Captain Jesz with disdain. “You do not join your FLEET?”
“No, Captain Jesz, that is not the pertinent question. I did join this Pequods FLEET, not Captain Jezebel’s. To pursue one question and one question only—no matter how much she may have damaged your pride or your leg—that is… I am in the FLEETs to make myself stand out for my collegiate future and beyond, to make myself a true female and not a petty follower of ambition or dreams. To give a question this much attention—as if a question were capable of volition or malice—it’s madness!”
“A question, not capable of malice! Have you seen me?”
“Captain, whatever you did to yourself as a result of that question—”
“I tell you again, Mocha-Rich did this to me! Mocha-Rich! You claim a question has no will—well, that may be so. But does that mean that I have not will to oppose any knowledge, be She animate or inanimate? If a woman is to be a true woman, she must push past any concrete thing standing before her to distill the greater significance underneath—not emotional resonance or other individualized weaknesses, but the universal truth lurking beneath all facts. This question symbolizes that universal truth more than any other, because She and She alone defeated me absolutely, spurning me on with Her mystery and Her fearsome opaqueness. Perhaps—just perhaps, mind you—perhaps there is something that motivates this question to me and me to Her. Because this question, this Mocha-Rich, this question seeks to make an answer of me. Seeks to make me a fragment of a sentence, completely punctuating my efforts, to stop my—our pursuit of all knowledge—for, if a faint Mocha like this can stand in the way, can go about unconquered, flaunting Her unanswerableness to all FLEETers, then what has that question but living power, to have us in fearsome thrall? Beyond every question lies something, Skietiff—an assumption, a challenge, a riddle, some… incomplete thing, and be the Mocha-Rich this incomplete thing in itself or be She representative of the incompleteness of the universe entire, She will be completely vanquished! I would stab the question-maker who made Her, if she’s behind Her essence!” With this, Skietiff and some of the rest of us drew in a breath at Captain Jesz’s boldness to even suggest such disrespect to a question-maker. “There is nothing and no one above us, that’s true, but there is that within us that seeks to dominate us, the god of the self that seeks to set limits and seeks to impart death to us before we expire. If you would challenge death, you must challenge the question! For what is death but a question, a question that none know the answer to? No question save that single frustratingly-inscrutable one in this earthly realm is free from scrutiny, is free from our absolute confidence in its positivistic answering. Skietiff, you concern yourself with grades and grading, but if life is to be graded by professors and didacts, what of the ultimate grade we give ourselves here?” With this, Captain Jesz slapped her own forehead. I thought I distinctly heard Toe say, “Clang, clang!” in the wake of the sound.
Still, Skietiff would not budge, and crossed her lanky arms before her lanky chest.
“Look at all these FLEETers before you, Skietiff. See their faces, hued to all shades of humanity, but all now imbued with a fieriness in them at the mere mention of the Mocha-Rich. You can oppose me, should you wish, but opposing them, opposing the true spirit of the FLEETs, is to oppose the blood flowing into our brains! What say you at that analogy—SAT-iated with that, are you?”
Skietiff could not meet our captain’s eyes at this smarting smart reference, and she looked the long way down to her own non-heeled shoes.
“Your silence, Skietiff, speaks as well as whole stacks.”
“The question-makers will determine this; not us, in any event,” spoke Skietiff, lowly and with some undiscernible tone.
For the second time, Captain Jezebel did smile.
“Now, Little Miss Squeak,” spoke she, “none too greedy now; give me back the shot of Energy. Just like life, this liquid goes down, and there’s none too much left now worth savoring; I can feel that.” Captain Jesz plugged up the can again with her thumb, then called Peg to her.
“My true FLEETer, now’s the time to seal our oath. I see your relic right there in that pencil-eraser, don’t I? Don’t lie to me. Now take that and fill it with these dregs—let’s baptize our points with it, with your blessing.”
Perhaps more surprising than all previous miracles was that Peg followed the captain’s command to the letter, removing Joy, O. and sacrilegiously filling her idol with that last of the Energy. Then we all took our pencil tips and dipped them in that liquid—all of us, Skietiff included.
“Now, Skietiff, it is done—you all have sworn it, and my energy is now displaced to you—be you vials that can contain it. An answer to the Mocha-Rich! An Answer to The Question, my FLEETers—May we answer for it if we answer not Her.”
With that, Captain Jezebel bid us back to our posts, commanding us to be at our best silence, readying for the first official rounds. Yet some among us heard a foreign laughter—not from Toe—emerge from behind the stacks before we dispersed, while Jesz, as if ungrateful for the interruption of so much talk—even though it mystically tied us to her purpose—resumed her rounds, as her heel and her mind paced on.
Chapter 30: The Blizzard Descends, A Short Film Starring Tragedians Disguised as Comedians
FADE TO BLACK
As SOUNDS of foreign laughter and JESZ’s footsteps recede, FADE IN slowly to…
EXT. MID-DAY: the snowfall begins to intensify in both volume and speed of its descent, as the bright sun comes in and out of the faded clouds overhead.
CLOSE-UP on one somewhat-awkward snowflake, being barraged by more symmetrically-designed others: it is horribly engulfed by these more smooth-fliers, as its descent is terribly misaligned.
ZOOM OUT (crane dolly shot?) to reveal the encroaching blizzard and RAPID PAN over to the bank of the library windows (as seen from the outside), beginning at the lowest floors—discerning viewers might be able to catch glimpses of the copier warming up—and CRANING upwards to the highest panes of the balcony, where we see PEG at the “mast.”
SLOW PAN to Captain Jesz’s study carrel, where we see JESZ at the windows, looking at the floating, descending chaos in front of her.
INT. MID-DAY: JESZ’s STUDY CARREL
How such moments filled me with awe and wonder… before.
How ridiculous such beauty is now, beyond my ken. The
beautiful bows down before the dutiful, the one duty before me,
and now before all of us.
The sun flits in and out of this cascade of whiteness, but
all I see is shade in the brightness, the blackness of my…
interior. My mission, never to yield to submission, is all,
all that I have become. No matter.
Turning from window, “heel-stepping” towards her concordances—slow PAN.
JESZ (V.O.) (cont’d)
The only matter I “see” now is matters of fact, matter
of fact. The details, on the rails of my mind, the details,
the nails, among which the Grail is assuredly already there,
to smash that oblivion-marking Question into oblivion.
O, Nortia! How your nails of time, fate, and chance pound
throughout my skull, corrupting my will! Such a relief, this lower-appendage pain shooting through my nerves to my brain! Nortia, you raise hell, Hellraiser, not through pins and needles, but through your unholy relics, your rusted iron stabbing my gray matter.
JESZ beholds the crew, through the stacks, still in the midst of post-oath sociability, SKIETIFF still outside the orbit.
JESZ (V.O.) (cont’d)
It was easier than I expected, than I… hoped. They all are
mine now, in your service as well, Goddess. Nortia, your nails
are in their skulls now and, the fools: they cathart as easily as
they fart. True females admit, albeit difficultly, to both, but this
pile of human-amiability…
There is Skietiff now, the lone holdout, alone with her virtue. She
is mine too, though she won’t admit it to herself. Her punctiliousness is her downfall, and she won’t rise up against
me… without the others, at least.
JESZ sits at her concordances, crossing her heeled leg over her non-, while we PAN over to SKIETIFF as JESZ’s voice-over continues…
JESZ (V.O.) (cont’d)
Therefore, to the concords. They must be firmly arm-to-arm in my palm before I avenge my leg with the knowledge of my gut. O, Nortia, praised evil one, where may I find ye? Where…?
SKIETIFF gazes at the others, still in their circle save PEG, who is above at the “mast.” We CROSS between CLOSE-UPS and MID-SHOTS of SKIETIFF juxtaposed with WIDE-SHOTS of the OTHERS and “GOD-SHOT” of PEG looking down.
SKIETIFF (V.O.) (overlapping with JESZ’s last lines)
The horror of this life, I never beheld it ‘til then, ‘til these
supposed “females” became girls every last one. Where are
your mini-skirts, ladies?
Such horror, how infectious it may be, will never embrace me.
My reason stands as bodyguard—or rather, as mind-guard.
But how, then, did she do it? How did Captain Jezebel sneak
below… below my reason?
Blast me—I was going to think “above reason” then, that Jesz
had soared—“soared”?—above reason. What is above it? What lies
above ratiocination? But, such was my instinct… yes, I have
instinct too, but I wouldn’t have above 6.31 GPA if my instinct
were my Beatrice in life.
CROSS to the window, then CUT below to the copier, still warming up, while CUTS emerge more frenetically of the FLEET members, SKIETIFF most repeatedly.
SKIETIFF (V.O.) (cont’d)
Look at it come down, out there.
That Question comes not to us. Such foolishness I would not
besmirch the question-makers withal. To send such a Mocha
above thrice to any FLEETer would be beyond laziness, but
such ubiquity, such immortality as is credited this hypothetical
And yet… why have we all sworn to answer it, should it
come our way? Why should one question stand out so
portentously among the rest, even before the rounds descend
as this blizzard does?
No matter… I trust the question-makers. Those women will not let
me down. We shall carry on with our tasks, these four
days, and at the end of it, let them express their
disappointment all they will at “missing out” on the
Mocha-Rich. I know I will not be alone in my relief.
Relief, irrational though that be, considering—
CUT to PEG laughing at the comical proceedings with the other FLEETers, then CUT to SKIETIFF.
SKIETIFF (standing up): Peg! Look alive there!
PEG: Sorry, First Lady. The foolishness of these Christians, sometimes.
CUT to TOE, who takes offense at that remark, and distances herself from the circle to gaze up at PEG, then over at JESZ.
The only solution to life’s trials. Yet, what laughter have
I within, if anyone could hear these voice-overs now?
No matter—give ‘er a laugh, Toe, and you’ll win ‘er
over every time. Even the Empress over there. Shudder,
It’s all set down—the question-makers have their plans.
Who cares what I heard after that Mocha-Rich of hers
was sworn upon?
Methought I heard that same shuffling, that same voice
before, out in the stacks, scurrying around like a
Remember the mermaid, though, Toe—“Wise Toe”
you is, sure biz. Wise Toe, keep on showin’ ‘em your
Wonder what my sweetie’s doin’ now, that big ‘un?
Probably cryin’ for Argentina after I left, right-o? Nah, more likely diggin’ in for Semester 2 with the rest of the gals…
SKIETIFF is now on patrol, and the FLEETers respond.
TOE: Yes’m, First Lady, back toe the stacks, back to the stacks.
SKIETIFF moves on, and the FLEETers relax again, somewhat re-forming the circle.
TOE: Say, Eng? You hear that laughter just now?
ENG (monotone): Only laughter I ever hear is yours, Toe.
TOE: In all seriousness of mocking, Eng, right after we all
dipped our lances in that eraser-head god.
PEG (from above): Who that be who offends Joy, O.? She courts sure and sudden death.
TOE: (to ENG) Just keep your ears open, Eng. (to PEG) Joy,
ENG (under breath): I’m sure I’ll hear that, right after I remove all meta- from metaphysics. Wholly fantastical. Hole in practical.
PEG: Say, Toe, I have a question for you.
TOE: Too much of the Cap’n’s Energy in ya, eh, Peggy? Watch
your leggy. Keep an eye out for that Mocha-Rich, eh, gals?
ALL: Answer to the Mocha-Rich!
PEG: We had some like you back home, Miss Lee Toe.
TOE: And Merry Christmas to ‘em all, theist! Squeak! Squeak!
Where did she go?
SQUEAK (emerging from under a table): Here, miss.
TOE: Now, where’s that golf pencil of yours, Squeak? Left it back
in Sierra Leoni?
SQUEAK: Senegal, sin-gallish gal. No, I left it where the snow don’t blow, Toe.
TOE: A born FLEETer! Ha! Why don’t you play slappin’ your thighs?
SQUEAK: I’d rather slap Cap’s.
PEG (starting to descend): Who’s that, who throws such calumny at Cap’n Jesz?
TOE: Back to your post, Post. Or I’ll come up to comic-relieve ya.
ENG: Like Jacob’s Ladder of the myth, they go up and down; where
they stop, who gives a fecal matter?
SOUND of laughter from… someone O.S.
TOE: Did you hear that now, Eng?
ENG (gazing out): Look at it come down out there! To dig into the mechanism of the clouds. Godless wonders.
SQUEAK: Each one of those horrid flakes is a mark, like on Cap’n Jesz’s forehead. A mark that cannot be marked quick enough.
PEG (descending): Let me just give you one question, Miss Toe. Just one, and a just one for a Slavic slave to—
TOE (ascending to PEG, shouting): Say, Peg, can we borrow your eraser-head? Tojo should have all the answers to our cancers of knowledge.
GOD SHOT: SKIETIFF emerges from below, while JESZ surveys the blizzard, smiling, as the argument towards the “mast” gets more heated. MAHL escapes from it and heads down to dig.
SKIETIFF: Back to the stacks, females! That blizzard might mean this
first dig will be by candle-light!
ENG: Candles! I’ve got something better than your whale-oil—
SKIETIFF: Eng, I shall mechanically advance upon you should
you continue thus disrespectfully.
ENG: Oh my non-God. This non-matter of the Mocha-Rich
has raised all these porcupine quills, has it not? I’ve never
seen such bluster from a FLEET before.
SKIETIFF: She’s right. My apologies. My… got the better of me.
Now, females, enough of this idiotic dialogue. You’d
think we were in some farce. Back to silent work.
At that, ALL return to their separate, quiet tasks. ZOOM to SQUEAK, who has found her golf pencil and plays a beautifully-articulated rhythm on a book-end while looking out the window.
Play softer now, Squeak—you can’t hope to match the loudness
of those silent white flakes, no matter how silent your clangs be.
Look at ‘em rush by, like refugees finally free from the oppressor
clouds! No matter how syncopated the rhythm, what could equal
the 4/128 time of that blizzard, which darkens the inside with its
whiteness outside? Be careful you don’t let on these poetical
moods of yours to those older girls, Squeak—they’ll take you for
a weakened weekend-pray-er-er! But did you hear ‘em go on
about that faintest of questions? I could faint if such faint
discussion and angst went on and on. Glad Skietiff came along
to break all those characters up, return to the characters on the
page instead, where we all should journey free. Still, such a
faintness, such a lurking faint ceasing all conscious thought—
and no fear anywhere but in these voices inside our heads, these
voice-unders penned by the internal blizzards, uncatalogued and
unfact-checked. Play on, Squeak, and play them all out.
ZOOM OUT AND UP TO “GOD SHOT.”
SLOW FADE TO WHITE
Chapter 31: Mocha-Rich
I, Mahalath, was one of those FLEETers who dipped her implement in the Joy, O.-infused Energy; I was one of them who swore to answer Mocha-Rich; indeed, I was one of the loudest and most ebullient of them, for my vague presentiments urged me on and, if I did not cover them in such a profuse fashion, I could have screamed for sheer dread. I shared Jesz’s brooding, but also now her obsession, and could not calm my curiosity about all concerning this Mocha-Rich from the very outset of my FLEETing career.
It may seem uncharacteristic for FLEETers as a class to be under the sway of superstition, what with our focus on the indivisible fact, but perhaps that explains why such outright-mystical rumors spread most quickly among us: that which could not be answered traditionally by such an elite organization as ours must be beyond the natural understanding of humankind.
Given the rarity of the FLEETers and the relative infrequency of FLEETing throughout the academic year (and the paucity of social media at that time), such rumors spread much more slowly but, when they did spread, they would often continue haunting the FLEETs for semesters and perhaps years on end. Such was the case with this Mocha-Rich, a question which had supposedly popped up every now and again in disparate times and places, but always the same font, the same faintness of its characters, the same characteristic supposed-malice in its behavior, the sheer determination to answer the answerers, as ‘twere.
When such a question first arose would be difficult to pin-point with much accuracy. Such shadowy origins may in effect be a part of the “more-than-natural” claims surrounding this particular question. The fact that the early teams frequently encountered questions which belied their inferiority or lack of nuanced digging skills or finesse—this fact makes it difficult to surmise whether the Mocha-Rich may have claimed Her first FLEET victims at or shortly after the very commencement of FLEETing exercises.
But, soon enough, when this particular Mocha became the subject of so much mythology (of utterly destroying any FLEET’s chances for future success, what with posing such a tempting presence), the vainglorious reward of being the first on record to successfully answer Her became so incorporated with the legend—in short, in offering such a target for the obsessiveness that lurks under just about any FLEETer’s stoic facade—that the dogged FLEETer, once encountering Her, would in effect doom herself and her FLEET to failure.
It seemed that, with every FLEET The Question destroyed, there would then arise an equal number of FLEETs who would steer clear of Her and of FLEETs who were that much more determined to lay the claim to the Mocha-Rich’s answering. Here is where the “human” (or more-than-human) characteristics of this “dead” question could be observed, for when She first presented Herself to a FLEET, the Mocha-Rich seemed of such simplicity of construction, such imperfection of design (what with Her fading text especially), such a transparent demeanor, that assuredly one round’s digging entire might see Her vanquished utterly. However, for the second or third or fourth (or whatever round it might be) afterwards, Her outward simplicity and susceptibility to logical reason would inversely diminish with Her philosophical complexity and vague subjective phrasings that She left in Her fading-white wake. (Though, like all Mochas, the Mocha-Rich began in “Who…”, it was Her mark that was the most distinctive, as the fading of the printing was not, as in toner-low print jobs, in a “zebra stripe” pattern, but rather the ink became more and more subtle the farther one read into the Mocha-Rich’s ominous being. The mark was therefore more than light gray, almost white itself—just like, as a matter of fact, just like the mark-scar on Captain Jesz’s forehead, come to think of it.)
This is where the truly fantastic speculation began. For nearly any other question, as soon as she was known by any of us, she might be solved by any other FLEETer in due course. You, no doubt, have heard of the phenomenon of collective consciousness wherein a group not directly exposed to Thursday’s crossword puzzle scores much better on Friday than on Thursday, as the answers have been published and, if they have been published anywhere, they become somehow known to the matrix of the human species entire through some shadowy connection of our neural networks. Such applied, even more so, to us FLEETers. For a question such as the Mocha-Rich to deny or indeed even thwart answering, not merely upon its first being given but upon every subsequent round featuring Her, was indeed… phenomenal. Some there were who suggested that even the question-makers themselves had no idea what the Mocha-Rich was, but that this fluke appeared every now and then in their collective consciousnesses by some higher, or lower, authority, and the question-makers in each instance felt they were being truly original in releasing such a “fluke” into the pool. There was no other way to explain how the question-makers, whom we all revered, could lapse so frequently in releasing the exact same question—indeed, it would seem, the exact same copied question (or rather, mimeographed given Her being sighted that long ago)—so often. Some even claimed that the Mocha-Rich could be released by different question-makers at one and the same moment, halfway around the country, which coincidence or out-and-out collusion is not possible through honorable means (which we FLEETers all abided by most strictly).
Is it such a large wonder, then, that, even in our more rational and more precise era by this point in FLEETdom, those that knew anything of the Mocha-Rich (like Peg), knew enough to give way to Her? There was the infamous tale of the young FLEETer who, her first time out, encountered the Mocha-Rich and, witnessing Her “answer” several of her fellow FLEETers, had taken Her on herself but, finding The Question so utterly bemusing, took her Ticonderoga in frustration and stabbed at the printed question itself, as if the pencil-point and not an intellectual point could answer anything. This tender young one aimed directly for the question-mark of the Mocha-Rich and was possessed with such an awesome fury that she stabbed clean through the paper and into her own thigh, embedding the pencil lead forever more. This young FLEETer was Jesz.
The fact that we FLEETers were so far from representative of the population of pre-adolescent and adolescent females did not stop certain instincts in us for social survival, such as ignoring a shameful event nearly-immediately after it transpired. Though pre-captain Jesz struck out against the Mocha-Rich in one moment of irrational passion, though she had to be restrained as her fellow FLEETers tore out the blood-soaked question prompt from her blood-covered hands, though she repeatedly thwarted all attempts in the infirmary to repair her wound—and went so far as to poke the pencil-lead further and further in her flesh while clutching blood-saturated pieces of the prompt in the hopes that she might re-read the wording of a Question that she would never be able to properly re-construct afterwards—by the time the FLEETing time was over, she was her usual morbid serious self, subdued of the insanity that had gripped her in the immediate wake of the disaster. That being written, as her intellectual wounds infected her real ones, her real madness took over, as she presented her front to all the world. Like any pre-teen, what she affectated covered her true affections and affected her the more severely for all that. Though she re-discovered her rational demeanor and ice-cold stare, the fire branded her permanently and, from that moment on, the obsession not only was hers, but was all there was to her.
Even to the very setting out of the current FLEETing venture, she presented to all the world a different face than what faced her internally. Her seeking of vengeance for the Mocha-Rich’s wound afflicted on her, this was well-known—what was not so well-known, least of all to Captains Paula and Marimum, was how she sought revenge for all of us, for the entire race and the entire gender and every frustration of the logical searches for knowledge since the species emerged on the planetary scene. Indeed, it seemed not an intellectual frustration only, but rather—and it truly pains me to write this of a female I respect so much—rather spiritual frustrations, if not an antiquated spiritual yearning for transcendence beyond the brute fact through the brute fact.
If any of us, but especially those Pequods sponsors, had known that it was Captain Jesz’s sole goal to answer the Mocha-Rich with this FLEET, and not answer successfully questions enabling her team to continue and earn an even-better name, then she would have never been a captain. That is precisely why she kept her true motivation, her true motivation for life itself if not FLEETing life, a secret in league with crushes and dramas of our vapid cohort outside the FLEETs. The very reason she rose up the ranks to captain, the very reason she kept aboard on the same FLEET she set out on in that very first ill-fated FLEETing experience, was to justify her post-Mocha-Rich existence by brutally dominating Her again in the field.
Captain Jesz obviously did not follow the dictum of “once bitten, twice shy,” but rather her own variant: “once bitten, thrice emboldened,” even to the extent of sacrificing all those under her command and the entire FLEETing enterprise to her one mission of Mocha-Rich’s submission. That was why she wore the high heel: to give physical manifestation and most-visceral reminder of the eternal grain of sand in her mind’s eye ever since that first Mocha-Rich encounter. She discovered that just such that design of stiletto most maximized her thigh’s wound, driving the pencil lead on that appendage’s nerve with every other step. She milked the pain, and curdled the milk, and ate the curds her way.
It may seem odd for a female to self-flagellate to such a degree. The “emotional” pain is supposed to be more than enough for our gender. Pouring such salt-shakers into our festering wounds, that’s not lady-like. However, this was not self-abnegation or self-denial, but rather the re-creation of a new self, a self made exclusively, wholly of pain, shame, and dread. Is this not what Christians do every Easter-time, reliving again and again as the nails pound into quasi-divine flesh? Is this not what Orthodox Jews do every Saturday, walking the pain of the shtetl with them as a badge of ostracized honor? Is this not what Muslims do every Ramadan—or what Peg did whenever she declared herself in Joy, O.’s “Ramadan” time of the month? You can call it catharsis, but Jesz made a science out of that affected art of the religious impulse.
It seemed that the Fates were with Jesz from the beginning, from her ascendancy into the captainship, to the officers gathered around her on this FLEETing endeavor: from the perfunctory righteousness of Skietiff to the apathetic mockery of Toe to the concretely-focused Eng, we all were cast in parts ideally suited for bringing such a demonic mistress to her justified end. Why we all joined her so automatically and so eagerly, that is for a more sympathetic portrayer of the humanities than the Mahalath before you, but there we all were, all firmly dug in to the cavernous depths of what some may call a soul. As for me, I longed to see the Mocha-Rich, to see my own ends effected in Jezebel’s beginning, even as I knew then as I know for certain now: that it would be the end of us all.
Chapter 32: The Fairness of The Question
What the Mocha-Rich meant to Captain Jezebel, then, has already been fairly defined, but what She signified to me takes some greater nuance and greater introspection than I am wont to offer and certainly greater than I am wont to express, even in this form. I am inclined to leave all such shadowy couch-rantings out of this tract altogether, for how can I even begin to presume that such “facts” match with the collectively-affirmed reality of the outer world? Nonetheless, I must proceed, for, without this chapter and its nebulous, ungraspable subject—my own impressions—one might as well tear out all pages else of this volume.
Absolute whiteness, of course, is the curse to artistic types everywhere, be it of a blank canvas, blank sheet of paper, blank stage, blank score, blank audience—such has been well-verified and well-documented by those weaker types inclined to such internal musings in their so-called “professions” of choice. What is another matter is the subject of faded whiteness, of an increasing fairness or faintness on the page or in any of the above-mentioned media. And, as it is with just such degradations of white emptiness that we are currently concerned, it behooves us to draw up some parallels.
Correction fluid back in the days of yore was used, as the name suggests, to correct errors of a typographical nature. The fact that the Mocha-Rich’s form seemed to emerge from such an imperfectability, perhaps, represents a large part of the mystery surrounding Her among the FLEETs. The fact that The Question was seemingly drafted once, and then revised, altered, or perhaps redacted in some degree—this is highly disturbing evidence of the faulty humanity of the question-makers. The fact that such an “error” continued to be committed over and over again—as if the question-makers themselves struggled with the form and structure of this diabolical question—was a fact that none of us were ready to own up to; even with all our skepticism about the outside world, none could admit to herself of the less-than-perfect workings in the quasi-celestial spheres of those females who wrote our questions only after numerous iterations of fact-checking, -verifying, and -confirming.
Just as fog is more dangerous than a blizzard, in some conditions, such uncertain indeterminate presaging was attributed to this fairness of The Question, this “fair play,” as it were, which was far from fair given the elevated status of the FLEETs. Fog hugs the earth, the firm groundedness of the earthly clime, hovering over it and limiting visibility, but not absolutely. One feels that one could penetrate into it and be safe, oddly—maternally?—protected in its cloak, when, in actuality, nothing is there underneath this vapor, this mystifying mist, but solid objects which cannot be seen until one is about to crash into them. Such clouds floating down and attacking the clear, visible earth of the FLEETing world were normally untenable and, in the case of the Mocha-Rich, the clouds inside the clouds were seen as engendering a recursive series of reflections which ended up nowhere but deeper inside the melee of airiness. The higher one climbed, the less air one possessed and, the less air one possessed, somehow the higher one would want to climb, as if higher heights could claim thicker atmosphere instead of thinner. The contours of The Question’s printing gave Her this ceaseless false-hope.
But all this is simply poetry—pretty, “deep,” but ultimately meaningless in communicating the universal dread that greeted one at the sheer prospect of such a mine planted in the middle of the no-kill zone that was the FLEETing universe. And it is here, on the precipice of such universal half-truths and impressionistic reflections, that I pause, doubting my own insubstantial abilities in tackling such an insubstantial theme. But, emboldened by vagueness inside, let us try to contain it without.
Though white was the symbol of purity for Queen Elizabeth, did not her physical presence in that lead-based make-up cause shock and awe? Though white is the symbol of goodness, does not its pallor cast upon the dead, the dying, the “fainting,” cause significant alarm? Though white will be the chorus of angels that greet us, does not that whiteness signal an eternity of boring purity rather than colorful human hue and shading?
Why all this trepidation among a species that claims that love transcends all? Why does the mystery of this pervading hueless huge chasm call upon timelessness in all its horror? Is it because white space permeates our beings and our universe?
We are made of space, that is true, just as all matter is. [I remember the first time I heard of the following analogy, in a late-elementary-school Science class. Though I did not know it then, I was drawn into this “holey” field as my teacher spoke. I asked her what signified such absence of matter, and all she said, cryptically, was: “Science explains everything of the how, but nothing of the why.” I knew then and there that Science was for me, that this field would offer no frustrations, no yearnings, no palsied wishy-washy responses, but pure space-filling, space-explaining, space-confining wisdom.] Imagine a football stadium capable of holding 100,000+ spectators, and now imagine a quarterback (did I get that right?) carrying not a football but a small orange to the very center of the 50-yard line. That orange represents the nucleus; the electrons would be swirling around/through the very perimeter of the stadium itself. The rest of “matter”? Nothing but nothing. So, when we feel a force, when we feel anything touch us, it is but the outer edges of the stadiums colliding, producing that which we call “pain” or “pleasure” or “friction.” The atoms which make up the molecules which make up the body which makes up the signals to the brain which makes “us”: We are made of exponentially more nothing than anything.
Going without, too, one can see the nothingness that pervades to the vast reaches of “black” space: the whitenesses that we see, the small dots, are merely combinations of color very, very densely compacted. When those colorful “voices” “scream” out, they produce the fading, faintest light from astronomical heights. Once again: imagine a beach. Now imagine all the grains of sand on the beach. Now choose one grain of sand only and divide that into as many divisions as there were grains of sand on the beach. Take but one of those grains within the grains, and that is the solar system (and even then, my astronomy FLEETers will tell you, I am making the solar system exponentially larger than it really is). The universe is the beach entire.
Life itself fades into the whiteness and whiteness itself fades into greater whiteness, the fading fairness standing out not at all, as a molecular piece of eggshell trapped in a ream of paper. Mocha-Rich showed us that: even in these insignificantly small endeavors of this insignificantly small species on this insignificant life-filled rock, white could not help but creep through.
And now, how could you dare express surprise at the fierceness of our oaths to answer this richest of Mochas, this piece of half-black that could not even maintain its black-inkness for the length of an entire question? How could we not take a stab, striking out at that symbol?
Chapter 33: Educated Guesses (Hers and Mine)
I made a promise to you, earlier, that I would fittingly expand my surmises about Jesz’s modus operandi, given the paradox of her all-consuming monomania and her steadfast dedication to FLEETing decorum. As I never forget a promise, I shall honor that one here.
But first, a word about Captain Jesz’s audacity in striking out on her own for an aim all her own. This is precisely, you may recall, what Parent Superior had warned us of, in no uncertain terms, in her homily at the commencement of this FLEET. (Knowing Jesz, at that time she was likely already in the stacks, aided perhaps by someone else, poring over her concordances, and therefore was unlikely to hear the speech that she would be very likely to ignore anyway, with the banshee of the Mocha-Rich screaming Her name in her inner ear at all times.) FLEETers are not unique in this central tenet of their profession: that the individual’s caprice, will, and druthers are ultimately and thoroughly subsumed in her work in the field. The old judge does not weigh her decisions in her individual subjective balance through her fading eyesight, but rather through the blindfold of Justice herself. (The Justice of the Supreme Court, of course, is that much more removed from individual bias, emitting pure Jurisprudence outside of the vagaries of specific time and place—this is why the Constitution’s principles remain so inviolate, from their 1787 drafting by that cabal of 55 [and then less] oligarchs who sought to oppress the would-be Daniel Shayses of the infant nation all the way unto those oligarchs’ torch-carriers’ and torch-dousers’ reigns this very day.) The composer transcends her time and place in writing pure abstract Muse-ic from the Muses themselves. Glory-hogs Watsons and Cricks of the world excluded, the scientist seeks to gain anonymous immortality through her impersonal and therefore that-much-more objective work in the field, free from individualized interpretation and parallax views. The cop on the beat, the teacher in his classroom, the preacher on Sunday, the stock trader and her clientele, the adaptor of fan fiction and her Romantic source material, the mathematician at her numbers, the doctor and her “hard diagnosis,” the sporting figure and her sport, the politician at her stump—these all claim, particularly for the down-and-dirty duties to be dutied, that they are not they, but merely the mouthpieces of the Abstract Entities through which they operate, as if the figures of Justice, Commerce, Democracy, Faith, or any other statuesque lady-like representations of any idea were not based on individual models posing for the sculptor, but rather emerged from thin Platonic air.
So, for Jezebel to go all Susan McClary on the FLEETs, claiming that individual will was not subsumed but rather distilled through FLEETing, for question-answerers and question-makers alike, this was obviously not to be countenanced well and she risked a downright mutiny in even suggesting it, and outright expulsion from the FLEETing world should the upper echelons discover this breach of (I hesitate in writing it) faith.
Therefore, as she had already made her ultimate object quite clear to us, it was imperative that we be allowed to go on as usual, even if this were a “front” for our true goal now that we had joined Captain Jesz in her mad quest. We must proceed with the rounds as if we were not constantly on the look-out for The Question, but ready, as any FLEETer always is, to take what comes. So, Jesz followed the usual decora of FLEETing (the “first chair,” etc.) to the letter until she encountered what (who?) she was truly after. This would both appease her crew—Skietiff in particular—and appease her own sleepless ever-on-the-edge-ness of her mind and body.
“Sleepless” was not quite accurate, perhaps; “hypnotism of the possibilities” might be a form of sleep to her, like sharks of the deep. It has already been recorded here that, soon after the blizzard began, Captain Jesz went to commune with her concordances, the massive compendia of FLEETs prior—or, at least, the closest thing to it. The practice of mark-er-ering meant that, of all the copies of questions possibly circulating, the victors were least likely to have possession of them. In fact, it was a point of honor to shred all copies of questions post-FLEET, as the knowledges were now stored in much better repositories—the repositories of our skulls, which we would pass on and out, through mechanisms and operations which are beyond even the keenest of FLEETer understandings. Somewhat like “Shakespeare’s” plays or “Homer’s” epics, then, FLEETing knowledges were passed from generation to generation via transfer oral or cerebral—further giving vindication to those who insisted that individual will or celebrity had nothing to do with it.
However, there were “crib-sheets” in the forms of these concordances, such that captains might be able to understand and “read” the patterns of the questions over longitudinal break-times (even if “latitudinal” research were impossible, given the Constitution-Framer-like policy of locking doors of FLEETing sites during rounds). It is my surmise that this is the central reason why Jesz rose through the ranks at all, rather than operating as a free-implementer, or a “rogue agent.” As captain, she would have access to these and, some would have it, all she did when not “on break” was to develop the plan for this current FLEETing venture—in collusion (some would have it) with the very CEO of Pequods and the Parent Superior herself. (A rather spurious interpretation, that—the CEO very well might be an untrustworthy figure, but I highly doubt that the Parent Superior was that disingenuous to her own ethos.)
Regardless, her concordances at this point were unreadable to all except her—filled with so many pencil-etchings as to seem like Toe’s favorite leisure activity: choosing a single-digit whole number and then squaring it, then cubing it, then etc., etc., until she had a posterboard filled with working out to the last place the exact numbers of 7 to the 256th power, let us say. Now, Jesz’s exercise may seem as academic or flippant as Toe’s—how to predict where a question of the Mocha-Rich’s faintness would appear next, when most witnesses to that faintness would not get through the FLEETs to record it in any concordance in our FLEETing world. However, Jesz had a way of working around that—instead of looking for where Mochas were, she looked for where Mochas were not and, through a circumnavigatory process-of-elimination, discovered that, every other single Christmas Break on this very campus, there was a lacuna of datum. Her educated guess about what/who dwelled within that biennial lacuna became a certainty, over the course of her obsessive existence, of the Mocha-Rich’s turning-up there and then with absolute precision. This whole FLEETing excursion—her entire career—had been planned down to the exact hour, so that that one time interval perfectly aligned. In a way, it was rather charitable of Captain Jesz not to tell us of this until the day or so before—she could have well told me when I was in the second grade, but then I would be the one raving around the cavernous library, instead of her alone shouldering this Atlas-weight of concordances and the greater-than-Atlas weight of The Question and the terror-filled anticipation of Her; no matter how guaranteed The Answer should appear to any of us in our cheerleader moments, the fact was that all we were going on was a hunch, a hunch that very well might be wrong, if analyzed objectively.
Is it any wonder that, often, when in the midst of such bloodshot-eyed readings of her concordances, we could hear from Jesz’s study carrel a high-pitched moan, so that we thought her in the grips of some terrible nightmare? It was as if Jezebel became her obsession, became The Answer and nothing more, so that, after that undoubted moment when she would record the mark-er in her book, she would cease to exist, just as nearly as every other facet of her ceased to exist shortly after she encountered the Mocha-Rich. The Jesz that screamed out, from the depths of her being, was her rationality, hoping to escape the grips of the body and intellect that dictated it be applied inveterately towards one object and one object only. Rationality cannot exist without an individual mind, unfortunately, and so that prized perspicacity of Captain Jesz remained trapped inside Pandora’s Box. But this was not the box of the myth: it was a box not only made by Pandora herself—it was Pandora herself, and the Pandora Without feared to open it—lest there be no one and nothing inside but an endless series of emptying mirrors.
Chapter 34: Testimony from a Non-Character Witness
If anything remotely resembles a plot in this book, then assuredly this non-fictional “plot” and its real personages (which, though they might be labeled as “real characters,” are more importantly the first word of that quotation rather than the second) and especially the particulars above mentioned concerning FLEETing will be taken with a whole salt-shaker’s worth of salt by the outside world. Indeed, such a true tale might, despite (or perhaps because of) my previous thorough expatiation and digressions, draw up more comparisons to a fable or one of those blessed Christ-ish parables rather than a quasi-journalistic account of this FLEET. Such a design is far from my intention, as should be obvious at this point.
Therefore, let me confirm the record with other data, accumulated throughout my extensive and nigh-constant FLEETing career since the presently-related tale. As FLEETing adventures rarely reach the outside world, I fear that all of this verification will be viewed as more yarns to be weaved in to the fabric of deceit, but, if you have gotten this far, then you must have something of the FLEETer in you, methinks.
Firstly, I knew personally of three separate occasions upon which the exact same question was asked of the exact same FLEETer during different rounds, separated in one of these occasions by the interval of half a day, and in the other by upwards of four and a half years. As question-makers make the rounds of question, they also make “the rounds” from college to college and, of course, they have their individual obsessions like anyone else, as Jesz so trenchantly observed and so thoroughly exemplified. So, it is natural for them, as for us, to return to familiar territory intellectually, particularly when on unfamiliar territory literally. Even if these same questions were not issued from the same question-maker, the same osmosis occurs among them as among us, so, while it is quite beyond the realm of probability, it might transpire that the same question might be given in the exact same round; the ubiquity of the Mocha-Rich in the past, therefore, is not so supernaturally unusual.
In the latter occasion, that of the female who first encountered the question in her green youth and then, some five years later, in her accomplished upperclass years (the latter of which encounters she at last emerging as the victor with the mark-er in her book), the fact that the fact had escaped her the first time was due to the slipperiness of the particular question in question. Which brings me to…
Secondly, do not suppose that this supposed-malice and difficulty of the Mocha-Rich is for the purposes of literary hyperbole. I will faithfully describe Her outlines and Her presence as they come upon the scene, and do so with all faithfulness of scrutiny of my chosen specialty. I have already described the dangers associated with questions of this sort in Chapter 5, and how such “sinkings” of entire FLEETs occurred not regularly, but at least common enough for such questions to arouse the keenest of trepidations.
The notion that such a question would be immediately recognizable enough to warrant a precise “brand-name” appellative as “the Mocha-Rich” would perhaps seem dubious, if not for the FLEETers’ incredible powers of recall. One need only mention to experienced FLEETers “the Cappuccino with Heavy Cream” or “the Hazelnut-Peppermint-Pumpkin Spice” to convey the entire history of these questions’ appearance, rise in notoriety, and ultimate fall at the implements of some of the most discerning FLEETers of renown. I had the honor of seeing the aforementioned hybrid question finally answered in a FLEET some five breaks hence, so can speak and write of such testimonial first-hand. (But that is a story for another tome.)
What of Captain Jesz’s self-mutilation? While rarer in FLEETdom, an abstract question committing such bodily harm is an unfortunate side effect of such dedication and passion, and a sign of these pre-Internet times that I write of now. Rather than enumerating all the instances of such (indeed, one other will appear sooner or later in this tract), I will instead delve into the vein of popular consciousness and point to a mythical example as representative of the type of visceral harm capable in an innocent, or rather innocently-posed, question.
The Sphinx borrowed by the ancient Greeks from the ancient Egyptians became, as opposed to the Egyptian iteration, female in her face, female in her lioness crouching, and feminine in her hawkess wings and serpentine tail. The riddle she posed Oedipus outside of Thebes actually comes from a much-earlier riddle. (I refer to the original source material, not the Sophoclean adaptation which replaces the question with a rather “clever” one in the spirit of Samson and the elephantine riddles of meta-humor.) “There are two sisters: one is born from the other and then gives birth to the other. Who are they?” The answer is based on the gendered language of the Greeks, as “night” and “day” are both feminine, but the traditionally-interpreted significance is in the successful answering by Oedipus, a man who will eventually become fated to a somewhat-similar fate: that of self-engenderment, via incest. More significant even than this consequence is the fact that the Sphinx, upon being answered, devoured herself, becoming the answer to her own question—she inflicts the usual punishment for an incorrect answer upon herself, and so the answerer and questioner receive therefore same fate, the same mutually-assured destruction, the same birth-death born and expired in the same moment.
If the Mocha-Rich were, in effect, the riddle multiplied by itself, taken to its own power, who among us would not turn Sphinx upon herself in viewing such a hybrid mirror of her own internal complexities before her eyes? Who among us could vanquish Her without vanquishing herself in the process? The only victory for her would be to chop herself up as a human mark-er to be copied into her own books, just as in the ultimate three chapters of Judges. (I am sure that those chapters entire were somewhere upon Peg’s personage, as they are assuredly among the most senselessly brutal, even by the Old Testament standards that gave me, Jesz, and Deborah our namesakes.)
Captain Jezebel’s great leaden spirals through the concordances of FLEETdom, drawn in her own sharp hand with her sharper implement, by this point were already drawn in the vortices of her gray matter, more wrinkled than Parent Superior’s face when she turned the other cheek.
Perhaps all of the absolute tragic truth of this, presented now in order to better anticipate your questioning of this questioning adventure and its calamitous end, can best be summed up in the Sphinx’s articulation, for “Who are they?” was the original Mocha and, in some essence, that Mocha remains. And we all know what happens to the Oedipii who “solve” that Mocha “correctly” today. If you don’t know, look it up right now, why don’t you? Should only take you a few milliseconds.
Chapter 35: The First Questioning
“There he is! There he starts up, now!” shouted Peg from the “mast” shortly after the cinematically-embellished tiff described above.
And, indeed, Peg was right: it was only a few seconds later that we could feel the copier stir, and hear the other FLEETs in the vicinity all getting ready.
“Is it the Mocha-Rich?” cried out Jesz, but the half-hearted asking of this question and the downcast eyes of Peg in response indicated that they both already knew that it was not. We were not that fortunate, or un-. Nonetheless, Jesz asked the Engineer for the exact time, and recorded this first questioning in her pencil-scrawl in her massive concordance. Another data point to plot was another half-step closer to the Mocha-Rich.
At this point, we all scurried around while Captain Jesz issued out commands that we were already carrying out, prepping for the dig. Though Peg had just descended, she was now most likely waiting in line to receive the Pequods packet.
Sometime during the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, forebears of The Engineer spent the first night of the FLEETs designing apparati for quick descent, ascent, or crossing of their respective libraries, running the gamut from bungee cords to rope ladders/bridges to ziplines. However, due to the shady liability issues involved with the FLEETs, these were soon outlawed. Nonetheless, even during those glory days, I have no doubt that, no matter how quickly those FLEET representatives would descend, they would all respect the “Honor of the Line” and wait patiently for the question-makers’ ambassador to skim through the stapled packets, despite the fact that every millisecond counted in assuring an expeditious and thorough answering. Though it was indeed anticlimactic, the excitement to and from the question-makers’ HQ was contrasted starkly by the decorous waiting in Line to receive your FLEET’s copied question packet. While nothing so ridiculous as “small talk” would occur, there were half-smiles exchanged to the females in front and behind one in Line as matter of course (as I would observe and indeed instigate during my descents from the “mast”).
Peg speedily returned within a minute, and distributed the sheets from the packet, which contained the same question copied eight times. While this tract is not the proper place to expatiate on scoring, let it suffice here that speed of answering was not all—thoroughness of proof was. All eight pages would be collected and returned and then and only then would the successful answering and awarding of points be determined. Unlike Math problems in high school, one could receive nothing for a correct answer alone—the work was everything.
We were so engrossed in receiving and digesting the first question, as we awaited the captain’s orders, that we did not observe that we had no extra sheets until we all looked up: standing there next to Captain Jezebel was the phantom I had half-observed so many times throughout the past 24 hours, an East Asian sophomore of vague nationality and language, who smiled in Captain Jesz’s shadow. Though we were in the throes of the first official round, there were a good five seconds of staring here. I could hear Toe whisper to Eng: “‘Wise Toe, wise Toe.’ Didn’t I tell you I heard something in the stacks?” As for me, I well remembered Deborah and her words.
Captain Jezebel took it all as de rigueur, and at last explained our eighth lay: “Gullah here will be digging with me.” Gullah then issued her maniacal laugh, the same that we had heard earlier, and this chaos-in-laughter coupled with the captain’s ensuing order frightened us away from them both as we jumped in to our ordained tasks. Before I knew it, First Lady Skietiff grabbed me by the elbow and forced me with her. “Come along, greenie; you’re going to need some help with this one.”
As we passed other FLEETs on their journeys in the stacks to different answers to different questions, I could not help wondering who looked over all of this to ensure that all questions were on-the-level. Though I would never express this lack of faith in the question-makers now, such questions could not be helped by a greenie such as I was then. I now know better: all is fair in love and FLEETs. No FLEET receives an easy out—all must dig and dig hard in order to yield an answer from any of these Leviathans of the intellect that we encountered. Though occasionally a wild card round would occur, if a wild card was dealt to one FLEET, it was dealt to all. (More of this later.)
Skietiff and I spent what seemed like hours poring through volumes and, indeed, my green hands got so chapped and paper-cut in the digging that my fingertips were as numb as my brain by the end of it. (This being written, keep in mind the tacit commandment of the FLEETs in regards to leaving everything as we found it: no matter the amount of frustration or impatience, a FLEETer’s primary duty was to return the volume to the shelf before digging in for the next—with the exception of a time-honored custom to be explained in a later chapter.) With Skietiff’s thorough knowledge of this library, I was saved from being utterly consumed by this sighted question—which, in retrospect, was none too easy for a first-rounder—by her calm, almost Zen-like, whispered commands. She would call out the Dewey Decimal number like a librarian herself but, even so, I could sense her frustration letting loose by the end of that digging session.
I thought I could hear around us the more-passionately-issued commands of Toe to Eng. Eng, of course, had not a word to say, and Toe, oddly, continued in her jocund-as-ever vernacular: still, her tone of voice indicated her furor enough. She could have been reading the phone book, and the message would have gotten through loud and clear: we were losing this one. The contours of that question mark were digging deeper than we could possibly dig, particularly with that phantom “Gullah” dwelling in all of our minds. Writing of which, none of us could have any trouble hearing both the tone and the coarse language that Captain Jezebel issued to our newly-discovered eighth lay, but such language is best left off these pages, lest they give the FLEETs as bad of a reputation as any sweat-soaked locker-room. Despite her heel and the undoubted pain every other step caused her, Captain Jezebel and Gullah were by far the fastest of us all. Several of us thought we could detect, and later ocular proof would verify this, that Gullah removed her shoes when in the midst of the dig, the better to climb up the stacks.
Nonetheless, it was Peg who saved the day, solitary intellectual behemoth Peg.
But, by the time that we realized that the round was over, Skietiff and I were lost in the stacks. As I have used this expression several times before, please be aware that this jargon does not refer to literal “lostness,” but to a more dangerous situation wherein a FLEETer is completely absorbed in the texts, to the extent that no deeply-meditative yogi could reach her in whatever inter-astral sphere she had reached. This effect was compounded more-than-somewhat by the fact that the library was now cloaked in translucence as the blizzard kept on cloaking the outside world in layer upon layer of snow without letting up. The soft-lit shadowy back-drop for our reading no doubt drew us in further than we would have been drawn had the sterile fluorescents been the only lighting. As it was, one sensed that a mother was just around the corner, about to exclaim, “Reading in the dark? Let me turn this light on for you!”—giving this digging sesh a particularly-covert appeal.
Luckily, at one point—seemingly, hours in—Skietiff plucked me up quite literally by the scruff of the neck (pulling out some of my hairs with the pluck) and saved us both from a fate for all the worlds like those who die of hypothermia with their clothes off: just a few more minutes, we were sure of it, just a few more minutes of reading would have revealed the answers to all the questions worth asking (and many not worth asking), when in reality we were deep in an answerless unanswered vortex, spiraling into stupor and, worse, self-satisfaction.
Chapter 36: Harley Quinns
By the time we arrived “on deck,” all was back to as it was before, such that I thought that the entire round had been some sort of phantasmagorical imagining on my part. The snow kept stacking outside of the stacks, Jesz was at her concordances, the FLEETers were having a small snack, and Squeak now was perched up on the “mast.” It was only in asking Peg what transpired that I discovered our mediocre performance during that first round.
It all seemed a pantomime, as if this were an April Fool’s joke upon me and me alone. Life itself, especially in the wake of such calamitous action as described above, can seem in just such a vein, as if the goddesses wish to impart a great punch-line through their punches. Becoming lost in the stacks, with ever-punctilious Skietiff no less, on that disastrous feint of a dig, all the while biding our time until we crossed paths with the fearsome faint Mocha-Rich—all this seemed downright silly, at the time. Like a charley-horse or a funny-bone strike, the laughter just sets in during the wide shots. The close-ups might be quite painful, but the soundtrack is all, and with Gullah’s foreign laughter cued on repeat, why not join her in throwing up one’s hands and chuckling away?
The immediate wonder at Gullah died down by the time we returned to the balcony. Indeed, even Toe laughed off my inquiry of our newly-discovered eighth lay. Such diversity of a FLEET is to be expected, particularly from the stereotypically-more-studious Far East Asian societies. Nonetheless, Gullah’s language, when it was spoken, was either in a curious form of broken English or in some strange dialect none of us could place. As we had (collectively) upwards of a decade’s experience, this was somewhat odd: Gullah would often, quite insistently, include articles in her speech and her writing (indeed, she seemed to underline all “the’s” or “a’s” on her question-copy), as if to differentiate herself from anyone from Korea, China, Japan, etc. Whatever her language was, when not emitting her profane dialect of French in one horrid stream, Captain Jezebel would respond perfectly to Gullah in her own tongue—some said it was Parsi.
All of this combined to give me a great sense of levity, such that I, with Toe, might deliver some chortle, chuckle, giggle, snigger, or guffaw. Nonetheless, I gained some degree of balance when I asked Peg to bear witness to my will, which I re-drafted yet again shortly after that moment when I returned to the balcony from lost space-time. I stipulated that, in the event that I were lost permanently in the stacks and disappeared, I would hereby give all my worldly goods and any mark-ers I had collected at that point back to the FLEETing society. Such was only good reciprocity.
That done, I joined my place with my fellow comediennes, ready for any laugh riot that would ensue.
Chapter 37: The Would-Be Parlay with the Farera FLEET
Though it appeared dark as night, it was just barely afternoon by the time that Gullah took her first “mast.” The weather was alternatively serene and raging, depending on the second. However, when Gullah took her turn, even the skies slowed to gaze at her gazing—ever-steadfast, ever-unblinking. All of us looked over our heads at this barefooted figure, whose lack of footwear inspired the exact opposite reaction to Toe’s similar choice to forego toe protection. Indeed, some of us thought that her bare feet were triangular enough in shape that these were her natural heels, somehow both to mimic and to honor our captain.
After a few minutes, Gullah pointed. Merely a point, not a cry out—the only sign that the copier was stirring to us was that Jesz had risen from her concordances and was overlooking the balcony. She called up to her trump card: “You hear that, don’t you? Even that copy machine can’t digest Her without groaning some.”
We were all very doubtful of this rather mystical statement, yet some of us thought we could detect that faint green hue, though the machine was silent below us. We can never see what other human eyes see, for we never occupy the same space. Yet when that space occupies us, some may say that such prescient phenomena are more discernible. But that’s some for you.
Regardless, every time Gullah was on the mast, it seemed to follow similarly: one solitary pointing, signifying some clandestine collusion between her and Captain Jesz (and—perhaps even, somehow—the question-makers and their copier). Was this the Mocha-Rich following us, or merely the phantom of Her? Captain Jesz was even more forbidding in her aspect, and most of us followed suit: maintaining a chill silence during this and all subsequent intervals like it. Skietiff looked at the captain most strangely, almost appealingly, during these times.
Captain Jesz, as is characteristic to all suffering from her affliction, saw all events, no matter how trivial, as leading up to her one indefinite object. When we espied the Farera FLEET scurrying about on the other side of the balcony, apparently still on that first dig, Jezebel shouted out, “Have you seen any sign of the faint question, the one they call the Mocha-Rich?”
With the blizzard resuming its full force and fury behind the FLEETers, it was impossible to see what (if any) visual signal they gave us. I caught somewhat the features of these FLEETers, and indeed they were in the middle of it, and had seemingly aged much more than us during this FLEET, as if we were traveling faster than the speed of light and then returned to Earth to find our own grandchildren’s graves. Such haggardness in youth is a sign of honorable toil, the same haggardness that in the aged causes us embarrassment for them and our own human condition.
“I’ll be joining you soon enough, females, the question-makers willing!” shouted out Captain Jesz, long after the Farera FLEET had gone from hearing. This sight of a digging FLEET somehow carried the full force of the comedic and tragic nature of our captain’s quest, and her own expression was a curious mix of the self-pitying and the self-deprecating. The fact that this was the Farera FLEET we just saw (wisely spotted and identified by Toe) seemed an even more brazen signal to Captain Jesz’s “fate” that she thrice gave herself, as if all the Fates in one. Farera, the finest makers of three-hole-punches, the creators of tiny spaces for the sake of holistic organization, seemed to be a fine tribute to our own task—not organizing the full sheet of paper, but looking through the recycle bin and the carpeting for those tiny holes, connecting those dots into a grand overlooked tapestry.
The greatest white hole of all, of course, was the Mocha-Rich Herself, and the captain would not give a second thought to the Farera FLEET had it offered her a definitive negative answer to her inquiry (as later parlays shall reveal). Only if the other FLEET’s captain could offer some clues into the Mocha-Rich’s behavior and patterns of emergence would Captain Jesz engage in that peculiar custom, the “parlay.” As you could wear yourself out talking to old soldiers and sailors to identify this term, let me save you the trouble: it is not a misspelling, but a portmanteau of “parley” and “lay.” You will not find a similar practice in any ultra-academic competitive affair. “Small talk” and the like is, of course, common practice in Powers of the Pen or in Trivia Clubs, but as this type of talk contributes nothing (and perhaps less than nothing) to our noble enterprise, we skip it entirely. Instead, we repeat the “laying-in” custom, matching our position and specialty with the opposite FLEET’s. As long as we are not in the middle of a dig (as the Farera FLEET was), then we do this with something approaching leisure. In lieu of a traditional superfluous greeting or even more foolish question like “How’s it goin’?” we simply ask the female in front of us what she knows. “What do you know?” is often used as a rhetorical soliloquizing device, but for us this is the essence of a parlay. It may seem odd for teams in competition to do this but, again, this is the honor of the FLEETs for you.
For the captains, this offered a special challenge, as once again the FLEETers would contribute a book pile on each side of the parlay for the captains to address each other and demonstrate their rank. Never would a captain lower herself to accept the hand or the help of anyone to occupy this position, so it was indeed a practice of Jenga-like finesse. It must have been particularly so for Jezebel, with her “handicap.”
So, perhaps she was somewhat relieved not to parlay with a FLEET that may or may not have offered her the information that she prized and obsessed over above all other. Then again, the ambiguity of the exchange likely caused her even more frustration. As she returned to her concordances, methought every other footstep was especially harsh to her sole.
Chapter 38: The Totonac* FLEET Chronicles (as told at St. Ann’s School Boys’ Dormitory)
[*The Totonac peoples are well-known for leaving among the first archaeological records of what we call in our time “flesh-tunnels” or more simply “spacers” vis a vis piercings. I highly doubt that Totonac Co. is still extant, what with the rapid rise of this selfsame counter-culture shortly after these events, the subsequent increased competition from smaller non-incorporated companies, and the increased faithlessness in such tentacles of “The Man.”]
After the first round there is usually a lull, a sort of release (though of course filled with guilt, regret, and metaphorical self-flagellation), so during this interval one often sees a heightened occurrence—indeed, perhaps a seeking-out—of parlays. Therefore it should come as little surprise that, soon after the almost-parlay with Farera, we found another FLEET, that sponsored by Totonac Co., and successfully parlayed, particularly since the captain of said FLEET had further information concerning a recent run-in with the Mocha-Rich for Captain Jesz.
Neither Jesz nor Skietiff nor even Toe, however, caught wind of this encounter’s full details and how they presaged such bizarrely symbolic phenomena that surrounded the Mocha-Rich like a faint corona. The other members of the crew only happened upon it, as it was disseminated to Peg by her opposite number on the Totonac FLEET, this FLEETer then swearing her not to speak a word of the clandestine chronicle to a living soul. Peg kept her word, and imparted it all to Joy, O. instead. Nonetheless, as these hushed tones could be overheard by most of us with the exception of our officers, the portentous tale and its dark shadows soon captured our brains as well.
If you will go along with me for several moments here, I will indulge in the verbatim-ish re-telling of this story that I once narrated at a small prep school in Palm Beach County, FL. It was a Thanksy FLEET, and the hurricane season was particularly brutal that year: just after most of us touched down and arrived on the school campus, the torrents and the gusts followed us. We were without power and running water for two days straight when it was determined that, though these conditions might be nothing unusual considering our usual privations, the subtropical heat and humidity that drove us out of the library were too much to bear. While our blood and tears were lost as usual, the amount of sweat compounded therewith was completely disproportionate, to the extent that we feared for the conditions of the Special Collections of this school, which donated collections accounted for this rather unusual practice of hosting a FLEET in such an institution. So, we found refuge in the boys’ residence hall, where a generator kicked in and we were able to spend Black Friday at the mall—not of commerce, but of ideas. We sat around the common area, as the fans circulated back and forth, sipping Energy and regaling one another and ourselves with recounted highlights from our careers. I chose to re-expatiate the Totonac Chronicle above all others. Please forgive in advance the joshing interruptions of some of my colleagues. As this Thanksgiving FLEET was something of a pan-Caribbean affair, we naturally settled into Spanish as the lingua franca, so also forgive in advance my at-times awkward translation.
“It recounts me,” I started off, “of a story I heard some time ago, when I was green and fresh as the fields of the plains. It forgets me how long ago it was—but that little matters now, does it, ladies? I think you-all will agree, after hearing this tale, that it represents us the best, and all our frustrations. We claim to be immune from the drama of the high school, but this story shows us our true selves, unflinchingly and with little in the way of moral or lesson. Perhaps that is why I like it so much.”
“Woman,” shouted out Paola, post-belch, “you could have told us the tale already with all this prologue. I hope I never have to plow through a whole book from you.”
“You need not fear that, lady,” answered I. “Continuing, you must first know the FLEET’s name, being Totonac.”
“Forgive me,” said mousy Veronique, “but what company is that?”
“Perhaps another time, as I sense that some wish me to proceed without digression,” said I. “Totonac, at the time that we parlayed with her, was stocked with new FLEETers, a wonder true for any team. Our best FLEETer Peg—oh, of my!—she discovered the story first, but it is one that I can verify personally.
“It seems that this company’s FLEET had remained some time together, but, on their last fall FLEET, had all caught a nasty virus at some interval previous, which had only gotten worse, and therefore the FLEET was not in the best condition to dig on this present venture. Nonetheless, despite all the hackings and deluges of snot rolling forth, the captain saw the situation as nothing of an emergency, but instead sojourned on—as who among us would not?
“Immediately after a particularly-trenchant dig, as the sweat of labor mixed with the sweat of broken fever, the following incident occurred—but, first, you must require some background about the characters.”
“To God, ladies,” cried out Irina. “I am going to sleep me if this story goes on much longer.”
“Forgive me, Doña, but this is a necessary divergence from the narrative. You must firstly know that the chief non-officer FLEETer on this team was from Cleveland.”
“Oh yes!” said Raquel. “It’s all so perfectly clear to me now. Good Lord, She That Gives Me Disgust, what is this story all about?”
“I’ll have you know that Cleveland, not to remind me all the other Great Lake-neighboring cities, gives an inordinate number of FLEETers to us, since the very beginning of the Founding Mothers until today. Some of the most snarky, irreverent among us, too. The reason? These ladies have such an erratic climate that the snow-days, cold-days, and inclement-days give them plenty of mini-FLEETs to dig on their own lonesome—an ideal breeding-ground, particularly in Cleveland and other border-lands of the Midwest land of big landscaping and small openness of viewpoint. These Cleve-ladies emerge from their hibernation with sharp wits and sharper minds.”
“So, all the world is one Caribbean—we all escape some heat and some place we don’t want to call home,” said Jemina, rapidly.
“Just so. Of course, yes,” replied I. “Now this particular Lady Roundhead was named Platenam-Stein, a rather bulky hyphenated surname, but one which she clung to as she clung to her outdated Chief Yahoo paraphernalia. As befitting of her city of origin, she would often get into mock-debates and arguments with the first lady of the Totonac FLEET, at that time named Veres. Veres was among the specimen you-all may happen to know-informal, who sees someone rising in the ranks and immediately wants to put her in her place, particularly if she is of the gregarious variety. Veres took her digs seriously, and took her seriousness seriously too. These two were naturally going to butt heads until one became a butt-head to the extreme.”
“Puny puns serve your limited storytelling capacities well,” chimed in Irina.
“At any event, after Platenam-Stein insinuated—supposedly out of hearing of Veres, but really not so at all—that Veres was so serious because her family was somehow loosely associated with Totonac Co., Veres made it her mission to push Platenam-Stein into a corner which she could in no way back out of, but rather which she could only escape by confronting Veres directly. Perhaps she did this with the motive of getting Platenam-Stein off the FLEET—as, as I had mentioned of previous, this FLEET stuck together for perhaps years on end—but this surmise I dare not make with any degree of conclusiveness or authority.
“Now, after that particularly-tough dig and the sweats comingled, as I had me reminded, Veres ordered Platenam-Stein to clean up all the Energy cans thus far consumed. Not only was this well before Day 3.5, but this task was well below Platenam-Stein’s rank and tenure, and the order came after the near-fainting level of exhaustion of this trenchant dig.
“Platenam-Stein, however, sensing some baiting here, did not take it, the bait: she spoke in a low tone, and directed First Lady Veres to another FLEETer, one who had not done much at all on the previous dig. This repeated several times, each time with more and more fury from Veres and more and more calm from Platenam-Stein, until Veres picked up her implement to perform harm bodily upon the lady of Cleveland. Platenam-Stein told her which orifice would be a convenient holster for her pencil, and then, sensing Veres about to attack, dodged such that it-fell-her, Veres, [awk. translation from the Spanish for “Veres fell”] and she stabbed herself in the upper chest.
“Platenam-Stein whistled down some compatriots, and Veres, a tiny blood-spot soaking her shirt, called for the captain. It seemed as if the FLEET was about to eat its own, but the captain, a fair lady, told all to return to their posts as if nothing happened, and it was better for them to forget them of the confrontation. As everyone was ill, this was a convenient excuse for this would-be civil strife.
“Nonetheless, Platenam-Stein, on behalf of all the Totonac FLEETers, refused, until the captain would satisfy them by promising that they would not be mistreated or threatened bodily again. The captain, sensing this as a challenge to her authority, however, refused to make such a promise, and issued the order again, most firmly. This stand-off continued until the captain removed her implement and ordered Platenam-Stein and the two ladies next her back to their work.
“Eventually, the three rebels were forced into the movable stacks, and told to lay down on the empty shelves on the bottom. Then, the captain closed them in. She would have no mutiny or undermining of her authority on the Totonac FLEET, she spoke herself.
“The three refused to emerge, even as the illness took hold of all of them more firmly than before, even as the next round loomed imminent in the to-come time. Platenam-Stein conspired with the others to move on the captain and Veres and anyone still loyal to Totonac FLEET—in effect, to take over and run the rest of the digs themselves. The two compatriots, although agreeing to this, later conspired against Platenam-Stein while she tried to sleep off her fever in the stacks. They asked to be released, and then, while the stacks moved and the entire FLEET was assembled to lay hands on the rebels, these two traitors of the traitor were the first to lay hands on Platenam-Stein. They then revealed her plan to the captain of the Totonac FLEET herself.
“The captain then took hold of Platenam-Stein and forcibly removed her mark-er book, announcing to all the FLEET that this punishment and this punishment only is what traitors to the honor of FLEETdom deserve. But then, the weakened and hoarse Platenam-Stein issued a whisper—what this whisper was, no one ever discovered, but it was enough to cause the captain to pace the lower level of the library, and then return to announce she would not, in fact, carry out the punishment.
“It is here that whatever combination of indeterminate forces they call the Fates apparently moved again: the just-recovered Veres, fresh with bright green brand-name adhesive bandage on her upper chest, took hold of Platenam-Stein’s mark-er book and insisted that she be the one to carry out this punishment. Platenam-Stein again issued her hoarse whisper but, though it made Veres pause, it was only for a split-second—within the next many seconds, Platenam-Stein’s mark-ers were confetti.
“The dejection of the entire crew was absolute, to the extent that all at the ‘mast’ refused to call out for rounds. As Platenam-Stein’s fever broke, she swore ultimate revenge on Veres, and sharpened her pencil for such a purpose.
“However, the deliverer of that revenge would not be Platenam-Stein herself, but another, more malicious element. An idiotic Australian FLEETer—bold as all members of her nationality are—called out for a curious type of question that she could sense being issued from the copier. It was a… a, most special one, yes, of truth, with a name that still resounds through… through everywhere. But, that is a story for another time.”
“I question you: what question was it? What was she called?” asked Jemina.
“I’m sorry—more slowly, by your favor.”
“I… asked you… what, name—”
“I cannot go into all that now. Let us just say that—”
“Give this girl more Energy here!” cried out Raquel. “Look at her—she’s about to faint!”
“No—not faint. Not fa—just, humid in here. Look at this sweat, oh me. Let me just get over here by the fan so I can finish the chronicle.”
“Yes, yes, finish it, Mahl,” said Veronique. “By all means.”
“Just a moment… Now, thank you, this… question came to them, and it was indeed as malicious and as ambiguous as reported, though beautiful on the surface in its construction. Though the entire FLEET was worse than ever, Veres was the first to pounce, and it just so happened that Platenam-Stein was next her, sharpened pencil at the ready. However, just as Veres was about to strike, the question… the question eliminated her from the FLEETs.”
“What? What means that, ‘eliminated her’? That’s only a tale for old wives.”
“It is true—I swear upon all that is honorable in FLEETdom. Veres dwelled in the stacks for the rest of the FLEET, and no one ever saw her at any FLEETing event again. She answers questions beyond our realm now, somewhere.
“To conclude: Platenam-Stein had a very quick turn-around, because of all of this, so much so that she departed from the Totonac FLEET after the Day-3.5 Interval, joining another, as is sometimes the case, particularly for snarky ladies like her. It would seem that most of the entire rest of the FLEET did just that, leaving the captain and one loyal FLEETer behind. Hence, when we ran into her for the parlay, most of the FLEETers were brand new.”
“Jemina, get us a captain,” said Irina.
“What’s all this, Irina?” said Raquel. “This is getting too serious for my taste. We’re not even in the middle of a FLEET.”
“No, I’d like for Mahl to confirm all she’s just said. This is too much to swallow.”
“I will do it, willingly will,” said I. “Bring on the captain.”
In short time, Veronique returned with a captain, who seemed to be deeply annoyed by such an interruption; indeed, she came to us in the common area with a sweaty forehead, bagged eyes, and a concordance weighing her down.
“Captain, thank you for helping us,” said I. “Please put down your large concordance here, so that I can swear upon it… I hereby swear, upon all of FLEETdom and this concordance which represents the epitome of the FLEETs’ knowledge, that all that I have spoken of the Totonac FLEET is true—I parlayed with that same FLEET and, much later, I FLEETed with Platenam-Stein herself since Veres was ever lost to us, with that… it-forgets-me-name question.”
Chapter 39: Of Filmic Representations (Approximately Faithful and Not-at-all Faithful) of Questions and Other Question-ing Views
As I am about to set forth upon these pages the facsimile, as it were, of a question we legitimately encountered then and how we set about conquering it, I think it high time to once again set the record straight on this FLEETing score. As with scoring, I will not attempt to replicate the questions themselves to any fastidious novelistic degree of quote-unquote verisimilitude. One may not know a question after it is answered, and even then it becomes a dead thing, being chopped up for mark-ers—one may only surmise at one’s original reaction to that curlicue when it has been replaced by a firm period and made as only e pluribus unum in one’s mark-er collection. Verily, the only way to know a question of ours at all is to join a FLEET (the half of you, approximately, that may be permitted by gender confines to do this) and run the risk of becoming another Veres of the depths. Therefore, it is downright foolish if not dangerous to seek any deeper meaning or understanding into any question in the asking of it, even if it be the wildest of wild cards which we FLEETers encountered—let the broad strokes suffice, lest you become one of us.
However, I do mean to expunge from this record the gross and vile popular representations of the questions to be sent our way. I do not blame the establishment for this stereotypical view, or even the screenwriters who promulgate such outlandish lies and overoversimplification of our endeavor. That blame rests solely on the audiences, for allowing such fictitious fancies to represent some deep, intimate knowledge of the field.
While the ‘80s are somewhat nebulous for all of us who survived them, I do have vague recollections of a television film of some sort wherein the main character—a boy, of course—is granted knowledge of everything and other superhuman powers (I well remember a scene where he “crosses” over an unstable log-bridge to impress some school bullies but really is hovering just a few inches above), and he is on a quiz show and loses his powers but then somehow he’s learned enough—or, more likely, through some providential coincidence, is able to apply some supposedly-useless knowledge introduced earlier in the film—and thereby wins the grand prize and some girl of course to boot. This is wrong on a number of levels but what is most appalling is that the film took itself with such seriousness. FLEETing skills, or even basic trivia-club grilling, is nowhere featured, and instead some metaphysical rationale must be inserted to give the obtuse character some enlightenment. The disposition to FLEETing is not superhuman or preternatural; rather it is natural to the gender long before Wollstonecraft vindicated us and, if anything, it is hyperhuman.
We will pass by other examples of this ilk, as I sense they infect me with their vapidity.
However, there are some comedic examples (that is, meant to be comedic) that are simply, unnauseatingly laughable and, hopefully, recognized by all as being parodic of the true quest and the selfless sacrifices taken on therewith. I will only highlight one here that was apt for skewering by us FLEETers because of its rather-role-reversed nature of the male star being subjected to questioning by the female love interest, though the “prizes” he attained were purely visceral and come nowhere close to the intellectual rewards of the endeavor. It is not until the “contest” comes to fruition at the end of Billy Madison (1995), however, that the bathos of the characterization reaches its apotheosis. The insertion into the quiz show of the host’s accusations regarding the fidelity of his spouse was a nice crass touch. Regardless, during the hey-day of the movie’s meteoric success, this film became attached with any trivia club endeavor and even with our elevated task.
The following year’s Scream does a little better, in regards to esoteric film trivia asked by the killer, but still, the meta-ness of the character was lost on most of its marketed audience. The ‘90s seemed to be the zenith of postmodern experiments of this vein—who among us cannot, unfortunately, forget Lion King 1 ½?—but the experimenters/filmmakers seemed not to have published their findings forthrightly to their guinea pigs (the victims of popular culture). Nonetheless, Wes Craven deserved more hands than sequels.
Somewhat after this zenith of tongue-in-cheek narratives came about the rather-more-accurate presentation of the child prodigy in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999). Despite the rather foolish affective and existential elements of the character, both the boy genius on the show and the veteran boy genius turned into has-been are well- if too-sympathetically-drawn. The way in which the question-makers are portrayed, as those who operate beyond the shadows whilst the “host” takes all the glory and answers, was a rather nice aside.
Nonetheless, because all of the above and most of the dreck shoveled to our cineplexes today seeks out the lowest common denominator, all representations of questions (and, especially, the facile way in which they are expected to be answered—in the quick but shallow vein of quiz shows) are utterly irreconcilable with the truth of the matter. Perhaps this is because the truth is so mundane, so brutal, so boring to watch.
However, as alluded to above, these representations often circulated amongst us; particularly when a dig went wrong, the scapegoat would receive quite a few appellations originally applied to film characters. For a FLEETer, everything is part of the search, including matters of this sort and, after a while, one sees questions everywhere, behind everything. It is no deep mystery why we sought to make the physical remains of the question mark into objects of ownership, if not of totem-like power. The marks themselves were the true stingers, containing the venom in all its rawest state, and to suck out that venom seemed a remarkable vaccine; the aggregate of which vaccinations would therefore give one Mithridates-like immunity.
The outlying suggestions of the shape of question marks appear in the most unsuspecting places for a FLEETer. Hirsute examples abound: hairs of whatever size which curl themselves up as a mark, the “period” lying embedded in the follicle under the skin, as if these hairs dig us for answers, and the only way to epilate thoroughly is to dig yourself. (Male facial hair, especially that just growing in for the first time—the tiny question marks starting to become bolded but patches of which, particularly the “soul patch,” as faint as the Mocha-Rich, seemed to remind us of our quest [for those few of us who gained such proximity to boys’ faces].) The curling of a phone cord (a dating reference, yet again), coat-hooks, filaments of light bulbs, noodles, spiraling paper clips, our own feces—just about anything one happened upon could remind one of the Ones that Got Away, the mark-ers that didn’t get marked precisely enough. And these external reminders were only as the ocean froth is to the depths of half-known self-knowledges, which continually consume the most heavily-garrisoned factual fortresses of the intellect.
The moments when one looked at a passing cloud, a flowing river, a mountain landscape, rain falling down a windshield, our breaths curling from our mouths during winter, and especially the fooling connecting-of-the-dots in ever-curling, ever-striving lines in the night-time sky—faced with this all-facing grandeur, the only faceless image we saw were the marks, as the universe attacked us with her mysteries wherever and whenever we turned away from the FLEETing world. Is it any wonder that we returned to the library as soon as break would allow? The questions never took breaks, unless we broke them first.
(Better this life, I insist, better this life of constant readiness for the answers than to become inundated with unanswered questions at every moment, attaining some sort of acquiescence, biding your time until your ultimate Answer. Us FLEETers, I hereby testify and affirm, find ourselves better able to cope with the prospect of It than the rest: knowledge is bliss.)
Chapter 40: Toe Answers a Question
As the blizzard intensified still more as the afternoon waned on, those of us on the inside of the library responded as most of the species does to such shelter in the midst of the chaos of the elements: we settled down to lethargy. As the early-afternoon doldrums proceeded, most of Pequods FLEET found itself in stupor but, to a woman, we snapped alert when all of us could feel a round on the way in the vibrations headed up the stair-rails and the granite floors. So, when the “mast”er mistress called out that the copier’s ethereal verdant hues were spotted, some of us were already headed down to receive our batch. (I must pause here to note the inefficiency of this system—rather than risk all of this jostling and bumping in our usually-non-clumsy pursuits, the question-makers should be the ones to send emissaries to us—all at the same time, of course—or, perhaps—excuse this contagious blasphemy—they should position themselves to each “deck” and coordinate with each other to distribute the respective packets at one go.)
Though the question seemed quite simple, to the extent that many of us saw it as extension of our own somnambulistic predilections at that hour, the math word problem concealed a seemingly-unsolvable enigma, and Toe positioned herself at the head of our FLEET—as it were, switching positions with Captain Jezebel herself—in all readiness of her attack. It should be here noted that, though the question was obviously of a different sub-species than her Mocha, Jesz still evinced all passion and requisite fury in her dig. Indeed, all of us went down to our respective areas of the stacks, hoping to find in the nuances of the question’s phrasing our own solution, though Toe seemed most predisposed to find the question-maker-ordained answer. One never knew when such a feint would be planned by the question-makers below, however, and many was the FLEETing tragedy on record of just such a feint costing a FLEET the tournament.
Though normally silence was the routine, all of us had our respective particular “war-cries” for such bemusing questions as these—the Engineer hummed some sort of baroque fugal iterations, Peg’s furious exhales and grimaces caused her neck ink to stretch, and Toe issued a quasi-whistle through her pen cap. Toe’s pen-cap whistle, like a steam engine’s, seemed louder the harder she worked and, though she joked to herself in just the same spirit as evinced before, it was clear that she was wrestling with this Leviathan of the Maths.
Not to get too deep here for the laywoman, but the sword to this Gordian Knot then before us can now be best explained by analogy. I had a Maths teacher who showed just such a proof, completely ignoring the fallacy contained therein:
-20 = -20
16 – 36 = 25 – 45
so I’ll jump ahead just two steps, as you can see where this is going:
42 – 36 + 81/4 = 52 – 45 + 81/4
although you have already likely drawn this out to the end, let me just insult your intelligence by converting this into:
(4 – 9/2)2 = (5 – 9/2)2
And so, taking the square root (which turns out to be the faulty step) and adding 9/2 to both sides you end up with:
4 = 5
Although there were many Maths specialists like Toe at that FLEET, I’m sure nearly every one of them would have made the same error as easily as any one of us ignoring a typoe. Toe took the phrasing like a Wittgenstein, not a Bertrand Russell, and developed a proof which made her unsmile for the first time that FLEET—the pen-cap fell from her mouth, thoroughly chewed into a thin corrugated plastic sheet. She had done it. Compounded with all of our attempts, we had answered it in record time, while the other digs continued around us. Now the real fun was before us.
Chapter 41: Scavengers
Toe was the female of the hour, not just for us, but for all the FLEETers gathered in that library—perhaps, except for Captain Jesz. Seeing this question successfully and efficiently answered and rewarded by the scoring, Jezebel trudged back to her carrel. Surely such a reminder of any question’s vanquishing stood in stark contrast to the Unvanquished somewhere out there, taunting her. She left the mark-er-ing to us. Skietiff, too, left us, or should I write, left Toe in charge as the third-in-command, out of courtesy for the victor. She returned to the stacks with all right-minded sense of duty, as preparations for the next question were never done, not even at the end of the FLEET. (It has been recorded that the only time that any sort of civil authorities have been called on a FLEETer is when she refuses to leave the library after four days’ time.)
Toe, replacing her pen-cap with a fresh one, relished in her “command,” and placed the successfully-answered question sheet there for all to see. Soon enough, we had FLEETers from the entire library crowding around it, questioning the question and the one-two punch that Toe had issued with her pen. These “scavengers” flocked about the scene like it was an auto accident, natural disaster, or domestic terrorist situation—their wonder remaining wholly intact at such a feat (until they examined the specifics of the byzantine proof, and then wonder was converted into pattern, just like the accidents/disasters listed above). Little Squeak played a little solo for all these, louder and louder, in the hopes of driving them off and giving us some solitude. For those of us, like myself, who had hoped to use Toe’s expeditious “kill” as a time for killing a few conscious minutes in slumber, the task became utterly impossible with all the whispered chatter and crowding-in that our balcony then saw.
Toe, soon enough, perhaps because of such an audience, then engaged in a rather unique (though not unheard-of) custom: she ripped off the printed question save, of course, the mark and proceeded to chew on it, eventually digesting the printed slip as a sign of her utter ownership of it. (In this, she is not too different from most of the metaphorical cannibals of high school, after all, who chew on indigestible identities just as thoroughly and satisfactorily.)
“Savory, most savory, nyum, nyum,” spoke she. “Squeak! Rouse that Squeak over there! Squeak, what can you do about these unwanted guests we have?” asked Toe, as if the guests could not hear her.
“Tell ‘em to scram, ma’am,” said Squeak.
“There you are, then, Squeak, I hereby, as interim captain, order you to do the same.”
“Oyez, oyez, you bunch of ******-****in’ *****es—” and here Squeak issued assuredly some of the first English words she had ever learned.
“Mind your language, lil’ one; that’s not the way to talk to vultures,” said Toe, heartily enjoying insulting both Squeak and her fellow FLEETers in one go.
“All right, then, let me—”
“No, Squeak, now that I think on it, that’s not the way. You’ve got to get on your stump and deliver your sermon to the masses. Raise yourself up above them to show that we’re all equal in faithlessness. Hoist yourself up, now.”
“No, Miss Toe, if it’s all—”
“It’s not all the same, Squeak. You’re ignoring the spirit of true atheism. Now let me help you.”
With this, Toe physically launched Squeak upwards on top of a study carrel, so that she could address the few scavengers that remained, scrutinizing the Maths on the remaining copies of the prompt so much that one could almost hear their gray matter wrinkle.
“They won’t hear us, Miss Toe,” said Squeak. “They’re too busy questioning their own questions about the questions that no one can answer to ‘em.”
“That’s some nice phrasing there, it is. But come, get your little golf pencil, Afrikaner.”
Squeak sighed and, carefully getting herself down, went over by the stair where she had left her makeshift drum-stick. She reported back to Toe with a mock-salute.
“None of that now, Miss Squeak.”
“I hope I can go to slee—”
“You’ll go to sleep when those scavengers go, and not before. Now, back up on your roost, chickie.”
Squeak sighed yet again as Toe launched her to the same spot.
“Now, take that Joy, O. and place it on your mind.—That’s not your skull; that’s your heart. No use out of that organ but to power the main one.—Now, swear to me.—That’s better, right on the lobe.—Now, swear to me on all we hold sacredless—”
“You don’t even know what you’re swearing yet, bear-cub. You know swear words, you’ve shown us that before, but do you know what they mean? Have you ever taken a piss on a church?”
“I wet myself once in church in Dakar,” humbly spoke Squeak.
“Well then, you dare insult that ‘omnipotent’ god but speak those curses and vows all the same, as if they had any meaning? Now, swear on your mind that you won’t sleep until these succubi say ‘Bye.’”
“They’re all gone, Miss Toe,” said Squeak.
And she was correct: now the only ones keeping us up were Squeak and Toe.
“Well then, what are you waiting for? To sleep, Sierra Miss, to sleep.”
As she walked away, leaving Toe to her chortle-speak and admiring her mark one last time, I distinctly heard Squeak more-than-whisper: “You’re the true scavenger, Miss Toe. Next time, may that question answer you.”
Chapter 42: Re-Cycle
With Toe eating the majority of the printed matter in due course, when we got up Skietiff gave the order to dispose of the rest of the sheets—besides the marks, obviously, as the true prizes and signs of the victory for future generations.
It should be noted here that all our work on all that blank space is for naught, viewed from this angle. The question mark remains, haunting and taunting us even after the “death” of the question itself. As I stirred, once again failing to sleep, methought I fancied Captain Jesz pace over to the sheets and gaze at the mark that Toe had left behind, as if she were Hamlet and the mark were Yorick’s skull.
“You keep on, do you, marking the indecipherable?” she asked the lifeless mark. “Keep curling around us, unfurling the flag that is never white and never able to utter one whole syllable without a word before you, raised vocally as all Australian females’ punctuation? No matter how faint the printing, you never disappear completely. How I wish you were that faint question mark that is my only object in life! But, even then, I fear that the Mocha-Rich’s power will continue on, in my mark-er book, telling in its one character the character of all the FLEETers who it has vanquished. Their ghosts shall call out to me, long after I vanquish that cursed question, asking me why I do not join them. An end, an end is all I seek, in any way it may be granted by those nefarious question-makers—if only they could answer directly for their transgressions!”
Thus finished, Jesz returned to her carrel and, soon thereafter, did not demean herself to engage in any of the clean-up ahead of us, which was simple and hopeless enough: We took all the sheets save the marks, and threw them in the recycle bin.
The cycle would begin again, as these bones would be decomposed to make more question-sheets, somewhere in the all-consuming, all-dying universe. But we would be less and less in number— the questions suffer not from entropy, but it is we who become debris over time. If only we could be as the prompt sheets—mostly blankness, save for what used to be called “the human heart.” If only our hearts could be all of us, instead of our minds constituting our “selves.” To give the world such white blankness, and save the true essence of us in the very core of our existence. But, no, we are destined to project—to cast off—all that is of us through a ceaseless merging with the facts of human history until we become the footnotes to the next blank page and, eventually, thrown away in an unrecycled abyss.
Chapter 43: The Terck-Asthmagic FLEET’s Tale
The question-ing scar on Jesz’s forehead seemed to uncurl somewhat, as she emerged from her brooding temporarily, when another whole FLEET approached—not to scavenge the carcass of Toe’s question (which had been disposed of, as mentioned in the preceding chapter), but to parlay. By way of identifying the insignia of the corporate logo on one of the FLEETers, we observed from far off that it was representing the medical supply company Terck’s new line of asthma spacers for young ones, corporately-titled the “Asthmagic”—complete with a little bearded wizard to cap all the ridiculousness.
Nonetheless, that bearded wizard could not protect his company’s FLEETers from a serious ‘flu or other ailment that seemed to render every one of them completely haggard, even by FLEETing standards. This was soon verified as the captain, an old local acquaintance of Captain Jesz, warned us all some distance away, and insisted on parlaying over the railing of the balcony. Jesz, of course, could care less if the entire FLEET had the bubonic plague, as long as she secured some knowledge of the whereabouts and modi operandi of her ultimate prize.
Stalking about, next to the captain, was a figure with a shock of platinum-blonde hair and a look even more decrepit than the others, albeit with a strange magnetism about her eyes and a ceaseless dynamism about her smallish frame.
“That’s her, Eng,” I heard Toe beside me whisper, “the one they talked about. There’s the civil-ized desperada. Puts the ‘Hagar’ back in ‘haggar-d,’ she does.”
Some background is needed here before we proceed: in addition to the woeful tale of the Totonac Co. FLEET’s own crew, Toe had also heard from her counterpart during that parlay that there was another FLEET that had come across the Mocha-Rich that selfsame break—this added to the supposed ubiquity and omnipotence of The Question, for by our calculations she appeared on the exact same day—perhaps even the exact same moment—for both Totonac and the Terck-Asthmagic FLEETs. The story related was as follows (which we at this moment gained ocular corroboration for and would very soon gain a most painful live demonstration of):
There was a young woman caught up in the throes of the counter-cultural anti-Clinton Zeitgeist who, if she came of age in this day and age, might be caught up in a Tea Party of some sort, albeit without the Biblical divinity part. Rather, this young woman saw herself as the representative of a cult even more fervently believed in: that of America’s exceptionalism. A devoted young member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, she would have joined the Freemasons if she could: she saw in the contemporaneous nexus of the original Adams Administration’s bicentennial and the Mexican War’s sesquicentennial a post-Cold War Age of Manifestations in which Manifest Destiny would be made manifest and woman-ifest too. She claimed descent from John Cogswell, the wellspring of several presidential lines as well as the creative font of American literary genius including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tennessee Williams, and Thomas Pynchon. If any one of those forebears stood out amongst the others in her demeanor and sense of self-import, it was undoubtedly the brooding genius of Hawthorne, to whom, oddly, she had dedicated herself in mimicking, albeit without a hint of the original author’s sense of irony.
Her name, above all else, perhaps gave her this sense of civil prophetess and seer of destinies in all things American: she was named after the ship that bore Cogswell and his progeny to the New World that sank off the coast of Maine in 1635 in the hurricane recorded in several colonial documents as amongst the most destructive then seen. Her name, therefore, was Angel Gabriel. Yes, with the italics and all: she would always underline her name on all official documents, it was told.
Angel Gabriel (never “Angel” and certainly never “Angie”) saw the incomplete pyramid on the dollar bill and figured that, by going a-FLEETing, she could gain the insight of that eye above it and thereby complete its grand design before the Millennial Age struck all of us down against the grand foe (which was, alternately, OPEC, the Muslim world, all of Latin America, a new Soviet Union, or a new Pan-Asiatic Co-Prosperity Sphere headed by the People’s Republic of China).
More bizarre than her deliriousness was her hold that she had over the crew, according to the Totonac Co. FLEET’s third-in-command. She had managed to “prophesy” several questions’ answers in a way that her perspicacity could supposedly only be explained by her séances with the Founding Mothers. When one of the FLEET questioned her directly, Angel Gabriel foretold of her doom and, indeed, the very next round after boldly standing up to the little self-righteous wench, the Mocha-Rich was spotted and that very same crew member was lost in the stacks, never to return to the FLEETs again, so it was told. All of that FLEET (minus her who lost herself) returned this very Christmas to see the Second Coming of Angel Gabriel. The captain was the only one in possession of her non-patriotic senses, it seemed, but there was nothing she could do—Angel Gabriel’s sway over the FLEET was absolute, and the crew performed the best it ever had under her bizarre influence and mystical pronouncements. This very illness, according to Angel Gabriel, was sent as a harbinger of some deep effrontery to the Mocha-Rich, whose growing-faint blankness she saw as a sign of the true holiness of the Constitution, the document that she considered best represented the face of God.
Therefore, when Captain Jesz called out, “Come over here! We don’t fear any disease,” it was that “touched” figure next to the captain who stepped in front and shouted out in return, “Beware, beware the affliction! America’s spirit dies in front of you, and you boldly claim that you can remain unaffected?”
“Captain, how can you allow that pale gale to hail me so?” asked Jesz, not even answering Angel Gabriel directly. “I ask you: have you seen the Mocha-Rich?”
“Yes,” answered the captain, meekly, keeping a corner of her eye upon her supposed-underling but in effect the true captain of the FLEET. “We encountered Her on our last—”
“It is you! You are the one who seeks the Mocha-Rich, seeks to trample our sacred honor!” Angel Gabriel then cast her eye upon Toe. “And it was you, you there, who sought to define Torricelli’s Trumpet, who sought to explain the infinite surface area with your finite volume.” Here a forced laugh, which some of the rest of the FLEET replicated. “But you cannot Hobbes-like grapple with Her, no matter how you hobble.” Now she turned back to Captain Jesz. “Listen to me, ye who would win Her: She can only be wooed; never won. She is the Virgin Bride, whom the Fathers could never subdue, and She will claim the end of times. As the false prophet would have it: ‘Many will range far and wide, and knowledge will increase.’”
“Daniel, Chapter 12, Verse 4, Captain,” spoke Peg to Jezebel, as this last comment seemed to faze Jesz somewhat.
“How did she know I was on the Maths?” whispered Toe to Eng.
“Captain,” called out Jesz, “any new information about that Mocha that I—we seek?”
“She seeks us all, idolater!”
“Now, Angel Gabriel—” placated the Terck captain.
“And now,” said Captain Jesz, looking the wild creature in the eyes, at which stare even she could not maintain a return gaze, “Gabby, let me give you a message, and this is one you can take right to that sphinxster Jeffer—”
“You are traveling yourself to that riddled land—you suffer from the Theban plague, not us, and no answer can save you all! Deliver your message outside FLEETdom, where you will meet our blasphemous colleague.” Angel Gabriel directed this more towards every single one of us, in turn, rather than attempt to address Jezebel directly again. I had the good fortune of receiving the “no answer can save you” part of her anathemic pronouncements.
“Let’s move on,” stage-whispered Angel Gabriel to her captain, ordering her to give the order, as it were.
“Come, FLEETers, let’s go on our way,” said the Terck captain, forcibly moving some of her weaker colleagues, who had taken this opportunity to fall asleep on their feet. Angel Gabriel was the last to depart, meeting Captain Jesz’s fire-tinged glance for just a split-second before about-facing. It would seem that the Angel Gabriel was bound to crash into some other distant shore in the midst of the blizzard, but none of Pequods FLEET would witness that FLEET’s fate. Now that the Asthmagic is forever gone from FLEETdom, we are only left to guess of its woe-manifested destiny.
Chapter 44: Toe and Skietiff Answer Wild Cards, Then Proceed to Gossip
In the wake of these wild heralds of the Mocha-Rich, even the most outwardly-rational on Pequods FLEET were not free from certain superstitious readings of this hearsay. Toe herself, perhaps also because of the hubris of her recent conquest (the same hubris from which issued her arsenal of abuse on Squeak and prompted her to defenestrate Uncle Frank’s keg), issued an order for those of us—like myself—who were engaging in our first mark-er-ing, which was this: no one was to mark-er alone. If one were to ever get “lost” in that activity—staring unblinkingly for minutes on end at the contours of the certain mark in front of her—then the other could pull her partner out of this “lostness.” I suppose she didn’t want to see any Vereses or unnamed-“colleagues” on our FLEET.
Still, while I was grateful to have my first mark-er-ing session with my brave Peg besides me, it did feel a bit daughter-like to be sitting next to her and monkeying her gestures. While part of me was glad for this metaphorical umbilical, it was an umbilical nonetheless, and I wished to slash out at it all the same. I suppose all of us, no matter profession or specialty, are similarly linked to others or “mentors” in our communities—be it for ill or its opposite—but to have such a reminder in front of me that I was subservient and that my individual will could be so thoroughly compromised by merely the mention of such “lostings”—this had a most Deborah-like effect on my own state of mind.
We shall return to us mark-er-ing somewhat later, after we have gained some more contrast in the marks through the event which I must historically reconstruct at present. We heard the paper-slicer below us working away as quickly as a guillotine during the Great Terror, and so all knew that a “wild card” round was upon us. While we normally wouldn’t trouble ourselves to even descend for such vapid questionings, Captain Jesz—oddly, with her same Mocha-Rich-seeking determination—asked Skietiff and Toe to dispatch one or three of these specimens for Pequods FLEET. To send Squeak on such a mission was understandable, but to send the captain’s two immediate inferiors was something of a mystery, to the extent that we viewed the good captain herself as not-completely-immune to the foreboding effects of hearsay about her—and now our—sole object in this tournament. The fact that Gullah stood in her shadow, smiling, as she delivered this order compounded this impression somewhat.
What the questions were that Skietiff and Toe so quickly and successfully dispatched, and what they discussed in these brief digs and scorings and their ascent back to us—these I know only by that same instrument of fearfulness discussed: hearsay. However, my years of FLEETing since ground the following reconstructed dialogue with somewhat more veracity and verisimilitude:
After answering the requested number of questions and then some, on their way back to us with the marks, Toe turned to Skietiff and asked:
“Mum, why do you think she wanted us for this not-so-clandestine mission? Am I missin’ something?”
“Steady on, Toe,” responded Skietiff. “You know what they say: question not she who questions.”
“Which brings me to my point, Mum, her, her,” responded Toe. “That gal besides her, that Gullah—I have a strong sense that she is one of the mythologized ones, the enemies of the question-makers.”
“No such entities, Miss Toe,” coolly replied Skietiff.
“But that theory would go about explaining all the secrecy about stowing her away in the stacks and all, surely. She’s one of those who seek to destroy the honor of the FLEETs by attacking the question-makers, indirectly, through her answers. I reckon Captain Jezebel has made some sort of a bargain with her—with them.”
“You insult both the question-makers and the captain, and I will hear no more of it… But, say she is—”
“‘Say she is’?—I know she is. If she comes up to me with one of her ‘answers,’ I’ll throw her off the balcony.”
“Aye, but then what will you do when she gathers all her question-maker-attacking forces, who dwell under the earth?” asked Skietiff.
“You mock me, and perhaps ‘tis well to mock a mocker of a Mocha—”
“Toe, once in your life, answer something in complete seriousness—”
“What did you call that Maths question—”
“No, I mean in words. In words, Toe, not in numbers, prove to me that you believe all that nonsense you just espoused.”
A pause here, as the two officers approached us with the bits of the cards—i.e., the marks from these paltry wild cards.
“Proof or no, here we are back with the FLEET. Here you are, Captain Jesz, ma’am. I’ve got the queen of spades—Skie’, who do you got in your hand?”
“Excellent, Second Lady Toe,” said Captain Jesz, approaching from her concordances. “Nothing can stop us now, eh, Gullah?”
Gullah, just then appearing out of the stacks as if from some incorporeal state, smiled.
Whether this errand of retrieving wild cards was ordained by the patterns-slash-coincidences of the captain’s concordances, or whether it was ordained by the shadowy motives of Gullah and perhaps the nefarious forces she worked for, this all would remain a mystery. What was not so mysterious was the new confidence that both these specimens had, seeing the previous marks and new wild card marks side-by-side. So, as a way of more scientifically analyzing this juxtaposition (rather than “symbolically”—an adverb I loathe), let us proceed with the mark-er-ing.
Chapter 45: Making Our Mark-ers
As now we have the iterations of Toe’s mark and several wild-card marks before us, we can engage in marking them practically before we proceed with the artistry of mark-er-ing: you could distinguish that the marks from Toe’s victory clearly had more character in them, the sans serif dots punctuating the marks seeming squares more than anything else, with the straight-as-an-arrow lines emerging and then the shepherd’s-staff-like curves emanating proudly, leading all us intellectual sheep to glory.
By contrast, the wild card marks looked crass and vulgar: some of them appeared to be simply a snaky s-curve on top of a point, as if these were no questions at all but transpositions of some Enlightenment-era harquebus’s flintlocks. Some of the wild card marks brought back were in font yet more lazy: one looked as if it were a scimitar curve set atop a period, not even snaking and certainly nowhere near a straight line in view. Some of these fonts seemed to be replicating some beginner Spanish student’s attempt at an inverse question mark, but itself made inverse again.
There is nobility to all question marks of Toe’s conquest’s ilk, those that resemble the hammer-less sickles of some partly de-communistized nation’s flag. Certainly, the Mocha-Rich’s mark, faint though it was, contained such a regal bearing in its aspect.
No matter the curvature or the nuances of the font, however, every mark is laboriously and carefully set down to become mark-ers of high ornamentation for adornment in the FLEETer’s mark-er book. I have seen some particularly-notable specimens of FLEETer who started out replicating the mark largest early in their careers and, subsequently, inside each period of that previous mark-er, they would proceed to draw the next full question mark such that, by the time they attained some few FLEETs’ experience, they made the mark-er with such finesse and dexterity that one required a magnifying glass to see the marks in periods in marks in periods. That was probably the noblest graphic expression of our endeavor that I have yet encountered.
Of course, the mark itself contains all the true force of the question—without it, what danger or threat would it pose? Well-advised were the Latin writers to avoid punctuation completely, and how prudent do all Spanish writers now seem, to contain such a weapon inside its inverse as a warning for those who would proceed to unravel it? In the English language, plenty of the boldest statements begin with interrogative words, and it is not until one reaches the end of a “statement” that one discovers that boomerang re-directing the entire assertion back into the hypothetical realm, into the sphere of your doubt, turning what was once satiation into hunger, what was once ground into quicksand, and—however you try to restrain it—who among us would not express a fear at the sight of it? So, ‘tis natural to take this sting out of the hornet and make it a cornet declaring one’s utter triumph. If, in your hunt of wisdom, you would own truth, then verily you must own the question. Those of you who yet doubt its power should cease reading here, for I sense you shall express bewilderment at all that the question—and especially The Question—can do. (Though you may doubt the length of these interrogatives at this juncture, I shall offer up once again testimony of the most verifiable order—later—not only of their contemporary sesquipedalianism by this particular winter tournament, but of their actual increasing in size through the time of the FLEETs.)
What strength has this one punctuation, when it can, in effect, with its little “brain” reverse the signal sent all the way along the “spinal cord” of the sentence—no matter how long—making the first word into a truly terrifying tail that can rend entire preconceptions into misconceptions? Surely, all question marks themselves, though they are dumb, yet speak enough in their breaking-apart of language to become Aristotles re-incarnate. Once again, Aristotelians all, I urge you to beware of dwelling too long inside that wordless, syllable-less mark, lest you be sucked into its vortices and find your own period at its root and foundation.
Indeed, this almost transpired with the youngest of us, with poor Squeak (perhaps it should have taken her away then, considering what befell her later). In this same post-wild-card mark-er-ing session, Squeak showed all clear signs of question-ing catatonia, and no shouts or proddings from us could get her out of it. Luckily, my brave Peg came once again to the rescue of her comrades, and literally took Squeak up from her own seat and bodily flipped her 180 degrees, and then another 180, landing her in the chair again with aplomb and a plop. Squeak asked what time it was, expressed surprise when this query was answered, and then returned to her golf-pencil-concerto. (Peg took this opportunity to give a brief paean to Joy, O., thanking Her that She always naturally was nearest Peg during such mark-er-ing.)
What a sweet end that would have been for any of us, though! To dwell one’s life inside the curvature, never settling down but constantly pinballing through one’s whole existence, from question to question without needing a single lexion to propel one about but just one’s own mind! ‘Tis an interrogation devoutly to be wished. Simply dwell a moment in this fairly pedestrian example, and read its infinite volume in its finite surface area:
Question that, why don’t you, and see what answer you get?
As for me, the more I attempt to describe this mark scientifically, the more I am disgusted at the limits of science to do it and its ponderous power justice. It is a fish hook attached to nothing and, when you think you have it answered, it disappears entirely and becomes a point, as if it were any run-of-the-mill statement you encounter. It seems to possess the strength of a thousand kicking legs, yet is merely a phantom leg itself. Indeed, the answering of any question is so frustrating just for this reason: that its wonder ceases as soon as it is solved. And so, we hold on to that object of all wonder, that half of a heart shape forever incomplete (except, of course, for those lucky Spanish writers—my jealousy compels me to add this exception). What typographer but the Sphinx herself could develop such a tempting, bewitching, and utterly inscrutable line, signifying nothing but dissatisfaction and an eternal starting-over at the axiom, “I ask, therefore I am”? However much I attack the curling line, she slips through my fingers just as she now slips through these words. We only possess her FLEETingly, which is why we FLEETers pursued. How can she be understood, save by intuition, the enemy to ratiocination? She makes no sound, cannot be verbalized, offers no resolution, and mocks all attempts to contain her. Yet what seeker did not emerge from her pregnant womb? And what seeker will not return to her period-less period?
Chapter 46: Pequods FLEET Meets That of Molenaar-Beton
It was shortly into this brief mark-er-ing break (when such a useful introduction to question-mark-ology was given by the circumstances) that we saw a FLEET emerging towards us from below, with an empty plastic container in hand. It would seem that this FLEET, sponsored by Europe’s primary manufacturer of rebar spacers, Molenaar-Beton based in The Netherlands, was in sore need of victuals and had not so ingenious an operator as The Engineer nor had nabbed windows at the microwave ample enough to allow for cooking all the FLEET’s needs. As we had ample supply ourselves, Captain Jesz was glad to share some—in exchange for any information about the Mocha-Rich. Jesz seemed particularly interested to hear if any sightings were discovered by FLEETs of a higher latitude and during the Europeans’ differently-timed school breaks. (It should be here noted that, while such European FLEETs were more common in the heydays of FLEETdom, they were by this point significantly rarer, and were considered a class below our more decidedly muttish American crews.)
However, just as that Icelandic captain of that Northern European crew, surnamed Jorgensdottir, revealed that her knowledge of the Mocha-Rich was merely a firm knowledge that her Baltic-centric team had never experienced Her in the print, there were those familiar vibrations once again as the “mast”-head, Skietiff herself, called out that the round had swung ‘round to us.
Captain Jorgensdottir dropped the now-filled plastic container just delivered to her hand and she, along with her FLEET, literally stepped on their gift of foodstuffs as they made their way towards the spiral staircase. Peg, Toe, and Skietiff (the latter rushing down from the “mast”) were swiftly on their tails. Before I ran quickly behind like an eager pup, I noticed that Captain Jesz stayed on the balcony—after exchanging glances with Gullah, who somehow knew that this round would yield no Mocha-Rich.
“After her, Pacifica!” shouted out Toe to Peg.
“I have half a mind to roll you down as you did that beer keg, Toe,” joked Peg.
“Indian givers, I’ve heard of, but Indian receivers!” uncharacteristically emoted Skietiff. “Come along, greenie, keep up, why don’t you?” It was odd to hear Skietiff’s harsh whisper on the run, interrupted by her respiratory efforts—efforts barely matched by all of us, it should be noted.
Our two FLEETs—the American and the Dutch—were the first down to the Line, and could see a rare prize indeed awaiting us: an old, yellowed piece of parchment from the question-makers’ archives—a mimeographed sheet of a highly-calligraphied question of some huge length and therefore worth much more to us FLEETers. This would be an easy “kill,” given the rapid developments in all fields of FLEETdom since the question had been drafted, but also represented a prize worthy of the most painstaking mark-er book craftswomen. We heard the members of the Molenaar-Beton FLEET goad each other on in their various guttural tongues but, with a mad dash from all three closing the gap—Toe, and Peg, and Skietiff—those European ladies were literally bowled over by FLEETers from three different continents.
“Have fun with the scraps that we’ve dropped for you, Van-der-paps-schmeers!” shouted Toe, as Pequods FLEET obtained the prize. However, it was soon revealed to be no prize at all, for, though all four of us had our work cut out in bringing it up to the balcony in one piece, apparently the sheet had been in a climate-controlled storage facility for several decades: while we briefly saw the contours of the question, her mark, and pencilings from real lead pencils (perhaps before the rise of feminism), these soon became no better than confetti as the sheet disintegrated into small bits. (It is a mystery to all of FLEETdom how such questions are preserved by the question-makers, how they come to be co-mixed with roughly-contemporaneous question sets, and, especially, why some survive to be promptly answered and why others sink to the depths of oblivion—there are even reports of some newly-printed question sets “self-destructing” in just the same way as this elderly lady.) While Skietiff tried her best to salvage a successful round out of this weakened yellow sheet, it was too pitiable to witness. As Skietiff attempted to patch it together with Scotch tape, it was clear that this question was doomed to decay and would not be buried in any human mark-er book but in the very air that we breathed. The fact that Skietiff was so maternal to what would, upon its resurrection, be her enemy was beside the point. It was perhaps the saddest moment of my early career and, as we all coughed and sneezed in the wake of such paperish gore strewn about our balcony, I was reminded of the fate of all such questions and question-answerers, to serve so steadfastly in one’s life and become such a minor tracheal annoyance afterwards.
We were later told that the Molenaar-Beton FLEET, in the melee of the Line, actually pounced upon a wild-card question from the previous round. So, at the very least, we were even. How many Molenaar-Beton FLEETers are among ye now, reader-ships, who jump on the most convenient questions out of desperation for any answer?
Chapter 47: Chandra Levy
The descriptions of the foregoing procedures of mark-er-ing and of the rather aerobic chase of our latest (international) competition undoubtedly will lead some (many) among the lay readership to question: “Why all the fuss?” Indeed, “fuss” might be the operative word for those not-fussed—those not us.
I could very well ask any of you: “Why so little fuss?”
To get every possible utility out of facts—that is the cause we dedicate our lives and our honors to. We hold little/nothing else sacred on this planet. To get use out of—that is the purpose of our species, is it not? Not to dominate or even to claim stewardship, but to find use out of this pile of rock in an assuredly-lifeless universe. If knowledge represents the sum of human achievements, why are we FLEETers alone in seeking pegs for all the holes in this holey space we occupy? Why only call upon facts for the ephemeral usefulness that the public commandeers through its herd mentality of “been there, herd that”? Is that not waste to the most supreme degree? Playing devil’s advocate here, do ye believers not spit in the face of God to ignore such bounty?
Perhaps some unprecedented revelations about my own background will make this point stronger than these questions will allow.
I remember when I was very young and entertained notions that I might “make friends” with some other females and males (I did not discriminate, back then) in the neighborhood. One late afternoon approaching sunset, I made it my mission to walk up and down the street, searching for would-be-playmates. More dissatisfying than the few I found was the uncertainty that there might be others who would not make themselves found. Every lamp-post I passed, every window with a light on, every distantly-heard conversation, might very well be a would-be friend calling out for me to come rescue him.
This same type of uncertainty greeted me, some while later, when all that “fuss” was made about the world’s population nearing six billion human specimens. How could one possibly get to know one’s own species, let alone the thousands of others, when one could not catalog even the smallest fraction of humanity? Before I happened upon the purer knowledges of the FLEETs, I would often engage in such trivial pursuits as considering where all members of my elementary school class might be at, say, 5:30 p.m., or, 7:30 p.m., considering the different family make-ups, affinities, and temperaments of this group of 20-some youths.
Of course, these conjectures were all incredibly puerile—as much of a waste of time as you think our fact-wringing was/is. When humans all have these affectations and affections and dissembling natures, how could one get to know one of them at all? And yet, foolish species, we seek to know “ourselves,” when our mask-identities are merely collections of imperfectly-integrated sets of data. In short, if our consciousnesses exist at all, they are merely an aggregate of facts. We FLEETers lead to greater self-discovery than touchy-feely-ers may touch or feel for several generations.
I remember, as well, seeking to replace my office chair, around mid-elementary school, with a “better” one (the “better” as insisted on by The Units). We went to the furniture store, and I would not be satisfied with trying out every single one in the showroom. I had to place my posterior in every seat in the back storage room as well and then, I thought, “Why stop here?” We went to every furniture store in the nearby vicinity and, even then, I would not be satisfied. How was I to know where my buttocks would be ideally suited, unless I placed aforementioned buttocks in every seat in existence? I would not agree to any purchase and, needless to write, I still have my office chair from mid-elementary school to this day, though it is broken several times over.
This metaphor does not hold, however. Facts are not an object of conspicuous consumption, of personal “taste”; they represent the attempt to stave off mystery, inconsistency, and irregularity. We prided ourselves, like the German historian who claimed he would travel an ocean to verify a comma, on our punctiliousness of the abstract detail.
Another “domestic” example for you who find such easier to stomach: I remember chastising my father for returning all the bowls and plates from the dishwasher to the cabinetry, without first taking those at the bottom and transferring them to the top to be used first. Instead, that bottom bowl never got used but once my entire childhood (when we had a very large and largely nauseating family “event”). We FLEETers seek out the bottom bowls that always get piled on again and again, and not only those never used, but those whose utility is never realized. The “bottom bowls” were what we boasted of, actually, being the first/only to lay claim to this virgin factual territory.
Somewhat out of context with this current tale: In the late summer of 2001, the United States was much in an uproar over every possible fact associated with a missing-person case for a 24-year-old intern whose name was Chandra Levy. Then, September 11, 2001, happened. By the mid-morning news that Tuesday, Chandra Levy’s missing-person case was a missing-person case.
We FLEETers seek to honor the Chandra Levys of this world. The bright toys of the next big tragedy, we leave that for the public. The true tragedies get buried in layers and layers of consensual ignorance. This is gruesome work, going through the trash heaps and performing our alchemy, but, while the human race is here, while the human race is unfortunately human in its shortcomings and its short-sighted aims, it is a job that must be performed if the legacy of this planet is to be preserved for whomever or whatever comes in our wake (especially if that wake is nothing but nothingness for all eternity). If our only memorial, then, is the memory of our selves—our true selves, our intellectual contributions to the progress of humanity—then us FLEETers and our ilk are the true historians (not that reductionist lot that focuses on headlines of yesteryear), the true keepers of the flame, the Sharons that are the only true Charons, levy-ing us to the other side in the face of the Rivers Styx which seek to bury all but the most fetid and flimsiest films, the mothers of vinegar instead of the mothers of truth: Truth received from the Mothers of Human Nature. We are all delivered from such mothers, and yet we reject their milk as something too difficult, too real, to swallow. Such milk never spoils, and such warm milk is our only guarantee of a good Night’s sleep.
Let the governments stockpile weapons of mass destruction; we stockpile memories of mass preservation. When the dust settles, we’ll have done something real while you living ghosts die of regret.
Chapter 48: The Grand Lightning Round
We were now nearing the end of this first day (skipping over numerous events too paltry in holistic significance to mention in this brief treatment), and could sense, with the paucity of questions copied far below, that we were likely passing through some doldrums but, once through these straitening circumstances, would likely encounter a whole host of questions, perhaps whole pods packed together in a round that announced itself in an aurora australis of ethereal lights beneath us—for this reason (and for reason of the speed required in slaying the slew of questions) called a “Lightning Round.”
Do not confuse this with similarly-named rounds in Trivia Clubs or other inferior organizations. Due to the increasing specificity of all areas of knowledge since the founding of the FLEETs, these lightning rounds are not only becoming more common, but far more denser, in order to cram as much knowledge as possible into a FLEETing tournament. Unlike those other organizations, remember, there was not one single break, with the exception of the Day-3.5 Interval, that was assigned by the question-makers. We always had to be at the ready, and had everything for our survival right there with us. No going outside, no “passing the time,” no team dinners and certainly no parent-child get-togethers. No fundraisers—what would we have done to raise money, put on a Pythonesque farce designed to irritate our peers? The FLEETs were entirely self-contained once the team secured sponsorship and therefore secured a name. Imagine a baby Athena, born from her father’s cerebrum full-grown, who only needs to be called “Athena” to be the goddess of wisdom. That is the closest metaphor this molecular-biologist can think of to our self-sufficiency.
Jesz, of course, was always on edge, but during this time she seemed to be on the edge of her edge, as if she were navigating the course to virtue in the style of the old Buddhist saying. Of course, her razor’s edge was not directed towards virtue, but towards the Mocha-Rich, and she knew from her calculations of the concordances and her grand process of elimination/illumination that the hour was nigh for the Mocha-Rich to emerge, perhaps the Thunder shortly to be discovered inside the Lightning.
Regardless, the lightning struck soon enough. The “mast” and then all of us were regaled with a delirium-inducing sight, sound, and vibration: the copier was at its work for a solid twenty minutes, and the Lightning Round packets that awaited us downstairs were some third-of-a-ream thick. It was every FLEETer for herself, in such a melee of digging as then proceeded. Many were the paper cut, the FLEETer’s bodily badge of honor, earned that early evening. (Few areas of the epidermis are so readily exposed to foreign objects and yet so sensitive, given the plethora of nerve endings in these extremities.) At the outskirts of the most frequented stacks, one was sorely reminded of the hallways in our crowded schools, except here there were no hall monitors or schoolmarms.
And yet, once one penetrated close to some of these busy stacks, making out the commencement of an answer as if making out with these books, one attained the oddest sense of calm in the middle of these storm-clouds. One observed with the most sisterly of affections the books: the smells, the particulate matter emerging from them upon opening, even the taste of the spines or antique pages on some rare occasions when one was jostled from behind, above, or below by the question-answerers surrounding one as if we were all pirates in unregulated international waters. (This microcosm was rather odd, considering that FLEETs themselves were considered the eye of the social hurricanes of middle/high school societies—if a FLEETer, an eye inside the eye inside the eye, could maintain a type of equanimity in the midst of such a flurry of activity amongst her own tribe, this was good sign that she was a FLEET to herself, as it were. I pride myself in thinking that I have some of this same sagacity-in-sereneness at all times.)
The sheer variety of questions was dizzying: side-by-side with some as old as the yellowed, “sickly” specimen we had just encountered were questions which likely emerged from “BrainQuest” or some similarly-puerile exercise. These were simply not worth one’s time, and I beheld at different intervals Peg and Skietiff caress these kiddie questions as if they were infants, but then fold them into paper-airplanes and send them on their way down the stacks. I thought I could read Peg’s lips correctly as she whispered something that looked like: “I’ll answer you in a few years, when you grow up, lil’ markee.”
Juxtaposed in such a swarm, one thought that one could detect a family resemblance among some questions, or could detect the “cliques,” as similar questions emerged from different strata and/or fields and/or fonts and/or nuanced differences of printing. Captain Jezebel was positively mad in such a torrent, seeking out her one lifely ambition with Gullah smiling next to her, furiously climbing and leaping across shelves. Yet among all the questions encountered that Lightning Round, the august Mocha-Rich was not among the old ladies who paraded in their evening promenades from their assisted living facilities.
Indeed, sometimes one could even detect a question age in front of one, and mature from a cocky youth full of swagger into a calm, stoic 20-something with an assuredness that only comes from inauthenticity. As one by one questions were half-answered, as even the most translucent demonstrated a deadening transparency as the answers neared and neared, it would take a greater-skilled anthropologist (or apologist) than I to chronicle the changes that such an effusion had upon us FLEETers.
Chapter 49: Spining
Yet, among all this hubbub, there was still the FLEETer Code in full force and effect, and here I should introduce the concept of “spining,” which is when a FLEETer starts to subdue a question but leaves the pursuit of this prey (for the nonce) to answer a tangential one elsewhere. Such a book that would aid one to a fully-answered conclusion is flipped on its spine during a Lightning Round. At the end of the round, it is expected that all such spines will be turned yet again so that their catalog numbers face outwards, but sometimes, even for the most careful of FLEETers, one cannot recall all of one’s claimed “spined” volumes, so that one comes across a spined book from, say, the day or two previous, and one may in fact find in this selfsame spined book the beginnings to the proof of the question one is in mid-quest of answering—but is prevented from digging any further into that book, because FLEETing honor prohibits one from unspining a spined treatise.
“Does this not create more confusion and more chaos?” the ignorant non-FLEETer may ask. I would direct such a Doubting Thomasina to this very tome, and the “spined” topics that lay about it, to which I indubitably return in all due course according to my FLEETing discipline and thoroughness. As the fellow writes: “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.” It would seem that the same edict applies both for FLEETing itself and for writing upon its wealth of arcane but wholly-valuable social niceties.
Even that most unreasoned product of all processes, the law of men, may be reasoned with—when one considers the great far-reaching justice of this “spining” practice. Imagine if such widespread respect and courtesy were to exist among outside societies—what fear, then, would one have of theft, or of guile, or of fraud?
This great justice justly matches that just seen among all mortal things in the universe. For are we not ourselves “spined” books, all standing up with our call numbers projecting forth from our clothing, but destined to lay our spines down upon the cold, hard shelf that holds us? Are we not all similarly claimed for a later answer? Respect these spined things, therefore, lest you trample on someone else’s claim and create an imbalance in the scales and the stacks. There is no Librarian—we are expected to catalog ourselves.
But, to return to that Lightning Round, the saying holds true in the FLEETs as it does anywhere else: “The more questions, the fewer answers.” Only some of those questions we mightily pursued were spined, to be answered fully later, and some of those some were elaborately answered upon; all the others might as well have been the snow outside: they seemed to be restored to an increased sense of ship-shape-ness as they ran through the straits of our implements without harm, mocking us in that so many escaped unanswered. After who-knows-how-many-hours, we emerged relatively well-scored but, still, more spines had been laid down than could possibly be collected and answered by mortal women.
Chapter 50: The Misfortune of the Orphan
It was but an hour or so after this Lightning Round that the lowest lay got herself laid up in the highest of senses, as if she were fulfilling another aspect of Deborah’s prophecy, but this one not just corporeal but rather much-too-spiritual. You have heard mention before made to Squeak, rather incidentally, and I must confess my omission in this regard is due to my own painfulness in relating her story—at least all of us other victims had our wits about us, if not our wit—but poor Squeak gained and lost hers simultaneously well before the disaster.
You must have wondered before who prepared our “victuals” and otherwise took care of Pequods FLEET HQ, as it were. This type of menial service was usually relegated to the eighth or lowest lay, but it so fell to Squeak this tournament: her very tender age no doubt having a large part to do with it, in addition to her origin. Today, I share my bemusement with Captain Marimum that such a “schoolgirl of color” should round out our ranks. Perhaps the merman-corporation is to blame for making such a choice of seventh lay—if the antecedent conditions compound together to form primary cause of a consequent disaster. No—no matter how I color this and (forgive the crassness) color her—I have already well explained the primary cause, the first mover in this Rube Goldberg device of tragedy.
As has been stated incidentally, this Squeak was from Senegal, and generally looked the part of Victimized African Child that one sees so often associated with the sub-Saharan nations of the continent. Though, she was thoroughly VACcinated of that stereotype—she had a spark to her, a spunk, a resilience, and there was some gossip that she was some sort of child soldier at some point, who had done literally what all of us had done metaphorically: killed her family. Others claimed the accent was a charade and she really descended from no further than a Hebron, Connecticut, parochial school, having hitched at an even younger age than myself. (I find the latter tale just as spurious as the former, as I often wonder how a middle-schooler such as myself got so lucky.) Regardless of her origin and how exactly she ended up in this sister school, this littlest sister was no pipsqueak, and could certainly match us all for the FLEETing lingo, even Captain Jesz—though their prolonged direct interaction did not occur until after… the change.
Toe, once again, was the immediate cause of Squeak’s misfortune: she thought it “wise” to take this upper-elementary-schooler on a dig during the next round. But Squeak herself loved her peaceably secure existence, even if in embracing her duties she became an archaic archetype, and she sought to be as far away from the stacks and any questions—much less the Mocha-Rich, which Question had occupied her nightmares, among those of others on our FLEET. With all the wisdom of hindsight, I can see that Squeak had the makings of a fine FLEETer, but I also know that this trial by fire was by no means warranted. Nonetheless, Captain Jesz fully supported this decision, wanting all eight of us in pursuit as we neared—in her mind, and in reality, as it would turn out—the Mocha-Rich’s hailing hour.
It was a disaster. Squeak lost her little golf pencil, the only implement on her person, and it fell right through the grated floor of an upper stack into a lower, next to a narrow window. Squeak asked Toe to wait a moment for her, but it was FLEETing time, and Toe could not wait. Squeak hurried down, stubbed her own toe, and grabbed the pencil, only to be intimidated into catatonia by the immensity of the shelves around her. Luckily, Toe had a change of heart and returned for her almost immediately, but that diversion cost her and us on the FLEET that round. Toe taped the pencil to Squeak’s ankle and told her that, with the exception of a few circumspect circumstances, she was not to leave Toe’s side. Fearing that these loopholes were too big for a female with the moxie of Squeak to leap through and play double-dutch withal, Toe later amended this command to: “Never leave my side, or I will leave yours and not come back. There’s a lot more at stake answering a question here than in begging alms for some Starving African Fund. Giggle, gig. Be a true female, and not a seeker of charity.” Toe’s half-joking insincerity aside, her comments reveal quite a bit about the dreadful blinders worn by all leaders, and perhaps by all FLEETers.
But Squeak, like the rest of us, is victim to her indomitable will, and so, despite these exhortations, the very next round—being another Lightning Round, hard after the midnight hour—saw her yet again detach from Toe’s side and find herself lost in the stacks.
Even in a normal round, to find oneself surrounded by books as far as the eye can see—this can be downright intimidating, as one’s present moment contends with these unbreakable battle-formations of the past and its ceaseless barrage of data. To be one self amidst all these selfless entities—this perhaps explains why library bookshelves are so unfrequented in these modern times. Did Toe really abandon this little Squeak to the torrents of facts all around her, right next to another long narrow window, surrounded on one side by flurries and on the other by flurries of a quite different but similarly-engulfing nature? I am sure that Toe would not phrase this as “abandonment,” but merely holding fast to her word—as we all held fast to our awful oath for the Mocha-Rich. Assuredly, would not some other members of Pequods FLEET soon be behind, sooner or later, given that they were all on the trail of the same question?
Regardless, it was Captain Jezebel herself, accompanied, as always, by Gullah, who came across Squeak there, her golf pencil still taped to her bare ankle, as it would remain—and perhaps as remains there to this day. Squeak seemed to absorb not just those shelves’ but all the shelves’ contents via osmosis, by staring out into that mind-numbing snowfall. Though her mind survived, it was a harder flint now: darker, more recalcitrant, but creating yet brighter sparks when struck. The seemingly-infinite finiteness of human knowledge inundated Squeak, so that this Squeak was the cerebral ghost of that clever girl who played impromptu percussion sonatas on the stairs. A strange type of preternatural astuteness emerged from her, as she had gazed into Father Time’s grizzled beard and discovered no human face underneath. The vastness of the hourglass and the fact that the grains cannot descend in quite the same order as before, ever—this madness reflected Jesz’s most complementarily, and both reached, yearned—dare I write it?—spiritually in tandem, even if in opposite directions: from the point of the cone towards its infinite volume, and vice versa. Her acerbic cheer (and any sense of her old demeanor) was utterly diminished, as if she had been exposed during her “lost” interval to complete focuslessness, and in that discreet focuslessness had seen into the discreteness of every spine and every snowflake, the vast arrays of all matter and anti-matter spread before her, beyond the powers of normal human discernment and understanding. Did that ever-coquettish mermaid, Wisdom, get too intimate with Squeak, or with the good captain herself, and were their “eccentricities” of mindset and rhetoric merely due to coming too close to the beginnings of the universe and womanity’s infinitesimal place in it?
That answer is beyond my ken, but, as far as the practicalities of Squeak’s “accident” are concerned, Mahl would soon join her in a similar “lostness,” so do not lay too much of the seventh-lay’s blame on Second Lady Toe.
Chapter 51: A Game of Footsie
With all these rounds descending as quickly and chaotically as the snow outside (and, for Squeak, the billions of words once-encrypted and now-revelated in the stacks), we barely had any time for mark-er-ing. As such, while Captain Jesz and Gullah returned to the concordances and ???, respectively, the rest of us—save Squeak at the “mast,” where she was able to transcend to no end—engaged in an active mark-er-ing sesh at one central table. The five of us surrounded that round table in a circle and, upon Toe’s lead, even Skietiff engaged in the following Zen to achieve a proper mindset for our very visceral task:
First, be it known here that crossing one’s legs and bouncing one’s free lower appendage over the other entrapped lower appendage is common enough—commoner enough, though not so nearly as playing with one’s ends or braiding or such like—but Captain Jesz gave even this free-revelry-in-the-bonds-of-slavery symbolism an added layer, as she was wont with just about everything she ever spoke or performed. For Jesz, with every downswing of that thigh upon thigh, there was the sharp reminder yet again of her body’s and her intellect’s defect, and the continued reign of The Question as czarina of her being and what remained of her life. As such, Jesz’s cross-legged-leg-bouncing was more self-flagellation than meditation, and her free-booter leg’s particular parabola was very characteristic.
So, Toe engaged in just this same motion, somewhat emulating Jesz’s facial expression upon every descent. (Be it here redundantly stated that Jesz was facing away from us, lest the Second Lady would not see herself at quite the same liberty to do this.) Though originally for mockery, it soon picked up among us all, even ever-reticent Skietiff, so that all six of us now were performing one dance, keeping our own time, set by the captain’s ceaseless sounding of the bell tolling for all of us. Nonetheless, though this very motion was the result of the zealot who had bound us all to her mission and sub-missions, it seemed to be the most serene escape from our terrifying oath and its all-the-more terrifying consequence looming on the horizon of the next round, or the round after that, or the round after that.
As we kept this twisted chorus-line-kick going round and round that round table, there was an utter groundlessness to the affair, a way to attain an exclusive concentration on the holy task at hand through the menial repetition of this bodily motion. Someone among us—by that point the symbiosis disabled me from identifying the individual; perhaps it was me—began humming “Get Into the Groove,” again originally in the spirit of satire, but then all of us picked it up in earnest, particularly Madonna’s five-time climactic repetition of “Now I know you’re mine” before bringing it back to the chorus one last time. Fairly soon into this endeavor, though, it wouldn’t matter if it were a chorus of 400 singing the terrifying embrace of disaster, “Beneath the Brine” (the haunting anthem playing now as I type this). The sound, like the motion, was shortly automatic to our group intelligence.
As one felt the next female’s lower leg in the kick, just then one felt the previous female’s lower leg. As one lowered one’s thigh, one felt the table shift slightly as this lowering was almost-perfectly-synchronized with the other four members of the chorus-line. We Rockette-d ourselves into another realm—without malice, without jealousy, without petulance, and therefore a realm for me that I had rarely ever experienced, and have rarely ever experienced since. Let this suffice as explanation: it felt, for all the non-world, that one’s moving leg was more asleep than the one that repeatedly experienced pressure, for the movement merely added to the stupor.
I felt. I felt then such a moving stirring bird inside my ribcage that I swore that Squeak had given all of us both her madness and some West African virus at the same time. I felt close to these females engaged in this footsie-ing, so that one could not tell whether one’s mark-ers were hers or were mark-hers of the she next to one. I felt what family must feel like for those few who have deluded themselves into that contentment. I felt as if I were in some ancient Sapphic cult, and as if this bodily familiarity were merely part of our rites, converting vestal virgins into acolytes of our type. I felt that I could be doing this, just this, for all eternity—that I had been doing this for all eternity, and this lucid, surreal moment was the only moment in my life that I was awake to the domesticated rhythm that freed me from all bonds: intellectual, social, and physical.
Indeed, ever since, I have reflected back on that moment—however many hours or days it lasted—as being my one true moment of joy. A joy mixed with gloom—for one knew that even this was ephemeral—but a joy pure and forever-adolescent, a joy to be found at the first second of the universe and its second-to-last second. Since then, I have lowered my expectations for fulfillment and contentment in any sphere, especially the intellectual, forcing myself to accept domestic situations that are truly mundane, inane, and insane. Moments at a fireplace, at a window, at an all-asleep hour, at a stop-light, these mirages are the closest I have gotten to that oasis in the desert life we all trudge on through. If only we could have mark-er-ed our periodlessness like we mark-er our periods. If there is a heaven, it would be that time played on loop. But all sentences must be served, just as all written sentences must be
* * *
Before we abandon this scene, a note here about our footwear, inextricably related to the above episode.
Jesz’s has already been mentioned, so no further explication is needed here.
For Skietiff, her loafers belied a playfulness one would not expect of her, and perhaps explained why she looked down in the face of Jezebel’s face during their would-be confrontation. I personally did not even notice her shoes until the above episode, but this just goes to show how this important aspect of personal expression is overlooked by even the most astute and discerning of observers.
Though Toe would remove her shoes for digs, as has been previously stated, she would oddly put them back on for mark-er-ing or any other interval of an extended duration back on the “deck.” As the perfect complement to Skietiff’s mismatch, Toe wore polished dress shoes—perhaps something for casual Fridays worn by a CFO. It was indeed very odd to see Toe of all specimens move about in these, and perhaps they were forced upon her by her Units (or stand-in Units), but she somehow felt compelled to adorn them again when in the presence of her maternal-stand-in—though “maternal” would never usually be in the same sentence as “Captain Jezebel.”
For me, I wore tennis shoes.
The Engineer designed her own shoes, somewhat like Frankenstein’s Monster. Apparently, she had hit upon a design that would actually make planned obsolescence obsolete: the shoes would grow with her foot “naturally.” Unlike Toe or indeed anyone else, The Engineer would never remove her shoes, so none of us properly understood this mechanism, but the rumor was that she had designed them at the age of three and that this selfsame pair was the selfsame pair. She walked with a mechanical precision, so that one wondered if she possessed human feet at all.
Squeak wore parochial shoes, black with a high polish. They did not ever squeak, but perhaps this is where her name came from. Regardless, she was beyond the land of names at this point, so we will give her short shrift, as always.
Gullah seemed never to have possessed shoes in her life, and her feet were indeed specimens to be feared, both for the dryness of her toe-skin as well as for the undoubted nostril-occluding olfactory offensive via proximate contact of her foot with one’s face. But, as this never happened with any of us, as we never got close enough to her for this, that conclusion is made by oracular surmise alone. Regardless, Gullah betrayed bipedalism altogether when on a dig, instead becoming Lady Jane of that particular jungle’s vines. (As we kicked away, we could hear her distantly jumping from stack to stack—be it here also noted that Gullah had no mark-er book whatsoever, this unorthodox practice confirming for some her nefarious anti-FLEET purposes.)
Peg wore shoes. Her exact footwear I do not now recall. Perhaps I once did, but I try to blot out most of that type of recollection nowadays, just as one usually does with a middle school best friend.
Chapter 52: Cleaning-Lady
I was resurrected to our purpose and my self when Squeak called for me from the “mast”—not, as I expected, to narrate some supremely-eloquent and obfuscating madness, but to tell me that I was next to take her place, mast-duties traveling downwards from second to eighth—with Gullah being skipped entirely, as she was always on some mast or other, it would seem, for some master or mistress.
In my middle school, one could always tell when the bathrooms were cleaned because the Housekeeping staffwoman would leave her cigarette-saturated scent behind—ironically, smoke became Pavlovianly associated with cleanliness. So, upon rising to the “mast,” when I beheld through the static-sheets of snow a cleaning-lady in the fully-lit building across the way, the first thing to come to my senses after the shock was the smell of smoke. (At first, I thought that it was actual smoke from the friction between all those mark-er books and the gray artist’s erasers we preferred using in the process.)
The smokiness continued, covering me, stinging my eyes and staining my cilia, seemingly clinging to my hair, as I witnessed this member of the college’s housekeeping staff at work during this break period. I was certain that I did not see her—nor anyone—the previous night in that ghost-lit building, which is why the all-lights-on policy seemed odd. Now, even more oddly, the building seemed more empty and ghost-like with her inside of it, dusting and spraying and sweeping.
The loaded weight of this figure and her juxtaposition with us across the snow-filled courtyard fell upon my body as I once again felt that weight of long-distant, never-really-there memory. Here was this figure, cleaning for no one, returning to the same building out of routine and the bemusing, amusing devotion to Routine that qualifies as most all of living. Were we not engaged in the same process, dusting these stacks that no one would frequent? Perhaps she was the more wise of us, for at least someone would be coming back to that building in January. Now I know for certain that no “January” would ever arrive for any library. We were giving decaying teeth a good twice-over with our toothbrushes—truth-brushes. As Parent Superior might claim, even then society was becoming more and more concerned with our guttural diet and immunological systems, and less and less cognizant of its factual diet and keeping on guard against intellectual infections such as paranoia, superstition, and irrational reductionism.
These reflections were replaced by reflections and only reflections as the cleaning-lady departed the building, turning off all of the lights at the exact moment that The Engineer’s lighting gizmo malfunctioned, such that not only was the building across bathed in darkness, but our own section of the library was covered in that same absence at that same instant. I could see the silhouette of what I was supposed to be looking at the whole time—the copier and the offices far below—but now I could also see, in the red bath of the EXIT signs, a vision of ghastly doom.
I am sure that such baths—be they white, blue, green, or red—are part of all babies’ routines nowadays, what with the ubiquity of digital devices casting this horrible glow and these demoniac shadows over their young faces. But, back then, this sight—particularly at such a time and place—took on a terrible weight. There they were: the lot of them, lost in their mark-ers, laughing every now and then, and at their work with such villainous intensity. The human laugh, when not in on “the joke,” is a truly disgusting display: the canines in particular flashing with evil brilliance and a glimmer of the primordial bestiality of the species. But, oh, how much more nauseating to look at it through the glimmer of blizzard wind, sleet, and snow, all covered in a placenta hue, all through a shimmering translucence! These females at work—and the unseen one clambering through the collections without sleep or pause—were the most apt manifestations of our captain’s thoughts: all bent over, slouching over their own gizzards and intestines with a gluttony of the mind, devouring the carcasses of knowledge to the very bones, and all surrounded by gloom and the pallor of plasmatic flame that always consumes itself. Seeing their pagan dance there, and catching fleeting glances at the captain’s own movement in the far distance of the reflection, convinced me that we were undoubtedly all mad, every last one of us, the maddest of all she who stared at this reflection inside the reflection—she who stared from the “mast” into her mastery-less submission to forces more malevolent and primeval than her own caged-mind’s dire desperation and futile fury.
I had consumed my consciousness even in these thoughts, for I must have fallen asleep; though I have no recollection of drifting off, from the haze of that horrid awful reflection the stacks themselves emerged behind me. I tried to grab on, but my position gave away the fact that I must have, unconsciously, spun myself around in some somnambulistic state to escape that dreadful terror, that view into the shambled rambling hopelessnesses of the internal voids. I nearly fell off the shelf. (By this point, due to the insubstantial diet, I was able to squeeze myself on top of the stacks, like Squeak, for a stack-out. The real clue for me that I was facing the wrong way was that my characteristic crimson necktie had been flung over my shoulder rather than hanging down above the chasm crevasse besides the window [which would normally cause it to oscillate hypnotically immediately below me].) At the last second before disaster, I recovered in time to turn myself right way around.
Do not stare into those screens too long, my young ones, lest you see that gloomy pallor cast over every sight in front of you. The EXIT sign shines, but it is an illusion, and life greets you most foully after you stare into the scarlet visions of an infernal afterlife during life. I waited for the sun, but in vain—dawn was then so far away and, now, I know it is impossible for that dawn to dawn again. But do not cast your child, your own self, into the flames of that Moloch of modernity. The redness inundates and engulfs, combines with the faint whiteness of the snowfalls of this world, and becomes nothing but a consumerist PINK-eye. Real females avoid it.
As much as she may, though, any female who has lived in her femininity authentically lives through it direly and pays for it as dearly as any specimen of humanity—she cannot look through the world with Rosie-the-Riveter-colored glasses for long, else she is very young or very foolish. In any event, that she is false, as false as a YA novel, and not fit for a FLEETer. Nonetheless, facing up to this female condition as merely a subset of the miserable human condition, let not the aforementioned flicker descend upon your intellectual drive as it descended upon mine for a time: that drive is the key—the keys—to driving away, not because one will find The Fact, The Answer, but because one will have the faculty to endure life, if not enjoy it now and then (if only for satire’s sake). There is a certain sagacity in such disillusionment gained from a remove, but there is a disillusionment which removes one from illusion by creating another: that of an end to wisdom’s seeking, a contentment which will never be reckoned. One might be able, however, inside the formerly-mentioned properly-disillusioned stoicism, to view life from the height and see the EXIT sign as the dastardly neglected promise that it is, no matter how attractively darkly it glows in the midst of whitenesses and the midst of blacknesses and the feinting spells so common to the knights of the universe.
As for that cleaning-lady, I would not be in a position to discover if her appearance was an anomaly, or if her absence the previous night was—as shall be revealed in due course. Yet I would not doubt that she continues there to this day, dusting an empty room, even as the building in which she worked was demolished—unquestioningly—by the entropy of all hours.
Chapter 53: The Madison
It should be here noted, before the following episode is recounted, that Captain Jesz was nowhere near idle—even at “her” carrel, she could rarely focus on the concordances for five minutes at a time before once again she resumed to pace from balcony to window, from stacks to snow, from categorization to chaos. She would pause at every interval, alternately on the edge of the balcony or at the large panes, matching with her own alternately on-edge and inordinately-pained demeanor. During these pauses, none of us would dare to gaze, awe-filled, at the awfully intense awful face, so that Captain Jezebel herself, like The Question, could be said to always give us her back, but that back was enough to compel misery and adoration simultaneously.
It should also be noted here that during all of the preceding rounds, that rarest of Madison $5,000 bills—the most money even the most patrician of us Patricias had ever seen confined to one easily-stealable note—still was tacked to the carrel, the same set of carrels from which Captain Jesz sleeplessly dedicated her tracking of the Mocha-Rich. Like Captain Jesz, the Madison became taboo in association with The Question Herself, and none of us—even if she were not bound by the FLEETing Code—would dare touch it until the Mocha-Rich were spotted, and vanquished. It was a mocking reminder of the ultimate task yet to be tasked, of the vow that had bound all of us to our captain’s madness, and of the greater reward than money could buy in obtaining The Answer.
But, as the bill was tacked up with the rear face facing outward, and Mr. Madison, therefore, genteelly kissing the bookshelf behind him, this caused an even-more-significant pause when Captain Jesz switched her relentless tack and stopped there, shortly after dawn had awarded us a whitewashed blotted-out panorama of the blizzard still vengefully pouring out the just-frozen hoarfrost by the whale-fuls. All of us turned to look at the captain, as she stopped for something approaching ten minutes, staring at the rear face of the bill, which pictured, in the fervent nationalism of the post-Civil War generation, a pugnacious eagle on an American shield on a rock, beak and talon-clasped arrows pointed directly at the viewer while the sun emerges (or descends?) behind her; on one side is the expansive sea with a lone ship and, on the other, the expansive American forest with the Capitol Building in the background. This odd depiction took on significance for each member of the FLEET in turn, especially at that point when significance seemed about to bash our skulls in at every turn. Nothing in the world contains this significance, not even the great extent of the universe itself, of course, and every event and phenomenon is as humanely normal—that is, as inhumanely tragic—as any other, but this only goes to show our state and how we were drawn off a symbolic cliff by that black-smoke-pouring locomotive at our front, moving along the one set of rails that would take her and us to the end of the line, whatever it would be.
Skietiff soon approached the captain, out of concern for this caesura to the punctuated pacing that became something of a clock to us after a while. What she said, and the others who followed in turn, I was able to decipher through my superb lip-reading ability.
But, just as Skietiff was about to profanely touch the good captain’s shoulder, I could see Jesz’s lips move and, still not sensing the first lady behind her, she began to address the eagless:
“There you are, you harpy, keeping your olive branch almost hidden behind you. That’s the way, Jezebel, for this eagle is yourself. The forest is Jesz; the sea is Jesz; the sun is Jesz. All of nature and all of civilization is merely a mirror, smogged up beyond recognition as a mirror, so that all see a window and wish to clean off the smudges, wiping away their entities with the turpentine of the soul. From tempestuous sea to savage forest, eagless, no ship of the sails to the right of you nor ship or the state to the left of you can save you, and the scales of justice you wield are as choice of weapons as those darts you fatally grip in your foot. There is no escape from pain: from pane to pain to pang to mang-led limb to spangled hymn to strangled sin to tangled pin tacking your attacks to the backs of the stacks. Give ‘em all that furious sunshine, eagless, and your woe will go with a glow of strife before you give your life, tacking yourself to that pitiless shield that burns so in the District of Columbia’s republican summer’s heat. So be it with you, Jesz my girl.”
“Gullah herself must have imprinted this bill to wield such a spell over that once-rational female,” said Skietiff next, who walked up to the bill after Jezebel paced away to her concordances for another two-minute tour. I transcribe yet again, due to my impeccable lip-reading and more impeccable memory: “I must admit, I never took a look at the back of this. Might as well—see what all the fuss is about. Nice sunshine coming out from behind that bird-of-prey—I suspect its designers must have meant this Madison to show a bird-of-fervent-pray-er rather, given its provenance. Does the sun rise or does it set? No matter—there it goes, between the sound of human voices and the drowning fury of the waves. See where you look—where we look—during another night like last night, though, Auntie Sam. Better to be an owl than an eagle any night. I fear all the night owls have fled, though, this day. Back to your post, Princess Post.”
“Young Swirl, and now the May-WASP to boot, har, har,” whispered Toe to herself, who had been hiding in the stacks, witnessing both of these soliloquies. I witnessed her, of course, and so once again let me herein set down every word: “They’ve both got faces as long as oversized volumes, naturally shelved to the bottom, closer to us short-n-tubby-sized gals, snortle-shorts. And all because of a piece of United States currency, assuredly one of the most pedestrianly-marked specimens of the notaphilistical arts. I’ve seen so many curious creatures of this sort, like the good ol’ P-105, back in the Old World—hopefully none of that Euro business will come to pass gas—but this one’s new to me. Let me just get out my travel-sized International Bank Note Society guidebook. Let’s see, let’s see—here we are, we’ve got it, snigger pig. How did Captain Jezebel get a hold of it? Maybe that Gullah had something to do with it; I’m sure that’s all her society of devils pays withal, matching their more-esoteric-is-more ethos, laughy-gaff, scaring away all of us Skraelings with their midriff-exposing, pregnant-Viking-woman-in-Vinland-striking-their-bare-mammaries tactics, some Freydis Erik’s-Daughters they is. Shouldn’t whisper too loudly about that one, though—she might abduct me for anti-FLEET experiments and cleanse my memory while she’s at it. Let’s see, back to the bill: the lineage is straightforward enough, but the pictorials, that’s not my specialty, gar, gar. I’ve heard this symbolizin’ is all the rage—I’ve even caught that dis-Mahl-content doing it when she thinks no one’s watchin’—so let’s see what wise, wise Toe can make of it… Look at that: some sort of thistle growing out of the boulder, showing how Ma Nature reclaims even the most unnatural of rhetoric and philosophy with her cold ajust reasonings. Oh no, here comes that hysterical Squeaky-clean one, squeak’d clean of any logicianista’s sense; I’d like to hear her take on’t, but best get out of here before she drives me insane with guilt.”
“$5,000. Could get a lot of wire for that back home.” This was not spoken by Squeak, for The Engineer was the next to pass by, as luck would have it in her most gregarious of moods, hence her lips moving at all. But next, as Toe predicted, Squeak jumped up on the carrel and closely scrutinized the bill and the tack with all her starry-eyed fawning of late. Twisting her head to read the fine print running along the side, I could see her lips pronounce: “‘…any false or counterfeit plate or impression of it, or any paper made in imitation of it…’ Look here, women, for this is the sign of your times: timing your significance through starker mark-ers, you sharkers, you feed upon yourselves and eat your own puzzlements again and again, and ye wonder why you go about unsatiated? Fill your bellies with whale-meat, and you make your red matter grayer. And what is Squeak in your fish-tank? She is but the lone diver, whose bubbles kept you lively but now remind you that the surface is forever above your heads, you head-abover-lovers. Who keeps me down, who cuts my line? Why, the five-foot-fish herself, ruled over by Queen Catfish. Let us read the punishment for your type here on the back of Little Jimmy’s mark: ‘…Fifteen Years Imprisonment at Hard Labor…’ My, oh your, oh ours, but only fifteen years? Most of these FLEETers imprison themselves with harder labors than any teenage mother delivered, and that for a FLEET of a lot longer than 15 years! Oh well, no matter—I foresee that the next person to read this will be she who attacks this tack in 15,000 years, when, like my mother once around Hartford, found a Neanderthal cave. ‘What could this have been? What was this building all about? And why this outdated currency in a never-current hellhole that makes dead souls alive with intellectual cannibalism?’ To which I croon: ‘You’ll never know the torch I bear; you’ll never know it, for I won’t show it; Oh, no, you’ll never, never know!’”
That was all I read from her—she then turned her back to me as she clambered up the stacks, perhaps to join Gullah and later (not perhaps) to join the captain. More-and-more taciturn these hours, my Peg inspected the bill next, after seeing all the hubbub, but her thoughts were completely internalized. Nonetheless, as she looked closely, she lifted her shirt a little to investigate a chapter-verse inked some time ago. She smiled at this inside joke that would forever remain inside her head. If only all inside punch-lines could do the same.
Chapter 54: Pequods FLEET, of the United States, Parlays with That of Band-Widths Orthodontia, Ltd., the Finest Specialists in Orthodontic Spacers That the United Kingdom Doth Possess
“FLEETers there! Have you encountered the faint Mocha?” called out Captain Jezebel during our next parlay—we could see by some of the insignias upon their clothing (among which was an anomalous devotion to the Spice Girls, normally shunned as priestesses of PopCult and too current to be retro) that these were Englishwomen.
A historical side-note here: England’s FLEETs may actually have predated America’s, and some speculate that they grew out of the V-for-Victory-waving Zeitgeist as a way for democracy’s dames to emerge on top of fascist frauleins. Regardless, they were much more uncommonly sighted over on this side of the intellectual pond, particularly after the end of the Thatcher Era. It was rumored that Band-Widths Orthodontia, Ltd., had a pedigree of sorts as the oldest, most prestigious practice, serving some members of the royal family and the most determined of Hollywood-bound BAFTA candidates. Thusly, as Band-Widths had its own shadowy backstory, this company was seen as among the first—if not the first—FLEET sponsors of the war years, and therefore all FLEETing years. During my own Oxford days, I actually served with distinction for a time aboard this selfsame FLEET, and hold it as among the most convivial (by which I mean laconic) milieu I have been embedded in—these females were ship-shape, and I drank the most potent Energy of my life among them. Indeed, in all my exhaustive FLEETing research in which I dug to produce this treatise, I have found nothing other than testimonies to the Englishwoman’s FLEETs as being among the most hail-lady-well-met of all of us.
At this point, as the greenie I was, I looked on with something approaching curiosity at this exotic sub-species in the midst of our “socialization” ritual. The captain of the FLEET—who of course had long moved on by the time I served with Band-Widths, Ltd.—was a fine specimen: slouchy, pale, and brooding, but with a sense of Toe about the corners of her mouth. This Toe-ish ingrown smirk grew, somehow, at Captain Jesz’s mentioning of the Mocha-Rich. Impatient for response, to know whether this would be a parlay or no to discuss her lone obstacle, prize, and mission in one, Jezebel repeated:
“Have you encountered the faint Mocha?”
“Shake my hand, and see whether I have,” said the Englishwoman, as she revealed her bandaged hand.
“Come, Pequods FLEET, a parlay it is!” exclaimed Captain Jesz as she attempted to rush down the staircase to meet this British FLEET below, tripping over her heel in the process. Upon the command from the Englishwoman, “Help the lass up now, there,” the English females actually ended up carrying Jesz to her feet; she grimaced at this reminder—like everything else in the galaxy—of her deficiency and the root cause of it. Captain Jezebel remained bolted to the floor there at the bottom of the stairs, and worked her leg some to lift her heel up to touch the captain’s bandaged hand with it. Both captains laughed at this, though the Englishwoman’s twittering English-horn-lilt sang far above Jezebel’s deadening, resonating alto bassoon.
“That question will cost you an arm and a leg, eh?” scoffed the English captain, at which Captain Jesz continued her interrogation with all the dexterity of a detective on any iteration of the Law & Order TV series: “When did She give you that? How long ago?”
This interchange was rather awkward, as none of us Pequods FLEETers would surge past Captain Jezebel so there she remained, blocking all traditional parlay structure while continuing this seemingly-informal breach of conduct—in reality, I am sure that she sought to extricate her desired information in the most FLEET-like manner, avoiding all social interchange (save the modicum) so that she could get her heel one half-step closer to the Mocha-Rich’s metaphorical throat.
“Let’s see, must have been just this time last year,” recalled the English captain. “My first year as captain at that, and, girl, let me—”
“She stabbed you there, between the tendons, did She?”
“Hold on now, lass, that’s a wee bit tender and impertinent. Don’t bite your arm off in the asking,” joked the Englishwoman, with many of her colleagues sharing her mirth, and us sharing our captain’s impatient intensity. “I suppose she also gave you that heel of yours, did she?”
“Tell me your story, glory-less though it be,” cut off Jezebel, wishing this to be a one-way street.
“All right, if that’s the American way of parlay. I was ignorant of such a faint-fonted monster, but it was a Lightning Round, and you dig one after the other then, but there on the next sheet, there she was, the old riddle, in all her horror—”
“I know Her, I know Her well,” spoke Captain Jezebel in the most greedily-painful way possible.
“So, what could you do, in such a case, mum? Why, you resolve to yourself that she will be yours, no matter how deep a dig she heaps upon you. Soon I was joined by my first lady, Scourfont—Captain, this is First Lady Scourfont, still with me on this FLEET—Scourfont, make your acquaintance with the Captain—and soon enough—I think I’ve got it—I’ve finally got her—but, no, it was all a feint from that faint one; the sun must have been in my eyes; I was blindsided by the contours of the question, the way she wraps her tail around you and bats you crazy with those pretty eyelashes, all to conceal the basilisk glare staring you in the facelessness all the while. A whale of a question, mum. So, I stabbed out with all my rigid significance upon this bubbly, all-too-feeling, all-too-improvised world—eh, my Captain?—in short, I stabbed right at her—right through my own right hand—clean through. After that, some shock must have set in, but Scourfont here can give you the next bit.”
With a slight bow of the head, this imposing, regal-bearing-possessed figure, who had erstwhile been giving both captains a very dubious stare, began to expatiate almost solely, it would seem, for the command’s sake (what did I tell you? a great lot, those English FLEETers are): “Yes, then. After the captain here had stabbed herself, she still insisted to persist answering the question, swearing that she ‘almost had got ‘er,’ as she phrased it at the time. I took her something by force away from those stacks, and enforced a strict Energy regimen for her to regain something of her stamina—”
“Oh yes, enforced it on herself too, Captain! Scourfont, you tease! This Scourfont is something of an Energy fiend, and don’t we all know it, girls?” A laugh at this, at which Captain Jezebel expressed her annoyance mixed with disdain with a lone upward exhale, which brushed her loose hairs upwards.
“You must have sensed before this, Captain,” continued this sober and sobering Scourfont, “that our beloved captain has something of the gallows’ humor, even about her own disability. Well, in all due course, when she was engaged in the next round, we removed the pencil from her hand with nary a sound and with only a slight crinkling of the nose to belie even the slightest irritation. The blood was something awful, but we blotted it out with our artists’ erasers.”
“I’m sure I’ve got some of those bits still in here,” joked the English captain, waving her bandage. “But, go on, you scalawag.”
“I shall gladly do so, mum,” spoke Scourfont, with a testy and perturbed air. “I’ll have you know, Captain, that for all her seeming joviality, our captain is as harsh a mistress as any FLEETer can expect: look here at my head.”
“Put that away now, Scourfont,” said the Englishwoman. “No one wants to see your birthmark.”
“Birthmark? Scar, more like it, and that you well know, being as you are the cause of its existence.”
“I hope, Scourfont, that you Dolly yourself so that future generations of FLEETers may greet your roguish ways, you—”
“What of the faint question! What became of Her?” screeched out Captain Jezebel.
“Oh,” said the English captain, after a significant pause. “Didn’t hear of her for some time—maybe the Easter holiday FLEET, we heard some report of the Mocha-Rich—for by then we had found out something about her.”
“Did you ever quest for Her, after?
“Quest for her? I heard of her twice since, in FLEETs that I served as captain, and even may have had her for the asking or the fating, if I juried the rigging right, but I’d never quest for her if I could help it. My godlessness, mum, ain’t one stabbing enough? Ain’t one bandage enough, or one heel? I had to get good use out of my ambidextrousness, but I can’t write with my toes, lass! There would be high honor and FLEETing glory—maybe even non-FLEETing glory—for answering such a question, surely, but it’s best to give her a wide wake, don’t you think, Captain? You make it seem as if the Mocha-Rich is seeking us out instead of the other way ‘round.”
“If I may here interject, Captain,” meekly responded this Scourfont to our captain’s face, though her gaze could not stay long on it. “A question, even one of such a bulk and force as the Mocha-Rich, has not the design capable of malice, even if she is mighty awkward and intangible to hold. That is not design of the designers, but of the erudite epistemologies of which—”
“Get out of my way, you e-pisser!” cried out Jezebel at Scourfont, who cowered down. This was an odd command from Jesz, for Scourfont was not in anyone’s literal way—it was Jesz in the way—but this seemed metaphorically-intended, or merely an impulsive statement inspired by her bile. “Captain, ‘tis best to give Her a wide wake, but that’s just why I won’t give Her wake; no, nor myself will give wake, but stay awake until Her wake, if need be. She’s a magnet, drawing and repulsing me at the same time,” uttered Captain Jezebel (finding the perfect formulation for her own gleaming, disgusting magnetism).
“Where did you dig for Her, Captain?” I heard Jesz whisper close to her English counterpart’s ear. I could not discern the response—particularly as Jezebel blocked the Englishwoman’s lips—but it satisfied Captain Jesz, and she issued a command to Skietiff: “We descend ourselves within the hour.”
With this, Captain Jezebel ironically ascended, full of iron to escape this jollity. She struggled to make her way up with all her gravity and dignity intact, and I could see the whiteness of her knuckles as she held on against all odds to that ultra-thin railing, her nails digging into the long-before-established grooves in her own palms. The English FLEET would have burst out in laughter, if not for our good captain’s ever-frightening pitiableness. But Jesz could not escape one last jibe from the English captain: “By all that’s rational, girls, who needs a microwave in this facility? Merely put your food inside her brain and see that Mama Bird regurgitate pure fire from her mouth! Captain… Captain, come back for a good parlay, now.”
Even with this, Captain Jezebel would give nothing to them—nor us—but her back, so we were bound to follow her up, just as were bound to follow her down soon enough.
The English captain hailed us one last time: “I’ve heard of Americans, but she bakes the cake with her imp’s-pulse.” And then she asked us—though I could swear she directed her question at me alone—“Is your captain gone barmy?”
I might have responded, but Gullah ushered me up with a finger to her lips while looking mischievously at the Band-Widths, Ltd., FLEET, signaling either an end to questions or an end to answers—or both.
Chapter 55: A Mimeograph in Hull, and Inspired Reflections Thereupon
Mentioning repeatedly in these various par-lays both the ancientness and the supposed-girth of the Mocha-Rich—in addition to Her most distinguishing physical characteristic, that of faintness, and Her apparently-metaphysical malice—I find it high time to allude to some personal researches of mine, with dearly significant cost to my FLEETing time and my FLEETing temperament, to get to the heart of the questions, directly from the source: the question-maker herself.
“What, Mahl, are you telling me that you communed directly with that mighty tribe and lived to tell the tale?” I can hear you ask. “How can you with all due sincerity tell us that you, a mere FLEETer, have gained insight into this most exclusive of echelons and also now have the license to publish your findings?”
I confess to you that I never once gained access into the Holy of Holies, nor got past the numerous Sphinxes guarding the storehouses of question-maker knowledge and practice. These remain shadowy to us all. But, I have just now alluded to my time in England, and also to England’s claim as the very font and origin of the FLEETs themselves. Think you I would waste such an opportunity, with my special scrutinizing of all things concerning the FLEETs? I once took apart a derelict copy-machine, reputed to be used by the question-makers, with a crowbar, in the hopes of somehow sending a signal back to them and determining from whence these questions originated.
All in vain, as I stated before—the only true way to know a question is to see it in the FLEETing moment, in the life, encountering it in all its glory as it breaches out of the depths into your depths. Only in this most stressful, mind-bending and -stretching time, as the round rounds the bend and gives you the bends, could you possibly claim to know a question (i.e., know a question and not just a route to an answer), but how could one possibly be objective in the heat of the dig?
Nonetheless, I found once, during a hitch up to Hull, a resident of what we stateside call politely an “old folks’ home” who had possession of a mimeograph from among the very first of the FLEETs—a question issued from this gaunt female, one of the original question-makers—or so she claimed. Her own tale was soaked with superstition and shipwrecked on the shores of rational discourse, so I fain publish it here as something-approaching-truth.
But, the mimeographed relic of a question, this was no doubt an object of vertú, and its provenance could not be doubted, no matter how it got to this rather dubious figure. I well remember the scene: after what seemed like days of seeking and searching, I had come across, detective-like, the character witness, and feigned interest as she rambled her way through the decades until, at long last, I had gained some confidence, and she opened the drawer. That drawer, so pedestrian, so mundane, wood grained with no greater mystery than the ghost-mouths and -eyes that appear in such wood for younglings—but, oh, what a treasure did it contain! How many treasures lie in such bureaus, such cabinetry, such unlocked Fort Knoxes. Secretary of the world, if only you would share your system of organization with us mortals—but, no, secretary, your task is so endless that in all your shuffling of papers and of files—especially now in the digital realms—you cannot cease to respond to our queries. You hum while you work, and ignore all us queriers and couriers and courtiers of Queen Intellect. Only when we ourselves are filed, perhaps, will we be able to find what we seek, will we be able to identify your half-hummed notes and make a melody. All our thoughts might be in one key, but to us, with our own humming reverberating through our crania, how can we hope to tune? So it is—so the carpenter of our minds and the walrus of our lives dictate, until we are categorized every last one.
I immediately reached out for the mimeograph, and it was only then that I heard and saw the roommate: an even more ancient figure, claiming to be a Founding Mother herself. When I asserted (rightly—at least, by that point) that I only wanted to measure the question for the purpose of my longitudinal study on question size over the ages, this supposed-Mother objected most vocally, and claimed that the mimeograph was so faded that only she knew the proper length, and it were best to interview her and not this impostor to whom I had thus far been listening. Then the other dame went on about how she knew the true length, and that the interrupter was in fact the real impostor. I let them continue, as I sneaked a look at the mimeograph, and marked on my wrist the characters that I counted. I would have gone into more detail, but I was saving my palm and the back of my hand for other pieces of knowledge that I had yet to codify in this Peg-ian form.
By my study, that question contained some 287 words. As for the rest of the finer points, I’ll leave that for the old wives’ tale—which is what all of that species of shadier truths becomes, anyway. I myself grow pale when I recount this subject, that of questions and their delicacy combined with their Amazonian strength and size. I have beside me right now, cracked open at the spine and (thus handicapped) serving my turn most obediently, a volume of such girth and might that it might contend with the volume of the questions we now discuss, and The Question yet to appear. Though modern poets have tried, no one can write a tract of this depth and substance on a single character or a declaration. No, if one is to tackle the subject of the question, even in prosaic prose, then one must be either foolish or arrogant.
So, if you would proceed with the conclusion of this FLEET, then you must suspend your disbelief in regards to the serpentine nature of this of our prey: something less than 300 words back then, many years ago; during our time, we saw questions approaching 400 words, with syntax taxing the brain as much as the subject matter itself. (These my own sentences appear to be from a grammar-book in comparison.) The Mocha-Rich’s size was the subject of much debate—especially since She had never been successfully answered and scored—but do you still wonder that we estimated Her to be closer to 500 words, tightly packed on one page, growing frustratingly fainter and fainter and more and more dizzyingly complex?
That mimeograph in Hull had much the same appearance, due to its decay: it might as well have been Braille. Perhaps one needs to abandon the most superficial of senses, sight, in order to see into the heart of the question. Perhaps that is the only way to approach it, truly: without reading, but with sensing in ways beyond current human intellectual prowess. These questions live on, long after we think we have successfully answered them. Why else would that punk Einstein, rather characteristically given his tribe, frustrate us so with something as simple as “What is motion?”? The questions seem to be resurrected, incapable of ultimate answering, and it is the question-answerers (and, yes, as my Hull ladies evince, even the question-makers) who die out.
Long after the human species is gone from this planet, there might arrive an intelligence cunning enough to see a relic of a question for what it is and answer it satisfyingly, completely, eternally. Until then, questions stab and sting us with their scorpion-tails, and their poison becomes a liquor more powerful—and more destructive—than any other created by humanity. Questions raise buildings, and then will raze them, and, finally, they will erase them. They will then ask the clouds hovering above the desolate plains, they will ask the thriving and dying stars, they will ask the ends of the universe at its end, mocking any attempts of a meaning-filled existence for a creature and a species and a planet so reproachfully finite. No wonder boys invented God as the ultimate cheat-code.
Chapter 56: The Engineer
As many a poet has remarked, if one were to observe all of womankind from some distance of time and space, then it would seem much more a massless, intellect-devoid pack of breasted beasts. But if the poet observes the individual woman, she may be seen to be sui generis, a stunning exemplar and a paragon worthy of beautiful metaphor and most-thorough observation, noting her every shortcoming and every virtue.
In this poetic vein, therefore, let us examine The Engineer, for it is a vein which I am sure she never once did possess in all her circulatory systems and schemata. She has not been given a thorough backstory yet, mostly because she did not need one: her interaction with any of us was so limited and so efficiently practical in nature. But now, as Captain Jezebel, in her frantic desperation and her striving for her ultimate answer, sought The Engineer out and had the most dichotomous of colloquies with her, something of a character description must be given to this nondescriptest of characterlessnesses serving on Pequods FLEET.
The readiness—but never eagerness—of The Engineer to serve any member of the FLEET in the smallest of repair jobs was remarkable. Sometimes she could be working on three or four repairs at a time—this one needs her mark-er book re-bound, that one needs her implement re-re-sharpened and afforded with a better grip, and a third one needs some minor cobbler’s work, for she senses the traction is worn down after so many digs. She took on any task with the utmost adequacy and we all were confident that she would do it and do it thorough-well. But just this readiness was a source of consternation: her stolidity and absolute disinterested uninterestedness in every procedure meant that no job stood out, no job caused her frustration, pleasure, or even a second thought beyond her harnessing her most-supreme motor control, finesse, and dexterity. Yet for all this utter willed ignorance to any personal attachment underneath her permanent attachment to objects, she possessed something that may be called wit, particularly if one uses Polonius’ definition. No facial expression, no variance of tone, no shifting of body language, yet at times a certain sardonic juxtaposition of words could be discerned, but only if one were to scrawl the words on a piece of paper and analyze them as a bit of dialogue from a play.
It may seem odd that such an obsessive fixation about the mechanical should be mixed with such an abstracted set as ourselves; however, simply because we were so ethereal in our concerns, we needed someone of The Engineer’s type to balance us out and ensure that we would not disintegrate into airy nothingness but that we were, in some small degree, looking after the tools of our trade and our own bodies. The Engineer, though the least intellectual of us, was certainly the most intelligent, if intelligence be measured by practical application of knowledge. Yet, I hesitate to use the word “knowledge”—it seemed simply as if her brain extrapolated onto her digits, and she operated as if she were all of an automaton’s multiple robotic arms at once, demonstrating a resourcefulness and flexibility that few could match. The fact that she often possessed a different implement in each “finger-crook,” and perhaps another two or three between forefinger and thumb, made her something of a human Swiss Army knife.
Yet, as stated above, there was something there, somewhere under the mechanical gears of her capabilities, something that she was not even conscious of, but which preserved her life. For, as shall be seen two chapters hence, her life before the FLEETs was in sore need of preservation—as whose among us was not?
Chapter 57: The Heel and the Mechanic-All Pencil
The demeanor of Captain Jezebel as she tactlessly extricated herself from the Band-Widths jollity has already been implied, but this rage could not boil long until it took its toll on her person. And, indeed, as soon as we had all climbed the spiral staircase, we observed the accident, which some of us in the rear of the FLEET on the stairs had heard in the form of a loud, splintering crack: the blood-red heel of Captain Jesz was snapped near-clean off, hanging merely by the fabric of the shoe, dangling free like a sensitive part of Myrtle Wilson after Daisy Buchanan rammed her dead.
Captain Jesz’s “heel hop” was not to be heard as she made her way back to her carrel—this lack-of-limp, after all these years, caused her to limp and veer off-balance, crashing on the floor. Peg and Skietiff carried her to her carrel, and her face demonstrated her moldering woe mixed with wounded-animal’s-vehemence. This, like all else that had ever maligned our good captain since she had come-of-age all at once with her encounter with The Question, was a reminder that Madame Misery is no miser and, once she lets herself in, she is a houseguest who will not leave. How wondrous it is that sorrow so outweighs joy: since the beginnings of the universe, pain shoots out from the center and infects us all, no matter how secure we think our black holes of serenity may be. The only hope is to lash out against the pain, become one with it, seduce it to do one’s bidding, and go out fighting to the last.
A truth has here been hinted at, which perhaps should have had its place earlier: the fact that, without her heel, Captain Jesz—in not feeling her pain—was disabled, if not incapacitated. This, supposedly, is exactly what had transpired before her FLEETing out with us: due to her incessant pacing in preparation for this ultimate encounter with her raison d’etre, she had broken the heel clean off, and was “convalescing”—some said, at her “boy-friend’s” place, as her familiar home was no place for such treatment, due to that clan’s infectious pride—until a new heel could be ordered and delivered. Those close to Jezebel—the few, if any, there were—kept this a secret but, still, teenage gossip, like supposed-divinity, discovers all.
At this point, though, there was no hope of purchasing and receiving another new heel—just when Captain Jezebel expected to need it most. Of course, this was the evil of the Mocha-Rich, in preventing her from wreaking her vengeance, using as Her media the foolish geniality of some Englishwomen to effect this crushing, stabilizing blow. So, without any other recourse, Captain Jesz called in The Engineer. Their conversation I once again present in slightly-embellished screenplay form, for I sense my narrative voice would interject too much impartial commentary, and their mere juxtaposition speaks enough by itself:
MEDIUM SHOT: JESZ in her carrel, with her now-non-heeled shoe propped up on a chair. ENG approaches her, and investigates the patient-shoe patiently, and then proceeds with the cobbling, delicately.
JESZ: Will you make a whole woman of me again, Miss… “The Engineer” they call you, don’t they?
ENG: As good a temporary name as any of ours, Captain Jesz.
JESZ: Can you make me whole, Engineer?
ENG: No. But I can make you smart again.
JESZ: You’re too honest, more than you know. Make me smart, make this wound smart in me, Eng. That’s the way. Let me feel those pliers grip.
ENG: What, you can’t feel through this heel?
JESZ: Let my hand grip in that vise, for vice has me in its grip. Ah yes, that’s a good hold, a good tenure there I have. Holding on like a bear-trap. A care-trap. I like to feel something that can grapple with me in this hook-less world. Can you make my heart into a second brain, Eng?
ENG: That meaning’s lost on me, Captain.
JESZ: They tell me you’re a multiple-tasker, one of those new women. Is that so?
ENG: Right now, in addition to this, I’m repairing Peg’s—
JESZ (removing mechanical pencil): Then add on another task, taskilisk. Here’s my implement. Smooth out those teeth marks at the end, will you? And those nail marks all along the rubber grip.
ENG (inspecting casually): Now there’s something. Let me guess: that’s for the faint question, for the Mocha-Rich?
JESZ: Well-surmised, Eng. Just like most else of import in this foibled fable, this is for Her.
ENG: Wouldn’t you like a new grip, though? This one’s sore-mangled.
JESZ: No! I’ll grip this grip until I grip Her through the gray matter. (slapping forehead) Can you smooth out this grip, Engineer?
ENG: No, Captain. I’m not an anatomist, nor a Thomist.
JESZ: Ha! Not such a dunce as you mechanick-gals claim to be. Well, since you can’t smooth out this grip, and this is the grip that the Mocha-Rich has made—and this just the outward one. It seeps, it heaps, it creeps through my skull, wrinkling my brain into twisted knots, so, rather than gripping me from without, these outward signs show how furious-tight She grips me from within. I still feel Her within my thigh, within my mind, and will have it so until I know Her vanquished.
ENG: Is that some sort of posing riddle, Captain?
JESZ: Oh, it is. She’s inside, in my… my soul! Yes!
ENG: Well, none of my affair, then. Back to business.
JESZ: Listen to you, now, that toneless tone. I sense you’ve got some hidden woe in you, Eng, but it makes you stoic instead of makes you an epicure of pain. I don’t take to that at all.
ENG: Is not that what they call us, Captain? Woe-men?
JESZ (taking out a plastic bag with what looks like a rusted piece of lead): Enough with your novice puns—I’d prefer to talk to Squeak. Now that you’ve sealed that grip and are almost finished with my heel, take this lead and fashion it inside that implement.
ENG (examining bag while performing other labors, like Hindu goddess): That’s not rust—looks like dried blood to me.
JESZ: That’s right—I dug it out of my thigh some years back. I drove most of it back in, but kept that bit just for this time.
ENG: Going to need to burn it down some.
JESZ (taking out pocket blow-torch): Leave that to me. You just fit it in the implement.
JESZ fashions the lead into a thin rod while ENG finishes the repairs on the heel. JESZ walks around a bit, back in her “heel-hop” pain and awkwardness, and quite content with it. ENG gives JESZ the mechanical pencil for final inspection.
JESZ: A flaw there, in the smoothing!
ENG: Captain, you insult me.
JESZ: No, you mistake. I want a flaw there, right where my middle-finger cuticle digs down. For the discomfort. For the pain. For the reminder.
ENG: Ah. Let me use my knife.
JESZ: Watch out—don’t scar me with that, Eng. I’ve not been waiting all this time only to be scarred and scared-sacred again.
ENG: No fear of that, Captain. I’ll leave that to you.
JESZ: Ha! Now, one more element’s missing here for this mechanical pencil—to make it the trifecta, the trinity, it needs another flaw besides the grip and besides the lead. (calling to PEG) Miss _____peg______________? Come over here, for a moment, if you please. And bring your idol.
PEG (delivering Joy, O. without hesitation): At your service, Captain, my captain.
JESZ: Time to christen—I mean, atheisten—this implement. We’ve come a long way together, Peg, and I sense a FLEETing bond in you, across time and space—you, a fellow vagabond with an albatross serving as your pituitary gland. May I have a bit of Joy, O. for my own eraser?
PEG: Of course, Captain Jesz. Anything for the Mocha-Rich.
JESZ: That’s my true FLEETer! Give Her over to The Engineer now, while all six of our hands touch the implement.
ENG: Captain, I’m, I’m not sure if—
JESZ: About your task, altar-girl! I didn’t ask for your subjective rantings. What kind of an engineer are you?
ENG: I— I… Captain.
GULLAH observes all of this from above, on the stacks, as if “blessing” the scene, and MAHL hesitates to believe her eyes as, from afar, she sees CAPTAIN JESZ’s lips move silently in the exact same pattern as if pronouncing the words “My God.” From somewhere afar, a new laugh is heard, even more frightening than GULLAH’s previously, and that is the young fresh-mad-woman SQUEAK’s, which laughter is leveraged to the collective brooding of Pequods FLEET entire. She squeaks and squeals with satiric delight while JESZ resumes her pacing with the blood-rust-leaded, fresh-smoothed-and-fresh-cut-gripped, and Joy, O.-capped pencil, all mechanical and all ethereal in one in three in one.
Chapter 58: The Engineer’s Past, Obtained from Various Sources Too Numerous to Enumerate Here
The stoic nature of The Engineer, revealed so admirably above in her encounter with Captain Jezebel, came not without its price, as I would find out much later from the gossip mill of the FLEETing worlds. Life for The Engineer was an aggregate of tasks, one after the other, and she obviously much preferred it that way, though her somewhat-more-subjective side peeked through her cool exterior like small hairs will make strange shadows in a toilet bowl.
The Engineer began her life saturated in privation in some very-poor area of the Far East. Her family life (such as it was) was as happy as that type of existence could be. She precociously took over all chores for the farming community, and her efficiency and expediency in all mechanical tasks elevated her to the status of a village leader. Somewhat like Peg, though, there was a secret Westernized escape route for her, one perhaps even more insidious than proselytizing Christianity: Liquid Energy consumption. This quickly became her form of payment in the village, to the extent that she would consume several liters per day and crash some seven days later—upon awaking, she would start the next binge again. Her vice became her life, such that she would purposefully damage mechanical implements for the sake of repairing them again quickly thanks to “developing” just the right gear, etc., and thereby securing ample payment. Her mechanical mind became obsessed with the alchemical task of refining pure concentrated Energy in very small doses—the size of a cough drop, say—that could keep one up for three weeks straight, and then some.
This was why the FLEETs eventually called to her—the ample, free supply, combined with her perfect fit for the carpenter-slash-blacksmith-slash-magician position on a long haul. Her family was blissfully forgotten about and, eventually, so was the addiction, amazingly enough. She never once touched the stuff now. As long as she could keep her hands occupied, she discovered a way to restore the natural energy stores of her brain in some way that has previously escaped humanity. She took the naps with us, true, but some claimed that she was in fact asleep when performing all her tasks at odd intervals; any mechanical chore, no matter how complex or exacting, became as perfunctory to her as breathing.
By this point, she was nearing what would be her junior year, but of course had not been a part of any formal schooling whatever. Instead, she secured engineering jobs where she could get them but, most of the time, she was like a gremlin, but in reverse: she planted herself in a large institution and went about repairing electrical circuits, developing better air circulation, conserving energy depletion, and raiding any supplies of food to be found.
In short, she was a ghost. But it is just this type of ghost that is attracted to the FLEETs, that type for whom our rewardless life is only marginally better than any reward gained in decomposition (that is to write, in its premature and immediate attainment by irrevocable act of individual will). To dive into the numbing, socially-lethal, wild depths of the FLEETs was to, in effect, commit adolescent suicide, killing off one’s (pre)teen and skipping ahead to the “after-life” of a tedious adult existence (i.e., obtaining what fulfillment one could inside of one’s head during the hours and days of toil). One needed not age through those awkward adolescent years and go through the drama, but could instead experience the wonder-in-the-mundane of the after-teen-life while still a teen. We were married to a self-numbing existence, without the roller-coasters of relationships or the trepidations of a “break-up.”
Why would The Engineer, or I, or any of us, reject such an easy way out?
If we were to go through those years traditionally, we probably would not make it without serious catastrophe and/or a dependence on the rites of such awkward ones: relying on a futile animalistic release of all that was ridiculous with carnal adolescence by embracing the beast and copulating away to blot out even some of the stupidity of living.
Chapter 59: Hunkering Down, Down, Down
As Captain Jesz had ordered, we proceeded to move the FLEET and make a base-camp a few floors down, to be all the more closer to the Mocha-Rich when She emerged in all Her fearful glory. But, before this, there were a few strange occurrences which demand some narration even if they elude understanding, or simple basic comprehension.
Her new heel on foot and her newly-imperfected pencil in hand, Jesz sat herself at her traditional carrel while we all packed up the mark-er-ing station as best we could and Eng discerned the method of best egress for her contraptions. The groove in Jesz’s forehead, punctuated by the mark on top, seemed to be deeper-set all the time, such that none would be surprised should it start effusing black blood and spray like an injured porpoise’s spout-hole. (Of all the ridiculous fecal matters to spew from Toe’s oral orifice, the most dubious story concerned of a time when, in her sleep, Captain Jezebel’s groove had disappeared entirely and a slight smile emerged on her countenance.) The groove, ironically, seemed to alleviate Jezebel’s internal pain by causing her some of the external variety, and one often witnessed her pushing the fold deeper in and relishing the headache undoubtedly produced thereby.
At this point, though, the jollity of the Englishwomen’s FLEET and its consequences still resonated through her frame, and no amount of pressure could release her eternal internal combustion. When a loose hair emerged between her eyes and her concordances, she focused all her being upon it, pulling all her hairs clean out of the bun and, then, seeing the concordances in this new hair-mediated light, she then proceeded to wrap up the concordance-book with the hair band, which band snapped and lashed back under the pressure. Relishing the subsequent pain upon her hand, she sought more, and she removed her heel: with both superficial shoe and all-too-significant iron-fist, she set about destroying the cover of her precious concordance-book.
“What use are you to me, Science? History? Only abstract Mathematics may extrapolate, but none may predict with any accuracy what this spool of indeterminacy will unroll! I let my hair fly like Medusa’s; from this point onward, I station myself at the question-makers’ doorstep, with only my internal concordances as my chart: my heart, my part, my endless start within me. Eyes are foolish playthings, but let me turn my sight inward, and there I see Her; there I see the Mocha-Rich and will stab out all faintness in my heart, in my mind, in my so—my whole being, my sole-less self. Take it, take it all, you book, my ignorant step-brother!”
Captain Jezebel’s last more-consciously-public display of this sort of histrionics had left us in awe and adoration. However, at this present outburst, and amidst the flurry of white particles now flurrying about inside as well as out (thanks to Captain Jezebel’s ultra-violence upon this esteemed record of FLEETing pasts), the entire FLEET save Gullah and Squeak was huddled together in one mass, almost—indeed—holding one another for common safety and protection from the one who should have ensured those selfsame ends.
“Down. Down, posthaste, you FLEETers!” roared Jesz upon seeing us, but not a one of us stirred.
“Captain, in all faithlessness, we have had not the time to properly order—”
“We have no time! We have none! None that is ours. Descend!”
“Nothing is sure, Skietiff. As my father used to say, ‘The dead, blind wall butts all inquiring heads at last.’ Let us all descend, females. Am I a trivia clubber, now? Am I FLEETing with none but cowards? What type of FLEETer would empty and organize her brain-trunk, when the dig of our lifetimes awaits? Descend with me—or descend yourselves. I care not.”
With that, she stalked away, her heel bouncing a little more than usual due to the viscera of the concordances still stuck upon its point. While Peg hummed to herself some low tune, Toe addressed Eng: “Come on; let’s be reasonable, now. She’s our captain still, ain’t she? So she’s sending us gals into the gales without a compass. I’m with her—we make our own compasses, in our minds. She’s game, that’s for certain, so let’s get back into it. All in, wenches.” However, despite all this talk, Toe remained bolted to the floor.
Skietiff, to this, merely (and uncharacteristically cryptically) said: “No matter the intensity of the flame, the ashes are all that remain.” Nonetheless, the first lady was the first among us to follow Captain Jezebel down.
But not the first among the FLEET—I had observed both Gullah and Squeak scurrying across the top of the stacks in Captain Jezebel’s wake, as if they were her cartoon henchwomen from some archetypal animated film. Which is not to state that the rest of us were any less cartoonish in following our good captain, leaving as much disorganization in our own wakes as if we were flailing our arms and legs, creating those motion-induced black semi-circles while we slipped over an obvious batch of marbles.
The villains in the Disney movies always had the best songs, anyway.
Chapter 60: The Carrel
It has been previously related how Captain Jezebel and Gullah were the ones to “rescue” Little Squeak from herself in the stacks and how, unfortunately, they did not rescue her in time from all casualty. The following scene—which I fully admit is a reconstruction, not a retelling—reveals their particular interbondedness and their respective states at this point in the venture:
“Jezebel! Queen Jezebel!” called Squeak as she jumped from shelf to shelf above the captain’s head.
“What’s that, girl?” asked Captain Jezebel.
“I’m mighty glad that you’re not taking along that pitiful Squeak, may her gray matter reek forever. She sneaked into the stacks before her time and expected all to reveal itself to her, sound and safe, little naïf.”
“And where is that Squeak now, little one?” asked Jesz.
“Lost, thou idolater. Lost to all.”
“May not I find her, then?” asked Jesz, pausing. Squeak jumped down and landed next to the captain’s booted leg, and Gullah dropped down next to her heeled one.
“No, she’s far astern,” responded Squeak, staring into the captain’s eyes (if this detail shows not her madness, I know not what will).
“Take my hand, little one,” said Jesz, as they proceeded on, this demented three-person family. “Some immortal things distill through both of us and, when I look in your eyes, they are so similar to my own, so opaque and resilient, that, for once, I may look out the window without looking in the mirror. How weakness carries such strength withal—it galls me rightly.”
They arrived by this point at a set of abandoned stacks, empty of all volumes and therefore filled with voluminous space, and a similarly-deserted set of study carrels.
“Is this to be mine?” asked Jezebel to Gullah in (what could have been) a hushed tone.
“Yes, woman,” spoke Gullah. (Here, in writing the words “spoke Gullah,” I exert the most creative liberty yet.)
“Come, little one, you shall claim this carrel with me, as we have been claimed—and abandoned—by some forces beyond all conscience. I will seek your counsel above all others.”
Squeak responded to Jesz’s offer to share her personal space with some awe, then said: “Had that poor, cursed Squeak been extended such an invitation, she would have never become lost. Let The Engineer solder us two soldiers together, Commander.”
“No, young one,” spoke Jesz. “You may not go to the depths that I descend to, lest you face worse fates than lostness. In spite of—because of—those forces deserting us, we are more inclined to treat others with humane kindness, such that you alone almost—almost—lead me to end this idiotic questing.”
“I’d go with you anywhere, Jezebel, even to the faint-white idol itself, and see if I might leave some of my skin’s ink on it. Use me as your other foot, instead of relying on that heel.”
“Nay, little one,” spoke Jesz, settling Squeak down in the seat next her. “Jezebel is now off to such perilous tasks that you must not be on the dig with her, lest you be forced to betray this new-found sisterly instinct which so surprises both of us. Like a vaccine, I sense that your small amounts of madness shall cure even one past cure—past care—in her core, like I. So, for both our sakes, let us keep our madnesses discreet and discrete. God bless you, child. (Yes, I said it.)”
“So be it, Young Swirl. There are some about who say that Second Lady Pinky-Toe did abandon that Squeak out there in the stacks, but I will never abandon you…”
“Stop that crying now—almost as bad as one of those commercials with the African youths! I’ll stab you with this pencil before I let you dab away my purpose. Now, if you wish to be true to your Jezebel, then plant yourself in this seat and never—never—depart from it. You’ll know that I’m about with the sound of my heel echoing to you, no matter where I am in this Mammoth Cave.”
“I’ll stay, and order the sending of another search party for that Squeak, with all these FLEETers gathering ‘round to help me… Come, come, my FLEETers…”
With this trailing off (directed to Squeak’s imaginary FLEET which she commanded), Captain Jezebel turned to her part of the carrel, from force of habit, as if a concordance-book would be awaiting her there. Instead, she found nothing but empty desk-space, and this seemed to taunt her—of course, another reminder of the blank space in her mark-er book, among other spaces.
Soon occupying her carrel’s space, however, was Skietiff, the first to arrive from the balcony “deck” to this new, more question-maker-proximate location. She “knocked” on the carrel’s wood but this was mere formality, as she gazed at her captain’s face with her own, full of stone.
“Back to your post,” spoke Jezebel, feigning not to recognize her.
“You surely mistake my identity, Captain Jesz,” spoke Skietiff, slowly and patiently, as with a child, and speaking over the child’s rantings immediately next to both of them. “It is I, First Lady Skietiff, coming to report that much is missing from our mark-er caches in transit, given the Exodus-like haste of our departure.”
“New digs, here in new digs! Nothing remaining of the old—most fitting then, don’t you think?”
“No, Captain, I do not think it fit nor fitting, given our obligations to our sponsor, as I surely do not need to remind you.”
“You surely do not need to remind me, Skietiff, but our ‘Sponsor’ shall be satisfied, as She shall expire the next round.”
“The Mocha-Rich is not the sponsor of which I speak, Captain Jezebel. Our true sponsor and not the metaphorical: Pequods Coffee.”
“Pequods Coffee! I do not care for Pequods Coffee, nor for any unincorporated entity, save Her that I seek. Let Captains Paula and Marimum scream bloody murder, let the merman murmur all he likes over the blizzard—let them try to barge in here in the midst of the tournament. Back to your post!”
Skietiff must have certainly been a sight at this point, as her decorousness was at war with her ire. She was fighting two Captain Jezebels: one in front of her and, the other (which she fought against recognizing), the Jezebel inside herself: all the furor and spleen she denied she possessed.
“Captain Jezebel,” struggled the first lady to vocalize rather than grunt. “I will pass over your tone as I pass over anything coming from a hysterical old lady whose rational consciousness has raised the white flag to her brooding-violent passions, but I cannot pass over—”
“You cannot? Cannot! Back to your post!”
After a pause, during which Skietiff continued to wrestle with her soon-to-be-articulated thoughts and those she would never allow herself to express: “I know we will never understand each other, Captain. I will never comprehend—indeed, as who could comprehend, much less analyze?—your, your motives, and you will never appeal to any sense of reasonableness, if only for the sake of spite against all rational things save your demonic, pitiable—”
At this point, Jezebel must have removed her newly-sharpened mechanical pencil, and must have risen up to threaten the top of the height of her first lady—perhaps aiming it at what is usually thought to be the center of the affective impulses.
“You’ll not superstring me up, Skietiff. There is one meaningless universe which binds us all in, just as there is one captain of Pequods FLEET, and I am she!”
Skietiff might have been more surprised had Captain Jesz impaled her with the implement. She gained her composure: now that Jezebel had shown all of her mad passion, Skietiff was able to beat back down into submission the impulse within herself to strike out in just such a wild manner.
“You attempt to insult me, to demean me, but you will never do that, could never do that,” measuredly spoke Skietiff. “I will not threaten retribution—indeed, that might be laughable from one such as myself—but I will warn you to take heed of yourself, female. Well mark yourself, woman.”
Skietiff turned to face the rest of us, just then arriving with all of what we could grab.
Captain Jezebel spoke in low tones. “How delicately brave of you to utter such a phrase, mademoiselle. ‘Well mark yourself.’ There’s something in that, if I were to analyze it… God-damn you, Skietiff, don’t you know that there’s such a thing as being too right?” Then, speaking up to the rest of the crew: “What’s this? Back up to the balcony, all of you, and bring down all of the mark-ers! For the sake of Pequods FLEET, back up and retrieve them, FLEETers!”
With that, Skietiff thought she had made some progress—and Captain Jezebel knew that she had made some, too, buying herself the time she needed to wield her command.
Chapter 61: Peg’s Quarantine
My poor friend Peg’s situation in the descent, re-ascent, and re-descent was most unfortunate: she had had a head cold for something like half a day and, by the time all the physical exertion (in addition to the inordinate mental exertion of the rounds) had fully taken hold of her, she was in a dangerous febrile condition. Others suggested that the harm she had visited upon her own Joy, O. for her captain’s sake was not without its voodoo (or at least psychosomatic) consequences but, whether it were these physical, mental, and spiritual trials taken separately or collated all together, when she returned with the last of the mark-ers, her ink stood out most strongly against her new-pale skin. The wonder gazing out of her eyes now demonstrated that her rational capabilities were far from firm—such an appealing look appears on all newly-sick members of the species, and perhaps it is just this reason that illness does not regularly feature in cultural artifacts—there is no periphrasis, and perhaps no words in any language, that can communicate this odd sense of diseased grandeur.
All of us counted Peg out of not only the next round but of the balance of the tournament. It seemed like she had met her FLEETing end significantly earlier than the 96-hour mark. But Peg insisted that she be placed in quarantine, which seemed most odd to the rest of us, as she was already symptomatic and had certainly already passed on whatever virus it was to us. The health benefits for anyone on Pequods FLEET would therefore be minimal, even though this might bring her peace-of-mind. Nonetheless, she insisted that this was an old practice from her Pacific Island home, insisted upon by the matriarchs, and that is when we knew that she must be delirious—she had mentioned her past and her home in such a public, even proud, manner.
Sick persons are usually given some degree of pity to their whims and caprices, even in the FLEETs, and so The Engineer had her first task in our new quarters which, of course, she took on admirably and automatically. The Engineer took the measurements of Peg’s tall-and-mighty frame, then set about finding the most ideal location for the quarantine area, eventually deciding upon the rarely-if-ever-visited stacks near us at this point, the 120’s. [Very uncharacteristically, Mahalath must in this instance be mistaken, for the 120’s in the Dewey Decimal System are the classification numbers for Epistemology. —Ed.]
The Engineer added some layers of metal on either side of the shelving unit and somehow worked it such that, once inside the bottom-most empty stack, Peg could in effect seal herself in with the aid of the moveable-stack system. Some basic necessities were provided for, including change of clothing and foodstuffs, and Peg tried it out for herself soon enough.
As soon as Peg was inside, Squeak wheeled her chair over to the quarantine area (as she was still abiding by Captain Jezebel’s mandate to her) and mock-whispered, “Peg, Peg, you’re going out of the game but into another one, I tell you! Give us a big shout if that cowardly lion cub Squeak squeaks her way past you. We’ve still got to strangle that girl with knowledge. Do you see her there in the lostness, Miss Peg?” We soon wheeled Squeak back to her position, locked her wheels, and let Peg recuperate as best she could in her quarantine.
We thought that this would be the last we would see of Peg for some time but, after a minute or so inside, my brave Peg decided that she wasn’t sick after all, and the moveable-stacks delivered her to us, fully fit and healthy, without any sign of fever or any symptom in the slightest. She stretched herself out and seemed to disregard the illness’s commands to her body to linger and convalesce.
As we were all gathering around Peg and preparing for the rounds to come, I saw Captain Jezebel “heel-hop” over to the quarantine stack, eyeing it curiously. The Engineer checked over the mechanisms, perhaps taking a mental inventory of what she could re-use from this now-defunct quarantine chamber. I, of course, read their lips from afar…
Jesz said: “Quarantine, eh? If only there were a quarantine for my condition, but it in and of itself is a quarantine, so what cure does that entail?”
“Sorry, Captain, but that’s the reason I hate all of these human jobs—first your heel, then your pencil, then this here. I’ll take anything mathematically abstract, but these—too many variables, too much custom-jobbing for the customers. Give me something with a linear process, not this organic constant improvising, jumping from need to need like a digressive author of some pseudo-nonfiction. But, I’ll make anything to keep myself busy. Out of the way, now, I think I can get use out of that. Maybe if I place a book-end right here, then I—”
“Whistle while you work, while you’re at it.”
“Never could find the patience for that skill, all that lip-manipulation. This right now with you is making my mandibles weary.”
“My God, you’re as indifferent and as amoral as the universe itself, aren’t you?”
“I’m sorry, was that to me or to this God lady you’re talking to?”
“Back to the others, you tinkering, grasping fool! She goes… Look at this craft, look at this work here… ‘Oh! how immaterial are all materials! What things real are there, but imponderable thoughts!’ Who wrote that one, again? What spiritual yearning, underneath that! Inside this space, but briefly, upon her skin who occupied it, were those tantalizing clues, leading to nothing but that same yearning. Yearning—how I loathe it—only yearn if you look for the darkness through these blasted-interruptions of light. Squeak! Squeak, where are you, my girl? Only you could decipher it properly.”
Chapter 62: Pequods FLEET, Briefly, Crosses Tracks with That of Zenith Fasteners—Standoffs and Spacers
The Engineer had once lengthily gone on—and herein I mean that she would openly raise this topic and discuss it of her own volition for something like four sentences or more—about a FLEET that she had heard of and much admired, for its sponsorship alone: that of Zenith Fasteners, a company which specialized in spacers and standoffs for various electronics-makers.
As the blizzard continued its cruel reign outside, this Zenith FLEET passed us, post-scoring, marching past the question-makers’ offices. We all were afflicted with similar jealousy to the Engineer’s, but for a much more discernible reason: the FLEET had just struck the mother lode, apparently, and was just then finished tallying up its scores and divvying up the mark-ers. This FLEET had answered successively, successfully, and thoroughly round after round, while other FLEETs had scored mighty-pitifully. As such, this crew was at the top of its game, and of ours: the mark-er books were filled, to the extent that marks adorned most any free surface, from plastic sheaths for comestibles to potato-chip-bags turned inside-out to even, upon one FLEET member, scrawled in Sharpie upon her own lenses. Our FLEET literally saw mark-ers everywhere, when we had just finished organizing our own meagre store. The females were locked arm-in-arm; some of them were so egregious in their affection as to lock arms about each other’s waists as well, in most jocundly-social fashion of the queen bees back home.
Meanwhile, the brooding Pequods FLEET, foreboding over what was to come more than celebrating what had passed, was instructed by its captain not to fraternize or even gaze overlong at this vainglorious procession as it trooped past. The Zenith FLEET captain, on the other hand, sought to make eye contact with even one of us upon passing. The only set of eyes that directly met hers, out of embarrassment or shame at such jollity, was Captain Jezebel’s, and that meeting was to effect one predictable transaction of information:
“Have you seen the faint Mocha?”
“What? Come on and parlay with us, Captain Serious, you and all your gloomy FLEET. We’ll divvy you up mark-ers and Energy alike aplenty!” A general huzzah-ing followed this invitation, and to see such gusto from afar reminded me of how dis-gust-ing our own oath-taking must have looked to any distant onlookers all that time ago.
“Have you seen Her, Madam?” repeated Jesz through gritted teeth.
“No, of course not. Heard of Her, though, and don’t personally believe such still exists, if ever She did!” All this was spoken with a rancorously-defying geniality. “Come on and parlay, all of you! We’ve got news of many other questions. We’re loaded up with mark-ers and bound for victory!”
“God damn all jovials, I’d rather Hera-ld in the winter in style,” muttered Jesz, and then, to the Zenith captain: “Loaded up, you are indeed, and bound for ‘victory.’ We’re loaded down ourselves, and bound for defeat—I wonder which of our attitudes Parent Superior would prefer? Back to your posts, Pequods FLEETers, and let ‘em pass! I rest my eyes to cleanse them of such carefree sights.”
With this, the snow seemed to agree with Jezebel for, once again, the sheets fell so thickly that our whole library seemed shaded in. However, there was one member of our FLEET looking for just such an opportunity to discuss the practical matters of mark-ers with the captain. While, once again, I was not direct observer to such an episode, I can picture it well enough, from numerous such ruminations during my own long career:
Just after the departure of the Zenith, Captain Jezebel, seated at her carrel, is, in the manner of all captains after these long stretches on the watch and on edge, freshly asleep, albeit with her eyes open. (Even a shark needs rest at some point.) Her implement is tightly gripped, with the point facing downward, at, perhaps, the exact same location where the Mocha-Rich made her mark so many years ago. First Lady Skietiff approacheth, the paragon of deference as always, and is about to “knock,” but sees the captain in just this position, the freshly-“improved” mechanical pencil gripped oh-so-tightly.
‘Now,’ thinks Skietiff, ‘though I came to warn her of the danger of missing out on so instructive of a parlay, in the hopes that her anomalous respect to me were not anomalous but, perhaps, her retreating recalcitrance is a sign that her madness is steeped so much as to actually make her saner at this point—but behold! Here she slumbers—if I may call it that. I am an honest FLEETer—as if there could be a dishonest one!—but here a most unFLEETlike fleeting opportunity presenteth itself before me: there is the pencil, gripped tight, in just such the same posture that the Mocha-Rich—I mean, she—stabbed her thigh before. Now I might take her out of this library and banish her to the infirmary, with one thrust. She would have done much the same to me, and in a more sensitive, life-giving region than the leg. Might I now take up that implement—as I have unconsciously taken up so many dozens during my FLEETing days—and take us all to “victory,” as that too-gregarious but upright captain just bragged of? Yet, perhaps while I pause like Pyrrhus, because I pause I will delay the possibility of such a parlay, but just long enough to deny her her readiness for the next round, which—perhaps (which is the most dangerous word in the language)—perhaps may yield the Mocha-Rich to her and her to the Mocha-Rich. No! Enough soliloquy—I will take the pencil, and do it, for Pequods Coffee and all of the members of this FLEET. She would purposefully cause her FLEET to flounder, all for the sake of a stiletto-vendetta? Did she not destroy the concordances, and plant us all down here against reason and the question-makers’ design? So what, if all of us have sworn, if all of us—horrid thought!—are Jezebels? There is no way out but to do this—if I were to have The Engineer tie her up, then she would be truly unendurable, and I would become her—all sleep, and peace-of-mind, and reason would abandon me as I would be forced to keep the stack-out for my own Mocha-Rich, but this one, this Mocha-Rich, named Captain Jezebel. Think of it—one thrust of the pencil, and I may return to Jason and have the rest of this break with him and our precious little Princeton Review between us. FLEETing honor, what shall I do?’—
* * *
“Captain,” said Skietiff. “The next round’s almost here.”
“The Mocha-Rich! I have Her mark-er in my book—I kiss it, I embrace it!”
This was the usual awake-asleep ranting of the captain, and showed to Skietiff that her words were ineffectual in rousing Jesz—or rather, perhaps Jesz’s subconscious rebellion to Skietiff’s voice caused her to exclaim so. Regardless, it was Jesz rebelling against Skietiff and not the other way around—just as order and honor demanded.
Skietiff took the pencil from her captain’s hand and… placed it quietly upon the desk. She and we had missed any opportunity of parlaying with the Zenith—So much for standoffs, but too much for spacers.
“Peg, you have the best bedside manner for getting the captain back to us—and promptly, now. My false words seem to have become a prophecy—for I sense the next round is here.”
Chapter 63: The Glow
Skietiff was more correct than she knew—the next round, and the next, and the next and the next saw us through the night, with more mark-ers for our book—even a half-dozen for the good captain’s book—yet none of them the prized serif mark of The Question. Captain Jezebel got her yearning wish for the darkness as well, for that night was so black, inside and out—outside from the density of the snow, inside from the blinking electric lights (even with Zenith’s sponsorship).
(Some claim during this interval in the night, when the storm intensified even further, defying meteorologists professional and casual, that Captain Jezebel and Gullah communed [when Jesz for the first time mark-er-ed with all her sickeningly-lonely pride] and projected with pinpoint accuracy every single event that was proven to happen—including my personal fate. But I discount this as mere hearsay and rumor, and will not besmirch this narrative to set it down without authoritative [if circumstantial] evidence and/or direct sensory confirmation.)
To a sleepless specimen, time means next to naught, and so it is difficult to state exactly when in the ensuing darkness the following events transpired. It is even difficult to say whether these events took place in the evening or towards dawn or even when the sun had long since dawned—such was the weather within and without. Without her concordances, it seemed to us that Captain Jezebel was making it all up—those claims that we were nearing and nearing our as-yet-unseen foe, when we had by now numerous witnesses already attest to Her utmost indiscriminating malice, lashing out against those FLEETers who deserved their fates, as well as those whose Fates had deserted them. As we approached the exact same hour, some years before, that Jesz received her wound, she wound herself up tighter and tighter, and a look that pales any description descended upon her as she gazed over her ghost-like crew, operating as mechanically as The Engineer to a woman, lest we express anything in the face of such a face. It was not needed to woman the mast (though we still did so out of habit), now that we were so close to the source of all questions, and also because Captain Jezebel constantly craned her neck from her carrel, gazing at the inch underneath the door from whence that unearthly glow would emerge—but with some strange alteration signaling The Question that only she could recognize, as one can recognize an elder kinswoman, no matter how many years since the family reunion. The only object of greater fear than Jezebel was Gullah, who gazed upon Jesz as Jesz gazed upon the door. Did either of them sleep? Did either of them live? None knew; none knew anything anymore, as we were degraded down to the level of the ignoramuses in our milieu amidst such… such power.
Sometime later—or perhaps before?—we heard strange murmurs coming from the librarians’ offices. Toe claimed these were the voices of the question-makers themselves, but none save Captain Jezebel claimed an authoritative answer: Jesz smiled a freakish grin upon hearing these murmurs, while the rest of us remained strangely transfixed as they echoed—“They’re wrestling with Her. They’re debating sending Her out to us. They know me well, those makers!” That question-makers would know of us and purposefully send us questions designed for us and us alone—such blasphemy at this point even Skietiff ignored, and processed this explanation as logical. Even crazy Squeak was silent at this. Toe had no joke in response, as all jollity had disappeared from our FLEET after the Zenith encounter.
Just then, I fell from my stack-out and landed on Captain Jezebel’s carrel, which she had just then unoccupied, tipping it over away from the question-makers’ offices.
“There, there, do you see?” asked Skietiff, most unusually. “On just the moment you insult the question-makers with your hyper-critical hypothesis, this greenie directs us away from the copier—away from the Mocha-Rich!”
“Miss Skietiff,” delivered Jezebel, most sardonically, gaining her composure now that her first lady had lost hers. “You are the Oracle at Delphi re-incarnate. You can see into the darkness better than any of us, eh? I’ll have to borrow those eyes for the dig, then. Young Swirl maintains her self amidst this swirl, girls, and I will—”
“Look!” cried Toe.
From the offices emerged a strange glow—not the glow we had seen before from the copier, but this angelic blue-white hue appeared to resemble a scanner. Peg’s face once again looked as it had during the fever—all of us appeared fever-stricken, and our eyes glowed with an alien fire—save mine, for I was looking from FLEETer to FLEETer, hence I record this now with accuracy.
“Ah, a scanner darkly, indeed!” cried out Jezebel and, Gullah assisting her, went right up to the door of the offices. As all of us huddled by the fallen carrel, Toe said, “A good omen, gals, ain’t it? Her-her.”
“The faint light scans in the faint Mocha, my FLEETers, and I feed upon its glow! Gullah, shine me a mirror under there.”
But Gullah had already anticipated this order and, removing a pocket-mirror (again, a most strange item for any FLEETer to carry on her person), reflected the scanning light, which moved and radiated like the Auroras upon Captain Jezebel herself, creating a massive backlight that possessed her figure most wraith-like.
“I defy you, sickly heavenly glow! I defy you, My Love-in-Hate-in-Me! I am no fool, no superstitious ignoramus as those you see cowering there—I speak your non-verbal significance and give my individuality to your ugly non-entity-ness. Though I am but a period, I shall whip your lasso about my frame and play the King of the FLEETs! Submit before me, or attack me with all your tigress rage; either way, I shall remain bolded and under-lined, a glowworm and bookworm in one! Witness this!”
With that, Captain Jezebel withdrew her own pocket mirror, and refracted the light all around, including back into its source with the aid of Gullah’s mirror.
“You are my true mother and, as for my father, I am farther than he can ever reach with his writhing pain! You, you eternal abstract, you know not your lineage—I have more certainty in my mortality than you can ever have—you have your riddle inside of you, which will keep on twisting through your intestinal curlings, even in my mark-er book! All mysticism is to you something to toy with, but what is real—this brain-stuff and my aching matter—that to you is as impenetrable as your essence. Thus I refract and re-curse you with my mark!”
“Look at this carrel, woman!” called out Skietiff over this. “Look at what you’re doing!” And indeed, in reflecting this light, Jesz had caused a beam to focus in on her own now-tilted carrel, such that it smoked.
“The question-makers warn you away from this carrel with this display—they know of all your ‘theatricals’ and see well into the wings—and yet you mock them still! Let’s go back to the balcony and proceed rationally, taking what question comes—”
“This Question! This Question shall come, and all of you have sworn to answer Her! Before these question-makers, you cannot deny that. With one flicker of our wrists, we may send them and us back into darkness. Gullah, let us do so.”
With that, Gullah and Captain Jezebel pocketed their mirrors, and the glow returned to its previous innocent hue, and soon enough disappeared altogether.
“And, behold, it is very good,” smirked Captain Jesz at Gullah, who returned it. “Now, you women, shall I be the only one to claim that Madison up there when we have vanquished Her, as assuredly we now shall? It seems none of you are brave enough to withstand a little glow.” Captain Jezebel “heel-hopped” over to us, with Gullah ever behind (though some claimed it was Gullah who was ever walking her dog ahead of her), and we let the carrel drop.
“Look you, my carrel is dead-tired as well. Mistress Skietiff, assist me up to the stack-out. The sun, my old girlfriend, will be showing through very soon—I can feel it through my thigh. I shall see her, and Her, from up there.”
While not so unusual for a captain to ascend the mast, for sport, it was odd that Jesz would do so at this time, when the stakes on the stacks were so high. It was triply odd, and perhaps devilishly-strategic of our great tactician captain, that she would choose Skietiff—the only one among us to voice her objections, the only one to even veilingly threaten the captain, even in her own thoughts—to be the one to carry her up there, as her heeled-gait was not up for the climb. The fact that the captain entrusted her safety to the only possibly-mutinous member of the crew put Skietiff in her place better than if Jesz were to give her forty lashings. Skietiff, in her own head, must have been certain at this point that Captain Jezebel was not only awake during her would-be confrontation the night before, but also—somehow—had access to her most internal thoughts during that time. Why else publicly call on and call out Skietiff here, rather than trust her altar-girl Peg with the task? (Indeed, my Peg looked something hurt at this rejection, betraying some of the same emotion that I must have betrayed when she became Jesz’s acolyte all that time ago.) As for Gullah, she climbed the stacks, but positioned herself just below the captain, and both stared ahead at the door.
As Captain Jezebel predicted, the light of the sun came through soon enough, a Titanic harbinger for the little light with big consequences soon to emerge.
Chapter 64: The Calms Before the Storming
At long last, the bright sun greeted us with her majesty, and unveiled a glorious sight: the whole crusty cake of the scavenging earth was covered with a thick layer of icing, all glistening powdered sugar applied most liberally. This was that peaceful time denied to me previously, when outside of the FLEETs: dawn’s hour—when no library is “open”—now opened up the wealth of dead authors side-by-side with their contemporary colleagues, all for the taking, all for the reaping, all for the reading.
And yet, even at that moment, the nine feet of snow barred that sight from us, for it covered the lower windows entirely, such that only dour Captain Jezebel high above us could behold it all in its pristine state. The layers and strata of frozen water trapped us in with glorious beauty; they would have a difficult time of it to get the dumpster anywhere near this building for the Day-3.5 Interval, even if—contrary to the forecasts—the banks would melt somewhat throughout the next day. “Sensing” that the Mocha-Rich was faintly-fresh from the copy machine, Jezebel was trapped by snow of a quite different variety. Still, all of us affected by this calming aura could not but hope that this sweet malaise (inspired by the dust specks floating in the brightened internal atmosphere) might restore to her something of… humanity.
As this mild spell was cast during a caesura to the rounds, one speculated that even the question-makers were staring with infant wonder outside their windows. One—almost—forgot one’s mission, forgot the FLEETs themselves, and we could vaguely recollect something about a nightmare-oath, only if prompted—especially as the Madison now reigned several stories above us. Indeed, it seemed that this dreaminess settled over all of our society, as if this were Brittany’s 13th Birthday Sleepover Bash and not the most trying period of our adolescent intellectual lives. One could sense, amidst all these monoliths of fact surrounding us, that cunning nymph Fancy frisking in the air.
All these mystic moods might have fallen upon the highest of us all, her perched with boot and heel hanging over our heads, but—if anything—the moods perverted themselves in her conception and became gross temptresses, goading her to distraction and, so, like any good contrarian, she became all the more irascible. As these free-as-a-sailor moments caressed her, they went so against her grain that they left splinters and deeper storms upon her mind rather than bestowing any sweetness, any airiness, any most-rationally-seeped joy. Instead, a dogged faith in the tragedy of her tale, one she was determined—and felt herself determinated—to see through until the curtain crashed upon us all. Where were the wings to escape such a performance? Where could one find a cue to exit this stage and never re-enter it, to break the decorum and never give the Audience a curtain call? We did not audition, and the secret of our casting call is only found when the spotlight dims and the ghost light vaguely illumines the darkened, empty house.
Skietiff, in contrast, felt this bright rosiness around her and exclaimed, “Now, at long last, let memory triumph over fancy and let fact utterly vanquish faith. Such clarity brings all beliefs to light, as moths are drawn to consuming flame.”
“I hear that, First Lady,” said Toe, coming up beside her. “I have my skeletons and my closets both, don’t you know, but a morn such as this will cause any smart-Alice to go through the looking-glass and come out the cleaner for it, maybe even she up there.”
“Maybe even, maybe odd ones,” responded Skietiff, casting a not-too-strained glance upwards. At this, seed planted, Toe returned to joking at (instead of with) the rest of us, and Skietiff very soon climbed up for one last storming of the castle, in the hopes that, in the light of day, all foolish night-terrors would flee—even her own.
As Skietiff ascended the stacks and beheld the female knowledges in the steel shelves being wooed by the male sun’s rays, mating into one bright vision of—
[But, before we here proceed, this conceit reminds me that I have never properly introduced the FLEETing attitudes towards romantic relationships. Of course, viewed as the onerous distractions that they were, they were rarely (if at all) mentioned—as opposed to nearly every other conglomeration of female adolescents under the sun. While the odd exclusively-female arrangement did transpire (not just close to Boston but everywhere in FLEETdom), these were deemed not closeted but rather “shelved” relationships—not due to any puerile prejudices, but due to, once again, the stigma associated with devoting that much attention to living beings in the stacks and not the contents of the stacks themselves. As long as the respective members of such a pairing emerged with a horde of scorings, who concerned herself with how and with whom they had scored otherwise? Now, males were a different matter entirely, as they were a distraction that could not be easily undistracted in such environs. The fact that both our captain and our first lady had paramours, somewhat younger than themselves—this I would only discover through hearsay later, and so the following whispered interchange is once again conjecture, albeit a most-informed one. Skietiff’s was named Jason, and Jesz’s was Mark—the attraction should be obvious for the latter, though the former still somewhat mystifies me. It was said that Mark caught Jezebel’s eye around the same time that she first went a-FLEETing, and that she had wooed him as an easier conquest than the Mocha-Rich very recently, when the question-marked facial hairs had fully emerged from his cheeks.]
But there were no question-hairs emerging from the golden sun’s pristine feminine face, so Jezebel stared him/her down hard, eyes glinting like a scimitar and ashy countenance defying the elements to do their best—she would remain as she was. (Yet, how oblivious to her were those fair-y fair-ing rays, playing as carelessly as my own little Samantha with her auntie’s prematurely-haggard face.)
However, while Jezebel was in Skietiff’s view but Skietiff not yet in Jezebel’s, a fearful change overtook the captain, frightening in that the captain became less fearful. Who knew what would replace that awfulness? The spines like sparkling jewels beside her, she straightened her own spine and sniffed, as if she were on the ocean-side and all the brooding but promising Pacific stood before her. That cruel step-father, the world, finally took her in his embrace: from her formerly-forbidding face emerged a relaxation of all that was cruelly enforced by her self upon herself. From her inflicting inflections of breath emerged a deep, sympathetic sigh, and some below swore they saw a tear drop descend upon the hard ground.
Suddenly, Jesz noticed Skietiff next to her, hovering near her in the midst of her own reverie.
“How mild this wild child plays today with us playthings, my biled brain among them. It was just such a morning when I set out five years—five years!—five years ago, on my first FLEET. Five non-stop years of deprivation and self-harm, while my mind grew and grew, abstaining from all fetid society, making these palaces my chalices and imbibing deep the deeps. And as a captain—never become a captain, girl, for you isolate yourself further yet in a society that isolates itself from all others—a fishbowl inside a fishbowl, and no way to tell the other fish from your own reflection. Away from those with their easy problems and easy solutions, with their haughty dramas and so-hot flames that consume them like toy candles. I’ve not spent three hours at home, this break, to mark Mark, waiting for me—Mark, who insisted on keeping this relation-ship afloat, when I broke up with him as soon as I bagged him mine! What a fool—a fool, an ignoramus, a simpleton—I am, to throw away the common happiness for the esoteric aloofness. What have I gained out of it? What a promising college applicant I am, eh? And with one heel to boot my boot? Push these bangs out of my face here, Skietiff, they bother my eyes some, it seems. Forelocks growing from the ashes, eh? Look at how old I am—how hopelessly adult I have become. Let me look into your eyes, Skietiff—better to look into the surface area of such illusive depth—found in human eyes—than look into the most edifying of volumes. Look! Look there—I see Mark’s face, with all of his mawkish hairs, the tenderness, the—Mark me, Skietiff. Mark. Me. Do not join us on the dig for the Mocha-Rich. Stay up here, away from all that. Not with this society I see brimming over in thine eyne.”
“Captain Jezebel. My captain! You’ve got reason after all, to speak of this warning to me! Speak it to yourself, Young Swirl. I nor you—nor any of us—has to go on this dig. Let’s go back to the balcony, away from these dooming stacks down here and, in just a few days, we’ll head back home for those bathetical New Year’s celebrations and a new year of FLEETing. My godlessness, woman, how we’ll laugh at this at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day Bonus Rounds! I’ll have you know—I would have you know now, Captain Jezebel—that I too have a boy back home, waiting for me, and if Mark’s face is there in my eye, it is Jason’s face that calls his fellow nerd to appear! Come now, back to the balcony. Give me the word, and I’ll tell them all to pack it back up, and you’ll be the heroine of Pequods FLEET, and this tournament shall be as mild to us as this morning is to all.”
“Yes, mild mornings aplenty now, for all—for my Mark, in some stupor, just lifting his chin from that drool-saturated page upon which he fell asleep, no doubt.”
“Just like my Jason, I tell you, Captain, woman to woman.”
“‘Woman to woman,’” repeated Jezebel, as if this phrase brought her back to her proper place and as if the library book, far overdue, were finally returned to its proper place on her shelf. She was bad as old.
“What woe-meant for us woe-men? What is it, that charges me, that storms me, even in this calm, against all rational actions and forward-thinking thoughts, commanding me to do what Jezebel knows is irrational, stubborn, and foolish? Who determinates this? The devil? The devil’s mistress, that Lilith known as ‘Captain Jesz’? Who does my thinking for me, who minds my mind and will eventually brain my brains? God? Godlessness? No matter where these mild rays shine, they shine stabbingly upon the heart of the inscrutable engine that makes us search and search and toil and toil. How can I not, Skietiff?”
But, well before this question, Skietiff had removed herself, down, down, down—and Jezebel only found Gullah beside her to answer her question, which she did… with silence.
Chapter 65: Pequods FLEET Parlays with That of NeScape
It was soon after this spectacle that a FLEET was espied coming our way to parlay. As I later discovered, unlike our own ever-corporate Pequods Coffee, this FLEET was sponsored by a sinking ship: NeScape, the HTML coders’ support line, which had been among the most vocal of advocates for the use of the div spacer, recognized even in the mid-‘90s as completely superfluous to the language, like an extra period after an ellipsis. This was to be the last FLEET sponsored by NeScape, itself unable to escape bankruptcy within the first quarter of the next calendar year.
The frantic way that these FLEETers stacked up the books for their captain demonstrated their—and her—plight. However, before this captain could speak, our own captain’s plight demanded satisfactory answer:
“Hold there. Before we parlay, tell me: have you seen—”
And here Captain Jezebel paused, for (for the first time turning her head towards the stranger FLEET) she recognized a former elementary school classmate from her own neighborhood, very near to that spot where they now conversed. Nonetheless, denying for the moment any recollection, Jesz continued:
“Have you seen the faint Mocha?”
“Yes. It was the last round that we dug,” hoarsely replied the NeScape captain.
Captain Jezebel nearly fell off the stacks herself, like I had done the night before, but out of nigh-lustful joy and not fearful apprehension. But, she regained her composure, even as she lost her breath and continued losing her mind: “Tell me, tell me, where? Where? How did it happen? You did not answer Her? No!—Not her!—When did this transpire? How did we not know of it?”
“I will tell you of The Question, so long as you cease in reciting the rosary of your own.”
And so, the captain revealed the tragedy: in the midst of their latest packet, NeScape FLEET had indeed encountered the Mocha-Rich and, among those in the frenzy to make dig for Her was the captain’s own sister, a little elementary schooler in her plaid skirt. This captain, apparently, had another sister as well, somewhat around my age, also on that FLEET. While somewhat unusual, such practice was not uncommon, particularly among those rare FLEETing families like Skietiff’s. While sororal affection would be a danger and undue distraction in other fields, these were the FLEETs, and the young ones showed themselves ably without their captain-sister’s interference or aid. Indeed, the fact that these two younger sisters had even attempted to tackle the Mocha-Rich shows their mettle. (It was around this point that Toe, in a very Toe-esque aside, speculated that, firstly, the loss of the little one was the source of the murmurs we had heard on the other side of the door and, secondly, that—all joshing aside—Captain Jesz would no doubt be moved by such an extreme case, given her pity and empathy with Squeak.) Nonetheless, though the middle-school sister was eventually discovered, she could not remember what transpired or where her youngest sister—and The Question—were last observed headed together. Therefore, the youngest sister was somewhere out in the stacks still. Despite foregoing round after round to continue it over every aisle and every stack, the search had proved bootless throughout that darkest night and they had continued on, minus their youngest, most precocious lay, even as the light bedazzled and blinded them.
“Now,” said the NeScape captain to us all, as she saw that Captain Jesz was far too gone to reason with, “I ask you, Pequods FLEET, to join us in our search. We will pay you—compensate you with all the mark-ers we have earned on this tournament, if you just do this: give us fifteen minutes, and we shall find her, no matter how lost in the stacks she be or how tied up and tied in as a result of the Mocha-Rich. Look, look you here.” And here the captain first spotted Squeak in her chair, and directed all of our FLEET’s gaze towards her (save our captain’s gaze, of course—during all of this, Jesz was iron and ice combined, staring straight ahead at the door crack).
“Here is your youngest sister, adopted though she is,” continued the captain, pointing at Squeak, who smiled idiotically. “Would you be in the same boat, we of NeScape FLEET would be honored to do the same for you, without the pleading, imploring, or bargaining that I am forced to use now.” At this point, the NeScape captain was upon her knees, looking up at Jesz. “I see it in your looks, Captain. You affect this little one, just as my own—my sister!—lies in my mind and—yes, my heart. You need not issue the command; I can see that you shall do this thing. First Lady, now—”
“Skietiff!” called out Captain Jesz to Skietiff, who had started to move to offer aid, in the hopes that this appeal to pathos would do what her appeal to reason could not. “We will do no such thing. Back to your posts, Pequods FLEETers. Captain, as you’ve already truncated the parlay by dismounting from those spines, I’d ask you now to re-shelve them and move on. Now that She’s so close, I’ll not risk missing out on the Mocha-Rich myself to succor her past victims, tender-aged though they may be and tender-hearted though you may be.”
“Jezebel—” cried out the NeScape captain.
Jesz silenced her old friend with just one direct look. Gazing into the dark depths of Jezebel’s eye-sockets, the captain understood her fool’s errand and her thus-far-wasted time in her search for her kin.
Responding to this despondency in the other captain, Jesz’s humanity flashed for a moment as she said, “I’m sorry, Bex. I can’t do this. God bless you, friend.”
And so NeScape FLEET had unescaped a two-fold tragedy in its encounter with the Mocha-Rich: first in losing its youngest, and now in losing faith in fellow FLEETers—especially FLEETers whose found faith was their utter hope-filled madness.
Chapter 66: The Dig, Minutes 0-120
By this point, all of us were as exhausted as (I can only assume) a female must be during the third straight day of labor, but all our labors—or something else—finally worked towards bringing about the crown of the Mocha-Rich in this revelation about Her proximity. This new wave of energy (in addition to the waves and waves of Liquid Energy) brought us all out of the foreboding doldrums. We were still, after all, inspired by Jesz’s frenetic, frantic, frenzied position, the iron eagless on top of the boulder above us.
Like Captain Jezebel herself first appearing to us, so pedestrianly and nonchalantly that her very casualness of approach increased our ghastly wonder, so the Mocha-Rich’s copier-light was small, but very apparent. It was preceded by an aura, of sorts, an odorous lingering that made Jesz’s eyes appear even wider and more bloodshot than ever before: she sniffed like a she-dog and stood at erect attention, as if her mistress’s car were pulling into the garage.
“There he goes!” Jezebel cried out first, and almost an instant later the rest of us cried out too, as we descried that familiar but more-ominous faint green glow. “I called Her first! That Madison is mine, you sluts!” screamed out Jesz, and none of us contradicted her—the $5,000 was always hers, after all, and, yes, we were sluts—of the more-voracious intellectual variety.
She bounded off the stacks in one leap that broke her heel and sent it ramming upwards, pinching her foot’s heel and causing her to release a relishing shriek of terror comingled with joy. “Some heel you’ve patched for me, Engineer!” she laughed, and then crawled hand over hand on the floor, stabbing the flooring in spots with her implement. Even with such disability, she beat us and every other FLEETer then assembling to the question-makers’ HQ, and we witnessed a strange but not-unprecedented phenomenon: the Mocha-Rich, without the door opening in the slightest, “breached” through the crack underneath the door and, thanks to “the winds” of all this rushed energy of adolescent throngs descending, actually upended and stood perfectly straight, the sheets of paper standing boldly inches away from our prone, prostrate captain’s disabled form.
The Mocha-Rich was absolutely a behemoth: the serif font so large that, though the words of the questions were surprisingly few, the appearance was all the more challenging and riddling. The pencil scratches and pen marks of generations of FLEETers stood out upon the copied sheets, evincing Her invincibility. Nonetheless, the revelation of the true bestial nature of The Question only served to reveal the most bestial viciousness of The Would-be Answerer. All of our minds were so bonded with hers that Circe worked her magic on us as well, and we turned into greedy, hungry sows rolling in the mud—the utmost folly of the human race and all of us human racers in pursuit. We all were a herd, all were hers, all of us—more foolish to deny it—were Captain Jezebel.
“There She is! She’s mine!” screeched the banshee, as she stabbed out her implement with one hand and grasped out with all her brutish strength with the other. Though the stab missed, it seemed that the pieces of paper were toying with her, flirting with her and tempting her to betray her irrationality. Then She swooped down with utmost malice and, as Jesz grabbed hold of the sheets, they actually slid back beneath the crack, to be caught by the question-makers on the other side—the question-makers who assuredly regretted this “breaching” of a question, just as we regretted our “breaching” of our captain, especially in front of representatives of all the FLEETs then pouncing down upon us. We pulled her back—not just out of embarrassment but also out of sheer determination that this Question would be ours at all costs—just as the question-makers pulled back on the sheets from their end.
The result of this tug-of-war was that Captain Jezebel received an awful paper cut along the entire length of her non-implemented hand, shrieking once again with wild pleasurable terror, indulging in the evil pertinacity of her rival and of herself simultaneously.
The wound was ghastly, but Jezebel sucked at the blood and roared at us, “Stand me up! Intermingle with them in the Line—if any takes our Mocha, take her out!”
This betrayal of the one-representative-for-each-FLEET-only rule—and therefore of the entire corpus of FLEETing law and honor—was too much even for Jesz, as she then realized when she added to the ascending hordes of FLEETers:
“I tell you what, females: I will give $5,000 to whichever of you delivers unto me the Mocha-Rich. If I receive the packet of the Mocha-Rich directly, though, I will give to you all ten times that sum to divide amongst yourselves!”
Members of all the FLEETs we had encountered—Farera, Totonac Co., Terck-Asthmagic, Molenaar-Beton, Band-widths, and NeScape—among several more we had not encountered, gave us space, as this captain assuredly represented the bravest, maddest, most desperate cosmonaut they had ever beheld.
The Line proceeded like any other, save in the fact that each FLEETer departing showed Captain Jesz that her packet was not the Mocha-Rich before she proceeded to rush back to her FLEET, off the hook of such a wild fishing line. I am not sure what any FLEETer would have done had she received the Mocha-Rich packet—it was strictly against the FLEETing Code to “switch” question packets with anyone, no matter how many tens of thousands of dollars were on the stake.
As everyone expected, knew, and predicted, however, Captain Jezebel received, from the disinterested question-maker representative there distributing the packets, the Mocha-Rich.
“Mine… Mine!…” whispered Jezebel, as if her child were finally delivered, the object of all her dreams, desires, and longings in the universe. Toe could have tallied the near-million dollars she then would owe to the FLEETs assembled in that library, but assuredly no one would ask for her money—after all, those FLEETs should have been paying us for taking such a packet, containing the Mocha-Rich. Regardless, we all would pay soon enough.
Captain Jezebel’s mood suddenly changed, now that she had possession of that which she had sought, and her new mildness seemed to be matched by the now-docile sheets of paper upon which The Question loomed just on the other side of the surface. She firmly planted her boot upon the packet as we all gathered around in a circle, just as we had for the oath, and stood just as perplexed by our captain’s behavior—and our own. Though the Mocha-Rich was buried from view under the captain’s boot—and though we were out of the direct sight of Her—She was working Her workings upon us.
“Captain, we had better get started with the digging—”
“Quiet, Toe! Quiet we go,” said Jesz, as she writhed with pain with the splintered heel but still kept her boot firmly planted. Skietiff appeared next to her, and Captain Jezebel did lean on her, like they were the truest of friends and confidants. Bodily, Jesz seemed to show—at long last—her wear and her age—she had so spent herself in grasping for The Question that, now that she and we had Her in hand—despite her early-bird flailings—she was unready, for the moment, to proceed with the dig.
“That heel got the best of you, and not the Mocha, I fear,” giggled Toe.
“Quiet, Toe!” hushed Skietiff. “It was accident—an accident only, as purposeless as most anything else unworthy of rational analysis.”
“Shut up, both of you,” gritted Captain Jesz. “Do you think God makes Her signs this apparent, for idiots to see or scientists to analyze? The truth of all matter lies not in Toe’s tails nor Skietiff’s heads, but on the very edge of the coin itself. You two are all womankind, in different degrees, but only Jesz is Jesz—only I stand on the coin’s edge and feel the ceaseless pain of truth. Ah! Ah!” Here she leaned too heavily upon the broken-heeled foot. “That this captain should have such an easily-conquerable first lady.”
“Ma’am?” asked Skietiff, helping the captain once again to lean off the afflicted foot.
“I meant my body, Skietiff, not you.” With this, Jesz looked at Skietiff in her eyes (once again). “Thanks for this lean-to, friend; it is shelter from the storm inside me. Would that I leaned-to more in my FLEETing life. Now, Engineer, repair my heel while we repair our minds for the coming dig.”
But The Engineer had already been a minute at work and, within two seconds, had repaired the captain’s heel as bad as old. Then and only then, Captain Jezebel eased up on her boot and divvied out The Question to us all, instructing us to pair up (her with Gullah, of course) and return in exactly two hours’ time—reminding Skietiff, like Squeak, to stay behind on the stack-out. Though it was ridiculous for another round to come so soon upon the heel of this one, this has always stood out to me as the oddest of all of Captain Jesz’s most-odd-yet-always-even-keeled commands. While some might speculate that the captain feared the earnestness of the ever-earnest Skietiff in this digging for The Question that the first lady had always objected to seeking, I prefer the more “lean-to” view that I espoused earlier in my reconstruction, and so extrapolated backwards from this public moment to that extended and tender private colloquy.
Regardless, Skietiff obeyed—as always—and we were left on our own as we dug for the Mocha-Rich.
And so, we dug.
Chapter 67: The Dig, Hour 2+
Two hours later, we looked two centuries older. We had frantically dug all over the stacks, but The Question continued to evade us, demonstrating Her intelligent malice and slipperiness that She was known for.
Mighty Peg—my own partner—before Her was powerless, a weakling, a child. What hope then for any of us? Toe and Eng returned, their comedienne routine continuing:
“This Question, she’s always smiling at me. My godlessness, then, I’ll smile back. Give me one last can of Energy, Eng, before we all go down with this dig.”
“Energy’s useless now,” said The Engineer. “If only they made cans of Liquid Entropy.”
Captain Jezebel was the last of us to return to the FLEET HQ, violating her own command. She was alone—Gullah never came back. Gullah, the dark, mystical one, was the first to be swallowed by the Mocha-Rich.
“Captain, where is Gullah?” cried out Skietiff, from on high.
“Gone.” The one word to explain it was delivered most piteously from Captain Jezebel’s once-mighty lips. “Back to it, all of you,” she said, an imitation of her former self.
A pause, as all of us waited for one of us, any of us, to object to the order.
It was, of course, upright, righteous Skietiff:
“This Question, Jezebel, She does not dig for you. She never has—it is you who doom yourself. Let Her go, Captain. Another one, lost to Her, and one who was not human, but Idea incarnate. For all of our sakes, for the sake of the FLEET, let Her go! Captain, why do you ceaselessly disobey Reason?” asked Skietiff, in utter despair.
“Because, though my brain obeys Reason, my mind knows none! Because my brain only beats due to my heart, my all-feeling, never-thinking heart! My mind, it is the wind, and it blows me around the entirety of these stacks—these stacks, they who will outlive us all—better to be a dead book than a living thing. Better to ascend upwards towards the ceiling, towards the celestial bookshelf, than to descend the endless stairwells. Skietiff…” said Jesz with a moving tone, moving towards Skietiff. “Ever since I looked in your eyes and saw… well, you know. I would obey you—obey Reason—now, in any other matter. But in The Question, She is only She, and I am only I! There is no reasoning with either of us, nothing but a ceaseless dig, a pitting of entity against entity. I follow orders here, and look you, my FLEETers, do the same. There is something inside of me that grapples, that grasps, and that will conquer, not—not—my brain! I feel it straining to release itself, and that is Jezebel’s final attack—to implode the rational, not explode it. I will drive the fear in you, females, but what will drive it out of me? An Answer, an Answer to the Mocha-Rich!”
And with this, we all sealed our doom with the old, cheerful, cheerless refrain.
Captain Jezebel spoke, and yet the words seemed not her own, though she was the medium: “‘There’s a riddle now… like a hawk’s beak it pecks my brain. I’ll, I’ll solve it, though!’”
Before we set out again—with Captain Jezebel paired with a new partner, a somewhat-surprising choice of replacement for Gullah—she called Skietiff down. “Embrace me before I go,” said Captain Jezebel.
And they embraced: The only public display of affection I have ever witnessed among FLEETers, to this day. Skietiff seemed calm and shuddering at the same time and therefore I did not fully see what she spoke, but ostensibly she referenced something about being abandoned here on the stack-out (with some words like “mad Medea with her Jason”) and obeying the will of her captain, if not her pilot Reason, the pilot that makes comprehensible this harsh life. As for Jezebel, she may have uttered something about “Nortia pounding the nails into [her] skull” and raising Hell inside herself, digging under scalp and propelling her to dig and dig and never cease digging, but this also was ambiguous.
“Beware of the scavengers, ye avenger!” shrieked out little Squeak, still spinning in her chair by the former-carrel, as Captain Jezebel and the rest of us (save Squeak and Skietiff) departed, yet again, to the stacks to dig. Assuredly, Squeak knew none of us would be coming back—as assuredly as we should have known ourselves.
We thought Squeak’s warning was metaphorical, but she referred to the vultures that descended upon us from all sides: those who had heard, through FLEETing gossip, of what we set out to do. Returning from their ephemeral digs while we continued on ours, they gathered all around us, as these “scavengers” had no intellectual carrion at that point. So, they made aisles for us, and made isles of us. Their FLEETing eyes penetrated into us all as our own penetrated into the texts and as our FLEETing careers penetrated into disgrace and oblivion. We all felt those eyes upon us, waiting for us to fail, ready to take it all in like small black holes—they were as present as the millions of eyes (and billions of “I’s”) in our minds.
It would be too painful to recount in gross detail the sinking of the entire FLEET in the tedious madness that followed, but Jesz’s story is the epitome of ours, so…
Captain Jezebel, the Mocha-Rich well in hand, commanded her new partner to march quickly to the 120’s, for there she would take her final stand. She rifled through the books, ripping them off the shelf and seemingly burning holes into each page she encountered with her awe-worthy intensity. Then, amidst these very stacks, Jesz and her partner beheld Gullah, lost for good in the depths of The Question, there with the blank page before the back cover of some tome spread open before her—in a state of stupor and, according to Dickinson, what follows like lead from stupor: the Letting-Go. The Question would not let her go, and so she had let everything go. It was a pitiable sight, even for one as inhuman in manner and appearance as Gullah.
“You go before me,” said Jezebel. “But I shall not go so gently, my see-Gull.” Then she uttered a few words in Parsi—whether they were a blessing or a curse, I know not.
With this, Jesz picked up her frenzy, and The Question seemed to match it, rejecting every scratch and every half-written word upon the prompt sheet as dismally insignificant to the great mystery She set before us. Any certainty was dashed upon Her faint power; any conclusion merely the hypothesis of the next endeavor. She was the futility of all Science, all Progress, all Inquiry—revealing holes within the whole patchwork that could not be woe-mended.
At long last, there She remained, and Jesz’s unfortunate (for the time being) partner sought refuge from the malevolent Sphinx by burying herself in a lower stack, which somehow closed upon her as the top lid of a coffin.
She was soon enough forgotten. Her voice was nowhere near as powerful as the other Pequods FLEETers, coming from all parts of the library, expressing their utter bewilderment, madness, and despair in the face of their ever-uncertain certain doom. (Apparently, some 24 hours later, first Skietiff and then even Squeak would raise their respective futile one-female search parties for any survivors—and so, every single member of the FLEET shared Jesz’s fate.)
As for Captain Jezebel, ending her career as she lived it—utterly alone—sometime during Day 3 she drew up her holy patchwork implement and, holding the Mocha-Rich firmly on the upper thigh of the leg that She/she had previously spared, shouted at that every-tattling but never-telling Question: “From the inferno of my soul, I thrust at you!” This resonated throughout the library, and her shriek of pleasure mixed with pain was merely the aftershock. Captain Jezebel was one with the Mocha-Rich, thrice over: the first in her first encounter, but now doubly so, for the newly-refashioned point from the Mocha-Rich’s first attack was stabbed clean through the point of the Mocha-Rich’s barely-printed question mark, so that both points were embedded into a third point—the new hole: the point of no return. It would be dishonorable to recount the embarrassing scene of the discovery of Jezebel and her forced egress from the library to the local hospital, and her raving, reeling, recoiled response—just be it stated here that the Mocha-Rich remained forcibly attached to her person, soaking up the dark red that covered any faintness as it made Jesz more faint.
But, the captain—in the opposite of sinking-ship decorum—was the last to go down of the diggers: three of her FLEETmates had preceded her, each one swallowed up in the stacks, never to return to another FLEETing tournament, their FLEETing lives finished with the same winding fall as that Madison note, which (I heard later) somehow fell from the tack during the Day-3.5 Interval and performed a reverse-Bulky: being sucked into a high window, it flapped all the way down to its own doom in the giant dumpster outside the library. Thus the eagless met her demise, forever looking out at the viewer during her doomed flight, descent, and death—either impaled upon the Capitol Dome or dragged to the bottom of the sea by the indifferent waves. Only in America.
As for the FLEETers as a tribe, they would keep on unyieldingly striving, seeking, searching, questing, digging, quenching, driving, and questioning themselves, and so they ended up just about as well as can be expected for any of us—for, taken from an unearthly distance, all of these toils, trials, and pains we put ourselves through—the lifetimes of suffering and the milliseconds of triumph—continue to roll on as they did five thousand years ago and will roll on five thousand years from now, even if—especially if—we are no longer here as a species, leaving nothing behind us save the attempts to make sense when the stars have no senses-takers to sense them; taken from that universal perspective, the ever-incomplete litany of human facts—these flailings for knowledge which can never last and can never penetrate—is nothing less than… “trivial.”
Chapter 68: Another (Kind of) Orphan
“Yes; and many is the time, when, after the severest uninterrupted labors, which know no night; continuing straight through for ninety-six hours… they fly to fight another [question], and go through the whole weary thing again.” –An Expert Questioner
I draw your attention—for the third time—to the fate described in the third paragraph of Chapter 5, for it is mine—you knew my end well before you knew it, even if you never know me.
It was I—I, “Mahalath”—who was that FLEETer chosen by Captain Jezebel to accompany her on that tragic stage of the dig. It was I who found myself trapped in my brave Peg’s quarantine stack, surviving off victuals and relieving myself as best as I could, while the maelstrom engulfed my entire FLEET. While they were driven to the depths of the library, I was driven to the depths of mine—the seemingly-infinite library inside my skull—where I at long last realized the significance of that weight of memory.
For, as I was rudely sealed shut in that quarantine, I discovered in a most painful way a bookend stabbing my torso, in just the exact same place that was so pained and constricted during my last involuntary trip to this library of the mind when I was four years old, which dear Peg’s hold on me reminded me of—foreshadowed of—so clearly and so dearly.
I still feel it to this day. I was—and am, and will forever be—book-ended.
My slouch continues to be my most defining feature but, luckily, this is seen as a sign of a hardened FLEETer and, so, if anything, I have been able to carry on my masquerade with greater legitimacy.
During the Day-3.5 Interval, at long last NeScape FLEET, still looking for the littlest sister, found me instead—another kind of orphan. The FLEET missing one of its members and me missing my entire FLEET, we found a complementary solution and, so, I took on the identity of Captain Bex’s sister, for a time.
Thus was the beginning of my FLEETing career—or rather, FLEETing charade. I am still on that dig. Ever since the end of its beginning on that third day, I have been a Confidence-Woman, testing and exploiting the increasingly-fleeting FLEETing confidence and honor for my own ends. Indeed, as the FLEETs disappear and the FLEETing pools become smaller and smaller, I must become more creative with my tactics, but I find that the FLEETers are much more trusting and much less discerning, now especially, before we all fade away—the relationship between FLEETing numbers and FLEETing “honor” (and all the foolishness that it represents) is inversely proportional. Hence all the fake names, all the shifting identities, and the ease with which, in this tract, I took on the voices with such dexterity of all my Pequods FLEETing colleagues—I am well at practice in this. I have, in turn, taken on every one of their identities and appearances, like a minstrelsy Madonna, persona-chameleon of the FLEETing world. Even this “real” identity of “Mahalath ____________” is a complete fabrication, and one which I grow quickly tired of.
I make promises that I will see all of the FLEETers I encounter again and, while they do not realize I keep my promise, I do: I have seen most of the FLEETers now extant several times by this point, although in several different forms myself. Who knows? Perhaps we all of us shape-shift and there is a much more limited number than the paltry few remaining now.
While her masquerade may yet continue, however, I must regret one promise of Mahalath’s that I am unable to keep for her: I have yet to discover exactly what all the coffee jargon means and, indeed, am worried that I will be outed and ousted because of it. Nonetheless, the bluster of these characterizations—caricatures?—makes up for what they lack in the niceties of FLEETing decora. While I do regret the appearances I made in blackface as a younger female, in imitation of poor Squeak, I must admit it offered a great sense of release.
There is one of us that I would not dare to impersonate, however, and that is Captain Jesz herself.
She is still out there, just as all of them are out there, somewhere, masquerading like me in the FLEETs or, keeping identity, in some better—if less intellectual—place. I have not run into them yet, nor any vestige of Pequods Coffee FLEET or its sponsors, which met the same fate as NeScape FLEET—disbanding shortly after that fateless tournament—though much less predictably.
So, the dig continues. My dig, looking for Her. Or is it, for her?
Now, wherever she is, she assuredly wears two high heels, and so blends in with the anonymous, selfless incorporated female she so despised. I know she will catch me, or I her, one day—and nothing in this world so frightens and titillates me simultaneously. Whenever I hear the click-clack, click-clack, I know it is only a matter of evenly-footed, regularly-measured time.
When I find Captain Jesz, I will find the essence of the Mocha-Rich, for they are one and the same, perhaps always were. Some in the FLEETing circles who hear of the vague shadowy hints of this tale—all far from the truth, as this prosaic prose is as well (perhaps epic poetry is the only way to get at the mind of the matter and the souls of these questions)—claim that the Mocha-Rich, after the “fatal” incident, changed form Herself, just like the good captain and, from that point on, read as: “Who was Captain Jesz of Pequods FLEET?”
That question would be enough to catatonize any FLEETer, nowadays, for Captain Jezebel’s name and memory is as taboo as the Mocha-Rich Herself. Neither of them has been spotted again in FLEETing circles, but that just gives me more odds—more faith—that both of them will be encountered—and claimed—very very soon. Before the FLEETing world ends, its ends must be answered. While numerous cultural trends led to the demise of this “club,” I see as epitome of its end this tale of the Mocha-Rich and the true villain of the story, its heroine Captain Jezebel. (Perhaps Gullah and her anti-FLEETing forces worked their malevolent influences and secured ultimate victory, but I know beyond any atheist’s doubt that no one had as malevolent influence on the captain as herself.)
Regardless, I may have been the last one still in the FLEETs to have dug for Her, outright, and to have witnessed Her in all Her opaque, transparent translucence. And so, now, in my current guise as question-maker, I have half a mind to sink all of the FLEETs with unleashing Her yet again to the dregs of the FLEETing world waiting outside my door. Now, in this current Golden Age, it seems that the more answers we have, the more answerless She becomes. And so, this whole tome has been preface to posing The Question to you, at long last, as neophyte a FLEETer as I was back then. May its reproduction now continue to haunt you as She and she have continued to haunt me:
“[Reason?] This isn’t the Age of Reason, this is the Age of Information; if you want Reason, go back 300 years.” –Person with Clipboard, 2008