“In the Oubliette”
One human soul did hear that last note, the last note of the hurdy-gurdy man, although he only noticed it by noticing that it had stopped.
“The wheezer has stopped,” the large man in the hole said to his two fellow hole-dwellers.
“The wheezer will start again,” said one of the lesser two.
“I suppose we can sleep now,” said the third.
The three men were trapped in an oubliette, which is a sort of hole with a hinged trap door at the top, and a long way to drop. In French, it means “the place of forgetting”... a place to drop people you wish to forget. The theory is terribly simple, that being that a troublesome person could simply be thrown down the hole and out of the life of the thrower. In most oubliettes, the assumption was that the thrown would just die of starvation if not the fall. In this oubliette, a small trickle of water fed in from the trap door, and drained away through a small hole at the base, allowing the poor prisoners to drink from this foul waterfall, and also allowing the occasional small creature to fall in to be devoured by the three long forgotten outcasts. When times were tough, and the animal cuisine lean, they plucked a miraculously edible sort of fungus from the walls and survived exclusively on that. It is a remarkable facet of human survival instinct that the human body can sometimes thrive on that which is intended to kill it, and in the case of our three oublietteurs, they had developed a gourmand’s thrill to the detection and eating of these delicacies. This predilection, unknownst to the three men, had grown immune to the deep toxicity of this fungus. This, O, dear reader, should be noted, and will prove most important at some point (unstated) later in the novel.
Unfortunately, in an oubliette, the darkness is so great that visual stimuli is absolutely useless. None of the three oublietteurs could see the others, so the large one’s largeness was only abstractly confirmed. They knew he was large, via the occasional brush past.
“What do you think it means?” asked the large man.
“Means? Does it have to mean anything?”
“No, maybe not.”
And so it began: the tiresome circular debates the three prisoners held to keep themselves not so much amused as capable of remembering just what exactly language is and how it works. The big one, known to himself as Argus (although the other two had never asked his name), was also the quietest of the three.
“Do you suppose they’ll let us out today?” asked the smallest of the three, who was currently missing a large chunk of his skull which was slowly being eaten away by an unknown flesh eating virus.
“You ask that question every day,” said the middle prisoner, who had nothing remarkable about him except he contained several dozen rusty nails that were being passed through his colon, a process which had begun nearly three years earlier and would have ended about six months later had the nails not become lodged in his rectum from the inside, essentially nailing his sphincter shut backwards. Also, he had violet eyes, but nobody could tell, considering the darkness. He had been told, in the years of his liberty, that they were quite lovely and exotic.
“I don’t think I ask the question every day, how do we know it’s even day?”
Argus sighed, not eager to jump into this conversation.
“Alright,” said the violet-eyed middle prisoner, “I’ll amend that statement to point out that you have repeatedly asked that question on a regular basis for as long as I can recall.”
“And every single time, you tell me I ask that question every day.”
“And then, every single time, you tell me that I tell you that you ask that question every day. And I’d like to...”
“...express your discontent toward my absurd level of optimism,” said the smallest prisoner.
“Fair enough, fair enough. Let’s think of a new argument.”
While your humble narrator could conceivably fill several thousand pages with this sort of thing, for the benefit of paperback shelves the world over, I shall spare you the numbing details in favor of a singular event: for the first time in over four decades, the door at the top of the oubliette opened, and two adult male bodies in shadow could be seen leering over the hole.
One of these adult male bodies, incidentally, was me.
At this juncture, reader, I’ll digress momentarily to explain myself, who I am, and why I am, at this point in the tale, opening the aforementioned oubliette. My name is Dr. Gregor Thwack, specializing in the unbelievably specific field of antepsychiatry, a field that I, personally, devised, and I, personally, dominate. It would be far too much typing to explain exactly what it is this field consists of, but I’ll dumb it down for you thusly:
Nearly twenty-five years ago, a quarter of a century, I arrived in Zanzibar from the faraway city of X-, on the continent of Y-, driven by dreams of fame and fervent dedication to my field. In those days, the antepsychiatry had yet to be invented, and the world was stuck with either normal (mundane) psychiatry or the abysmal failures of various science fiction writers that had accumulated a great many friends in the political schema, leading to a great many attempts to make a great deal of money from the miserable failures of those around them. My first book, “Antepsychiatry: The Coming Salvation”, I outlined exactly what was wrong with these failures, as well as including a list of my favorite muffin recipes. One recipe, for broccoli muffins (you really shouldn’t knock the idea until you try them, they’re rather like corn fritters in a way, a point that was made to me several days after publication and editting the damn terminology was the ship that had sailed), took the city of X- by mania, and I was invited to be on television shows, popular homemaking journal covers and several tent revivals, when I, frankly, grew tired.
It was at this point in my tale that I first met Alice Reegs and Levitivus Greeves, a pair of individuals that prove the old adage, “Great mind thinks alike,” and immediately I was wrapped into their grasp. The Reegs-Greeves Affair was one of the great love kerfuffles of history, rather like Antony and Cleopatra, if Antony had been a free-energy physicist and Cleopatra one of the many, again, aforementioned, various science fictions that had accumulated a great many friends in the political schema, leading to a great many attempts to make a great deal of money from the miserable failures of those around them. I, being around them, was one of those miserable failures, driven into conniptions of rage that my Antepsychiatry had been accepted by the common media as little more than a vehicle for my broccoli muffins.
But what is Antepsychiatry?
In my cubicle hovel of the University of X-, I had found myself studying the great religions of the past, the great political and social movements that defined history. Staring endlessly for months at a time at pictures of long half-forgotten demigods and the equally forgotten Communards, I fell into a deep and long lasting funk, existential in scope. At this point, dear reader, I began to make muffins.
I found, pleasantly, that the act of making heaps upon heaps of muffins, originally starting with the traditional blueberry and moving on to more obscure varieties, up to and including the broccoli muffin, I had discovered something true. Simply put, the mind is most active when it is distracted with fine details of increasingly specific improvement. By starting with a simple formula, and learning everything there is to know about the subject by experience and trial, one can actually shift one’s brain into a different zone of consciousness, the zone I call
A N T E P S Y C H I A T R Y !
That beautiful moment before the realization of one’s mental connection to a thing. The moment, for instance, when one is on the verge of a sound and tremendous sleep, the kind of sleep that whisks one away to a world of fantasy and imaginary whim, the kind of sleep that is symbolized by those whirly toy thingies on top of baby cribs that spin, the kind of sleep that a man in agony dreams about and the kind of sleep that can only be experienced by the most hateful of billionaires on top of a pile of money collected from trillions of dead orphans, interrupted just as it arrives by a sudden spasm of one’s right leg. Officially, called the “Hypnagogic”, it is in this state of activity that one can completely cease any and all mental functions and find peace. Here, the psychiatry of the “just before”, is Antepsychiatry. The second the thing being done is realized, the mind can get in the way, ruining the entire experience forever. Antepsychiatry was about removing this impulse. Obviously, I have tried drugs, electric shocks, icepicks, but nothing seems to work except good old fashioned dither. This dither, by the way, can be learned by anyone, with nothing more than practice and a desire to see the effects for themselves.
Naturally, it’s a rarefied field, one that few seem interested in. The few, in this case, were Reegs and Greeves, and I was offered a rare chance to accompany them on the Reegs-Greeves Exodus, wherein the brains and thinkers of the world would leave mundane society to their own devices and withdraw to the village of Zanzibar, on the far edge of the Great Desert, next to the Great Sea. The financial leader of the Exodus was a billionaire (who, of course, likely did sleep on top of a pile of money collected from trillions of dead orphans) named Alphonse Magoo, late of the Magoo, Magoo and Shitbag Diamond Extraction Concern. Zanzibar had been constructed on his demand several decades earlier to act as a vacation getaway, although it was also to, not surprisingly, hunt for diamonds. On this surreptitious goal, obviously, was the problem: there were several enormous giants in the desert between X- and Zanzibar, there were no diamonds, and Reegs-Greeves were wasting their time, as well as mine, and the other forty deluded academics they hustled with them.
And now, because the full, sordid details of the Reegs-Greeves Exodus will inevitably be part of this little drama of ours, I’ll return to the Argus-in-the-oubliette scenario, so as to keep the proverbial ball on the proverbial Canadian croquet field.
The other shadow with me was Gaffney Greeves, the identical looking man to Gibney Greeves, the hunter of giants. Gibney and Gaffney were the identical twin sons of Alice Reegs and Leviticus Greeves, and, luckily, neither looked much like either parent, as Reegs later developed a severe case of “hole in throat from smoking too much” and Greeves had what the Carnies call “gimp neck”. Gaffney, the more sociable of the two brothers, had long preferred the life of poet dilettante, to Gibney, who had inherited his father’s lust for theoretical astrophysics. This was to prove a great rift between the two boys, particularly because Gaffney was, frankly, mad.
I had been dozing for over fifteen years in the Zanzibarbarian Institute of Academic Institutionalization Academy, where I had been (accused of!) presumed to be teaching my Antepsychiatry, when young Gaffney was dropped into my office. The little tyke had killed his mother, rather messily, and, as the scion of the world’s greatest free-energy physicist, was unlikely to be incarcerated for the deed. Alice Reegs had been murdered by her son whilst sleeping. He poured gasoline down the tracheotomy hole as she slept, and lit her ablaze from within.
Still, as the de facto co-heir of Zanzibar, he was to be forgiven his little crime of matricide, and I found him to be a rather pleasant young fellow. I deduced that his rage and flights of homicidal mania could be traced to the unrealistic expectations laid upon him by his parents. I taught him one of the most valuable lessons of Antepsychiatry: never expect too much from anybody, because when they fail you, it’s not acceptable to pour gasoline down their tracheotomy holes. Shunned by his father, and underestimated by his brother, Gaffney became almost a son to me. He was certainly the greatest student of Antepsychiatry the world has ever known, but, to be fair, probably the only one, since I had moved out to the opposite of a continental desert and had burnt all the copies of my book in protest to the insistence of the publisher that I write another cookbook, this time about scones. Obviously, that sort of thing makes it difficult for the student to be prepared for the master’s arrival.
“Anger,” said I, “is the result of expectation unrealistically heaped upon far too small a circumference of events, Gaffney. It’s rather like too many things heaped upon a fine membrane. Space them across the membrane at a sufficient level, you see, and it doesn’t snap. The membrane of expectation can hold only so many events. By getting angry, you stretch the membrane, and it is likely to droop and shatter.”
“So then,” saith he, “would it be wiser to focus on one specific event, if one is overwhelmed with anger? Expect less of the other events, learn to become accustomed to their inevitable disappointment? Ignore their endless and soul-crushing niminy-piminy little nastinesses?”
“It would perhaps be wiser,” I proposed. I then proposed that he find an event to focus his anger toward, although I was initially uncertain that the anger was at all necessary. However, as he had just killed his mother, and was across an entire desert from anybody who would prevent him from doing the same to me, I minimized the thought from my mind and indeed my conversation.
Gaffney stopped coming to my office on a daily basis, limiting his visits to once a week. Then, it was once a month. Soon, I was alone with my typewriter and it’s three remaining flimsy ribbons. I was wondering what the likelihood was of there being more ribbons anywhere in Zanzibar. I thought briefly about soaking one in creosote to see if that would work. I might still do that. It could work, although it may clog the machinery. One day, while dozing gently on the notion of creosote soaked typewriter ribbons and the problems thereof, nearly six months since his last visit, Gaffney appeared to me in my office, unannounced, rather like a green velveted, wild-eyed specter. His garment was the color of olive vinegar, bearing a light sheen. His buttons I recall were unusually bright copper, pressed with little images of the giantess’ face. For the first time in years, he seemed optimistic, although slightly more homicidal than usual.
“Thinking upon your notion of a single momentous event upon which to latch my fervent dedication, Doctor, I have come to the realization that it is modestly seditious in scope; nay, near unto traitorous. I beg you to listen with intent as it was your initial sophistry which led me to it. Thou art an accomplice at my word, at any rate.”
A strange addition, this Jacobean affectation.
“Very well,” I said, instinctively covering my throat with my right hand.
“You knew my father?”
I did know his father. Leviticus Greeves had done me great ill. I nodded, knowing this had gone too far. For the first time I noticed he had an envelope in his gloved hand. He was tapping said envelope slightly against his thigh, which was wrapped in a buff colored pair of pantaloons that looked to my sleep befogged eyes to be a sausage casing. Within the envelope, I surmised, was evidence of my cooperation and, indeed, encouragement of whatever the dangerous fancy would happen to lead me.
“Then you know of the Argus Initiative?”
“Only vaguely, Gaffney. Vaguely. It was Alice’s initial thought that the fruit of her womb was insufficiently loyal to the Reegs-Greeves manifesto. Gibney, she theorized, was much too dedicated to the cold reality of maintenance, rather than creation. Milo was only a half-breed, she believed, as he stepped from a disloyal subsidiary, and, of course, you would eventually go on to matricide. The Argus Initiative was to create a fourth son, outside of the whimsical apparatus of traditional techniques, a son which would combine the technical superiority of Greeves with her own rather dastardly sense of conscience.”
“And you were called in to discuss it?”
“Initially, yes.” I half-lied. I had read the proposal and Reegs told me to approve it’s soundness on a psychiatric basis, and I did so, as I do so many things. Whatever it takes. “I can see where this is headed.”
Gaffney stood, and handed me my coat and my hat. I was motioned out the door.