For early support and input, the author wishes to thank Laura Atlas, Carolyn Weekley, and Phil Calbi; and Margaret Glover and Stephen Crook with the New York Public Library. Virginia Bartow, Curator of the Library's Rare Books Collection, also earns special mention for assisting the author in his research. The author is additionally indebted to Pat Walsh and David Poindexter at MacAdam/Cage who have apparently decided that playwrights can, on occasion, produce publishable novels.
epistolary (i pis'tl er e), adj. 1. of or associated with letters or letter writing. 2. of, pertaining to, or consisting of letters: an epistolary novel.
lip•o•gram (lip ə́ gram), n. a written work composed of words selected so as to avoid the use of one or more letters of the alphabet.
Nol•lop (nol' əp), n. a 63-square-mile autonomous island nation 21 miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina. Established as a quasi-communal society by dispossessed southern Americans in the 1840s, the island declared its independence from the United States in 1870. Over the years the country's leadership has sought to uplift its black and white citizens through almost monastic devotion to liberal arts education and scholarship, effectively elevating language to a national art form, while relegating modern technology to the status of avoidable nuisance. Formerly Utopianna, the country's name was changed in 1904 to honor native son Nevin Nollop, the author of the popular pangram sentence The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
pan•gram (pan' grem -gram), n. a phrase, sentence or verse composed of all the letters of the alphabet: A quirky novel with pages of zany, jumbled lexicon.
In the beginning was the Word. GOSPEL OF JOHN, CHAPTER 1, VERSE 1
The wicked peon quivered,
then gazed balefully at the judges
who examined him. ANONYMOUS TYPESETTER
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog
Sunday, July 23
Dear Cousin Tassie,
Thank you for the lovely postcards. I trust that you and Aunt Mittie had a pleasant trip, and that all your stateside friends and paternal relations are healthy and happy.
Much has happened during your one-month sojourn off-island. Perhaps your Village neighbors have apprised you. Or you may have glanced at one of the editions of The Island Tribune that have, no doubt, accumulated on your doorstep. However, I will make die safest assumption that you have yet to be offered the full account of certain crucial events of the last few days (tucked away as you and your mother are in your quiet and rustic little corner of our island paradise), and inform you of the most critical facts pertaining to such events. You'll find it all, if nothing else, quite interesting.
On Monday, July 17, a most intriguing thing took place: one of the tiles from the top of the cenotaph at town center came loose and fell to the ground, shattering into a good many pieces. A young girl here, one Alice Butterworth, discovered the fallen tile at the base of the statue, carefully gathered up the bits and shards, and quickly conveyed them to the offices of the High Island Council. Tiny Alice delivered these fragments into the hands of Most Senior Gordon Willingham who promptly called an emergency meeting of that lofty body to glean purpose and design from this sudden and unexpected detachation.
This aforementioned gleaning—this is important.
Many in town were in attendance at this critical meeting. Olive, whom the laundress corps elected to attend as our representative/observer, given the need for a nearly full contingent of workers at the launderette on this particular day, returned much later than expected to report the have-and-say of the lengthy session, specifically with regard to the aforementioned issue and question before the Council.
I must own that we were quite ataken by the Council's initial reaction to the incident, most of us regarding it as mere happenstance. The Council, on the other hand, sought with leapdash urgency to grasp sign and signal from the loss, and having offered themselves several possible explanations, retired with all dispatch to closed-door chambers for purpose of solemn debate and disposition.
In so doing Most Senior Council Member Willingham and his four fellow counciliteurs left themselves scant room for the possibility that the tile fell simply because, after one hundred years, whatever fixant had been holding it in place, could simply no longer perform its function. This explanation seemed quite the logical one to me, as well as to my fellow laundresses, with the single exception of one Lydia Threadgate who holds the Council in bloated esteem due to a past bestowal of Council-beneficence, and who would not be dissuaded by a healthy dose of our dull-brass-and-pauper's-punch brand of logic.
However, in the end, our assessments and opinions counted for (and continue to count for) precious little, and we have kept our public speculation to a minimum for fear of government reprisal, so charged with distrust and suspicion have the esteemed island elders (and elderess) become following last year's unfortunate visit by that predatory armada of land speculators from the States, harboring designs for turning our lovely, island Shangri-la into a denatured resort destination for American cruise ships.
With the Council in high conference for the succeeding forty-eight hours, the washboard brigade made at least two pilgrimages to town center, there to gaze up at the much revered cenotaph and its salt-wind-eroded statuary likeness of our most venerated Mr. Nevin Nollop—the man for whom this island nation was lovingly named—the man without whom this shifting slab of sand and palmetto would hold paltry placement in the annals of world history. We take significant pride here in town as you and your fellow villagers, no doubt, do as well, there in your green canopied hills to the north of us—pride in the man and his legacy, such legacy immortalized in tiled bandiford on the crown of the pedestal upon which his sculpted semblance stands: T-H-E Q-U-I-C-K B-R-O-W-N F-O-X J-U-M-P-S O-V-E-R T-H-E L-A-Z-Y D-O-G. Of course, now, without the tile bearing the letter "Z," the phrase "lazy dog" has become "la*y dog."
How different the world would be today if not for the sentence which the lexically gifted Mr. Nollop issued forth! How we cherish his contribution to the English-speaking world of one short sentence that employs with minimal repetition each of the twenty-six letters of our alphabet!
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
For this, Mr. Nollop was deserving of nothing short of Nobel. He received, instead, as you must remember from Mrs. Calliope's island history class, little recognition beyond these familiar shores. Yet remember that here we made up for the lack of global acclaim by honoring him with this imposing statue. And later the acclaim did come—posthumously, alas—but eventually and ultimately through the gratitude of the multypewritudes.
Pop volunteered to repair the tile and return it to its rightful place. His offer was summarily rejected. Rejected, as well, was an offer put forth by members of the Masons Guild to restore the entire monument to its former polished sheen and fettle, such restoration to include the careful removal and refastening of each of the thirty-four remaining century-old tiles.
But along these lines the Council would entertain no offers or suggestions whatsoever. In the words of Councilmistress La Greer Houston, "There was, without doubt, purpose to the tumble: this event constituting, in my belief, a terrestrial manifestation of Mr. Nollop's wishes. Mr. Nevin Nollop speaks to us from beyond the grave, my fellow Nollopians. We will listen with open ears, discern his intent, and follow those wishes accordingly."
On Wednesday, July 19, the Council, having gleaned and discerned, released its official verdict: the fall of the tile bearing the letter "Z" constitutes the terrestrial manifestation of an empyrean Nollopian desire, that desire most surely being that the letter "Z" should be utterly excised—fully extirpated—absolutively heave-ho'ed from our communal vocabulary!
Henceforth, use of the arguably superfluous twenty-sixth letter will be outlawed from all island speech and graphy. It appears that this is how Mr. Nollop chooses to reward the islanders who drew him and his brilliance to their collective bosom: by issuing this directive, by sitting fully upright upon his bier, as it were, and ordering us to communicate using only the twenty-five letters that remain.
And we, as his grateful servants (serving the memory of his greatness) have been called by High Council to obey. Under penalties to be determined by the aforementioned Council.
On Friday, July 21, those penalties were decided. They are as follows: to speak or write any word containing the letter "Z," or to be found in possession of any written communication containing this letter, one will receive for a first offense, a public oral reprimand either by a member of the island Law Enforcement Brigade (known with trembling affection as the L.E.B.) or by member of its civilian-auxiliary. Second offenders will be offered choice between the corporal pain of body-flogging and the public humiliation of headstock upon the public square (or in your case, the village commons). For third offense, violators will be banished from the island. Refusal to leave upon order of Council will result in death.
My dear Cousin Tassie, I could not believe what I heard—still cannot—yet it is all frighteningly true. Would that itty Alice had taken the crumbles of that terrible tile under cover of darkness to one of our masons and had it reassembled and refastened, without anyone being the wiser!
And yet, truly, there are moments—brief moments—in which I entertain the thought that perhaps there may exist some thin thread of likelihood that the Council may have correctly read the event. That as ludicrous, as preposterous as it seems, the fallen tile may indeed be communication from our most honored and revered Mr. Nollop. Nevin Nollop may, in fact, be telling us exactly what the Council singularly believes (for I understand the five members to be clearly of one mind in their belief). That having absented himself from the lives of his fellow islanders for lo these one hundred and seven years, the Great Nollop now rouses himself briefly from his eternal snooze to examine our language and our employment of it, and in so doing rouses us from our own sleepy complacency by taking this only marginally important letter from us. There is that very real, although admittedly microscopic, possibility, my dear cousin. For, with the exception of the use of the letter in reference to itself and its employment in the word "lazy" affixed in permanence to its partner "dog," I have, in scanning the text of my epistle to you thus far, discovered only three merest of uses: in the words "gaze," "immortalized," and "snooze." Would you have lost my meaning should I have chosen to make the substitutions, "looked," "posteritified," and "sleep"? What, my dearest Tassie, have we then lost? Very little. And please note that a new word would have been gained (posteritified) in the process! Perhaps I may actually grow to embrace this challenge as others, no doubt, are preparing to do themselves.
The edict is to take effect at the moment of midnight cusp on August 7/8. In the days remaining we are permitted to zip, zap and zoop to our blessed hearts' content. Mum, Pop and I are planning a party that evening to bid farewell to this funny little letter. I wish so much that you and Aunt Mittie could be in attendance. We will welcome in a new era. What it holds for us, I do not know, but I shall give this thing the benefit of cautious initial fealty. I leave open the slim possibility that Nollop does indeed wish it so.
Monday, July 24
Dear Cousin Ella,
New era! Posh-and-pooh! This latest development hasn't inaugurated a new era. It's only shoved us far deeper into the dungeon of Island Medievalism. We shall be wearing burlap and flour sack tomorrow, and lucubrating by candlelight because even light bulbs seem doomed now to join the official list of technological non-essentials. And now this regulation! I am bezide myself!
Your letter, I must confess, left me initially speechless, for having just returned home, neither I nor Mother was aware that any such thing had taken place! Now, hours later, I gather my thoughts together, my nerves still raw and jangled, the pen still unsteady in my trembling hand. Such an act as that presently being perpetrated on the people of this good island by our esteemed High Island Council is beyond diabolical. "Cautious initial fealty"? Have you not even considered all the consequences of losing this "funny little letter"? My friend Rachalle, who inherited our small village library with the passing of Mrs. Redfern, reminds me that with the prohibition, the reading of all books containing the unfortunate letter will have to be outlawed as well. There are, I would surmise, few, if any, volumes upon those biblio-shelves that do not contain it.
The Council, in its ridiculous wisdom, will be assigning to dust bins and community pyres centuries of the finest examples of sapience and sagacity—volume upon volume of history, literature, and thought promulgated through the medium of this cherished language of kings and knaves, scholars and clowns, to be replaced, dear Cuz, by the anemic and uninquiring ramblings of this flock of humans-become-ground-pecking sarilla geese, looking skyward only for evidence of approaching rain, then to seek cover, pecking and honking along the way when not following blindly the anserherd's wooden staff, not without complaint, but certainly without measurable rebellious spirit. On second thought, my analogy seems hardly appropriate, for in the way made most significant by our circumstances, we aren't like the sarilla geese at all! For unlike our feathered neighbors who protest the tiniest importunities against their dignity, we will keep our beaks clamped tightly shut, not emitting even so much as a peep of dissatisfaction.
I am so fearful, Ella, as to where this all may lead. A silly little letter, to be sure, but I believe its theft represents something quite large and oh so frighteningly ominous. For it stands to rob us of the freedom to communicate without any manner of fetter or harness.
We are a well-educated, well-versed, and well-spoken people whom Mr. Nollop has taught to elevate language to a certain preeminence unmatched by our vocabu-lazy American neighbors across the sound. We are a nation of letter-writers, who, in the absence of reliable telephone service or the existence of electronic mail, have cultivated our hardship far beyond all expectation. Do you honestly believe that this same Mr. Nollop would allow his fellow islanders to see their language so diminished? Or permit diminution of the islanders themselves by extension? I cannot even conceive of it. The Council is wrong. Yet, observe that none of us will risk telling it so, for fear of the consequences. Installed for life, with complex legal procedures for official recall, copies of which will soon be disappearing from the shelves of our island libraries (if they haven't already!), this council has set us up for a most difficult period without any avenue for redress. I pray that you and I both have the strength and fortitude to weather this most devastating of island storms.
If not, God help us all.
Your cousin Tassie PS. Neither I nor Mother will be able to attend your party on the 7th. Nollop "Im"-Pass is mired again from last week's heavy rains, and the Littoral Loop has yet to be reopened following the early summer inundata. (I would avoid the Littoral Loop, in any event, as it is, while scenic, the longest distance between two points known to man.) And please understand my unwillingness to trespass upon the Pony Expresspath; the sprinting Pony brother-couriers are Mercury-swift these days, and I would prefer that my obituary not read, "She was ingloriously run over by a fleet-footed fourteen-year-old." If I am to have any choice in the matter, I would choose a less pedestrian death, thank-you-very-much. PPS. You will notice that with the exception of the use of the letter "Z" in the anserous term "vocabu-lazy," the affectionately familiar "Cuz," and the mischievously manufactured "bezide," the letter is employed nowhere else in this missive. My point stands on principle: to choose to use the letter if I so wish it, or to choose not to; such is my right—a right now to be eradicated by stroke of High Council pen. And with that, I cloze. [Upon the Minnow Pea kitchen table] NOLLOPTON
I am going to the hobby-shop to pick up more ceramic mix for my miniatures. I should be home in an hour or two. I have decided to narrow my latest venture from the fashioning of dissimilar vessels (the familiar tiny urns, pitchers, and amphoras which have sold so well at our recent town craft bazaars) to the exclusive molding of diminutive moonshine jugs. You might remember my telling you and your mother that Mr. McHenry of Charlotte, North Carolina, has promised to buy all the jugs I make for his American Doll House Supply Company. (And with the decline in available carpentry work around the island you know how much we can use this money.)
You may remind your mother should she return before I do that while I am out I will pick up mixed nuts and assorted beverages for tomorrow night's party. I will also bring something good for us to eat for dinner this evening.
It will not be fish.
I have apparently grown just as tired of the piscivorous diet as have you and she. Praise God for the abundance of loaves and fishes during these belt-tightening times; just leave us the loaves and take away all them fishes!
With love from your father,
Monday, August 7
Dear Cousin Tassie,
I write this letter literally minutes from the cusp of midnight. I trust that having read it, you will put quick flame to it for it will have been received after the onset of this peculiar prohibition, and I do not wish to place you or your mother in any jeopardy whatsoever, for I understand there will be no moratorium, and no lenience shown any offender over the age of seven. (Why the cut-off here, I do not know, yet any child eight and older who speaks or writes a word containing the letter "Z," it is my understanding from the proclamation, will receive the same penalty as would an adult. Children seven and younger, however, may bizz and bazz to their heart's content. Ah, to be a child again!)
I wish that you could be here. It has been an odd gathering—a warm confluence of kindred souls—yet in terms of the pervasive atmosphere, conversely, even perversely funereal. I would like to have had my dear cousin at my side as we approach the fateful stroke-and-chime. Reluctantly do we bid farewell to Mistress Z, embracing her warmly, heartily, as if determined never to let her leave our side. In spirit-most-festive do we attempt with all our intellectual muscle to name as many words as we are able from the pool of those we will soon be forbidden to use. Such a very long list we have produced—a list which will soon and sadly be curling black in the Pop-crafted salad-ceramic enlisted for its incineration.
My Uncle Zachary will henceforth go by his middle name, Isaac. His jocular carpenter-mates Buzz and Zeke ask that they now be called, respectively, Lil' Tristan and Prince Valiant-the-Comely. (Zeke is actually applying for a legal name change!)
No longer may we speak of the topaz sea which laps our breeze-kissed shores. Nor ever again describe azure-tinted horizons sheered by the violent blazes of our brilliant island sunrises.
Hundreds of words await ostracism from our functional vocabularies: waltz and fizz and squeeze and booze and frozen pizza pie, frizzy and fuzzy and dizzy and duzzy, the visualization of emphyzeema-zapped Tarzans, wheezing and sneezing, holding glazed and anodized bazookas, seized by all the bizarrities of this zany zone we call home. Dazed or zombified citizens who recognize hazardous organizations of zealots in their hazy midst, too late— too late to size down. Immobilized we iz. Minimalized. Paralyzed. Zip. Zap. ZZZZZZZZZ.
Did I say crazy?
The books have all disappeared. You were right about the books. We will have to write new ones now. But what will we say? Without the whizz that waz.
For we cannot even write of its history. Because to write of it,is to write it. And as of midnight, it becomes ineffable.
As of five seconds from now.
As of now.
The clock chimes twelve.
I have such a ghastly headache. I believe I'll go lie down now.
Your cousin Ella
The quick brown fox jumps over the la*y dog
Tuesday, August 8 Dear Ella,
I received your letter. I read it and destroyed it. I'm sorry I couldn't be with you. As your family's parties go, I'm sure it was a memorable one, although the hovering pall must have sent folks home a little earlier than usual.
They shut the library down today. By day's end workmen had it totally boarded up. I spent much of the afternoon helping Rachalle box up items to transfer to the supply cabinets of Mother's school. Her second graders wore such heart-tugging looks of confusion when the principal confiscated all of the textbooks. Mother spent much of the school day in halt and stammer lest she speak the proscribed letter and find herself brought up on charges. It makes teaching so difficult, she tells me—having to spell out each word in her head before speaking it, to prevent accidental usage, while attempting to deliver a lesson without benefit of any textbook whatsoever! (Mother is having only a slightly better time of it than Mrs. Moseley who, having fallen victim to chronic aposiopesis in the morning, spent the bulk of the afternoon seated in silent defeat behind her desk, while her restless third graders improvised games of catch with a variety of show-and-tell items.)
Mother said her own pupils wanted desperately to talk about what had just occurred.
Many are forbidden by their parents to discuss the matter at home, so great is the fear of where such discussion may lead. She said that she took the coward's way out and would not permit discussion in her classroom either. It is gone, she tells the children. They must think no more of it. We must all learn to accept its departure.
"And yet, deep inside," she tells me, "I am angry and rebellious." "In my head," she tells me, "I am reciting what I recall of my niece's last letter, allowing the illegal words to baste and crisp. I cook the words, serve them up, devour them greedily. In the sanctuary of my thoughts, I am a fearless renegade. Yet in the company of the children I cringe and cower in a most depreciating way."
Mother looks at me with a face betraying all the pain she feels inside, and concludes with a whisper, "I have only shame for myself, Tassie—because of what this has turned me into, here, even in this early hour of this most senseless prohibition."
Perhaps in time, Ella, the words we have lost will fade, and we will all stop summoning them by habit, only to stamp them out like unwanted toadstools when they appear. Perhaps they will eventually disappear altogether, and the accompanying halts and stammers as well: those troublesome, maddening pauses that at present invade and punctuate through caesura all manner of discourse. Trying so desperately we all are, to be ever so careful.
It really stinks.
Even on this second day violations are mounting. Here in this tiny village, Ella, seventeen of my neighbors have already been charged with first offense. Two, in sad fact, have reached the grave level of second offense. Mr. Gregory who lives just down the lane— three milk cows he has, hardly of sufficient number to earn the title of dairy farmer. Yet he treasures the appellation, and what milk he produces is sweet and creamy. Dairy farmer and beekeeper. Owner of the largest apiary, if I am not mistaken, on the island. It is the bees that have gotten poor Mr. Gregory into trouble. For how does one describe such creatures without use of a certain outlawed letter as a matter of course? Twice, the good man has slipped up. As I write this he sits in headstock on the village commons. No one jeers, by the way. We come only to offer condolences. And to bring him drink—sweet milk from one of his own Guernseys. The day is hot, and there is no shade where he is shackled. I understand his hives will soon be destroyed, his livelihood ripped from him. For the bees speak the offending letter as their wont. They sing it into the hills, our ears ringing with its scissoresonance. Such a perturbulent distraction it is to a community attempting to follow edict with obeisance!
The other individual charged with second offense is Master William Creevy, about our age—whom Mother taught a few years previous—a riotous, rule-flouting young man for as long as I have known him. (This fact, however, never prevented me from exercising a certain youthful fondness for him; his countenance, dear Ellakins, is no strain upon young female eyes!) Willy, as it happens, does not believe in obeying laws written by madmen. And while many of us applaud his independent spirit, he is, nonetheless, one slip-word away from banishment.
I wonder what that word will be. Whatever he chooses (if choice it be), you will not see it scribbled by me within some future missive to my dear cousin, for while I share Master Creevy's contempt for the island authorities, I do not at present own his dangerous desire for insurrection.
A point made during a visit to the Village yesterday by Council Member Harton Mangrove for purpose of conform and clarification: we may not, as an alternative, use illegal words with asterisks conveniently replacing the letter of the alphabet in question. Use of such asterisk will carry the same penalty as would use of the prohibited letter itself, for one is blatant stand-in for the other with meaning wholly transparent.
Which is why you find no asterisks in this letter to you.
Pray for dear Willy Creevy. He is a mischievous, troublesome lad but undeserving of expulsion for all his mischief and trouble. Did I mention he chose flogging? A brave boy he is. But I rather suspect he's sacrificing the skin of his youthful back for naught. For the present, it is easier for us to turn away. Our repulsion, you see, will not spur us to revolt until this plague moves much closer to home. I love you, dearest Cousin, and do so miss you. Never stop writing.
Friday, August 11 Dear Tassie,
Today The Tribune published the names of fifty-eight of the sixty men, women, and children charged this week with first offense. (Two names were unpublishable due to the presence of a particular letter within.) All were speakers of banned words—words overheard upon the lanes, in schoolyards and church pews, and on the common greens. Neighbor turning in neighbor, perpetuating old grudges and grievances with this new weapon unleashed upon us by the High Island Council. The paper reported thirteen additional names of those charged with second offense. Unlike your brave Master Creevy, all have chosen headstock in lieu of the lash. Thankfully, no one has yet to receive the dreaded charge of third and final offense. At least one of the thirteen has taken the precautionary measure of taping his mouth securely shut.
Another among their number, the very publisher and editor of our Island Tribune, Asquith Kleeman, is contemplating a suspension of the publication of his newspaper rather than risk a final charge. For the time being he has asked that all staff members tape down a certain key on their typewriters to avoid its accidental usage. The Kleeman family, as you may know, has resided on this island for multiple generations; they were, in fact, one of the first families to settle here. Banishment for them would be both an unfortunate and landish tragedy. Just as unfortunate, though, would be the loss of our daily rag—our solitary news source (now that radio news broadcasts have been suspended).
Yesterday Mum and Pop took a long dusktide stroll along Nevin Beach. I followed not too far behind. Each of us hoped to find the peace and tranquility that usually rewards us on such quiet, contemplative walks. Yet it was not to be. The sun-kissed paradise we have cherished for all our lives has been marred by this most wretched turn of events. During such walks my parents exercise far less care in how they speak to one another than they do in conversation with others. Perhaps they should be more cautious, lest possible eavesdroppers hiding in the dune grasses report them. But for the time being they take their chances. And while they converse in soft, lovers' tones, I recite my favorite poetry with little attention to use of the forbidden letter. In the disquieting quiet, we wonder and worry, yet try to carry on some semblance of normal life. You were right about the fallout from this most absurd law. Not only does it cripple communication between islanders, it builds rock walls between hearts. As Mum holds tightly to Pop I watch them trying to feel what once came so soft and easy. Yet the growing fear coils about us in such a way that affection becomes like bud-never-bloom. The sweet scent is there—the innate desire to blossom, but the cold wind locks the bud in place.
All because of this tiny Nollop-cursed letter. I have yet to fully understand its awesome power. But I am fast learning.
Your loving cousin,
[Upon the Minnow Pea kitchen table]
Tuesday, August 15 Dear Goodwife Gwenette,
You are in the tub. It isn't my wish to disturb you. I am going to town center. Prince Valiant-the-Comely says the Taylor Construction Company is a few carpenters short this week due to the grippe. I want to check with Taylor to see if he might need me tomorrow.
I stood outside the door to the bathroom inhaling deeply the intoxicating scent of your bath beads. I would have barged right in as I used to in the old days, but you seemed all too content enjoying your "privy time." I identified all three of the tunes you were humming. They took me back a few years!
I love you.
I'll be home later in the afternoon. Please tell Ella that the cocktail tomatoes in the back garden require immediate harvesting; the crows are already having themselves a fine tomato salad.
[Upon the Minnow Pea kitchen table]
Tuesday, August 15 Dear Goodhusband Amos,
I write this on the chance that I may still be gone when you return. I will be at the market buying Cornish game hens for dinner tonight. I know how much you and Ella like them.
You think you are so smart! Now just whom do you think you're fooling? In all the years we've been married you have not forgotten a single anniversary, and I do not think you intend to start with this one. I am thus quite aware, sir, that you are not in any form, shape, or manner having a work-related conversation with Anselm Taylor (who knows to call on you if he needs you) but are, instead, even as I write this, selecting for me some appropriately commemorative gift which you have absolutely no business buying, given the precariousness of our present financial situation. You are too, too much, Amos Minnow Pea!
Your wife of twenty-three
years to the day,
Gwenette Minnow Pea PS. Perhaps if I chose to take another bath later this evening (while our dear daughter is working her evening shift at the launderette), you might reconsider your earlier decision about "barging right in." (Tee hee.)
Thursday, August 17 Ellakins,
Young Master Creevy was sent away today. When the flogging had ended, he allegedly (I was not there.) raised his head and let spew forth a long and repetitive illicit-letter-peppered tirade against the L.E.B. officers who had administered his punishment. He was not even granted time to pack a suitcase. I will hear more of his story when his mother addresses a meeting of the Parents and Teachers Association at the Village school tomorrow night. Within an hour of this act of civil disobedience, Master Creevy was tossed upon an outbound commercial trawler, with the summary warning that to return to Nollop would mean immediate execution.
Dear Ella, what have those fools on the Council wrought? The meeting tomorrow will allow us to vent our anger and frustration. I truly look forward to it.
Friday, August 18 Dear Tassie,
I'm eager to know how the meeting went. I wish we could speak on the phone—that phone service between town and village were reinstated; the Council continues to refer to the outage as a temporary "hurricane-related disruption" (the hurricane in question having occurred thirteen months ago). I don't believe them. I think it represents, instead, the persistent degeneration of all means by which this island may someday enter the Twentieth Century, let alone the Twenty-first. Until I can procure cups and a massive coil of string, these letters that pass between us will comprise our sole means of communication, and we should try to make the best of them. Please write as soon (and as often) as you are able.
I have some news. It is too early to know what to make of it. Or how the Council will proceed. But the possibility does exist that scales may soon fall from the eyes of the esteemed H.I.C., and they might see their way to rescinding this horrible law.
I base this belief, dear cousin, on something that has just occurred: another tile has dropped from the cenotaph: The tile upon which was etched the letter "q" (from the word "quick"). A shopkeeper witnessed the event, and made the report. The Council went into emergency closed-door session. They may emerge in minutes, or it could be several hours. They have requested a large platter of crullers and Danish.
Saturday, August 19 Dear Ella,
We had heard about the second fallen tile. We hope and pray that the Council will come to its senses on the matter.
Last night Mother and I attended a very emotional meeting of our Village's Parents and Teachers Association. Through bitter tears Babette Creevy related the details of the banishment of her son. Initially, the boy refused to go. While his father pleaded to the L.E.B. thug-uglies to ignore young William's boldly insolent hurlatory, to Willy's mother fell the difficult task of propelling her son with every ounce of maternal passion onto the boat that would serve both as his transport to permanent exile, and, paradoxically, the very instrument of his survival.
Those who witnessed the incident agreed with Babette's account of parental paralysis in the face of naked martial tyranny.
A rage burns deep within me, dear Ella, the likes of which I have never felt before. Yet collaterally a terrible fear has taken hold, robbing me of any thought of recourse. While I want to believe that the self-destruction of the second tile will bring the Exalted Quintet to its collective senses, the very real possibility exists that they could—these self-proclaimed High and Almighties—find in its demise true validation for their earlier decree and convenient justification for its subsequentia. And we sit powerless to convince them otherwise.
Please write me as soon as you know something. Mother and I feel so isolated here in the Village. While we still receive the weak signal of the limited island radio broadcasts, music is almost all that is sent up to us these days. Music without words. The station management, I assume, does not wish to examine song lyrics for words containing the outlawed letter. Besides making us all fearful, this edict has turned some among us into shameful indolents.
And if I hear "Tijuana Taxi" one more time, I am going to scream!
Tassie PS. Thanks bunches for the birthday card. And thank you for adhering to my wishes and not sending a present. One small, mischievous joy during these otherwise joyless times is finding myself a year older than you for five whole months, although nineteen feels little different from eighteen if you want the truth of it.
Monday, August 21 Dear Tassie,
No doubt, the latest edict has reached the village by post or has been tacked to the proclamata board on your village commons. At the cusp of midnight on August 27/28, as you surely know by now, the letter "Q" will be stricken from our vocabulary as utterly and thoroughly as was its hapless predecessor.
I am incapable of any reaction beyond that which I have previously registered with you. Life, no doubt, will change little from what we now know; as luck would have it, there are simply not all that many words in the English language which claim this letter among its constituents. I am in agreement with you that as our anger against the Council grows, it has yet to exceed in potency the abject fear which invades all aspects of our readjusted lives.
There have been whispers of a Council recall; yet few, if any, among us know how to effect such a thing. Legal recall was, even prior to the incineration of the relevant statutes, a complicated process, and now, in the absence of written guidelines, remains a virtual impossibility. Others have whispered of a military coup. Yet the Island L.E.B. is handsomely paid and well provided for. I can see little to entice these officers to overthrow a government that has for the most part been both friend and ample provider, let alone an exemplar of political stability for most of its one-hundred-and-thirty-year history in the hemisphere.
We have at present no recourse but to mind our p's and bury our q's, and try our best to eke out some crumbs of normalcy from our turvied lives.
Without, I am sad to report, an island newspaper. The editor and publisher of The Tribune, Mr. Kleeman, has, in one grand and glorious protest, put out his final issue, and ignoring his family's rich island heritage, voluntarily departed this cursed sandbar. But not before publishing and leafletting this town with hundreds of copies of a most special swan song edition, carrying the apt title, "The Bees' Lament"—being a delightful four-page conversation between two bees marooned upon a keeperless farm. The paper—I wish I could have sent you a copy, but destroyed it quickly after Mum and Pop and I shared a tearful laugh—contains, below the masthead and the aforementioned title, the frenetic repetition of a certain letter—four thousand, perhaps five thousand glorious times!
I do respect Mr. Kleeman for his protest, yet am disappointed by the cowardly exit. He has left this town with a yawning communicational chasm—a great lacuna which I see no one stepping forward to fill.
I wish you could come for a visit. We have room for you here at the house, should you desire to stay for a while to seek employment, or perhaps find volunteer work at our library. Happily, its doors are still open. Most of the books are gone, though—the periodicals as well. But many of the musical albums remain (without their jackets or labels). And the picture books that still reside here are quite colorful and not all that unpleasant to look at.
Give my love to your mother. (Perhaps I will see you soon?)
Tuesday, August 22 Dear Ella,
I just may take you up on that invitation! You know how I feel living up here—so removed from things.
I look forward to visiting with Aunt Gwenette and Uncle Amos as well. I cannot wait to see your father's burgeoning collection of petite vases and jugs!
Did I mention—I have become a volunteer teaching assistant, and am helping Mother at the school. I miss the library, though, and the opportunity to read whatever I wish—whenever I so desire. I compensate for this loss by reading your letters over and over again; and Mother and I have taken to writing one another—if you can believe it—from one room to the next! She tells wonderful stories of our mothers' childhoods—all their little adventures—beachcombing for shells and driftwood, chasing sand crabs about (How cruel the two of them were as children!) and building majestic sand palaces at low tide.
I know it was necessary when I was a toddler and Father had gone away, for Mother to move us to the Village to take the teaching job, but I have never warmed to this dismal and dreary place, and I will be happy (Do not tell Mother.) to leave it and never return.
Ellakins, I must tell you: I have taken to sitting in a favorite spot on a secret hillside outside the Village to think. And dream. And watch the shapings of the clouds and feel the caress of our soft, late-summer wind wisps. Some evenings I do not return home until long after dark. Yesterday I was even naughtier than usual: I carved the dreaded letter in the bark of a lonely mimosa, carved it with a kitchen knife in great broad slashes of impertinence and had myself a delicious clandestine laugh. And I must say, it did me a world of good.
Perhaps I will take a page from your book and recite poetry.
I think sometimes of departing the island for good. But I'm not so sure I could leave Mother who seems to need me so much now. I had such lovely visits with Father's family in Savannah and Charleston, and while I felt somewhat the foreigner (My cousins say that I speak in a "funny," overly formal way, whatever this means.), I think sometimes how lovely it would be to live across the channel—like my paternal cousins. With telephones that actually work, and television and computers and books—all the books one could ever hope to read. But I wonder, as well, how much of my present disagreeableness and languor (even prior to this lexical crisis) is due to the simple fact that I have no one with whom to share my life—no companion, romantic affiliation or otherwise, save my mother. I am, I will admit, a tragic village lonely-heart at the advanced age of nineteen!
Cousin Ella, I must relate something that has happened which Mother has made me vow not to divulge. Yet I cannot honor her wishes on the matter, for I can no longer bear my concerns for her alone. Please share the following with your mother, but do share it in careful confidence. Perhaps Aunt Gwenette may advise me as to how I might be of sufficient succor to her.
You see, Mother has spoken the letter.
She has spoken the letter in the presence of her class—there, before her young pupils—and it did not go without report. One student, I am sorry to relate, took it upon himself to inform his parents, and they in turn, took it upon themselves to inform a representative of the villagers' volunteer auxiliary of the L.E.B. Yesterday morning Mother was brought before the faculty assembly and publicly issued citation and harsh reprimand. Before every teacher in the school was she called forth and cited with first offense, then mortifyingly reminded by captain of the auxiliary of the penalty for second offense. Mother was humiliated before colleagues whose respect she had earned and maintained for many years, word, no doubt, trickling down to her young charges whose respect, as well, is critical to the performance of her duties as their instructor.
She spoke hardly a word to me last night, and retired early. She is equally subdued this morning. I wish there were something I could do to help her. But the incident has brought her so low that I know of absolutely nothing that might elevate her spirits. I want to come to town and stay with you and Aunt Gwenette and Uncle Amos, but now must wait until Mother's emotional state has improved.
I believe that I will write a letter to the boy's parents to find out exactly what purpose was served in reporting Mother, given the enormous difficulty island teachers face in their efforts to avoid just such a slip as the one my mother experienced. A different law should be passed for teachers, if you ask me. There should be a special waiver or accommodation extended not only to seven-year-olds but also to those who are asked to instruct them.
I will write again soon. Please do not mention in your next letter to Mother what I have just told you. She will discuss it with you, I am certain, when she is ready. When the shame of it has sufficiently ebbed.
Your cousin Tassie PS. I did not tell you how the slip occurred. She was teaching arithmetic and made mention of a sum of eggs. Twelve eggs to be exact. And described them using a word no longer at our disposal. A right and proper word in times gone by. How DOES, IN any fair and logical way, the Council expect us—all of us—not to make such a simple and innocent slip every now and then!
Wednesday, August 23 Dear Niece,
I am so sorry to hear from Ella of my sister's recent misfortune. The odds were that it would happen sooner or later. She must try doubly hard to be more careful in what she says to those students of hers. Little rabbits have big ears. Especially in light of the fact that as of Monday we will be pressed to avoid yet another clutch of outlawed words. Your mother and my beloved sister, I must say, will look not at all becoming in wooden headstock!
As for how to assist her in her present state of despondency, I can offer no advice but that you continue to be the kind and understanding daughter I know you are, and give her the time she needs to find her way back to her former sunny disposition. I know that sometimes it takes your dear mother a while to recover from episodes of abashment—especially ones so public. But I assure you, recover she will. She is intrinsically resilient. We all are.
We have no party planned for Sunday night. We will let the midnight chime usher in this new micro-era in our island history with neither comment nor incident. Amos and I will, no doubt, be fast asleep when the fateful hour arrives. (I'm not sure of Ella's plans for that evening.) Before retiring, though, I shall turn to my dear husband and say, "Today we queried, questioned, and inquired. Promise me that come tomorrow, we will not stop asking why." And Amos, being Amos, will chuckle and perhaps respond, "We'll never stop asking, dear. Now to sleep. Quiet, dear. Quiet, quiet. To sleep."
Your aunt loves you
Gwenette Ella here: I plan to be asleep as well. I am working longer hours at the launderette now. All of these emigrating islanders are so insistent upon packing only the most spanking clean clothes into their trunks and suitcases. I do not blame them, but it is exhausting work!