Mr. Warren is here. I wasn't aware that he was so young! Perhaps he only looks young. I chose not to ask his age so as not to embarrass him. Maybe twenty-four. No more than twenty-six, I think.
He is also very attractive. He parts his hair in the center, picking up on the style of the local boys. I can tell he wants to fit in. I can tell that he wishes not to arouse anyone's suspicion.
He is single, as well—at least from what I have been able to learn. He was happy to show me pictures of his mother, his cocker spaniel, even his eight-year-young niece, but no beautiful fiancee, thank heaven!
I'm not sure why I am acting the schoolgirl. Perhaps because it has been so long since we've given welcome to such an interesting visitor. I know what you must be thinking. But I can assure you: the purpose of Nate's visit is not to fall in love with me. Yet in my heart of hearts, I must confess: I simply cannot stop myself from the inevitable "what if"!
He got in last night, by the way.
Have I written that he's witty? Clever to near-fault, it turns out. Not to mention the fact that he speaks with such a mellifluous Savannah-honey-voice that I come close to simply melting away each time he opens his mouth!
I must confess, as well, to being still in the thrall of two full glasses of Sonoma Cabernet. I write you—glancing at the clock near my cot—at one in the a.m. Sleepy, I know I ought to be, but I am not!
I must also relate how taken Mother is with our new houseguest. For his part, Mr. Warren has been most open to our smile-accompanying, eager-to-please hospitality—reciprocating our courtesies with southern-tangy flattery, in couplet with sweet masculine grace.
He will be staying with us for a week or so before traveling to your neck of the forest to meet with Mr. Lyttle. If I am lucky, his trip to town will concomitate perfectly with my own trip to see my most favorite cousin.
Tomorrow I shall wake, thereupon to wish none of this were put to paper, but by then it will be too late, for this letter is going into the corner mailbox as soon as I can throw on a robe to venture out. What a lovely time we have spent this evening, Sweet Ella, even without the use of the four illegal letters.
(I must own to a slippage on occasion; there was slippage from each of us as the evening wore on, our tongues becoming looser; it was almost impossible not to stumble in light of the intoxicating circumstances. But we were lucky in that when such a misspeak took place, there were no ears pressing themselves against the portals or fenesters to overhear.)
I trust, as always, the safe, nonintercept passage of this letter. For while arguable is the possibility that Nollop speaks to us postmortem—sans mortar as it were—the one thing that isn't contestable, that rings with pure alloyless truth, is the last thing that left our venerable vocabularian's mouth prior to his expiration: "Love one another, push the perimeter of this glorious language. Lastly, please show proper courtesy; open not your neighbor's mail." (You may recall that this was a rare pet peeve of Mr. Nollop's.)
Wetty, September 20 Ella,
I beg you to ignore that last letter. I was in a state of shameful inebriation. Mr. Warren is a nice man. That is all. A nice man. I am near mortification!
Wetty, September 20 My loving sister Gwenette,
I cannot teach. Without that grammatical unifier. It is impossible. I plan to resign tomorrow.
Semicolons are simply not an option. These youngsters are only seven! Young people of such age can't fathom semicolons!
Nor can I employ an "or" when I want the other one—the one that brings together, not separates.
My brain throbs. I have a hangover. Far too much wine last night.
The wine. Plus the loss of that grammatical unifier. It is all too much.
Forgive me for my weakness.
Your sister Mittie
Thurby, September 21 Throbbing Sister Mittie,
Still you are luckier to be in the village. Eighteen families were sent away this morning. Many of the members I knew. Losing the first three letters was relatively easy in comparison to this most recent banishment.
Slips of the tongue. Slips of the pen. All over town people hesitate, stammer, fumble for ways to express themselves, gripgrasping about for linguistic concoctions to serve the simplest of purposes. Receiving no easy purchase.
I go to the baker's. I point. We all point. We collapse upon our mattresses at the close of each evening, there to feel. . . feel. . . utterly, wholly diminished.
There. I now happily enlist in the "first offense club." It feels exhilarating! You know I cannot allow you to be a member of any club to which I cannot belong. I will show a copy of this letter to one of our local authorities.
I will receive my official censure.
We shall be sisters-true as always.
OFFICE OF HIGH ISLE COUNCIL
Fribs, September 22 Mrs. Minnow Pea:
We appreciate your coming to us with a copy of your letter to your sister, but it was unnecessary. Your offense was known to us even before the letter's receipt by your sister. Effective as of September 15 the primary responsibility of our isle's new assistant chief postal inspector has been to scan all post for use of illegal letters of the alphabet, then to make nightly reports to the Council. A report has been put on file on your behalf, your official sentence to be forthwith in issuance.
Forty-eight hours hence you will present yourself to an officer of the L.E.B. at Town Center, there to choose between cephalo-stock or public flogging, as your use of the letter-combination at the close of the tertiary paragraph in your epistle to your sister contains not one employment of an illegum, but two. Perhaps you were unaware. This is no excuse (especially in light of the fact that your choice of this letter-combination was attributable to flagrant provocation) .
We might note—to allay certain fears—that the assistant chief postal inspector may not upon Council behest report the content of anything he sees in the performance of his responsibilities. His task is merely to seek instances of illicitabetical activities. Ours continues to be a free, open society. There will be no censures or prosecutions for exercising one's free speech rights in service to the laws of this nation, even if those rights entail criticism of the High Council. You may be certain of no violation of Nollop's terminal-cot wishes when we say that all letters, all parcels that the inspector opens which are not violative will be promptly put to seal, then sent on their way. As a further assurance of the guarantee of your constitutional right to privacy, please note: the assistant chief postal inspector is an imbecile-savant from France. English is a foreign language he has yet to master.
Office of High Isle Council
Satto-gatto, September 25 Tassie,
I cannot believe it. Neither can Pop. What was Mum thinking? We are encouraging her to choose cephalo-stock. I will not allow any mother of mine to submit to the lash.
Sunshine, September 24 Mittie,
I cannot imagine that they are looking at our mail without ulterior motives. Henceforth, I encourage you not to censor your text, but to give serious thought to using the Tisbee-Cohane Cross-Isle Courier Service for all letters you wish to post to me. They are as fast as the Pony Brothers Express; most importantly, their gypsy operation more often skirts the attention of the postal inspectors. I will use them as well. I will also encourage the girls to employ their services. The only potential unpleasantness I can foresee in making the switch will be an occasional stench upon the envelope, owing to the fact that the Tisbee-Cohane Cross-Isle Courier Service is run by employees of the Tisbee-Cohane Septic Evacuators.
Still, though, I think it worth it. We now live in an official police state, be sure of it.
I chose cephalo-stock, you will be happy to hear. (Following much pressure by family members.) It was not so traumatic as one might think. There were a number of others in similar straits. Many of the families brought bulging picnic baskets. There was also a lovely fish fry with hush puppies (your favorite!), buttery corn-on-the-cob, mouth-watering tomato slices . . . Also, the singing of tuneful Gullah folk songs. It was, I must profess, one of the nicest afternoons I remember having spent in some time. Amos was even able to sell a few of his miniature spittoons.
Two chose whipping. Valiantly, the men took their lashes—later wearing the crimson stripes as emblems of honor. You may know these two; they are from the Village—members of a sect which believes that Nollop's wishes have been put to gross misinterpretation. Rather than shunning the letters per Council proclamation, they urge the opposite to the extreme. The problem with this position, as refreshing as it seems, is the unfortunate result that naturally follows the putting of such belief into practice.
Must go now to massage the crick in my stiff neck.
By the way, this is the sixth anniversary of Amos's recovery. Not so much as a beer in all these years in spite of the sort of stressful circumstances that might prompt even Carrie Nation to imbibe (naturally using her hatchet as a resourceful bottle opener!).
Your sister Gwenette
Monty, September 25 Ella,
Last night, I woke from a horrible nightmare in which I saw myself sitting beneath the cenotaph as another tile fell to earth. The tile came to rest facing up. It was an "I." I woke screaming. Mother spent the next few minutes trying to convince me that the chances of this happening were slim—that so far, Nollop has been most helpful to us by keeping all vowels firmly in place. Hearing my scream, Nate came into the room to comfort me as well.
"Then you believe in the power of Nollop?" I put to Mother.
Mother shook "no," but then gave this response: "Here is what I believe: if Nollop actually exists—in spirit form, of course—then perhaps it is for some positive purpose—perhaps even the interposing of a finish to all this insanity emanating from Council Chambers."
Now Nate was smiling. "The fable of Nollop has won acolytic support in the Purcy house of all places!"
Mother: "Mere supposition, Mr. Warren. I'm only saying if Nollop exists ..."
Now a bigger smile from Nate, then: "So why thinkest thou, he hasn't chosen thus far to take 'heavenly' retribution against this cretinous council of yours?"
My turn now: "Because he is waiting for the right moment?"
Nate shook no, while grinning his biggest grin of all. "You want the truth of what I think? Here's the nutshell: Nollop when he was alive was pure charlatan. A veritable con man. Phenomenally successful in pulling the wool over the eyes of 35,000 naivetes, ripe for the pulling. If he exists at all as manipulating eternal spirit, I see no reason for his not being of the selfsame ilk."
"Humbug terrestrial, humbug everlasting?" Nate was beginning to make sense.
"Humbug, yes, as well as simply not a very nice man. Listen up, my pretty Purcy postulators ..."
(Nate was becoming a bit familiar; this was not a problem for Mother or for me!)
"... your council was built on power-lust. Nollop's whole life was a construct not only of such lust for power, but of an unnatural craving for outright worship. Yet the man was without any merit, any virtue—holy or otherwise—whatsoever. Look at what befell his secretary. For that matter, look at what befell nearly everyone he met. All those instances of truth, fairness, humanitarianism, altruism: pure mythology. Perhaps worse than mythology: Nollop has become your Baal."
"Baal?" This from Mother, although I was taken aback as well.
"There's 'Biblical' for you."
My shiver was obvious.
Nate was finishing up now: "Allow me, finally, to offer up this arresting little trenchancy: given a few weeks, I, or either of you— most anyone on this isle for that matter—might learn how truly easy it is for one to create a sentence of length matching Nollop's— perhaps one even shorter. In fact, this may be our ultimate salvation."
Mother fell silent, I as well.
Sweet Ella, broach this at your next meeting. I am curious to learn the response it receives.
Toes, September 26 Tassie,
Intriguing as Nate's proposition is (I will present it as you suggest.), an even more curious event has taken place. An "O" has fallen. One of the four "O"s. (The last appearance in the vulpine-canine sentence.) The Council has gone into emergency session. What meaning to assign to loss of a letter whose removal leaves three companions still extant?
I carry a mischievous grin upon my lips. How will they glean? Whatever will be their ruling this time, now that Nollop has become strangely obtuse? We await their pronouncement. In the meanwhile, I eagerly await the arrival of my cousin, along with her new companion, Nate.
Wetty, September 27 My sweet Mittie,
This will be my last letter to you. I can write no more. Writing has never been an easy task for me, even prior to the loss of the fourth letter. It now takes a large part of my wakeful hours trying to make intelligible contact with those I love. I haven't your schooling nor your facility with language. It compels all the mental energy I can summon simply to communicate orally with Cooney, not to mention the young ones.
I no longer bake cookies.
In your last letter you wrote of how unhappy you are. My hours are spent in similar melancholy. I am speaking less. There have been two slip-ups. The next will surely result in my banishment. I cannot leave my Cooney, my Sabina, my Geryl, my Ursula, as well as the one whose birth name we may never again speak. (She has chosen "Bathsheba" as a substitute, but it will take some time for me to become wholly comfortable with it.)
My sweet Mittie, it is strange, so terribly strange how taxing it has become for me to speak, to write without these four illegal letters, but especially without the fourth. I cannot see how, given the loss of one letter more, I will be able to remain among those I love, for surely will I misstep. So I have chosen to stop talking, to stop writing altogether.
Perhaps we will see each other soon. That is, if you are still here. Many, as you well know, are leaving us. Perhaps I may come to your house for a visit. (Cooney loves it there near the water. He says there is no better fishing on the isle than from the village pier near your home.) We will not speak, we two, but I eagerly expect to pore with you in warm silence over our musty high school annuals, as well as those fox-worn nature scrapbooks we spent several beautiful summers lovingly compiling.
Pray for me, sweet Mittie. Banishment for me would mean my very extermination!
THE OFFICE OF HIGH COUNCIL
Thurby, September 28 To Agnes Prather,
We write to inform you that in your letter to one Mittie Purcy on September 27, you chose to use in the line beginning: "Banishment for me ..." a letter-combination containing one of the four graphemes presently unavailable for your use per Council Statute 28-42.
Please make note that this, for you, constitutes offense number three. It will be necessary for you to report to Barkation Pier Number Seven at 9:30 a.m. on Satto-gatto, September 30 for permanent expulsion. You may bring two suitcases. We will permit, also, one hatbox.
Chief Secretary High Isle Council
Thurby, September 28 Sister Mittie,
I have news. We may continue to use the letter "O" until such time as its brothers choose to fall. (Notice that I prefer not to attribute the recurrent plunges to the Almighty Nollop!) However, the High Council asks that we cut usage of the letter by twenty-five percent. I am curious to know how they plan to police this.
Tassie is here! She arrives as I write these very lines. I have not seen my favorite niece—can you believe it?—in almost six months. Nate accompanies her. He is everything that has been written about him. Polite. Very nice looking. I will wish him luck in his meeting with Mr. Lyttle tomorrow.
A little not-so-positive news: Amos has been caught in offense number two. In last night's poker game. It was such a foolish mistake. It might have gone without report except that Morton who owes him money chose to employ outright extortion against poor, hapless Amos. Amos's preference was for not playing along. Imagine the effrontery: Morton attempting to ignore the offense in exchange for clearance of a rather large financial obligation. Amos thought, of course, that Morton was bluffing. Unfortunately, in this particular game, it turns out, Morton was not.
I say foolish, because any competent contemporary poker player knows that this game is rife with lexical pitfalls. Best to play in wary silence. Yet Amos wasn't silent. In fact, Amos, thanks to chugging back four bottles of stout lager, was anything but silent. May I repeat an important part of this last statement? Four. Bottles. Yes, Amos has fallen totally off the wagon. Moreover, the wagon has all but run over him.
The wages for the topple were high: by concentrating a little too much on refraining from use of the fourth letter, he was to employ by careless miscalculation the tantamountifically perilous tenth letter of the alphabet. Thank Serenity the suit in his possession was hearts or he might be on a boat Satto-gatto morning. (King, Consort, Knave. Knave! I thought all poker players were in agreement on these new royal appellations!)
Thurby, September 28 Mother,
We are here. It was a pleasant trip.
Nate is preparing to meet with Mr. Lyttle. Aunt Gwenette is herself preparing for her big meeting tomorrow night. She will invite Nate to speak to the group. Uncle Amos agrees that this is a wise move. Nate has several things of importance to tell the members of this refreshingly subversive sub-terra group. It is all very exciting. I think we are on the brink—things possibly beginning to turn in our favor. In spite of the loss of the new tile. You will hear soon. Not to worry. It is one we can easily spare: "K." My preference: the loss of another "O," but we can certainly live with this.
I love you, Mother. (Please Heavenly Nollop, spare "V" till the last, so that I may continue to profess my affection for my precious mamah!)
Tassie PS. The statutes come with greater alacrity. The latest official elision takes place at 12:00 on the Satto-Sunshine cusp! PPS. I am falling in love with Nate. There was a kiss—a passionate kiss—on the trip to town.
It took me completely by surprise. Kkkkkiss me again, Nate, while I may still speak of it!
Fribs, September 29 My loving Tassie,
I must tell you of something nice that has taken place. I was sent an invitation by Mr. Rory Cummels who you will remember is the owner of the market in our village. To come to his house for coffee—for a pleasant neighborly chat. Rory hasn't the trouble most here in Nollopville have in carrying on conversation without the usual stuttering stoppages that seem to penetrate every verbal exchange I engage in in these trying times. It seems a gift, his knowing instantly which letter combinations to use to bypass the verboten ones.
In turn, I gain an easiness, a level of public comfort I haven't felt for some time. He is cheerful, but not without his own tales of sorrow. His family has left him. It is now official. He cannot follow, as he is in possession not only of a fairly profitable business (With the closing of McNulty's Greengrocer, you're probably aware, his will be the last grocerateria in the Village!) but other real property as well. To simply walk away from such an investment—this can only be financially catastrophic! There is also, relating to his wife, the matter of alienation of affection; his marriage is in its last hobbling months.
I believe that Rory likes me, Tassie. He seems to truly appreciate my company. I want to see more of him. I believe he seeks the same of me.
Finally! A bright ray in all the murk. I am not feeling even an ounce of concern over the loss of "K." "K" may go. The two of us will learn to accept its loss.
You are probably at this point, examining this letter with utter stupefaction. Has your gloomy mother taken leave of all her senses?
No. I'm only allowing myself a little happiness while I am still able.
You know, as I, that time is running out.
Fribs, September 29 Mother,
I am very happy for you. Meeting Mr. Cummels is a positive thing; I am sure of it. I worry that there is no one looking out for you now that I am here in town. I'll worry less knowing that the two of you may become close.
Nate has met with Council Member Lyttle. There is much to relate.
Nate began the meeting with a formal presentation. Lyttle gave it his close attention. In the presentation Nate built his (in my opinion, extremely substantial) case for the reason we, along with a number of prominent American chemists, believe the tiles to be falling. When it was over, Lyttle sat back in his chair, let his eyes close in momentary rumination, then gave his response: "It may be true. It may all very well be true."
Then, silence. A long silence which I knew from Nate's expression left him slightly uneasy.
Eventually, Lyttle spoke again: "I may be alone within the Council in leaving open the possibility that this theory—this careful interpretation of events as you present it to me—may very well ring true. Nevertheless, young man, it is still important for me to see more compelling proof"—Nate was obviously upset by this response, but kept his temper: "But you have the lab reports, sir. They're right in front of you. What more is necessary?"
"You've given me the scientific reason for why the tiles are falling, Mr. Warren. But might not Nollop be working through the science? Have you ever thought of this? The science, in point of fact, actually serving his specific purposes. Therefore, that of which I must have positive proof—the single fact that I must know for certain is that the Great Nollop isn't working at all!"
"But what proof? I can't raise the man from the grave to ask him point blank!"
Nate thought. Lyttle thought. Then a smile from my Nate. I knew. I knew from the look on his face what was to come next.
"You venerate Nollop for one reason, Mr. Lyttle. One reason only."
A tip of the noggin from Lyttle. "The sentence. That awe-striking sentence which graces our national cenotaph."
Nate went on: "But what if it turns out that Nollop wasn't the only man capable of cobbling such a sentence?"
"But he was."
"But what if there have been others?"
"There have been no others, Mr. Warren. We are fairly certain of this."
"Fairly, but not absolutely. Please, Mr. Lyttle, hear me out. What if it were possible for someone other than Nollop to come up with such a sentence, in say—hmmm, what might be an appropriate—"
Lyttle wasn't one to let others finish their sentences: "If I were to give you until the last setting sun, Mr. Warren, it cannot—simply will not happen. Why, it's pure, utter futility!"
"Your point isn't a complex one, Mr. Warren. What you are saying is that if there exists such a person with such a gift, why, we might have to place that special person right up there with Nollop. On the very same plane. Is that not the thrust of your argument?"
"If he or she is successful, well, naturally we—"
"Is this a challenge, Mr. Warren?"
"Might you welcome such a challenge, Mr. Lyttle?"
"I may not welcome it. I might, however, in proper fairness, entertain it."
"Then I'll make it official. It's a challenge. Will you take it to the Council?"
"A sentence of thirty-five letters or less." Then a crinkle—no, an elaborate furrow to Lyttle's hoary brow. He was thinking. Intense, all-important, history-making thoughts. "No. It must be conclusive. Thirty-five letters isn't conclusive. I suggest thirty-three, no— thirty-two letters."
"But that leaves a mere six for replication. Six!"
"That's my offer. Take it or leave it."
"How long will you give us, Mr. Lyttle? Remembering, of course, that Nollop spent all of his youth creating his sentence."
"Well, I certainly won't allow more than a few weeks. Especially with all the help you will be receiving. You'll have until November 16—Nollop's birth anniversary. Remember, as well, that this offer must still win approval by the Council."
Nate thought this fair. The two men shook on it.
At the subterra meeting tonight the challenge will be put to all present. We hope to relay it throughout the nation. (Please cast it about the Village on our behalf.)
We will cross our fingers that the Council approves. We'll know nothing until after the council session tomorrow morning.
With this most encouraging news I'll close, but not without saying farewell to my favorite breakfast cereal. (You will, of course, remember to throw out the Special K, yes, Mother?)