Alive or Taxidermic?
Vel Partunu, high priest of the Pylon of Mammon, or The Shaft as the profane preferred, was not in the least unaware of the political upheavals threatening Aparthenia. He called for a mass prayer meeting on the 2nd day of the gynecide. The massacre of the previous day turned out to have been less thorough than theatrical. So zealously had the tyrant's army (which was with [quoteright]no zeal at all) carried out his mandate that the temple was filled with women who were still alive. Only a few had actually been done in and those mainly of the plainest face or figure, or those known to be hard-core nags, or hags.
All the same, Vel Partunu was much overwrought. He was unaccustomed to such mob-congregations. Ordinarily, the profane were not permitted even within the outer sancta of the temple, but these being especially profitable times, he had seized the advantage. Yet what a long day it had been! It was only while he was bending to receive the sacred pshent of his office that his eye chanced to fall upon Apollodonis. The boy struck him at once as a natural candidate for the annual festival and sacrifice to the god of the city, Mavis.
Young people nowadays, he was often heard to say, were increasingly remiss in the traditional observances, but this child looked refreshingly unsophisticated and easy to dupe. For this reason, the doctors were admitted into the presence of the oracle as soon as they requested their audience, without the customary 9-month waiting period.
Whilst settling themselves in the anteroom they played "The Voice of Experience" at a low volume to help pass the time:
Hipp: Very well, enlightened Phosphorus, where goeth the sun when he goeth down?
Phos: Why, he goeth down.
Hipp: Yet droppeth he not below the horizon?
Phos: Yes, and after a night in the tavern I have met him rising up from below the horizon.
Hipp: But when he is below the horizon, where is he?
Phos: In the Belly of the Dragon. The Black Dragon, I fear.
Hipp: Courage. Hast ever advanced towards the horizon?
Hipp: And dothn't the horizon continue to recede?
Phos: Indeed. It is mockery itself! Gold is not more elusive.
Hipp: And you avow there is but one Sun.
Phos: There is but one lamp in the tavern.
Hipp: I say this, then. Since there can be but one Sun, then this drunkest of all possible worlds cannot be of infinite extension.
Phos: Why can it not? Doth not Mother Gaea produce all manner of grapes for wine and all the woes and wonders of earth? Why blaspheme your own home with these that I shall call peculiarly "Hippie" notions, after yourself?
Hipp: The sun goeth under the world! Beyond the horizons. And the horizons are never neared by one's approachings. The earth, therefore, can only be round!
Phos: What? Round, you say? As an erotic melon is round, I suppose? Hath it seeds?
Hipp: I believe it to be cylindrical in shape. Rather, I fancy, like unto a reed or a pipe.
Phos: And who playeth upon the pipe we call our world? And what tune?
Hipp: I imagine it to be none other than the shepherd, Syphilis, & his melodies few, but roses.
Phos: Syphilis, eh? I forget what he is god of.
Hipp: No matter. I am reminded of another god. While divine on drugs at the Eleusinian Mysteries, no doubt you conversed with the sophists of tomorrow?
Phos: Moira decreed not. I spoke only with some minor Hebrew sophists of yesteryear who informed me that one of their rank would one day ascend to wide eminence‚Äďand by ascend I mean fly! Imagine, a flying god! As if that's anything. They were an hysterical lot who thought pig flesh was poison & insisted that some Baal, or was it Javah?, had fashioned the world from his fingertips and took a whole week to do it! A thoroughly dull evening I spent with them, I must confess. Odd, though.
Hipp: The thread of yester- & morrowyear weave a skein that encompasses our very own epoch to veil & enshroud its truth as well. When I was at Delphos I conversed with a sophist who had fed & fatted on that same flying god. And they now had a motto: "Christ files!" He informed me that since every eye is different, Reality is unknowable, or at least pretty hard.
Phos: Kalla, kalla. What next? Watchtowers?
Hipp: Matter is empty. It is illusion. Nothing exists at all. Are you, for instance, here?
Phos: You yourself are not even here. I nod at this puzzle & yawn to know less of it. I think I am. No, that isn't quite right. I think that I am. No, by Aphrodite's nates, I can't think, therefore I am...
Hipp: That is all mixed up! Let us to the wine!
* * * * * * *After much of such intoxicating news, an elderly beggar approached Apollodonis asking him to turn down the box. His matted hair and filthy rags Inspired the magi to a more than modest display of fastidiousness.
"Auguries aside, have you heard that Pompeia and Philonius are secretly married?" asked the old man, whispering in his ear. (Both Pompeia and Philonius were famous eunuchs of the day.)
"No," replied the boy, "but I wonder whether such co-co-congress can be anything but barren, let alone legal."
"'Tis true, as you will see for yourself when the festival begins."
"You are most most, O Reverend Sir," bowed the boy.
"I do know many things," conceded the old man modestly. And whispering even more softly in his ear, added, "You must tell the oracle that you have spoken with old Larth," and with that he slithered away. He slithered quickly because he had thought he had heard the footsteps of the priest approaching. But after he had disappeared around a vast alabaster pillar, it turned out that the footsteps were but those of an old charwoman who had likewise come for an audience with the oracle to intercede for the Corn God-about her feet. For she was one of those thousands who had heard the oft-repeated advertisement that the oracle would enable her to "TAKE THE JOYWALK OF THE CORNFREE THOUSANDS." As she deposited herself on the distant marble bench with a great cracking of joints and a number of groaning wheezes, Dr. Poxus chided the boy about his talking to the man calling himself Larth.
"Pah! What a putrid heap of walking slops! You should choose more spiritual and deserving friends, Jonah. Encourage a beggar and you take a louse to Heaven."
"B-b-beggar?" stuttered Apollodonis, practicing awe, "I thought he was the priest."
"WHAT? Are you mad? That tatterdemalion, the priest?"
"Ye-yes. He seemed to m-m-m-me-me-me..."
"Stop meeping, Ishmael," growled the doctor in annoyance.
"QUIET!" roared Dr. Belchior. "Your eternal nattering is disturbing my trance. I must prepare myself for the oracle."
But they were left little time for preparations, because at that very moment they were ushered into THE PRESENCE. The oracle, located in a great & silk-padded hall fashioned in the overdone mode of the obscurantistic Egyptians, proved to be strangely similar to Dr. Poxus' "Voice of Experience," inasmuch as it was but a small ebony box lying unpretentiously upon an unadorned altar in the center of the hall. The face of the box bore the simple yet edifying inscription:
ATTENTION! SILENCE! HEALTH!
And under this, in smaller letters:
fumare tobacii injurius hygieniae possetDr. Poxus could make nothing of that so he turned to some scrolls behind the box on which had been written some hieroglyphs.
"I wish the historical writers of these scrolls," frowned Dr. Poxus, "hadn't used so many long words, many of which are even obsolete & incomprehensible."
"Since they were historians," snarled Dr. Belchior, "it was their gift & duty to record as much of the past as they could. Since their metier was words, archaisms were as inevitable to them as fleas on a weasel."
"But what, pray, is the use of such a hieroglyph as this, which looks like an owl yet has four legs? Whatever it might have been, it must by now have become extinct so that no information is conveyed any longer. Still it is, I must admit, a camp of an owl!"
Around the octagonal tabart on which it rested were chained eight black dogs: one for each side of the octagon. On first glance it seemed the dogs were drugged, while their red eyes and slavering muzzles suggested they were geared for murderous attack. On the other hand, there was something oddly feline about them. Or were they cats, after all, with canine qualities? They were strange beasts to guard the oracle! It was difficult to tell, too, whether they were alive or taxidermic, which added to their mystery all the more.
The doctors' business was soon concluded. The oracle advised them without hesitation to abandon the financial venture in question. It foresaw market decline, decapitation and scandalous reports. Polly was astonished that the oracle understood the doctors so well & could see through so quickly all the loopholes in their complex schemes.
"Please, ma'am," he addressed the box, "Can you tell me who Larth is?"
"Larth? Larth?" it squawked with what could have been ire or static. "C-clan L-Larthals minimimminimini..." it concluded with an ear-splitting crackle & fell silent. (Mirabile dictu!, marveled the boy, it stutters as unnecessarily as I do!)
"Now see what you've done!" cried Dr. Poxus in alarm, "You've broken the oracle!"
"Hear! Hear! O Oracle!" interposed Dr. Belchior "That is precisely what we most want to know. What does that sentence mean?" But the oracle merely went on repeating the phrase like a dull, panicky pupil who has learnt only the runes of yesterday's lesson & repeats it over and over. Finally, Belchior, whose sciatica had been pricking him more tiresomely than usual during their session in the drafty hail amongst all that chilly marblery & to whom a crescendo of tweaks punctuated every repetition of the phrase, thundered, oathlessly blunt:
"WHO IS LARTH?"
At once the oracle made a gargling sound & seemed to strangle. It sat entirely mute for several seconds & finally in a faraway voice hissed, "O Holy Larth, Illustrious Larth! Wilt thou truly destroy the world in 90 days?" And with that they had to be content, for nothing would induce the voice to say more.
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