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Magnum Opus: Duncan has one last encounter with the homeless man in the freight yard
Posted by Douglas, Nov 25, 2008. 2350 views. ID = 2053

Magnum Opus

Posted by Douglas, Nov 25, 2008. 2350 views. ID = 2053
This post was written in 105 minutes.
This is the last section - with this my story is complete. I may add another section later, simply to make comments on what I've written, and to ask for your comments. But feel free to make comments here, if you like.
This post has been awarded 14 stars by 3 readers.
This post is Part 18 of a writing series titled Kindle.

When Duncan awoke, the day was nearly gone, and he found that he had drooled on the top page of his magnum opus. With gentle strokes he wiped away the wetness without smearing the ink. The previous night was an exhausting blur in his mind, but the stack of papers in front of him was the clearest, most visceral expression of his existence, both Kindle and human. He picked up the disorderly stack and clutched it to his chest.

At the motel's front desk, he asked for a large manila envelope to carry his papers in. Sometimes, even after so much time had gone by, it still felt strange to ask for things without having to manifest first. The manager handed him an envelope and he carefully slid his masterpiece into it.

He left the motel with the envelope carefully tucked under his arm, not knowing where he would go or what he would do, but with a strong awareness of the importance of what he carried with him. As he walked he periodically glanced down to see that it had not been dropped or stolen, or that the envelope had not flipped open, releasing the pages into the evening breeze.


His steps led him, as they so often did, to the freight yard where the old poet sat huddled by his fifty-five gallon drum, trying to warm his hands over the fire. The old man, alone again tonight, saw him coming, and his eyes brightened, twinkling in the light of the dancing flames. "Ladybug home?" he asked. His question jolted Duncan.

"What?" The question came out more shrill than he intended.

The old man's eyes gravitated toward the envelope Duncan carried under his arm. He pointed, and Duncan pulled back, afraid to let the old man touch it. "Pumpkin shell," was the man's irrelevant comment. He didn't appear interested in taking, or even touching the manuscript, so Duncan stopped backing away.

"No, old man," he said, "not a pumpkin shell. It's my story. It's my life story. It's who I am."

"Hot cross buns," was the even more irrelevant reply.

Having spent so many quiet evenings in the company of the old poet, Duncan was quick to recognize an urgency to the man's cryptic phrases. He wondered if there was a deliberate message in the crazy fellow's ramblings.


Hot? Certainly, for he had been kindled by the Muses. Could the old man possibly know that? And what of pumpkin shell? What meaning could that possibly have?

Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater, had a wife and couldn't keep her.
Put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.


Something about that nonsensical rhyme seemed to resonate with Duncan's situation, but he couldn't understand the resonance. "Who are you?" he asked, more harshly than he intended.

The old man, who was no longer looking at Duncan or his manuscript, hummed a few bars of nonsense syllables, as though he had not heard. Duncan repeated the question.

Without turning to look at him, the old man replied, "I am the Diddle."

Duncan stared at him, uncomprehending, then made a sudden leap of logic and a stab in the dark. "You're one of us, aren't you?"

An enormous tear welled up in the old man's left eye, and spilled onto his cheek. "Before," he bemoaned. "No more."

"You once were a Kindle, but now you're a Diddle - whatever that means."

"I am the Diddle."

Duncan tried again. "You once were a Kindle. But now you're like me?"

"I like you," the man answered, and Duncan thought he was agreeing, until he continued, "You like me. We're a happy family." Duncan sighed.

He stared at the old man few a bit longer, but the old fellow had reverted to his nonsense syllables, and was entirely focused on the flames in front of him. With another sigh, Duncan turned and started walking away.

"I am the Diddle," the old man called out after him suddenly. Duncan stopped, and turned around again. "Hey! Diddle Diddle! I am the Diddle!" The old man winked at him. "I smashed up my fiddle!"

Duncan knew the nursery rhyme well enough to know it was the cat who had the fiddle, but he didn't argue. "If you're the Diddle, what does that make me? The cow?"

The man cackled, and even his laughter seemed to fit an iambic meter. He said, "The cow jumped over the moooooooon," dragging out the last word as though he were a dog, howling at the moon. Except that the dog was the one who laughed.

That's probably what Herald is doing right now, Duncan thought.

"So I'm the cow, jumping over the moon?"

"Silly," the old man said. "Silly, silly. Silly silly little Willie."

"Willie?"

"Little Willie was a chemist," he said, and for a moment Duncan thought this was a lucid, declarative statement, and the old man had stopped talking in rhymes. Then he continued. "Little Willie was a chemist, Little Willie is no more. For what he thought was H2O, Was H2SO4."

Abruptly the old man turned away and sat on the curb. His body language seemed to say, "I have nothing more to say. You figure it out."

Duncan sat next to him. In his mind he was trying to tie together the pointless scraps of nursery rhymes that had been thrown at him. The problem was, how much of it was actually meaningful, and how much was completely irrelevant? Or was everything irrelevant?

He smashed his fiddle. That was easy to figure out. The old man was once a Kindle, like Pyre. He had been kindled - a gift from the Muses - and he had smashed his gift. "What was your masterpiece, old man? Your magnum opus?"

The poet looked at him with sad, bleary eyes, and said, "No more."

"You destroyed it. Why?"

"H2SO4."

That was from the Little Willie poem. A chemical. A highly corrosive acid. But Willie thought it was water. Duncan made another leap. "Your masterpiece - you thought it was good. But it wasn't. It was no good? Dangerous?"

He nodded both eagerly and sadly, "Yes yes yes yes yes." More tears dripped down his face. He swiped at one with his hand, but let the others fall.

Duncan shuddered. He couldn't imagine destroying his masterpiece. "What did the Pierides do?" The old man didn't answer, but even as he asked the question, Duncan knew the answer: the old man rejected their gift, so they doomed him to a life of witless wandering through the world, unable to put his gift to meaningful use, yet unable to stop using it. He shuddered at the cruelty of that punishment. No wonder the fellow had gone mad.

He spoke again. "Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells, and cockle shells, and pretty maids all in a row."

Then, with a sure flash of clarity, Duncan understood the old coot's metered rambling. "We're the pretty maids all in a row, aren't we?" he asked, but didn't wait for a reply, so sure he was of his understanding. "You rebelled against the Muses, because they had no right to try to stack you like cordwood in their garden of genius."

"Pumpkin shell," the old man replied, and it sounded like a non-sequiter, but Duncan knew he was agreeing.

He pressed on, "They took everything you ever loved, they ripped it away from you, and they tried to use their gift to you as a means to control you - to lock you away in a pumpkin shell - or at least, that's what they wanted to do. But you refused." Duncan paused as he imagined the old man, once a lucid young man, shaking an angry fist at the skies and defying the will of the cruel, dispassionate Muses.

Now the tears were flowing down the old man's face faster than he could have wiped them even if he wanted. Duncan understood that they were not sad tears, but tears of relief, because someone, after all those years of lonely wandering, had finally heard him, and had finally understood.

And someone took pity on him. Someone had compassion.

Duncan found that he, too, was weeping. Weeping for his own grief, weeping for the ten-fold grief of this old man who had once defied the Muses and paid a steep price for his rebellion, but most of all, weeping for shame because he had once been part of the pitiless system that this man most despised. As his tears fell, Duncan realized that he, too, hated the work of these heartless gods.

"You are a brave man, and a good man," Duncan said as he wrapped his arm around the old man. Trying to provide comfort and solace, he offered the greatest, most honorable gift he could think of. "I will tell the world your story, old man, and everyone will sing of your brave rebellion against the gods."

The man's well of tears suddenly dried up and he sprang to his feet, filled with anxiety. "No no no no no!" Then, to drive home his point, he pointed at Duncan's envelope and exclaimed, "Pumpkin shell! H2SO4!" His meaning, to Duncan, was quite clear: The work of your genius is tainted by the heartless crimes of the Muses. Equally clear was a secondary message: You too must destroy your tainted works.

"No," Duncan exclaimed, "I cannot!"

The poet stooped down close to him and put one hand on each side of Duncan's face, in a strange sort of embrace. Then he spoke, and his words were neither iambic nor anapestic, and there was no rhyme to them. By the slow and stuttering manner of his speech, Duncan understood that speaking without rhyme or meter was a torture to him. "You...are...a brave...man and...a good...man."

Duncan was angry, having his own words thrown back at him. He was furious at being taunted into rebelling against the Pierides and risking their terrible wrath. But more than all that, he remembered at last the rage he had felt the night before, when he understood what had been done to him. That rage was a thousand times greater than his anger toward the crazy old man.

But he could not do what the old man had done - could he? Was he really that brave? Was he really that good?

With sudden resolve, Duncan stood to his feet, and opened the envelope. He pulled out the first page, and his eyes casually glanced across the first words. I walk among you, but I am not of you. Before the words could sink in and capture him all over again, he hurled the page into the fifty-five gallon drum, and watched it flicker and burn in the dancing flames.

The old man laughed feverishly, and his laughter echoed up and down the length of the freight yard. Duncan smiled weakly, then joined the laughter. Without speaking, he handed the old man half the stack of writing. Together, slowly at first, but then gathering speed, they alternated throwing pages of Duncan's magnum opus into the flames. The sparks lit up the sky, and the men were warmed by its blaze. Duncan felt a twinge of regret, knowing that no one but himself would ever read the words he had written. He felt regret, but he did not stop.

As the last of the pages was kindled and burned to ash, Duncan wept, but his tears were mingled with the delight of freedom. The old man watched him and understood perfectly. He laughed once more, and after a moment, Duncan joined in. The freight yard was filled with the sounds of riotous laughter that swelled and echoed, then faded away in a joyful fugue of iambic pentameter.

Copyright 2008 Douglas. All rights reserved. FifteenMinutesOfFiction.com has been granted non-exclusive rights to display this work. For permission to reprint this item, please contact the author.
 


   
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This post has been awarded 14 stars by 3 readers.
This post is Part 18 of a writing series titled Kindle. The next part of this series can be found here: Any Gift You Have To Pay For.
This is a revised version of a post. Click here to view the original version

Comments


Scribbler
Dec 2, 2008
Thanks for your thoughtful story. I suspect I'll be thinking about it for some time.

I noticed a typo: For what he thought was H20, Was H2SO4."
where oxygen has a lower case 'o'.
   ~Posted by Scribbler, Dec 2, 2008



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