Staff: Bartleby Willard. Amble Whistletown. Kempt Whistletown
Management: Thundration (“Tun”) Whistletown. Archangelbert (“Arch”) Skullvalley.
Babe: Susan the beautiful, fair-skinned, raven-haired troll.
Friend: Frank, the tiny, butterfly-winged sprite.
Other Characters: As needed.
Publishing House: Skullvalley After Whistletown.
It was a cold and rainy night in bleak November.
Bartleby Willard paced the worn mahogany floorboards of the mahogany library that lines the back of some versions of the SAWB Building’s top floor overpeering the southern tip of Somewhere Sometime Manhattan.
Bartleby Willard, some number of plush, lux, deluxe flights removed from grim grimy Wall Street, walks back and forth, alone and uncertain, in a library with books from floor to 40-foot ceiling.
You can walk up the mahogany steps to mahogany landings — four of them — and get at the books that way.
There’s a caterpillar with some kind of a disease that kept him from ever turning into a butterfly, but instead growing oh so slowly over five hundred thousand years. He sits on a purple velvet cushion atop the checkout desk. There’s no checking-out done, since only staff use the library, and none of these precious books leave the library. What the foot-long, four-pound caterpillar does is remember where all the books are, and scold you if you don’t put a book back where it came from. He is very inflexible and surprisingly boring, given the amazing number of years he’s lived, the books he’s read, the stories he’s heard.
I don’t know why he’s a he. But I do have some insight into why he is so dull. He has no passion! Never did! And no curiosity! Never even ever asks himself how it came to be that instead of going into a cocoon, incubating for a bit, and then emerging as a multicolored, gossamer, delicate, wind-swept, sun-lit, and decidedly short-lived butterfly; he just kept growing longer and fatter.
The caterpillar has no name. He never thought of one for himself. Some millennia ago, Tun discovered him while picking orchids from rocky cliffs in junglesides, and scooped the soft-sided little tube into a canvas specimen bag worn like a rectangular purse over his shoulder and banging impatiently against his cliff-climbing hip. At the time, Tun said, “Hullo, Caterpillar!”, but the Caterpillar could speak only a form of Quechua and a few tongues that have since died away.
In time, the Caterpillar learned English, and the ways of bookbinding, but he’s never shown interest in anything except memorizing, repeating the memorized facts, and tsking those who deviate from those facts. Accordingly he was made the official Skullvalley After Whistletown librarian/card-catalog. He seems to enjoy the position. Of course, there’s much to scoff at. For example, the other day, Amble came in twenty-three days after reading a little bit from Kierkegaard’s “Fear & Trembling”, and couldn’t remember — honestly didn’t seem to have a clue! — where in the library’s fourth-upper quadrant that book — which he himself had both removed from and replaced in the bookshelf! — was.
Caterpillar does not seem to notice Bartleby’s duckbacked pacings. Caterpillar is instead scanning the many shelves, recollecting book titles and contents as he goes.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know. I really don’t,” says Bartleby to himself.
“Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks & Romans, which includes Theseus and Romulus, Lycurgus and Numa Pompilius, Themistocles and Camillus, Solon and Poplicola, … ” muses Caterpillar with pouty, fishlike, word-smacking lips.
The giant mahogany double-doors swing open and Arch strides through.
“Bartleby! What are you doing spending all day marching fore and aft in the picturesque Skullvalley After Whistletown library? We need you on the floor. There’s a lot of copy flying about and no one to batten down empty flourishes and grind off ragged refrains!”
“What about Amble? Can’t you see I’m overwhelmed by the worm within the apple, the gangrened stump, the curved, needle-like canines of the night shade walkers?”
“Amble? The poor boy’s drowning in words, grammatics, and punctuation marks! Has lost all sense of inside and outside, has he! Why just now Tun caught him trying to erase part of his forehead!”
“Well, can’t the presses wait a minute? It’s not like anyone reads anything we publish.”
“Oh, so that’s your game, is it? Feeling a little blue about the heart-gills and suppose you’ll take your revenge on us hard-working decent day-in-day-out folk who push through flashes of ache and melancholy — us salt-o-the-earthers who set aside little internal spasms of melodrama and mayhem — us bread-n-butters who toil incessantly to move beyond the rickety confines of the narrow self, to serve — backbones arcing! — the wider space, the higher calling, the deeper truth!”