Cat’s CradleKurt VonnegutContents

118. The Iron Maiden and the Oubliette

The Sixth Book of The Books of Bokonon is devoted to pain, in particular to tortures inflicted by men on men. “If I am ever put to death on the hook,” Bokonon warns us, “expect a very human performance.”

Then he speaks of the rack and the peddiwinkus and the iron maiden and the veglia and the oubliette.

In any case, there’s bound to be much crying.
But the oubliette alone will let you think while dying.

And so it was in Mona’s and my rock womb. At least we could think. And one thing I thought was that the creature comforts of the dungeon did nothing to mitigate the basic fact of oubliette.

During our first day and night underground, tornadoes rattled our manhole cover many times an hour. Each time the pressure in our hole would drop suddenly, and our ears would pop and our heads would ring.

As for the radio—there was crackling, fizzing static and that was all. From one end of the short-wave band to the other not one word, not one telegrapher’s beep, did I hear. If life still existed here and there, it did not broadcast.

Nor does life broadcast to this day.

This I assumed: tornadoes, strewing the poisonous blue-white frost of ice-nine everywhere, tore everyone and everything above ground to pieces. Anything that still lived would die soon enough of thirst—or hunger—or rage—or apathy.

I turned to The Books of Bokonon, still sufficiently unfamiliar with them to believe that they contained spiritual comfort somewhere. I passed quickly over the warning on the title page of The First Book:

“Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma!

Foma, of course, are lies.

And then I read this:

In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.

And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

“Certainly,” said man.

“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

And He went away.

I thought this was trash.

“Of course it’s trash!” says Bokonon.

And I turned to my heavenly Mona for comforting secrets a good deal more profound.

I was able, while mooning at her across the space that separated our beds, to imagine that behind her marvelous eyes lurked mysteries as old as Eve.

I will not go into the sordid sex episode that followed. Suffice it to say that I was both repulsive and repulsed.

The girl was not interested in reproduction—hated the idea. Before the tussle was over, I was given full credit by her, and by myself, too, for having invented the whole bizarre, grunting, sweating enterprise by which new human beings were made.

Returning to my own bed, gnashing my teeth, I supposed that she honestly had no idea what love-making was all about. But then she said to me, gently, “It would be very sad to have a little baby now. Don’t you agree?”

“Yes,” I agreed murkily.

“Well, that’s the way little babies are made, in case you didn’t know.”

Turn page.