Cat’s CradleKurt VonnegutContents

6. Bug Fights

Newt resumed his letter the next morning. He resumed it as follows:

“Next morning. Here I go again, fresh as a daisy after eight hours of sleep. The fraternity house is very quiet now. Everybody is in class but me. I’m a very privileged character. I don’t have to go to class any more. I was flunked out last week. I was a pre-med. They were right to flunk me out. I would have made a lousy doctor.

“After I finish this letter, I think I’ll go to a movie. Or if the sun comes out, maybe I’ll go for a walk through one of the gorges. Aren’t the gorges beautiful? This year, two girls jumped into one holding hands. They didn’t get into the sorority they wanted. They wanted Tri-Delt.

“But back to August 6, 1945. My sister Angela has told me many times that I really hurt my father that day when I wouldn’t admire the cat’s cradle, when I wouldn’t stay there on the carpet with my father and listen to him sing. Maybe I did hurt him, but I don’t think I could have hurt him much. He was one of the best-protected human beings who ever lived. People couldn’t get at him because he just wasn’t interested in people. I remember one time, about a year before he died, I tried to get him to tell me something about my mother. He couldn’t remember anything about her.

“Did you ever hear the famous story about breakfast on the day Mother and Father were leaving for Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize? It was in The Saturday Evening Post one time. Mother cooked a big breakfast. And then, when she cleared off the table, she found a quarter and a dime and three pennies by Father’s coffee cup. He’d tipped her.

“After wounding my father so terribly, if that’s what I did, I ran out into the yard. I didn’t know where I was going until I found my brother Frank under a big spiraea bush. Frank was twelve then, and I wasn’t surprised to find him under there. He spent a lot of time under there on hot days. Just like a dog, he’d make a hollow in the cool earth all around the roots. And you never could tell what Frank would have under the bush with him. One time he had a dirty book. Another time he had a bottle of cooking sherry. On the day they dropped the bomb Frank had a tablespoon and a Mason jar. What he was doing was spooning different kinds of bugs into the jar and making them fight.

“The bug fight was so interesting that I stopped crying right away—forgot all about the old man. I can’t remember what all Frank had fighting in the jar that day, but I can remember other bug fights we staged later on: one stag beetle against a hundred red ants, one centipede against three spiders, red ants against black ants. They won’t fight unless you keep shaking the jar. And that’s what Frank was doing, shaking, shaking, the jar.

“After a while Angela came looking for me. She lifted up one side of the bush and said, ‘So there you are!’ She asked Frank what he thought he was doing, and he said, ‘Experimenting.’ That’s what Frank always used to say when people asked him what he thought he was doing. He always said, ‘Experimenting.’

“Angela was twenty-two then. She had been the real head of the family since she was sixteen, since Mother died, since I was born. She used to talk about how she had three children—me, Frank, and Father. She wasn’t exaggerating, either. I can remember cold mornings when Frank, Father, and I would be all in a line in the front hail, and Angela would be bundling us up, treating us exactly the same. Only I was going to kindergarten; Frank was going to junior high; and Father was going to work on the atom bomb. I remember one morning like that when the oil burner had quit, the pipes were frozen, and the car wouldn’t start. We all sat there in the car while Angela kept pushing the starter until the battery was dead. And then Father spoke up. You know what he said? He said, ‘I wonder about turtles.’ ‘What do you wonder about turtles? Angela asked him. ‘When they pull in their heads,’ he said, ‘do their spines buckle or contract?’

“Angela was one of the unsung heroines of the atom bomb, incidentally, and I don’t think the story has ever been told. Maybe you can use it. After the turtle incident, Father got so interested in turtles that he stopped working on the atom bomb. Some people from the Manhattan Project finally came out to the house to ask Angela what to do. She told them to take away Father’s turtles. So one night they went into his laboratory and stole the turtles and the aquarium. Father never said a word about the disappearance of the turtles. He just came to work the next day and looked for things to play with and think about, and everything there was to play with and think about had something to do with the bomb.

“When Angela got me out from under the bush, she asked me what had happened between Father and me. I just kept saying over and over again how ugly he was, how much I hated him. So she slapped me. ‘How dare you say that about your father?’ she said. ‘He’s one of the greatest men who ever lived! He won the war today! Do you realize that? He won the war!’ She slapped me again.

“I don’t blame Angela for slapping me. Father was all she had. She didn’t have any boy friends. She didn’t have any friends at all. She had only one hobby. She played the clarinet.

“I told her again how much I hated my father; she slapped me again; and then Frank came out from under the bush and punched her in the stomach. It hurt her something awful. She fell down and she rolled around. When she got her wind back, she cried and she yelled for Father.

“’He won’t come,’ Frank said, and he laughed at her. Frank was right. Father stuck his head out a window, and he looked at Angela and me rolling on the ground, bawling, and Frank standing over us, laughing. The old man pulled his head indoors again, and never asked later what all the fuss had been about. People weren’t his specialty.

“Will that do? Is that any help to your book? Of course, you’ve really tied me down, asking me to stick to the day of the bomb. There are lots of other good anecdotes about the bomb and Father, from other days. For instance, do you know the story about Father on the day they first tested a bomb out at Alamogordo? After the thing went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, ‘Science has now known sin.’ And do you know what Father said? He said, ‘What is Sin?’

“All the best,

“Newton Hoenikker”

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