Cat’s CradleKurt VonnegutContents

73. Black Death

When I got back to my room I found that Philip Castle— mosaicist, historian, self-indexer, pissant, and hotel-keeper—was installing a roll of toilet paper in my bathroom.

“Thank you very much,” I said.

“You’re entirely welcome.”

“This is what I’d call a hotel with a real heart. How many hotel owners would take such a direct interest in the comfort of a guest?”

“How many hotel owners have just one guest?”

“You used to have three.”

“Those were the days.”

“You know, I may be speaking out of turn, but I find it hard to understand how a person of your interests and talents would be attracted to the hotel business.”

He frowned perplexedly. “I don’t seem to be as good with guests as I might, do I?”

“I knew some people in the Hotel School at Cornell, and I can’t help feeling they would have treated the Crosbys somewhat differently.”

He nodded uncomfortably. “I know. I know.” He flapped his arms. “Damned if I know why I built this hotel —something to do with my life, I guess. A way to be busy, a way not to be lonesome.” He shook his head. “It was be a hermit or open a hotel—with nothing in between.”

“Weren’t you raised at your father’s hospital?”

“That’s right. Mona and I both grew up there.”

“Well, aren’t you at all tempted to do with your life what your father’s done with his?”

Young Castle smiled wanly, avoiding a direct answer. “He’s a funny person, Father is,” he said. “I think you’ll like him.”

“I expect to. There aren’t many people who’ve been as unselfish as he has.”

“One time,” said Castle, “when I was about fifteen, there was a mutiny near here on a Greek ship bound from Hong Kong to Havana with a load of wicker furniture. The mutineers got control of the ship, didn’t know how to run her, and smashed her up on the rocks near ‘Papa’ Monzano’s castle. Everybody drowned but the rats. The rats and the wicker furniture came ashore.”

That seemed to be the end of the story, but I couldn’t be sure. “So?”

“So some people got free furniture, and some people got bubonic plague. At Father’s hospital, we had fourteen-hundred deaths inside of ten days. Have you ever seen anyone die of bubonic plague?”

“That unhappiness has not been mine.”

“The lymph glands in the groin and the armpits swell to the size of grapefruit.”

“I can well believe it.”

“After death, the body turns black—coals to Newcastle in the case of San Lorenzo. When the plague was having everything its own way, the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle looked like Auschwitz or Buchenwald. We had stacks of dead so deep and wide that a bulldozer actually stalled trying to shove them toward a common grave. Father worked without sleep for days, worked not only without sleep but without saving many lives, either.”

Castle’s grisly tale was interrupted by the ringing of my telephone.

“My God,” said Castle, “I didn’t even know the telephones were connected yet.”

I picked up the phone. “Hello?”

It was Major General Franklin Hoenikker who had called me up. He sounded out of breath and scared stiff. “Listen! You’ve got to come out to my house right away. We’ve got to have a talk! It could be a very important thing in your life!”

“Could you give me some idea?”

“Not on the phone, not on the phone. You come to my house. You come right away! Please!”

“All right.”

“I’m not kidding you. This is a really important thing in your life. This is the most important thing ever.” He hung up.

“What was that all about?” asked Castle.

“I haven’t got the slightest idea. Frank Hoenikker wants to see me right away.”

“Take your time. Relax. He’s a moron.”

“He said it was important.”

“How does he know what’s important? I could carve a better man out of a banana.”

“Well, finish your story anyway.”

“Where was I?”

“The bubonic plague. The bulldozer was stalled by corpses.”

“Oh, yes. Anyway, one sleepless night I stayed up with Father while he worked. It was all we could do to find a live patient to treat. In bed after bed after bed we found dead people.

“And Father started giggling,” Castle continued.

“He couldn’t stop. He walked out into the night with his flashlight. He was still giggling. He was making the flashlight beam dance over all the dead people stacked outside. He put his hand on my head, and do you know what that marvelous man said to me?” asked Castle.


“’Son,’ my father said to me, ‘someday this will all be yours.’”

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