threw up his hands and wept. He did so in the honorable
way of a man who has come to the end of his strength. Africa had frustrated
his attempts to classify its parts. We did not fault him, but his despair
sent a shiver through us. He had arrived from the Smithsonian with sufficient
enthusiasm, tags, and string to label everything--or so he thought. But the
final days of our journey as we approached the limits of our experience had
confounded his and all science. He was not the first to delude himself that
Africa is manageable. One by one we had failed and accepted our failure.
We picked him up from where he lay, gnashing his teeth in the dust, and
carried him into the tent. The heated canvas smelled like a musty attic. The
light seeping through the tent-flap looked like the yellowing pages of an old
book. The insects under the floorboards creaked like a rusty gate. We took
comfort in similes--by God we did! Each was a cosmology, each a map of
the unknown. In our place you would feel the same--so far from home and
lost to all that is familiar. But the trouble with Africa is that ultimately
it destroys similes. Their referents vanish in the impenetrable underbrush.
Only occasionally are we permitted (“vouchsafed,” the Bishop used to say)
a fleeting glimpse of them through the thorn bushes, under the leaves,
trembling at the bottom of some great ravine. But a glimpse is all, and soon
Africa closes its hand.
I held the papier-mâché curiosity that had undone Dr. Landis and
came to a decision.
I sent for Dewey, whose Decimal System had organized the world of
He did not come willingly.
My emissaries had to apply force at several strategic points. He
yelped. I was remorseful. But it was necessary.
He stood in the clearing, rubbing his eyes in disbelief. His hair
needed brushing. His shoes were untied and ridiculously inappropriate for
the wilderness. He had not had time to put on a collar. His fingers were
covered with tiny decimals and letters of the alphabet. I gave him my tent,
my delicate blue willow washbowl. He washed his inky fingers. I lent him
a brush, a collar, some sensible shoes, and a broad-brimmed hat to keep off
He was mollified, but only just.
“Why have you brought me here?” he demanded in a dry voice that
threatened to crack.
“We need help with the cataloguing,” I said. “Our explorations have
come to a standstill because of this”--I showed him the curiosity—“and
other unclassifiable phenomena. What is needed, Melvil -- may I call you
He indicated that I mightn't.
“What is urgently required, Mr. Dewey, is a system!”
My colleagues applauded. All two hundred porters dropped their
burdens and began a weeklong celebration in my honor. I blushed with
“But this is not a library!” shouted Dewey.
“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your
library,” I retorted--to great effect, I thought.
My colleagues agreed. I was the man of the hour.
Seeing our resolve, Dewey rolled up his sleeves and set to work.
Dewey supervised the building of the cabinet to house the card
catalogue. He took as his model the Ark of the Covenant as described in the
“Book of Exodus”:
And they shall make an ark of shittimwood;
two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof,
and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof,
and a cubit and a half the height thereof.
We built it to withstand the sun and rain and worms. With brass and irony
did we fit it and on rubber tires mount it. One month did we labor, such was
the hardness of the wood, the obduracy of the metals, the intractability of
the porters. In the end we had a cabinet of substance. Its forthright
affirmation of three and only three dimensions comforted us.
Dewey was satisfied.
“You may call me Melvil,” he said.
To begin with, we catalogued the exotic-- in alphabetical order: the
black bulbul, the Boer, the dikdik, the frankolin, the kangaroo rat, the kob,
the mongoose, the monitor lizard, the nightjar, the paradise flycatcher, the
pocket gopher, the purple ibis, the red bulbul, the yellow bat.
Next the esoteric: epimys nieventrisulae, graphiurus parvus,
lophurmys aquilus, oenomys hypoxanthus bacchante, otomys irroratus
tropicalis, paraxerus jacksoni, pedetes surdaster, tatera varia Heller,
thamnomys surdaster polionops, zelotomys hildegardae.
Then the erotic, for the Library of Congress--the details of which I
am forbidden to publish; and finally, after a lengthy passage, several strange
alphabets that I have not the keys to reproduce here.
The landscape became difficult; our advance slowed. We towed the
cabinet tirelessly behind us, bogging down all too often in obscure matter.
Dewey lashed our already striped backs. We lost the trail and entered a
papier-mâché mush. We argued among ourselves whether this was not
the primordial matter with which an illusory nature constituted itself as
“Nature is bedrock,” he asserted. “Reality sits upon it. Illusion is
the theater of con artists, magicians, and priests. All things are classifiable.
What isn't doesn't count.”
He returned to his ceaseless cataloguing. The file drawers opened to
receive each new card, written in his neat hand. Our taxonomy was
stretched to the breaking point.
“Pop!” it went finally with a popping that could be heard for miles
around. The center, which we had occupied, which had moved with us
every step of the way, moved elsewhere. Saturated, we entered the realm of
the purely subjective. Our ears rang.
We found existence on the periphery disturbing. We plotted our
position on the X-Y grid, but it kept slipping.
“Slippage!” shouted Quigley. “God have mercy on us all!”
No longer at the center of things, how could we possibly separate one
object from another so as first to identify, then classify it? This was the
nub of our terror.
Dewey remained calm. He stood on the top of the cabinet for all to
see. He was a striking figure in the dying light.
“Courage, men,” he counseled. “The catalogue is nearly complete.
There remains but one drawer to fill.”
Our spirits lifted.
“Hooray!” we shouted.
“But first, rest a while,” he said kindly, so that we loved him.
We rested. The world came flooding back. Things returned to
normal; that is, our former relationship to them was restored.
“Onward!” exhorted Dewey.
“Onward!” we answered.
At last we came to the end of things. Dewey was not surprised.
“It was to be expected,” he said. “In a finite space there can be only a
finite number of things. Or, if you prefer, when God rested on the seventh
day, creation came to an end.”
We nodded in agreement.
Shortly after, we encountered the Very Last Thing. Because we had
been inching our way back in time with every step forward, it also happened
to be the First Thing. (Surely you can see that!) Dewey took off his hat and
slowly approached it.
“Behold!” he exclaimed. “Alpha & Omega. The Irreducible
He lifted it carefully for all to see.
We made suitable sounds of awe.
(What was it like, you ask?
It was like nothing. It was like everything. It confounded simile.
It was incomparable!
Was it beautiful?
Who can say.
Was it worth the journey?
Impossible to tell.)
With the Great Work finished, Dewey returned to America and his
library. Whether he was ever the same again, I do not know. How the
journey may have changed me, I didn't have time to consider. The
catalogue had to be brought out. We were tired of reading Africa in the
original! We needed to disengage ourselves a while from the extremes of
experience. We needed therapy followed by a period of convalescence.
We would sit in our tents and study the cards. Little by little, Africa
would fade and with it our terror.
We wheeled the cabinet around and started home.
Norman Lock's fiction has appeared in The North American Review, The Paris
Review, The Iowa Review, and Locus Novus, among others. His stage plays have been widely produced in the U.S., Germany, and at the
Edinburgh Theatre Festival. His short story, "A History of the Imagination," appeared in Issue #4 of The Cafe Irreal.
His recently published book, Emigres/Joseph Cornell's Operas, can be ordered online at elimae.
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story copyright by author 2001 all rights reserved