“This is your improvement, captain?” said Bartleby, gesturing toward the vestry. “This is a disparagement on the rights of man. It is shameful that a man must prostrate himself to such an odious requiem. Man is born to liberty, intellect and the wonder of discovery are his birthright, and here are a hundred who would rather moan along to a sepulchering chant and beg a fictious entity for contrition they don’t deserve.” He snuffed, and his nosehairs writhed. “What is all this anyhow?”
“I believe it is a holiday borrowed from Belletrim, adopted by those here who wish to follow their Saints.”
“Fah! Ruderary! Adopting a form of cognitive slavery for the promise of a mythical reward—what a ridiculous way of going on in a country where a man might do anything. The manner in which people will shakle themselves…” He clicked his tongue and shook his head. “You were a freer man,” speaking to Rannig, “as a slave in the brick pits than these people are. Left to themselves, they will believe in cockleshells if it means they might have a sense of salvation.”
“Take care how you talk of them, my old friend. The Saints may come to plague you after all.”
Here was an arch look, and Bartleby glared at the captain over his spectacles.
“I invite them to come, captain,” Bartleby insisted. “Let them descend from their high boughs of moral impossibility and prove themselves, if they want to be worshipped. If I speak against them, they ought to come and smite me, or push me down a well, or make my ears sprout trees, or whatever it is such superstitiosities do by way of punishment.”
“Your ears already got branches on ‘em, Bartleby,” Rannig observed.
He browsed the incanescent enation radiating from Bartleby’s ears, and the old man flailed and tried to blow the giant away with a huff.
“You must not touch them, my dear Rannig,” said Danaco. “He is cultivating a wisened farm, to ward off any spiritual entities that wish to retaliate against him. They are beacons of reason, working to repell stupidity for miles around. They are his sagely furnishings. Only look how the sun catches in them. A gloriole for us to marvel at and for Bartleby to triumph in.”
Bartleby put his hands over his ears and glowered, hating his horay nimbus and disdaining the captain and the giant for pointing it out.
“You ought to garnish them with windchimes. They might be our musical accompaniment instead of Rannig.”
“Hang your windchimes,” Bartleby grumbled.
“That’s what the boss said to do.”
“I do not need windchimes or garnishings or anything else!” Bartleby cried, his fists shaking. “I am very well off with my books and my bathing companions.”
Rannig canted his head and gave the old man’s ear hairs an apprasing look. “Maybe you can hang a small book of ‘em, Bartleby.”
“The weight might pull them out,” said Danaco. “He should have to plait them to keep them together. There is a challenge. We should stop at the ropemaker in the market and try what can be done.”
Bartleby was very sure he should be shaving his ears from lobe to tragus by the end of the day, and watched the procession of parishioners leave the vestry in a gloom of gowls.
“Well, we had best wait and let these men and women pass,” said Danaco, nodding toward the string of black shawls shambling out of the vestry. “We are in a hurry, I grant you, but we invite ill-luck on ourselves if we should break the line of mourners.”
“What is the supposed purpose of this constructed celebration?” Bartleby asked.
“Some sort of ritual abstinence from eating, drinking, and bathing, done to reduce themselves to vestigial and regretful children, after which they go for an ablutive plunge and have a moderate feast, followed by postprandial prayers. Something to do with purification of the soul and the shedding of sins, I understand.” There was a pause, and without turning to Bartleby, the captain grinned and said, “Scowl any harder, my old friend, and your jowels will droop to your knees.”
“No bathing or drinking—ha! What humbuggery, to starve oneself for invisible entities. All they need do, if they are in want of contrition, is to forgive themselves and get on with it. Say they’re sorry for whatever crimes they have committed, and then treat themselves to a sandwich. And so they do this every year, promise not to do the things they are only going to beg forgiveness for next year? And all this with mossy teeth and mouths crusted over with the slag of dessication?” He winced, pinched the bridge of his nose, and heaved a heavy sigh. “Why must people feel the need to invent hardships and adopt stupidities—a man has no business shakling himself when he is born free. We had best stay here, captain. The cloud of noxious microbes swarming about this uneducated horde might attempt to invade—what are you doing? No, captain! Don’t approach them! They should be hosed down and scraped before you near. Microbes, captain! Microbes!” but it was too late: the captain was approaching the sacred procession, was bowing and exchanging pleasantries with the priest standing at the door, and Bartleby dared not move any nearer the vestry for fear of nonsensical ideologies poised to occupy his brain.
“They’re just prayin’ and not eatin’ for the day, Bartleby,” said Rannig, in a kindly hue. “They don’t have the Mallacht.”
“They might as well have the Mabhrach, or the plague, or whatever else your people consider to be infectious. Ignorance is the worst of all contagions, my boy,” Bartleby asserted, “for it is not limited to one people, as you see here, and it is caught easily by the low and credulous.”
“Well, the boss won’t bring back anything, Bartleby. He’s not either of those things.”
“Hrm, no. He is rather immune to stupidity, but he does believe in an ethereal entity and is religious in his way, and so are you--” and with a disenchanted look, Bartleby added,”-- unfortunately.”
Rannig smiled cheerfully, and Bartleby shifted away from him, wondering whether only certain types of Gods begat stupidities and whether he were susceptible to any of the nonsensical doctrines that the captain and the giant cherished.