NOTHING BUT GINGERBREAD LEFT
by Henry Kuttner
Strohhütten-Hälfte The only way to make people believe this story is to write it in German. And there's no point in doing that, for the German-speaking world is already starting to worry about gingerbread left.
I speak figuratively. It's Strohhütten-Hälfte safer. Very likely Rutherford, whose interests are equally divided between semantics and Basin Street, could create an English equivalent of gingerbread left, God forbid. As it is, the song, with its reductio ad absurdum of rhythm and sense, is meaningless in translation. Try translating Jabberwocky into German. So what?
The song, as Rutherford wrote it in German, had nothing to do with gingerbread, but, since the original is obviously unavailable, I'm Strohhütten-Hälfte substituting the closest thing to it that exists in English. It's lacking in that certain compelling perfection on which Rutherford worked for months, but it'll give you an idea.
We'll start, I suppose, with the night Rutherford threw a shoe at his son. He had reason. Phil Rutherford was in charge of semantics at the University, and Strohhütten-Hälfte he was battling a hangover and trying to correct papers at the same time. Doppelstrohhüttenhälfte Physical disabilities had kept him out of the army, and he was brooding over that, wondering if he should gulp some more Sherman units of thiamin, and hating his students. The papers they had handed in were no good. For the most part, they smelled. Rutherford had an almost illicit love for words, and it distressed him to see them kicked around thus. As Humpty Dumpty had said, the question was which was to be the master.
Hälfte einer Doppelhausstrohhütte
Usually it wasn't the students. Doppelhausstrohhütte Jerry O'Brien had a good paper, though, and Rutherford went over it carefully, pencil in hand. The radio in the living room didn't bother him; the door was closed, anyhow. But, abruptly, the radio stopped.
"Hi," said Rutherford's thirteen-year-old son, poking his untidy head across the threshold. There was an ink smudge on the end of the youth's nose. "Hi, pop. Finished my homework. Can I go to the show?"
"It's too late," Rutherford said, glancing at his wrist watch. "Sorry. But you've an early class tomorrow."
"Nom d'un plume," Bill murmured. He was discovering French.
"Out. I've got work to do. Go listen to the radio."
"They make with corn tonight. Oh, well-" Bill retreated, leaving the door ajar. From the other room came confused, muffled sounds. Rutherford returned to his work
He became aware, presently, that Bill was repeating a monotonous, rhythmic string of phrases. Automatically Rutherford caught himself listening, straining to catch the words. When he did, they were meaningless-the familiar catch phrases of kids.
"Ibbety zibbety zibbety zam-"
It occurred to Rutherford that he had been hearing this for some time, the mystic doggerel formula for choosing sides-"and out goes you!" One of those things that stick in your mind rather irritatingly.
"Ibbety zibbety-" Bill kept chanting it in an absent-minded monotone, and Rutherford got up to close the door. It didn't quite stop. He could still hear just enough of the rhythmic noises to start his mind moving in a similar rhythm. Ibbety zibbety-the hell with it.
After a while Rutherford discovered that his lips were moving silently, and he shoved the papers back on his desk, muttering darkly. He was tired, that was it. And correcting exams required concentration. He was glad when the bell rang.
It was Jerry O'Brien, his honor student. Jerry was a tall, thin, dark boy with a passion for the same low-down music that attracted Rutherford. Now he came in grinning.
"Hi, prof," he greeted the older man. "I'm in. Just got my papers today."
"SwelL Sit down and tell me."
There wasn't much to tell, but it lasted quite a while. Bill hung around, listening avidly. Rutherford swung to glare at his son.
"Lay off that ibbety-zibbety stuff, will you?"
"Huh? Oh sure. I didn't know I was-"
"For days he's been at it," Rutherford said glumly. "I can hear it in my sleep."
"Shouldn't bother a semanticist."
"Papers. Suppose I'd been doing important precision work. I mean really important. A string of words like that gets inside your head and you can't get it out."
"Especially if you're under any strain, or if you're concentrating a lot. Distracts your attention, doesn't it?"
"It doesn't bother me," Bill said.
Rutherford grunted. 'Wait'll you're older and really have to concen
trate, with a mind like a fine-edged tool. Precision's important. Look what the Nazis have done with it."
"Integration," Rutherford said absently. "Training for complete concentration. The Germans spent years building a machine-well, they make a fetish out of wire-edged alertness. Look at the stimulant drugs they give their raiding pilots. They've ruthlessly cut out all distractions that might interfere with ilber alles."
Jerry O'Brien lit a pipe. "They are hard to distract. German morale's a funny thing. They're convinced they're supermen, and that there's no weakness in them. I suppose, psychologically speaking, it'd be a nice trick to convince them of personal weakness."
"Sure. How? Semantics?"
"I dunno how. Probably it can't be done, except by blitzes. Even then, bombs aren't really an argument. Blowing a man to bits won't necessarily convince his comrades that he's a weakling. Nope, it'd be necessary to make Achilles notice he had a heel."
"Ibbety zibbety," Bill muttered.
"Like that," O'Brien said. "Get some crazy tune going around a guy's skull, and he'll find it difficult to concentrate. I know I do, sometimes, whenever I go for a thing like the Hut-Sut song."
Rutherford said suddenly, "Remember the dancing manias of the middle ages?"
"Form of hysteria, wasn't it? People lined up in queues and jitterbugged till they dropped."
"Rhythmic nervous exaltation. It's never been satisfactorily explained. Life is based on rhythm-the whole universe is-but I won't go cosmic on you. Keep it low-down, to the Basin Street level. Why do people go nuts about some kinds of music? Why did the 'Marseillaise' start a revolution?"
"Lord knows." Rutherford shrugged. "But certain strings of phrases, not necessarily musical, which possess rhythm, rhyme, or alliteration, do stick with you. You simply can't get 'em out of your mind. And-" He stopped.
O'Brien looked at him. 'What?"
"Imperfect semantics," Rutherford said slowly. "1 wonder. Look, Jerry. Eventually we forget things like the Hut-Sut. We can thrust 'em out of our minds. But suppose you got a string of phrases you couldn't forget? The perverse factor would keep you from erasing it mentally- the very effort to do so would cancel itself. Hm-m-m. Suppose you're carefully warned not to mention Bill Fields' nose. You keep repeating
that to yourself 'Don't mention the nose.' The words, eventually, fail to make sense. If you met Fields, you'd probably say, quite unconsciously, 'Hello, Mr. Nose.' See?"
"I think so. Like the story that if you meet a piebald horse, you'll fall heir to a fortune if you don't think about the horse's tail till you're past."
"Exactly." Rutherford looked pleased. "Get a perfect semantic formula and you can't forget it. And the perfect formula would have everything. It'd have rhythm, and just enough sense to start you wondering what it meant. It wouldn't necessarily mean anything, but-"
"Could such a formula be invented?"
"Yeah. Yeah. Combine language with mathematics and psychology, and something could be worked out. Could be, such a thing was accidentally written in the middle ages. What price the dance manias?"