By Jeremy M. Davies
Rumrill said: Sturdy men in fire-retardant uniforms stood in a circle by the flames of Brocklebank's house and called out to its owner that he ought to vacate the premises or meet an impressively grisly end. This while another group of sturdy men in similar uniforms presented an opposing view—and the first and larger assembly made no secret of their impatience with this splinter group—namely that the old man would have already succumbed and likely asphyxiated in the smoke produced by the destruction of all his goods and chattels some time ago now.
He added: And, as such, that the old man in question was past rescue.
Rumrill said: In the meantime, I from my position outside the picture window saw with my two eyes through the glass Mr. Brocklebank still inside his study, peacefully unconsumed in his favorite chair, every inch the contented resident of this or that suburb of perdition. My shouts, or perhaps cries, possibly halfhearted, were ignored or remained unheard by the firefighters, who preferred to argue over the question of Brocklebank's decease than attend to the opinion of an amateur like myself.
He added: A schism.
Rumrill said: I did my best to offer to both groups the gift of empirical evidence. They weren't interested.
He added: But, then, no one ever is.
Rumrill said: Only later did I understand that the first (and substantially correct) group were in fact relieved to have this opportunity for debate, as they didn't want to be obliged to risk their lives to enter the house in order to effect a rescue. This while the second (heretical) group, for their part, were no less pleased to be engaged in argumentation rather than heroics, because they wanted nothing more than to see the first group proven negligent.
He added: Theory is dangerous.
Rumrill said: Neither did Brocklebank himself hear my calls or pleas, deafened by the mastication of the flames or the hiss of his juices' evaporation or the screams of his thirty cats or absences of cats, which would I assume have been horrible to hear were their sounds not in turn overwhelmed by the voices of the firefighters' disputation and the aria of their siren. The floor-bound meteor-like things that I saw hurtle past my vantage point—safe on the cool, wet stones of Brocklebank's front lawn—must have been those same unfortunate creatures whose status as animals alive or dead, actual or imagined, feline or otherwise, the flames conspired to keep concealed from me.
He added: One last time.
Rumrill said: In their furious movement I saw, as a cartographer might, the cats' varicolored perambulations, their sovereign thoroughfares through Brocklebank's house visible in the air, likewise on fire, soon a uniform orangey-red, which I think is the proper hue under the circumstances. In the fire's consumption of these lanes and way stations I thought I could see, if for only a moment, and constrained of course by my dim conception of such, the lines and vertices of the great and probably useless system constructed by Brocklebank, now refined away in the heat until no more than its linkages remained: an indoor necropolis railway, independent of the spaces that had once contained it, lines in the air say upstairs or down, and imperishable.
He added: Uncorrupted by sense.
Rumrill said: What did not burn were Brocklebank's papers, his opus in conception, in utero, so diligently ruined by yours truly, Rumrill the imp of unintended consequences; those papers that the old man had stored as though in anticipation of this holocaust in filing cabinets guaranteed by their manufacturer to be resistant to heat or wet. Skeptical though I was as to the veracity of this claim, in this case I must admit that my distrust was unfounded.
He added: Another satisfied customer.
Rumrill said: Distracted from my fiery edification, I heard then that the schismatic firefighters had splintered yet again, which split resulted in the formation of a third and still more contentious group that had partially depleted the ranks of groups one and two. Faction three argued that there was no proof to be had that the owner of the burning house had been at home to begin with, and did this not better explain the occupant's apparent disinclination to be rescued from the fire?
He added: An open invitation to additional fringe theories.
Rumrill said: Factions one and two now saw themselves dwindled to a minority, indeed united in their obsolescence, as their ranks were again plundered by the naissance of a fourth group, who professed the most radical position yet. They claimed, not without vituperation, that Brocklebank had surely expired of causes other than those pursuant to the fire that had established so firm a foothold upon his goods and chattels, and that this scenario best explicated his silence in reply to their in any case halfhearted calls.
He added: Such as, "Hey, mister!"
Rumrill said: Would it come to fisticuffs, wondered Rumrill on the lawnless lawn. While Rumrill here and now wonders if there could be a more beautiful sight in this lackluster world than men with the red highlights of an inferno on their lapels, ready to beat hell out of one another before a roiling conflagration.
He added: Blood in firelight is gray.
Rumrill said: I soon began to feel discomfited, even guilty. I felt I ought to give up my attempts to attract the attention of the disputants.
He added: Rather than compromise myself.
Rumrill said: If Brocklebank had fallen prey to misadventure previous to the fire, then there could be only one person responsible, in his negligence, aside from the principal personage himself. What a short trip, then, from this realization to the inevitable accusation that would settle with Talmudic certainty upon the head of Reb Rumrill?
He added: Known as "The Exegete."
Rumrill said: After all, Brocklebank would not have been difficult to kill: he could not stand unaided, could not see the seams where what he might have forgotten had been elided from his life with safety scissors. Without such oversight, he tended inevitably—without the least need for encouragement on the part of his employee and sole heir—in the general direction of suicide.
He added: Or do I mean auto-chance-medley.
Rumrill said: In the same way that he would wash and rewash the same dish until his hands began to peel, he would, without supervision, inevitably take and retake the same pill until these made gobbledygook of his innards, each tablet to his mind the first of the day, and what a conscientious Brocklebank he was to have remembered to swallow it without Rumrill's prompts. On those occasions when Rumrillian vigilance did indeed lapse to the extent that a week's dose might be consumed over the course of a single afternoon, Brocklebank would thereafter cite the inexplicable depletion of his drug supply as evidence—during his next diatribe—that there were thieves to be found in every corner of this dishonest town; that his house was not secure; that his medicines were being pilfered and sold by myself to various neighborhood hooligans; that someone wanted to drive him mad.
He added: And absolutely mistaken about at least two of these points.
Rumrill said: The firemen's parliament had reached another impasse. It seemed there was now disagreement in the ranks of even the most radical splinter as to whether Brocklebank's pre-fire demise had itself caused the fire—for example a heart attack while at the gas range, or with match to cigar, or with armfuls of turpentined rags—or whether, instead, the fire might have been engineered in order to destroy whatever evidence the house might have contained as far as the real, foul-playful manner of the old man's dispatch.
He added: See the fingerprints sizzle off my favorite garrote.
Rumrill said: Cudgel them as I might, my brains refused to disclose any especially deadly liberty I might have taken, or neglect perpetrated, with or upon Brocklebank's person or residence in the recent past. Nonetheless, this could hardly solace me under the circumstances; I could never be certain whether or not I had killed Brocklebank, in this scenario, since the old man had been a veritable encyclopedia of opportunities for murder, be it active or passive, violent or merciful, indeed undetectable, indeed inevitable.
He added: Or, anyway, manslaughter.
Rumrill said: To not have killed him would have been impossible to remember. As impossible in its way as not to remember a dream about Analytical Marxism I never had.
He added: Inasmuch as I ever dreamed about anything else.
Rumrill said: Could he while I helped him unmaliciously into his trousers one morning have been allowed to step on a tack whose microscopic colonists had fatally compromised his already feeble organism? Could I have introduced in my innocence a soupçon of rat poison instead of sugar substitute into his tea?
He added: Such similar bottles.
Rumrill said: These reveries, such as they were, were interrupted again by the voice of one of the fireman-disputants, who had now singled me out and summoned me into the circle at last. It seemed they wanted an impartial observer to hear their case and help them reach a conclusion without fisticuffs.
He added: Pity about the fisticuffs.
Rumrill said: I had wanted to escape the scene without notice. It didn't, however, surprise me that I had somehow made myself that much more noticeable a bystander by way of my guilty silence and decision to flee than through my cries and gesticulations.
He added: Typical.
Rumrill said: Two of the red men walked over to my station by the charred study's picture window and escorted me to the rocky front yard, where their comrades stood with friendly, professional smiles. As they collected me, they did not notice Brocklebank in his chair in the oven through the now-sooty glass.
He added: Though to say that one thing happened after another precisely is a misrepresentation.
Rumrill said: Surrounded now—my notes correspond with the minutes of the fire brigade on this score—I was made to listen a second time, at close quarters, to the several arguments still under consideration by these rubber-clad gentlemen, while behind and above and in front of us timbers cracked and crackled and carbonized and held their own disputations with the forces of gravity and chance in order to determine, and democratically, by which trajectory we bipeds below might best be squished beneath their magnanimous vegetable matters. By a curious effect of those natural laws that still do govern the travels of waves and particles and whatever other orders and principalities of pest unite in the frustration of our paltry attempts at communication in this town, I was less able to make out the firemen's words from my new position in their midst—such was the noise from the fire around us—than I had been back at my safer and certainly cozier locus, in attendance upon Brocklebank's slow roast.
He added: What a bunch of mumblers.
Rumrill said: From the proximity of their mouths and the wisps of benign gray curvilinear steam that burned off of their lips and beards, it was clear to me that, were circumstances different, and we had nonetheless made the unlikely decision to stand so close to one another, I should be not only irritated by their poor enunciation but aspersed with their spittle. Had I not been concerned that flight might incriminate myself further, there would have been little reason for me to endure their rudeness.
He added: Not to say vulgarity.
Rumrill said: "So you'd like to know," I asked them, "which of the scenarios you have formulated best explains why your ineffectual attempts to rescue the occupant or occupants of this house have till now proved unsuccessful? But have you not considered the possibility that the owner of the house might have moved away or indeed died and been buried or more appositely cremated months or years before the fire was started, and that what threatens now to flatten your pointed heads are the beams and timbers of a derelict edifice rather than a home owned or rented by a man possessed of a great many housecats?"
He added: Bigmouth.
Rumrill said: How, they wondered, could I—a bystander—know whether or not the house had once contained a great many housecats? How, they inquired, with the gestures and expressions familiar to me from past altercations with my fellow townspeople, best avoided, could I—whom they had never once seen at the grocery or post office or enjoying an iced coffee at one of our outdoor cafés or even spirituous liquors at one of our neighborhood bars—be so familiar with this their neighborhood as to know whether or not the owner or inhabitant of this house had once filled its every plausible corner with droves of good old Felis catus?
He added: Which is to say, Felis catus domestica.
Rumrill said: "An extrapolation," I mouthed bigly, "from the stench of this fire, which my rather sensitive nose tells me consists in its highlights not only of the smells of wood and gypsum being encouraged to part with those portions of their substance as might best be elevated into a gaseous state, but likewise that of fur, which is a zesty, even salty smell by contrast. For so much fur to burn along with the walls and carpets indicates to me—there is no mystery in it—that this must have been the residence of a great many housecats; if not now, then in the building's recent history."
He added: Vacuum as one may.
Rumrill said: They seemed little reassured by my explanation, perhaps resentful that they had themselves long been without functional senses of smell, and asked how I could be so certain that this fur was feline, that it had not perhaps been shed by Canis lupus familiaris, or—why not—Atelerix albiventris, for that matter? Was I not mistaken, or overconfident in my ability to differentiate one type of burned filament from another?
He added: Marmot from flax, for example?
Rumrill said: "Why not ask," I asked, "whether or not we are even in conversation here, given the odds against such a thing, particularly by the light of a house on fire, whether or not inhabited by a great many housecats, and most particularly given the probable differences—in class, upbringing, education—between yourselves and this citizen, which is to say Rumrill, so eager to be of help? Why not ask," I asked on, "whether or not we could hope to understand a word of what we would be likely to say to one another, if this conversation were indeed to take place, given not only the noise made by said house on fire, catless or catful, but our incompatible vocabularies, due again to the aforesaid differences in class, et cetera?"
He added: Which just made them angry.
Rumrill said: Better still, they asked sarcastically, why assume you are anywhere but in your foyer, in conversation not with us but with guests intent on a tour of your own cat-infested home, but kept as it were in limbo by your interminable garrulity, no doubt of sinister purpose? Why assume our conversation is anything but a conversation related at second hand in the context of a still longer and even less likely conversation between people of unequal social standings, intentions, desires, possessions?
He added: The hell you say.
Rumrill said: Better still, they averred, hostile to me it now seemed, their eyes reservoirs of sooty pigment ready for the stylus, why assume you are anywhere but at your desk, at your typewriter, on the inside of a still-unblackened picture window, your attention taken at this moment or the next by the pitted street beyond, your rounded back pointed at the little world of your home behind you, preparing the script you will read when in time your guests knock or ring at your door and you invite them into your vestibule from which even they for all their boorishness will be powerless to escape, thanks to etiquette and self-interest? Why assume you are surrounded by malnourished men with the faces of prisoners possessed of neither the desire nor the incentive to fight a fire set on valueless property when it is far more likely that if you should turn your head in a moment of doubt over the use of the word "averred," you would find yourself hemmed in not by your fellow citizens but by filing cabinets stuffed with numerous variations upon the same hypotheses we are now compelled to mouth at your insistence?
He added: Impressive stuff, without benefit of saliva, given the heat.
Rumrill said: "Better still," I countered, "why assume our conversation is not in fact a garbled third-hand recitation from the spotty notes taken by those supposed guests of mine to their own guests in turn, after many years, when one or the other has likely died of whatever disease it is our town water supply seems to encourage; notes supplemented by whatever other documents might have survived into that distant day, filled with errors and misunderstandings, we cannot doubt, all of which would certainly explain the manner in which we seem to have been condemned to express ourselves on this unseasonal day? Why assume that what we've experienced and said to one another is anything but some archivist's fantasy, a mistaken correlation made between two different events that in reality occurred on different days, even in different years, recorded poorly by the poor historians of our town, forced to rely on accounts badly distorted by their own inattention as well as various natural disasters?"
He added: Floods candy all sins over.
Rumrill said: "Better still by far," I suggested, "why not presume we are all asleep, and that this situation is—by way of one of those simplistic inversions typically mistaken for wit—a dream, or else, why not, that we have been gang-pressed into someone else's dream, indeed the dream of a man who, his employer dead on account of causes either natural or otherwise, and himself therefore the inheritor of a great many unwanted housecats, has planned to set fire to the old man's house, the better to rid himself of this burden—which, heaven knows, the humane society didn't want to hear about—and then, after one too many marzipan balls before bed, is nettled through the night by dreams as to the possible ramifications of this act, legally as well as morally? Indeed, why not presume we are all the dream of one of the old man's unfortunate cats, who, having overheard the arsonist-hopeful's muttered debate on the subject—because he has already taken up the old man's habit of vocalized self-address as he goes about his daily rounds—is now curled fretfully by a heating vent listening to this ludicrous though ominous scene but no more able to make anything of the noises that come out of our throats than we might its mewing beneath the skirt of an ottoman?"
He added: Or do I mean tuffet.
Rumrill said: Not a little proud of this unexpected prolixity in the face of the synod's metaphysical antagonism, I was quickly reminded by their expressions that my waggishness was entirely lost on such men—even more so, I suspect, than it is lost on you. They looked if anything grimmer than ever, unless this darker hue was the result of the now setting sun's duet with the dust and light thrown up by the fire.
He added: A jury of my peers.