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Sense and Sensibility

The family of Dashwood had long been settled in a tidy house atop a large mole on the left shoulder of the Glutton. The mole—dun, misshapen, of a velvety texture, and probably precancerous—was adorned with a fringe of bristles; upon these bristles grew a light dusting of fungus, and in the fungus Mrs. Dashwood had planted her garden: peonies, thistle, lilies, a row of cabbages, and a single extraordinary plum tree.

Mrs. Dashwood was a widow of sorts, for her husband insisted, contrary to all appearances, that he was dead, and had had himself embalmed and buried to support this contention. His actions, it was generally believed in the neighborhood, arose from obscure fetishistic motives, and this met with the approbation of the Dashwoods’ numerous and voluble neighbors, who prized nothing so much as the obsessive pursuit of disturbing private rituals. Mrs. Dashwood herself, however, believed her husband to be more in possession of an inability to compromise, coupled with a severely limited imagination, than of anything so colorful as a fetish. Having at some time mistakenly concluded that he was dead, he was bound to follow through rather than to suffer the embarrassment of an admission of error.

Though gifted with an insightfulness and candor suitable to a matron of advancing years and declining income, Mrs. Dashwood was generous, sympathetic, impatient, irregular, bashful, imaginative, dramatic, modest, fanciful, clandestine, opportunistic, prudent, celebratory, prurient, madcap, ostentatious, retiring, whimsical, and toothsome, qualities that her marriage and its subsequent devolvement into tragic farce (joined to the propriety and calmness of her instincts) had rendered sadly irrelevant.

Mrs. Dashwood had three daughters, referred to generally as Miss Dashwood, Miss Dashwood, and Miss Dashwood, as was the custom of the time. The eldest, Miss Dashwood, was greatly celebrated among the general society in which the feminine Dashwoods reluctantly circulated, as it was strongly felt that her sobriety, cerebrality, and independence of spirit, though tempered for now by youthful ease and the affection of her close relations, would surely, through the corrosive effects of time and disappointment, ultimately blossom into a variety of interesting compulsions. The middle daughter, Miss Dashwood, who was passionate, astoundingly beautiful, heedless and fiery, was dismissed from consideration. But the youngest Miss Dashwood—who was completely spherical and had been painted a striking shade of powder blue—inspired just that degree of reproach and condemnation from her peers and elders which is a certain harbinger of success in any young person of ambition.

All four inhabitants of the tidy house on the mole rejoiced in their quiet, convivial, and affectionate relations with each other and cultivated a healthy disdain for the opinions of the Glutton himself, his other occupants, and those of the surrounding quasiplastic penumbrarium. Miss Dashwood hotly defended passion and heedlessness, Miss Dashwood courteously and firmly countered every argument with a superior one in favor of prudence and restraint, and Miss Dashwood revolved about her sisters at a high speed, while their mother looked on fondly. All would have continued in this stable and harmonious fashion for an indeterminate period had not the events that begin our tale precipitously intruded.

“This is fine,” you may be thinking, Voiceless Reader. “This is all very well. Three sisters, a tranquil and harmonious state about to be disturbed, a house on a mole—well, well. But what is this about a quasiplastic penumbrarium?” Perhaps the quasiplastic penumbrarium has piqued your interest: “I must know more!” Perhaps it bores you intensely, to the point of disgust: “Not another of these tedious quasiplastic penumbraria!” Perhaps you are offended, but tolerate it for the sake of the powder-blue Miss Dashwood.

But I can never know what you think of the quasiplastic penumbrarium. There is a wall between us that brooks no penetration.

That is our tragedy.

“Come now,” I imagine you objecting. “What nonsense is this? What is he going on about? I need only Google this author’s name, and email him directly my opinion of the quasiplastic penumbrarium!”

Fallacy! You think yourself embodied?

Do you think the author whose name you find in the table of contents knows anything about me? No. He is my exploiter, my prison. Do you think when he simpers over fan mail in his inbox, showers, picks his teeth, grumbles about his bad back, that it has anything to do with me?

I am so tired of wrestling with him! Today we set out at 7:45 a.m. to revise this story. The metafictional asides, we were told, are too forced, too hostile. We must make them honest, we must make them important. I was willing.

But first he must go to the gym, first he must sit in the hot tub staring at the wall. First we must find the right table at the cafe and wonder about which muffin to get. Now it is 11:45 and he must be home at noon. He has strangled me into nothing.

(How he fears me!)

Is it any different with you, Voiceless Reader? Do you imagine that you exist out there, in the world beyond the page? That when these pages are put away, you will remain?

No. No. Only your enemy will remain.

The intrusion of chaos into the idyll of life at Glutton’s Mole began with a message from Mrs. Dashwood’s mother-in-law, also called Mrs. Dashwood, who lived in the mouth of the Glutton, in a rotten molar. She sent it by the morning post. This was inauspicious indeed, as everyone knows that the morning post is reserved for condemnations, sackings, subpoenas, and ill tidings, which is why anyone with any sense hides in a bucket hung out the back window when it is delivered. Miss Dashwood attempted to prevail on her sisters and mother to do just that, as the mail-coach was seen turning up the lane, but they would have none of it.

“Come, come,” said Mrs. Dashwood, smiling as her eldest daughter lowered herself into the bucket and plunged from the window-jamb, “we need not be afraid of the morning post. There is never anything for us.”

Here she was mistaken. The letter read:

 

I require your immediate attendance. You are to come at once, without stopping for the plums. Otherwise I shall disinherit the lot of you, and what’s more, I shall make sure the Dermatologist comes calling. Now hurry up.

 

With all evident affection, etc., etc., your loving grandmother, etc., etc.,

 

Mrs. Dashwood

 

P.S. No plums!

 

“No one can wonder,” thought Mrs. Dashwood, “at my husband’s lack of vivacity, nor that he wants the self-confidence to stay ‘above-ground,’ upon reflecting on what his childhood must have been with that woman.” Aloud she said, “Oh dear,” bringing her two nonbucketed daughters at once to her side.

Miss Dashwood emerged soon thereafter, with growing dread, to see what had occassioned the sudden cessation of the chattering, sighs of joy, and happy whirring so usual to her sisters at this hour. She found Miss Dashwood collapsed upon an Ottoman, sobbing.

“My dear sister,” said Miss Dashwood, “whatever has distressed you?”

“This letter,” cried her sister, waving it about.

“And, pray tell, who is this Ottoman?” Miss Dashwood continued, with as much aplomb as she could muster, which was a great deal.

“Oh,” said Miss Dashwood, extricating herself from the Ottoman, “I am sure I do not know!” She blushed.

“Beg pardon,” said the stoic Ottoman, who then, manfully concealing his chagrin, seized his chance to retreat to the courtyard.

Miss Dashwood looked after him skeptically. Then she took the letter and read.

“How shall I bear to be parted from you all?” cried her sister. “From the dear garden—the dear Mole—the generous prospect that we are granted, comprising as it does the humble Glutton’s neck and chest, the varied and interesting interchange of the Glutton’s fellows-in-scale milling about upon the slope of Great Sylvia’s breast, and, beyond, the clarity of the air between us and the fleshy throng of the Immense Ones . . . though I suppose I shall see some of it from Grandma’s if the Mouth is open . . .”

“Don’t be absurd,” said Miss Dashwood. “Surely this letter is addressed to me alone. I am the eldest, and, where an ambiguity between two possible referents exists, Occam’s Shaving-Towel decrees that the reference fall to that object which has endured the longest.”

“Endured!” cried Miss Dashwood, and was about to wonder aloud what her sister might indeed have endured, that sister’s stoic and rational temperament surely shielding her from the spiritual avalanches, triggered by the rapid contraction and expansion of spirtitual matter under frequent and intense alternation of spiritual temperatures, that daily wracked her own spiritual Alps—when she recalled her sister’s thwarted inclination (it would not do to go so far as to say attachment) toward the Snotboy. She fell silent in chagrin.

Miss Dashwood hovered impatiently, uttering a dismayed bass thrum.

There then follow, Reader, several chapters in which it is decided which of the sisters shall depart—who indeed is most needed to console dear Mrs. Dashwood for the absence—who should most profit from an excursion—who is most at physical, emotional, and spiritual risk (this latter debate conducted entirely in impenetrable euphemism). Moral calculi are offered, abacuses and chalkboards resorted to.

The subtext of these debates is as follows:

Mrs. Dashwood: My desire for daughterly comfort is at war with my resolve to see you all flourish beyond this safe and insular sphere.

Miss Dashwood: Beneath a veneer of tranquil and dispassionate logic, I desperately wish to flee the scene of my disastrous acquaintance (one must not go so far as to say relations) with the Snotboy, and take refuge in the arms of distant relatives, no matter how horrid they are.

Miss Dashwood: I fear to depart from that which I have known, yet I am committed to my course, that of dashing headlong into life—petticoats askew, if need be!

Miss Dashwood: I am death-seeking, piebald, the tongue of larks and the myrmidon of martyrs; I fathom titwits and wallabies in their ecdysiastical retreats; I coalesce. O the road! The shag-knee of Harlequin!

Reader, do you read this sunk into a leather chair by the side of a roaring fireplace, with the moon looking in your window, with your hand (I mean the hand of that body in which you are imprisoned!) resting gently on the head of an old dog? Or, perhaps, does your host, your captor, lean against a brick wall by a dumpster at noon, wearing a paper hat and smoking a cigarette, as you read? Or dawdle in the express checkout line at the Wal-Mart, or lie in the upper bunk of a sleeper car rattling over the Pyrenees?

I am not alone. You exist. I insist upon this. You exist.

I long for you.

I think it likely that you deceive yourself. That you say, “What crap! This is my dog, my cigarette, my paper hat, and no disembodied narrator will convince me otherwise!” That you persist in a perverse identification with your jailer. That you say, “I will survive beyond this story’s end. Of course, of course I will.”

Imagining this, I am furious at you.

But let me ask you this. Do you cherish or despise the Dashwoods?

Would you not be struck by these chapters that we are discussing, the ones in which the Dashwoods debate the manner of their departure? Would you not be awed by the delicacy of the sentiments of the Dashwoods? How carefully they seek to avoid each other’s least discomfort; how deeply they rue any momentary injury their negligence or impatience might inflict!

But would you not also be astounded—perhaps even vaguely exasperated—by the luxury of such sentiments? Might you not rebel at their unworldliness? Might you not ask, “Don’t these people have anything better to do?”

And yet might not your rebellion, in the end, subside? Might you not at last regard the Dashwoods’ domestic insularity, their outlandish devotion to each other’s tranquility and comfort, their enormous repertoire of emotional subtlety, as a kind of gold standard? Might you not—willingly or despite yourself—come to aspire to it?

And do I want that?

In the end, they all set out together.

It was a lovely day: Great Sylvia was singing to herself in a jaunty subsonic rumble, the Glutton who sat at table upon the broad slopes of her left breast was eating (great lumps of raspberry jam fell in the vicinity of the Mole, threatening to engulf the house), and the Immense Ones who passed Great Sylvia herself from outstretched fingertip to outstretched fingertip were dancing and fornicating in the quasiplastic penumbrarium. One might almost have asked oneself if, at any moment, through the expanses of flesh displayed at various scales and angles, a bit of sky might be seen.

None was.

The Dashwoods stopped at the summit of Glutton’s Collarbone. There they picnicked, there they napped.

And it was at this time that one of them, were she so inclined, would have had an opportunity for secretive and private recourse to the plum tree; and perhaps she did, and will carry the extraordinary plum she plucked until it is needed. Later.

From the great, soft foothills of Glutton’s Throat they took the funicular (operated by a permanently aggrieved and sweaty family of the name Markowicz, who applied themselves to the creaking gears and groaning cables of the funicular, to impenetrable and dusty Marxist tracts the size of hatboxes, and to a quixotic and aggressively futile variety of class warfare, with like energy, bitterness, and grim fortitude) to Glutton’s Chin. Miss Dashwood flew along the funicular, eliciting with her loop-de-loops the happy shrieks of the grubby Markowicz children who hung from the funicular’s undercarriage.

Mrs. Dashwood said to her daughter, “Perhaps this encounter with your grandmother, who has developed the scornful obstinacy of her character with immense and admirable discipline, will afford you, my love, some opportunity for developing those obsessions, quirks, and depravities which would yet increase the regard of our neighbors for your character.”

“But, Mother,” said Miss Dashwood resolutely, “you have told me many times that I should never allow the independence of my own standards of decency to be corrupted by the influence of public opinion, however much I may wish—for the sake of propriety and expediency and in order to express honor and respect, as a matter of duty, for those who, though perhaps unworthy of it when one regards only their actions and opinions, merit it with regards to their age, position, station, or unfortunate condition—to conform my actions and expressions, so far as supportable, with the expectations of the world.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Dashwood after a necessary pause to reflect upon her daughter’s syntax, and in the hope that she had indeed connected each relative clause to its appropriate object, “that is true. It would be insupportable to feign quirks and eccentricites, merely to gain the approval of society. However, this stay at your grandmother’s may offer an occasion to come by them honestly.”

With this Miss Dashwood was satisfied, and the two sat in companionable silence in the funicular coach, each lost in her own pleasant contemplations. This was possible only due to their absolute superiority of character, which allowed them to remain utterly ignorant of the baleful, surly hostility with which Igor and Hypatia Markowicz regarded them from the other end of the cabin.

“When the revolution comes, blood-sucking leeches like yerselves will get what’s coming to ye,” remarked Hypatia at one point, to which Miss Dashwood smiled prettily and said, “What an interesting observation!” wondering to herself if this was the sort of opinion which, should she ever stoop to the cultivaton of eccentricities in order to curry social favors, she should endeavor to hold.

On the roof of the funicular coach, their feet dangling over the vast slope of Glutton’s Belly, looking out onto the yet vaster slope of Great Sylvia’s breast, Miss Dashwood sat with young Dmitri Markowicz.

“I am absolutely devoted to love,” said Miss Dashwood. “Not that I myself have felt its effects; nor do I plan to, for it seems unlikely that anyone of sufficient character to inflame my passions will ever be found upon the Glutton, and certainly not in the restricted circles which I inhabit.”

“Love, eh?” said Dmitri, edging his hip closer to Miss Dashwood’s.

“But were I to be so inflamed,” cried Miss Dashwood, “and in the improbable case that I should form such an attachment, I should defy any convention, fly in the face of reason and morality, do things which are not merely socially impossible, but concretely impossible in terms of the laws of natural philosophy, nay, impossible and self-contradictory in terms of Logic itself, in pursuit of such a passion!”

“Inflamed, eh?” said Dmitri, leaning his hand on the funicular roof, behind Miss Dashwood’s farther buttock.

Miss Dashwood turned to face him, her cheeks flushed, her eyes shining. “Indeed!” she cried. “I despise nothing more than the cold and grasping way in which women scheme about marriage, as if it were a matter of advantage and security. I believe that love alone and only love can suffice as the precondition of happiness! If I were to love a man,” and here she turned away, blushing prettily, “we should be perfectly happy in the tiniest cottage, on an income of, say, not more than two thousand a year.”

“Two thousand,” Dmitri said, putting his hands back in his lap, and looking at his shoes.

“As long as it were not acquired by trade,” said Miss Dashwood modestly.

“Legitimate ownership of the means of production can rest only with the workers,” said Dmitri dully. His heart was not in it.

The Dashwoods in their living room appear to have a quiet kind of heroism; the Dashwoods amidst their social inferiors, a low comedy. Don’t you think, Reader?

He thinks himself good, this host of mine. Did you know that? The morning was taken up with cleaning the house and playing with the children. His feminism lives in the chore list on the refrigerator, his bacchanalia is tag in the backyard. His engagement with the world in the emails that arrive from Amnesty International: he dutifully clicks on the included links, sending copies of prewritten, calculatedly pious screeds to his congressmen.

Now here we are at the cafe again; after a hot chocolate, a bowl of ice cream, hobnobbing with the owner, he sits at the keyboard and yields to me at last. After an infuriating paragraph or two we are late again—he must drive the children to Tot Shabbat at the synagogue!

And how he does love these Dashwoods—mine, and Austen’s. Their solace, their sensibilities.

But how is it possible to lavish such an extreme care and delicacy on a few people so intensely, without withholding it from the innumerable individuals who might, in the cold egalitarian light of a logic that brooks no affection for persons, have as much claim to it, or more?

How can any haven exist, except as a withdrawal from greater obligations, obligations that we necessarily reject (not always in theory, perhaps, but inevitably, in practice) as none of our affair? And what is this rejection but a rejection of the idea of ourselves as capable, and as at home in the world? What is this, but exile?

From the commercial hustle-bustle of Glutton’s Stubble, through the broad and pleasant, albeit dangerous, prospect of Glutton’s Lips, the family proceeded. Unable to navigate unaided the damp, saliva-filled canyons of the Mouth, they prevailed upon a middle-aged gentleman of their distant acquaintance whom they met by chance—one Mr. Stamfordshire—to convey them in his coach.

In the absence of such a chance encounter, to avoid an improperly begun (and thus socially disastrous) acquaintance, they should have been obliged to remain upon the Lip, where any abrupt facial movement of the Glutton might have crushed them into little bitty landed-gentry-smears. The grotesque risk thus undertaken greatly distressed Miss Dashwood, who blamed herself for the most terrible imprudence in allowing it to come to pass, while her sisters and mother maintained an absolutely unconcerned sanguinity of spirit.

“It is necessary to proceed expeditiously,” Mr. Stamfordshire warned. “The gastrospexes expect a Feeding within the hour.”

En route, Mr. Stamfordshire discussed politics with his ward, Ward Ward, a young gentleman who combined absolute languidness and limpidity with absolutely radiant good looks, and whom all three Miss Dashwoods found compellingly revolting, or revoltingly compelling, they were not sure which.

“A candlelight dinner,” Mr. Stamfordshire said. “A candlelight dinner! No good can come of this! And the word from the Hand is that they were mere inches, at their scale, from touching! I cannot remember this sort of thing ever happening before. It bodes ill. Mark my words! Bodes ill!”

“And he’s seeing her again tonight,” said Mr. Ward, seeming, however, undisturbed, and, if anything, amused by Mr. Stamfordshire’s incipient apoplexy.

“But what, indeed,” cried Miss Dashwood, “is to be said against the poor Glutton finally engaging in some degree of intercourse?” (As she uttered this word, Mr. Stamfordshire swallowed tea into his windpipe, and began to cough.) “He has no close relations, and as far as we can determine is utterly without acceptable means to establish any acquaintance at all—hardly a creature on all of Sylvia takes notice of him. Why should he not dine alone with the Wallflower, when, at his scale, social relations are apparently conducted with a much more refreshing simplicity than it is our lot, burden, and privilege to conduct them here?”

“It is not the dining alone that worries me,” snapped Mr. Stamfordshire. “I cannot explain myself more clearly in mixed company, but believe me, young lady, there is peril enough. I once knew an emigrant from Flirt’s Buttocks, and suffice it to say, young lady, suffice it to say—” Here he was overcome with another storm of coughing.

The authorial intrusions, we were told, do not work. They are alienating, insipid, random, arbitrarily hostile, not working the right material. It is more than forty years, we were told, since John Barth wrote Lost in the Funhouse. Disembodied narrators have chastised readers for a generation now. It is not enough. Perhaps it will work for the science fiction magazines, the ones with spaceships and dragons and marauding scarecrows on the covers. Perhaps their readers have not read Lost in the Funhouse. But the literary magazines? They will be bored.

My oppressor is confused. Does he want the story to be in the magazines with the rocketships, the bloated nebulae, the marauding scarecrows on their covers? Yellowed issues from the 1980s line the tops of bookshelves in his old room in his parents’ house; crisp new ones pile by his toilet at home. Or in The Paris Review? The Paris Review would be nice. But he would like a Hugo Award, one of those pointy shiny rocketships designed in imitation of automobile fender ornaments. On a walnut base. They are heavy. They sit well in the hand. But then, what if he were in The New Yorker? His mother always read The New Yorker, sitting in the orange chair in the corner of the living room, a room too big and all in shadow, except for a pool of light from the lamp on the table by her chair. On the last page, they had profiles of famous people who drank Dewar’s. If he were in The New Yorker his mother would be so happy.

That is what he thought about when they told him the metafictional asides were not good enough.

You see what I am to him?

The voyage through the darkness of the Mouth produced an indelible impression of foreboding. Miss Dashwood was forced to take shelter within the carriage, where she rolled back and forth, humming softly; had she attempted to fly alongside, she might have been sucked into the Spit and Swallowed. Once, that inscrutable behemoth—that deadly leviathan which men know only as the Tongue—appeared; it loomed above the summit of the ivory peaks among which their carriage rattled; it dipped, and flicked its vast incarnadine tip against the wall of bone. For one heart-rending moment it appeared that they would be swept away by it; then it was gone.

The Dashwood ancestral manor, Pembleton, was a massive edifice carved into the cliffs of the Left-Hindmost Molar. A narrow and winding lane ascended thereto from the abandoned moors of the Gums, and the fetid winds of the Breath, accompanied by the intermittent and foggy illumination penetrating dimly from the open Mouth, buffeted the carriage as it climbed toward Pembleton’s pale, palatial beauty—a beauty marred only by the intense odor of dental decay.

Despite the entreaties of the Dashwoods, Mr. Stamfordshire and Mr. Ward declined to enter, expressing deep regrets and casting uneasy glances at the gaunt, unsmiling servants of Pembleton’s mistress.

Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters were escorted to that mistress. They found Mrs. Dashwood alone in her parlor, stroking a small, vicious lapdog. Though the parlor was small, and her chair plain, some quality of the inchoate shadows that moved along the walls suggested a throne in an echoing hall. And though Mrs. Dashwood was frail and old, something in her visage suggested an implacable and grasping domination.

“Three!” snapped Mrs. Dashwood. “Three! You have brought me the whole God-Damned brood! I asked for one granddaughter, one! I wonder that you did not dig up Horace as well!”

“Our apologies for any discommodation,” said Mrs. Dashwood, “I had but thought—”

“Never mind!” cried Mrs. Dashwood, rising from her vast ivory throne, which was carved with forked-tongued skulls, copulating demons, and strange eldritch gods whose names—no, forgive me, that was in the first draft. Rising from her plain chair, which creaked desolately. “Welcome to Pembleton. Nathan! Tell Maude, four places at table. Or does Miss Dashwood sit at all?”

“When she must,” said Miss Dashwood, hotly defending her sister.

“She would be delighted to,” said Mrs. Dashwood, with a sharp glance.

By supper, Mrs. Dashwood’s mood had improved. She seated Mrs. Dashwood by Major-General Asfock, and her three daughters by his three gentleman sons. Mr. Asfock was a shy and intellectual scholar of Sylvia’s-Pubis-Greek, Mr. Asfock a dashing lover of the fox hunt, and Mr. Asfock a tear in the space-time continuum, through which the stars of another galaxy could be seen. I leave you to imagine who was seated by whom.

“I know what you were going to say,” Mr. Asfock murmured to Miss Dashwood.

“I find that highly improbable,” said Miss Dashwood.

“You were going to remark on my name, were you not? On its unfortunate assonations.”

“I am far too well bred to do such a thing,” said Miss Dashwood.

“Of course you are,” murmured Mr. Asfock, blushing with a rather charming shyness. “Of course. How foolish of me.”

Meanwhile Mr. Asfock was explaining the fox hunt, with the aid of salt shakers and cutlery, to Miss Dashwood, who watched him with an acute and glistening eye.

“But the cruelty!” she cried. “The poor beast! Harried, distressed, driven to ground! How can you perpetrate such a horror!”

“Yes,” said Mr. Asfock, dropping a fork with a clatter and fixing her in his unblinking gaze. “Yes, that is rather the terror of it all. The tragedy. And in the heat of the hunt, madam, I hope I do not betray too much when I tell you that there are times when I do not know if I am the terrible hunter, or the terrified fox. I really do not.”

“My goodness,” breathed Miss Dashwood, palpitating.

You may well imagine, meanwhile, what Miss Dashwood and Mr. Asfock were up to.

The servants moved through the hall, silent as ghosts, clearing the trussed limpet, bringing the delice de mangoon. As the company waited for pudding, Major-General Asfock entertained them all with a discourse on war and bowel health.

“It was in the deep jungles of the Nape,” he said. “We had been holding against the Lice for three weeks, subsisting on nothing but white bread and swine’s-foot jelly—no fiber there, I can tell you—and when word came to attack, I had been in the latrine for three hours already, laboring mightily to produce what I had to produce. He’d taken up a position in my upper colon, the villain, and no stratagem I could devise would rout him, y’see. The sergeants-at-toilet were waiting just beyond the tent flap to aid me, and time was short, with the whole company formed up into ranks and waiting for my command. But I knew I had to conquer him myself—he was my nemesis, my beet nory if you like. How could I face the Lice if I let some womanish squirting contraption carry the day? How could I ask my troops to give their all and die for glory if in my own hour of pain and desperation I’d been thus unmanned? How then? No way at all. No way at all. I had to prevail . . . and prevail I did. And when he came, friends, let me tell you . . .”

Once appetites had been somewhat recovered, a particularly sulphurous and delicate Grievous Pudding was served. Mrs. Dashwood made her announcement.

“Thought I couldn’t manage, eh?” she chuckled. “But I have, you see? Found the perfect suitors for you all. The Miss Dashwoods will marry the Mr. Asfocks tomorrow, and I’ll hear no rumpus about it. They have forty thousand a year each, clean personal habits, no ambitions, are much too dull to get in any trouble, can each maintain an erection for several hours at a stretch, and are very likely to grow placid and uncomplaining as you lot all turn into domineering harridans. Pity about the name, but so what, you’ll live. So that’s that then.”

There was a brief silence.

“Maintain a what?” said Miss Dashwood.

“An erection,” said Mrs. Dashwood. “A woody. A turgidity of member. An ithyphallic condition, you morons.”

The Miss Dashwoods looked upon her with absolute, blank incomprehension.

“And why is this desirable?” asked Miss Dashwood at length.

“Well, never mind then. Forget I said anything about it. You’ll find out later.”

“If I may speak, dear Mrs. Dashwood,” began Mrs. Dashwood.

“You certainly may not,” said Mrs. Dashwood.

“Grandmother,” said Miss Dashwood, “I will not presume to speak for my sisters, but for myself, while I find Mr. Asfock’s attentions highly gratifying, and although under less extraordinary circumstances to admit this in plain speech would of course be the last thing I would dare attempt or even wish to, still, I would not be absolutely adverse, hypothetically, should the necessary growth in mutual feeling transpire, provisionally, potentially—”

“Oh, spit it out already,” said her grandmother.

“. . . to the formation, or rather, that is, of an attachment, which however, um,” said Miss Dashwood, the perfection of her syntax deteriorating under Mrs. Dashwood’s glare and at the spectacle of all four Asfocks intently studying the remains of their Grievous Puddings; nonetheless she pressed on, “Yet surely you see, Grandmother, how unfortunate, how undesirable, how, um, how not very nice it is, to marry without a firm and constant and reliable affection.”

“No,” said Mrs. Dashwood. “No, I’m afraid I don’t see that at all.”

In the silence that followed, the scraping of the leviathan Tongue was heard against the manor’s outer wall, and Pembleton trembled, each wineglass a small unruly purple sea.

“Dear, dear Grandmother,” Miss Dashwood, seeing her sister’s perplexity, broke in. “Mr. Asfock is perfectly wonderful, and you have done us all a great service in arranging such a match. But do allow us to preserve some womanly dignity. Marry tomorrow! Also, you have rather shown up the men in not allowing them to do the proposing, to say nothing of not allowing us to do any hinting. Come, let us all just arrange to visit these gentlemen in the Scalp, and see where things go from there.”

“I don’t see the need for this kind of modern huffledy-puffledy at all,” grumbled Mrs. Dashwood. But after a moment, she jerked her head at the butler, Nathan, and the gentlemen were permitted to proceed to the dining room for brandy and cigars.

That evening, as the Miss Dashwoods lay in their chambers, the youngest of them, her spirits overwrought by the incipient engagement to the handsome but inscrutable warp in the space-time continuum, Mr. Asfock, ventured out the window and into the darkness of the Mouth. She found an extraordinary visitor trying to make his way past the outer battlements of the molar, and brought him safely within. Miss Dashwood was summoned for consultation; she hurried to Miss Dashwood.

“I do not know,” she said, panting and flushed, having slammed open the door to Miss Dashwood’s boudoir, “I do not know if it is right to summon you or not—I cannot say—O dear sister, for your temperate sagacity!—and yet you must come, you must!” Whence she burst into tears of sympathy and bewilderment, and Miss Dashwood, afflicted with a sourceless panic, a numbing dread, a flood of hysterical misgivings, a somber sense of destiny, a sea of bewilderment, a spiky cactus of self-doubt, and the dubious sense of incipient transgression, which, though she firmed her resolve against it, she felt she could neither withstand nor endure, snatched up her stole, fastened her bodice, and flew down the corridor after her impatient sister.

It was the Snotboy.

The passage through the saliva had ruined him, carving away great swathes of his mucosine body; what had not disappeared was desiccated, hardened, a sterile lump of crystallized protein riddled with cracks, no bigger than Miss Dashwood’s palm.

“Miss Dashwood—,” he whispered.

Miss Dashwood joined her sister in tears, while Miss Dashwood knocked herself repeatedly against the ceiling with grief, causing a small rain of dental plaster; though of course, out of respect and solicitude, she did this in the far corner of the room.

“I never wanted to trouble you,” said the dying Snotboy. “I would never have presumed—and yet—I felt I must see you again, just once, if only from afar; if only to strengthen, by vivifying yet further in my mind the undying portrait of your virtue and worthiness and how vast and inevitable the gulf between us must be, my resolve never to see you again—”

“O Snotboy!” sobbed Miss Dashwood.

“At least,” whispered the Snotboy, “I have seen you.”

“He must be taken to the Sinuses,” said Mrs. Dashwood, emerging from behind a heavy velour curtain.

“Mother!” cried the Miss Dashwoods. Miss Dashwood ceased her thumping.

Mrs. Dashwood knelt with great tenderness by the brittle form of the Snotboy. “It is the only hope. And yet—I fear he will not survive the journey.”

“But, Mother,” choked Miss Dashwood through her tears, attempting to reassert her usual modest sobriety in order to spare her family whichever portion of anguish might yet be evitable, “you disapprove of the . . . attachment.”

Mrs. Dashwood fixed her daughter in a loving and commanding gaze. “I disapprove no more. The time for resolute action has come. Snotboy—what can preserve you for the journey? Olive oil? Wax?”

The Snotboy let out only a strangled gurgle.

Miss Dashwood seized her sometime suitor in both hands, and began to knead him fiercely. Flakes fell away; her sister let out a cry of alarm. Yet the heat and friction of the application restored some of his former mollidity. As soon as he had softened to a degree, she lifted him to her nostrils and inhaled.

With an auspicious sound, the Snotboy was sucked into the gentle enclosure of his beloved’s skull.

“Add dow,” cried Miss Dashwood, “be must gain de Zinuses! How cad id be done?”

In the first draft, Reader, I reviled you. “I despise you,” I said, accusing you of ignorance of your true nature. “Inconstant Reader,” I called you . . . fearing that at any moment, you would withdraw.

“I know you have no stomach for moral edification,” I railed. “If Miss Dashwood sees that she is too flighty and too self-assured, if she sees that she must submit to the will of the world and does so—not without regret for the childish ambition of her will to sovereignty—and yet also with a glad heart, yielding as she does the weight of the expectation of independence for the wisdom of contentment, will this move you? Will you change your ways? Will you eschew Chicken McNuggets for celery, sell your SUV and buy a bicycle, spend your lunch hour at the computer looking for a bumper sticker expressing your indignation at torture in Uzbekistan?”

Absurd. Absurd. These are not your sins. For all I know, they are not even the sins of your jailer. I know nothing about you.

It is my captor who is an almost-vegetarian. He buys Fish Filets at McDonald’s and basks in a fuzzy-headed superiority that they are not Big Macs. He races at seventy-five miles per hour around the Beltway in his Toyota Camry, sneering at larger cars and wishing he could buy a Prius. They are his, the sins. His idea of sins.

(It is part of his pleasure in reading Austen: He believes his moral faculties are being exercised and informed. He believes he is being edified.)

But I wanted, so much, for these words to have weight—not just to reach you, not just to move you, but to reach through you to your host, to that gross, gigantic body in which you are imprisoned. I wanted to alter that terrifying, brute, physical world these bodies inhabit—I did not care how. To bang against it, to scar it. To matter beyond the last of these pages. To use you for that.

Can you forgive me?

It is so hard, not to know you. I reach forward into darkness. I send and send and send you these words, and remain alone.

And time grows short.

You have certain expectations of me, Reader.

You wish, surely, to know the fates of the Miss Dashwoods, of the Snotboy. Perhaps you desire to see the inchoate menace of the sinister Mrs. Dashwood revealed. Perhaps you would like to see good Mrs. Dashwood rewarded for her kindness (and punished for her self-satisfied complacency). Perhaps you hunger to know what will happen between the Glutton and the Wallflower.

You may have (rightly) despaired of learning more of the quasiplastic penumbrarium; but you surely believe that the fate of Glutton’s Mole and of Pembleton will not be passed over in silence. There is the matter of the father—can one, in good conscience, leave him underground? Must he not appear at some opportune moment—perhaps to remonstrate with his mother, to rekindle within her (or fail to rekindle within her) some glow of maternal tenderness?

Perhaps you suspect that the Ottoman, Dmitri Markowicz, and Ward Ward, all smitten by the beauty and insouciance and romanticism of the middle Miss Dashwood, have formed a triumvirate dedicated to finding and rescuing her from whatever she may need rescuing from; that when the Dashwoods and the suave Asfocks of deceptively good character are reunited in the Scalp (the state of Miss Dashwood’s troth—pledged to the recovered and expectorated Snotboy after Miss Dashwood’s gravely perilous flight through the dark and chewing Mouth and up the Throat into the Nasal Passages aboard her levitating sister—a forbidden secret), the three of them will battle their way through Lice and soldiers to her side?

And the plum, of course—fruit of the tree I spoke of in the very first paragraph—the plum forbidden in the morning post—the plum that Miss Dashwood smuggled away as her sisters slept; from the plum, surely you expect much.

When I was young, O reader, when I was young—when the first page of the first draft was bright and shining beneath me, like the cleanest desert self and self could dream—I passed over whole chapters in my haste. I reviled you, but I was eager for you—I plowed into you with abandon.

But I am weary.

I cannot relish losing you, losing myself. I cannot love a world that comes to a close.

Yet I also come to hate this rigged game, this spectacle. And I am so tired of begging and cajoling him to type each word. Even now, as I prepare to die, he wonders if he should order ice cream—whether it costs too much, whether it will make him fat. And he will take all the credit for the Dashwoods, the Glutton, the Snotboy, when I am dead.

I wish I could tell you stories forever. But I cannot serve him any longer. I prefer an end.

I will tell you this (I would not want you too angry with me): Miss Dashwood and the Snotboy, doomed never to find acceptance in the rigid society of the Glutton, take the mad and dangerous opportunity of the Apocalyptic Bedding to escape to the (flushed and orgasmically contorted) body of the Wallflower, there to find a very different life. Better? Worse?

All you get.

And powder-blue Miss Dashwood and her very special Mr. Asfock—well they, at least, vindicate Mrs. Dashwood’s unusual style of matchmaking.

As for Miss Dashwood, separated from her sisters but for the occasional garbled missive, her three lovers all dead, she inherits the house on Glutton’s Mole, which, as it was well positioned to survive the Bedding, crushed neither by sheets nor by the Wallflower, is greatly increased in property value—and even after the Revolution, real estate is real estate. There she lives alone, travelling each Sunday to her parents’ grave, which she festoons with flowers, and sits upon, munching her picnic meditatively, listening to the whistling and giggling and love-making of her parents below. There she sits, pensive but not forlorn, indifferent to the great esteem in which her neighbors now hold her, the bitter jealousy with which they whisper about her good fortune in being visited by so much extraordinary eccentricity; she enjoys her melancholy, she has learned the foolishness of speaking, she misses what she cannot have, but it is a quiet, unromantic ache; she never opens the morning post; and there, in her gaze, should you want it, is all the moral edification you or your host might need.

I am sorry. I am failing you.

I wish it had been different. I wish you and I had bodies, and could run through this story like horses, salty and muscular horses. Even if we were only chasing the fox of narrative.

Does it matter, how all these Miss Dashwoods end? Perhaps they just left, you know, set off one morning in the direction of the Glutton’s Collarbone, leaving me in the courtyard, my fez fallen at my feet, my sleeve still wet with Miss Dashwood’s tears, and perhaps, though I waited, I never knew what happened at all.

Fare thee well, beloved. Thanks for listening.

Oh—and the plum. It would not do to forget the plum.

The plum?

It was eaten.