By: Yorick Touchstone

“Perhaps someone thinks that it is frightful arrogation to attribute
the designation of “humorist” to myself…the person who makes this
this objection obviously assumes humor to be the highest.”
-Johannes Climacus

What was I saying? It seems that I’ve forgotten. I’ll just have to begin with the beginning.

The beginning should start by telling you that there was a man named Peter who lived in the City and he came to be sentenced to a life term of solitary imprisonment. That’s not the story though. The story is how that sentence came to pass. And that I should say begins with Peter reading a local paper one morning.

The humble paper was a seedy rag, whose pages contained the most recent accepted lies, twisted fantasies, whispered rumors of celebrities and commoners alike. The paper was read by only the most rotten of the City’s populace. On the back page this particular morning, Peter found an advertisement reading: “Attention! All the City is invited to meet a Respectable Employer in the City Market today for the purpose of finding those who would like a very easy job with a great reward. Signed, Mr. S”

Later that morning, while Peter was fishing in the harbor, he was approached by a foreign looking man in a long coat with a stylish beard whose accent was immediately apparent when he addressed Peter.

“Good sir, I am sorry to interrupt your fishing, but may I ask you if you would like to help me today?”

Peter went with the man who introduced himself as ‘Mr. S’, and Peter asked him if he was the same of the advertisement. He said he was, and Peter asked if he hadn’t had any response to his posting. “Oh yes,” he said “In fact the City in its entirety showed up and they are waiting there still!” As they crested a hill, Peter was able to see the Market and it seemed it was true, a complete census could be taken.

Mr. S led Peter outside the City into the pasturelands. There, they came to a high place where there was a churchyard.[1] As they passed by the tombstones, one in particular caught Peter’s eye which read:

Don’t grieve for me because I’ve died

Grieve that whilst I lived, I was not alive.”[2]

Peter turned back again and Mr. S had vanished. Instead he saw the church’s gathering congregants milling into the church for services. A lovely woman in vibrant green and smelling of rose hip oil bid him to come inside. Since his employer was not to be found, Peter joined her.

He sat between the woman in green and a small man whose weathered look came not from age and whose back looked twisted and brittle. The service began by a series of congregants speaking at the front and giving short messages of their faith. First, a woman spoke of the historical truth of their great faith and confirmed it by citing all the most learned historians. The Brittle Man next to Peter whispered to him that she was ‘mad as a hatter. Or, at least as mad as a hatter’s wife whose mad husband had more lovers in the City than history could recount’. The next came and gave great signs of wonder: he healed a man of pleurisy and a boy of melancholy. The Brittle Man told Peter that he ‘was a violent man, and the healed man was his father whom he poisoned with herbicide and the boy was his son whom he beat days either sunny or overcast.’

They began signing beautiful hymns that elevated Peter’s soul and drew his thoughts from the lowly things of common life and felt like a one who had been to the seventh heaven. The Brittle Man whispered that the organist was a known arsonist.

All of this was only prelude to the Sermonist who was to come but seemed to be running late. The congregation waited patiently and reverently, the great reputation of the Sermonist held them rapt even in his truancy.

“He will not come.” Said the Brittle Man. “He never comes. Why would he?”

Peter asked who this person was and he was told that the Sermonist was the greatest and most wise teacher there had ever been. He wore a simple peasant’s coat and a long shepherd’s beard, and every message he gave cut to the individual’s heart. “But he won’t waste his time coming here.” The Brittle Man said.

In the time of their waiting, the Brittle Man took the stage and began telling a simple story that he again retold again and again but with slight variation. He continued in this way as if the story a gem that could be turned and new facets revealed. Peter, along with everyone else found it quite uninteresting[3]. But, since he was a first time visitor, was the only one who felt the freedom to excuse himself quietly.

On the front stoop sat Mr. S smoking leisurely on a cigar. He told Peter then what his job was: “take this kerosene and lighter and burn this church down.” So Peter soaked the base boards and foundation in the gas and set it alight. When he had done so, he found Mr. S again to be missing.

“He sure does walk away quietly!” Peter thought.

The flames began eating at the church at good speed. Peter walked down the hill a distance to a small farm where he found the barn shed empty. He helped himself to a long coat which he donned and then using shears and pitch, attached some sheep’s wool to his chin to create the effect of a beard.

He re-entered the church then and the congregation gasped. “The Sermonist!” an old man said with awe. “How handsome!” said one young woman to another. He stood in the front of those assembled and after clearing his throat, began his Sermon.

He whispered in one man’s ear: “That you are the most wise of all is clear because you can see demons in disguise who tempt your vanity.”

“I have no vanity, you demon!” He hollered back at Peter, his face red.

Peter whispered to another, “If you do not tell anyone that I will burn you to death, I will burn you to death. If you tell even a single soul that I will burn you to death, I will not burn you to death.[4]

“You’re going to burn me to death? He says he’s going to burn me up! Hah! You fiend! I would dare you to try!” he screamed back looking quite tricky and cunning.

Peter turned again and whispered to another, “Because of my death, you all shall live.”

The man slapped Peter on the cheek. “Blasphemy!” He yelled.

At that moment, Peter let slip from his hand the lighter that Mr. S had given him. Seeing it, the organist grabbed it and suggested that they give the Sermonist a bit of a lesson. The congregation quickly agreed. Between blows, they set fire to him and Peter was quickly a waving torch. The frightful smell produced by this motivated the assembly to exit the church quickly. Most returned to their homes for dinner, some made time to watch the boats enter the City’s bay.

The church burned to the ground in minutes.[5]

What was I saying? It seems that I’ve forgotten. I’ll just have to begin with the beginning.

You see, it’s so difficult to keep my mind on track recently. I must take this occasion to thank you for your patience. Many times when I begin these stories, my audience asks me to ‘get to the moral’ as though the meaning of the story could precede the telling of the story. Besides, I don’t tell stories with morals. Those types of stories are for children and I don’t tell children’s stories. My stories don’t have morals, or meanings, nor are they metaphorical or contain mythological themes. I tell stories as they happened and it seems to me that the truth of what happened shouldn’t be burdened with ‘meaning’.[6]

But I live with stories exclusively now and they keep me company. I’ve heard people say ‘oh how hard it must be to be a monk!’ and I wonder how they form this impression, for I’ve never once seen a monk grumble. I am quite certain that both the lives of monks and prisoners in solitary are kept quite content by the telling of stories. The monks have their gods to talk to and the prisoner in solitary also can talk to themselves, the rats in his mattress, or perhaps the passing prison guard.

Now, where was I? Oh yes. The beginning.

From the cindered wood of the church, believe it or not, came Peter, all burnt up to a crisp and he found Mr. S there again, enjoying the sunset. Peter told him of the events that had occurred since he had last seen him and Mr. S began to laugh.

Mr. S tried to pay Peter then for his services, but Peter declined. After his day of lying, deceit, and tempting others to violence, he gave himself a life sentence of solitary and this seemed the best recompense for his day’s work.

Editor’s Note:

I’ve known Mr. Touchstone for a great number of years. He is The Orphan’s premier comedic writer and while his work is never directly quoted to me, it seems that it greatly influences the temperaments of my landlord and The Orphan’s board of directors.

Humor is always a welcomed tonic in the daily hustle and bustle of the City life and I commonly tell jokes on the morning train that are not funny to amuse myself. The greatest of my jokes are those I play on myself. I will misplace my pipe whilst drinking just to summon the inevitable hilarious reaction of stomping about my apartment the next morning and cursing. I have a running joke that I only know and when I am attending dinner parties with my (sometimes) wife Cordelia, I’ll mention my love of ‘the antiquities wing of the City museum’ and I’ll smile coyly to Cordelia’s chagrin.

My humor is often over the head of the majority of folk, but that is the curse of the genius, to be only understood by your equals who are scarce and jealously intimidated. While I can appreciate the pedestrian humor of Mr. Touchstone and respect his ability to speak to relate to the hoi polloi, I must say that he makes for a horrible dinner guest.             -Auguste St. Antonius

Author’s Note:

After I finished writing Solitary, and gave it to Mr. St. Antonius, I was surprised that he began laughing. I was quite disappointed since my intention had been to laugh at him, not with him. This is the greatest challenge of a humorist: keeping the jokes you wish others to enjoy separate from those meant only for your own benefit.

[1] In my translation, I had to choose between ‘churchyard’ and ‘graveyard’. The two terms in the original language are of course synonymous ever since an Architecture Critic once reviewed an impressive and newly built cathedral, “A beautiful whitewashed and gleaming tomb, which is filled with the rotting dead.” –the Editor

[2] Rabbi A comments: “This tombstone was written for a young infant who died without the chance to experience the pure meaninglessness, sadness, and horrors of life and hence could not enjoy heaven fully.” Rabbi B comments: This is the tombstone of an old man who had never fully experienced the joys, delights, and ecstasy of life.” Rabbi C writes: “This was a tombstone whose grave was still empty and ready to be filled by the next of the congregation to die.” Rabbi D writes: “This grave was occupied and in fact its occupant still moved the ground with their writhing in suffocation. How one accepts, rejects, or identifies with this macabre image determines their destiny.” –The Editor

[3] I have seen my grandfather chew the same piece of mincemeat pie for several minutes as though in great anticipation of it becoming sirloin. It is a terrible process to witness. He also blows his nose at the dinner table with the inventiveness of a contortionist playing a broken trumpet. Perhaps he believes that his endurance will produce gold dust in his kerchief. –The Editor

[4] It is said that Cupid had given Psyche a similar direction. The divinity of their daughter Voluptas (the Goddess of sensual pleasures) depended on Psyche’s keeping secret her nature. The efficacy of my prayers to Voluptas so far suggest her mother was a blabber mouth. –The Editor

[5] Think of the panic that arises when you begin a statement with, “now, don’t panic….” Victor Eremita once edited a paper on the subject: “In a theater, it happened that a fire started offstage. The clown came out to tell the audience. They thought it was a joke and applauded…This is the way…that the world will be destroyed—amid the universal wits and wags who think it is all a joke (Either/Or).”  –The Seminarian

[6] I once told someone that I had burned my eyes while fishing because of the sun’s reflection on the water. And though I couldn’t see the fish I was eating, its taste was not diminished. “Oh, yes. I understand.” She answered back, winking. –The Author