A Tall Ship Tale #75: Grueling Punishment

We enter the back stretch of Paul DeAnguera’s punny epic.

The monastery’s gate-keeper ushered the H.M.S. Legume’s officers into the scriptorium. “Here we transcribe manuscripts for the courts of the Indian kingdoms,” he told them. They paused to watch an elderly monk. He was working by the light of an immense candle which had attached itself, barnacle-like, to his desk by its drippings. He bent over a curling sheet of vellum, painstakingly ornamenting a capital.

“What’s this book about?” the First Mate asked.

In a slow, quavering voice, the monk explained “This is a treatise on the proper use of punctuation; the Comma Sutra.”

“Mine describes a state of profound unconsciousness,” his neighbor informed them in a thin, piping voice. “The Coma Sutra.”

“And this book advocates a society in which all property is held in common and citizens partake in wealth according to their need,” a third monk declared, displaying a little red volume. “The Com…”

“Never mind that,” the gate-keeper interrupted. “These gentlemen are looking for our guest, the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu.” A man in a red silk robe and a gray, stringy beard arose from the corner where he had been reading and bowed.

“Something terrible has happened,” Captain Quid told him. “An enemy agent has burned the only copy of your book, ‘The Taoist Book of Virtues!'” Lao-tzu shrugged and began walking toward the refectory. “We’ve come to ask you to write it over again,” the Captain added, hurrying after him.

“Why should I do that?” Lao-tzu asked. “I didn’t want to write it in the first place; now I am well rid of it!”

“We’re visitors from a future time, but we aren’t supposed to tell anybody because it might change history,” the First Mate explained as they moved through a crowd of chanting monks. Oblivious to their surroundings, they bumped against the walls and each other as they shuffled along. “Your book is very important to the future. We came to this time to protect it, but we failed; so now our last hope is for you to replace it.”

Peabody noted that Lao-tzu didn’t look very interested; so he tried a different approach. “I’ve heard that a Taoist prefers inaction over interference in worldly affairs that is only bound to come to grief,” he remarked.

“Yes, that’s so,” Lao-tzu agreed.

“And yet the human spirit is restless and difficult to control. For example, you hear these monks around us chanting mantras to prevent their minds from accidentally forming thoughts which would disrupt their quest for an enlightened state of mind. Wouldn’t it be advantageous to have some physical equivalent of a mantra, as an aid to achieving the peaceful state of total rest which you seek?”

“So it would! I see now that there is a very great danger that I might inadvertently do something constructive if I am not constantly on my guard,” the philosopher agreed.

They were issued wooden bowls of gruel through a slot in the wall, and proceeded to a long rough-hewn table. The First Mate turned to Lao-tzu and said “You know, I can’t think of anything less constructive than exactly repeating some past action which has had no effect.” He was trying to sound casual and not to raise his voice, despite the loud slurping of their table neighbors.

“Such as, just for an example, writing a book which one has already written,” Quid added cautiously.

Lao-tzu nodded thoughtfully. After a moment he turned to an old monk who was eating nearby. “Excuse me, ancient honored one, but I couldn’t help but notice that you are not wearing your teeth today. If I might make a suggestion, using them would enhance the lives of all of your neighbors, not to mention the nutritional advantages of chewing your food!”

“Eee, oo wou weawwy shink so?” the wizened monk responded, peering up from beneath grizzled brows at the philosopher.

“Yes, I definitely think so! Particularly if you need to put on a little weight. And you look as if you could use some, from what I hear of the storms in these mountains!”

“He’s right, you know,” The First Mate chimed in…

“Nothing dentured, nothing gained!”

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