Death's Grammarian: A Parable of Language and Succession

by Ralph Schneider

Murray Cole had been a scribe for so long that it was now difficult for him to think of himself as anything other than Murray-the-scribe. And indeed, those in his small village of Scheisstrom were in the habit of referring to him as either "murraythescribe" or "dipstick," the latter title a consequence of the fact that Murray was hardly an essential part of the community; residents of Scheisstrom had absolutely nothing to say and practically no one to say it to. Thus it was that Murray led the life of a near-outcast, shivering in his hovel behind the garbage dump and eating whatever dead or dying morsels he could find or steal, rendering them more palatable with plentiful quantities of the potent wild garlic that was the only seasoning available to him.

Into this sad existence came, one day in late Octember, a visiting shade: a pulsing, hooded entity that announced itself as Death's Grammarian.

"Didn't know he have one," said Murray, glad of any company and trying to be companionable. The shade's aura dimmed. "Had. HAD one. Simple past indicative." With this, the aura regained some brightness, its outline scintillating like the tiny twinkling lights Murray had strung over his altar to the Easter Bunny. "Lord Death has on his staff one of everything: garbagemen, chemists, politicians—he's especially fond of them. I'm rooming with an appliance salesman."

"That's nice," said Murray vaguely. The conversation had surpassed him. Then an idea struck. "Saaay, he don't need scribe, do he?"

The Grammarian's aura diminished again, but pulsed angrily. There was a faint odor of sulphur. "Don't DO that! The verb to do must be in numerical agreement with the singular subject he; hence "he does. I'm very sensitive to such callow errors. And don't forget the article before the noun.

Murray squinted ferociously, searching back into the argument. "He does? That's great. I got good rates, you bet."

The shade retreated as if struck by a blow, whimpering and pulsating irregularly. The scintillations all but disappeared. "Well—not exactly. Not right at this moment, at any rate."

"Not at any rate?" Murray's beatific smile inverted itself into a pout. "It's a near-idiom, a general statement not relevant to your specific rates for services rendered." "Duh," said Murray. "But forget that for the moment. I am sent by Lord Death to make you an offer that will bring you wealth, respect, and position. Are you interested?

"Suh," said Murray, looking about the barren filth of his room. "What's th' offer?" The Grammarian sniffed. "In this instance, it is an offer to give your speech and writing the power of the Putative Mood. Isn't that fine? I'I1 wager that you have not had an offer like that lately. Right?"

Murray frowned. "What's a..a..a Pootive Mood?" "Putative Mood. It will enable you to invest every utterance and every line with an unassailable assumption of established truth and veracity. You will always seem to be right, and none will have the temerity to doubt your words."

Murray's doubtful pout re-inverted itself to a smile; his mind slogged ahead to speculate about the advantages of having such an ability. "Thatsa deal. What I gotta do?" He squinted, thinking he might get the best of the agreement if he played hard to get.

"Don't DO that! What you have to do is to sign this paper." He drew a smoking sheet from his dim garment. "It states that, in return for being awarded the powers of the Putative Mood for one year, you will assign your structural core to the Inestimable Being of Lord Death."

Murray didn't know what a structural core was; he rather doubted that he had one at all. "Shu. Gotta sign in blood?"

"No, that's an archaic myth. Sign in urine." "Mine? Mine what?"

Despite Murray's misunderstanding, and without many more injuries to the shade's grammatical sensibilities, the document was duly signed and sealed. Then Death's Grammarian, holding the sheet disdainfully by one corner, disappeared in a smoky flash, leaving Murray standing alone in a swirling sulphurous mist. He stared uncertainly about the room for a moment, then went to the door and walked out to the only road passing through the village. Coming down the road, approaching the dump with a load of debris in a cart, was Grochich, the smith, whose huge hands had often tortured Murray and taken from him the pitiful luxuries of his existence. With weakness in his bowels, but with opportunity in his eyes, Murray approached the brooding figure. "Gro, uh, Grochich," Murray muttered.

The massive head swung up and dim eyes searched. "What? What?" The eyes found Murray. "Grochich." Murray's voice strengthened, then became imperative. "Grochich!" "Waddea want?" The smith's eyes narrowed defensively at the assertive energy in the voice of his former victim. "Lemme 'lone."

"Grochich, you, uh, you remember that you owe me six bucks. For writting—uh—greeting card. To send on—ah—Apostrophe Festival Day, it was. You remember."

The smith's eyes darted back and forth, searching for the nonexistent memory. "Well, yeah, I guess. . . ."

Murray, seeing the putative mood's effect, leaped into the breach of the dull smith's uncertainty. "And you be wanting to pay it back. Now, y'know."

"Well, yeah, I s'pose." Grochich fumbled in his pocket and handed a fist of wrinkled bills to Murray, who, eyes alight, nodded and turned away from the hulking, confused figure.

The only road passing through the village was also the only road away from the village, and Murray did not look back at the squalor of his former residence.

In the weeks and months that followed, Murray the scribe did indeed become a person of wealth and respect. He gained an office of importance in the capital city, Maxscheiss, where his increasingly expert and confident use of the Putative Mood made him the victor in all verbal altercations and earned him the very highest rates at which a scribe could be employed. His fame spread far, and his riches became legend.

But as the end of his year of Putative power grew near, Murray grew irritable and morose. He would stare for hours out the window of his spacious marble apartment, and his servants whispered among themselves about the strange malady that had overtaken their master. They did not know what troubled him, but the scribe was casting about for a way out of the agreement he had signed. For weeks he frowned and fumed. Then, one day when his wits had been sharpened by fear and apprehension, his face was lit as by a dawn. In the time that followed, Murray the scribe squinted and thought and hoped—anxious about just what—or who—would appear to collect on his debt.

So it was that when, on the anticipated day, the familiar form of Death's Grammarian flamed into existence in his chamber, Murray was sure he was ready. "It is time to complete the bargain," hissed the Grammarian. "I am here to collect on behalf of Lord Death. Your structure is mine." "lt be?" Murray smiled. "You am? It are?" Under the impact of these multiple violations of its sensibility, the shade's aura fluttered. "STOP THAT," it squealed. Murray advanced confidently, using the full force of the Putative Mood over which he still had power. "You know I ain't needfully going youwise with whenever," he screamed at the cowering Grammarian. "Adverbs can only modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs," hissed the dark form, regaining some of its size and vigor.

And thus the cataclysmic struggle went: Murray perpetrated every grammatical atrocity he could think of, and Death's Grammarian parried with the appropriate corrective rules. Murray, sweaty hair in his eyes, slashed out with split infinitives and misplaced modifiers; the Grammarian, pulsating viciously, howled quotations from Fowler and White. In the street below, tradespeople looked up in wonder, and mothers drew their children away from the dread scene lest the young ones be rendered verbally impaired by the fallout of the battle.

And the struggle began going in Murray's favor. Such were his onslaughts that the Grammarian's proprieties faded and flickered; it diminished in size, backing into a comer and shrinking down to a small defensive ball that squeaked in pain and outrage. But still the final victory eluded Murray, and he realized that he would need some form of linguistic violation greater and more odious than ordinary grammatical error. He drew himself up to full height and approached the snarling and defensive shade.

"I are Scribe-the-Murray-Cole," he thundered. "More than scribe being me. I Lawgiver! I give Ohm's Law! Consonantal Turnover Law! GIFTED I COLE'S LAW!"

"Coleslaw? What's that?" slurred the fading spirit. "Sliced cabbage!" roared Murray, and he howled with laughter as what was left of the violated and outraged Grammarian popped out of existence with a tiny implosion.

Murray leaned on a table, exhausted and breathing heavily in the flush of his victory. A smile of relief was growing on his features when, in an instant, he froze, staring at the center of the room, where a pulsating uncertainty hovered: a blank spot, a blackness of nothing, a shifting blur that grew and grew. It was not the Grammarian, he was sure. Something else.

The spot swelled and took on vicious, metamorphic shapes: huge wings sagged to scaled limbs; claws elongated to talons, then became tentacles. A head emerged, and fangs in crimson glowed against the unimaginable black.

Murray shrank in terror, voicing again the violations that had brought the Grammarian to defeat: "Who you? Dare Murray-scribe-the approaching is you?"

The darkness responded in a voice like an avalanche. "I DECONSTRUCTOR ARE. IS DECONSTRUCTOR. PAY UP, TWERP."

"Can't do," whined Murray. "I no structure got have. None. Say, you heard about Cole's law?"

"YOU NO STRUCTURE HAVE," the Deconstructor entoned. "STRUCTURE YOU ARE." And, spreading taloned and clawed wings, it advanced on Murray. White-hot fangs sizzled into the scribe's neck as talons ripped his bowels, disrupting the lifegiving structural relationships between blood, muscle, guts, sinew, and bone. Then the wings-becoming-fins enveloped the screaming Murray, and a final gout of fire and billow of smoke filled the room.

Eventually the smoke cleared. On the marble floor at the site of Murray the scribe's ultimate conflagration was only a darkening grease spot which smelled faintly of garlic.

Thus, with the death of Death's Grammarian, was one cycle of succession completed. But, somewhere in the hot, swirling darkness of the netherworld, Death's Deconstructor looked cautiously over its shoulder.