Story for the Day: Vegetable or Mineral
One of Bartleby's greatest joys in life is making a new scientific discovery. He actively looks for new things to be pedantically excited about, and discovering Peppone in all his fungal glory is one of the greatest scientific achievements of his life.
Peppone wondered what impotent implements had to do with anything and exchanged an implied shrug with Rannig, whose upside down eyebrows shrugged for him.
“Your microorganisms are symbiotic to you and don’t appear to be causing you any harm, though the microbial civilization living inside you might be affecting your brain activity somehow,” said Bartleby, scrunching his nose at Peppone.“You could be a walking parasite, with this amount of eukaryotic activity. I am almost tempted to ask you for a bone sample, to see whether your ostial structure is made out of fungal stalks.”
“My bones do bend easily,” Peppone observed, looking down at himself and bending his knees.
“Of course they do, sir. They have joints that make them bend.”
“I meant the bones bend where they aren’t supposed to.”
He wiggled his legs, and his shins seemed to arch, though Bartleby knew that was entirely impossible.
“Move about,” said Bartleby, removing his spectacles and narrowing his gaze. “Let me see that again, please.”
Peppone proceeded to walk in a circle, forcing his leg down with every step, pressing hard into the floor to bow his legs. His shins and thighs arched slightly, and then straightened when he bobbed upward.
“Remarkable,” Bartleby breathed, clutching his chin. “Some sort of osteomalacia, I suspect, but you are in no pain, and your bones rather warp than break.”
“How come his bones curve and all?” said Rannig, canting his head to look at Peppone right side up.
“Some sort of inherited condition rather than any type of mineral deficiency, I believe. Tell me,” said Bartleby, nearing him, all wonder and examination, “were your parents afflicted with the same complaint? Were you much ill as a child?”
“Actually, I wasn’t ill at all growing up,” Peppone admitted. “I don’t know about my father, but my mother was always unwell. I don’t really know what she had, because we never talked about it, but it was difficult for her to move around. She died when I went into the guilds.”
Bartleby hemmed and said a careless, “Yes, well—unfortunate business, death comes for all of us, returning us to waste in the ground and so forth,” and having ploughed through the emotional part of the business, he continued, “Now, if you could remember anything about your mother’s condition, any symptoms other than generalized pain, that would be a great help. And your bones have always bent like that, you say? And they have never caused you any difficulties? There is no joint cracking or muscle soreness?”
Peppone shook his head. “It’s actually always helped me get jobs. I can fold myself and hide in small places for long periods of time. Even my joints are flexible. Here, I’ll show you.”
He stood beside Bartleby’s desk and opened the bottom drawer. A few loose papers shuffled about and a spare pencil rolled to the front of the drawer. Peppone carefully put the pencil and papers on top of the desk, taking care not to touch the microscope, stepped into the drawer, and sank down, pressing his calves to his thighs, forcing his sitting bones against the backs of his heels, pressing aginst the bottom of the drawer.
“No, no, don’t wedge yourself in there!” Bartleby began, flailing about. “You will get yourself in there and never get out again. You will warp the wood and ruin my desk entirely—oh, that is a marvelous trick. Yes, I see—and you simply fold yourself right in. You bend that way and put your limbs over like that-- Yes, hrm. Very interesting,” attacking his notebook with his pen. “Very interesting indeed. Do not move. I am recording your method and posture.”
It was not two minutes before Peppone was completely lodged in the drawer, his toes sticking out from the face, his fingers draping over the cradles, and his head sprouting from between his knees. He was perfectly creased, his legs bent over themselves, the rest of his carriage having vanished into the base of the drawer, his joints bent every which way to accommodate his collapse, and Bartleby was in an ecstasy of scientific exaltation.
“Exquisite, quite exquisite,” he cried, marveling at him. “Look how you just contracted everything-- how did you do that, bending your knees that way and contracting your ischial tuberosity like that? That should not be possible—it cannot be, in any normal body—the bones are not meant to bend like that-- You must be some kind of gelatinous mutant, or you are able to morph into a liquid state, or you are some breed of feline, or you are some type of undocumented fungal invertebrate. Stay there. I must measure you for my books. Let me get the capilers.”
He leapt away to his cabinet and returned with his measuring devices, his mind in the throes of pedantic elation. A new species discovered, a new mutation to observe, a new condition to record, and Bartleby was all sanguine expectation. His robes rippled in high glee, and his pen blazed across the page, his notebook on fire with speculation and prescience —he was not a new variety, but perhaps he had inherited two different conditions, one from his mother and another from his father, uniting in a mutation at once harmless and advantageous-- a something like Rannig, who promised to be a regular Frewyn in theory but was altogether something different in fact—were the joints supple? were the limbs lithe or merely stretching to met the demands of a body under enforced physical stress? were the bones soft or made out os something other than proteins and minerals? were questions to occupy the old man for many an hour. He wrote and examined, measured and crooned, trying to work out whether his new subject were more vegetable or mineral, and Peppone, glad that he should have impessed the old man half so much with something that was so easily done by him, smiled and wiggled his toes.