The councilors file into the meeting hall, and a murmur fills the air. The councilors walk and limp to their seats, and some crawl. Their faces are marked with cancers and suppurating, pus-filled, open sores. Some have missing limbs, others are dressed in robes caked with blood. More than one is dead, or so near to it that the difference is indistinguishable as he staggers along. The murmuring dies away as the chairman enters and strides toward the podium, stepping over an ancient councilor who is lying on the floor, trying to mutilate himself with a knife. The bleached white bone of the chairman's jaw is grimly set as he ascends the steps, grasps the gavel in his bony hand, and raps on the podium, groaning:
"The Nawihtmote is called to order!"
The empty eye sockets of Skeptre, the chairman, gaze out on the Nawihtmote. His bare, clean skeleton-skull, topped by a belled jester's hat, stands out in antiseptic, stark contrast to the putrefacient, maggot-infested councilors; his flesh, his innards, his blood are all long gone, only the clean, white skeleton remaining, clad in a severe, black-and-white harlequin suit which once belonged to a jester. But Skeptre is dead serious, for his humor died along with his humanity, long ages past. He juggles ivory balls in his skeleton hands as he speaks with the rasping, squeaking, groaning voice of the unoiled hinges of his jawbones rubbing together:
"Gentlemen of the Nawihtmote. In ages past, the na´ve populace numbered the colors of the rainbow seven; but we now know this not to be so, for humanity has changed, and with it, the ever-changing standards of human conduct and knowledge. Now, the colors are not seven, so plainly the ancients were in error in assuming violet to be a color. Quod erat demonstratum.
"Now listen closely-- and this is very important-- I am not proposing an uncritical, blind skepticism, but only the open-minded response due from a liberal, progressive councilor, when I say that we must abolish the color violet in our never-ending march into the future. Thereby, we set a more firm basis for the true colors which remain."
The motion passes by acclamation. Violet, also known as purple, is repealed by the Nawihtmote.
Throughout the city, flowers and ink and shirts and wine and plums which had been purple all turn white as if bleached. Skeptre, the skeleton in the jester suit, walks through the streets of the city, waving in a brisk, curt, military manner to the right and to the left to acknowledge the cheers of the crowds which line the streets, showering him with a blizzard of bright yellow and red flowers like confetti. This day, Skeptre is a hero, for, although his councilors are truly the Men of the Future, he surpasses all their bumbling efforts at self-annihilation via self-inflicted violence and disease; his alone is the sleek, white simplicity of fleshless bone.
Some malcontents grumble at the loss of violet, but Skeptre dismisses them to the cheering masses as narrow-minded reactionaries who are trying, in vain, to live in the dead past.
When, two days later, Skeptre talks the Nawihtmote into annihilating the color indigo as "a crypto-shade of purple," local Two-Handed Pinochle buff Janos Kyrileci realizes he must take the Ultimate Step against the skeleton, but he must be discreet, for those who bluster and rave in public against the chairman have a habit of disappearing in the night.
Long years of playing cards and studying the strategy of the noble game of Pinochle have armed the Pinochle player with an understanding of Melds and Saddle Points and Optimal Game Plans which have opened to him arcane vistas hidden since the Egyptian, Ausar, was hewn and hacked into shreds, and Horus of the Two Horizons avenged him.
The bells on the jester cap jingle in the wainscoted meeting room, and there is a poster for a Jimmy Dean movie on the wall.
"We must realize that, in the ever-continuing dialectic of society, the azure end of the spectrum no longer speaks to the man of today. 'Blue' is a meaningless predicate."
The Nawihtmote, acceding to the urging of the ever-more-popular Skeptre, does away with blue, and the sky overhead turns a dead, blank white.
Janos scoops up handfuls of the grey clay out of the patch of ground behind the service station. Used tires are mounded up behind him against the corrugated sheet-iron wall of the building. The girl, her pretty face streaked with clay, looks up at Janos. She has been helping him scoop the clay out of the ground, and she is tired.
"Why do we have to do this?" she asks him.
"'Cause o' that," he says, gesturing at the cheap, leatheroid transistor radio lying near him on the grass. In a squawky, transistor radio voice, an announcer is telling the life story of Skeptre, in seventeen contradictory but cleverly intermingled versions at once.
"I just hope we're not too late," says Janos as he glances up at the alabaster sky. "Yesterday, the announcer was only contradicting matters of general knowledge. Today, he's been contradicting his own statements, and if you've been listening in the past ten minutes, you'll notice he's starting to slip in short phrases of word salad here and there."
The girl shakes her head, and keeps on digging the clay.
Skeptre appears on a well-known talk show to discuss his progressive programs, and, in a moment of determined but impassive pique, strangles the talk show host, a national celebrity, to death. The public reacts enthusiastically. Twenty-three states elect Skeptre governor the next day (which is Election Day), and pictures of his skull-face appear on the front pages of newspapers beneath banner headlines.
That afternoon, when Skeptre goes to meet the President in Washington, and shoots him with a .45 caliber pistol live on TV, the network reporters don't even have to go on camera, because Skeptre has decided to appoint himself anchorman for all three networks, and he tells the nation about what he has just done, and gives his address to send donations to.
Arriving back at the city airport, Skeptre is greeted by a wildly cheering crowd waving signs praising Skeptre and declaring him to be the Greatest Skeleton in History. Skeptre makes a short (eight-second) speech to the adoring thousands, and drives off in his limousine to the Nawihtmote.
Commandeering all the TV and radio stations, Skeptre's popularity hits a new all-time high as, juggling ivory balls in the harlequin suit that is quickly becoming his trademark, he makes the following announcement:
"Well and darkly acknowledged that a lack of mobilization against cool colors may, in time, lead to a dissipation of these artistic soliloquies. As a capacious and impartial arbiter of the traditional ennoblements of the human spirit, I, Skeptre, make you clear-- and this is very important-- that in such contexts, there isn't any green anymore."
In the back yard behind the service station, Janos and the girl, who is named Lisa, now assisted by several young children from the neighborhood, have dug out all the clay they need and are molding it into the shape of a human figure, stretched out prone on the grass, which is now white like little spikes of hoarfrost. Janos explains as they mold the clay man how Skeptre is eventually going to try to take all the colors away, and Lisa asks if it isn't a little fanatical to make such a strong statement when, after all, they have no direct proof of Skeptre's intentions to that effect.
One of the kids, who is wearing a T-shirt with Skeptre's picture on it, says that yeah, Skeptre is more interesting to watch on television than all those old cartoons they used to have on, because now there's a commercial on about how if you send just two thousand dollars to Skeptre's address for donations, Skeptre will come around and personally assassinate you with any of a dozen lethal weapons, and apparently the kid's brother sent off five bucks to the address, and while they were sitting there watching a TV show about how it was a false rumor spread by reactionaries that there had ever been such a color as purple, Skeptre came busting in the door and shot the kid's brother dead with a crossbow bolt right through the head. When, the kid asks, did they ever used to have cartoons on that were as neat and action-packed as that?
Janos makes some comment about how disgusting it all is, and how he hopes they can get the clay man finished in time.
Skeptre makes a public appearance. The crowd goes bananas, and some of the people try to cut away their flesh so they can be skeletons like Skeptre, their hero, but, not being even as adept as the councilors of the Nawihtmote at such stuff, they only succeed in killing themselves rather gruesomely. Skeptre, standing in the middle of the street, makes an only partially intelligible comment which might be interpreted to mean that such activities are all to the better, as it will result in getting rid of such scum as the soft, flesh-ridden human race even more quickly, and make way for a race of true skeletons, all dressed in black-and-white jester suits.
The people cheer enthusiastically, taking up a chant of "Rid o' scum! Rid o' scum! True skeletons! Yeah, yeah, true skeletons!" As Skeptre reaches the door of the council building at the end of the street, he turns and makes an obscene gesture at the crowd before entering. They cheer at him, and are restrained by the riot squad only with difficulty.
The clay man is finished, and stands propped up against the side of the shed, next to the cheap, plaster spray-painted sphinx that Janos' brother brought back for him as a gift from the Kingdom of the North and South. The gaudy gilt sphinx, lying in the grass where it has been left for the past few years, somehow suffers in comparison with the cold, grey man of clay which towers next to it.
As Janos stands there with his arm around Lisa, he explains to her that the clay statue is called a Golem and that, as soon as he makes one more addition to it, it will become mankind's only hope against the madness of a Skeleton Who Would Be a Man. She comments that it looks so drab being all made of grey clay, and he replies that, if Skeptre acts according to schedule, grey objects will be the last ones to fall under his mad power, which is why they had to make the clay Golem instead of using the gold sphinx statue they already had lying there.
But Skeptre is already halfway up the spectrum, and Janos fears he may have implemented his plan too late.
"It's sort of fitting, in a way, that those kids helped us make the Golem," he says to Lisa. "You see, the Golem is a child, too. And he has been murdered a million times by mankind already, so that damn skeleton won't be able to kill him, properly speaking."
Meanwhile, the cheap transistor radio, lying on the now-white grass, is tuned to a station which is, as usual, relating an incident from the life story of Skeptre. This time, a Caribbean band chants, in thirteen-five time, the story of how Skeptre struggled in his early years as a poor artist on the Left Bank:
"Skeptre, Skeptre, Skeptre, yeah, yeah, yeah.
"Skeptre, Skeptre, Skeptre, ohh-wooahh-eyahh."
Skeptre emerges from the Nawihtmote. Within, he has found, much to his peregrination, that his councilors were not as adept at self-annihilation as had been publicly supposed, for, upon entering, Skeptre found them all dead from self-induced disease or self-inflicted mutilation, for their half-baked, flesh-and-blood frames had been the very barrier which had prevented anywhere near a full attainment of the sterile, clean, inorganic skeleton-state that is Skeptre's alone.
They had attempted to strip away the flesh of their humanity by hacking it away, but mere flesh will die in the attempt before it can attain the goal of fleshlessness by such a route. Skeptre's alone is the straightforward, unparadoxical fleshlessness of a frame of sleek, streamlined ivory bones.
The had attempted to inoculate themselves with the germ of self-contradiction, that its disease might fester within them in the form of sores and cancers, but the health of mere flesh will cause it to die in the attempt before the flesh can totally abandon its humanity to such a germ. Skeptre's alone is the diagonal, self-contradictory terminal state of a form which, once ravaged by disease, had passed through into being a sterile white skeleton, immune to the most virulent of diseases.
Skeptre rubs his jawbones together in skeleton-laughter as he contemplates how to toy with the crowd which stands before him.
Janos is mounted on a ladder by the Golem, and Lisa hands him a phylactery which contains the two-and-seventy letter mystical name of the Most High. He binds it on the brow of the Golem, which jerks, lurches, and walks with stiff, slow automaton steps across the grass, the grass white as hoarfrost. It walks back and forth, stretching its limbs of clay.
Standing beside Lisa, Janos mumbles under his breath, "'Hail, Breaker of Bones, coming forth from Suten-henen...'"
The Golem tests its clay limbs, limbs which have been rent asunder innumerable times, even as Janos' father was rent asunder by Skeptre two hundred years ago, when Skeptre was struggling as a poor artist on the Left Bank, back before Skeptre had become a skeleton.
Juggling his ivory balls before him in his black-and-white jester suit, Skeptre now makes one of the balls disappear, now makes another appear from nowhere to take its place. He speaks to the people who stand before him in the street:
"Skeptre coming down from the mountain bearing the stone tablets graven with the dicta of the Nawihtmote. His skull face so bright with a nimbus, it looks like bone horns from his forehead. And thus spake I to ye people: 'Incredulously alas, can it be that ye know not that which is long known in all the land to the veriest simpleton, which is that the Nawihtmote is dead?'
"O! did not our hearts burn? Or was it merely an idle tale? But time-the-rushing-river carries us on; it might be, therefore it is so. And Skeptre says you cannot, like the shirts on your backs, remain in the past like puking infants. This Nawihtmote dead in their soft flesh, we are led to skepticize things even your skeleton, Skeptre, once believed in as firmly as we all did in the Nawihtmote: namely, (and let me state that all the pundits are in complete agreement) having explained away the cool colors, even the warm colors must be reviewed under the critical gaze of my empty bone eye sockets.
"For starters, not as a contrary ray of felicity breaking through the stormy clouds of life, but rather as a beacon amidst the rocky shoals, Mantoday must jerk his knee with Skeptre: no more yellow, no more yellow."
Lisa gasps as the sun overhead drains of color in a split second, and becomes so glaring white that the argent sky seems grey in comparison. Janos, realizing better than anybody else what is about to happen, sends the Golem off down the street, with a slow, deliberate automaton-walk, to get Skeptre.
"Skeptre will accelerate the process from here on in, having broken down the initial resistance of people's conception of reality," explains Janos. "We've done all we can, Lisa. We have sent forth our child, the Golem, slow as a chameleon but immutable and irreducible as the earth from which he has come. All that is left for us is to play Pinochle and await the end."
The radio on the white grass tells Skeptre's life story; the squeals of zebras being slaughtered with a dull axe squawk forth from the radio's speaker.
One of the people in the crowd asks why, in the story Skeptre told about himself, he was carrying stone tablets engraved by the Nawihtmote down Sinai if the point of the whole thing was that the Nawihtmote was dead. Skeptre gibbers and squeaks like an enraged baboon and, pulling a submachine gun from beneath the shirt of his harlequin suit, sprays the crowd with bursts of gunfire. People rush forward in a frenzy:
"Me, Skeptre! Me! Shoot me! I'm right up-to-date!"
Skeptre's jawbones squeak like a rusty door-hinge in skeleton-laughter as he jabbers and yammers in a voice which every instant sounds less and less like a human, and more and more like the mindless ululations of an inorganic senility:
"Forward-looking folks! Yes, yes, (squeak-squeak) no reason not to shove skepticism to its limits! Purple, hey, yellow you question? No orange! Skeptre cannot believe us any longer in red!"
As Janos and Lisa try to play Pinochle with a deck in which all the hearts and diamonds have just gone blank, the Golem, with the two-and-seventy letter mystical name of the Most High bound on its forehead in a phylactery, stalks slowly but deliberately through the deserted, dead-silent streets of a city of stark blacks and whites.
Everything around it has the visual texture of a poor-quality picture on a cheap nine-inch black-and-white TV. The earth quaking at its every step, the Golem is now only five blocks away from Skeptre and is drawing nearer, with a painfully sluggish pace.
Janos, calculating in his head where the Golem must be by now, worries that they were too slow.
"'The chameleon says, "Even if you go fast, you must die just the same, so I go slow,"'" says Lisa, quoting an ancient Ewe proverb to him. Janos looks at her strangely, for that is his sort of line, not hers. They continue with the Pinochle game.
Gibbering and squeaking, juggling the ivory balls in a mad fury, Skeptre stands amidst the corpses in the street. The people who remain are on their knees before him, praising him and crying out that except for Skeptre's penetrating insights, people would always have been trapped in the ancient fallacy of believing in the existence of colors, whereas they all knew now that there never had been any such thing at all, only the stark blacks and whites that make up their world around them.
Skeptre, sinking deeper and deeper into the decay and dissolution of all rationality, seems for a moment not even to notice them; then, like a small child on Halloween, or like an organ grinder's monkey dressing up in a little costume, he momentarily and inorganically slips on the external appearance of reason-- and squeaks in an artificial voice like a schoolboy reciting a lesson not entirely comprehensible to him, but copied from a source on a level above his own:
"In connection with this tangent of thought, you see that I, a clean, sterile skeleton, am all the black and white of bone and shadow on bone. Now, empirically speaking, you will see you are also all black and white. Ergo, your last unique claim to non-skeletonhood has been reduced to triviality and severed from you. You are all skeletons, for what is this about men? No, never were any such things; can't be; part of a mythic structure no longer functional to skeletonkind."
In a frenzy to fulfill the promise of impending paradise just delivered to them by Skeptre, the people try to carve the flesh from their bodies and become the skeletons Skeptre assures them they already are. And if it seems they aren't really skeletons yet, and in fact are killing themselves in the attempt to become skeletons-- well, appearances can be deceiving. Strip away the illusion, drain the now-grey blood from your veins, and sooner or later (so have they faith in Skeptre's word), the true skeleton will be made apparent.
Skeptre, the purpose of his deception fulfilled, immediately sheds his veneer of rationality as artificially and inorganically as he had assumed it, and jabbers and japes and juggles like a trained orang-utan as the people around him cut themselves to bloody hunks and praise Skeptre as the Wisest Skeleton in History.
It is on a small side street only two blocks away from Skeptre, the skeleton in the black-and-white jester's suit. The grey, seven-foot tall form of the Golem advances with a plodding, methodical pace. An abandoned car blocks its path. It puts forth a clay limb and upends the car out of its way as if it were an eggshell. The two-and-seventy letter mystical name of the Most High on its forehead, the Golem advances ever closer through the monochrome city of the dead.
Loping and cantering among the dying people, Skeptre, hunched over with the ivory balls arcing high over his head, squeaks something that sounds, in a horrible and inhuman manner, like this:
"Obsolete to believe. No bar to the ultimate doubt. Black and white too arrogant, demanding. A sophisticated universe extrudes rather from varying shades of grey, which, through ingenious transmogrification and legerdemain, stand nakedly revealed in dawn's dark as sheer tapioca, all one shade of grey lacking any differentiation. All is one, one is nothing, phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny, and philosophy decapitates ontology! So mote it be!"
Around him, the sharp crisp black and white of the city starts fading into greys, like a TV picture losing contrast and resolution. The blacks get ever weaker, the whites progressively dirtier, and snow and static burble randomly across the whole scene. A split second before everything washes out into a nondescript, grey tapioca pudding, an old-fashioned Dumont Network TV test pattern flashes across everything, with resolution test bars, a picture of a skyscraper, and "WABD, Channel 5," and there sounds a test signal at a steady 880 cycles per second.
Through the grey void walks the Golem, hidden in the grey with the grey chameleon clay of its body. It stalks toward the only other object remaining in the featureless, vertiginous emptiness. Directly ahead of the Golem, there sits in the midst of nothing, hanging by nothing over an infinite void, a stark, ivory-white skeleton dressed in a black-and-white harlequin suit, softly gibbering to himself. His skull is bent over on his ivory-ball spine, and he gazes in a trance, with empty bone eye sockets, at where his navel would be if he had a navel. He rocks back and forth autistically, and occasionally reaches in a double-jointed chimpanzee motion with his arm to scratch his back.
The Golem comes closer, and as its shadow falls on Skeptre, the skeleton jerks his skull upright and looks in horror on the seven-foot clay Golem, its grey blending in like a chameleon against the grey that radiates out from the solipsist world of Skeptre, who, in having conquered the world, has quote discovered unquote that that which he conquered was only an illusory projection of his mind all along, and here he is on the inside looking out, only there isn't anything out there to look at and never was.
Thus it is that Skeptre feels the emotion of terror for the first time since he left emotion behind with his long-abandoned humanity. Thus it is that Skeptre fears as he looks up into the clay visage of the Golem, on whose forehead is a phylactery containing the two-and-seventy letter mystical name of the Most High.
Skeptre leaps up and gibbers and lopes, darting about with his skeleton-hands hanging down to his ankles, chattering and swinging and propelling himself forward on knuckles and footbones as he tries, like a frightened monkey, to evade the Golem.
Given any game whatsoever, Skeptre has always had only one question: "How do you score it?" Since he means this question rhetorically, he neither desires nor expects a serious answer to it, and that is why he cannot hope to triumph against the Golem.
Skeptre has had this attitude ever since way back, when, struggling as a poor artist on the Left Bank, back when he was known as Set, he made an astounding discovery. The last of the alchemists but the most successful, he discovered something he thought was the Elixir of Life and plunged into a vat full of it, only to realize, too late, that it was actually the Universal Solvent. Reduced to his present skeleton state, he wrote a book about his experience called A Kangaroo Court Concerning Human Understanding, under the pseudonym of David Hume.
Gibbering like a trained orang-utan, Skeptre balances on all fours before the Golem. A low hum arises, and keens up the scale into the sound of a turbine generator, a jet engine readying for the getaway.
Suddenly, fire blooms in all colors of the rainbow from Skeptre's stomach, from where his navel would be if he had a navel. For a second, nothing happens, and then Skeptre, his arms and legs hanging limply, rises skyward, slowly at first and then quicker and quicker, with a jet of flame gouting from his gut. Even as he disappears, a dot in the sky, gone to spy on the Russkies for Senator Joe, the Golem might have heard him chittering and squeaking, were the Golem anything more than a clay homunculus bearing the two-and-seventy letter mystical name of the Most High on its forehead.
The contrast is turned back up, and the colors are back now, although yellow still tends to go a bit out of focus right before a thunderstorm, because Janos and Lisa didn't get it fitted in quite right when the Golem called them out of non-existence to put things back together again. The general population, not wanting to admit that it was suckered in by a thimblerigging snake oil salesman, pretends that the last few weeks just didn't happen. The role of Janos and Lisa and the Golem in it all is totally unacknowledged.
A week or so after things are put right, Janos learns that, just before fadeout, a young boy of twelve had succeeded in cutting his flesh away and had become a skeleton just like Skeptre. Hiding the fact that he is a skeleton by wearing a Beatles wig and dark sunglasses, the boy hopes to grow up and then show up on the scene, like the lost Dauphin, as a new Skeptre. Janos dispatches the Golem. The Golem dispatches the young skeleton.
Janos and Lisa are married now, and Janos pulls in a moderate living in Pinochle tournaments. He still uses the Golem, to mow the lawn and go get groceries at the store. They often have roast beef for dinner, and after dinner, Janos reads books by Mark Twain and Lisa works on her post-impressionist paintings before they retire for the evening.