Saturday, December 27, 2008

133. Titus Fistley

Contest winner: Dragonic
Runner-up: greyniffler

Miles O'Roughage sat with the briefcase on his knees on an incredibly hard chair, jammed into a corner between a potted palm-oil palm and a frosted glass door with the words DEPARTMENT OF ABRACULTURE: PATENT OFFICE stenciled on the other side of the glass. Every time someone opened the door, the glass banged Miles' knee painfully, without being damaged itself. The palm-oil palm kept nudging his arm until he dug a sickle and a few knuts out of his pocket and dropped them on its roots; afterward the sound of the palm's roots counting and burying its hoard was enough to drown out the coughing of a sickly, yodeling flytrap in a hanging planter on the other side of the door.

The herbologist sighed, reflecting that magic could sometimes be tiresome. Here he sat in the most uncomfortable chair in a waiting room where he had spent a net two years of his life (though not all at once), steadfastly ignoring a dispute between two other wizards who were both trying to patent the same herb -- either as wurtha-mint (sachets of whose leaves were meant to lend a wizarding home the smell of fresh money) or as catburglarnip (guaranteed to keep thieves docile until help arrived). Not for the first time, he wondered whether he might not have been happier tending an apple orchard or a rose garden, instead of advancing the world's knowledge of magical plants.

Finally the door at the far end of the office opened by itself, and the flytrap yodeled: "NEXT!" before subsiding into another fit of coughing. Dr. O'Roughage plunged through the dark doorway before the arguing wizards could settle on which of them should go first.

As he crossed the threshold, he immediately found himself well inside an enormous, open-plan office. The central area was crammed with cubicles separated by vine-choked trellises; potted trees moved up and down the aisles, pushed by trainer-wearing roots that arched over the rims of their pots, and gathering in rustling groups around watercoolers filled with Miracle-Gro (the wizard recipe, not the Muggle kind whose name is but wishful thinking). Surrounding this area, shelves loaded with seedling trays, glass planters filled with transparent soil, and preserv-o-vac specimen jars marched off into the gray distance in every direction.

The air above the cubicles was filled with one of Miles O'Roughage's proudest inventions: a cross between a paper-waterbomb bush and a hydrolysis hydrangea, which bore dirigiblefruit year round -- hollow sacs filled with lighter-than-air hydrogen so that the plants hovered over everyone's heads. Treated with puncture-proof and fireproof spells, the dirigiblefruit plants also had incandescent tulip bulbs attached to the bottom of their planters by permanent sticking charms, providing ample light for all, and (Miles shivered with pride) all of it through the arts of thaumatobotany.

A throat cleared itself nearby. Miles looked round and found that, as usual, he had been transported instantly to the first available cubicle...and, as too often in the past, that cubicle belonged to a thin-lipped, baggy eyed, pockmarked wizard of middle years, an ample middle, a less than ample comb-over, and a chatwood-veneer name tag that, both in writing and aloud, proclaimed the unwelcome tidings: "Hello! My mame is TITUS FISTLEY, your friendly abracultural patent counselor."

"You again, is it?" Fistley sneered, echoing Dr. O'Roughage's thoughts word-for-word. "Didn't I reject your last application?"

"I still don't understand that," O'Roughage said bitterly as he moved into the cubicle. "I had filled out all the forms correctly, and tied the bundle in the exact shade of red-tape you have always required in the past."

"To be sure," Fistley said with a look of nostalgic satisfaction. "But the knot had twelve corners, whereas I require no more or less than eleven. Also, one end of the tape was one-tenth of a millimeter longer than the other. With the volume of work that goes through this office each day, we have no time to waste on people who aren't sufficiently motivated to observe the forms and conventions. Well? Have you anything new to show me, or is this a social visit?"

While Dr. O'Roughage counted backwards from twenty to settle his temper, someone in a nearby cubicle had a sudden fit of laughter. Fistley looked irritated. His visitor, however, took courage from this sign -- particularly when several other voices joined in the laughter from several directions and distances.

"I was requested," O'Roughage said calmly, "to bring another specimen of my Laughodil, to allow for further study of its interesting properties."

Fistley's face darkened. "I should have known you were behind this," he growled, as another voice nearby gave way to laughter like a pig's snorting. Even a passing tree rustled its branches as if chuckling.

"I take it you haven't examined the plant yourself," O'Roughage said, unlocking the clasps on his briefcase with a wave of his hand. He pulled the lid up, reached down into it until his elbow appeared to be passing through the top of Fistley's desk, and emerged again with a small shrub in a cube-shaped stone pot. The leaves were a glossy, dark green on top, but had a parchmentlike texture beneath. "All you have to do is lift one of the branches," the inventor proudly explained, "and read the words that appear on the underside of the leaf. Every leaf has a different joke."

"Sophomoric humor," Fistley said sourly, "to judge by the sort of punchlines I hear repeated around the coffeepot. Hardly the sort of joke I find funny, usually."

O'Roughage shrugged. "And yet everyone who reads one appreciates the joke, somehow."

"That's a concern," said Fistley, looking suddenly happier in a way that made Miles uneasy. "They go on laughing about the joke all day, too. It's like some sort of intoxication. Suppose there is an oil-soluble toxin in the leaves, something that rubs off on your fingers when you handle the plant, and makes you susceptible to..."

"I have ruled that out," snapped O'Roughage. "It's all in the paperwork. The plant simply knows how to tell a good joke."

"That's preposterous."

"That," O'Roughage said smugly, "is magic."

Disgruntled, Fistley reached toward one of the branches of the Laughodil...but before his fingers touched a leaf, the trellised walls of the cubicle shook with the report of a sudden Apparition. Both men gaped up at the wizard who now stood at the end of the desk, wand drawn. Dr. O'Roughage thought he looked vaguely familiar.

"You must come," said the wizard, beckoning toward Dr. O'Roughage.

"Come where?" said O'Roughage. "What is going on?"

"The Drains. Harvey's flat. You are needed at once." "To do what?" O'Roughage squinted at the intruder, trying to place the slight accent in his speech. "Do I know you?"

"I am Slavik," said Slavik. "Friend of Merlin, friend of Sadie, friend of yours."

"Ah," said Miles O'Roughage. "That makes us friends, three times removed."

Slavik raised one finger, as he often did when motioning Durmstrang students to be quiet and listen. "We are all friends of Harvey. And you are needed to help prevent the end of the world."

"Pish," Fistley said, in a remarkable show of courage for a man so seized by shock that he had lost control of his bladder. Taking a deep breath, he added: "You do not have an appointment. Please remove yourself."

"All right, I'll go," said O'Roughage. Leaving his plant and his briefcase, he stood up and grabbed Slavik's elbow. When the two of them Disapparated, the report caused Fistley to let go of his bowel as well.

Wiping his shiny face with a shaking hand, Titus Fistley took a moment to catch his breath. Since Dr. O'Roughage hadn't walked out of the cubicle, the office door didn't immediately summon another applicant; so Fistley took advantage of his first moment of leisure in a long, stressful day, to reflect on his shortcomings as a coward, a Squib, and a bureaucrat of phenomenal pettiness. He seldom allowed himself the luxury of despising himself, so he wasn't much used to it; therefore, naturally, he didn't like it. So, tentatively, Fistley reached again toward the the bottom of a leaf...giggled softly...and then burst into tears.


SURVEY and CONTEST rolled into one: Who will they find in control of Harvey's flat? (A) A completely new villain: _____ (name and describe). (B) A previously seen villain from The Magic Quill: _____. (C) Someone we thought was a good guy, but who has crossed over to the dark side: ______. [EDIT: This discussion is closed.]

[Originally posted 2/17/08]

No comments: