Hey Diddle-diddle

Mr. Wilson, my eighth grade history teacher, was a compact and intense red-faced man. Charlie Birkner was a clownish classmate with enormous glasses and a mild pleasant grin; he sat just to the right of me. Mr. Wilson could swing quickly from a puzzling joke about the Jefferson administration to a furious rage at the antics of some classroom slacker. Charlie Birkner could make amazingly realistic Star Wars light-saber noises with his mouth and he enjoyed playing his pencil as though it were a saxophone.

One day Mr. Wilson, in an expansive mood, said to us “A Chinese wise man and his student were standing on a bridge over a mountain stream. Look how quickly the water moves, said the student. No, look how still the bridge is, replied the wise man. If you can understand that, you’ll have learned something about life.”

The room went completely silent. Mystified, each of us tried to penetrate the message of the story. Mr. Wilson just grinned wickedly. His head twitched slightly. The silence persisted. Finally, as though he had just caught hold of a knock-knock joke that had eluded him for years, Charlie Birkner called out:

“Oh, I get it!”

I always wondered what that story meant, but Charlie Birkner never told me.

Newt remained curled up in the chair. He held out his painty hands as though a cat’s cradle were strung between them. “No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s…”


Chiyono studied Zen for many years under Bukko of Engaku. Still, she could not attain the fruits of
meditation. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old wooden pail girded with bamboo. The bamboo broke, and the bottom fell out of the pail. At that moment, she was set free. Chiyono said:

“No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

“No more water in the pail, no more moon in the water.”

Gyomay M. Kubose, Zen Koans


Here at the Star Chamber, we would never stoop to using the word “loins” merely to increase the chance of getting a quick visit from the one-handed search engine set. Nevertheless, spend any time watching the search words go by at a big search site (Magellan lets you do this), and it becomes unmistakably clear that an alarmingly large number of those searching the net have got exactly one thing on their mind. With that in mind, we put together this instructional page to illustrate how innocent pages can be easily misinterpreted by overzealous indexing engines with inflamed desires.

What you see:

They canoed down the Ipswich river as it snaked along its course through the countryside, now meandering through the thorny underbrush, now drifting lazily past the sclerotic octogenarians slowly rocking on the porches of their stuccoed houses. From its quiet sources in Essex county, through Middlesex county to the blustery waters of Plum Island Sound, the mysterious and meditative Ipswich carried them steadily onward.

What the index engine sees:

They canoed down the Ipswich river as it snakedalong its course through the countryside, now meandering through the thorny underbrush, now drifting lazily past the sclerotic octogenarians slowly rocking on the porches of their stuccoed houses.

From its quiet sources in Essex county, through Middlesex county to the blustery waters of Plum Island Sound, the mysterious and meditative Ipswich carried them steadily onward.

The Mapmaker’s Art

by Ortelius
There were no clouds in the night sky, but no stars either. Arthur stood on the penthouse balcony, his thoughts slow but vast. Below him, cars crawled in intricate traceries, and buildings glittered, bright and hard. He wondered if the stars, like gods whose worshippers had turned toward brighter idols, would one day simply vanish into myth.

In the apartment behind him, Janet slept. He closed his eyes and saw her, bronze skin warm against the black silk sheets, breathing slowly. He remembered the faint apricot smell of her breath. He looked up again; he missed the stars. Then, chilled by the autumn wind, he stepped back inside, back into the mapmaker’s cathedral. A few steps down the hallway, past the bedroom and he emerged into the great rotunda. Here the walls leapt up, smooth and white, cut at regular intervals by arched windows twice his height. The dome above was pierced by an intricate stained glass band of Arabic design. Mounted on the walls in ornate frames were Janet’s unsold works.

Janet made maps. Maps that fused the fanciful sea serpents and dragons of medieval cartography with the accuracy of the Swiss Landeskarte. Maps that were as much art as science, and maps that were, it seemed, very much in demand. She was a master of color and line, her creations transcending the earthly materials that made them; like a sudden vivid memory, they commanded attention.

Six maps shone from the walls, lit by museum quality spotlights dimmed for the evening, but never extinguished. The west African town of Ife, at the height of its pre-European glory, the northwest quadrant of modern day Samarkand, the high white peaks of the Tien Shan, eastern slopes pinked with dawn, the ancient Near and Middle east, covered by Alexander’s sprawling empire, a detailed topography of Mt. Katadhin and an unnamed group of islands in a wide dark sea. Sketches for her latest work, the northeast coast of Sumatra and the Malacca Strait, covered the drafting table set up near one of the windows.

The package lay open on the marble-topped island in the kitchen. As Arthur brushed by it in the dark, its dry smell stopped him. He looked down at it. Indistinct in the half darkness, the scroll was an enigma. It had arrived Friday afternoon, accompanied by a note that Janet said was from her uncle, but that she wouldn’t let him read. They’d unrolled the scroll partway. Arthur recognized the script as ancient Greek, but couldn’t read it. He’d grown tremendously excited, and had as much as begged Janet to let him bring the scroll in to work on Monday. Somewhat to his surprise, she’d refused, saying only that her uncle had given her the scroll for safekeeping, and that she didn’t want it leaving the apartment.

As he picked up the scroll to examine it again, he noticed one of the handles was loose. He flicked on the light over the island, and looked more closely. He twisted the handle to tighten it back up again and heard the faint rustle of paper. Curious, he twisted the handle the other way. A few turns and it was free of the wooden spindle. Stuck on the end of the spindle with a bit of red wax was a folded piece of paper, or as Arthur realized when he plucked it free, more accurately, papyrus.

Unfolded, it looked for all the world like a business card. About the size of his palm, it had a black border, and several lines of text of various sizes. The script was the same as that on the scroll.

Arthur looked at the clock over the stove. 2:54am. Too late to wake her, he thought. He tucked the odd little card into the pocket of his robe, making a mental note to show it to Janet in the morning. Suddenly tired, his drink of water forgotten, he headed back to the bedroom.

When Arthur awoke, he was alone in the bed. A note on the refrigerator told him Janet had “Gone out for supplies. Back by three. Love you.” He never could understand why she didn’t just have the pigments and papers delivered; she certainly could afford to tip the delivery boy. He’d asked her once, but hadn’t really gotten a straight answer. She’d tossed him some glib remark along the lines of “the only way to make sure a thing is done right is to do it yourself,” but that didn’t really sound like her.

With the prospect of a Sunday mostly to himself, Arthur wandered towards a window thinking how to spend the day. He thrust his hands into his robe, and discovered the bit of papyrus again. Drawing it into the light, a thought struck him, and he rushed to dress.

* * *

Arthur burst into the rotunda. Janet was bent over her worktable, the scroll unrolled on the floor beside her.

“Did you see this, Janet?”, Arthur laughed, shaking the small slip of papyrus at her. “Your uncle apparently had an account at the Library of Alexandria.” Janet’s eye’s widened, but she made no reply. “I had a couple of friends of mine in the Archaeology dept. look at it -”

“I wish you’d told me you’d found that.” Janet’s voice was hard, and very quiet.

Arthur stopped. “Hey, I thought you’d be pleased. Another piece of the puzzle. I even -”

“My uncle’s message was meant for me, Arthur. Not you, or your curious friends.”

“I am sorry. I didn’t think you’d be upset.” He shrugged. “I wasn’t hiding this silly thing from you if that’s what you think. You were asleep when I found it, and gone by the time I woke up this morning. And look, here it is, unharmed by its trip through the city.” He held the card out to her, and after a moment, her eyes softened, and she took it.

“I’m not really mad.” she said. “I knew something was missing from the package, and now I know what it was.” She held her arms open. “Apology accepted.”

Monday dawned grey and cold, the smell of coming winter in the air. After a quiet breakfast, during which the two of them exchaged perhaps two sentences, Arthur left for work. As the elevator doors closed, he caught a last glimpse of Janet mixing paints in front of a window, surest of getting the color she wanted in the natural light.

The morning went by quickly, a flash of lecture and meetings. When he stepped back into the office after lunch, the red light on his phone was lit. The second message was from Janet.

“Arthur,” her voice was slow and soft, “Arthur, I have to go. I don’t know when I’ll be back, or even if I’ll ever see you again. You can’t ask me why, and I can’t tell you.” She paused, and Arthur heard only the background hiss of electronics. “Stay in the apartment if you wish; it’s yours now. I wish I could give you more than that…I loved you, Arthur. Goodbye.”

Arthur surprised several colleagues as he bolted out of his office, down the hall and across campus.

The elevator doors opened into soft light and silence. The rotunda was empty, and the scroll was gone. One of the great windows was half open; the air was cold. “Janet?” Arthur called. “Janet, where are you?” Looking around, he noticed that the map of Sumatra no longer lay on Janet’s work table. He ran to see what was there in its place.

There was sand on the drafting table, a fine coat rippled like a sea of marching dunes. And in the center of this sea, another map, its edges blurred. He looked at the map; it gleamed like a clockwork jewel. Precise lines of ink built minature cities, and delicate shades of rose and tan explained the desert’s rise and fall. The Nile shone silver bright. Evening light touched the tops of the dunes and filled the tiny city streets with gold. He bent closer, and dizzingly, the desert rushed up to meet him.

For an instant he was suspended over an oasis; he smelled the dry desert wind, the smoke of cooking fires and heard the cries and bells of camels tethered to the palms. To the north, the whitewashed mud and brick of a city blossomed brilliantly beneath the violet sky. He drew a breath and the spell broke. A gust of wind blew the sand from the table and spilled it, a dry freshet, into copper whorls on the black stone floor.

The six-month mark

Quick: if a dog breaks a mirror, does that mean forty-nine years of bad luck or just one? As of the 16th of this month, the Star Chamber is six months old, which in the accelerated dog-years of web time, makes us a noble old property indeed. Or old, at least. Just as we promised on April 16, 1996, we continue to add new content to this site every Monday, without fail. If that’s not worth a bookmark, we don’t know what is. We’ve even been reviewed on the Pop channel of HotWired.

The new space that we staked out half a year ago is slowly being mapped. Terra Incognita all over the web is giving way to Rand McNally as fortune-grabbing web barons criss-cross the Great Plains in Shockwave-belching locomotives. Mercifully, there’s still plenty of territory for the small and the quirky among us to map out. In keeping with this cartographic theme, we introduce a new writer this week, Ortelius, who presents an apt tale on the topic.

Finally, you will also find two short pieces by Paracelsus: a meditation on cats and moons called Hey Diddle-diddle, and a short piece called Spider-Baiting whose subject you can no doubt guess.