A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 11: The Grim Grotto—Lemony Snicket
Read In: 2021 + childhood/teen years
For Beatrice—Dead women tell no tales. Sad men write them down.
“Passive,” Sunny said, and her siblings nodded glumly. “Passive” is an unusual word to hear from a baby, and in fact it is an unusual word to hear from a Baudelaire or anyone else who leads an interesting life. It merely means “accepting what is happening without doing anything about it,” and certainly everyone has passive moments from time to time. Perhaps you have experienced a passive moment at the shoe store, when you sat in a chair as the shoe salesperson forced your feet into a series of ugly and uncomfortable shoes, when all the while you wanted a bright red pair with strange buckles that nobody on earth was going to buy for you. The Baudelaires had experienced a passive moment at Briny Beach, where they had learned the terrible news about their parents, and had been numbly led by Mr. Poe toward their new unfortunate lives. I recently experienced a passive moment myself, sitting in a chair as a shoe salesperson forced my feet into a series of ugly and uncomfortable positions, when all the while I wanted a bright red pair of shoes with strange buckles that nobody on earth was going to buy for me.
There was a pause, and the echoey voice spoke again. “Password, please,” it said. The Baudelaires looked at one another again. A password, of course, is a certain word or phrase that one utters in order to receive information or enter a secret place, and the siblings of course had no idea what they should say in order to enter a submarine. For a moment none of the children said anything, merely tried to think, although they wished it were quieter so they could think without the distractions of the sounds of the rushing of water and the coughing of fish. They wished that instead of being stranded on a toboggan in the middle of the Stricken Stream, they were in some quiet room, such as the Baudelaire library, where they could sit in silence and read up on what the password might be. But as the three siblings thought of one library, one sibling remembered another: the ruined V.F.D. library, up in the Valley of Four Drafts where the headquarters had once stood. Violet thought of an iron archway, one of the few remnants of the library, and the motto that was etched into it. The eldest Baudelaire looked at her siblings and then leaned down to the hatch and repeated the mysterious words she had seen, and that she hoped would bring her and her siblings to safety. “The world is quiet here,” she said.
“Aye!” the voice said again. “Keep your eyes open! Look out below! Look out above! Look out for spies! Look out for one another! Look out! Aye! Be very careful! Be very aware! Be very much! Take a break! No—keep going! Stay awake! Calm down! Cheer up! Keep climbing! Keep your shirt on! Aye!”
“We have a great deal of respect for the alphabet.”
“How does anyone know anything about anything?” the captain replied. “I read it, of course!”
Volunteer Factual Dispatches.
Having a personal philosophy is like having a pet marmoset, because it may be very attractive when you acquire it, but there may be situations when it will not come in handy at all.
“We’ve been attacked by villains and leeches, by sharks and realtors, by pirates and girlfriends, by torpedoes and angry salmon!”
The phrase “for naught” is simply a fancy way of saying “for nothing,” and it doesn’t matter which phrase you use, for they are both equally difficult to admit. Later this afternoon, for instance, I will enter a large room full of sand, and if I do not find the test tube I am looking for, it will be difficult to admit that I have sifted through all that sand for nothing. If you insist on finishing this book, you will find it difficult to admit, between bouts of weeping, that you have read this story for naught, and that it would have been better to page through tedious descriptions of the water cycle.
“My stepfather said that the amount of treachery in this world is enormous, and that the best we could do was one small noble thing. That’s why we’re looking for the sugar bowl.”
The expression “fits like a glove” is an odd one, because there are many different types of gloves and only a few of them are going to fit the situation you are in. If you need to keep your hands warm in a cold environment, then you’ll need a fitted pair of insulated gloves, and a glove made to fit in the bureau of a dollhouse will be of no help whatsoever. If you need to sneak into a restaurant in the middle of the night and steal a pair of chopsticks without being discovered, then you’ll need a sheer pair of gloves that leave no marks, and a glove decorated with loud bells simply will not do. And if you need to pass unnoticed in a shrubbery-covered landscape, then you’ll need a very, very large glove made of green and leafy fabric, and an elegant pair of silk gloves will be entirely useless. Nevertheless, the expression “fits like a glove” simply means that something is very suitable, the way a custard is suitable for dessert, or a pair of chopsticks is a suitable tool to remove papers from an open briefcase, and when the Baudelaire orphans put on the uniforms of the Queequeg they found that they fitted the children like a glove, despite the fact that they did not actually fit that well.
When you are invited to dine, particularly with people you do not know very well, it always helps to have a conversational opener, a phrase which here means “an interesting sentence to say out loud in order to get people talking.” Although lately it has become more and more difficult to attend dinner parties without the evening ending in gunfire or tapioca, I keep a list of good and bad conversational openers in my commonplace book in order to avoid awkward pauses at the dinner table. “Who would like to see an assortment of photographs taken while I was on vacation?” for instance, is a very poor conversational opener, because it is likely to make your fellow diners shudder instead of talk, whereas good conversational openers are sentences such as “What would drive a man to commit arson?,” “Why do so many stories of true love end in tragedy and despair?,” and “Madame diLustro, I believe I’ve discovered your true identity!,” all of which are likely to provoke discussions, arguments, and accusations, thus making the dinner party much more entertaining.
The phrase “uncharted waters” does not only refer to underground locations that do not appear on charts. It is a phrase that can describe any place that is unknown, such as a forest in which every explorer has been lost, or one’s own future, which cannot be known until it arrives. You don’t have to be an optimist, like Phil, to find uncharted waters fun. I myself have spent many an enjoyable afternoon exploring the uncharted waters of a book I have not read, or a hiding place I discovered in a sideboard, a word which here means “a piece of furniture in the dining room, with shelves and drawers to hold various useful items.” But the Baudelaires had already spent a great deal of time exploring uncharted waters, from the uncharted waters of Lake Lachrymose and its terrifying creatures, to the uncharted waters of secrets found in the Library of Records at Heimlich Hospital, to the uncharted waters of Count Olaf’s wickedness, which were deeper and darker than any waters of the sea. After all of their uncharted traveling, the Baudelaire orphans were not in the mood to explore any uncharted waters, and could not share Phil’s optimistic enthusiasm.
Voluntary Fish Domestication.
Visitable Fungal Ditches.
It is one of life’s bitterest truths that bedtime so often arrives just when things are really getting interesting.
A citation for bravery is nothing more than a piece of paper stating that you have been courageous at some time, and such citations have not been known to be very useful when confronted by danger, whether deep underwater, or, as the Baudelaires would eventually learn, high up in the air. Anyone can write up a citation for bravery, and I have even been known to write one for myself from time to time, in order to keep my spirits up in the middle of a treacherous journey. The three siblings were more interested in surviving their voyage through the Gorgonian Grotto than in receiving a written statement complimenting them on their courage.
Saying that something is half the battle is like saying something is half a sandwich, because it is dangerous to announce that something is half the battle when the much more difficult part might still be waiting in the wings, a phrase which here means “coming up more quickly than you’d like.” You might think learning how to boil water is half the battle, only to learn that making a poached egg is much trickier than you thought. You might think that climbing a mountain is half the battle, only to find out that the mountain goats who live at the top are vicious, and heavily armed. And you might think that rescuing a kidnapped ichnologist is half the battle, only to discover that making a poached egg is much trickier than you thought and that the entire battle would be much more difficult and dangerous than you ever would have imagined.
Versed Furtive Disclosure.
“Most of the pages were soaked from their journey, and so I couldn’t read much. But I believe I’ve learned a new code: Verse Fluctuation Declaration. It’s a way to communicate by substituting words in poems.”
Volatile Fungus Deportation.
There are many things in this world that are difficult to see. An ice cube in a glass of water, for instance, might pass unnoticed, particularly if the ice cube is small, and the glass of water is ten miles in diameter. A short woman might be difficult to see on a crowded city street, particularly if she has disguised herself as a mailbox, and people keep putting letters in her mouth. And a small, ceramic bowl, with a tight-fitting lid to keep something important inside, might be difficult to find in the laundry room of an enormous hotel, particularly if there were a terrible villain nearby, making you feel nervous and distracted. But there are also things that are difficult to see not because of the size of their surroundings, or a clever disguise, or a treacherous person with a book of matches in his pocket and a fiendish plot in his brain, but because the things are so upsetting to look at, so distressing to believe, that it is as if your eyes refuse to see what is right in front of them. You can glance into a mirror, and not see how old you are growing, or how unattractive your hairstyle has become, until someone kindly points those things out to you. You can gaze upon a place you once lived, and not see how terribly the building has changed, or how sinister the neighborhood has become, until you walk a few paces to an ice-cream store and notice that your favorite flavor has been discontinued. And you can stare into the small, round window of a diving helmet, as Violet and Klaus did at that moment, and not see the stalks and caps of a terrible gray fungus growing poisonously on the glass, until someone utters its scientific name in a horrified whisper. “It’s the Medusoid Mycelium,” Fiona said, and the two elder Baudelaires blinked and saw that it was so.
If you are considering a life of villainy—and I certainly hope that you are not—there are a few things that appear to be necessary to every villain’s success. One thing is a villainous disregard for other people, so that a villain may talk to his or her victims impolitely, ignore their pleas for mercy, and even behave violently toward them if the villain is in the mood for that sort of thing. Another thing villains require is a villainous imagination, so that they might spend their free time dreaming up treacherous schemes in order to further their villainous careers. Villains require a small group of villainous cohorts, who can be persuaded to serve the villain in a henchpersonal capacity. And villains need to develop a villainous laugh, so that they may simultaneously celebrate their villainous deeds and frighten whatever nonvillainous people happen to be nearby. A successful villain should have all of these things at his or her villainous fingertips, or else give up villainy altogether and try to lead a life of decency, integrity, and kindness, which is much more challenging and noble, if not always quite as exciting.
The way sadness works is one of the strange riddles of the world. If you are stricken with a great sadness, you may feel as if you have been set aflame, not only because of the enormous pain, but also because your sadness may spread over your life, like smoke from an enormous fire. You might find it difficult to see anything but your own sadness, the way smoke can cover a landscape so that all anyone can see is black. You may find that happy things are tainted with sadness, the way smoke leaves its ashen colors and scents on everything it touches. And you may find that if someone pours water all over you, you are damp and distracted, but not cured of your sadness, the way a fire department can douse a fire but never recover what has been burnt down.
Verifying Fernald’s Defection.
“People aren’t either wicked or noble,” the hook-handed man said. “They’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.”
“The only difference between us is the portraits on our uniforms.”
“We’re wearing Herman Melville,” Klaus said. “He was a writer of enormous talent who dramatized the plight of overlooked people, such as poor sailors or exploited youngsters, through his strange, often experimental philosophical prose. I’m proud to display his portrait. But you’re wearing Edgar Guest. He was a writer of limited skill, who wrote awkward, tedious poetry on hopelessly sentimental topics. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
There is nothing wicked about having a dreadful singing voice, any more than there is something wicked about having dreadful posture, dreadful cousins, or a dreadful pair of pants. Many noble and pleasant people have any number of these things, and there are even one or two kind individuals who have them all. But if you have something dreadful, and you force it upon someone else, then you have done something quite wicked indeed. If you force your wicked posture on someone, for instance, by leaning so far back that they are forced to carry you down the street, then you have wickedly ruined their afternoon walk, and if you force your dreadful cousins on someone, by dropping them off to play at their house so you can escape from their dreadful presences and spend some time alone, then you have wickedly ruined their entire day, and only a very wicked person indeed would force a dreadful pair of pants on the legs and lower torso of somebody else. But to force your dreadful singing voice on somebody, or even a crowd of people, is one of the world’s most wicked crimes, and at that moment Carmelita Spats opened her mouth and afflicted the crew of the Carmelita with her wickedness.
Reading poetry, even if you are only reading to find a secret message hidden within its words, can often give one a feeling of power, the way you can feel powerful if you are the only one who brought an umbrella on a rainy day, or the only one who knows how to untie knots when you’re taken hostage.
But however tedious the water cycle is to readers, it must be very tedious indeed to the drops of water who must participate in the cycle over and over again. Occasionally, when I pause while writing my chronicle of the Baudelaire orphans, and my eyes and back turn upward from my desk to look out at the evening sky—the purple color of which explains the expression “the violet hour”—I imagine myself as a drop of water, especially if it is raining, or if my desk is floating in a reservoir. I think of how ghastly it would feel to be yanked away from my comrades, when we were gathered in a lake or puddle, and forced into the sky through the process of evaporation. I think how terrible it would feel to be chased out of a cloud by the process of precipitation, and tumble to the earth like a sugar bowl. And I think of how heartbroken I would feel to gather once more in a body of water and feel, during the process of collection, that I had reached the last safe place, only to have the tables turn, and evaporate into the sky once more as the tedious cycle started all over again. It is awful to contemplate this sort of life, in which one would always be forced into motion by a variety of mysterious and powerful forces, never staying anywhere for long, never finding a safe place one could call home.
“When you think of me,” she said quietly, “think of a food you love very much.”