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A (moderately) Frabjous Day

Bill Meredith

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy."
… Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll, 1871.

It would be nice if I could assume as I write this that everyone who reads the News-Journal has also read Lewis Carroll’s book, Through the Looking Glass. However, being a realist, I’m sure somewhere among our readers there are one or two who haven’t. So, for the benefit of that minority, I should explain that in the land behind the looking glass there was a fearsome creature called a Jabberwock. It was a dragon-like beast such as can exist only in the imagination of children, the sort of monster that hides in closets and under beds, waiting to seize any unwary victim who dares to go to sleep alone in a dark room. A certain boy had been warned that it had "jaws that bite and claws that catch," but nevertheless he donned his armor and went forth with his trusty vorpal sword, slew the Jabberwock, and brought its head home as a trophy. The narrator of the tale pronounced the occasion to be a Frabjous Day.

The English language did not seem to have a word of sufficient grandeur to describe such a feat, so Carroll invented the word, "frabjous," for that purpose. It is not defined in either of the dictionaries I have here at home, and the library at the Mount is closed at this hour so I can’t get to the Oxford English Dictionary. The on-line version of the OED says Carroll probably meant the day was "fair and joyous," but to me that seems like a pretty anemic explanation. Surely such a day must be more than joyous, even more than exuberant; it surpasses all such adjectives. Such a day may not occur in several lifetimes. Few people, except children, are capable even of dreaming of a Frabjous Day.

The closest I ever came to a Frabjous Day was Christmas, 1944. I was 11, too old to believe in Santa Claus but still young enough to wish he might exist, for I had been dreaming of x-acto knives. Popular Mechanics magazine advertised a set of three knives with 12 different blades in a "handy wooden chest" for $5.00, but in those days that was a pretty expensive gift for a child in our circumstances. And yet, there it was under the tree that morning! I took all of the knives and blades out and arranged them on the table, cut my finger on one of them, and carved my name on the lid of the chest just to make sure it was real. I still have the whole set, with some of the original blades, and there is still a small vestige of that frabjous feeling when I get them out to carve something. There have been many joyous days since then, and certainly many that were more important… causing a girl to change from fiancé to wife by the simple act of putting a ring on her finger, or looking through the hospital window at our first child… but those occasions were followed in an instant by a realization of responsibility.

Perhaps frabjousness and responsibility don’t mix, or maybe age lowers our expectations… maybe the complexities and problems of modern life persuade us, like the citizens of Lake Wobegon, that frabjous days are beyond our reach and we should settle for a Pretty Good Day. Jabberwocks have become exceedingly rare lately; I haven’t heard of anybody seeing one in Emmitsburg in the past 53 years, and I suppose if you did find one you couldn’t slay it anyhow because it would be on the endangered species list. Nevertheless, I had a moderately frabjous day last week.

The day began with the routine of collecting the previous day’s newspapers and herding them toward the recycling box in the garage. When I opened the door, there on the step down from the kitchen to the garage floor was a blacksnake. I had seen it outside a couple of days before, and was pleased that it had decided to come in for a visit, but it seemed shy and crawled under the freezer. I called to my wife and announced the good news that it had returned, but she did not seem to share my enthusiasm. So I got my cane and fished it out from under the freezer, whereupon it indicated its friendly intentions by coiling around my arm, squeezing affectionately, and vibrating the tip of its tail to make clear that it was not a rattlesnake. I took it into the living room to meet my wife, and it performed the proper reptilian greeting of sticking its tongue out at her; but alas, she misinterpreted that gesture as rudeness and insisted that it could not stay, even long enough for a light breakfast. So I took it into the Great Forest behind the house, measured its length and verified its identity, and released it with apologies and wishes for a long and happy life. It was a black rat snake, better known to its friends as Elaphe obsoleta… a young adult, nearly four feet long, and I’m sure that under different circumstances it would have been willing to spend the winter in our basement working on the mouse problem. But, not to be.

Later that morning I went out to the garden to remove some weeds from the asparagus bed. Among the stalks I found several strange-looking worm-shaped growths, bright yellow where they emerged from the ground and blending through red to brown at their tips. I dug one up and found it was growing from a leathery, wrinkled gray case, with a network of white threads coming out at the bottom. Clearly it was a fungus of some kind, but I had never seen one like it. I got my mushroom books and leafed through them until I found a picture that identified the red part as Cordyceps capitata, the club-head fungus. The wrinkled gray case proved to be a false truffle, a different kind of fungus that grows under the ground. The club-head is a parasite that lives on the false truffle. I knew that some fungi are parasitic on others, but I had never heard of false truffles, so I was delighted to find such a thing in my own garden.

Recalling my wife’s reaction to the snake, I did not expect her to be much interested in a fungus; but to my surprise, she was quite excited about it. It seems that a couple of years ago she went into a rather elite store in Baltimore and found they were having a sale on real truffles… the kind hunted by trained pigs in France. They were in a locked case, and a specimen the size of a small egg was priced at $247.00. So when I presented my new discovery to her, she immediately grabbed a spade and started toward the asparagus patch; apparently she didn’t hear the word "false" when I said it was a false truffle. I finally persuaded her to read the description in the book, which stated that false truffles are inedible. Her enthusiasm faded; but later that afternoon I saw her poking a stick into the soil near the asparagus stalks with a wistful expression on her face.

So the day ended… not quite frabjous; finding false truffles can’t compare to x-acto knives… but certainly better than pretty good. After all, how often does someone my age find something he has never heard of in his own garden?

Read other articles by Bill Meredith