An insoluble question
by Flann O'Brien
Once upon a time there was an old fellow, who was honest, charitable, wide-girdled and even-tempered - in short, an exceedingly good person. He was so ancient that he was well able to remember the great historical events which came to pass in Ireland a hundred years before, and he spoke Irish of a strange and awkward sort - the amount of it that he had - whose like is not to be encountered outside the Book of the Dun Cow, and often not in that book either. He had a stoop in his back and he always used to carry a blackthorn stick in his claw; he was stout, well-nourished, with two eyes twinkling lively beneath his white brows, and he wore neither collar nor tie but had a monstrous long white beard flowing down from his two ears on to his breast - enough fine fur to stuff a pair of pillows!
The person who would understand the nobility of the elderly and the respect to which they are entitled would take a second look at this specimen. He was too good.
The old fellow lived with his son in a house, and (since we are telling a story in Irish), it was a small whitewashed house in the corner of the glen. Not far from his house was another in which a growing young lad lived with this family. The youngster was increasing in wisdom every day, and becoming astute and inquisitive.
One day he took his father aside and asked him a question - a great question that had been lying heavily on his mind for a long time.
'When this old fellow is in bed,' said the lad, 'does his beard be under the bedclothes, or does it be out in the open with the blankets tucked in underneath it?'
'That's a big question,' said the father, 'and I haven't got its solution. But go and ask your mother.'
This the lad did.
'I couldn't tell you that,' said the mother, 'but I have an idea that his son will know. Go over and put the question to him.'
This was done. The son was an affable fellow, who hadn't any guile in him, no more than his father. He reflected.
'I have slept in the same bed as him,' said he, 'from the time I was as small as yourself, and if I were to be flayed alive on this spot I couldn't answer that question - but here he is coming in now. Ask him yourself.'
The question was put.
The Oldfellow contemplated deep and hard. He scourged his sluggish languid mind, and twisted and shook his memory. He closed his eyes and visualised himself lying in his bed. He tried his utmost, but, alas, it was no use.
'I don't know,' he said simply. He felt sad and ashamed that he could solve such an easy question, after all he had seen of the world.
'Come back tomorrow, little man,' said he, 'and I'll have the answer to your question.'
'Thank you,' said the youngster.
The day departed and the night arrived. The Oldfellow headed for bed. He put on his nightshirt and his sleeping bonnet, he snuggled himself down cosily, put his head on the pillow, arranged the bedclothes compactly and carefully under his beard, and lay there trying to sleep. But he did not lie there for long. His chinbone began to itch, with a a firm fiery itch. His neck began to get sore and his ears warm; the bedclothes were irritating his beard. Isn't it foolish my old head is tonight, he thought, and me without my beard under the blankets as it has been for forty years.
Angrily he put the clothes over the beard and again tried to sleep. Within a minute, however, he was again at a loss; he was truly wretched, in pain and torment. Had twenty crows been attempting to build nests in that beard, they wouldn't have caused him more distress.
'Damn!' said the Oldfellow.
He controlled the fit of anger that was coming over him, and made an attempt to remedy the situation. He placed half the beard inside and half the beard outside; he lay on his face; he lay on the hair itself; and he put his head completely under the bedclothes. But each solution was worse than the previous one...
The Oldfellow sat up and pondered gloomily to himself. Then he decided that it would be a good idea to get up and make a strong cup of tea, and to put the boy's question completely out of his mind; afterwards he would go back to bed, and only just when he had almost fallen asleep, would recall the question.
'I will make a cup of dark, mysterious, uncharted tea,' said the Oldfellow.
He rose and located the dark stairway leading down to the kitchen. Thus it happened that he continued walking the floor without the floor being there: the beginning of the stairs and the conclusion of the floor was in that place. He descended like a sack of flour.
He broke his neck and split open his skull, and his soul sundered from his body.
That youngster is still living. He goes to school, acquiring education, and that question still remains in his heart, unsolved. He will presently understand that all knowledge is not to be found in the books, and he will put the question to some other old fellow; and if the worst comes to the worst he can wait until the arrival of his own beard (if such is destined to him) and banish the deadly doubt from him for ever.
But maybe God will give him sense.