by John Cheese

[1: The Hats of Elmer]

Elmer was not what you would call the garden spot of the small worlds. On the surface of it there was nothing to distinguish from a score of other, similarly shaped, eccentric, grim, little planetoids. But Elmer always felt different -- crummier, less classy, more deadend and hopeless. The air, what there was of it, contained the barest suggestion of spoiled food -- of the ripe remains of box lunches left over from a picnic at a far ago county fair. But of course there had never been a county fair on Elmer. Elmer was the kind of place where folks would go when they'd given up all hope of finding a meaning to the empty riddle of their old lives, or an opening to any new one. The locals mostly stood around in little venomous knots gossiping and scheming. Mostly this gossiping and scheming was fairly harmless since on a small, bare world like Elmer there was little to be gained by lawless behavior; serious weapons were difficult to find, and the few improvised varieties, axes, stun and zip-guns, switchblade knives and the like, were notoriously unreliable -- owing to the traditional lack of quality control and fixed standards among the lackadaisical Elmerish craftsmen. Frankly, it was just as easy to make someone's life a living hell by gossip as by physical abuse. This incidentally involved much less hard, physical labor, and since locals were, on the whole, an indolent bunch the course of Elmerish society crept along the slow, safe predictable low road of slander and character assassination.

One of my childhood acquaintances, Monsieur X, ended up after a scandalous bit of flapdoodle at the Corn Bank, as a minor official on Elmer. X had been something of a celebrity on Linda Susan, but then Linda Susan is the kind of place that stimulates thoughts of a boundless future, heroic acts, wishes-come-true and the standard poppycock associated with a blue sky, abundant hydrocarbons and a more or less consistent orbital eccentricity. Ah, but the golden skies of Linda Susan and the soft winning-ways of her inhabitants are a light-year of country-miles removed -- in terms of grace, civility and hedonistic overplus -- from the nasty hubbub, the stupid and empty sham of social relations on Elmer.

Most citizens of Elmer, for instance, wear the traditional boxy hat, generally made of cardboard or sheet-rock, and shoddily decorated with bright colored baubles, thumbtacks, old postcards, trinkets {such as those used by the merchants of the olden Times in barter on various of the smaller worlds}; but on Elmer these hats -- grotesque, unsightly affairs -- useless at best {for there is no "weather" to speak of on Elmer}, serve only as a provocation. For even the locals find them stupid and uncouth. So the wearing of hats, on Elmer at least, has only a theoretical relation to either pleasure, utility, or the reaffirmation of the social bond. Indeed, the wearing of hat on Elmer constitutes but one more in a series of more or less intentional and more or less hostile acts which have led to the common characterization, as mentioned above: Elmer is the world of deadends, anomie, an existential cul de sac.

Now, my friend Monsieur X had in mind to change all this. Being a true child of Linda Susan, X was an incurable optimist, not to mention an ambidextrous son-of-a-gun -- and prehensile in the tail department. X was from the dark side of Linda Susan, a region of fine azure sand {the final decay product of an antediluvian nuclear dump from aeons past}, and a few hollowed-out and petrified chimneys of archaic anthills; these gave a fine perch from which wide-angle perspectives of the world's breathtaking beauty might be surveyed. X surmised the relatively untouched dark side of Elmer might be worth converting into a similarly, fabulously attractive place. This was not a totally mad idea, for the dark side of Elmer was covered with a fine, granular soot-like substance of unknown composition; and on bright nights, particularly during periods of occultation of the sun, or close encounters with Elmer-passing coeval worlds the dells and downs of the dark side would give off a ghostly, semi-iridescent glitter, so that the whole supple shape of its hills, crevasses, buttes and arroyos would seem the sensuous body of some immense but inexpressibly sensitive living being. X thought the place suggested something of the slowly gathering ardor of the female climax; the inhabitants of Elmer had a more crass interpretation, but of that later. X had the idea to organize a Festival of the Dark Side, which would celebrate the beauties of the Elmerish dunes in a variety of exciting ways: hotels for tourists would be built; a monorail system erected on the stony ridges surrounding the main expanse of the darkest regions would thereby provide a spectacular panorama for the visitors; groups of circus performers would be positioned at various strategic sites throughout to entertain whoever might pass by with series of sanitized vignettes from the colorful {and highly apocryphal} tales recounted by the nomadic early explorers of the place, the ..!... An advantage of the scheme was that Elmer's orbit was near the central region of a particularly huge cloud of smaller worlds -- the C-ring, it was called -- and the real estate in question was dirt cheap to boot. Also, the planetoid had been despised for so long that a perverse sort of reverse chic could be expected to come into effect; the dwellers of the small worlds are nearly all slaves to fashion, and can be counted on to fall into line at any new, or apparently novel, show or exhibit, not to mention the frequently maniacal fashion fairs, price wars and consumer stampedes that might level a whole district of a city as the trend-conscious flocked to procure, at inflated price, the latest indispensable itches or flicker of a thrill. But what X had not taken into account was that the ..!.. and the local inhabitants of Elmer, though on the surface cordial enough, had in fact harbored a mutual grudge the origins of which lay buried in centuries of mist and murk, ever ripe for a full-blown conflagration or vendetta or blood-feud or insult fest or eruption of camorrist activity of whatever kind. But X was native to the most peaceful of places, Linda Susan, and therefore could not imagine the dark passions native to Elmer, especially since these were, in the main, merely pointless and obstructive -- indeed, their workings out in the pathways of Elmerish chronology had never benefitted a single soul. But that did not prevent them from occupying a central position in the psychic weather of the place. A special facet of many of the small worlds that should be noted here is an unusual blending into the physical entity of the world itself, of the spiritual and psychic character of the place. This happens too on larger worlds, but normally takes centuries for its effect to become perceptible. On smaller worlds like Elmer the interpenetration of the two orders of being is startling, complex and evident to all who are capable of noticing detail at all. Alas, sunny-dispositioned X was not among these unfortunately, and he paid the price for his incurable solar optimism {or rather his investors did}. Anyone with an eye half open would've been skeptical about such a project, such a happy Linda Susanish pipe-dream as this, ever succeeding in a craven, woebegone sinkhole like Elmer right from the start. And there was a further complication that began to be noticed a little later than the first, most obvious disaster; a complication that begins to loom far more frightening than any mere mercantile collapse. But I am getting ahead of myself, and I am doing so because X was a close, personal friend of mine, and I am not looking forward to telling the story of his folly. X, of course, was not X's true name; to reveal this would be to add unnecessary opprobium to a fine old family, friends of my kinfolk....

So I did warn X, having had an inkling that something might turn unfathomably awry. All you had to do was stand athwart any of the saloons, or coffee shoppes, or card parlors, in any of the tin-roofed ramshackle towns of Elmer and listen to the buzz, the low hum of poisonous talk, the wicked murmuratio of the hollow-faced, insolent, staring faces and you knew there was trouble brewing. But even I, who suspected the worst, could not for the life of me identify the precise root core of the rumor, nor who had started it, nor when, nor what its true message might be, nor whether it possessed a purpose, a plan or intent. So, I, may be forgiven for not sticking to my guns when I confronted X on the subject just before the gala grand opening of the hotel of the Sacred Crow {the crow is the totem animal of Elmer}, complete with a brigade of brightly dressed regimental stand-ins of no particular world, or no particular army; hot air balloons with upbeat messages and vivid commercial logos emblazoned on them; folkloric performers in native costume {though none, sadly, native to dour Elmer}. For as the haze of aerosol and particle debris kicked up by the bowling matches, horse races, Indian-club throwing competitions and the general hubbub of celebration cleared, a strange and gloomy sight presented itself to the happy crowds. For the better part of the bright side of Elmer had passed close by, clandestinely, and had thrown down, each one, his or her hat so that a huge mountain of crazy Elmerish hats presented itself to view. Now individual Elmerish hats are quite enough to repel the sensibilities of most civilized persons and to arouse antisocial feelings, not to mention symptoms of nausea, wretchedness and vomitation among the susceptible; so you can imagine the effect of a whole mountain of these. Somehow, the effect was more than simply additive; it grew repulsively exponential. This jiggling, horrid heap of trashy, low class, barbaric, unsightly hats of Elmer conveyed such a taste of gross unwelcome that, on the spot, all merriment ceased and the crowds of visitors stood around in small groups, embarrassed, abashed, ashamed, all feeling taken advantage of, had. My friend X leapt about, up and down, trying to restore the spirit of good feeling and festivity and so forth he had so enthusiastically nurtured; but to no avail. The grand opening had transformed willy-nilly into a complete bust, an entrepreneurial dry hole.

Finally, from across a wide, wind-swept dry lake bed, a low roar went up, like the cry of a beast in pain or a state of fear, or that of a stupid but powerful animal who thinks such an outburst will scare off rivals for his meat and his mate. We squinted and covered our eyes, and finally could make out a vast crowd of the inhabitants of Elmer, who had assembled there, in our most frequent common endeavor, mockery--this time, of us. The square-faced traders and explorers of ...!... stood astonished for a moment, and then proceeded to pick up and throw stones, pieces of wood, shoes or whatever they could lay their hands on, at the distant mockers. Alas, these fell hundreds of yards short, even though the ...!... are renowned for their throwing prowess. The consequences of Monsieur X's folly were, thus, quick and harsh: he was tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. Of course, on Elmer, the only feathers available are crow's feather, which are black obviously; while the tar on that world is a thick, unwholesome white {like some nightmare cream, or soft cheese}. As a result, there was a reverse-field doubling of his shame. Poor Monsieur X, he whose only flaw was the misplaced desire to give pleasure, was not heard from again, even on Elmer; though there are those who claim to have come across him, on various worlds, in different disguises, with different clothes, speaking different languages, sporting different aliases, in different contexts, altogether a different man -- although still the same man -- haunted forever by the specter of his Elmerish shame.

[2: The Madness of Small Worlds]

The more serious consequences of Monsieur X's escapade, which I have alluded to, was wholly inadvertent and inescapable. Indeed, if you were to hang a plaque with motto below a picture of Elmer, glumly suspended like a Scotch Egg in the murky ruins of outer space, I have no doubt that plaque would bear the legend: Inadvertent and Inescapable. For Monsieur X brought with him, inadvertently, as did those of his clients hailing also from Linda Susan, small quantities of the famed azure dust of that world. And this beautiful, blue dust -- and the sparkling, black soot of Elmer, when brought together in close, mineral proximity, reacted in a strange, indeed, in an almost incomprehensible fashion: the two dusts wiggled, foamed, and popped, and hissed, and gurgled and growled and boiled up with Elmerish bad temper. Then -- after some days of this chemico-choleric behavior -- quasi-human shapes, anachronistically called "sandmen" would arise up, out of this primordial mess, coughing and belching, swaging and scrambling about, making a general nuisance of themselves. Now of course these eerie shapes only appear human, for it is impossible for them to be human. However, the sandmen's strange behavior seemed to be a parody of the human, for they would reply to any challenge or salute by throwing the challenge or salute back upon the person who had issued it, but with an insulting, slightly hostile and definitely tactless hauteur. When struck or attacked with weapons they would simply collapse and literally fall apart, leaving an oily, pestiferous ash. Certain persons quickly became obsessed with this ash, and would rub it on their faces, limbs and bellies. Some who actually ingested the material, like snuff, or swallowed small servings of it, or mixed yet smaller portions with tea or mineral water soon began to suffer the fearful effects of an unnameable poisoning; or -- in a few ghastly and incredible cases -- actually began to transform into pseudo-sandmen themselves, though all of these died before the sickening micro-mineralization of their bodies became complete. Some of these spent the torment of their final hours making strange series of little calls or yelps, as if attempting to speak in an unknown tongue, or pronounce a totally unsayable word; perhaps a garbled version of the name of some loved one, or the hidden name of the poison itself, or whatever phantasm sickness had conjured in the dissolution of consciousness. For all seemed to be engaged -- while in the throes of death itself -- in a powerful, spiritual agon. An agon empty of meaning, an agon of nothing upon nowhere. This cruelest phase of the plague was quickly over, however; for soon people had learned how to handle the peculiar substance with appropriate caution; moreover, all of the sandmen came to be destroyed, and all the ash of their fugitive remains scattered, sealed up in metal drums and buried, with care taken that no mixing of two sands, that of Elmer and that of Linda Susan, ever occur again. But the trouble with small collisions of fine dust, like the products of the human mind, is that no man can say where they go, or where they are, or what harm they may do, after they have once been set into motion, however creaky or crabwise. For a large number of us, both the Elmerish and Linda Susans -- not to mention a few like myself -- peripatetic accidentals, wandering doctors of no doctrine, the unlucky, in short all those who had been even microscopically contaminated, began, in the intervening weeks and months, to notice symptoms of the malady soon to be described as "the madness of small worlds". Those of us who are aware we are subject to its fits, palsy, its visionary dementia, often are better prepared than those poor innocents, mere digits of the general unenlightenment who imagine themselves immune to its ravages. We who are certified victims of the Madness must carry a mark identifying us as what we are. The mark itself is called a "murder". Often we do not like this rule, since our perilous identity is a thing we are proud of -- many times the Madness renders us far more socially successful, intriguing, and in a strange sense -- and as individuals even, individually considered -- unique. We derive pleasure from this uniqueness, or at least I do; although it is an established fact that most sufferers of the Madness of Small Worlds are tedious, verbose, intellectual frauds and spiritual incontinents who are about as amusing as a ... talking crow.

For I am convinced by what I have seen of life since the beginnings of the Great Infection that whereas all the others similarly affected have become sleazy, derelict, emotional cripples and sociopathic parasites, I

have realized my higher nature and -- thanks to the ironic fates who rule the dark ways of the malady -- have become a vessel of the hidden spirit world, a communicating chamber, if you will, between and amongst the myriad, interconnected small worlds and ghost worlds, as they impinge through time, myth, destiny and bullshit on the unknowing lives of those to come. And those to come whose passing has already been written in the big book of Tlooth. But all of us who are carriers harbor the deep conviction that the most virulent cases, as I have already indicated are the undiagnosed; these are our brethren who cannot imagine such a thing, so great is their fear of us, of hearing the softly whispered vocables of our secret creed, of joining our sudden fits of joy and dancing, of coming to grips with our frequent bouts of torpor and depression, of dreaming with us of the crossroads where time toggles act, and act toggles thought, and thought toggles love, and love toggles death, and death toggles time. Of touching our sensual lips and wings, with their puritanical hooks and fins. Of seeing that we are them, unveiled and bright.

More of the nature of the malady it would be pointless to outline at this point, and pointedly so, since none of us inhabitants of the small worlds is any good at all at what you would call theory. That enterprise went belly-up millenia ago when the mother of all worlds went critical and blew. Hence, you will find no macro-cosmologists or deconstructionists among us, and if our hats are not as diabolically odd and off-putting as the hats of Elmer they are still cut from strange cloth, and would cause a gasp of shock from the mouth of any but the most robust theoretician. And he who does not construe the wider implications of this fact walks, as it were, barefoot on broken glass, when he goes among us beneath the rat-colored, moonless nights of Elmer.

To be continued