Whimsy is an essential part of the literature of the fantastic and indeed I am prepared to argue that it forms the most basic and essential foundation of any attempt to create a genuine work of imagination, because although it doesn't take itself seriously in thematic terms its proper rendering in prose is a serious endeavor in itself. In other words its existence is paradoxical. The most poignant archetypes of fantasy have frequently been inaugurated in whimsical works before transmigrating to more somber and portentous fictions.
I’ll tell you why I hate the moon so much, said the Pig Iron Mouse, his whiskers twitching and picking up radio broadcasts from far away. I don’t have any secrets, and if I did I wouldn’t keep them from my friends, and even if you weren’t my friends I would tell you anyway, I would, he added with magnetic sincerity.
The light, that’s why, that’s the reason! That mellow spreading on the charred toast of the shadowy landscape of night, it makes life harder for any nocturnal creature that fears predators. And I live in constant dread of the Molybdenum Cat, that prowling howling demon with the electric headlamp eyebeams.
He can switch them off when the moon’s full and then he’s more dangerous than ever and only last year he pounced on the Cupronickel Vole and dented him to death with his teeth, and that’s not the way I want to go, no sir, no madam, not the way at all! Pounced on from behind a tumbled stack of science journals.
So I decided to get rid of the moon, do away with it, break the blasted thing and even the odds a little, a smidgen, a sliver. And I thought of ways I might accomplish this feat and it occurred to me that maybe the best course of action would be to catch the moon as it touched the horizon on its way to bed. I decided to impale it.
Now I’m not cruel, not at all, and I didn’t want to make the moon suffer, so I raised a very long thin sharp pole on the horizon and I greased it for the entire length, and I knew that the moon’s doom would be quick on that slick skewer and nearly painless. I used all my engineering expertise to make that deadly pole, truly I did.
Then I waited for the moon to rise in the east and travel across the sky and settle down unawares on my lethal spike, but for some reason the full fool missed my trap, cunningly wrought and perfectly positioned as it was, and set behind the pole. I was dismayed, let me tell you! Had I made an error with my calculations?
Well, I set off on foot and reached the base of the pole and there I saw that it no longer stood on the horizon. Somehow the horizon had moved further away to the west. Maybe it was migrating for the season, heading elsewhere to breed or feed or do whatever it is that horizons do to keep themselves in line, I don’t know.
So I made another pole at the place where the horizon had gone to, it was an identical greased spike, long thin sharp, and I waited again and once more the moon missed the point and set behind it. I puffed my cheeks and popped a rivet in the left one, that’s how exasperated I was, and I set off to locate the new site of the horizon.
This went on and on and I never succeeded in impaling the moon and one morning I reached the horizon and saw that a pole was already there. It was the first one I had fixed in place. I had gone right around the entire planet! That realisation annoyed me slightly and I felt despondent and very tired and I was embarrassed also.
You are going to ask me where the Molybdenum Cat was during this time. It’s a good question and the answer is that I don’t know, no sir, no madam, but I guess he was around about, lurking smirking, metal fur bristling, waiting for the opportunity to pounce, but that opportunity clearly never came for here I am, still here, me, talking to you.
I wanted to know, continued the Pig Iron Mouse, how the moon was avoiding my traps so successfully, so I decided to find out. What I did was this, he added, his whiskers drooping and the signal fading and the strange dance music from distant lands dying. I plucked out my left eyeball, the one above the cheek that had popped the rivet, I did.
I plucked it out and it was already loose, so it didn’t hurt much, and I made a rocket engine powerful enough to carry that eyeball, which after all was a minimal payload, out of our atmosphere, with its odour of buttercups and weasels, and into space, outer space, and through the void, the external void, all the way to the moon, and down.
When the eyeball was safely down on the surface of the moon, it was able to peer up at our planet, the world we’re standing on right now, and watch as the Earth travelled across the sky and set on the horizon. That’s what it saw, and because it saw that then so did I, because it was my eye, still my eye, up there on the moon, our moon.
And then I realised that it was all a matter of perspective. That’s why I had failed to impale the moon! From the surface of the moon things looked very different, very different indeed, yes sir, yes madam, and in fact it was the Earth that was doing the setting on the horizon, not the moon. Which explains why it wasn’t landing on my spikes.
Perspective was to blame, that’s what I concluded after my eye saw all that, so I decided to approach the problem from that angle. I went to the government department responsible for perspective and I knocked on the front door but it didn’t open, so I knocked on it again even harder and it still remained shut, but a window gaped wide.
The window was high up, on the top level of the building, and an unseen voice called down at me, saying: sorry, no member of the public is allowed inside the Department of Perspective, please go away and don’t come back! And then the window was closed with a bang and I pretended to go away but in fact I hid and waited for nightfall.
Then I entered the building by climbing onto the roof and sliding down the chimney. Once I was inside I located the room where they keep the machines that control perspective, devices that ensure that parallel lines stretching to infinity only seem to converge at a distant point but don’t really, and I adjusted the dials more to my liking.
Then I sabotaged those machines so they were stuck like that. And I climbed back out of the chimney and headed for home and now I noticed that the two parallel lines of the railway track I walked down really did meet at a point, and that point was next to my house. I turned my key in the door and it was very late when I went to bed.
When I awoke early in the morning I went to prepare my breakfast and I had broccoli and chocolate as usual, but something had changed. The pieces of broccoli looked like the trees of a rainforest and the triangular wedges of chocolate resembled alpine peaks, and because the laws of perspective had been changed they really were that massive.
Needless to say, I only nibbled at them and then I went out and amused myself by filling my cheeks with air and puffing at distant towers that instantly fell down because they were only as big as they looked, whereas objects that were near my remaining eye seemed large and therefore were. A lost child’s marble was like a fallen moon.
When the real moon appeared in the sky, continued the Pig Iron Mouse, I simply reached out and snatched it in my jaws. Then I crunched it to pieces between my teeth. Can’t say it was particularly tasty. No sooner had I finished than I spied the Molybdenum Cat far away, coming over the horizon like an idle thought. I seized my chance.
I lunged at his tiny figure and I don’t rightly know what happened next but he vanished from sight. I’m fairly sure I didn’t swallow him. The only plausible explanation is that he jumped into my empty eye socket, the left one, and hid inside the cave it formed. Probably he still lives there, like something out of prehistory, warming his paws around a fire.
I bet he even invites passing travellers inside to sit around the flames with him while he entertains them with stories, tales about the Pig Iron Mouse, like this one for example, exactly like this one in fact, told from the viewpoint of the Pig Iron Mouse himself, just to be clever. And now the flames are dying down and I’ll bid you a moonless goodnight.
Wednesday, 9 August 2017
This brief tale is the third in a short linked series about impossible or at least unusual cities, Moonville and Sunsetville being the first two. Originally the main character was going to be Frabjal Troose, who turned into an inventor of improbable machines, but in my fiction the contributory elements often go off on their own paths and I am happy to let them do so. That shadows can have brightness seems illogical at first but on closer analysis this is seen not to be so.
In Eclipseville the authorities have decreed that shadows are more real than the objects that cast them. Substances have no value there: the people would spit on them, if spit was not also a substance. The shadows of spitting people flit rarely on walls in that city.
Some grades of shadow are more highly regarded than others; this goes without saying. The shadows of watermelons have great status, as do those of clocks, scissors, very tall hats. The most valuable shade of all remains to be seen: the shadow of the sun.
Not all shadows are visual and cool. The authorities insist that musical notes are the true shades of instruments, rather than those dark outlines that pretend to be flutes, harps, dulcimers. The implications of this creed must seem absurd to outsiders. Cymbals are only symbols of their own tinkle.
In Eclipseville most nocturnal activities take place in the afternoon. Between lunch and teatime the lonely nightwatchmen poke about in cellars and catacombs for evidence of the night, in accordance with their contracts of employment, but never find any until they abandon the search and switch off their electric torches.
Meanwhile lovers perspire, servants worry about ghosts, burglars prowl, lurkers throb, pools of wax on tablecloths harden under stubs of candles in recently closed cafés, astronomers squint through lenses on rooftops and talented insomniacs generate soft piano music or gently pluck the strings of muted lutes while uncultured neighbours snore.
Many of those talented insomniacs learned to play in the famous Music Institute, a building that is the grandest on the urban landscape. In truth it is not a single structure but a cluster of old dwellings sheltered by a translucent dome, a difference that is a question of interpretation, for a sweet melody might likewise be defined as a sequence of unrelated notes linked ‘only’ by a key signature.
Some say the palatial mansion of Frabjal Troose is one of those clustered dwellings; not I. Others say the Once Held Hands Crossing is also contained within the Institute; I disagree again.
My name is Sacerdotal Bagge and I am one of the authorities of the city. My disagreements are shadowy, like my policies, but I remain undisturbed, for not all shadows are dark. One day a brighter star will move behind the sun and the sun will drape its own shadow, blinkingly bright, on our houses, souls and financial affairs. A scorching umbra, shimmering.
Let it be known that Eclipseville had a difficult birth, for it was the result of a collision and meshing between two contradictory forces, the rival cities of Moonville and Sunsetville. When the moon passes before the sun the day becomes night, and wine, kisses, oddness, cool breezes and nocturnes are suddenly necessary. An expensive business…
An attempt was once made to freeze one of our best shadows. A hat taller than the highest minaret was positioned so that its shadow fell into a vat of liquid hydrogen. The procedure worked. When the hat was removed its shadow remained in the cold fluid.
But the shadow had turned brittle and when it was fished out it shattered into a million tiny sharp fragments. These splinters were caught up by the wind and swirled down the streets. Some specks lodged in the eyes of men and women; others stabbed into hearts.
With those motes blurring their vision, the citizens of Eclipseville saw hats everywhere. Teapot lids became sombreros, manhole covers turned into berets, even eyelids were perceived as being skullcaps for orbits. And soon I will have occasion to talk about other types of orbit. As for people with hat shards in their cardiac muscles, they soon found themselves brimming over, but not always with emotion.
Although a success, the experiment was deemed a failure.
That is often the case in Eclipseville, and I, Sacerdotal Bagge, have little desire to change our methodology.
In fact I backed the decision to make a second attempt, to freeze an aural shadow instead of a visual one, to solidify a musical note. We constructed a special machine. A hearing trumpet of immense size led into the side of a gigantic compression refrigerator.
A lever worked gears that lowered extremely heavy weights onto a piston. But first we needed something to compress. Musicians came and played the same note into the mouth of the trumpet and when the inner chamber was full I pulled the lever.
Slowly the sound was crushed into an enormous black orb. The chamber was broken open. Inside: solid music, smooth to the touch, humming faintly but insistently. What did we do with it? We launched it into space with a catapult, fixed it to the line of the celestial equator. A note belongs on a stave. Only there will it play properly.
Imagine many spheres of solid music – crotchets, minims, breves – in orbit, pinned by gravity to the ecliptic and other lines of heavenly latitude. An authentic prelude to the future…
The globe orbited our planet like a swollen drone, crossing in front of the sun and the real moon, increasing the frequency of eclipses visible from our city, but it did not play for us. There is no sound in a vacuum. No matter. The note was visible. We imagined it would remain in place forever, but it began to fade. The same note sustained too long becomes inaudible. We had forgotten that simple fact.
Eventually it was gone. We did not care.
A big mistake. Just because an object is invisible does not mean it has ceased to exist. Then something very unexpected occurred. A delegation from a brighter star crashed into the note without realising it was there and was destroyed. They had planned to offer us admission to a galactic club of advanced civilisations. The attendant benefits were consumed in blue plasma flames. For long minutes shadows held no sway.
The authorities of Eclipseville no longer emerge from their offices. They shamefully project their shadows out of little rooms over the thresholds of thin doorways, down marble steps, into the streets. They wag long flat fingers on flagstones, wavy fingers on cobbles.
These fingers form a musical stave. Shards of a broken moon fall on the lines or between them. Such things must happen in a city where one strange event is always eclipsed by another.