Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down
To show me the way to fair Nottamun Town
We weren’t sure we’d get through Nottamun Town in one piece, based on the bizarre tales we had heard. We had no choice — our destination lay beyond it, a mountain range of myth. And we needed supplies.
Not one person we asked would show us the way there, of course. The old folk song predicted as much. But we only made inquiries to verify directions.
We had a map on parchment, drawn in ruddy ink with names scratched in by an unsteady hand. You had tried to decipher the writing. “It looks like it says Nothinham, or Notaman, or Nobbonum.”
“Close enough,” I said. “Must be the place.”
The map had been handed down and hidden away for generations, until we got hold of it by a bit of honest deception. They say it was made by pirates who came far inland to hide their loot. We didn’t believe that part, since no treasure spot was marked on the map — unless that blot of ink beside a poorly-sketched tree meant something.
Walking along the road into town we came upon a stone marker commemorating the well-known forgotten flood that had swept through the valley long ago.
“Wait,” you said. “How can it be well-known if it’s forgotten?” That was our first warning sign that something was amiss.
“It does seem contradictory,” I agreed. “And apparently just ten people drowned, but the stories grew until they said thousands had died, though only a few hundred people ever lived hereabouts.”
You recited a line from the song: “Ten thousand got drowned that never was born. So that’s what it means, maybe.”
We hid our backpacks in a gully up a ways from the road, knowing they’d be safe for an hour or two. On the outskirts of town we passed a corral and barn before reaching the hustle and bustle of Nottamun. It had been built like an old western town, with one main avenue running down the center where all the stores were clustered in a row.
On arriving there, we encountered a curious scene.
The muddy street was dry as dust; the sidewalks were crowded but no one was there. Three people sat while standing on a corner; they laughed and smiled in misery. A megaphone maven mumbled a shout and talked without saying a word; the audience tried hard to misunderstand. A parade without followers crawled in a march, led from behind by an elderly child.
“Well,” I said, “who am I to question anyone’s lifestyle choice, but still…”
You nodded. “Just don’t get on a horse, especially a gray mare. Remember that part of the song: She stood so still, she threw me to the dirt; She tore my hide, and she bruised my shirt.”
I hadn’t planned to get on any kind of horse, let alone some cantankerous mare.
The mayor strutted by without moving a limb and informed us, “If you tell the truth, we say it’s a lie. And all lies are truths in this town.”
“Like one of those riddles,” you whispered to me as he turned to accost someone else.
“But what if they really mean it here?” This could get dangerous. We kept walking down the muddy-dusty street.
Children in a circle chanted, “Victims are heroes, heroes are crim’nals, crim’nals are victims, no one’s a saint.” Then a lab-coated model with a clipboard approached us. “We’re polling the people about science. Vote for the facts that feel right, so we can decide what’s real.”
“Wait,” I said, “you can’t just choose what—”
“Never mind.” You grabbed my arm. “Remember, we’re here to get supplies for the rest of our trip.”
We stopped in a saloon, where the cellar was up in the attic but the building had only one floor. A barman with empty bottles served us dry drinks in thimble-sized quarts. You looked thoughtfully at your glass and quoted more lyrics: “I bought me a quart to drive gladness away; And to stifle the dust, for it rained the whole day.”
“This is simply no good,” you added, and struck your fist on the table.
“Yeah, we won’t have much luck getting supplies if all the stores are like this. What’s going on here?”
“Not sure. But there’s one person who can tell it to us straight — the town fool. That’s his job, right? Revealing the uncomfortable truth.”
We paid for our drinks which were free, and the barman kept the change that he gave us.
“I don’t even understand the physics of all this,” I said as we headed back onto the street. “It’s not like a parallel universe. More of a skewed one.” And yet, everything seemed vaguely familiar.
We looked in all the spots we’d expect to find a town fool: stables, barns, pigsties, the courthouse. We finally found him sitting on a fence, looking dejected, and explained our plight. He brightened at being asked a sensible question.
“Yes, it’s an odd place — makes my job tougher.” He sighed. “Up is down, good is bad, wrong is right. Hard to compete with that. What’s the point of playing the fool when folks are so foolish themselves? My advice: Leave before you forget what’s true.”
“But what do all these contradictions mean?”
Acting the fool, he gave us a wink. “If the meaning is known then the mystery’s gone.”
We thanked him and tried to leave quickly. Not so easy.
A naked man in a business suit stopped us to say, “There’s a nice little big house for rent to buy on credit-swap paper with no money down. Perfectly safe risky investment. You can bank on it.”
“Keep moving!” you said to me.
A woman with cash-hungry eyes thrust some vials at us. “Medicine, medicine, for all your ills. You invent the malady, we concoct the remedy. A tincture of nothing suspended in hope. The weaker the mixture, the stronger the faith.”
I waved her away.
A circus barker shouted at us, “The world’s biggest tent, fits in your hand. Everyone’s together separately, shackled by choice, freely beguiled. Come for camaraderie, stay for the rage. Consume all you want, never be sated.”
We hurried past him. “I’ve never heard so much nonsense,” you said.
“At least no one tried to tell us about String Theory.”
We exited at the entrance and got far clear of the town, heading back the way we came. We never reached the mountain range. It would have to wait for another day.
“Get out the map,” you said, as we retrieved our packs. “Let’s go find that tree where someone put a spot of ink.”
That turned out to be more fruitful.