Chapter 1, in which I make her acquaintance.
I first encountered her in the parking lot. Now, I do not ordinarily care what a person does in a parking lot, as long as it is within the bounds of public decency. But as it stood, I could not mind my own business and drive away, because she was atop the hood of my reverse-parked car, stacking up bricks on the roof.
“What on Earth are you doing?” I asked her.
“I’m visiting,” she replied without looking away from her stack of bricks. At the time, I could make no sense of her reply, but for the reader’s benefit, I should explain here in retrospect that she had clearly misheard me as asking, “What are you doing on Earth?”
I watched in silence for another minute as she moved a considerable pile of bricks from the ground to the roof of my car, arranging them to form crude steps.
“I would appreciate it if you would stop putting bricks onto my car, so that I can go home,” I said as calmly as possible.
“I’m sorry - I won’t take more than a minute more,” she reassured me. “I think one or two more steps should do it.”
So I waited a few minutes more, and she dutifully completed two more steps of bricks.
“Alright!” she cried cheerfully, climbing onto the roof of my car and racing up the steps, leaping off so forcefully at the very end that the bricks came crumbling down behind her. In a panic, I lunged forward in a vain attempt to catch her or at least break her fall.
“Ouch!” she exclaimed, landing with a thwump in the middle of the grassy median.
“Are you crazy?!” I exclaimed. I thought she was suicidal.
“How come it didn’t work?” she said sorrowfully, her shoulders drooping.
“No, it’s a good thing it didn’t work! A person shouldn’t throw away her life just like that.”
“Throw away my life?” she asked, looking up at me. For the first time, I saw her face up close and noticed the elaborate tiara perched over her long, flowing hair. “No, no, no!” she protested. “I am not trying to die. I’m trying to go home!”
“Yes,” she replied, crestfallen. “I want to go back home. I thought that if I built the stairs on top of this large box, it would be tall enough. But on this planet, you always come tumbling down. It really breaks your heart after awhile.”
“This planet? What other planets have you been to!” I cried in jest.
“Well,” she said, starting to count off on her fingertips, “I have been to the crystal planet and the hollow planet and the monolithic planet and the planet that turned out to be an embryonic space-kitten. And my own planet, too, of course. On any of those planets, this stairwell would have sufficed! Oh! … if only I hadn’t missed the space-cat migration when it passed by Earth, I would not be stuck here like this, with such a sore rump … .”
I thought perhaps she was an actress, or perhaps an avid role-player. Or simply a lunatic. In any case, I managed to convince her to give up on the idea of building staircases into space and come with me for some afternoon tea.
It was over a nice hot cup of black tea that she began to recount her circumstances at length in an attempt to win over my aid. I indulged her, if only because her tales were of such fantastic amusement.
Chapter 2, in which I learn of her home.
She claimed to be the princess of a distant planet. That planet had only a princess and no king or queen, she explained, for it would be simply overkill to assign a king and queen to such a small planet. It took additional inquiry for me to understand just what she meant by “small,” but I came to understand that its diameter could not be more than the length of a football field.
In fact, she constituted the entire human population on this planet. Most of her citizens were floating creatures which bore an uncanny resemblance to the umbrellas that she saw people carrying around on Earth when it rained. There was no use for carrying such a creature around at home, though, for the clouds were small just like the planet, and one could avoid being caught in the rain by simply stepping out from under the cloud.
A proper princess, naturally, had to have a throne. It was this throne that she missed most dearly about her home planet. To her dismay, none of the chairs on Earth remotely resembled her throne in appearance or comfort. She had difficulty explaining just what her throne was, since she had only picked up English recently, but it was shaped just like her planet, and was soft. Because the clouds cycled around so quickly, it was very important that the throne be able to roll about so that one could quickly evacuate in case a thunderstorm might draw near.
I interrupted her to ask if her throne was some sort of rolling office chair, and she chastized me for not paying attention. How was a rolling chair even remotely shaped like a planet? And it was then that I realized that her throne was probably just a very large exercise ball. But not wanting to hurt her feelings, I kept this conclusion to myself.
In any case, her planet was rather dull and as an energetic young girl, she yearned for a change of scene. The umbrella creatures did not talk to her, and in fact spent most of their time preening their elaborate and varied tails when they were not floating about. This left her to tend to her only hobby, a watermelon garden that she watched over every day.
Then, when she was about eighty-four revolutions old (about half her present age, which appeared to be around nineteen Earth-years), a strange meteorite came hurtling through just as she was sprinkling water on her watermelon vines. It crashed down on the ground in a most awkward fashion. When she examined it closely, she realized that it was in fact alive. With about four segments, it resembled an oversized caterpillar, except that it had a curly cowlick of hair (“like Elvis Presley”) and was clutching a soft-cover book between its two highest arms. It quickly righted itself vertically and squealed without removing its eyes from the book.
Although this creature spoke in the same tongue as the princess before me, I do not know what it sounded like, for she provided only a translation and refused to demonstrate her mother tongue. I wondered still if she were an actress, and she simply had not had the time to have made up such a language. At any rate, the caterpillar was most concerned, for he had been forcefully ejected from his previous planet as it shrunk.
“How can a planet shrink!” the princess had exclaimed in disbelief. “Didn’t you see anything going on when you got knocked off?”
But the caterpillar only shook its head. “I was too absorbed in my book.”
“Why don’t you ever look up from your book? Is it really that interesting?”
The princess came to understand that this species had a most peculiar growth pattern –- only by consuming words could it add new segments to its body! And so these caterpillars would read and read, sometimes the same passages over and over again, until they would become so long that they would fall into space and split into individual seeds, each one capable of forming a new caterpillar on another planet.
But this unlucky caterpillar had been pushed off before reaching a mature length, and it made him not a little peeved. The princess offered to help the caterpillar find out what was happening, and using a half-watermelon shell from her garden as a space-ship, they bounced off her throne and launched into space, spitting out watermelon seeds to steer. Although he continued to read, the caterpillar could tell when they were close to his home planet. It took only a moment’s glance for the princess to understand why the planet was shrinking.
“Is it still there?!” the caterpillar had asked.
“Why don’t you look for yourself?” she had replied, but the caterpillar did not want to look away from his book. He was six segments long by now.
“Oh, just jot down a description of it. I’ll read it once I finish this page.”
Angrily, the princess tore the book out of his pudgy hands and turned his head towards the “planet.”
“How would I describe this to you in any meaningful way if you’ve never seen it before?” she said. And it was true: before his eyes was a strange and mystical form that defied description. Curled around what appeared to be a yellowish planet no larger than four watermelons was an enormous creature of partially transparent pink substance.
But try as she might, the princess could not defeat her own words: she could not convey to me what the creature she beheld truly was, except perhaps if she sketched it for me so that I might conjure up some comparable image in my memory. Drawing on the back of a napkin, she produced a rough outline that I recognized as an embryo.
“Oh yes!” she exclaimed to me in the tea house when I declared it an embryo of some sort. “That is the word I was thinking of. It was a baby space-cat.”
Now, the princess and the caterpillar, in their flying seed-propelled watermelon, happened to pass by a curious asteroid which looked from afar as though it were enwrapped in a patchwork quilt. It was covered in purple and gold and green and blue and red squares.
“What happened to that planet?” asked the princess of the caterpillar.
“I confess I do not even know how to begin to describe it.”
“Oh! Those are the colors that you have read about, Erpie. See, that one up there is purple. And over there is gold,” said the princess patiently, pointing vaguely at the different squares. Of course, the caterpillar could hardly tell whether she were pointing to one square or another. But it was a start.
“I want to see them closer!” cried the caterpillar.
The princess smiled. “Alright, alright. We’re in no hurry, anyhow.”
The two of them descended upon the asteroid on its dark side, touching down on what seemed to be level ground.
“An excellent landing!” the princess cried, giving her co-pilot a high five. But the world was so dark, they could not even tell what color patch lay below their feet, so they decided to sleep until sunrise.
They were awakened some time later – I would suppose perhaps a few hours, although it is entirely possible that it was a few years (improving the chances that Sleeping Beauty was actually an alien from a very slow-rotating planet). The sunlight had begun to sweep across the asteroid, and it unfurled a wash of purple that stretched to the very edges of the horizon on all sides.
“This is most peculiar,” said the caterpillar. “I don’t recall any of the colored blocks being so large. This must be at least half the planet. Maybe the surface looks different from space than up close?”
But they had no more time for speculation: a man in a tall hat and monocle presently appeared.
“What do you think you’re doing! I do not think I have authorized you to work in my purple country,” he roared, turning red with fury.
“We are visitors from another planet,” explained the caterpillar. “We come in peace.”
The princess whispered urgently into the caterpillar’s ear: “You’ve read so many books, and that’s the best line you can come up with?!” which was returned with five light slaps from the caterpillar’s arms.
“Well, to be generous and hospitable to visitors, I am willing to part with this parcel here for three pebbles.”
“Pebbles?” asked the princess. “How about these?” She showed the man three watermelon seeds from her satchel.
“Hmmmmmmm,” he said closely inspect them with his monocled eye. “I have not seen such specimens of pebbles before, but I think these shall suffice. Paint away, but only inside these flags.”
He placed four flags in a square about the two travelers, spaced about two arm-spans apart. The two just stood there, confused, and the man tapped his foot impatiently until he finally growled, “I said: paint away!”
“We don’t understand,” said the princess. “And we have no paint.”
“Then go visit the paint-man. He lives in the jet-black square at the North Pole.”
“Why can’t we just leave this square the way it
“Purple? Absolutely not! Purple is my territory. It is a symbol of my nobility. After all, I am the king of this planet!” exclaimed the man. His monocle came a bit loose from his facial contortions, and he had to adjust it back into place.
“What makes you the king?” asked the princess. “Do you make the laws and watch over the people?”
“Of course not!” answered the man who thought he was king. “It is because my purple stretches from one horizon to the next! My wealth is so great that my entire house is made of pebbles! Ha ha ha!” And he seemed terribly pleased with himself.
The two travelers then set off for the North Pole, not understanding the man’s explanation. They came upon the edge of the purple country after some time, and on the border they saw dozens of other colors, one of which was jet-black with a small elfin-looking inhabitant who sported a long mustache which was painted a variety of colors.
“Hello, are you the paint-man?” asked the princess. “The man in the purple country told us to come here, as we are visitors who do not have any paint.”
“Ah, this is just the place, mademoiselle and … whatever that thing is,” said the elfin paint-man with a full bow.
“He’s a caterpillar!” cried the princess defensively.
“Ah, carpark. Well, mademoiselle and carpark, I think I have just the shade for you two.” He pulled out two buckets, one which was orange-red and the other which is green-yellow. “Do they suit your tastes?”
The princess and the caterpillar nodded.
“Well then, be on your merry way.”
The two returned to their plot and painted the purple square haphazardly with the orange-red and green-yellow. The purple man saw this and threw a fit.
“What blasphemy is this?!”
“Well, we’re sharing this land, so we thought we would paint it with both of these buckets to save time.”
The purple man was about to say something, when a shorter man approached and cleared his throat audibly.
“Sire, I am finished for the day,” he said, handing over a large brown bag with his calloused hands.
The purple man grinned widely, snatching up the bag. “Fifty pebbles! It is an honor to have you working for me.”
“No, it is my honor to be able to work on your land, Sire,” replied the short man wearily, and he went about his way.
“Who was that?” asked the princess.
“Ah, he is the blue-country man. His land is now barren, so I allow him to collect pebbles in my purple country as long as he gives me 5 of every 6 pebbles he finds.”
“Five of six?!” cried the princess. “I don’t think that is very fair.”
“It is a privilege for him to work here, not a right!” cried the purple man. “I am his benefactor, yet you dare to suggest that I am unjust? As the royal authority of this planet, I hereby confiscate your territory! It is so inappropriately painted, in any case. Now, be away with you.”
The two stormed off, lugging their watermelon shell with them all the way to the edge of the purple country, where they found the blue country. It was considerably smaller and covered in deep pits. The blue man sat cross-legged in the center, head rocking back and forth as he dozed off.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the princess. “Excuse me?!”
The man jolted awake.
“Ah, what do you two need. Are you associates of the purple man?! I have nothing here! Nothing! There is no need to buy any more of my country.”
“No, we do not want any of your land. We merely wish to rest here for a bit, since the purple man has kicked us off of our land.”
“Ah, what offense did he invent for confiscation this time?”
“We apparently did a shoddy job at painting,” said the princess, shrugging. “I do not understand. We painted the same way we paint things on my planet, using two colors at once. I guess he doesn’t like swirls and polka dots.”
“Two colors at once?!” exclaimed the blue man, shocked. He sat down and contemplated for a long time. And then he contemplated some more, scatching his gray whiskers. Finally, he lifted his head. “I have never met ones such as you. Perhaps you will be the saviors of this world.”
“Well, you see, I was once king of this planet. Back then, the planet was green and blue and brown from the plants and water and mountains.”
“Fights started breaking out. One person would pick bananas from the tree his neighbor was sleeping under, or lovers would part ways and not know which jewels belonged to whom. I, in my foolishness, decided that each person would thereafter have an equal parcel of land, with some water and some trees and some jewels, and then we would all be happy! We used flags to mark off the borders, with a few common pathways for getting around.”
“What about the paints?”
“That damned paint-man! He started going around, door to door, peddling his paint so that people could very clearly mark off the boundaries of their land and keep neighbors from encroaching. Soon, everyone was painting his land some shade or other. The land died because people were too busy painting to tend to their crops, and soon all that was left to eat was a kind of buried fungus which we call ‘pebbles.’”
The princess and caterpillar sat there for awhile before turning to each other and nodding. “Leave it to us.”
Through the night, the two ran through the endless desert, sweeping and splashing paint here and there, spirals and waves and flowers effacing the square edges of the quiltwork countries. When next the inhabitants awoke, they began stumbling about, trying to follow the narrow strips of their color, snaking up and down and forcing them to hop and skip and twirl until finally they fell over each other, laughing, covered in stripes and speckles of multicolored paint.
I eagerly asked to know what happened after that, but the princess shook her head. By the time people thought to look for the imps who had freed them, the watermelon was already only a speck in the sky with its passengers gazing down at the sparkling landscape.