Story by Rick Moody
Illustrations by Morgan Elliot
Times were tough for Nonsense Singers.
It used to be, in the old days, that The Nonsense Singers of the Red Forest sang at every birth, every wedding, every time a house went up, every time a child was declared fully grown.
They sang happy songs like:
Bim Bim McGree, Bim Bim McGree
Soaked his plash grath in Fong Tong Sea
Upsala upsala gla gla glee
Don’t plock your flocked sock
Or you’ll land in a tree
They sang sad songs like:
O na na dimmer dammer
Why so blue?
Stepped on a gash bagger
Tra La La Lu Lu . . .
But times had changed.
What were people doing instead of listening to nonsense songs? You know how people are! They get busy. In the Blue Village, there was a sport having to do with pine cones. You hit the pine cones with a big flat bat. In Greenville, it was the year of feasting, and every night you had to decide: chicken or fish? Good friends found themselves on opposite sides. There were arguments.
Mostly what people did was work, and then they went to bed. Sometimes between work and bed they paused to gaze at the fire in the fireplace. If people were feeling merry, they might tell a story or sing a song. But since the drought, which was now seven years old, not so much merriment.
The Nonsense Singers were like any other people. Claude Otis, for example, the leader of the Nonsense Singers, worked at rope-making in Orange Grove. And there he sang to himself. That was all the singing he did these days, now that almost no one was interested in nonsense singing. He made up songs now and again, like he’d always done. For example, he made up this song:
Batta batta batta batta
Kiff ding and a
Not a ming sing or a fish thing
And bang bang everything, bang bing, bang bing.
People at the job said that Claude’s singing distracted them. They said he needed to concentrate more.
What camaraderie they had all once felt, the Nonsense Singers of the Red Forest! How they all loved one another! Claude loved Rip Nostrum, who had a big loud voice. Rip liked to do the special yelps that the Nonsense Singers used in the big choruses.
Rip Nostrum was present at Claude’s wedding, and was godfather to Claude’s twins Barry and Larry, and Claude had once caught Rip’s own daughter Qicksilver, when she was falling out of a tree. Right into Claude’s arms! The Nonsense Singers made up one of their rare relatively straightforward songs on this subject, “Don’t Step Off of the Branch.” You probably remember that one:
Don’t step off of the branch
Don’t step off the branch,
Don’t step off of the branch,
You’ll hurt your head.
You’ll hurt your head, that’s all we’ve said.
They had a lot of songs about trees, the Nonsense Singers, because they lived in a forest. They sang of trees without using too many of the proper tree words, because that is how Nonsense Singers do things: the long way around.
It probably would have gone along this way, with the Nonsense Singers getting day jobs in Blue Village or Orange Grove, singing together less and less often, were it not for the Battle of the Blanched Plains.
What to say now about all of this? Most of the people who caused the battle would deny they had anything to do with it. That’s the way battles are. There’s a dispute about some land—for example, a big rolling field that wouldn’t grow a thing because of the drought—and everyone gets riled up, and no one will admit to being the one who shouted first. It’s always the other people who started it.
So the Battle of the Blanched Plains started between the town of Vermillion and the town of Greenville, and the odd thing about these two towns, Vermillion and Greenville, is that they had nothing between them at all except the Red Forest. They were so close together that lots of folks moved back and forth between the two. Lots of folks had family both here and there.
Still, the towns fought and yelled and stamped their feet and threatened one another, over that field of gorse and bittersweet and milkweed. The Red Forest had to listen to all of it, because the people in the Red Forest were right between Greenville and Vermillion. Every time someone came walking through the forest, walking to the edge of the other town to hurl a bunch of insults, the citizens of the Red Forest had to hear it. Nobody wants to listen to that kind of thing. Not really.
Years went by in this way, bad behavior all around. All of this is preserved in song. For example, here’s an old-fashioned nonsense ballad about the two Greenvillians walking through the Red Forest, toward Vermillion, planning to steal peaches, and it goes:
Guy number one:
Nog nog nog nog bim bam bee
Figgin Figgin Figgin oxinfree
Guy number two:
Gaddump gaddump gaddump gaddee
Fiddle faddle fiddle by the willow tree
You might ask who was it who overheard this alleged conversation, the conversation in the song, and who made that decision to pass the news of the peach theft on to the Vermillionaires, whose orchard it was. Why, that would be Elsie Quail! You know Elsie, probably, because of the statue. Elsie was short, with pink hair, large glasses, and a beautiful, warbly singing voice like a four-hundred pound soprano. Elsie was sitting in the highest branches of a sugar maple, getting ready to tap it for its sweet juice, when she overheard those two boys talking about stealing.
Oh beautiful vistas of our country! As she sat in the tree, Elsie would gaze upon the great blanched fields. In the distance, the mountains, the mesas, the buttes of the desert. Not a tree interrupted her view, and to Elsie it looked like a sweet and blessed land. What she did, of course, was pass the word of this peach theft she’d heard to one of the citizens of Vermillion, out harvesting in the field. With his friends, this Vermillionaire harvested all the peaches the very next day. No peaches left for the Greenvillains to take.
And from this a song was composed.
This kind of good citizenship, the kind in which a person with a big heart and a fine singing voice puts a stop to chest-thumping and peach theft, always causes trouble. So it was. Dennis Thunk, mayor of Greenville, threatened to take axes to each and every tree in the Red Forest, unless the tree-huggers, as he called those Nonsense Singers, would lay off playing sides. Elsie Quail got a righteous tongue-lashing by the elders of the forest, for all the trouble she caused, and one of elders happened to be her uncle.
The story might have ended there, with a nasty bit of comeuppance, if it were not for the fact that the Nonsense Singers had a skill that no one credited them with anymore. They made songs! And the Nonsense Singers could communicate in their songs. It came easily to them. So the singers, Rip and Claude and Tabitha Sprite, and all those other young, squeaky clean singers who had missed out on the early years of the Nonsense, but who heard about Elsie Quail, started perching up in the sugar maples of the Red Forest, singing what to all uninformed parties sounded like nonsense, blobbity, blob, blob, blobbity, blah, blah.
But that is not what the Nonsense Singers were singing in those days. They were sending messages to the women and children of Vermillion and Greenville and all the other towns surrounding, any town that was to be drawn into the Battle of the Blanched Plains. For example when they sang, Mickadun, mackadun, mickatee, manatee, mickadun, mackadun, mickatee, manatee, what they were really doing was describing who was sending armies, where, and who was plotting raids in the twilight, and who was going to burn the farmland. This is why, after a time, nobody’s forces could manage to conquer anyone else’s. The Battle of the Blanched Plains came to a sudden and undeniable halt. All because a bunch of no account singers were sitting in the trees singing their hearts out.
Of such things are stories of heroism made! Soon Claude was writing songs again, and so were all the rest of the Nonsense Singers. In fact, after the Battle of the Blanched Plains, Claude just wrote his best song ever, “The Blim Blam Suite,” which had a lot of very tricky passages:
Simmin heather moo
Dimmin together foo loo loo
Marry your fidget to your gadget gather
And we’ll all dance too loo loo
Till day is folderol dee folderoo
Nonsense Singing was in again. And Claude went from Sunday campfires to the launchings of new boats to the garlanding of teenagers to marriages and celebrations of anniversaries, and he sang because singing was what he loved to do. At his side were all of the other Nonsense Singers, Elsie and Rip and Nadine, all wearing cinnabar sashes, because that was what sowers of peace got in those days. Sashes.
Now, I know you’re only reading these pages because you want to audition for the Nonsense Singers yourself, so I now will give you a few pointers for when you find yourself in front of the Nonsense Singers Audition Panel, which will be convening soon in early autumn. 1) Bring the panel something good to eat, because they like a snack, 2) Smile brightly, 3) Mention a house pet, especially if you have a house pet with a silly name, 4) Sing the strangest, weirdest, most nonsensical song you can think of, and don’t worry if you botch it up or sing the wrong notes or wrong words, because the whole point here is that you should love the feeling of singing above all, and that means 5) Let every bit of joy in you out!
I wish you the best of luck with your audition.
Rick Moody is the author of nine books. He has received the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, the Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Paris Review‘s Aga Khan Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, and The New York Times. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Morgan Eljot is a novelist, comic book illustrator and totem pole carver. His work has appeared most recently in ZYZZYVA, The Literati, and England’s Arts Pneumonia. He graduated from the MFA program at San Francisco State University and divides his time between San Francisco and his ancestral homeland of Helsinki, Finland.