­The Hollow Earth Companion

“The air is rarified; prepare to modify your breathing upon arrival. Consider taking a yoga or even a Lamaze class before travellng, as some tourists report that this helps in the acclimation process. There is no getting around it; the jet lag is murder. Expect at least a good three to four days’ disorientation . . . .

“For sightseeing you will need special binoculars and cameras, as their lenses all bevel slightly to accommodate The Bowl. Available in withoutter shops located in most town squares . . . .

“Fat chance getting a glimpse of the dinosaurs as the citizenry, having closely monitored the decline of charismatic megafauna on our surface, is understandably protective. These habitats are closely guarded secrets, though with luck the occasional pterodactyl might be spotted far in the distance; they feed at dusk . . . .

“Be attendant to slight twists in their vernacular. Instead of horizon they say bend. What we describe as the heavens they call viscera. And while much of the population has adapted to our surface colloquialisms, outliers in more remote villages maintain the inverted dialect. It’s unlikely you’ll find yourself in conversation with these shy and reticent elders, but if you do, simply follow their lead and flip their terms around—in means out, up means down, atmosphere = mind, etc. (and vice versa). It is not altogether unlike visiting London . . . .

“Be respectful. Do not gawk at their height or pronounced appendages (should you need them, clothes more suitable for your dimensions are available in all withoutter shops). Never refer to locals as withinners, inners, or interiorists, such terms being highly offensive. Simply call them by their offered names and nothing else. On no account entertain topics e.g., their mythical tails, and certainly not the photocells on the tips of those tails. No credence whatsoever should be given to these legends, despite old Fourier’s claims to the contrary . . . .

“Dough globes and sugar geodes are in abundance, found in food carts and up and down the avenues; feel free to indulge. But you’re fooling yourself if you believe these savory jelly and mushroom filled balls are indigenous, as they are made solely for tourists. (In truth, most natives favor flapjacks and pounded vegetable patties. For just as they favor straight walls and sharp angles inside their spheroid homes, so too are they drawn to cuisine of flatter design). . . .

“Day markets and evening recitals are frequent in Oreon Square; be sure to get your photo of grinning Olaf Jansen carrying an armload of berries the size of melons. Go ahead, touch the burnished bronze grapes at his feet for good luck; everyone else does . . . . “

I made that last part up. About rubbing the grapes. A priest friend once told me of his days at seminary in Rome, how he and his pals would, in full priest-to-be regalia and when tourists were about, stoop by a nondescript fountain to kiss the head of a particular cherub. Then they’d sip espresso at the bar across the street and watch the gullible dopes who’d been watching as they followed suit. The cherub had no significance of course. Neither do Olaf’s grapes. But I enjoy the thought of all those eager withoutters lining up at the statue, groping the old man’s spilled fruit.

There is another, more significant, lie as well: In each revised edition of The Hollow Earth Companion I warn that traveling to Dipping-of-the-Needle is utterly forbidden, the entire town being under quarantine. And I owe this fib to my own hollow earth companion—not the guidebook I freelance for, but the other kind, the flesh and blood one.

We met a year ago. I was sitting at Vernon’s, an outdoor cantina across from the town’s only fountain, enjoying a menthol and the glow of the mock sun’s burgundy haze, when he appeared suddenly beside me, pulled up a chair without asking, took a good long lingering look at my crossed legs, nodded approvingly at my garter, and signaled for two glasses and a cruet of Plumissa (a regional aperitif reminiscent of Aperol with lemon, surprisingly potent and garnished with a sugared stick of rhubarb)—then promptly told me about the digs in the old quarter several blocks away, and the conduit archeologists had unearthed there.

“Where it leads is anyone’s guess,” he said, “though the old timers say it’s a tunnel to yet another orb beneath our own.” Beneath with air quotes.

“A second one? A hollowed earth within this hollowed earth?”

He nodded. “Like your Russian dolls I suppose. Of course, we need to keep such news from the surface visitors.”

“Withoutters. Like me, you mean.”

He removed the rhubarb, gave it a chew, and smacked his lips. “Maybe not you,” he smiled.

I took a final drag on my cigarette. “And you’re telling me this why?”

He let his eyes drift back down to my legs. “Stockings like that,” he said, “could make a man confess anything.”

I’ve visited my friend in the center three times since, each trip longer than the last. With each new edition of the guidebook I protect the secret of the excavation as if these interior climes were my home. Which in fact they might soon well be; for my next descent I’m purchasing a one-way ticket. I have even adopted the women’s way of dress here: the trim wool pencil skirts, petite silk berets with a hint of lace dangling over one eye. The long-stemmed cigarette holders, the lethal stiletto heels. All quite 1940s. Sassy.

“If you weren’t such a tiny thing,” my hollow earth companion likes to say, “you’d be taken as a local,” lifting me off the ground with those magnificent arms, enfolding me within his belted silk tunic.

(About those tunics: On my first trip, years ago, I found the robes quaint, even laughable. But they have grown on me. Maybe it’s the way the fabric compliments the men’s musculature, accentuating every undulation. The almost indecent contrast between their formidable hands and the delicate silk. And he really does, my hollow earth companion, have the most formidable hands.)

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