"All Chaos was once yer kingdom; verily, held ye dominion over the entire Pentaverse, but today ye was sore afraid in dark corners, nooks, and sink holes."
—Lord Omar, The Epistle to the Paranoids, Verse 3
One morning, on Telegraph Hill, a great man began to feel quite out of place. The rush of the sensation struck him dizzy, and though he remained standing, it gave him pause in his morning stroll. The butcher's wife, who was sweeping the storefront, took notice and hurried to his side.
"Good heavens, sir!" she called, placing a hand at the man's back. "Are you about to faint?"
"N-not at all, my dear. The sentiment is well appreciated." He dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief. "Though I must remind you, it would be more proper to address me as Your Majesty."
"Right, quite sorry about that." The butcher's wife took up her broom and motioned to the doorway. "Perhaps a meal would shore up your constitution."
"A fine idea, madam." The man took indoors, ducking slightly, so his feather-topped hat would not catch against the doorway.
When the butcher, a stocky Italian, saw the man, he opened his arms in greeting. "Good morning, Your Highness!"
"I see that my Imperial meat supplier is in order." The man surveyed their goods. "I would hope that my decree regarding the unsurpassed fineness of your pig's feet has not been made folly."
"Not at all." The butcher took up a package and set it before the Emperor. "In fact, I have already prepared something with your tastes in mind."
The Emperor opened it to find a generous serving of cured ham. "Exactly the courtesy I would expect of a market so honored." From his billfold, the man produced a note and placed it the butcher's hand. It read:
THE IMPERIAL GOVERNMENT
Promises to pay the bearer hereof the sum of TEN DOLLARS in the year 1880, with interest at the sum of 7 per cent. per annum from date; the principal and interest to be convertible, at the option of the holder, at maturity, into 20 years 7 per cent. Bonds or payable in gold coin.
Given under our Royal hand and seal
this 14th day of April 1874
CUDDY & HUGHES, Printers to His Majesty Norton 1, 511 Sansome street, S. F.
The butcher smiled and placed it in on a shelf below the counter, in a little stack of similar notes. "Good day, Your Majesty."
"I certainly hope so."
A few minutes after, Norton, still neatly-dressed and serious-looking, had progressed down to the shoreline, where he had been joined by his faithful hounds. Bummer and Lazarus, as the royal dogs were known, lapped at his heels. He took a second to drop morsels of the butcher's offering at their feet.
The alien heat in Norton's thoughts still lingered. In conversation, a student of philosophy had once told Norton of a peculiar state of mind which can accompany an epiphany or a seizure: the "never-seen" which makes the familiar seem utterly foreign. On that day, the Emperor was given inklings of that notion, yet his health and his mode of reasoning seemed otherwise unchanged.
As he rounded a corner, undeterred in his inspection of the sidewalks and their integrity, a jeering cry from across the street gave him a start.
"NOOOOOR-TON!" A boy of about fifteen stood there, hands cupped around his mouth for amplification. "OH, EM-PEROR, WHAT IS YOUR DE-CREE?"
The Emperor placed a hand over his chest, as the unsavory subject pressed upon his already-harried disposition. Bummer and Lazarus set to barking. Then a police officer popped into view, brandishing a club. He shouted something to the heckler, who stuffed his hands in his pockets and went strolling toward the beach. The copper turned and approached his liege.
"Good day, constable. Allow me to inspect your condition." The officer straightened his posture as Norton eyed him up and down, ensuring that his buttons were shined and his hat was straight. "Quite an admirable state. You may be at ease."
"Thanks. And don't worry about kids like that. They just like to rile up older folks. …You feeling alright?"
"Oh, I am positively hearty. Such… boisterousness… is well within the rights of my subjects, as you know." Norton nodded. "On your way."
The officer saluted before stepping aside so His Majesty could pass.
The Emperor, at this point, was mired in contemplation. His dogs had wandered off perhaps a block ago, chasing after a rat, and he had stuffed away the butcher's wrap shortly after the boorish impugnment of noontime.
Then, passing a coffee shop, the Emperor was distracted by a sound. Five short raps against metal completely set Norton off his train of thought. His vision swung, and he saw a hand, idly tapping a table. Five beats. The owner of the hand was a fellow of uncertain age, with peppery hair and a sharp suit, sipping dark tea by himself. He met Norton's gaze.
"Your Majesty." The stranger offered a bow in his seat. "I would be honored, were you to sit down and share my tea."
Norton accommodated his request, and the stranger flagged a server to provide an extra cup, which the stranger then filled to Norton's liking.
After a period of silence and ingestion, the stranger spoke. "If I may be so bold, O Emperor… you seem very troubled today. Are you not?"
Norton gazed down toward the table. "You are very perceptive, as… hold on. Did you tell me your name?"
"Pardon my impropriety. I am a traveler from an antique land, you know, and my customs are a little out of whack. You were saying?"
Norton stared at the pin affixed to the stranger's lapel. It bore a design composed of two curves facing each other, with a straight line running across their intersection. "I, er… yes. I have been beset with confusion since morning."
"It was chaos you felt this morning, and then disorder which you encountered around noon. Now you are beset with confusion."
"Your last point certainly rings true."
"Before the day is over, Your Majesty, you will know more, and understand much less. The five seasons will visit upon you in your flux, and you must take each to heart. For…" The stranger leaned in, and lowered his voice "…arrangements have been made. Grey-faced men with protractors and slide rules have drawn a box around you with five corners. A prison with black bars."
Norton sputtered in his tea. "What foulness possesses you that compels you to speak this way?"
"Good question. Indeed do many things come to pass."
"Do you think this nonsense is true, or is this another mockery?"
"Everything is true."
Joshua Norton took himself up from the chair. "I have had enough of you and of your bitter tea and of your madness. Good day." The Emperor stormed along his original path. He heard one last reply from the sharply-dressed lunatic:
"Remember, Your Majesty, the Empire never ended."
In a few hours' time, the Emperor found himself quite hungry. He took to a restaurant, and, after giving a royal welcome, the waiter sat him down and took an order.
"Good evening." The Emperor greeted the fellow sitting next to him, who appeared to be a businessman—a profession with which Norton was well-acquainted.
"Would you kindly mind if I took my dinner with you tonight?" The man seemed amiable enough, and Norton did not prefer to dine alone.
The man looked him up and down, at his fine Imperial uniform and unmistakable dignity of spirit. "Sure."
"Very well, honored subject." Joshua seated himself opposite the other diner, who was also waiting for his order. "We are to be introduced. I am Joshua Norton the First, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico."
"I have had a most distressing day, Thomas, and your hospitality heartens me."
"Uh, thanks. I've had a rough one, too."
"Oh, but I doubt you would know the full extent of my woes. There is a great worry leaning upon me, and everywhere I go, I am further assaulted by…" Joshua was interrupted by some shouting outside. He paused for it to abate. "As I was saying, each hour leads me to…" More shouting. The other patrons were doing their best to ignore the din. "I am assaulted by new challenges to my serenity, and…" Norton caught himself raising his voice to be heard over the noise. Finally, he looked back, through the window, and saw the source of the calamity: An anti-Chinese demonstration had collected outside a nearby building, and a pair of Oriental gentlemen were being accosted by the protesters. Guns were visible among the crowd.
The Emperor shot to his feet, causing the tableware to clatter. Those trying to ignore the protest took notice of him as he took himself through the doors and into the street. Now the Emperor's dinner companion stared, along with many other patrons, through the window as Norton entered into the crowd, placing himself between the Chinese and the anti-Chinese.
A few of the latter had their rifles raised. Joshua Norton bowed his head. He began to chant, and any lip-readers in the diner could have deciphered it:
"Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven…."
The rioters grew quiet. After the second "forgive us our tresspasses", one lowered his weapon. Another followed suit by the next "lead us not into temptation". By the third "For Thine is the glory", the demonstration had crumbled apart like stale bread. There was nothing left to say.
The immigrants exchanged gratitudes with His Majesty. His Majesty returned to the restaurant, now itself completely hushed, and rejoined the table he had left.
The businessman took a long sip of his beer. "What was that about?"
"Merely a diplomatic affair." Norton said this in a way that he did not have to raise his tone, but the announcement was still audible to everyone in the room. "A civic matter that requires no further discussion."
The two began to eat. The customers moved on.
"Tell me, Thomas: what do you know of philosophy?"
"Not a lot. I don't want to disappoint you, but you'd be better off going to the coffee shop for that sort of conversation."
Norton sighed. "Very well. But, do you think, sometimes, when you are about your work, or walking along, or awake in bed… do your thoughts ever turn to your place in the world, or the nature of you being, or… perhaps fate?"
"Yeah. Sometimes. Doesn't that happen to everyone?"
"Exactly, my good man. And, if I may he candid, something of that kin has obsessed me from dawn to this very second. It follows me everywhere, and yet I was afraid to admit it today, when some perceptive.. eccentric raised the subject."
"This may sound mad, but I have the sensation that this… world… is not my own."
"I don't know what to say to that."
"Of course not. The very idea… and yet, I find myself here, on the nineteenth of February, in San Francisco, an emperor of my nation. I am respected, honored, served, and yet… I am not a fool, Thomas. I know this to be a matter of posturing. I am humored, perhaps wishfully, at best. At worst, I am scorned as a lunatic."
"I can't lie. It ain't a usual line of work you're in."
"And yet I am. As surely as the blueness of the sky or the wetness of rain, that nobility, that authority, is what makes me. But it is empty, and I am not one to give myself to vanity. It is as if the whole world has been turned backward, and I alone remain in place."
"Sounds like a bad mood."
"You speak understatement. My happiest memories and my darkest in kind are pallid to me. Curdled. Tell me, are you blind to it? I disbanded Congress. I decreed the establishment of a league of nations." He pounded the table in frustration. "I am sovereign! I am—"
The Emperor realized, then, this he had given himself to anger, much to the attention of those nearby. It was shame that overcame him, then.
"I must give my sincere apologies for disturbing your dinner tonight, Thomas. I have thoroughly worn out my welcome. It is time for me to take my leave." He fumbled with his wallet and dropped some coins on the table. They were genuine. "This should cover my meal." The Emperor made his exit.
In the dusk, in full view of the Pacific Ocean, Norton I took stock of his day. As the sun set on the Empire of the United States, its Emperor did not resign, but he certainly felt resigned. Whatever was making him feel this way was past. He lived only in the aftermath.
"There are trivial truths & there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true."
—Niels Bohr, as quoted in the Principia Discordia
License: CC BY:NC:SA 3.0