The Contest Chevelure was a time-honored competition held in a modest town in the middle of a modest country. It was a contest to see who could have the most extravagant and beautiful head of hair. Only, there was one notable detail. None of the people in the town had any hair on their heads.
According to a legend that was older than the mountain under whose shadow the town sheltered, another people once lived there. A charmed, perhaps enchanted, people. A people who had no hair upon their heads, but instead grew majestic horns. Because it was considered strange, and perhaps even blasphemous by those who came to settle in the greater region, these horned and hairless folk, who once wandered the forests and the plains, were driven to live at the foot of the great mountain.
Their numbers began to dwindle. Some say they moved away to another land. Others say that they were simply dying out. Some of the human folk tried to establish trade with them and some kind of acquaintance, perhaps even friendship. The horned folk did not welcome outside rulers, but they did welcome common travelers.
So it came to be that one such traveler settled in the town. The traveler fell in love, it was said, with one of the horned folk. And they had a child together. This child, it was said, had no hair upon its head, and bore two spiraling horns. But the child’s horns were not as grand as the parent’s horns. And this happened again, and again. Travelers settled and started families with the horned folk. And the children of those unions had children. As time and generations passed, the people’s horns grew smaller and smaller, until there was nothing left. No horns. No hair.
The only people in town who had any hair were those human folk who came and settled in town from elsewhere, and they came to cover their hair so they would not be so noticeable.
And there were some settlers who came from the northern lands, where it was considered improper to expose one’s hair in public sight. The town was one of the few places outside of their native region where they would not be constantly questioned or even suspected for covering their hair, or for shaving it off altogether.
And there were legends, tales passed on by those who were wizened (and perhaps also in need of some entertainment from the young among them). These tales spoke of a child who would one day be born with a pair of horns, signaling the return of the horned folk. The child would be born in the summer, it was said. And so the people of the town had come to have a custom during their summer feasts of holiday where one of the townsfolk would be crowned with an ornate pair of horns, crafted from precious metal and bedizened with the few jewels that the town itself possessed. This one would be chosen from those who entered and completed a test of physical prowess, a race to the top of the great mountain, where the horned crown lay in wait for the victor.
While the town abided in relative isolation, its townsfolk felt no awkwardness in their baldness. But when the towns and cities and villages of the greater region were connected by wider roads paved with stone, and by more organized means and practices of exchanging missives, more and more hair-bearing people passed through the town. All the more so after the townsfolk helped to build a great observatory on the mountain, and the town became known as a prime place for astronomers to visit.
The townsfolk became more accustomed to covering their heads. There was no written law compelling them to do so. It was only the unspoken law of commerce that drove them to make themselves appear less strange to the outsiders staying in and passing through their town. Even their custom of crowning a horned victor during the summer feast of holiday was threatened. For the leaders of the town moved the race from the mountain to the surrounding forest, so as not to interfere with the work of the astronomers. This despite the town’s own astronomers declaring that the contest would have no effect on their studies, or that of their outside colleagues.
And then a strange new fashion found its way into town. Some outsiders, though they had their own hair, came to wear caps adorned with hair and made to appear as if it were the person’s actual hair. “Wigs” these caps were called.
The mayor at the time entreated his townsfolk to start wearing wigs, especially as the town was growing in prowess and wealth thanks to their observatory. To be fair, many who visited the town were not troubled by the baldness of the people there. But those who were bothered happened to be those who bore a considerable measure of power, and therefore, their whims and pleasures greatly influenced the custom of the town.
So the mayor, in an effort to appease all, devised a compromise. The contest for the summer feast of holiday would be returned to the mountain, but not in its original form. It would be changed from a race to a contest of wigs. The mayor argued that the crown of horns was too precious an heirloom to be brought out now that there were so many strangers about. It would have its place at table, guarded by guards, and there to be honored by the townsfolk. But it would not be placed upon the head of any victors.
There was much discontent among the townsfolk at the mayor’s announcement. And the mayor too was driven beyond the brink of his patience and diplomacy. At one particular town meeting, he declared in poorly contained anger that if the townsfolk were so certain that they could bear the responsibility of leading the town any better than he could, then they could try it. The prize for the contest of wigs, he decreed, would be the mayorship of the town…at least for a fortnight.
Later, when the story was related to those who were not present at that meeting, there was much description of the gasps and screams and fainting away that followed the mayor’s decree. (Though there was one storyteller who claimed that all present were silent for many moments after the reckless declaration of such a weighty prize.)
So the contest was held. And of course, the one who was the victor attempted to change the contest back to its original form when he temporarily took over the mayorship. But all he managed to do in the fortnight that he held power was to reinstate the rule of crowning the victor with the bedizened horns.
After the fortnight was done, the mayor, whose temper had cooled and who felt ashamed for treating his own people with such disregard, allowed the crowning to remain, and also allowed the prize to remain, but ensured with other various laws that no great harm would be done to the town, should an unready or unworthy victor hold the post of mayor, even for a fortnight.
At times, the contest was protested. At times, it was embraced. The present was such a time, when the contest was embraced by those who believed it was a good idea to celebrate frivolity and creativity, to imagine what kinds of headdresses, and hats, and wigs they could devise. The town still honored the original prize, mayor for a fortnight. But many more laws and restrictions were put in place to prevent a winner from causing damage, be it reckless, purposeful, or unintentional. Many had tried to win the contest so that they could enact a rule to restore it to its original form as a race up to a mountain, or be rid of it altogether. Yet, for some reason that no one person could say, the contest endured as it was.
“Maybe it is to be our one great fault,” a tavern philosopher once said over a pint of ale. “And if our one great fault is a contest of cuticular creativity, perhaps it would mean that we are not such a bad people.”
And those gathered around him nodded and responded, “Perhaps.”
And the conversation turned to the subject of their ancestors, the horned folk whose blood still coursed through the veins of most townsfolk, thinned out by time though that blood might be.
The barkeeper listened as she wiped clean the same glass over and over.
“I wouldn’t mind having a pair of horns,” someone said. “You know, to defend myself when I’m traveling.”
“You don’t need them. Your hard head is deadly enough.”
As the laughter following the jest faded, someone speculated on the outside world’s fascination with having hair upon the head.
“Why is it so important to them? It serves no purpose.”
“It can keep your head warm.”
“Not as well as one of my hats.”
And on it went. And some form of that same conversation was heard by that barkeeper and those who came after her for many years.
By the time the astronomer Azimuth became mayor, the practice of wearing wigs was so commonplace, that the town appeared on the surface like any other. Few there were who did not feel awkward bearing a bald pate about, even in the sweltering summer months.
Azimuth herself had little use for wigs beyond her eighteenth year of life, when without argument or ceremony, she stopped wearing them, and without argument or ceremony, her family, friends, and society at large…did not care one way or the other. The only head coverings that Mayor Azimuth ever used was to stave off weather. She completed her studies in the field of stargazing, and being frustrated by the limits placed upon the research of the town’s astronomers by an observatory grown much obsolete, she decided to run for mayor. Her great promise to the people of the town was to maintain the upkeep and renovation of their most prized possession, the observatory and the telescope within.
This she did, and she also presided over other mayoral duties, including the summer feast of holiday and the contest of wigs and headdresses known as the Contest Chevelure.
One year, an outsider sent word that he wished to visit the town to witness the Contest Chevelure, as many had done over the years. But this outsider was someone of special esteem. A man with a glorious head of golden hair, who left a trail of wide-eyed whisperers whenever he arrived in a town.
He was touring all the lands where such contests were held. It was said that he was descended from a people whose hair had turned golden out of necessity. For months upon months in this land, the sun never rose. All was dark and cold. And so his people had entreated the spirits of summer to linger. In answer, the spirits enchanted their hair to capture the summer sunlight, so it could gleam, however dimly during those dark sunless months.
The man had just visited a town where the greatest hairdressers in the realm went to learn and practice their craft. And he had just learned of the Contest Chevelure. His fame and prestige preceded him, so the town council and many other citizens of import all but fell over themselves to prepare for his arrival.
When Mayor Azimuth received the gracious request from the Spectator as he was known, she listened to the advice of her council and to those who represented the will of the townsfolk. Then she locked herself in her office for a whole day to contemplate what many believed needed no contemplation. For who were they to refuse the Spectator?
Mayor Azimuth had no intention of refusing the Spectator’s visit. His arrival and stay would be a boon to the town. But there was one fear that the townsfolk had. Only one. But it was a most sobering one.
The arrival and the stay would be a boon. But the aftermath might be a disaster for the town. The Spectator wrote and spoke of the grand contests he witnessed long after he left whatever town, city, or village he had visited. And when he expressed displeasure, or worse, boredom, towards any particular contest, that contest, that town or city or village, would soon grow so unpopular that even those who loyally attended for years (for generations!) would suddenly stop. Like a tree starved for sunlight and food and water, the contest would shrivel and fade into oblivion. Sometimes, if the town or village hosting that contest was small enough—modest enough—it too would suffer the same fate.
The mayor took all these hopes and fears into account as she paced the well-worn wooden boards of her office and composed her reply.
She told the Spectator that they would be honored to host him. But they wanted to make sure that he had the most extraordinary experience, so she requested that he give them time to prepare for his visit. In his reply, the Spectator agreed. The date that the mayor chose would be two years past the time when she would finish her term as mayor. Many were relieved, for they would indeed have time to put on the most spectacular contest they had ever held. Some who heard the news wondered if Mayor Azimuth had arranged the date so that the burden of the visit would fall on another mayor. But others pointed out that whoever was mayor when the Spectator visited would be the person remembered and celebrated by history. For Mayor Azimuth had certainly restored the town’s hope and calm by giving them more than ample time to prepare.
The years passed, and the town prepared for not one, but two significant events. The Spectator’s visit and the passing of a comet that only passed by the town once a generation. There was talk among some about the unfortunate timing, and wondering about why the former mayor, who had by then returned to a livelihood in the astronomical sciences, would have chosen that particular year for the Spectator’s visit. But there were some who believed they understood. With two great events, the modest town would not seem so modest when the Spectator visited, and would seem perhaps less eager for his visit (even though they were indeed quite eager).
Then, the comet arrived.
The comet became visible in the sky, and the astronomers began to study it. People gazed up for a few nights, but the astronomers announced that the comet would be visible for many weeks. So the townsfolk went about their business again, including the business of preparing for the Spectator’s visit and for the Contest Chevelure.
Qualifying rounds had been held throughout the year. The astronomer Azimuth had entered herself in the contest, to the intrigue of many. And she had been chosen as one of four finalists, winning for wearing a headdress of gorgeous spiraling horns. Talk in the taverns was…lively.
“So, she is up to something. Something she’s been planning since she was mayor.”
“What could it be? Does anyone know?”
“What if she embarrasses us in front of the Spectator?”
“The mayor knows—I mean, our present mayor. She’s approved it, whatever it is.”
“Whatever happens, this should be some contest.”
Then, the Spectator arrived.
The Spectator arrived alone, to the surprise of all. Though his accommodations were given to him as a gift, he insisted on paying for his room and board, and for many other delights that caught his eye. The tailors in town noted his interest in fine suits. The bakers in town noted his fondness of breads. And many of the townsfolk were charmed by his habit of strolling down the streets, and stopping ever now and then to chat with them and ask them about their town and their own lives.
One day, he encountered Azimuth and clasped hands with her. His gaze flicked for the blink of an eye to her head, which was uncovered on the mild night.
“Mayor Azimuth, a pleasure.”
“It is astronomer Azimuth now,” she said with a smile. “I have not been mayor for a few years now.”
The Spectator nodded and his golden hair gleamed as it shifted in the sunlight. “Of course.”
“How are you finding you stay in our town?” Azimuth asked.
“Restful and enjoyable. I have learned much of the story of your town. I plan to visit your esteemed observatory before I leave. I am very much looking forward to the Contest Chevelure, of course. And I was delighted to learn that you will be in it.”
Azimuth smiled. Then her gaze too flicked to his head for just a blink. “I admit I don’t know the details of the many wonders you have witnessed in your travels. But I do believe we will amaze you at least once while you are with us.”
The two parted after a few more pleasantries.
And then, the night of the contest arrived.
The town had never appeared so festive and bright. Glowing lights were strung along the streets. Candles glowed in windows, held within ornaments of colored glass. The people dressed in their finest garb. And having labored for many long months, they enjoyed the night of the contest as people who had earned their merriment.
The celebration and the contest were held on the mountain. The uneven terrain allowed many to position themselves around the contest stage and view it from different angles and heights.
The four finalists paraded themselves across the stage one by one.
Azimuth had asked to go last.
Before her went Duke Peruke, wearing a wig made of strands of cornsilk intertwined with actual gold thread and studded with glittering snowy crystals of a stone found right there in the mountain. The stone was of no value, being of modest beauty compared to something like diamond. But upon the duke’s wig, the stones reflected the lingering bright beauty of the winter, even as the wig reflected the golden beauty of summer.
Then went Mister Periwig, who also wore a wig. A tall monument of a wig that was twice the height of his own head, and streaked with seven colors. Many-colored curls cascaded from the sides of the wig and down Periwig’s shoulders, being tied neatly with thin black ribbon. As he bowed to the gathered audience and to the Spectator, a burst of gauzy multihued scarves emerged from the top of the wig. As Periwig straightened and sauntered to the side of the stage, the gauzy scarves flowed gracefully behind his head.
Then went Doctor Chapeau who had chosen a hat as her final display. The vivid dark purple hat unfurled into a wide brim trimmed with what appeared to be semi-precious stones, but were actually pieces of discarded glass from the lenses of the observatory’s telescope. She had gathered the pieces when the renovations were made to replace and refine the many mirrors and lenses of the telescope. The particular arrangement was simple and yet stunning, for it made her hat appear to reflect the very night sky above them.
At last, Azimuth took the stage. She walked out with nothing upon her head. And she felt the tension begin to build in the air as the whispers swept through the gathered crowd. They were wondering if by walking upon the stage as she was, she was commenting on the contest somehow, perhaps opposing it, perhaps opposing the Spectator.
Then, she began to speak. She spoke not about the contest, but about the second event their town had prepared for. The arrival of the comet, Glabron-42. She spoke of how it was the great pride of their town. She had been waiting for many years, since her childhood, since she learned of the comet, for it to appear in her lifetime. And she would have her guests see it before they leave. Not just the Spectator, but the many other visitors who had come to their town. And she would have the townsfolk see it, and not just as a momentary wonder that they witness before returning to their dinners.
Their new telescope was pointed to the sky already following the path of the comet. Azimuth had begun a project when she was still mayor, and had devoted her time after leaving the office to that project. She had devised a way for the view from the telescope to be projected upon a white sheet that was erected before those who were seated in view of the contest stage. Up in the sky, the comet was just barely visible on that particular night.
But when Azimuth gave the signal, all the lamplights and the stage lights were dimmed. And an image came into view upon the white sheet. An image of a dark starry sky, and a bright white-hot ball, trailing locks of light.
In the darkness, many gasped. Many others caught their breath. Still many others were left without breath.
“Behold,” Azimuth said, “the most glorious chevelure any of us will ever witness, glorious beyond any human head of hair.”
For several moments, all watched in silence, shifting their gaze between the grand image on the sheet, where individual strands of the comet’s nebulous trail streamed and flickered behind it, and the tiny point of light streaking across the sky above them.
Slowly, the lamplights were raised. Azimuth smiled and announced that the image of comet Glabron would remain on the stage for the duration of the feast that night. And beyond that, any who wished to see the comet could make arrangements to look through the telescope whenever the astronomers were not using it.
After many rounds of applause for the contestants—the loudest being for the unknowing comet—the judges departed to their tent to make their decision. The Spectator was offered a position as one of the judges, but none were much surprised when he refused. He was not there to judge, only to do as Azimuth had bid them all to do, to behold.
The judges had much discussion about the contest, for it was obvious that all favored the comet. And the rules simply stated that one must present the most glorious chevelure, not that the chevelure need be one’s own, or be upon one’s own head.
Still, taking fairness into account, the judges chose to disqualify Azimuth and Glabron. This they explained to her after summoning her to their tent. And then they granted her the honor of announcing the contest’s winner.
The astronomer Azimuth bowed to the judges in deference to their decision, and accepted the honor of announcing the winner.
She strode upon the stage, smiling and pointing a cautionary finger to the gathered crowd as a friendly warning to behave. But they had seen her be summoned to the judges’ tent. They guessed that this meant she would not win.
So when she announced that Mister Periwig with his many-colored wig, his cascading curls, and flowing scarves, was the winner of that year’s Contest Chevelure, the crowd erupted in cheers and hurrahs and applause so thundering it shook the mountain.
And when Mister Periwig accepted his crown, the traditional crown of horns, he raised it up to the sky, as if offering it to the comet. Azimuth laughed, and the crowd again cheered.
And those who hoped for the Spectator’s favor gazed upon his beaming wide-eyed face and breathed a sigh of relief. Azimuth had delivered upon her promise to show the Spectator a great wonder before he left their town. All the townsfolk had.
After the contest, everyone was suddenly hungry at the same time and the crowd dispersed to seek nourishment in the feast foods. The mayor and the Spectator, and the other contestants, met with Azimuth and shook her hands and embraced her. Once they too dispersed, she stood by with a mug of spiced punch and watched fondly as the children and the elder folk started dancing.
One of the town’s many other visitors approached her then.
“I see what you are saying,” the visitor said. “Your contest is charming.” She glanced up at the sky. “But the comet is the true pride of your town.”
Azimuth grinned. “For me it is. For others it is the contest. For still others, they would say the pride of our town is that we make the most savory travel pies.” She handed the woman a mug of spiced punch. “We are not just one thing, friend. As a town or as separate folk.”
The woman nodded. “I hear that you were mayor once.”
The astronomer nodded. “And for much longer than a fortnight. Truth be told, I was in no rush to return to the task. It was the most difficult post I have ever held in my life.”
“But…come now. You should have won. Everyone knows this. Mister Periwig certainly knows this. You must know this.”
Azimuth regarded the gathered feasters. Visitors and townsfolk alike were casting the occasional glance up at the sky as they sat at the feasting tables. Some were gazing up at it. Others were seated before the magnified image on the white sheet, watching the comet’s progress as they nibbled upon sugar cakes. Still others were engaged in lively discourse with her fellow astronomers.
“I believe I did win,” she said. She too cast her gaze up at the comet streaking through the sky. “I believe we all did.”
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel