Once upon a time there was a town called Thisorthat. In this town, everyone understood that everything was always either this or that. Dinners had peas or carrots, but not peas and carrots. People owned dogs or cats, but not a dog and a cat. For as long as anyone could remember this or that had been the custom in Thisorthat and this simplicity agreed with everybody. Everybody, that is, except Mu.
The little girl Mu was an anomaly in Thisorthat and a source of not insignificant confusion and consternation. Where she had come from, nobody knew, appearing one morning asleep in a bassinet on the doorstep of the town judge. Upon discovering her, the judge believed he’d found a boy, because Mu was wrapped in a blue blanket and in Thisorthat all little boys wore blue and all girls wore pink. He kept her and raised her, despite the initial shock he received upon changing her diaper the first time and having his assumption upended. The judge loved Mu very much, but she created no shortage of trouble because unlike everyone else in the town, Mu had no interest in or, but instead loved and.
Every girl in the town learned to sew and every boy learned to fish, except Mu who sewed herself a lovely pink sunhat and blue dress to wear while she sat on the docks and reeled in trout and salmon so big they made all the boys wonder if her unique outfit had some mysterious power over the fish. In school, it was expected that the boys would study math and the girls would write poetry. Mu wrote poems about arithmetic and devised algorithms to explain the meter of popular sonnets. And on and on she went being very polite and exceptionally courteous while refusing to ever limit herself to one choice or obey dichotomies in any situation.
It was an ordinary Tuesday evening in July and the town elders were sitting in the town tavern, as they often did, debating whether it was better to part one’s hair on the left or on the right. Mu’s father was listening intently and preparing to offer his opinion (on the left) and rationale (that’s how his father always did it) when the messenger rushed in. This visitor from a neighboring hamlet, gasping for breath and covered in dust, had obviously been traveling as fast as he could for days and the wild terror in his eyes was like that of a rabbit pursued by a great grey wolf.
Before any of the elders could ask a question, the messenger spoke. “It’s coming,” he said in barely a whisper, fear choking off the air in his throat. The Judge, being advanced in his years with correspondingly dulled hearing, opened his mouth to ask the messenger to repeat himself, when the stranger yelled, “Molroch! He comes for your men tomorrow!” The elders froze, paralyzed by the sound of that terrible ancient name, and the knowledge that evil was coming for them.
Molroch was a cave troll, a relic from the early days of the earth when giant beasts and incorporeal magic ruled. Unlike most of the other ancient terrors, however, Molroch was not destroyed in the Great Passing, instead hiding himself deep underground for eons. Living in those dank, black caverns, his sight slowly disappeared, and in its place grew an awful cruelty and an insatiable hunger.
Like all fearsome powers, the troll had worshippers, and these servants acted as his eyes in the world, informing Molroch about life on the surface. Once every few generations, he would emerge from the underworld to destroy a village, devouring all of its children, or its men, or its women. He always left some survivors to witness his horrors and thus keep his legend alive. Now he was coming to Thisorthat, and none of the elders had any idea what to do.
They could not, of course, compromise on any course of action. Their this or that custom was so strong, so deeply embedded in their way of seeing the world that no one could work together to form a plan. Everyone should leave, everyone should hide, only the men should hide, everyone but the men should hide. The whole town gathered together and all night as Molroch approached they debated without progress.
Finally, the sun began to rise, and as dawn’s light entered the assembly hall, the townspeople were silent with dejection. In the stillness, they began to hear the distant thuds of the troll’s approaching footsteps. The town elders hung their heads in shame while families huddled together, clutching each other in sadness and dread.
It was at this bleakest moment that Mu, wearing her pink fishing cap, climbed atop the hall’s lectern and in a calm, confident voice told the town, “I have a plan. I have a plan that no one here will like, but it will save us if you can be brave enough to do what you never have done before.” Terrified and desperate, the people of Thisorthat looked up at the little girl they’d never understood and nodded in assent. They listened to her ideas to save the town as the troll’s footsteps grew louder and louder.
The townspeople smelled Molroch before they saw him, a wave of stink like wet stone, mold, and fresh entrails washing over the town. When the troll finally appeared, he was too hideous to comprehend, taller than than the town stables, so pale he was translucent in parts, with teeth like yellow stalactites and sunken grey sockets where eyes had once been. He lurched into Thisorthat smiling a sadistic grin and stopped in the town square.
“Meat snacks and blood candies of Thisorthat, I can hear your racing hearts and know that you stand before me terrified. As you should be. Gather all your men at my feet and the rest of you stay to watch my feast. If you women and children flee, I’ll know and you too will die. Before I devoured them, my Faithful informed me there are 41 men in this town. Line up so that I may dine.”
It was Mu who had the courage to respond. “Oh great tyrant, we have heard of your awful legend and know that you are cruel but fair and honest. If we could help you, we would humbly submit to your hunger, but I have disappointing news. Your servants were incorrect. This town is not Thisorthat. We are the people of Thisandthat.”
The monster was quiet for some moments, but the building of his rage was palpable. He responded with the slow quiet power of a mountain groaning before an avalanche.
“All of you will stand before me. From before before my last three feasts I have known of Thisorthat and it’s unique, unchanging customs. All the men in this town have beards and wear pants and all the women have long hair and wear dresses. It has always been thus. Line up so that I may feel if your town conforms to these customs.”
Obediently, the people lined up and Molroch walked to one end. He stretched out his hideous hand and placed it atop the first head. What he felt was long hair and he smiled, confident he’d found a woman of Thisorthat and seen through the attempted ruse. As his hand moved lower, though, he came upon a think wooly beard. Lower still he found the delicate ruffles of a dress. His confident smile twisted into a confounded scowl. He angrily grabbed the next person in line and groped short hair, smooth cheeks, and canvas work pants. Other townspeople had long hair, smooth faces and fine trousers while still others had short hair, beards, and cotton frocks.
The monster, so certain of Thisorthat’s physiognomy, was baffled by what he’d felt. Enraged and ashamed he screamed, “Where am I? Who are you people and where did Thisorthat go?” Mu stepped forward to answer him.
“As I said sir, we are the people of Thisandthat. Thisorthat used to be near here, but it’s gone now. The people of that sad town had a great disagreement once and decided to go their separate ways because none could agree how to resolve their argument. Some went to live on mountain tops and other went under the sea. West and East, to the deserts and to the jungle, the people of Thisorthat are scattered all over the Earth.”
Molroch gritted his teeth and whispered, “I will scour the world and devour every one of these people who have made a fool of me. I will not rest until I have found them all.” With that, he stomped out of of the town square to begin his hunt for a people who no longer existed.
When their terror and then relief finally subsided, the people of Thisorthat found they were left with a sense of joy that transcended the mere pleasure of averted catastrophe. They discovered that they deeply wanted to remain the people of Thisandthat. Some of the women found pants quite practical and some of the men found dresses quite comfortable. Some women kept their hair cut short and some men continued to wear the wigs they’d been given until their own hair grew out.
In all, the people learned to love and as much as Mu did, and let themselves and others be one thing and another as they pleased.