Jacob is a hat-builder. He makes hats for people with heads of all sizes. Some heads are round, others pointed, and now and then a head presents itself that is misshapen in some notable way, by cleft or protrusion – in any case, some condition that requires a mastery of hat-building. Jacob builds his hats in a narrow workshop behind his store, which itself is characterized by two long walls of shelves containing hats with the prices attached to them, all fronted by a pane of glass that runs the width of the shop and says “Nakabunn”.
Nakabunn is the last name of the man who used to own the shop.
Jacob has an assistant. Her name is Emily, and Jacob loves her. Emily is an able worker and she is dedicated to the task of manning the store while Jacob builds hats. But to Emily, Jacob is an employer. A source of funds until Emily can eventually earn enough to attend a medical school.
On August 12th, the door to Nakabunn opens and Emily is there to greet the customer. Jacob is in the workshop.
“Jacob, Sir,” says Emily, coming into the back. “There is a distraught man in the store.”
“He is very agitated. Perhaps you can hear him shouting?”
“Certainly. But I was busy with this bowler.”
“Could you come out?”
“Can I find a way of avoiding doing so?”
“Of course, but this is your establishment and occasionally people would want to know that a human being is its proprietor.”
“Are you having fun with me?”
“As I have learned, Sir, hat-building is not precisely a matter for fun. It is measured and precise and must correctly accommodate variables such as hair growth and ear size that are exceedingly difficult to predict. So no, not having fun with you at all.”
“You will make an able doctor, Emily. Thank God.”
“And does God wear a hat, Sir?”
“No, but He should.”
Jacob puts down the bowler. “I’ll be out momentarily.”
The man in the store has fangs instead of a face. He is clinging to the shelves, crawling on them, and Jacob shakes himself of the image, the thought that somehow this is a demon. His head hurts, and he wants to take something strong for it. The man’s eyes bulge as he drops to the ground and faces Jacob, his mouth wide.
“This had to happen,” he says. “You know it as well as I do.”
The shop is hard with the afternoon light, streaming between the letters of Nakabunn. Outside, there is a kind of panic, and while at first it is just people moving fast down the road, it soon becomes a steady stream of fleeing crowd. “What do you say, sir?” asks Jacob. “What is it that has happened?”
“The end! An ending to all things!” The man raises his hands and looks at the ceiling, his mouth opening impossibly wide as he makes a chittering sound, not unlike that of some insect. Jacob steps back, and Emily has a hand over her mouth. The chittering sound grows until it is too loud to stand. The glass of the storefront hums under the vibration, and then it shatters outward, into the street.
Outside, everyone is running. At the end of the street, there is a large creature stepping on a water fountain in a park that has no flowers, only trees, and a wrecked gazeebo next to a set of benches that has been neatly trampled into soil recently watered by a municipal employer whose clothes hang from the teeth of this creature that has presumably consumed him and is currently digesting him behind a thick scaly palette of skin dripping with mucus. It is a lizard. The fountain cracks under its weight, spewing water in all directions as the creature lets out a roar that shakes the air. A number of military vehicles has set a cordon around the park and a man in a loudspeaker is talking to the beast.
“I have this,” says Emily. She leaps on a cart and flips through the air, grasping a lamppost. She twirls twice and lets herself go, somersaulting over the street to land on the back of a tank. She pushes aside the man with the loudspeaker and grabs the vehicle’s machine gun, firing at the beast. Bullets smash into the scaly hide, bouncing in all directions as the creature roars. The fountain is gone. The creature lifts its foot and demolishes a flower bed.
“You bastard!” screams Emily, vanishing inside the tank. The turret swivels and fixes for a single second before a projectile emerges from its long nose, whistling on its way to the creature’s midsection. The beast raises its arms in fury. It takes a step forward.
Emily emerges again, finger on the machine gun trigger as she traces fire upward towards the creature’s snout. It raises a clawed hand to deflect the bullets.
“You should do something!” says the man from the store. He is crouching next to Jacob, and is naked. His skin is slimy.
“You’re one too!” declares Jacob, stepping back in horror. “A monster!”
“No I’m a frog. Not a lizard.”
“How did this happen, man?”
“Magic. Just accept it. We could wait for a better explanation, but what’s the point? Life is happening right in front of you, and it might be weird indeed, but it’s also impatient. Just keeps moving. I’m a frog, that thing’s a lizard, you make hats, and Emily fires machine guns and tank rounds.”
“Didn’t see it coming,” admits Jacob.
“Seldom do,” says the man, running an elongated tongue over the road, catching some ants. “I hate ants. What’s next?”
Emily is by now possessed of a sword and is swinging it mightily as the creature reaches for her. The blade hacks off the end of a finger, spewing black blood. Soldiers stand behind her, firing at the creature as she draws its attention. Jacob considers and says, “Something must be done.”
“You really like her, eh?”
“Yes, but I shan’t imagine that I have to explain my feelings for an employee to a frog, however well-spoken. I am off.”
And Jacob is off. In his shop, he finds a thick rope that he places on the ground between the shelves. Then he ties thread to the rope, attaching it to the shelves until it is lifted off the ground and forms a circle. This is not a common form of a hat-shaper, but it will suffice for his needs. Then he finds all his remaining felt and stitches it together, taking the occasion to bring his nose close to this fabric that has come in from Indonesia: he fancies he can smell mangroves and palm oil. A hose is connected to his steamer, and the boiler topped to its maximum level, until the storefront is full of steam as he smooths the felt. When done, Jacob runs his hands along the hat, shaping the felt upon the rope and building a lattice with more thread, connecting it as necessary to the appurtenances that hang from the ceiling. After the hat has taken shape, he trims the excess fabric and ties together several lengths of ribbon around the inside base of the crown, putting in an elaborate knot to seal the frill. With an iron, he dries the fabric, crawling over the immense lengths of felt that suddenly increase in volume under the ministrations of the heated metal.
Through the open space where the glass window used to be, Jacob drags his hat.
Outside, Emily is flying. She’s got a jetpack of some kind on, and is hurling herself at the creature, dodging the furious barrage of its claws as she slices at the creature with the sword in one hand and fires rounds with the gun contained in the other. The creature has moved forward despite her best efforts, and has stepped on the tanks surrounding it. Soldiers have climbed to the tops of the building and are firing at it, trying to stop it from advancing further.
“Are you sure this is going to work?” the frog man asks Jacob.
“Indubitably,” replies the hat-builder.
“Well then,” says the frog. “I will have to help.” And he opens his mouth, the large fleshly lips spewing forth a torrent of noise that eclipses even the roars of the creature and the clatter of firing weapons. In the air, Emily turns and soars towards them as a billow of fire obscures the creature for a moment; out of the flames, Emily streaks with hair wild, clothes streaming.
“Sir?” she asks Jacob as she lands. “I have great faith in your skill, but this seems a somewhat dubious proposition.”
“Are you in my employee or not, Miss?” asks Jacob. “And if correctly so, would it be possible that you trust in my abilities as a master of my craft without question please?”
“Naturally, sir.” Emily drops her weapons. “Please hop on board. The frog too, if he wishes. However did he become a frog, by the way?”
“Don’t ask,” says Jacob, hanging onto Emily’s leg with one hand while the other grabs a small hook he has placed at the very top of the hat. The frog grabs Emily’s other leg and does the same.
“What do you call this thing you’ve created?” asks the frog.
“It’s a pork pie hat,” says Jacob, as Emily activates her jetpack and flies towards the creature. “Good for smoking, or a Sunday afternoon. Best kept in a cool, dry place, and most properly maintained by having yearly inspections done by its originator. We prefer to think of ourselves as builders, actually. Hat-builders.”
“Hold on, Sir,” says Emily. The air is suddenly hot with fire, and bullets whir in every direction. Overhead, airplanes are swooping upon the enraged creature, and now and then it manages to throw something into the path of an aircraft, knocking it from the sky; still, missiles and other ordinance tumble upon its body, knocking it this way and that. Yet all told, its forward progression has not been halted, and it continues to walk, tearing aside building after building.
Through the fire, the hat flies. Emily gains altitude.
The creature’s snapping jaws are before them. Its eyes open wide as it sees the hat approach.
“Prepare yourself, Sir! And frog!” Emily gives the jetpack a sudden thrust of energy, and just as the creature’s jaws snap forward, they jut higher into the air. Jacob looks down. The creature’s head is beneath them.
“Wait,” he says. “A little further.”
“We have to drop it!” says the frog.
“Wait!” cries Jacob. Emily circles once, twice, and when Jacob sees the moment – the correct instant that will accommodate a proper fitting – he lets go the hat and beckons the frog to do the same. Down it floats, catching the wind and threatening to flip, but so well-built that it stays upright and lands directly on the creature’s head.
The great beast pauses its forward march. Someone from the ground calls off the swarm of aircraft.
“The job’s not done!” cries Jacob, and his employee understands his meaning at once. They descend upon the creature’s head, and Jacob disengages. He flattens the hat in some places; pulls it in others; and tips it just briefly in other extremities along its circumference until he is satisfied that this is a perfect fit. The creature stops roaring. A hand reaches up and grazes the edge of the hat – it could easily rip through the fabric, or pull it off. But it doesn’t.
Jacob grasps Emily again, and they are off. They land on the street.
“Thank goodness,” says Emily. “My fuel was rather low.” She points upward and says to Jacob, “Sir, if I may comment, I have never seen a fit so optimal. And for a pork pie hat, no less!”
“Thank you,” says Jacob, dusting off his jacket. “I only wish we could accommodate the beast with a mirror so that it could see how well suited it is to its accoutrement.”
“My God,” shudders the frog. “Look at the beast!”
And there at the edge of the park, the creature lifts a leg, then puts it down. But it does so without great conviction. The other foot lifts and comes down too, almost gently. The creature’s hip swivels, and it repeats the action of its legs. Arms wave. Hands come up. Its head sways, the hat steady, the ribbons upon it flying.
“It’s dancing,” says the frog, which suddenly is a man again. “I’m a man again!”
“Magic,” says Jacob, staring at the dancing creature. The beast’s mouth has opened in a strange, distorted smile – but a smile nonetheless. It dances. On the buildings and in the streets, the soldiers have put down their weapons.
“Miss Emily,” says Jacob, “I think we have finished our work. Please remove your pack and tend once again to the store.”
“With pleasure,” she says, and together they walk back to the shop as the man who was once a frog that was once a man dances in the street with the great, hatted creature looming above him. And it can be supposed that no more strange a sight had been seen than that in many days, one dancer reptilian and with a tail in tow, the other small and rather-plain looking but moving its limbs as though for the life of it, it must do so to avoid upsetting the lily pad upon which it is not standing at all.
In the store, Jacob rues the loss of the window and its proud letters. Long ago, a man named Nakabunn had told him that hat-building was his truest calling, and this shop the optimum place for it – but that he should beware the confluence of the real world as it presses occasionally upon the craft of hat-building, leading at times to the oddest of mergers. Today, thinks Jacob, Nakabunn is right. The glass is broken, the man gone, but there is still work to be done, so he goes to his workshop and looks at his orders for the day.
“Sir?” comes a voice.
She approaches. It is almost as though she has not been firing weapons and swinging swords while flying through the air in battle with a giant reptile; rather, she appears demure, serious, as though she has adopted the proper attitude inherent to hat-building. But she approaches, and then she is adjacent to Jacob. Even touching him. Yes, one hand touches him, and then her body leans forward until her face is near his. “I am a terrible employee,” she admits, “for taking time from your shop today.”
“It was for a good cause,” says Jacob, his heart pounding. “Sadly, I cannot pay you for the time away from your duties, however.”
“I understand,” she says. She is closer. Arms move under his, grasp the back of his shoulders. Her face approaches his. “Should I back to the work, Sir? Is that what is intended for me?”
Her body is pressed into his. Without knowing it, he has put his arms around her. “You shock me, Emily.” But she doesn’t answer. She simply stares at him. “I have certain feelings for you.”
“Is it so hard to say them to me?”
“Yes. Of course. You are my employee.” But her lips are very close now, and Jacob has difficulty thinking. He is straining. “You are at best a mediocre shop-keeper, you know. And as for the art of hat-building, I think you are not at all suited to it.”
“Yes. You are right, Sir. Please fire me.”
Jacob groans. He wants to, and looking into her eyes, he knows the truth of it: that she is no hat-builder, but something entirely different, something so startling that he cannot catalogue her in his mind. He wants to say the words that would release her, but as they form and begin their expulsion, they are prevented; they are simply prevented, and Jacob is lost in the reason for it, the long kiss that begins and shows no sign of soon ending.