1777 c/o Travis Englefield

The small humans of far north Queensland prefer not to be referred to as small humans. It is not clear how they wish to be categorised. Broaching the subject results only in much scoffing and sideways glancing. What can be reported conclusively about the species is they believe their ancestors lived in catacombs several kilometres beneath the earth, deriving existence from an ancestor referred to, in hushed tones, as ‘The Void’.

Verifiable facts about The Void are few and far between – mostly due to an insistence among the subterranean people to destroy the proof they, the facts, did exist – but it is generally accepted The Void, a wandering type, left its home in the New Australia colony inside Ecuador, discovered Eurasia as a child, tricked its way onto a ship of the First Fleet, was discovered an impostor upon arrival in Botany Bay, tried to explain itself through a negation of the parallel postulate, picked its chance in the baffled faces of the arresting officers, and promptly, shovel in hand, disappeared underground, in the conventional manner of the fugitive.

Thereupon, the story has many versions. The most popular imagines The Void not as a hologram or some strange inversion of space, as do some less popular tellings, but as a person who appeared to be just a person, until you realised they looked just like a person no matter which direction you looked from. If you are so careless as to point out to the subterranean folk that this is true of all people, they will tell you, quite simply, that you are wrong.

The Void navigated the subterranean landscape using a device it referred to as a ‘heliotrope’, which notably shares its name with a device simultaneously divined by Carl Friedrich Gauss, one of the forefathers of modern mathematics. The Void’s heliotrope supposedly bounced sound off the ‘nut in the middle of it all’, allowing it to locate itself underground. A variation on this part of the story is that The Void actually was Carl Friedrich Gauss and the world as we know it is Gauss’ Euclidean nightmare, a hell we’re living through, a parking lot marked 1777.

It may seem at this point we’ve contradicted the initial claim ‘verifiable facts about the void are few and far between’. Upon raising this with any member of the subterranean folk, they will point out, not incorrectly, there is always much, much more.

At any rate, heliotrope in hand, The Void began to dig out the catacombs. The catacombs, it is said, were to represent The Void’s likeness, a dying wish received via telegraph by his estranged children, who, in spite of their disdain for their father’s megalomania – which later generations would pass off as solipsism – tried to fulfil the wish, aided by the evolution of physical implements, in lieu, for better or worse, of full human size.

The tunnels, it is said, jutted off in every direction but straight ahead, according to an apparently simple formula lost or eroded or ‘something’. The tunnels twisted and turned and somehow never intersected without need, tunnellers intuitively repelled from the paths of other tunnels, like a universe expanding. Somewhere along the line, however, something went wrong. The long since internalised logic of negative curvature was inverted and the tunnel system was completed. There were no more tunnels to build.

So began what one subject of this study described as ‘a decade of revelry’, a decade seemingly corresponding almost exactly with the ‘roaring twenties’ of the world on the surface. By the end of the decade, the new generation had been conceived and delivered and, as, it should be noted, seems to be the way with the subterranean folk and their rapid evolution, the next descendants had none of the physical implements of their parents. The catacombs began to collapse under the strain of the energetic young subterranean folk and the entire species had to find its way to the surface. The exit route was a precaution designed by The Void’s children, in defiance of his vision, and led into a cave – some versions of the story describe it as more of a hovel – deep in the Daintree Rainforest. Gradually, the formerly-subterranean folk made their way out of the cave, learning to live off the provisions of the rainforest, after weaning themselves off the insects, worms and bacteria of their traditional diet. The rainforest’s canopy made it seem enough like they were underground to adjust to this strange new world and, when eventually they would make their way into conventional civilisation, less likely to lose their unique shape by something as uncomely as climbing into the sky.

Of course, as the story of The Void became more mythic, so the desire to reconstruct the catacombs grew more profound. Diaspora of the subterranean people, some as far-flung as the beaches outside Esperance and islands off the coast near Broome, began to make their way back to the cave/hovel; in the beginning, they would fruitlessly scratch at where the catacombs had maybe led their ancestors from the surface. The futility of the task drove some to the brink of insanity; still others interpreted the plight through vaguely conventional spiritual terms. Some several generations after the decade of revelry, the subterranean folk, having adjusted to life on the surface enough to have watched so much television to know that all over the world people were digging up the earth in search for the enlightenment sure to come from understanding the logic of their own personal Void.

Excitement grew amongst The Void’s descendants and they set out to convince businessmen to invest money in reconstructing the catacombs. All subterranean folk encountered in the course of this study were tight-lipped about the specifics but it is clear the task was delegated to the younger generation, who were sent abroad to locations like Thailand and Bali, where the businessmen would holiday. The businessmen, it is said, came in droves, and the subterranean folk watched with glee as the machines they’d brought along split apart the layers of sediment and twisted their way down underground. Older generations tried to warn the businessmen to look out for bits of the old catacombs and especially to be careful of any of the subterranean folk rumoured to still be living down there. They also suggested the catacombs are not intended to consist of multiplicities – the Void was a single point of origin and couldn’t possibly be ordained by such madness.

The businessmen didn’t listen to these requests. Instead, they decided a minimum height would be required to gain access to the myriad sites of ‘catacomb reconstruction’, a term they used only in correspondence with the subterranean people. The minimum height, of course, was incidentally several millimetres above the tallest of the subterranean folk. Temporarily depleted of enthusiasm, the small people returned to the Daintree Rainforest, where they decided they would find a new way of imagining their catacombs. Many members of the new generation are studying now for law degrees; others are becoming psychologists and neuroscientists; one way or another, the subterranean folk are going to unravel the mystery of the Void. The small people of far north Queensland will dig again, to paraphrase what they say.

This creation myth, however, was not itself of foremost concern to subjects encountered in this study. Instead, the celebrity status of a former member of the ‘colony’, a young man of twenty-two whose stature renders him physiologically distinct from other descendants of the Void, who many claim has been either bastardising, decrying or misinterpreting the myth on a reality television program. Nikolai’s stature is the result of a childhood misdiagnosis leading him to be sent to one of the schools on the outskirts of the rainforest, where his subsequent growth spurt was subsequently ignored and Nikolai continued to be raised very much as a small human.

Although giving much-needed voice to the plight of his people, Nikolai’s symbolic rise is frowned upon by many, their response seemingly akin to what is commonly known as ‘tall poppy syndrome.’ It is, however, framed as indignation at certain details which Nikolai has re-imagined about The Void – these details correspond mostly to the finer points of the design of the catacombs and to the nature of the Void. Meanwhile, some extremists claim Nikolai single-handedly devised a rather phallic appendage to the existing myth of the void.

My pointing out that those details are vague at best as it is – after all, the formulas don’t even exist, I reasoned – only undermined my chances of understanding the real hang-up about Nikolai becoming the first descendant, adopted or otherwise, to feature on a network television reality T.V. program. (The small humans have been running their own closed circuit channel for many years, all of which is reality T.V. programming)

What could be intuited from a communal viewing of the program in question – whose premise is people with ties to different outrageous faiths are brought together in a cult-like community – is open to interpretation, so I shall conclude this study with the anecdote itself. We settled in to one of the bigger rooms of the television house – rather than individual houses in which a small number of people do all things, the small folk have individual houses in which a large number of people do one specific thing – and waited impatiently through the advertisements to play out before the show. As various subjects began to put forth, in a childish game of one-up-man-ship, their admonition of Nikolai’s perspective of the Void as nothing more than a magnet throwing everything off-course – this, of course, seemingly a na├»ve approximation of what Nikolai’s theorem – the most cordial of the small people explained to me, quietly, his own personal interpretation: that the Void is the inverse of the catacombs, the dense masses of nothingness in between tunnels, the nothingness mirrored in the catacombs. I didn’t have the chance to follow up this probably blasphemous notion, unfortunately; two adolescents, bored no doubt of the debate, were presently, appropriately as Nikolai, an innocuous young man as it turns out, arrived on screen, accompanied, in spite of his regular size, by the caption ‘The Mathematical Mind In Miniature’, tumbling via a wrestling contest into the television, short-circuiting the entire house of living rooms.

While the small doctors treated one of the adolescents for cuts from the television’s broken screen and the other for mild electrocution, an ageing member of the community conveyed, via satellite communique with an acquaintance in Brisbane, what Nikolai was doing and saying on the reality television program, which was talking about how his people’s size was a product of their relationship to the atomic model and represented a natural evolution toward a quantum mechanical physiology. Small folk gathered around, strangely quiet now without the television on, as Nikolai reinvented the myth of The Void and its descendants.

Toward the end of the program, the elder statesman reported another contestant had challenged Nikolai’s insistence on The Void’s potency. If the Void is really all that, he or she argued, then why can’t you prove it existed. The show ended with Nikolai explaining the proof is in the pudding.

As the credits rolled, somewhere in a studio in Sydney, surety and bravado returned to the twilight chatter rising toward the rainforest’s canopy, voices of surprise, dismay and anxiety, the murmurs converging on a plane somewhere beneath the treetops, as if unable to get free; the sentiment, more or less: ‘what the fuck is the pudding?’