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The Essay
Show #264
Petit Saint Elmo
David Gunn

Most people, including some affiliated with this show, know Saint Elmo as a nice guy from the fourth century who was eventually ordained the patron saint of sailors -- a pretty heady achievement for a man who in reality was one of the world's most nefarious arsonists. That's because, even before he officially set foot on a midwife's face, powerful forces were at work to revise his history. On the date that Saint Elmo was "born," he was already ten and a half years old. But Flamelia, his mother, feigned the pregnancy so that his timeline would not be questioned. For the Fourth Century, it was indeed an elaborate hoax; over 300 artisans were employed in the charade. Theatricalogists augmented Flamelia's girth in trimester increments with flesh-toned torso padding, and coated her face with pallor powder to suggest a laborious pregnancy. A costumer from Arles outfitted her with a realistic faux maternity wardrobe, including a caftan with a hidden front panel that harbored a family of shrews -- their playful scampering approximated the wild kicking of a gestating human organism. A Mesopotamian pantomimist taught her poses and gestures to express pre-natal concern and morning nausea. Then, at the appointed time of birth, a rudimentary animatronic doll constructed of teak, hemp and chitin was slipped into the waiting crib. Thousands of people flocked to see the infant, but guards kept them far enough away to insure that the ruse was not detected. One day, a lay pediatrician named Duvalier did slip past the sentries and found the mechanical Saint Elmo throbbing quietly on a worktable. He searched the body, found the Zen-shaped birthmark on the heel of the left foot and pressed it. All motor activity stopped, a tiny door beneath the unit's latissimus dorsi opened and out popped a subcutaneous wiring harness. Eager to alert the world to his discovery, the baby doc took the shorter escape route from the palace, a course that he would soon learn, to his utter dismay and subsequent recontextualization, was heavily patrolled.

While, to the delight of his countrymen, animatronic Elmo cooed happily and sucked politely on the flaccid dug of his spurious mum, the real Elmo was learning his pyromaniacal craft from the greatest incendiary of his day, Robert de la Pétroleur. "Firebug Bob" was born during the devastating Persian Firestorm and never looked back. He had an unusually close rapport with lightning -- he had been struck at least 20 times -- and could redirect it seemingly at will. The Constantinople Conflagration of 330 AD, once thought to have been caused by a spontaneously combusting cow, is now widely regarded as the handiwork of la luciole. Much of the middle half of the third century, including the wobbly beginnings of the Byzantine Empire, was scorched and charred thanks to Bob. And when he decided to retire, he was determined to pass the torch on to a worth successor. Enter Elmo.

Actually, Elmo entered a decade earlier, just as then-Emperor Constantin prophesied the imminent birth of a lad whose name anagrammatized into a small, hairy skin growth. He predicted that this person would devote his life to the well-being of sailors and be sainted for his efforts, but not before getting eaten by a giant sea robin. Elmo, even as an organism not yet on the cusp of pre-natality, knew this was a job he didn’t want, so he set about devising the aforementioned ruse to foil the emperor's prognostications.

Instead of learning how to salt cod and tie half hitches, Elmo mastered the art of arranging kindling. He learned how to create twelve-alarm blazes from the humblest of tinder beginnings. He learned which naturally-occurring wild combustibles could turn the wettest bayou into a raging inferno. He was the fourth century's Dr. Arson.

Still, his real expertise lay in torching watercraft. He liked nothing better than to see a great felucca afire, or a burning brigantine, a bonfired barge, or lots of lateens alight. He really was consumed by flames of passion. Following his training, Elmo's first significant fiery episode was with a yacht owned and operated by his father, the " Lampion." According to pre-revisionist history, Elmo ... but let's let a popular song of the day tell the tale. It's true. Many of Elmo's exploits were set to music by provincial minstrels, and through diligent work by Kalvos & Damian's New Music Junta, we have been able to reproduce one for you. Now, you ancient music scholars out there may hear sounds a bit unfourthcentury-like, but that's because it came right on the heels of the Schola Cantorum, the school of church song, which effectively turned all other types of composition into musical pariahs. So, nearly 17 centuries after it was first recorded, here is "Petit Saint Elmo."

One final note: the language is a kind of corruption of pidgin French, so kindly align your grammatical criticism with the fourth century.

"Petit Saint Elmo a allumé l'allumette et l'a jetée en l'air sur la pile du foin sur le dock. Dans des minutes, l'yacht de son père ètait enflammé. C'était le début d'une vie de pyromanie de bateau pour l'jeune home tordu." (Little Saint Elmo lit the match and tossed it onto the pile of hay on the dock. Within minutes, his father's yacht was ablaze. It was the beginning of a life of boat pyromania for the twisted lad.)

Many of Elmo's bon fires took place far out at sea, where sailors attached supernatural significance to them. Sometimes he would pinpoint a ship's masts with his lighting strikes, causing the spar to glow and throw off sparks. Other times the ships would spontaneously combust like cows, and revert to their base elements of hydrogen and peroxide. When scientists finally figured out the cause of the phenomena, they threw out the old historically revisionist name, anomalie de foudre, and substituted a proper one, "Saint Elmo's fire."

While this may be both the end of the tale of Elmo the arsonist and the beginning of Episode 264 of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, it is probably not the last we’ll hear of his animatronic stand-in, for characters that are this well fleshed out deserve more than a passing mention in an apocryphal chamber story ... characters such as, say, Kalvos.