The Curmudgeon


Friday, March 18, 2005

The Ethnology of Itching

An itch, as biologists have long been completely unaware, is caused by the systematic pounding of large numbers of small but very sharp elbows just beneath the surface of the skin. This action causes the skin to become slightly raised, making it easier for the owner to break it when scratching. On occasion, not only elbows but knees and even teeth may be brought into use; but on the whole, and certainly in the case of most ordinary, everyday itches, it is the elbows which do the bulk of the work.

All these elbows, along with the knees and teeth, belong (three of each) to small dark creatures which inhabit the space between the two layers of cells which make up human skin. The creatures, known as Dermites, live in large extended family groups or tribes of about a hundred individuals each; as the space between layers of skin cells is not particularly large, they suffer constantly from overcrowding and arguments break out frequently. Because of the Dermites' fierce and irascible temperament, these quarrels can swiftly expand into small wars, complete with heavy artillery and general devastation. Such an event could hardly go unnoticed by the Dermites' human hosts, who generally perceive such conflicts as an attack of hot flushes or a sudden rash. There has also been some speculation that cases of spontaneous combustion are the result of certain Dermites' having stumbled upon the secret of atomic weaponry.

When, either through victory or sheer exhaustion, one of these wars eventually comes to an end, the corpses of the slain are customarily left to the mercies of the host's own natural bodily functions, which efficiently disposes of them by either absorbing them all into the bloodstream or else sweating them out through the skin. It has been known for a temporarily incapacitated, though still living, Dermite to be swept into the bloodstream along with his dead comrades; when this happens it can cause no end of complications, since the creature's instincts will always lead him to try and rejoin the tribe. A Dermite is perfectly capable of gnawing through a capillary wall, and giving his host a minor haemorrhage, in order to do precisely that.

Although the race has lived there for as long as its most ancient traditions can recall, and despite the fact that they fight one another over it with such vigorous enthusiasm, the Dermites are not especially fond of their home within the skin, and have a rich variety of legends concerning the glory and bliss awaiting those who can escape. Their dislike of the subcutaneous lifestyle stems largely from the limited space available. Individuals have to walk hunched over like geriatrics from a very early age, and the afore-mentioned overcrowding means that the Dermites are continually jabbing each other accidentally with their sharp elbows, to the inconvenience and great irritation of all concerned. It may well be that the Dermites' fondness for war stems from their hope of being liberated from these conditions; however, they do have more peaceful means of achieving this freedom, though perhaps equally inconvenient to the host.

The most widely used of these methods involves the ritual whereby every member of the tribe is required to sit around a particular area of skin, whereupon they all start rhythmically pounding the layer above their heads. They habitually use their elbows for this task; some of the more expert and agile high priests use their knees, running on the spot while kicking extremely high. These rituals can go on continuously for hours or, if the host is exceptionally strong-willed, intermittently over several days. Usually, however, the ritual is successful in causing the host to scratch, an event which the Dermites know, with fear and reverence, as a great darkness and thunder over their heads. If the skin is breached, daylight pours in and everyone rushes at once to the newly-opened exit. Many Dermites are trampled; many more are impaled on one another's elbows; some get stuck beneath the host's fingernails; but a few, the lucky ones, are carried outwards, on a tide of blood and other Dermites, to that freedom for which they long so passionately.


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