[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]
There’s red in the sunlight and gold in the sky. The damp leaves that pile up beside the bridge are a muddy brown. There’s a cold wind blowing by Sid. His black hair is wet from a shower and a lock of it clumps against his forehead.
He stands on an island of grass and trees and behind him there is Gibbelins’ Tower.
All around him there is the chaos.
The aspect of the chaos today is like water and trout scales. The chaos surges like a sea. It crests and foams. It is low, with the tower and the island and bridge above it. The surface of each wave is covered in tiny scales. Its color is pale and silver and red and brown.
Sometimes the surface will divide and part of it will jump forth like a fish, then fade back into the water when it touches the surface once again.
And Iphigenia watches from a high tower window and looking at Sid’s back she cannot see that he is afraid.
But from the front you can see it.
His face is torn with fear, and it is not the fear of a man confronting a tiger but the fear of a man putting down a dog; that is to say, the fear of a terrible and necessary loss.
He is holding himself there by grit, a substance he has little of, as Rahu walks across the bridge.
The air smells of dead things.
It’s June 1, 2004, and Rahu is coming to the tower.
He is wearing a white shirt. He’s wearing a vest and pants of red fur. He’s got a ponytail and a collar. The ponytail’s tied to an iron screw ring screwed into his spine at the base of his neck.
If it weren’t for the ponytail and the collar his head would fall off.
Rahu sniffs as he walks. His nostrils are wide and black.
He’s smelling out the sun. He doesn’t even look up to see Sid until he’s almost there.
“The sun must be tasty,” Sid says.
Rahu’s irises are the color of almonds. His eyebrows are the color of teak. His skin is warm.
“Because,” says Sid. “So many people want to eat it. You; Sukaynah; the wolves—”
“No,” says Rahu.
Sid’s eyes, in contrast, are dark.
“The sun is intolerably bland,” says Rahu. “It burns going down. It is not a pleasure meal. It is an expiation. For me, and for her.”
“She doesn’t want to expiate,” Sid says.
Rahu’s shoulders roll like a boat on the sea. “Who does?”
Then he is punching Sid.
His fist hits Sid’s stomach.
A grey and brown feeling spreads through Sid. The skin over his stomach cracks and bleeds. But Rahu does not have time to do more damage. The wheel of knives comes down in front of Sid and Rahu is jumping back and Rahu’s arm is bleeding fresh red blood.
Sid feels a wrenching, sickening pain in his stomach.
He causes the pain to vanish.
Sid feels a distant physical panic and something is making his vision all wobbly.
He causes the restoration of his equilibrium.
Before he has quite begun to double over, he straightens his back, and he looks at Rahu.
“Don’t make me shed this body,” he says.
Like a frisbee the wheel of knives arcs out towards Rahu. The demon does not leap back again. Instead he rushes in, towards Sid, on the inside of the path of the wheel’s motion.
His hand breaks Sid’s jaw.
The knives are tracking Rahu. They turn back towards Sid. Rahu has time for a second punch, sending Sid up into the air; then Rahu hears the knives at his back and perforce must, with a knee-twisting effort, throw himself flat.
Red pain spreads through Sid. He causes it to vanish.
The knives hover above him.
Slowly, Sid pulls himself to his feet. Rahu is already up. Rahu is grinning like a puppy.
“You are interesting,” he says. “You’re not like a god at all.”
Sid realigns his neck.
“Iphigenia said you’re a demon,” Sid says.
Rahu nods. This is a mistake. His head falls off, showing gruesome neck-innards. This forces him to replace his head and readjust his collar.
“Yes,” he repeats, after recovering his composure. “I am a demon of Prajapati.”
“Can you help me accept something?”
“If you like,” says Rahu.
Sid is breathing heavily, though he doesn’t notice. His lungs are a little out of order.
“There is a man,” says Sid. “Named Max. And he said, ‘Sid, you’re so unworthy of the world. I’d go to Hell myself if I could just be sure of dragging you with me.'”
Rahu’s eyes are bright.
“Is that so?” he says.
“How do you forgive that?” Sid asks.
“I had a stepbrother like that,” Rahu says.
“Did you forgive him?”
“Eventually,” says Rahu. “Because you see, he was just a man. He had tonsils and hair and an appendix and big ears and blood that ran in his veins. He considered himself very lofty and had an important dharma but he was just an ordinary man and ordinary men do things like that.”
“Ah,” says Sid.
“The world teems with them,” Rahu says.
“Billions of them now,” says Rahu. “Awkward and fleshy and stupid and meaningless men.”
Here is a funny thing.
As Rahu talks to Sid, he is sweating.
His body is hot and there is tension in him.
It’s like it’s harder to talk to Sid than it is to fight him.
And “They’re just people,” Rahu says. “They hurt people. It’s what they do.”
The power of those words peaks in Sid and breaks and everything is clear and Sid sighs release.
It is strangely peaceful, that moment.
“I’d wanted him to be better than that,” Sid says.
But he’s just a man.
“So badly. So much. I’d wanted him to be better than that.”
Rahu watches Sid.
But he’s just a man.
And Sid’s eyes close and he is smiling at Rahu with genuine gratitude and then he hears a noise and opens his eyes and widens his eyes because Rahu is charging.
How could I ever have expected anything else?
Sid is still smiling.
He unlimbers a single spike of siggort from the body he’s built of mud and clay and feathers and blood. It sweeps upwards through Rahu. It hooks under Rahu’s ribcage and holds the demon suspended off the ground.
“I don’t want to kill you,” Sid says. “But you can’t have Iphigenia.”
Rahu utters a short, sharp cry and his eyes roll back and his arms and legs dangle limply, like a sleeping cat’s.
After a moment, he shudders twice and his head falls off.
Sid blinks like a man coming out of a trance. He pulls back into himself and Rahu falls.
“. . . are you okay?”
Rahu is still breathing.
The power of the demon is receding. The peace in Sid is fading.
A wild rage is rising in him; a terrible anger and betrayal; a sense of loathsomeness and the helpless awe of love.
Emotions surge through Sid.
He causes them to vanish.
Then he picks the demon up and, for lack of anywhere else to take him, carries him towards the tower.