[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]
Max hurts. He licks his lips. Everything is distant and throbbing in white.
“You must hurry on,” says Red Mary.
His eyes drift open. The ceiling is blue and it’s moving. Also his bed is rocking back and forth and someone’s poured water and blood on him and for some reason there’s sailcloth wrapped around his leg and shoulder.
“I’m not God?” he asks.
He’s not entirely sure where he’s been but he’s pretty sure it involved being infinite and spread out over everything in the universe.
“What is God?” Red Mary asks. “We barely understand people.”
“Heh,” says Max.
He laughs. He coughs up a tangled mix of pangolin scales, kelp, and foam. Then he curls in on himself.
After a bit, he laughs again.
He says, “I was looking for him. So it would have been funny if I was.”
Red Mary looks at him with her cold black eyes.
“God is not here,” she says. “Though once this place was paradise.”
Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue to make all things right.
Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime
But he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.
The Island of the Centipede
In the sea to the west of Gibbelins’ Tower a hill rises from the chaos. It is split into pieces like flower petals opening, like a walnut smashed too strongly by a hammer, like a broken mirror, like a land sundered forcefully by lightning. Its edges are brown rock with purple veining and the moist darkness of mussels clinging at its base. Great seacourses run through it, around and about the chunks of land, rushing with great currents. Trees stand at the edge of the unnatural cliffs, the wind bowing them out over those cliffs’ edges that they may cast down rustling green shadows. Where the land is low and holds its belly in down near the waves red bushes grow. They are crisp and the afternoon light suffuses them.
The catamaran runs the seacourse, lean and low like a wolf.
“What smashed it?” Max asks.
“Its own inadequacies,” Red Mary says. “I have told you that no paradise sustains. Against the nature of things the force that held this land together could not hold; over a thousand years of observation it has pulled itself apart.”
He thinks that this has made her sad, so he says, “I’m sorry.”
“Mr. Kong would say,” Red Mary says, “that we must try to be good.”
The seacourse turns.
Red Mary tacks the boat. The boom swings, and she catches it with one hand before she ducks beneath it and lets the catamaran run.
“In the face of such emptiness,” she says, “and the cost of helping others; still, that we should try to be good.”
Max says, “I’m glad for your sudden conversion to Confucianism.”
Red Mary shrugs.
“Didn’t you try to kill me?”
“You should have stayed at home,” says Red Mary. She is angry. She does not look at him. Her tail dips into the water and the skin of her face stretches tight against its bones.
“I was looking for God,” Max says.
“Most people do that in the silence of their soul.”
“I had a catamaran.”
“It’s not your business to come here.”
Max struggles up on one elbow. He says, “You’ve ripped off bits of me with your teeth so don’t tell me what’s my business and not my business.”
Rage boils in her. Her face darkens. But propriety, and scarcely, keeps it down.
“With twelve of us,” she says, “this place had a thousand years; of that, scarcely a week remains. Each hour you spend here eats sixty-five minutes of that time; more, since you are not accounted for in the balance of things. I regret my murderous frenzy has inconvenienced you but to sing sailors to their death is in the nature of a siren and I had ample motivation to see you drown.”
Max slumps back on the deck. He’s a little dizzy.
“Sid’s like that,” he says.
“He’s always talking about how it’s his nature to vivisect people, like he’s sad that brutal murder inconveniences me. He’s never actually ripped off a chunk of my leg and shoulder, though.”
“Is the bandage all right?”
“You don’t really have to do it,” Max says. “You know.”
“That’s none of your concern,” Red Mary says.
“The Hell it’s not.”
Red Mary says, softly, “How a man grows aggressive when his enemy displays propriety. He thinks: I will use this good behavior to enforce my advantage over her. Is it any wonder people hold good behavior in such disregard?”
Max remembers the charge of Red Mary against him. He remembers the pain of parting when she tore his flesh from flesh. He subsides.
More gently, he says, “But teeth aren’t righteousness.”
“No,” says Red Mary.
She looks up.
“I’m not saying you’re right,” she says, “and I’m not saying you’re wrong. But you’re making a moral argument about a factual thing.”
“Whatever,” says Max.
“I’ll tell you a story,” says Red Mary. “About the Buddha.”
The knife of the history of Mr. Kong is black against the whiteness of the deck.
“Okay,” Max says.
He hesitates for a moment.
“The ninja or the pirate?”
Red Mary stares at him a long, cold moment.
“Oh,” Max says, embarrassed. “The Indian.”