[The Island of the Centipede — Chapter Three]
Max breathes shallowly. He can feel the pain. It is like static. In his leg it is large-grained static, woven through with long sinuous purple-brown strands of pain. In his hands and arms it is loud, fine, angry static. In his left hand it has a twisting interference pattern: the pain can’t bear itself, it drowns itself out, it wrestles with itself to impress great oscillations on his perceptions.
From the pain comes fear. The fear closes down the functions of his mind. It narrows his world to specks of thought.
The waves lapping against the boat and the sky and the clear purity of the rock and the sheer greenness of the grass—
He has these sensations too. They pass in and out of his consciousness.
He tries to notice them.
On some level he feels that it is important to notice them and the thinness of his presence in the world frees him to focus on what is important.
But when the pain dies down, even for a time, less meaningful things edge in, and he finds himself wondering,
Am I going to turn into a pumpkin?
Had the giraumon touched him? Was a touch enough?
The sheer purposelessness of that fate terrifies him, obsesses him, catches him up in it the moment the power of conscious thought returns to him.
He passes between these states—between pain-haunted awareness and near-maniacal obsession—for an hour and some change.
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
“We fought,” Red Mary says.
Max is staring at his left hand.
He’s thinking: I don’t want to turn into a pumpkin. Is it going to turn into a pumpkin? God, I wish that white bit wouldn’t keep moving. Please don’t turn into a pumpkin. Or move into my wrist. Can I wiggle my finge—
“Eric wanted to save us. So we fought. Because people always fight the things they love.”
Max looks up.
“Where are we going?”
“We fought,” Red Mary says, “and we won, and we lost everything, and there wasn’t any hope any more.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
“The longer you are here,” Red Mary says. “In the vicinity of this island, the worse things will be.”
“I don’t want to turn into a pumpkin,” Max says.
“Neither do I,” Red Mary says.
“Then I saved you.”
“The giraumon’s still alive,” Red Mary says.
“The light in him gets a little dimmer every time he sets fire to the chaos and burns of himself to build. He is suffering. I cannot imagine how much he is suffering. But one extra splash won’t kill him.”
Max laughs a little.
“You’re going to turn into a pumpkin too,” he says.
He even sings a little song:
I’m a pumpkin, you’re a pumpkin,
Wouldn’t you like to be a pumpkin too?
“I’ve been a siren for a long time,” says Red Mary. “But no one’s ever tried to sing me into despair before.”
“It’d be poetic,” Max says.
“No,” Red Mary says.
“I was listening. It wasn’t poetic.”
“I meant the justice,” Max says.
Red Mary snorts.
“Scansion before justice,” she says.
“But he’s going to.”
“Yes,” Red Mary says.
“Unless I kill him first.”
“We don’t have long,” she says. “Like I said. We only had a scant one thousand years. Then the fighting starts.”
“It’s not rude,” Max says. He is squinting at the sky in the fashion that one might squint at a jigsaw puzzle.
“He was talking about killing me anyway.”
“So I had a right to be belligerent.”
“Are you making an appeal to me as a siren, or as a Confucian?”
“As a punching bag,” he says. “I’ll stop.”
“But if you eat me,” he says, “you have to start with the hand.”
“Man’s got a right to choose the order in which he gets eaten.”
“He could have infected you,” Red Mary says. “So you’re right. No eating.”
Then the island clears away down the seacourse to the west and for the first time Max sees the goodblow.
Miles and miles and miles away, but there:
A burning radiance with the shape of lightning, and it looks at him.
It looks at him.
It sees him.
The power of that gaze!
One hundred miles away if it’s an inch, and still it has the power to transform him, to catch him up, to drive into him and permeate the skin, the bones, the muscles, and the soul.
It loves him. In that moment he realizes that it loves him. That it names him and sees him in ways not even Sid has managed.
It is burning him.
It is destroying him.
It is knowing him too fast, and eating through the measures of his life. It is completing him.
It is the laying down of burdens. It is peace. It is all-enfolding joy.
It is ripping away his fragile sense of what is good and right and just and replacing it with adoration of the light.
He casts up a tarp. It flutters in the wind. It gives them some small shadow from that regard. Red Mary catches it before it flies away.
They huddle there.
In a small and feeble protest against Heaven, he says, “I’m not finished being Max.”
The wind upon the tarp makes a sound like gunfire. The tarp bends in like the wind is pounding fists.
Then the goodblow fades and Max realizes through its absence that it has been staring at him through the tarp for all this time.
Red Mary lowers the tarp.
The sky is blue and purple and the clouds rush past above like cars.
Good is visible to the west but some sleight of weather or chaos or circumstance makes it temporarily more dim.
“Enough,” Red Mary says.
She seizes Max in the two arms of her and she leaves the knife of the history of Mr. Kong upon the deck and she kicks herself off the boat and they fall down into the sea.
“I should not,” she says, as the pressure builds, “have let you live.”
Her eyes are cold and black and murderous and like shade to him on the hottest summer day.