[The Island of the Centipede – Interlude]
Red Mary takes Max’s ears so that he cannot hear.
Red Mary takes Max’s voice so that he cannot speak.
Red Mary takes Max’s life.
Here is how it happened.
She came upon him in the waters outside the broken island, intruding on her sacred place like a hunter on Artemis’ nudity or a serpent into a lake. She struck at him in the certain knowledge that he was unworthy of his life.
We all are.
That is the creed of Red Mary.
We are drunkards and life is a drunkard’s walk. We do not do things for the reasons that we claim. We do not achieve the results that we desire. We cling like leeches to the things that hurt us and we kill the things we love.
We are cysts of flesh that keep the fire from the chaos.
We are a trouble to the world.
He taught her another way. He’d used the blackest of all magics to do it, that is to say, history and Confucianism, and he’d opened her heart to the idea that maybe even drunkards should try to be good.
It was fast.
That’s the problem with easy answers, whether they come from sloppy thinking or a magic knife immersed in chaos. It had been too fast.
Red Mary was of the mind that given a few hundred years to contemplate it she might be a very good Confucian indeed.
But as it was it was suspicious to her.
She’d breathed it in through the gills. She’d inhaled the certainty of Mr. Kong like a drug and when she looked back on the path that led her to its answers she couldn’t see where she had been.
She finds herself thinking of the owl—
That owl of a long line of owls, whom she’d brought down over the sea and drowned, but first had spoken with—
That owl whose grandfather had licked three times at a tootsie pop, and crunched, and said solemnly, “Three”;
Whose mother had licked twice, and crunched, and said in sorrow, “Two”;
Who had bitten down on the very first lick until the tootsie pop oozed caramel like Max is oozing red and said, just “One”;
And who had had no children because the limit of owls as the number of licks decreases is emptiness.
She had found the owl very foolish and sang a song to disperse it into the universe and now she suspects that karma has circled round to bite her in the tail.
To the west of her island there is Good.
To the west, where she does not go, where she has not gone in quite some time, but where she is certain it had not been before—
The eye of God.
And looking at it she recognized that there is such a thing as an answer, even for someone like Red Mary. That if she walked straight and pure and on a sober path, she could get there, she would get there, she could have her happy ending.
Or even if she just swam west. One hundred miles, perhaps, two hundred miles at the most; no harder, really, than if it had been an inch.
She does not know what it would mean to do that.
She does not understand how her crooked life could lead to such an end, and so she knows she cannot take that path.
She had always thought that it would be impossible for such a creature as herself to know perfection, and now she knows that it is simply wrong.
To go there—
To live in a world where the difference between perfection and the Red Mary she is now is just a hundred-mile swim—
It is not impossible, but it is wrong, and she must not.
Max is dying.
It is strange and not strange to her that the divine fire of his life burns more brightly in his fragile state. That trapped in that imperfect form it does not dwindle but rather flares, suffuses, wraps in him—
That broken he is still Max;
That broken he is all the more himself because he does not give it up.
It is strange and not strange that the thing that is a person can be severed from its voice by nothing more than magic, severed from its senses and still remain, that so much can happen to him and still he is in the world;
That it is not simply the body that is so terribly fragile but the self within;
And that is the miracle of the fire, that it survives such missteps, that it burns in the broken body that is Max and the cold sea thoughts that are Red Mary’s.
If you asked her what the fire was, Red Mary would say that she does not know.
She does not know, save perhaps that the fire is that which sees the fire; or, that being wrong, that the fire is that which casts the light by which the fire may be seen.
She whispers to Max’s heart that it need not beat.
She whispers to Max’s lungs that he need not breathe.
She whispers to Max’s life that it need not burn.
His last thoughts drift from him like bubbles.
They rise through the chaos and she watches them as they rise.
The sea is full of the mumbling of the severance of Max.
The man she’s killing is mumbling and Red Mary’s too tired not to listen.
“Oh,” he is thinking.
She drags him down, down, down.
“Love is not a duty.”
She hears it reversed, performing that causal mirroring so convenient when gods must listen to the ramblings of men.
We make others’ choices on the theory that we love them, only to discover that we did not love them after all.
“Love is a transforming power.”
We discover a strength blossoming in the world, in us, in those we look upon, in everything, and then discover that we are looking upon a thing that we do love.
Red Mary draws in breath.
She sings to make the man dissolve, to crack the cyst of his existence and return his karma to the world.
“I’ll come back,” he mumbles.
The presupposition of this statement is his death, and so she hears it thus:
Even if I survive, you’ll still probably have killed me.
Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.
Max sets out in his coracle to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.
It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.
The Island of the Centipede
“Like Meredith did,” he mumbles. “I’ll come back.”
He is fraying, and she’ll be rid of him at last, but—
Like Meredith did.
This is the agony of taking the path instead of simply its ending. This is the unbearable horror she has brought upon herself by not simply swimming west.
Along the path one may discover the nature of one’s errors.
He should be dead, but the fire has not yet flown from him.
She has discovered a problematic contingency and she must make a choice.
“Live,” she says.
His life stutters into alertness.
“Breathe,” she says to his lungs, and “Beat,” to his heart.
She gives him back his ears, that he may hear things incorrectly. She gives him back a voice, that he may say the wrong things.
It seems to her perhaps that she has failed to rebuild him; that she has left out some fundamental error and made a thing more good than what she’d broken; but then again, that may be Max himself, or just the nature of the fire.
It is the miracle of the fire that we may grow better than we are.
She lets the mind return to him, that he may think the wrong thoughts, and take the wrong actions, and for the wrong reasons.
And “Oh,” she says, awkwardly, with the horrified politeness of a woman signing the warrant of her own destruction.
“Oh,” Red Mary says. “You know Meredith?”
The fire lives even in our crooked paths, and it redeems them.
Dedicated to someone not at all like Max, save in the brightness of her burning and the immediacy of hope.