[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]
Once upon a time, if you can believe Red Mary, the Buddha walked the world.
Back then, everything was exactly as it was.
Things had their own natures. A cloud was a cloud. A person was a person. A tree was a tree.
And more than that, every last person had their own way of being.
The world chose some people to be Kings by birth, gave rise to them with a nature for rule, and they sat on thrones and this was right. To others the world assigned a destiny of merchanthood or prostitution. The world birthed witches, killers, and creatures with terrible talents. It also gave rise to people with no more magic to them than the right to have a name and a family and an origin and an age.
The Buddha took that away.
He looked around and he said, “Because Kings are Kings, there is suffering. Because prostitutes are prostitutes, there is suffering. Because one man is a witch and can cast terrible spells, people suffer, and because another man is not and cannot, people suffer. It is even occasionally problematic that clouds are clouds.”
“Sure, but what can you do about it?” his mother asked.
The Buddha, if you can believe Red Mary, was always arguing with his mother. Even when you might think he’d be taking care of his son or meditating under a bo tree or achieving enlightenment or something, if you listen to Red Mary, he was probably arguing with his mother instead.
“What can you do about it?” she asked. “Because it’s so very precious to people that they are as they are.”
“It’s precious,” he said. “But that won’t stop me! I’ll still take it all away.”
And he spoke the word anatman and from him issued a great breath of change that stripped the natures from the world and from that point it was no longer true that things were always themselves.
From that day forward, when somebody was King, it wasn’t because it was right or even wrong that they were King. It was because of a causal chain of events that had put them on the throne. And when somebody was a merchant or a prostitute, that wasn’t dharma either. It just was. Even if you could figure out what the world had made you to do, it wasn’t necessarily so that you could do it.
Trees weren’t always trees.
The sun wasn’t always the sun.
Sometimes clouds turned to vapor and just drifted apart.
And as for the gods, they weren’t there.
The gods, the magic, the power of the witches, it was just . . . gone.
And for five hundred years this made people happy even in the face of the torments of the world; and then for fifteen hundred years, no matter how unhappy people were, they still had access to salvation.
But all that’s over now.
Now it’s the latter days of the law. The power of the Buddha’s word is fading. Magic is creeping in around the edges. People sometimes act in accordance with their nature. Kings by birth sit on the thrones again. People find themselves pawns helpless before their dharma.
The old ways are coming back.
But we already know that magic doesn’t fix things. We already know that it’s not enough to save anyone.
And as for the Buddha’s answer?
The powerlessness of anatman?
It’s kind of surprising, in these the Latter Days of the Law, that it ever helped anybody at all.
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
“What was it like?” Max asks.
“For the gods,” Max says. “I’ve always wondered.”
“And hadn’t I just said we were gone?”
“Not all of you,” Max says. “Not Rahu. Not Pelopia. Not even Santa, if Jane is to be believed.”
“Santa,” says Red Mary.
Red Mary sighs.
“We were severed from the world,” she says. “We lived but we could not touch you. We spoke but you could not hear. I sang my song to Halldis who suffered and whom I imagined needed the power to dissolve. For she who made me, I sang, and to open for her a gateway to the freedom from her pain. But she did not dissolve. I cried to the White Christ to give her surcease but He did not answer. I begged favors of the sun, of the moon, of the stars. And four years later Halldis died in childbed and I went on. I lived in a fountain with cracked stone lions and I sang to kill the lamps and the pigeons and when that failed me I crawled westwards to the sea, and none in all that place to remember my passing or that I had ever been.”
“‘The problem with egolessness,'” Red Mary says—and the inflection is strange, so that Max thinks she is quoting—“‘is that it never happens to the right people.'”
The catamaran drifts left and Max can see the texture of the island, the wrinkles of the rock, the black stones embedded in it, the mussels at the chaos’ edge.
“We’d never had the power we thought we had,” Red Mary says.
Max looks blankly at her.
“I’d thought it was the dharma of a siren to dissolve others into the greatness of the world,” she says. “But better to say: it is the dharma of a siren to dissolve others for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time, and to the wrong outcome.”
“Ah,” Max says.
“And yet we must try to be good.”
There’s an edge of skepticism to her voice that worries Max, so he doesn’t answer her.
“We can’t,” says Red Mary. “But somehow, we must try.”
“Disdain?” Max asks.
And the catamaran sails on in the channels of the broken island, in the sea of chaos to the west of Gibbelins’ Tower, in the loneliness of the world.