[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]
On the bottom of the world everything is topsy-turvy.
The trees stick their roots out of the ground instead of their branches. The dirt is on top of everything. Birds are very confused and can’t decide which way their belly should point when they fly around. Groundhogs burrow to the surface, look around, and fall screaming into an endless storm.
A sundae costs 29 cents, if you can find one for sale at all.
There’s a teenaged girl picking her way through the roots of the world. She’s using a metal ruler as a kind of crampon and a lunchbox as a kind of brace and she’s being very careful not to fall.
“Everything’s opposite here,” she says.
She thinks about that.
“On opposite day,” she says, “at my middle school, we abandoned our attachments to the skandhas and experienced the world without suffering. Also, everything was permanent and it was itself exactly.”
A hummingbird pauses in the air beside her.
Alone among all the birds, it does not seem confused about direction. Sipping on the nectar of the absinthe roots, it has grown wise.
It says, “I am permanent.”
“Well, there you go,” says the girl.
The hummingbird looks smug.
“Also,” the girl says, thinking, “light took almost ten years per meter, so everything was very dark, and people would do annoying things like steal my lunch and say, ‘It’s everybody else’s lunch!'”
The girl looks sour.
She looks so sour as she picks her way through the roots that the hummingbird prompts, “It is good that you had abandoned your attachments to the skandhas.”
“Stupid opposite day,” sulks the girl.
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 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.
It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.
The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”
The Island of the Centipede
The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, but everybody calls her the imago. It’s because she’s the Apple Corporation’s entry into the reified ideals market, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.
In a thicket of roots she sees squirming black. She sees the tendrils of trees stretching and relaxing. She sees a creature tangled in the roots of the world.
“Oh!” she says.
The creature has a whisker. No: it has six, three on each side of its face.
Its head is flat like a manta ray’s body. Its tail is long and serrated. Its body is black but has white stripes like a skunk’s.
It is the size of a table and it is struggling to tear free.
“It’s adorable,” says the girl, eyes round.
She balances on the great long root of a Steel Rowan. The root’s metal surface has rubber tracks to help it cling to the crust of the world. These help the girl, in turn, to stand.
The girl reaches out.
She almost touches it—
An obsolete groundhog falls past them, screaming.
June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Flying Carpets: Flying carpets take you from the confines of your world.
The girl jerks back her hand.
She hesitates a long moment.
She is thinking: Is that going to happen every time?
She looks down after the groundhog.
Was that something I should have cared about?
But in the end she decides that it will not, and it was not, and she reaches forth again.
She sets her hand to the creature.
Her skin runs with the colors of its history.
June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Jacob’s Carpet: Jacob suffered in a little room. He could not leave its confines. It had no carpet that he could make to fly. All there was was a shadow.
He made a flying carpet of that shadow.
Its body was black but it had white stripes like a skunk’s where the light from the window in the door came down.
He stepped onto it. He said, “Away!”
It rammed the wall with Jacob on it. It made his nose to blood. It tried again, to Jacob’s sorrow, and again.
Then they fell down and it was shadow for a while.
They tried again later, to no better end.
This happened many times before the monster tore out Jacob’s heart and shoved a spear through Jacob’s brain and Jacob’s carpet flew away.
Tangled in the roots that dangle out the bottom of the world, Jacob’s carpet mewls.
“My name is Ink,” says the girl.
She rubs her hand on the carpet and shows it to the carpet’s face. It’s all smeared with black.
The carpet freaks out. It flails in the roots. It keens. It bobs around.
Ink steps back.
“Shh,” she says. “Shh. It’s okay. Everyone calls me the imago. —oh!”
She is not repeating the last syllable of imago.
She is making a horrified noise.
She is making a very specific horrified noise.
It is the horrified noise that a girl makes when she finds a magical animal and then realizes that it has a root of the world stuck right through its brain. It’s just there, speared through it, a screw-root from a boring tree, twisting in the lobes.
“No wonder you’re not talking,” the imago says.
The carpet whimpers.
“Poor thing,” she says. “You’re going to die and fall into the endless storm, aren’t you? And its winds are going to blow you around and you’ll fly this way and that and by the time you find out what’s on the other side you’ll be so dead and torn to shreds you won’t even have a coherent identity?”
It’s total speculation. Imagoes are one of the very few kinds of gods that suck at predicting things. But even so the carpet stills. It goes calm. It seems to like this particular tone of Ink’s voice.
Ink rubs at her chin. She looks grave and serious, like a rabbi with a beard, except in all the ways in which she looks nothing like that at all.
“I’ll tell you what,” she says. “I’ll try shaming the boring tree out and maybe you’ll still have some brain left.”
The carpet is growing restive. Ink’s eyes widen. She tries to think.
“I mean,” she says, “Everything’s awful and the world is going to end except for the worst bits which will go to Hell!”
The carpet relaxes.
It makes a little chirr noise.
“Sweet baby,” says Ink, rubbing its tail. “You like the inevitable annihilation of all things, don’t you? Don’t you?”
And there is peace for a moment, in the deeps beneath the world.
“On the top side of the world,” Ink says, “where there’s a pervasive character of suffering, girls find magical animals that aren’t dying and aren’t desperate for the annihilation of all things, you know.”
The creature hesitates.
“I’m just saying,” Ink says.
“Maybe it’s the difference,” the hummingbird suggests, “between the actual and the dream.”
- Tune in tomorrow for the next exciting history:
INK INSULTS A TREE!