[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]
Sometimes when things seem darkest a flying carpet will come and swoop you off and carry you to the answer to all your pains.
In the lands of Romance you will battle ogres and dragons.
You will find bottles containing the secret hearts of djinn.
Dashing princes will bend their head to look at you, their eyes gleaming with that ancient light of Romance.
They will say: “I see you have come here.”
. . . but no.
That is not right.
The carpet—that seems right.
But not the rest.
The girl is surfacing to consciousness and something is not right. The Prince is not standing over her. That is someone else. He is not saying, “I see you have come here.”
He is saying something else.
The girl focuses her eyes.
It is Minister Jof.
It is Minister Jof, and not the Prince.
He has said, if anything, “I consider you to blame.”
She shakes her head, just a little. She turns her head. It hurts to do this, but she turns her head.
Is that the Prince?
It is Riffle. He is washing his hands.
Dr. Sarous, glum and sour. Not even speaking.
The general of the stickbugs. He is approaching. He is lowering his mouth towards the foot of the girl. Dr. Sarous bats at him and he skulks away.
It is distinctly not the lands of Romance.
If anything, it is the murky land of Dismal.
Still, the girl sits up. She makes a game try of it. “How marvelous,” she says. “You, Dr. Sarous; have you been treating our wounds?”
Dr. Sarous’ mouth remains a line.
“Minister Jof, Riffle, you followed me?”
They look away.
The girl makes a face. “Really,” she says, “when one rides a flying carpet to the answer to one’s pains, one is supposed to smile.”
“This?” says Riffle.
His voice cracks.
Something is wrong. No, she knew that. Something is wronger.
Behind her there is a chasm, and from that chasm rises a great stone pillar, and bound to that pillar there is a man—
No, a creature like a man—
He is sealed against the stone with molten brass and molten iron. They bubble with great heat. He is sealed into the stone, and the nerves and veins of him run uninterrupted into the rock. Marked in a great circle around him are the symbols of the seasons, and the zodiac, and of time. His flesh in places gaps to show bones and organs beneath.
He is Cronos.
His eyes are open.
They can see the specks of his left iris and the light on his left pupil. They can see the agony in it.
His right eye is burnt ruin.
He is the crust of the world. He is the mechanism of time.
He is aware of them.
“Oh, don’t,” says the girl.
His face crinkles, just a bit, around his pain.
“Oh, no,” she says.
It is not words. It is simply an implication in his expression. But it is there all the same.
I see you have come here.
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.
“This is what I experienced in delirium,” says Minister Jof. “A shadow came. It flicked by. It caught me up. Then I was here, with Dr. Sarous extracting the splinter from my eye.”
“For me,” says Dr. Sarous, “it is essentially the same. There was a confusion of stickbugs; I caught the general’s lapel and fell.”
“I am done with this,” says Riffle.
He looks dissatisfied.
“Enough with the business of saviors and killing God. I propose we push the girl over the edge, thus putting the throne of the world in our debt; we then retire to Sarous’ kingdom, where he shall appoint me his high executor and allow you minor appointments in his administration. In exchange, I will advise Sarous as to how to live with the knowledge of his corruption; all of us see profit.”
The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, although everybody calls her the imago. It’s short for imagoro, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.
She’s staring at the face of the titan in the pillar.
“Is this how it begins?” she asks.
Riffle looks at her.
“Is this the first moment of our history?” she asks.
“Hardly,” says Riffle.
But Ink turns on him and she is burning with the power of the interpretation of ended things and her voice cuts across all his thoughts and she says, “Cronos was laying on the sand.”
June, Thursday 3, 2004 – Cronos: Cronos was laying on the sand.
To what end, time?
The stickbug general is a mean and dirty creature. His heart is small and rotten. Time is the vehicle for his resentment: a field in which he may experience things that are not gorging on child flesh, not stickbug sex, not hiding against a tree.
Time is a vehicle for pain and for hunger and for fear without satiety.
There is a heat that washes off the girl as she says these words and it drives the stickbug general flinching back. But this does not quench the stickbug’s determination. If anything it affirms it. Things are too uncomfortable. The girl must die.
Cronos was young. He was young. He was so very young. He was tired. He did not know who he was.
He was a castaway on the shore of the world.
He lay there and he did not move.
The sun was very hot.
It began to burn him.
When his skin turned red he made a strangled sound and rose to his feet and he staggered off to find a cave.
To what end, time?
Time is a vast reach filled with disorder. Time is the vehicle for Riffle’s discontent: again and again it slews him from his purpose. It drives him to the end of narrow aims and imbues his broader projects with a sense of dim futility. It is littered with elements he cannot incorporate into his closed designs.
As the girl speaks Riffle becomes aware of a deep and timeless agony. It is not hers, nor his, nor Cronos’, but the agony of Ge.
He cannot solve it.
He cannot even begin to solve it.
He cannot ignore it, either; and so, in that moment, imagoro, he hates Ink Catherly with a burning passion.
All around him rose the deep voice of the earth.
“My child,” said the earth. “Gotten of a sinful father.”
Cronos put his hands upon the rock.
It was wet. It was hard. It was rough.
“I have a mother,” he said.
Joy rose from his stomach to burn through him. “I have a mother, I have a father, I am a child of the heavens and the earth.”
To what end, time?
For Dr. Sarous time was once a playground: an opportunity to make all things well. But the more deeply he studied the world the more things he found that were not well. The more he bent his fallible eye to scrutiny, the more it seemed that the world was a fractal made out of errors built on errors, noise stacking on noise, with virtue nothing more than an emergent pattern on the whole. In the end, his dream unraveled; time seized his prize from him, and his pride.
It hurts him, to hear the joy in Cronos’ voice.
The world is sick, he thinks. Where is its shame?
“Be not proud to be Uri’s son,” said the earth. “For he first thought of shameful things, and cut away the wrongness from the world.”
A question lies hard on Cronos’ mind, but it is not a question that the earth can answer.
“What is the proper manner of my shape?” Cronos asks. “Ought I be tall or short? Have I three legs or two?”
“Hide yourself,” said the earth, “between the sea, the sky, and the land, and wait for darkness, and I will show you how your father has injured me.”
Though confused, still Cronos obeyed.
He shaped himself into a thing that could make webs and he spun a web between the sea, the land, and the sky. He hung there, waiting, trying to decide how many legs a titan has.
The sun left the sky.
The world grew dark.
The web trembled and shrank. The vault of the stars came down and pressed close upon the world. Cronos shivered in the dark.
To what end, time?
Time is a vehicle for evolution. That is why Minister Jof fears it.
He loves evolution. It is his work. But he fears it. To change— to grow—
He is Minister Jof.
Where could he go?
He does not allow himself to imagine that he is fallible; that he is imperfect; that there is an upwards arc. And those times when he does—when it slips through into his heart that we are unfinished, mean, imperfect creatures, and Minister Jof no different—are exactly the times when he cannot imagine any means of becoming better.
He can feel change coming. It echoes in the words of the history of the girl.
He shutters his heart. He focuses on his judgments and his spite.
He turns away.
The clouds lit with pink and scarlet fires. The earth ground open and in it were pools of darkness and green and coldest indigo. The sky rubbed against the earth and fires slipped from it into the depths and danced upon the waters there. The wind blew. It came down off the hills and it roared across the plains. It chilled the peaks of the mountains and bent the trees of the forest. Stars fell and lost their fire. The chasms under the world ignited. The world and sky strained against one another and the sky grew damper and the air began to taste of rain.
As the sky coupled with the earth, the earth said, “For whom have you made this world, o my love?”
And the sky said, “For Oceanus; and Tethys; and Hyperion; and Theia; and Coeus; and Phoebe; and Cronos; and Rhea; and the birds; and the trees; and the insects; and the flowers; and the naiads; and the oceanids; and the teeth gnomes; and the antelope; and the burrowing things; and the climbing things;” and he went on in just this vein for quite some time.
And as he said these things the earth sighed, “Ah,” for these things were precious to her.
But in the later hours of the night it grew halting and slow, that recitation of the sky. “And for the platypus;” he said, and he thought, and he sought for words, “and the sandpipers; and the dogs—“
And there he had run out.
And fire blazes everywhere throughout the world and Cronos said, “. . . but what of Ophion?”
And the earth trembled and Cronos understood a thing, and he said, “. . . but what of Ophion? But what of siggorts? But what of woglies? But what of all the exiled things? But what of these?”
And his question made no impact on the sky, which only spun, and gave him a ruffling about the head, and said, “Do not love ye evil, child.”
And then the sky withdrew behind the curtains of the dawn.
And Cronos thought of Ophion, and the siggorts, and the woglies: o my loves.
The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”
In the end they are too small.
In the end they are hopeless and dismal, all of them.
But dharma moves.
Ink is stepping back. She can tell what moves in the wicked hearts that face her: one to three murderers, and one to three who will not help. She is stepping back towards the chasm. She has no idea how she will survive a screaming plummet into unknown depths but she has fallen from high places a fair amount recently and is starting to trust her ability to improvise. She suspects that it is less of a danger than her four companions, but:
“You know what the coolest thing ever is?” she asks.
The general of the stickbugs shakes his head.
It’s not actually negation.
He’s just breaking the spell of her words.
“People,” Ink says.
And she grins at them, flush with an echo of Cronos’ joy, as Minister Jof looks away; as Dr. Sarous and Riffle exchange dark glances; as the general of the stickbugs scuttles towards her with murderous intent.
Freaks, the lot of you, thinks Ink Catherly; o my loves.
And then there is the miracle.
She steps back.
Behind her, dharma moves. The titan’s hands stretch forth. He catches her. And in that motion they see it. They see it in the motion, all four of them. They see the motivation for time.
They see the purpose for the crust of the world.
He holds at bay the price of our imperfections, and behind them our happy endings; he bears the immeasurable weight of all these things.
Time is Cronos, standing there in the crust of the world, bearing his impossible burden, so that before our histories and our stories end in bright perfection, we that are imperfect have the opportunity to grow.
Though people always fight the things they love.
The Island of the Centipede
It is the terrible truth of Heaven and Earth that the Elysian Fields await us all—
Well, except for the woglies, and the siggorts, I suppose—
That the Elysian Fields await us all. That we are accepted as we are by the actual and the ideal, and bent by destiny towards an inexorable fate of bliss for ever. And that it is only by the sleight of Cronos and his work that we may have a chance, before the end, to make ourselves worthy of that ending.
That he does it for them no less than any other: for Riffle, and the stickbug general, and Dr. Sarous, and Minister Jof.
Thus we say, however rare that it might be that purpose changes, or life evolves: dharma moves.
For just a moment, as he lifts Ink from that place, four of the five who remain behind recognize those great and horrible truths.
As for the fifth, it is over already.
Jacob’s carpet releases its hold upon its fate and falls: flutter, flutter, flutter, down through the storm below.
As performed in the Gibbelins’ Tower on October 20, 2005, in remembrance of Ink.
- But we’re not quite done. Tune in TOMORROW for the unbelievable epilogue:
Then the letters column! Then back to Sid and Max—and let’s see if we can’t finish up The Island of the Centipede this November!