[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]
June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Sarous: Once upon a time there was a young man named Sarous.
Evolved from a fish, I’d say, and maybe that’s the truth; but he’s been a doctor for so very long now that it’s hard to tell.
He was raised up in the kingdom of Snorn; wakened in the great birthing when Snorn—
Himself transfigured from a stone—
Spoke the gospel of King Snorn to the stickbugs, the fishes, the moles, the stones, and the rats. Sarous was one of thousands, tens of thousands, of citizens of that great grey kingdom born that day. And he had a vision.
His vision was an estimable one.
It began with the thought, “Imagine a lens that shows imperfection.”
It led, as inevitably as the rain, to the thought, “I can fix this broken world.”
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
“Imagine that we could see the animalcules of imperfection,” he said to Melissa, who would later be his wife.
“Imagine,” he said, “that we could track those elements of suffering— those things that make the world not as we like it— back to the contagion that was their source. What is it that you think that we would find?”
Sarous blinked. He blinked three times, and fell in love with her at once; but still he disagreed. “Not yeast,” he said. “Moral decay.”
She raised an eyebrow.
Is all imperfection of human origin?
He waved a hand to dismiss the thought. All imperfection that matters. “If all people were upright,” he said, “they would act in all regards to prevent suffering. When people act to exacerbate suffering, we may say that they are infected with the animalcules of imperfection.”
“It is a paradigm, of course, and not a theory,” says Sarous. “Such a lens could not exist. But oh! The possibilities! The diagnostic and purgative techniques that could pertain!”
“But to cure a man of moral decay,” Melissa objected. “Isn’t that like curing one man of another man’s disease?”
This was sticky.
Sarous drank two and a half cups of coffee before he found his answer.
“No one would prefer to cause suffering,” he said.
So he went to his lab and he labored there to become a doctor, and from there to learn the techniques necessary to discover, diagnose, and purge moral decay. He found the animalcules of senseless cruelty and the general systemic pathology of spinelessness. He dug out for the first time the organ of privilege— not the testicles, as Yaoharneth-Lalai had hypothesized, nor yet the ovaries (as bitterly avowed by Mung), but rather a small sexless nodule of dubious provenance crunched up between the bowels and the gall. He caught at last the monopole that makes a jackass bray and the thwarted man to pout; he made a vaccine against the brutal rage; and if he found no general solution, no lens to show imperfection nor purgatives to sweat it out, still he grew legendary in the art of detecting and treating moral degeneration and decay.
In the early days he tested his diagnoses often on Melissa; at first as experiments, and then as control, and finally with a strange urgency to find a flaw, as if the negative results he found were illegitimate to a one.
“I think, my love,” Melissa said, “that you will test me until I prove corrupt.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Yet still something moved in him— something strange and uneasy, that kept his hand hovering near the latest draw of Melissa’s blood.
“May I?” he said.
“Oh, you will,” she observed.
“You’ll make me blush.”
“It’s just,” she said, “if I had such grave doubts for your purity, then that would be a symptom, would it not?”
He thought about it. Then he laughed again.
“I suppose it would,” he said. “But it is because you have been steady for so long, you see.”
She had a qualm that day, but he qualmed it out; for all his strange obsessions the intentions of her husband were still good.
Medicine advanced. The technology of Sarous’ work improved. He demonstrated practical results of clear legitimacy: sinners redeemed, murderers unmasked, qualms uncoiled into repentance, certainty, or calm. Word of his skills spread throughout the kingdom.
It became very popular for the people to submit their enemies and their goads to him for testing. Occasionally this had the desired outcome; at other times, it had a null result, or rebounded upon the issuers of these claims of moral decay.
It was in that latter fashion that Dr. Sarous deposed King Snorn.
“I fear treachery in my advisors,” said Snorn. “Or mutiny among my people.”
And Sarous ran his tests.
“Milord, I am afraid that it is not your people that are treacherous, but you.”
Slowly the King’s head sank onto his chest. His beard crunched against his tabard; and he thought.
He said, in sepulchral tones, “This is a notion that has fluttered against the windows of my mind; I had suspected it, but I had not dared to let it in. Is there a purgative?”
“It is too deep,” Sarous said.
Despair condensed to ice in the King’s veins. He went still. His eyes fell closed. His white hair hung around his head. He slept and he did not wake again. His body went cold and then turned to stone upon his bench. The people acclaimed Dr. Sarous to his throne, and asked him to purge unrighteousness from their ranks.
They built the ziggurat to honor him.
Everywhere they lauded Sarous’ name.
And in quiet and alone in the deeps of night, Melissa had a thought.
Her thought began with, “Imagine a lens that shows imperfection.”
It continued, as inevitably as the rain, to, “He will kill me.”
He ran his seven hundred and thirty-first test of her the morning after. He frowned at the results. He ran the test again.
He looked at the palm of her hand and he saw the marks of it, the faint red flush of moral decay.
Leaning close he saw the touch of it on her throat, in the smallness of her backpack, in the blackness of her hair.
“Decay?” Melissa asked him.
She was strangely calm.
“It is not curable,” he said. A cold wind blew.
She smiled. She could not help it. “And terribly contagious, I would suggest.”
He blinked. He tilted his head. “Eh?”
“My love,” she said, “what will you do now, that will not cause suffering?”
“—I must try a cure,” he said.
“Imagine,” she said, “a lens that shows imperfection.”
His thoughts were far away, with the results of the test, with the structure of her disease. Could he get it out, he wondered, if he bled her soon enough? If he operated? Could he preserve some portion of her, perhaps, to be later grown again?
“It would always show,” she said. “It would never be clear. Of course it could never be clear. Even if it were to look upon the purest thing, even if it were to show the good itself: still, the lens would be imperfect; the holder would be imperfect; the eye that looked through it, imperfect; the very concepts made manifest in that lens— imperfect, and so the lens would show.”
“I can’t just let it be,” he said. Sarous’ voice was strained. “I can’t just have a corrupt wife. I am the King.”
“You’re not listening, love,” she said.
He blinked. He refocused. He looked at her face. Of course. I am not listening.
He said it again, trying harder to communicate to her his meaning, his implications, and his sorrow. “I can’t just let it be. For their sake. You understand.”
“It isn’t logically possible for your diagnostic techniques to be correct,” she said.
He made a face.
“You’d say that,” he agreed.
“It’s because I realized that,” she said, “and resolved that I would tell you, that I failed to the test.”
And she talked, she explained, on and on she talked, but he did not listen.
“It defends itself,” she said, “from the stringencies of life.”
And she still thought then, to judge her smile, that she would win this fight, and perhaps on equal grounds she ought; but it was all symptoms, you see; all symptoms, every word of it, and it was not sign.
- Tune in NEXT WEEK for a cavalcade of mad excitement: Ink vs. Sarous! The birth of Zeus! The general of the stickbugs! And possibly even something like a letters column, although that might be too much to hope until after part XV—
- You won’t believe your nosebugs!