Formica (III/VII)

Formica.

The word makes Liril giggle sometimes because it makes her think of Micah. It’s a word for ants and laminate that also happens to be perfect for her brother’s name. She hopes that she’s not going to create Micah, accidentally, while thinking of formica; that would embarrass her, and him, and lead to all manner of materials-science-related trouble.

On one level the possibility is appalling.

A formica-inspired Micah might be vulnerable to other laminates, for instance; or unnecessarily resistant to heat; and certainly liable to lose his antennae and become an awa, or worse, a fwa, a formica-without-antennae, and go around slowly cleansing the world of its aberrant qualities and sins.

It would damage him, being born from formica like that. It would make him something less than the heir to the Biblical Micah on whom he hopes his life was based.

It would be appalling. He would be appalled. So she would rather not create him while her thoughts have turned to formica; but it is inevitable that she shall.

The world is as it is. A universal quality of suffering pervades it. There are monsters. There are truths. There is wordplay; and all three of these things have within them a certain deadly resemblance to commands.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]

“I didn’t know,” Melanie will tell her, apologetically.

Liril will give her a thin little look.

“I mean, if I’d known that he was going to be vulnerable to laminates, I would have handled things in a different fashion. I would have — chosen another bit of timing.”

Liril will stare at her.

It is impossible to imagine how completely idiotic Liril will find this statement to be; how aghast she expects to feel at Melanie’s complete detachment from reality; how far her estimation of Melanie might plummet when confronted with this misunderstanding of the exigencies of time. The idea that someone could choose something is going to be completely ridiculous to her; or rather —

Liril will hasten to clarify, lest anyone misinterpret her most private thoughts —

The idea that somebody could have chosen to behave differently in the past, based on a counterfactual not conceivable until the future, is just mind-bogglingly inane. People are simply phenomena, after all, or expressions of phenomena, anyway; they are formulae without contingencies expressed through the medium of the world.

There is no mechanism by which they could thus alternatively choose.

Her expression will be funny.

Melanie will cover her mouth and look away. It’ll take her a moment to get her composure back, and a few moments before she speaks again.

“The end of human sacrifice,” Melanie will muse, “was the beginning of time.”

And the answer is so immediate that Liril almost says it:

It almost rips itself from her, almost says itself aloud:

Then the end of time begins with a human sacrifice.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die.

The thought’s too loud. Or maybe it’s too obvious. Or maybe Melanie doesn’t hear it at all, and she’s just responding to herself, or to something else she heard some other time.

“Ant that the truth,” she mutters, to herself.

let’s try Wednesdays and Fridays for a bit, with Mondays going to Chibi-Ex.

Colony Collapse

To bumblebee is to become a bumblebee; and the price of that becoming is your death.

The news is always full of stories.

Bumblebees are squished;
Licked up;
Yakked out;
and, lastly, wiped.

The Lady Devereaux—as all the ladies Devereaux had before—expresses bombastic disdain.

“We need them, yes,” she says.

One arm waves, broadly. A length of lace cuts the air.

“As we need all those sorts. The grouting ants, the toilet skinks, and the far-too-serious badgers of City Hall. But it is . . . hymenopteraic,” she says. “Segmenting your eyes; growing the antennae; carrying about the slops of flower sex—it is not done.”

“Hymenopteral,” says Emeline, behind her too-large glasses.

Grammar constrains the Lady Devereaux. She feels it binding her as her corset might—not literally, but still a certain coarse constraint.

“The adjective is hymenopteral,” Emeline concludes.

The Lady Devereaux sighs. She sinks down into her chair. She gestures Emeline to her lap, and gently she brushes Emeline’s hair.

“So it is,” she says.

“Mum Grayden,” Emeline says—here referring to Heloise Grayden, across the road—“is proud of Robert; so she says.”

There is a peculiar misery to Emeline’s expression now. Robert had been a funny child, in his too-tight suits and his niceties, but he was more to her than her brother Adric or the Skevinses down the road. And you can follow the story of a bumblebee in the papers—the government was always very proper in keeping towns up-to-date on the accomplishments of their bees—but you cannot play with a bumblebee. You cannot drink hot cocoa with a bumblebee, if you do not want it to drown or become sick of chocolate poisoning or burn up after coming too close to the chocolate and forgetting how to fly. And you certainly cannot play Scrabble, gin, or DS Pokemon while doing so. Even a fantasy tea party is somewhat stifled when it is only yourself and a bee; and Robert had flown on not long after his transformation in any case.

“Mum Grayden,” says the Lady Devereaux, “is putting her best face on.

There were five of them living in Emeline’s house, which is to say, the Lady Devereaux; her daughter Morgaine; her son-in-law Edward, of whom nothing further shall be said; and her grandchildren Emeline and Adric.

In the mornings Emeline would eat breakfast, always a toasted bagel with a cream cheese spread, a glass of orange juice, and occasionally an egg. She would shower and change from her pajamas into clothing suitable for school; then she would catch the bus. Later, after receiving an education, she would return home and while away her evenings on study, family time, and play; and on no occasion did she reveal herself as anything other than the kind of person who remains human all their life.

It takes a peculiar kind of dignity to live as a human all one’s life—given, of course, that one should have the means—

But the ladies Devereaux mostly did.

Now Heloise Grayden visits one afternoon for tea; and Emeline breaks her silence to say, “I think that they should let the bees come home.”

It is one of the opinions voiced in the local paper; and she is quoting Harvard Elling of that paper when she finishes, “It is a matter of simple justice.”

Mum Grayden makes a noise; it is a strange sort of noise, half-gasp, half-snort, indelicate and covered shortly after with a napkin to her lips.

“Naturally, no person ought to be—constrained,” says Lady Devereaux.

It is surprisingly kind of her to say; then she spoils it altogether by continuing, “Although I’m sure there are considerations— stinging and flying in people’s eyes and such. If there weren’t some regulation, wouldn’t bees just do as they like and make the ecosystem worse? I’m sure the government bees as compassionate as it can.”

“Mum,” murmurs Morgaine.

Morgaine looks away from Lady Devereaux and extends a hand towards Heloise. Heloise follows it with her eyes but does not take it. Instead she places her napkin down with great delicacy and offers Lady Devereaux a kind of wet-eyed grin.

“When the flowers bloom on the trees, and the orchards live—I think, we wouldn’t have anything to eat, would we? We wouldn’t have the means to live, not like this anyway, without our boys in yellow—there’s no way to say it—without our boys in yellow, busy in the hives, inseminating the queen. Isn’t it so? So I think, isn’t it good? I don’t know what I’d do if he came home.”

The Lady Devereaux fixes her expression in a porcelain smile.

“Yes,” she says. “God save them.”

Emeline frowns.

“Inseminating is Latin,” she says, deep in thought. “Inseminare: to sow, implant. Pray, if you could tell me—”

The Lady Devereaux stands abruptly.

“A wonderful tea,” she says, in sharp swift cadence. “Thank you for your visit, dear Heloise, and may you come again. Children ought, dear Emeline, be seen and not heard. Have you entirely completed your studies for the weekend? I feel I need a walk; adieu.”

Her bustle proves eponymous as she retreats from the room.

“Do not be a bumblebee, Emeline,” says Heloise.

Her hands come down on Emeline’s. They grip them tight.

“Not a bumblebee. Not even a queen. Not even some other kind of bee. Do not.”

Morgaine says, sharply, “Heloise!”

Heloise stares at her hands and Emeline’s for a moment. Then she shakes her head. She looks confused, as if she does not understand how she has come to this place, this time, and this position.

Slowly she pulls away.

I think,” Adric says, in what shall be his only line, “that she’ll become an owl.”

But this is the fallacy of Lamarck; and for his deviation from evolutionary orthodoxy Emeline punishes him with itching powder in his sheets.

At school the next week three boys are singing in the playground:

“I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee;
“Won’t my mother be so proud of me?”

Emeline, who is walking past them to the library, stops to hear them out.

“I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee.
“Ouch! He stung me!”

She frowns at them distantly.

The version of the song she’d always heard began with “I wish I were—”

A good devotional song, that one. This one—

This one was perverse.

“I’m squishing up my baby bumblebee,” the boys are singing, squishing their hands together.
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I’m squishing up my baby bumblebee,
“Eww! It’s all over me!”

Stop it,” she says.

Her body is rigid. Her arms are at her sides and trembling. The boys turn to stare at her.

Stop it,” she says. “They’re bees.

“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee,” one of the boys starts, in a soothing, pacifying, and entirely sarcastic tone. He scrubs off his hands. The others join in.
“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee,
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee—”

They sneer at her.

“Look! All clean!” they say and show her their hands; but she cannot see them through her furious tears.

Stiff-legged, she walks away.

Behind her, she hears,

“I’m licking up my baby bumblebee—”

That day she scores a 92 on her spelling test, mangling phylopraxy and palingenesis entirely and with two furious strokes of her pen.

It is not an error the Lady Devereaux accepts; Emeline goes without her evening meal that night.

Bumblebees—

It is not like it is with honey bees.

A bumblebee can sting and then survive; it can leave the hives, abandoning its peers, and make its way along the roads to home; it is fearsome-furred and powerful and strong—

It has a better life than a honey bee’s.

But to bumblebee is to become a bumblebee, and the price of that is death.

It may wait twelve months for you—fifteen, if you are lucky, young, and strong—but death, for a bumblebee, is as inevitable as the snow.

That winter, the papers tell Emeline of Robert Grayden’s death, and Mum Grayden hangs the yellow wreath upon her door.

“Sometimes I think that Adric ought become a llama,” Emeline says.

This suggestion is one students find quite clever—entirely deniable, if one knows certain details about Tibet, and while undignified not so harsh as to be cruel.

But at the table where she and Lady Devereaux are taking a late and solitary tea, the suggestion falls quite flat.

“A Devereaux does not become a beast,” the Lady Devereaux says.

Emeline swallows a bit of scone and many unwise remarks.

“I don’t know how Robert became a bee, and then he died,” she says, after a time. “And everyone says it was heroic, but they don’t— they don’t honor it.”

“It is very hard for poor Heloise,” says Lady Devereaux.

She tidies up the crumbs on her plate.

“Perhaps we should invite her by; speak about . . . a breath of air, you know, taking down the yellow, coming back into society again. It is not good to spend your time in melancholy; she still is healthy enough, I’m sure she and Mr. Grayden can fill their house again.”

“But—” says Emeline.

“Tut!” says Lady Devereaux. “Finish your scone, young lady, and then we shall draw your bath.”

In Church they sing,

“I wish I were a baby bumblebee;
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I wish I were a baby bumblebee;
“A male! Or a queen!”

“I wish I were a military boar;
“Tusks and hide and shouting a great roar;
“I wish I were a military boar;
“Charge!”

But even when they sing about service, the minister mostly talks about hellfire and money.

That is why when Emeline finds herself at the transmogrification office, staring down at the clipboards and wondering, she feels utterly and entirely alone.

“If you’re under 18,” the recruiter says, “Your Mum or Dad’ll have to sign.”

“I’m 18,” Emeline says.

The recruiter looks at her. If you didn’t have access to her sanitary cupboard, you’d be hard pressed to prove she’d hit puberty.

“12 at most,” he says.

“I just have to say I’m 18,” Emeline says. “You don’t have to believe me. And it just means I live longer, after, if I’m not.”

His eyes go carefully and formally blank.

“Can’t get your Mum or Dad to agree, then?”

“‘A Devereaux doesn’t become a beast,'” Emeline quotes. “‘A Devereaux is always gracious. A Devereaux always uses perfect grammar.’

“— even if she doesn’t!” Emeline adds, in mild outrage.

“It’s tough,” the recruiter says. “It’s not— you understand that it’s not a way to get away from too much homework? Or spite your parents for grounding you?”

“Everything is dying,” Emeline says, “because the bees are dying. The plants will die. The animals. The people. All the web of life come undone.

“If you ask me,” she says, and realizes as she says this that she has become everything that is not a Devereaux, “there ought to be a draft.”

The recruiter makes one of those faces adults sometimes make.

“18, huh?” he says.

“18.”

And that is how she took the change.

The walk home afterwards is the hardest thing she’s ever done. She tells herself it is because her body is changing, but this is not so, not yet. That takes a few days to start.

It is because she is still human, rather, and knows what will happen.

“Mother,” she says, “Grandmother. It is my intention; I mean, I want to—I mean, I will— bumblebee.”

And the Lady Devereaux goes white, which is exactly as expected, and her breath rattles in her corset-constrained chest like the ball of a pinball machine, thumping back and forth.

“I said,” Emeline adds, jutting her chin, “I was 18.”

But what Emeline did not expect was the reaction of Morgaine.

They do not strike Emeline’s mother down, these words—though they strike her, yes, wash through Morgaine like lightning; but there is motion and not stillness, the bending of sleeves and jacket and the crinkling of skirts; and her mother wraps bloused arms around Emeline like package paper around a treasure, and her hug is deep and warm and faintly crackling.

“Oh, Emeline,” she says.

And there is strange wonder here; strange pride and fear; there is something here that is more than sorrow.

It is everything, and more, for thirty seconds of her life.

After that, Emeline begins to understand what a corset must be like, and why the Lady Devereaux is with such great frequency so strange.

Hard on the Heels of Ink’s Legend (I/I)

And in her last glance in the mirror, as he carries it away, she can see a great tower that is not her tower; and beyond it a sea of surging chaos; and an Ink who is not herself, but somehow possessed of that which is forbidden to her in Hell.

The mirror cracks.
— Ink in Emptiness

“Oops,” Martin says.

His fisted hand goes to his mouth and he stares, half in horror and half in involuntary amusement, as the lens Necessity cracks.

The crack becomes a webwork of cracks, spreading across its surface like marching ants.

The pressure in the chaos swells.

Then:

Martin can hear Andhaka screaming. The beast’s voice is audible even though Mrs. Schiff is quiet.

Martin thinks, Andhaka is unsettled and disjoined from her. I should go and offer her stabilizing advice, such as, “Do not throw good money after bad.”

Martin realizes that he is tumbling through the air. He does not like it when his goggles break so he curls in his neck. He does not bother protecting his cheek from a razor-edged shard of history.

The chaos has manifested a cocoon. It would be smart to deal with that but instead he finds himself thinking about how best to use it to tease Jane.

It’s really important to tease Jane in a crisis because she is so hard to freak out under normal conditions.

He hits the ground hard.

He is rolling. His cynicism goggles, darn it all, crack. They let in just the tiniest bit of the real world’s light. It is like a slice of horrible rose in amongst the construction-paper green.

His shoulders hurt.

His hand falls on squirming dust.

He looks up.

Jane has a knife. For a dizzying moment, he imagines her showing him the treatment he had shown Bob—

Such an incredibly funny concept! It’s almost impossible not to laugh, but because he knows that’s the crack in his cynicism at work he bites it down—

And then he realizes that it is a story more than it is a knife. It is a fragment of Necessity and it is tuned to something happening right now, right this moment, somewhere in the world.

He names it. He caresses it on his tongue.

Hard on the Heels of Ink’s Legend.

Time, which he hadn’t even realized quite had stopped, starts up again.

She Had Forgotten All the Red

The sky is brilliant. It’s crisp. It’s blue and purple and black and full of dot-like stars.“It didn’t used to look that beautiful,” says Sid.

He is in a glade. The guardian spirit of the glade is sitting beside him. She is a woman clad in the colors of the place: in the crisp green of the wet grass, the muddy brown of the dirt, the thick deep color of the trees.

The clothing of her blends into the world.

She says, “It’s been a long time.”

There’s a sadness to her as the spirit says, “In the days of my childhood it always looked like that.”

“What happened?” says Sid.

“It rotted,” she says. “The sky just rotted right away.”

When Sid gets home there’s a proclamation posted on the neighborhood kiosk. It’s got nice scrollwork and a fancy font.

“Be it known,” he reads, “that in pursuit of justice and democracy, the Drug Enforcement Administration hereby adopts the following zero-tolerance policy towards drug use and participation in the drug trade;

“That those alleged to commit such crimes should have their house taken from them;

“And their vehicles;

“And all their earthly goods;

“And as another matter, should it be deemed by the Agent on the scene that such a person has tainted their soul forever with the murk of drugs, so that redemption is impossible in this earthly frame, the Agent may take that soul, for sale or retention as befits the necessities of the time.

“Signed,” and then an illegible scrawl.

Behind Sid a lamp post sheds golden sparks into the night.

“Harsh,” says Sid.

He finishes going home and sleeps that night in peace.

Sid is sitting outside on his lawn chair on a Sunday afternoon. An ant crawls along the house’s outer wall behind him.

The ant encounters a break in the boards. It hesitates. It wibbles its antennae furiously.

“Little help?” it asks.

“Hm?” Sid says.

“I want to go up,” says the ant. “I can’t go up.

“Oh,” says Sid.

He holds out his finger against the wall. The ant uses it as a bridge. It climbs upwards and away.

“Sometimes, when I’m hungry,” Sid says, “I can see a palace in the sky, made of shining gold and suspended on four great lotus blossoms. It is east of the sunrise and north of the stars.”

“That’s a long way away,” says the ant.

“It’s very big,” says Sid.

“Bigger than the stars?”

“Bigger than galaxies.”

The ant pauses. It contemplates the grandiose scope of Sid’s vision.

“Dude,” it says.

“Why do I see these things?” asks Sid.

“It’s probably because you’re practicing austerities,” the ant says. “That often opens you up to spiritual visions. Like, this one time, I smelled funny and no one would disgorge food into my mouth? And then I fell into an ecstatic trance and saw a terrible vision of the Avici Hell!”

“Wow,” says Sid.

“My heart was moved to great compassion for the suffering of the sinners there,” says the ant. “But then I found a crumb and I was like, ‘hey, crumb!’ and I woke up.”

Sid turns away from the ant. He looks off into the sky.

“Radical,” Sid says.

Far above them, an unmarked black car pulls out of the driveway of the palace made of gold.

It drives down towards the earth.

Sid’s sitting in his living room staring at his lava lamp when there’s a knocking at his door. So he gets up. He answers. There’s a man from the DEA on the other side.

“Hey,” says the man.

The man is tall. He’s stunningly handsome: nut-brown skin and white white teeth, hair like black wood, and eyes an incredibly crisp blue. He’s wearing a black coat and black slacks and he’s got a gun at his side.

His name tag says, “Brad Summers.”

“Hey,” says Sid, charmed.

“I’m here to inform you,” says Agent Summers. “There’ve been allegations made against you. That you’ve fallen in with a bad sort. That you’re participating in the drug trade.”

“Come in,” says Sid.

He steps away from the door. He lets Agent Summers in. He gestures Agent Summers towards the table.

“Just allegations, right?” says Sid. “I mean, you don’t have any reason to suspect me?”

“I know you’re a good man, Sid,” says Agent Summers.

He walks in. He sits down. Sid sits down opposite.

“But I don’t know if you’ve fallen from the path of righteousness.”

Sid frowns a little.

“You look disturbed,” says Agent Summers.

“You’re acting weird,” says Sid.

“Ah.”

Agent Summers says:

When the world was made, it was full of endless beauty.
Joy and love cascaded down from Heaven and filled the things on earth.
They soaked into the world like water into a sponge.
They spread through the world like fire leaping from blade to blade of prairie grass.
The sunrise was this brilliant orange like a chemical reaction.
The night was as deep as silence.
And then as the years went by, bit by bit, all that was lost.

His eyes are bright. His words are like a river. He catches Sid in their spell like a preacher or a rock star catches their flock.

“That’s why the work we do is so important,” says Agent Summers. “That’s what the DEA is for. To halt that breaking of the beauty of the world. To pull back from it. To restore what has been lost.”

He holds out his hand. He pulls Sid’s soul from his chest. It’s a lump, like an egg, but it’s clear and crystal and blue. It’s glowing from within.

Sid stares for a long moment; then, in the midst of Agent Summers’ next words, he blinks and shakes himself, hard, and opens his mouth in protest.

“See,” says Agent Summers.

He rubs his hand along the soul. He holds up his fingers. They’re coated with a little bit of gunk—sticky grime, like one might find under a never-cleaned sink.

“This is the impact of the material world on your soul,” says Agent Summers. He stands up.

“Hey!” says Sid.

“I’m going to have to confiscate everything,” says Agent Summers.

“Hey!”

Sid is staring at Agent Summers and his face is horrified. He can’t quite form his protest into coherent words; the situation has turned into something Sid can’t grasp.

“Hey!”

“It’s the allegations of drug use,” says Agent Summers. “Can’t be helped. You can keep your clothes. They’re not druggy clothes. And—do you have a dog?”

“No.”

“Goldfish?”

“No.”

“Then I’ll take the rest.”

Agent Summers slips the soul into his breast pocket.

Sid is on his feet, still incoherent with protest. “But— how—”

“It’s necessary,” says Agent Summers. “We’ll let you know if you can have anything back.”

He puts his hands on Sid’s shoulders.

Agent Summers says, “Buck up. We’re not arresting you yet.”

Sid pulls his fist back to punch Agent Summers in the face; but Agent Summers has skated back three steps and his hand has fallen to the gun at his side.

Sid stops.

Agent Summers turns, as Sid stands there.

He walks away.

When the paralysis breaks in Sid and he charges to the door, Agent Summers is already pulling closed the door on his unmarked black car, starting the engine, and driving away.

Sid sits on the confiscated sofa in his confiscated house.

He’s been sitting there for sixteen hours, except when he uses his confiscated bathroom.

Sometime or other, he’s pretty sure, someone’s going to show up to kick him out and take his keys. Maybe they’ll rough him up. Sid is aware of this in a distant fashion.

He finds it hard to care, without his soul.

“What if I die?” Sid wonders.

Sid goes to the public library. He takes down all the books on souls. Five hours later, he’s come to the conclusion that a soul is inseparable from the broader metaphysical system in which it takes part; that the habit of speech that would identify “Sid’s soul” as a meaningful object in the world is imprecise and imprudent; and that in physically seizing Sid’s soul and carrying it off, Agent Summers of the DEA has committed a poorly-defined executive act. This does not answer Sid’s underlying question.

“It’s irresponsible, is what it is,” Sid says, to the librarian.

“Hm?”

The librarian’s a woman named Donna with a short blonde mop of hair.

“Stealing people’s souls without properly defining them,” Sid says.

“That’s the kind of thing that gets resolved in the courts,” the librarian says. “Scratch v. Stone, Hotep v. Stiggens, U.S. v. Persephone, and so forth.”

“Oh.”

Sid slumps.

Donna looks Sid over. He’s thin and getting thinner right before her eyes, and there’s a raging grief in him.

“I can help you find a lawyer,” she says.

But there’s something nagging at Sid’s mind.

He shakes his head. He says:

There is no court that could constrain him.
He is immutable:
Cold; certain; strong; and clad in black,
Like Death.
Winds will sweep across the world
And the air go chill
At the mention of his name.

“Whose?”

“Agent Summers’.”

The pages of the books then blow.

“Huh,” the librarian says.

“Hey,” says Sid.

He’s on the phone with the DEA Information Office.

“Hey,” says Sid. “I had my house taken by this guy. And my soul. And I was wondering—”

“I’m sorry, sir,” says the man at the other end. “But that’s just an urban legend. The DEA doesn’t confiscate people’s souls.”

That gives Sid pause for a moment.

“But you can sell them to raise money,” Sid points out. “I mean, traditionally, they’re worth a mint.”

“You can only exchange currency for fungible goods, sir.”

“Wait, what?”

“Well,” explains the DEA Information Office agent laboriously, “it’s impossible to separate a soul from the broader metaphysical system in which it takes part.”

Explaining this to Sid is part of the man’s job as a fully-empowered information agent of the United States government.

“What this means,” the DEA Information Office agent concludes, “is that while souls have concrete monetary value, one cannot meaningfully exchange them for that value. To sell a soul means to slight it; to diminish it; to sacrifice some portion of its value in the interest of other goods. This is not the official policy of the DEA or the United States government.”

“Oh.”

There’s a pause.

“Will there be anything else, sir?”

“Agent Summers—”

There’s a chill.

The information agent clears his throat. He interrupts Sid. He says, “We don’t know of any such person, sir.”

“You know that just from his name?”

“Yes, sir.”

The DEA Information Office agent recites:

He is immutable:
Cold; certain; strong; and clad in black,
Like Death.
Winds will sweep across the world
And the air go chill
At the mention of his name.

“Is it not so?”

“It’s so,” concedes Sid.

“There’s no one like that with any connection to this agency, sir.”

So Sid sighs.

He sits down in the pay phone booth.

“If there were—”

There’s a pause.

“If there were,’ says the agent, moved to a certain sympathy, “then he would live in a golden palace in the sky, supported by four lotus blossoms, east of the sunrise and north of the stars.”

Sid walks out of the phone booth and he’s thinking hard.

He goes to the glade. He sits there in the clothes that Agent Summers left him and he waits.

He gets hungrier and hungrier.

And the night sky is as beautiful as anyone can imagine. It’s crisp and clear and it makes his heart ache to look at it. It’s blue and black and purple and it’s pure. Set amidst it there’s a palace made of bone and wheat and ice and sorrow; and Sid blinks three times and sees it as the moon.

Then there’s the day, and the sun is a great and endless fire; and off to the northeast there is a golden palace that glimmers with its light.

And Sid says, “I shall not eat save sunlight, nor drink save the morning dew, until Heaven grants me a path into the sky.”

And many days pass, and Sid grows as thin as a stick, and he is sprawled on the grass and he shakes with the footsteps of the ants as a leaf might shake to the footsteps of a man.

And he eats only sunlight, and he drinks only the dew that forms, crisp and pure, on the blades of the grass.

And one day, in the musty late hours of the evening as the sun is descending towards the horizon, he looks up and Heaven has given him his answer.

The branches of the trees form a staircase of living wood. It rises endlessly into the sky and Sid goes up.

And he thinks as he walks the endless stairs:

I am lucky;
I am blessed;
for it is only the DEA whom I must fight,
and not Intelligence.

Sid knocks on the door of the golden palace. It opens. There’s a man from the DEA on the other side.

“Hey,” says the man.

The man is tall. He’s stunningly handsome: nut-brown with white white teeth, hair like black wood, eyes an incredibly crisp blue. He’s wearing a black coat and black slacks and he’s got a gun at his side.

His name tag says, “Brad Summers.”

“Hey,” says Sid. “I’ve come for my soul.”

Agent Summers’ eyes narrow a little, but he doesn’t blink.

“Come in,” he says.

And he leads Sid in; and Sid sees that the shadow of the man has eight arms, like a spider practicing to be a centipede.

“Take off your shoes,” says Agent Summers. “Stay a while.”

Sid does not take off his shoes. Instead, he stares. In the living room beyond the foyer there is a mosaic on the floor. It is full of stones that are blue and purple and black. They are the night sky, as crisp and perfect and beautiful as Sid had ever seen.

There is a long stillness, and then Agent Summers sighs.

“Go ahead,” he says.

Sid kicks off his shoes and walks out onto the mosaic; and it is past twilight, below, on earth, and Sid’s passage casts shadows over the night sky.

Sid kneels beside his soul and rests his fingertips against its shape.

“How did it happen?” Sid asks.

“A sickness,” says Agent Summers. “A long slow sickness. Bit by bit the sky rotted and its pieces fell into the world.”

“This bit is mine,” says Sid.

“Is that so?”

“I grew up with it inside me,” Sid says. “It’s my soul. It’s what defines me.”

And Agent Summers gives Sid a deep and solemn bow, because insofar as that is true Sid is a person who deserves his great respect; but then the Agent rises, and he is stern.

“It is for the people of this world that I have taken it; it is in defense of a public trust; and for this reason there is no one at the Agency or its oversight who will object.”

The man is cold; and certain; strong; and clad in black.

In the mosaic that is the sky resides Sid’s confiscated soul.

“Please,” says Sid.

Answers Agent Summers: “A man who clings to a portion of the sky and will not release it—isn’t that the height of presumption?”

“I need it,” Sid says.

“Or is it that the sky refuses to be the sky?” asks Agent Summers. “That it demands to walk around on earth with the feet and hands of a Sid?”

Sid rises.

“This thing is a wonder,” he admits, and his voice is unsteady.

Three hundred souls, perhaps, he thinks. The light in them and the color in them and the sweep of them—put together in the sky, they are infinitely larger and grander than souls had seemed when the man from the DEA had seized Sid’s from his chest.

Sid tries to move away, but he can’t.

“But that’s mine,” says Sid, a strangled noise. He seizes the stone that is his soul.

Agent Summers draws his gun.

He shoots Sid in the head.

The spirit of the glade is reclining on the grass, and casting her eyes upwards, and wondering what has become of Sid.

The sky is like it was when she was a child—blue and purple and black and full of dot-like stars. It is beautiful.

Yet there is something missing in it: something that fails in its evocation of the memories of her youth.

In the golden palace of Agent Summers, above the mosaic of the sky, there is gunfire.

“Oh,” says Sid.

And all through the world there are screams of horror.

All through the world there are children staring, and people pointing, and others covering their eyes.

“Ah,” breathes the spirit, understanding.

The sky is dark with blood and bits of bone and brain. There is a shadow on it as Sid falls, a heavy weighty shadow that remains until Agent Summers drags his corpse away.

“I had forgotten all the red.”

The Land Where Suffering is Remembered

Jaime and Emily run from the house of the horrible witch.

They run between the posts of the candy-cane fence. They squirm across the mud, pausing to snip off bits of barbed licorice. It is tasty but sharp, like a porcupine.

They hold their breath when passing through the soda swamp. The fizz won’t make them giddy!

Just past the swamp, the very large bear trees them.

Emily is pessimistic. “The bear! It will grind us up in its worrible jaws!”

“It’s a good bear,” hopes Jaime.

The very large bear rattles the tree.

“Bear!” calls Jaime. “Go away! This truculent attitude is unbecoming!”

“Yeah!” says Emily.

Jaime’s suggestion and Emily’s assent give the very large bear pause. It lowers itself heavily to the ground. It ponders aloud, its words sonorous and rich. “I do not wish to appear unbecoming. But it is my intention to grind you children up in my horrible jaws. Having conceived this intention, how may I pursue it in a mannerly fashion? The difficulty is profound. My heart is stirred with sympathy for you. But my intention: I cannot forsake it!”

“It’s not fair,” says Emily. “I got grunt up by a bear last time.”

Jaime is startled. “You did?”

“It ate off my arm,” Emily says. “I bled on ev’ybody.

“I’m sorry,” says Jaime. “That must have been just horrid!”

“I was in shock,” says Emily, wisely. “So it didn’t hurt so much at first. Then I screamed a lot. So I said to myself, ‘Emily, you’re screaming so much, it’s probably the horrible pain.’ And it was!”

“Wow,” says Jaime.

The very large bear comes to a resolution. It rises up on its hind legs and thumps the tree again.

“A bear shows its honor with persistence!” the very large bear declares.

Emily takes out a long strand of horse’s hair. She cups it in her hands. Jaime looks at her.

“Really? Now?” Jaime says.

“If it were a small cute bear,” says Emily, “then I would try to tame it with my niceness. If it were a normal-sized bear then we could run away. If it were a large bear, then you could defeat it with your trickery! But this is a very large bear.”

Jaime assesses the very large bear.

“That’s so,” he agrees.

The very large bear shakes the tree with its paws. “Your discussion does not address my underlying imperative,” it grumbles.

Emily chants,

Roan horse, roan horse,
Sunset flare!
Ride east! Ride east!
I’m
scared by bears!

The horse hair falls from her hands. The setting sun burns and roils red. A shaft of sunlight strikes like a dagger into the glade, and the air is filled with hoofbeats.

A chestnut horse runs past.

“Now!” says Emily.

Jaime pouts, because he’d wanted to be the one to shout, “Now!”

Emily jumps. Jaime jumps. The horse veers on a zigzag path, faster in its course than a bolt of lightning. Each of the children lands on its back, and it carries them away.

“Haa,” sighs the very large bear. It sits back on its haunches. “I think that proves very well who is the unbecoming one in this exchange. Horses! The very idea!”

Then the children are gone.

They ride hard. They ride far. But when the sun passes below the horizon, the horse sets them down at the edge of the fire lake and gallops away.

“We shall have to walk around it,” says Emily.

“Or swim,” says Jaime.

Emily pokes the lake with her finger. It singes her lightly, and she pulls her finger back. “Or walk!”

Jaime looks nervous.

“It can’t hurt that badly to swim in a lake of fire,” Jaime argues.

Emily sits down. She makes horrible faces at him. Then she makes funny faces at him. Then she makes horrible faces again. Soon Jaime is sweating under the strain.

“. . . Fine,” says Jaime. He begins stomping around the lake.

The lake roils. Its voice of fire says, “You had been wiser before, Jaime.”

“Don’t tempt me,” says Jaime. “If you tempt me, maybe I’ll jump in. Then I’ll burn up! Then who’s happy?”

“That’s your human standards,” mulls the lake of fire. “But consider it from the perspective of an immortal lake of fire that nobody ever swims in.”

It roils and casts its foam of ashes onto the shore.

“Looking at it from your perspective,” Jaime agrees, “everything in life is transient and full of the pity of things.”

“Worrible pity,” Emily agrees. “Like, that ant.”

They stop and look at the ant for a while.

Eventually, they both sigh sadly and walk on.1

“Why would you want to swim?” Emily asks. “I mean, ‘sides the lake tempting you?”

“There’s a tree,” says Jaime. “Around this way. It was planted with a poisoned seed that loved nothing better than hurting people. So it grew fruits that have a poisoned magic. I ate them once, and I swelled up like an urchin.”

“Oh no,” says Emily.

“I’m afraid that if I see that tree again, I’ll eat another fruit! That’s why I don’t want to walk around the lake.”2

“It doesn’ seem likely,” says Emily.

“It really hurt,” says Jaime. “A lot!”

Jaime looks so nervous that Emily has to touch his arm. Then Emily thinks for a bit. Then she takes out another horse hair.

“What?” says Jaime. “No, it’s stupid!”

“Then it’s my stupid,” says Emily.

She says:

Black horse, black horse,
Born in night!
Ride down! Ride down!
Bad fruit—no bite!

There is darkness all around them. Then there are hoofbeats. Then a coal-black horse stands beside them.

“I am glad that you did not wait until Jaime had already bitten the fruit,” says the horse. “For then I would have had to gallop through all the night and all the day, even though that means my death, to bring him past the teeth and the hooks, around the gap and under the blades, over the hills and over the dales, to the healing stones at last.”

“See?” says Emily smugly. “Preemptive medicine!”

“Fine,” says Jaime. “I’ll ride.”

So Jaime mounts up on the horse, and Emily too. And when they reach the place of the poisoned fruit, the horse begins to gallop, leaving Jaime reaching fruitlessly after his prize.

After a while, the horse slows down.

“Now we must move slowly,” says the horse. “For it is dark here, and we may lose our way.”

There are trees and shadows all around them as they reach the place of teeth. And Jaime is shivering.

“What is it?” Emily says.

“It’s the night horse sickness,” says Jaime.

The horse moves swifter now, as the teeth bite and gnash.

“We should get down,” says Jaime. “We should get off. For I feel the night fever in me. I feel it rising.”

“Not in all the teeth!” says Emily.

Jaime looks at the teeth.

“Hurry,” he says. He wraps his muddy jacket tightly around him. He huddles close in. And Emily holds on behind him.

And the horse runs.

“Hurry,” says Jaime.

Then they are in the place of hooks, looming and dangling from the trees.

“Hurry,” mumbles Jaime. But now the night horse sickness is in its full flush, and his cheeks are red, and his eyes are white, and he knows nothing save the ride. And he is not speaking to Emily but to the horse, saying, “Hurry! Faster! Ride faster!”

And he hunches low, and Emily hunches low, as the horse reaches its full stride, there in the darkness of the night, like a swift-running river, but faster than the wind.

“Whuf!” says Emily, suddenly.

She has been caught on a hook. Her coat dangles from the hook, just like in a laundromat, and Emily dangles with it. The shock of her sudden stop takes all the breath out of her as the horse gallops on.

There is a pause.

“Whups!” amends Emily.

She can hear Jaime in the distance shouting the words of the night horse sickness, “Faster! Hurry! Ride straight! Ride hard!”

She knows that the horse will cast Jaime off at sunrise; and the first murky fingers of that light are cresting over the hills.

But distantly she hears his shouts, and she thinks of the gap that lies ahead.

So as she dangles there from the hook she takes the third and last of her horse hairs in her hands.

Palamino of
Mornings bright!
Ride west! Ride west!
To catch the night!

There is a glinting and a glimmering. There are hoofbeats. Then, shining in the night, the palomino is there.

“This is a fine predicament,” observes the palomino.

“I can take off my coat by myself,” says Emily. She does so. She lands on the palomino. “Yay!”

“It’s not good for young ladies to be out at night without their coats,” worries the palomino.

“Jaime’s riding for the gap,” says Emily. “So that’s a higher oblation!”

The palomino tosses its head. “Hold on tight, then,” it says.

And it begins to run.

There is a mist over the gap when Emily sees Jaime again. The night horse is tiring as the dawn gets close, but its hoofbeats are still like the fury of a storm. Jaime is flushed and clinging tight. Emily shouts, “The gap! The gap!”

But Jaime cannot hear.

“The gap!” Emily shouts. The night horse flicks its ear. It is still too far to parse her words.

And Jaime cannot hear.

“The gap!”

Then she is upon him, then she is reaching for him, but it is too late. The night horse is blinded by the mist and by the coming dawn. It is galloping out over the gap, and its horseshoes cannot grip on air. It tumbles. It falls, and Emily falling after.

In many places, they would have struck the stones. They would have rolled down the endlessly steep surface of the gap, bouncing on its hard implacable stone, until they hit the knife teeth of the dried riverbed below.

But they do not. Here, they do not. Their fall is a blur, and they come to rest like leaves upon a lake, and when they wake in the morning light they shall feel no pain.

For this is not one of the Lands of Suffering through which they travel,

But a Land where Suffering is Only Remembered.3

Footnotes

1. This is a horrible but very obscure pun.
2. The path around the lake only had one direction.
3. Lands where suffering is entirely forgotten, it should be understood, are not kind places for children like Emily and Jaime.

Ants

Ants are relatives on your father or mother’s side. Some are antecedents and others are precedants. One is even the Presidant of the United States. Also there are crawly ants that live on the ground and keep their deaths in their antennae; these ants are aliens and not related to you at all. Sometimes the shadow eats the antennae of an ant and after that it can never die.

The Awa

Jane’s in a bar. She’s sitting on a barstool. Her feet are dangling far above the floor. She sips on a Shirley Temple. She uses a crazy straw. Nobody troubles her. Not even when they’re drunk. Not even when they fight. She’s Jane. She’s untouchable. She’s a half ton of trouble in a fifty-pound glass.

“Psst, ” says the guy. Oscar’s his name. He whispers to Jane like he’s got a watch to sell. “Psst. Jane. There’s an awa in town. You’ve got to find it. You must check it out.”

“An awa?” Jane asks. Her right ear feels funny. It can’t twitch. It can’t swivel. But it wants to right now. It wants to twitch. It wants to turn towards him. It wants to hear what Oscar might say.

“An ‘ant without antennae’.” Oscar grins. It’s a gritty sort of grin. “Haven’t you heard the word?”

“Never, ” Jane says. She hops down from the stool. She looks bold. She looks stern. She thrusts out an arm. “It’s a mystery — but it won’t elude me! Tell me, Oscar, what an awa might be.”

“I don’t know much,” Oscar says, muttering. “It’s an ant. That’s the truth. It’s got no antennae. It’s an ant and it’s got no antennae at all. It’s in town. No one knows what grim business’s its mission. It’s an ant. It’s determined. But no one knows why. There’s a veil of mystery over the awa. It’s not a thing that we humans can know. But it walks with a smirk and there’s trouble at its heels. That ant can’t be good.”

Jane is a girl with a practical expression. “If it has no antennae,” Jane says, and she’s frowning, “the awa in question can’t communicate at all. If it’s mute, and it’s solemn, then it can’t share its mission — just trudge along waiting until someone’s foot falls.”

Oscar lowers his voice. It’s touched by his wonder. It’s like magic from a drink is clogging his tongue. “It doesn’t need headgear,” he murmurs. “It talks using words like you and I might.”

“I’m trouble,” Jane says. She thinks, deep and solemn. “Logically, I should be at this ant’s heels.”

“I cannot dispute that,” Oscar says smugly. He snickers with evil. He smiles with glee. He wants her to find it. He wants her to find the ant. He plans to follow and do evil things then.

Jane heads into the city. It’s dark and it’s sparkly. It’s a dark sparkly city and it’s full of things. She picks one thing at random. It’s a cabbie, it happens. “Take me to the awa.” Then she gets in the cab. The cab’s engine rumbles. It screeches off down the street. Water splashes on Oscar. He calls a cab of his own.

Jane pulls up by the sidewalk. By the sidewalk, she sees an ant. The ant has no antennae. It trudges along.

“A marvel,” Jane breathes. In her pockets she fumbles. She passes the cabbie a few random things. She’s got bird’s nest and mirrors, earwax and string, a shiny bead, silver, and a three-sided ring.

“I would prefer money,” the cabbie informs her.

“Wouldn’t we all!” Jane’s a cynic tonight.

Jane tips the cabbie. She gives him a random thing. It’s not what he wants, but it’s pretty enough. Then she gets out. She stands right behind the ant. A few minutes pass. Then the ant turns its head.

“Pardon,” the ant says. Its voice is crisp and clear. “I cannot help noticing there’s a girl at my heels.”

“That’s ’cause I’m trouble,” Jane quickly explains.

The ant looks at her blankly. It has no expression. Ants use antennae for that kind of thing.

“Also, I’m curious.”

“Ah,” says the ant. “You want to hear my story.”

“Yes,” Jane summarizes.

The ant turns and trudges on. In a while, Jane takes a step. The ant trudges on. Jane takes another step. This process continues until the ant speaks.

“I lost my antennae a long time ago. It happens sometimes, if you’re an ant. It’s hard for an ant, to have no antennae. It’s really hard. It’s not a thing I could bear.”

“Ah,” Jane breathes. “I understand.”

“For three months,” the ant says, “I lay under a leaf. I hoped that I’d find myself wasting away. But I always found water in the dew of the morning. My friends regurgitated food into my mouth. The leaf gave me shelter. The wind sang me poetry. With one thing and another, I survived those three months.”

“I can sing poetry,” Jane boldly declares. She skips forward, hopscotch, ten great long strides. “One! Two! Three! Four! God don’t love you any more! Five, six, seven, eight! Now that love has turned to hate! Seven, eight, nine, ten! Hate comes round to love again!”

Jane looks embarrassed. She’s skipped far past the ant. The ant is trudging nine full steps back. Jane hurries around and stands behind it again.

“Anyway,” the ant says, “so the first month, I thought that if I ever got up again, I should kill everything in the world, as the price of my misery. And in the second month, I thought that maybe I should cut off everyone’s antennae, and just leave them alive, to suffer like me. But in the third month, I thought, if I ever get up again, I should try bringing happiness to everyone in the world. And then I got up; so I set to my task.”

“I tried bringing happiness to everyone in the world once,” Jane says. “It didn’t really work out very well.”

“Why not?” asks the ant. Its voice is rich bittersweet. It sounds conflicted. It still trudges on.

“People are weird,” Jane summarizes.

“Ah,” the ant says. In a while, Jane takes a step. “So,” says the ant, “I started to travel. I’d travel the world, I promised myself. I’d cross every inch of the land and the seas; and the sky, when I could; and the stars, when they’d have me. Each step I take, I carve out my trail. I make things better. I make them cleaner. I make them purer. I make them brighter. I make them more. That’s my mission. It’s what I’m for. I will carve truth from this cold grey world of ours. And that’s what I’ve done for the past seven years.”

“Wow,” Jane says, thoughtful. “How far have you traveled?”

“A few cities,” the ant says. “Back and forth. Back and forth. Leaving a little trail behind me.”

Jane examines the ant’s trail. It’s shiny. It’s a little sweet. It’s making things better. It’s making them clean.

“Just a few cities?” she asks, disappointed.

“It’s not very easy, you know, for an ant.”

“Ah,” Jane says, wisely. “I suppose that that’s true.”

Jane crouches low. She eyes the trail more carefully. It’s a strange little marker on the cold city ground. It’s got an ant’s trail. That’s not a great thing. But it’s got beauty too. She can see it right there. It’s tainting the street, under the trail. The street is itself again, where the ant’s passed. It’s true and it’s real. It’s pretty. It’s neat. It’s grimy and sticky. It knows it’s a street.

“You’re pretty good at this,” Jane says.

“I’m an awa,” the ant says. “It’s what I do.”

Jane spins in a circle, three times left, three times right. “There’s a guy. He’s named Oscar. He’ll follow me here.”

“He’s a squisher, then,” the ant says. It shrugs at her quietly. “He wants to squish me and end my long trail.”

“Why?” Jane asks.

The ant shrugs again. “You said ‘People are weird.'”

“So what are you going to do?”

“He’ll step on me,” the ant says. “And make his shoe clean and bright; and I’ll be alive; and I’ll heal in good time. And then I’ll come back and take up the road again.” The ant trudges on for a minute and change. “Ants keep their deaths in our antennae, you know. An ant without antennae can’t really die.”

Jane’s eyes grow wide. “Really? You’ll never die? There must be a lot of you awas in the world.”

“A few dozen,” the ant says.

“All working for happiness?”

“No,” the ant says. “Though I wish that were true. Some work for joy and some strive for sorrow; some seek out love, and some commit horrors. We change the world slowly. We’re awas. It’s what we do. We change the world very, very, very slowly.”

Jane skips off. She’s done with the awa. She finds a pedestrian. She colors his shadow in.

Oscar’s cab pulls up on the street beside the ant. Oscar gets out. He gives the awa a grin. The ant smiles back, as much as an awa can. The two take their places, and things happen then.

Avoiding the Use of Exclamation Points1

1 featuring a classic of Chinese poetry, the Book of Songs

Jane looks up. “Let’s avoid the use of exclamation points!”

Martin frowns.

“Oh, ” Jane says. She blushes. “Of course. I mean, let’s avoid the use of exclamation points.”

“That’s better,” Martin agrees.

“The world is ending,” Jane intones. “Everyone’s dead. All civilization is in ruins. A giant three-headed firebreathing mutant ant is marching this way. Run. Run. Run. Martin, we must flee.”

“I’m panicking,” Martin answers. “I cannot possibly flee. I am too busy running around in circles.”

“Snap out of it, man.” Jane shakes Martin languidly. “You’ve got to focus.”

“Right,” Martin says. “The three-headed ant.” He looks up. He waves to the ant. The ant wiggles its mandibles at him. Martin frowns. “Jane, this giant three-headed mutant ant cannot possibly breathe fire. It’s made of flame-retardant foam. Have you been telling tall tales again?”

Jane looks down and scratches a toe through the dirt. “It is just a little fib. It’s still a deadly mutant monster.”

“Yeah, right,” says Martin, dismissively. “Real deadly.” He frowns. “No helping it now. Let’s do things that make the situation worse.”

“Okay,” Jane agrees. “I’ll make many beeping noises. That’s sure to rouse its ire.”

“I’ll feed it special ant-gro tablets,” Martin says.

Jane beeps repeatedly. This rouses the ant’s ire. Martin feeds the ant two special ant-gro tablets. One head swells up and becomes ultra-giant. Another, mega-giant. The third head dangles sadly. It wanted to be special, but now it’s the smallest giant ant head on the whole body. Its mandibles twitch, quoting the Book of Songs:

What crumb is not good?
Which insect is not sad?
Have pity on us giant three-headed ants
Treated as if we were not threats.

“I mock your pain,” says Jane. “You should take it out on myself and Martin.”

Martin attempts to light the ant on fire. He can’t. It’s made of flame-retardant ant foam.

The mega-giant ant head wiggles its mandibles:

Please, Martin,
Do not attempt to light me on fire,
Do not test the resistant properties of my flame-retardant body.
It’s not that I worry about your success,
But I fear Smokey the Bear.
You, I would devour,
But Smokey the Bear coming to defeat us both — that I dread.

“He has a point,” Jane said. “Only you can prevent forest fires. But by doing so, you invite a bear in a hat to devour us both.”

“Liar.” Martin sulks. “Smokey the Bear does not devour children. He is good and kind and gentle.”

“You should marry him,” Jane proposes.

Martin stomps his foot. “I don’t want to do unhelpful things any more!”

The giant ant looks shocked. Martin used an exclamation point. Its ultra-giant head whispers, softly:

O sun; O moon;
Which enlightens this lower world.
Here is the man
Who treats me not according to the ancient rule.

The Shadow (IV/IV)

The shadow is corrosion. The shadow is decay. The shadow is the dissolution at the heart of all things. The hungry caterpillar bites the shadow. CHOMP!

“Hey, ” says the shadow. “That hurt!”

The hungry caterpillar bites the shadow. CHOMP! GULP! That’s it for the shadow.

The hungry caterpillar’s eyes turn black. Its skin seethes. It weaves a shadow cocoon. It sleeps three days. Then it emerges. Now it’s like a monster. It lives only to destroy. It crawls out onto the branch.

“Hi, shadow caterpillar!” says the ant. The ant is industrious. The ant is busily storing food for winter.

The shadow smiles at the ant. It eats one antenna. It eats the other one. It eats two of the ant’s antennae!

“Great,” says the ant. “Without my antennae, I can’t communicate with the home planet. I hope you’re happy.”

The shadow isn’t sure whether to be happy or not, so it moves on.

“Hi, shadow caterpillar!” says the grasshopper. The grasshopper is frivolous. It frolicks without thought for the future.

The shadow smiles at the grasshopper. The shadow eats two front legs. It eats two middle legs. It eats two back legs. The shadow eats six of the grasshopper’s legs! The grasshopper bleeds out and dies.

“Now I won’t starve to death in winter,” says the grasshopper ghost. “You’ve deprived me of my basic moral function in society. I hope you’re happy.”

The shadow caterpillar isn’t sure whether to be happy or not, so it moves on.

“I promise I’ll haunt you!” cries the grasshopper ghost.

The shadow caterpillar isn’t worried. What can a grasshopper ghost do?

“Hi, shadow caterpillar!” says Mr. P. Mr. P. has been held in a South Carolina jail without access to an attorney for 19 months. This is because Mr. P. is allegedly a threat to national security.

The shadow smiles at Mr. P. It eats one of Mr. P.’s arms. Then it eats the other. It eats two of Mr. P.’s arms! Mr. P. rapidly sprouts four arms. Oh, no! Mr. P. isn’t an enemy combatant. He’s a lernean hydra! The shadow eats two of Mr. P.’s arms. Then it eats two more. It eats four of Mr. P.’s arms. Mr. P. sprouts eight more.

“I can’t very well use a dirty bomb when I’ve got eight arms,” says Mr. P. “I hope you’re happy.”

The shadow is not sure whether to be happy or not. Nor is it entirely sure what percentage of Mr. P.’s arms it has actually eaten. Can YOU figure it out?

“Excuse me,” says the Justice Department. “I don’t think Constitutional freedoms are meant to apply to lernean hydras.”

The shadow smiles at the Justice Department. It eats twelve and a half lawyers. It eats another twelve and a half lawyers. It eats one department after another. It eats ONE HUNDRED of the Justice Department’s lawyers.

“The consumption of our lawyers is going to substantially delay any public trial of the Nemean Lion,” says Mr. A. “I hope you’re happy.”

Mr. A. is a striking figure. He’s wearing an invulnerable lion-skin suit! It’s like he’s stepped right out of the Greek myths.

The shadow stops to think. A spotlight shines on the shadow. You’d think this would destroy it, but it’s a blacklight, so it’s okay. The shadow clears its throat.

“I’m actually not happy at all,” it says. “I just want to eat things and dissolve them in my stomach. But it seems like everything I do in the interests of mindless consumption and decay has a complex moral character that I did not originally intend.”

“I know what that must be like,” confides Mr. A. He’s startlingly sympathetic in this portrayal. “Perhaps you should retreat to a quiet place and meditate?”

“I’ll do that,” asserts the shadow caterpillar. “Perhaps I’ll find enlightenment and become a truly baneful demon.”

The shadow caterpillar travels for seventy days. It gets lean and hungry, so it eats a bunch more people. That satiates its stomach! Finally, it finds a place of peace and quiet and settles down to meditate.

CHIRP.

“Damn you, ghost grasshopper!” cries the shadow. “Will I never know peace?”

CHIRP.

The sound is getting closer.

“I’ll meditate despite you. You’ll see! I’ll achieve an all-encompassing enlightenment devotion. Then I’ll eat the whole world!”

CHIRP.

The ghost grasshopper drags itself into view. It has to drag itself, because it has no legs. It does, however, have a handgun.

“Say goodbye, shadow caterpillar.”

Guns don’t kill shadow caterpillars. Ghost grasshoppers do.

As the caterpillar dies, the shadow suspires from its wound. It hisses into the air above the corpse. It sulks. “Now I won’t be able to use my immensely powerful caterpillar body to dissolve all things back into the darkness of nonexistence. I hope you’re happy.”

The ghost grasshopper doesn’t know whether to be happy or not, so it leaves.

“I’m going to the show,” says the shadow. “But I won’t enjoy it!”

In the distance, Mr. P. wrestles ten federal agents. He’s got three million arms! Can even highly-trained federal agents defeat him now?