My Neighbor Samara

Bursts of noise come from upstairs—the sound of television tuned to nothing, shouting its emptiness at the world.

The room is seething with motes of white and black.

Static sprites—makkurokurosuke.

They are hungry and they live in abandoned houses where someone has left a television on and they cling to human flesh like leeches. They are hungry. But they do not eat today.

Today Mei screams.

The sound of her scream cuts across the noise. It drives the static sprites before it. It maddens and hurts them. They swirl back into the television set, bits of puffy white and black jockeying for place, until the last of them squeezes in at last and in darkness and silence a white ring shines forth.

“That’s very good, Mei,” her father says.

Mei giggles happily.

Mei’s father is a forensic archaeologist. He investigates mysterious and horrible deaths with the invaluable assistance of his two adorable daughters, Satsuki and Mei.

The three of them have moved to a fabulous new house that their father knew about because its previous owner died in a horrible mysterious way. It was an incredible bargain.

But it’s haunted by the evils of modern entertainment.

Mei goes down to the booze cellar one day to play and she sees this guy. This strange guy. This strange little spirit-rabbit guy walking on the shelf above the port.

This guy above the port is the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Mei follows him.

He meets up with another, larger guy, in a more modern dead channel blue.

They notice her following. They’re a bit perturbed. They run.

She chases.

They lead her out of the house and through the woods and to an abandoned well. They run out along its wooden lid. She follows. The lid cracks. Mei falls.

Down and down she tumbles, like Alice, and lands on the stomach of a beautiful drowned lady.

“Unh,” the lady grunts.

Then the lady tries to go back to sleep.

It’s not very easy to get to sleep when you’re at the bottom of a well. It might sound cool and soothing but in practice your hair is always getting algae on it and the rocks dig into the hollow of your back and you find yourself thinking that really it would be nice if somebody would pull you out of the well. Also sometimes you are an inhuman creature who had never previously slept since the day you were born.

So when the lady had finally gotten to sleep and then Mei fell on her her first instinct was something on the order of, “Just another few minutes, Mom.”

But Mei is prodding her.

“Hi, lady,” Mei says.

Finally the lady opens her eyes. She mumbles something in Japanese and tries to afflict Mei with terrible visions.

“Sa-ma-ra?” Mei says.

She beams happily.

“Your name is Samara!”

Satsuki and her father look for Mei. They find her laying in front of the television set and twitching.

“You must have had an epileptic seizure,” her father says.

But Mei shakes her head.

“I was with a magical decaying girl at the bottom of a well!”

“Hmm,” her father says, thinking. “That might have been Samara. She is the keeper of the Juzou Mori.”

“Ohhhh,” say Mei and Satsuki.

They run around saying, “Samara! Samara!”

“Hmm, we should really get phone service,” their father says.

One night when their father is out investigating a hideous vivisection-initiated murder in the outskirts of town Satsuki gets an idea.

“Father didn’t bring a body bag today,” she says. “What if he needs to bring the corpse back with him? We should go meet him at the bus stop!”

“Bus stop!” Mei says, delighted.

They go to wait at the bus stop. Mei falls asleep on the way. She begins moaning and twitching.

“I bet Samara’s afflicting you with emanations,” Satsuki says.

She sighs fondly.

Mei is always getting afflicted with psychic emanations. Satsuki, who is older, is more often kidnapped by deranged lunatics.

Satsuki picks Mei up and carries her to the bus stop. To her delight Samara is standing there as if waiting for a bus.

Satsuki looks at Samara.

Samara looks at Satsuki.

“It must be hard to be dead and all alone in the forest,” Satsuki says. Then she chews on her lip. It’s hard to say what she is going to say next. “Would you like a body bag?”

Samara looks at her.

Satsuki closes her eyes and bows and holds out the body bag, blushing.

Samara hesitates.

Then Samara takes the body bag. She steps into it. She zips it up. She beams delightedly, one must suppose. After a moment, the bag unzips a little and a pale hand emerges to offer Satsuki a videotape.

“Oh! Do you want me to take it?” Satsuki asks.

Samara just holds out the videotape.

“Thank you!” Satsuki says.

She takes the videotape. She looks at it.

“Um, it’s Rated R for extremely disturbing scenes and a curse,” she says.

Samara zips up her body bag. She doesn’t say anything.

After a bit a bus-like horror shows up. It has the face of a cat and its eyes burn static. Its upholstery is flesh and fur. It has no driver. Samara hops awkwardly on board.

“Ohhh,” Satsuki says.

Samara does not look back but she speaks. “When you record data onto a bus, it develops cat-like features. This lasts for seven days.”

The bus doors close. Grinning horribly, the creature leaps away.

“Wait!” Satsuki calls suddenly. “Wait! How do you record data onto a bus?”

But the creature is gone.

That night, when she tells the story to their father, he nods wisely.

“If she died in terrible agony,” she says, “then little things like recording data onto busses is not surprising.”

“I want to die in terrible agony!” Satsuki says.

Her father laughs.

He shakes his head.

Satsuki looks pleadingly at him. Mei bounces around, saying, “Die! Die!”

“Well,” their father says, kindly, “Let’s just watch the tape.”

They watch the tape. It shows them a house filled with terrible soot creatures, lumbering beasts with leaves on their heads, barbaric ritual dances, and a woman gasping for life in a hospital far from home.

There is a pause.

Then the video resolves into the image of a ring
ing phone.

“Hmm, we should really get phone service,” their father says again.

A shadowy figure picks up the phone.

A voice says, “Seven—”

But their father turns the television off.

He’s just noticed!

The girls are fast asleep.

“So young,” he says. “I guess you have to be an old-timer to be scared by all these dead people.”

He carries them off to bed.

One morning Mei has a terrible psychic intuition.

“It’s mother,” she says.

“Mother’s dead,” Satsuki says.

“Not any more!” Mei protests.

“Let her rest in peace,” Satsuki says. “She probably hasn’t forgotten the last time!”

But Mei starts crying.

“Mei—” Satsuki says.

“No!” Mei shouts.

She bursts onto her feet, tears streaming down her face, and charges out of the room, slamming the thin screen door behind her.

“Mei?” Satsuki says.

Satsuki goes to the door. She opens it. She looks outside.

“Mei?”

Satsuki’s face pales. Mei has vanished.

“What do I do?” Satsuki says. “What do I do?”

She runs around in a circle.

Then she stops. She calms herself.

“She’s probably just in a spirit world,” Satsuki says. “Halfway between life and death. Oh, father should be here!”

She clenches her fists.

She is only a little assistant. She is not good at solving hideous mysteries on her own. But her father is at work investigating a mysterious death and her mother is hopefully still buried in the steel-chained coffin so she is on her own.

“The tape,” she says.

She goes to the television room. She turns on the television. She flips past Mr. Headroom and Mr. Krueger. She finds a blank channel and puts in the video.

It shows a game show. Teenagers with meat strapped to their heads are sticking their heads through holes into a cage with a gila monster in it.

“No, no, no!” Satsuki says. She hits the television. “Mei you shouldn’t have taped over the cursed tape!”

The gila monster approaches one of the teenagers, who screams and ducks.

Then in the distance Satsuki sees Samara.

“Oh, thank God,” she says.

“This is unexpected,” the game show host is saying. “Not just a gila monster, but also some kind of unliving . . .”

Samara gives him a chilling glance and he stops.

“Somebody call a forensic archaeologist!” a contestant shrieks. The gila monster lunges. But we do not see the ending.

Samara obscures it as she crawls from the screen.

Samara stares at Satsuki.

“Samara, Samara,” Satsuki says. “Mei’s gone! Mei’s gone into some kind of terrible netherworld between light and darkness!”

Samara looks at her still.

Then slowly Samara’s mouth widens into a hellish grin.

Samara gestures towards the door. The sky goes dark and fills with twisting clouds and lightning flares. The wind blows deep and cold.

Yielding a horrible howl unto the world, a seven-day bus creature lands before the door.

Satsuki looks back at Samara.

“Do you want me to get in? Do you want me to get in, Samara?”

Then, because Samara gives no indication, Satsuki scrambles into the cat-like bus and seats herself amongst its bulging clumps of fur.

The door slams shut and fades away.

Through realms of darkness and horror the bus flies, its mouth fixed in a bared-teeth smile. Its eyes cast forth static unto the mist.

Then Satsuki sees her—Mei—suspended amongst the permeable and nebulous tendrils of the netherworld, eyes blank and purple fires burning in her open mouth.

Before this majestic and infernal vision the bus goes still.

Its headlights shine upon the younger girl.

Its engine stops.

Its door manifests and opens again.

“I have lived for seven days,” it says.

And as Satsuki steps from the bus she can see the material form returning to it; and it plunges from the world of horror into the world of things; and she closes her eyes tightly against a strange butterfly of grief that flies within her chest.

Mists surround her now.

She can hear the songs of the tormented dead, calling to her, bidding her to join them in their suffering.

But she opens her eyes, and she says, “Mei.”

And Mei wakes.

“You can’t be with Mom yet,” Satsuki says.

And she takes Mei into her arms, and pulls away into the living world.

Terror fades to light.

That’s the last time either of them see Samara or watch her magical tape. But Samara watches over them always.

Seven days before you die, they say, she makes a bus for you.

She makes a bus for you, so that you will not go unaccompanied into the dark.

Against the warm fur of a cat you shall ride to whatever is your destination; and where that is not even a forensic archaeologist may know.

The Cougar

Sometimes Pa’s cover is so deep that he forgets that he’s an agent.

He’ll be cleaning and greasing the traps—the little traps, the big traps, and that one great-jawed iron trap sound enough to catch a bear.

Or he’ll be sitting by the fire, playing his fiddle through the long winter evening.

And he’ll remember.

This isn’t your life. This isn’t who you really are.

It’ll make him startle, and he’ll almost drop the traps. And if he’s playing the fiddle, then he’s sure to miss a note.

But it’s worst when he’s out in the woods in the silence of the trees.

When he’s out there and the trees are carrying their backpacks of snow and pointing their knives of ice at him; when the wind goes still and there’s only a distant, staccato rustling in the woods; when there’s frost on his moustaches and beard and he’s hunting out in the emptiness of it and the silence of the trees, and he remembers.

You are not this Pa.

And if it weren’t so cold that his eyes would freeze, he’d cry from it.

And if it weren’t that he knew there was a warm house for him, back that way, when he was done with his hunting and his chopping and his gathering of things—

When he was done, though he did not say this consciously to himself, with the great sweeping child-net of his patrol—

Then he would probably just fall down, and tremble there, like an animal too wounded to go on.

He doesn’t know who else in these woods might be an agent.

He knows there’s at least one other.

Sometimes he thinks it’s his cousin Bernard. And sometimes he thinks it’s Ma.

Maybe even the shopkeeper, down at the big store in the town.

You can buy candy for a penny there, a great big chunk of it. You can buy fabric so beautiful it’ll take your breath away. And the shopkeeper doesn’t seem to judge, he doesn’t seem to care who comes in and who doesn’t.

Why, he might even sell things to a wicked, naughty child.

But that seems a bit like entrapment, to Pa, a bit too close to the edge.

So while he doesn’t know if the man is, and he doesn’t know if the man isn’t, he hopes it isn’t so.

And he moves through the forest and it’s marked with snow angels where the cougars and the bears and the owls have been at play.

And he breathes the bitter wind.

And he thinks: thank God for another day without finding even one.

Not that day, anyway.

Not that day, but there are others.

Now one night Pa is going home, in the darkness of the woods, and he hears a cougar scream.

He’d followed the tracks of a bad child that day for almost an hour before losing his quarry to a stream.

He felt guilty about that—

A seething, trembling guilt—

Because he’s thinking that maybe he didn’t go quite so fast as he could’ve; and maybe he’d given up too soon; and that he’d wasted so much time on that that he hadn’t gotten meat or furs; and anyhow he’d wasted ammunition, there at the end of it, when he’d turned around and seen a scrap of calico cloth stuck onto a bush and in the panic of the moment he had fired off his gun.

He works hard, making the bullets, and the lead costs money, so it burns him, that he’d fired.

And he’s thinking, Maybe I’ve gone too deep.

Maybe I don’t want to hunt bad children any more.

And anyhow, what a waste. What a waste of a good bullet, on a stupid scrap of cloth.

So he’s in that state of mind—all kinds of things worrying him, warring in him, twisting up his head—when the cougar screams. And a chill goes down his spine because suddenly Pa realizes that he hadn’t thought afterwards that he should reload his gun.

Stupid!

Terrifyingly stupid!

To shoot, out in the woods, and not reload his gun!

If he stops now to reload, then the cougar’ll get him; and if he runs, it’ll probably get him still.

Of the two, running seems better; so he turns, and he bolts.

He can hear the cougar behind him, screaming, to the left, then to the right. It’s hungry. It’s winter, and it’s hungry.

He’s an agent. He’s not a real frontiersman. He’s not the man Ma married and he’s not the father to the girls. He doesn’t really belong there, in the woods.

But he’s still meat.

He’s still meat, and meat’s still warm.

So he runs.

He runs, and there’s a kind of peace to it, because he’ll die in cover and not out of it, and he’ll never have to face another Hansel; another Bettany; another Max.

The cougar hits him with both sets of claws, and as his body goes chill and his blood runs out, he chokes out, “Bureau,” just in case.

There’s a stillness.

The cougar rises.

Delicately, it licks its bloody paws. It looks at him. He meets it with a wavery gaze.

They share an understanding.

This isn’t my life, the cougar is thinking.

This isn’t who I really am.

It’s just a cover. It’s only a cover. It’s not me.

It meets his eyes and they understand one another.

Then it flicks its tail once, and its stomach gurgles emptily, and it turns and it moves and quietly it lopes away.

Pa thinks he can make it to the house, back to where his family’s waiting.

He knows Ma will ask him how he survived— how a man can get away from a cougar, once it’s got its claws in him. He thinks that maybe if she’s Bureau too, her eyes’ll be narrowed and there’ll be suspicions in her head; and maybe if she’d been a bad child, if she’d been a bad child and had somehow slipped the net and grown to an adult, then maybe some vestigial memory of the enemy will drift up and she will grow cold and hard to him.

He knows that she’ll ask him, and he knows that he can’t tell her.

So he wonders what he’ll say.

Wii News*

“Shake your fists at bad news,” the television explains.

Jane grips a peculiar controller in one hand. She grips an attached controller in the other.

The television displays an ordinary street in an ordinary town.

Jane shakes her fists!

A red bar stretches across the bottom of the screen. It fades to orange, then to yellow, then peaks.

“Mild outrage,” declares the television. “HIGH PRICES!”

The prices in the store windows of the town go up. Pedestrians walk around in outrage.

“It really happens, you know,” Martin comments.

“Hm?”

“That’s what makes it ‘news’ and not a ‘simulation.'”

“Oh!”

Jane looks apologetically at the unhappy pedestrians.

“I mean, it’s okay,” Martin emphasizes. “News happens all the time. But it happens.”

“News is everywhere,” Jane agrees.

The television image shifts to a fire in California. “Cheer for good news!” it explains.

The fire is sweeping through the undergrowth.

Birds die. Chipmunks roast. In a house next to the woods a baby is crying.

Hesitantly, Jane puts her thumb up.

There’s silence.

Cheer for good news,” the television reminds her.

Jane looks at her thumb. After a moment, she blushes.

“Right!” she says.

She pumps her right fist in the air, the left controller dangling. A green bar rises. It crests.

“This just in,” the television declares, a little reporter popping up in the upper right corner. “Fire extinguished!”

The fire vanishes.

A fireman rushes in.

“Bonus good news!” the television says, “Fireman saves baby!”

The fireman seizes up the baby and runs out of the house.

The television shifts to a riot in Ghana.

“Free play!” it says.

Jane pumps her fist in the air. She pumps harder and harder.

“Good news!” the television declares. The riot settles. Everyone realizes that violence solves nothing. Jane pumps her fist harder. Systemic injustice vanishes! People begin to riot from sheer happiness.

“Let me try,” Martin says.

“No way!”

“I bet I can shake my fists harder than you can,” Martin says.

Jane hesitates.

“Here,” he says. “It’s got a two-player mode.”

Martin’s already taking up his own controllers.

“Only if you’ll help me eradicate systemic injustice.”

“In Sweden,” Martin counters.

“The Americas.”

“Sweden and Chicago.”

“The Middle East.”

“Canada. And that’s my final offer.”

Jane thinks.

“Maybe if we waited for a neutral story?” she suggests.

“What, like adorable baby tigers found on the subway?”

“Mm,” Jane says, happily, imagining. Then she jolts out of her reverie. “Hey!”

Martin coughs.

“Evil ducks threatened by tidal wave,” the television notes.

“Evil ducks?”

“Tidal wave?”

Jane and Martin look at one another. Together, they say, “It’s win-win!”

* for technical reasons this legend is not actually about the Wii News Channel.

On The Nature of Judgment (4 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

See also this legend.

It would be difficult to explain what has changed.

That shouldn’t be surprising.

If Sid’s answer were easy—if it were the kind of thing that you could just say and have it be done—then Martin would have given it to him. Not for free, not easily, but certainly after all Sid’s service.

So it is necessarily difficult to explain.

Much of it, certainly, is simply having the power to change, after all these years.

That which we hide away in the place without recourse:

It does not grow.

So some of it, certainly, is having that power of growth and changing, and the motivation to use it: returned to him, after all those years.

And some of it is the exercise of force.

Forgiveness, we should understand, is a quality of the powerful. The powerless endure; the powerful forgive.

It is not possible to forgive without an unencumbered choice.

Without power, forgiveness is indistinguishable from compliance, or at best surrender; and thus it has no value.

It has always been a dark and tasteless joke, when the powerful ask the downtrodden to forgive.

So the exercise of unrestrained power, however undesirable it might have been—that contributed.

Certainly.

And if one may go further and say that forgiveness is between equals—

A broader statement, requiring more analysis, but a plausible one—

Then it matters that Max met blow for blow, standing against the siggort a surprising length of time in the oceans of the end.

And there was the uncritical all-forgiving all-embracing never-bending flare gaze of the Good.

And there was the dancing stabbing cutting preaching whispers of the history of Mr. Kong.

And there was Tara and there were the heaps and there was the crumbled tower to the east where earlier they fought—

Yet none of these things change the character of Max’s crime.

None of these things make it better or worse that Max has done what Max has done.

None of these things change the essential or actual qualities of his deed.

None of these things prove Sid in error, relative to some natural universal law, when he says that what Max has done cannot be okay.

Arguable, perhaps.

Too critical, perhaps.

But not in error.

So one cannot say that even all of these things together have resolved Sid’s underlying dilemma, or changed the nature of his prison; at best, they have cast light on the substance of his cage.

It would be difficult to explain what has changed; and in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

It doesn’t really matter how it came to pass that Sid should forgive Max and lift the weight of Ii Ma from his wings.

Max is dead.

The world is cold.

The siggort is alone.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

Max had planned to do something really cool.

He wasn’t sure what, yet.

Maybe something like shouting, “Oh, yeah? Well, you can’t beat me at tiddlywinks!

Then suddenly he was winded and the world spun and just as he realized that he’d been hit in the stomach by something moving very very fast he mainlined THE END and Sid piled an island on top of him.

So now he’s drifting in the Good.

Now and again, an impulse will surface in him. He’ll surrender a bit of that ancient answer that holds him in the world faster or slower than the question that—however momentarily—had cut him out of it.

He’ll wobble, for a moment, on the border between those creatures whose stories have ended and those creatures that have no stories at all; and an impulse will arise.

Like:

“What the Hell happened when the Buddha reached enlightenment?”

And the Good does not explain.

Drifting against the beat of emptiness in the joyous, he imagines that the dharma of a Buddha is irreconcilable with the dharmas of the world—

Like Sid’s, in a way.

That the world is hollow of its gods because, in the face of the inevitability of suffering, it cannot understand how there can be a Buddha.

That the very idea of dharma—

In the face of the simple corrosive concept of enlightenment—

Has become a contradiction unto itself.

Russell’s paradox writ large; the definition of the world unravelled; the world unable to accept the concept of purpose if it does not lead to pain.

And a long time afterwards, Max grins in the burgeoning emptiness of joy, and he says, “Coward.” to the world.

That was one impulse.

Days later, another rises:

“How the Hell is this my happy ending?”

But for all the bafflement in those words, there isn’t any suffering.

By fiat?

By force?

By love?

There isn’t any suffering. This is his happy ending.

And maybe he’d like to be suffering, except that also he wouldn’t. He doesn’t really want to suffer just because he sort of thinks he should.

He’d like to think that he needs Sid to be happy, but the secret of the world is that it’s loving Sid that makes him happy, not Sid himself.

Lost in boundless happiness and joy, Max understands—and finally—that it’s an error to imagine that our happiness comes from anyone but ourselves.

It is not given unto us.

It is not forced upon us.

It is a thing we give outwards, unto the world.

People always fight
The things they love.

What is the nature of judgment?

Jane had imagined a perfect Good that came and cast away the 9/10 least worthy, straining only the brightest and the best through the holes in its net. She called this a disaster to the world.

What would it have meant, instead, to cull the half least worthy; or the whole?

The single worst of us, severed from the world; or all of us save the single best?

The idealist sees the dangers in this path and casts out judgment from the world; the pragmatist seeks a perfect middle ground; yet both of them, if they wish to live, must recognize that there is that which is desirable, and that which is correct, and that which, in turn, is not.

The hundred-handed horror that is Sid curls on the island he has made, and skitters on the surface of the sea, and dreams of the fight of centipede and tiger.

He is alone.

7 Things Not To Do With Ice

1. Build a rocket and fly to the sun.

The rocket is made of ice.

It will melt.

Also the fuel ignition may prove problematic.

All in all not the best idea.

2. Attach blocks of ice to pads, affix to a tiger’s feet, and slide tiger around on your hardwood floors.

This is an entertaining spectacle but tigers are an endangered species.

For example if you have stairs the tiger might slide onto the stairs, endangering them.

Or if someone ships you yappy dogs from amazon.com and you let them out because you do not rationally expect the large box from amazon.com to contain multiple yappy dogs, the dogs might gang up in primal rage and assault the relatively helpless tiger, endangering them.

Also tigers are not allowed in your house and may eat you if the floor proves insufficiently slippery.

3. Sleep buried under large piles of ice.

Regardless of what you may have read in the Enquirer this will not turn you into a yeti. Yetis are dependent on fringe characteristics of the Himalayan ecosystem to survive and it is not possible with current technology to transform into a yeti using domestic ice.

4. Pizza topping.

At first your mouth will feel pleasantly unburnt. However you cannot swallow the pizza until the ice melts, at which point it will offer no protection and the hot cheese and hotter tomato sauce will cause the usual burns. Ice in pizzas is best confined to stuffed crusts and the flavorful ice crystals that gazpacho pizza sometimes features.

5. Pens

Do not use ice as a pen. The idea that mortal works are inherently transient and pass like the winter’s snow at the coming of the spring is descriptive and not prescriptive. Also you can’t write anything with a clear pen which means using black ice which can kill unsuspecting hackers trying to download your writing.

6. Grand unified field theory

Bohr’s attempt at sticking the various field theories together with ice failed. As did his similar attempt involving tongues, field theories, and cold flagpoles. You’re not better at this than Bohr, so you need to find a new approach, like melting down various field theories in a pot or superglue.

7. Substituting for Folger’s Crystals

In general you cannot hope to win the arms race with Folger’s. Whenever I have attempted to substitute anything for Folger’s Crystals they have cleverly reversed my gambit and turned my initial sense of victory into ashes in my mouth. Sometimes, I think, they even substitute Folger’s Crystals for those ashes, although there is no time to notice any difference before I must swallow that bitterness of their revenge.

Very very tired. The canon entry slated for today will appear on Saturday or after the letters column, basically depending on whether my petition to the Vatican for two extra days in August goes through. With best wishes to all, including my friend who is awake again and still herself. Yay! (Historical note: this entry and that bit of the dedication was actually written about a week ago, which is why I’m cheering something you already know!)

Death Unsacred

1. Ms. Dorothy Adams

It is December 10, 2012, and Ms. Dorothy Adams is lost in a magical land.

On the ground at her feet is the vegetable boy. He could be dying, she thinks. He could be dead.

There are at least ten and perhaps fifteen of the tiger-things closing in on her position. She does not recognize them. They are no earthly beast. Their claws and fangs testify regardless to a tangible and certain prowess.

She holds a makeshift club—a stripped-down fallen branch—in her hands.

“This is the measure of a life,” she thinks: “What you’ll risk it for.”

2. The Spry Old Man

Her story properly begins with the rendition. She was in the process of returning home from Europe to her parents’ Virginia estate when an irregularity in her documentation incited the agents on the scene to draw her aside. In security she languished, for a short period of time, before the Agency came to speak to her; and when they found her intransigent in her unwillingness to profess false crimes—as one could only expect from a woman, no, more, a Virginian! of the United States Armed Forces—they handcuffed her and placed her on an outgoing flight.

Her guard, an old man in the Agency’s dark uniform, was so spry he could barely sit still in his seat. He was alive with a fierce and radiant energy; he was smiling, he laughed when the pilot made intercom jokes, and when his partner came back into the cabin to bring them their meals, he came very close to cheering.

From time to time during the flight, he would pat her shoulder and smile to her—an intimacy that she, naturally, rebuffed.

“You’re so lucky,” he said.

She gave him a frosty look.

“You’ll see!” he assured her.

The plane shook a little in the wind and there was the soft pitter-pat of weather on the hull.

“They told me that in certain places in the world,” said Ms. Adams, “it was legitimate, no, standard practice to employ torture. So I expect that is my situation; and I would not call it lucky; but I will not break.”

“Oh, there’s torture,” said the spry old man. “There’s plenty of torture in the world. There’s all kinds of horror. But not where you’re going.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Then I don’t see the point,” she said.

The elimination of potential difficulties,” he said, and his smile was so brilliant that in any other circumstance Ms. Adams would have smiled back; but as things were, and expecting as she did rendition not to a magical land but to Syria or Guantanamo, his smile struck her as evidence of intense sociopathic bent.

She turned her eyes away towards the window. She frowned.

“It’s hailing fucking marshmallows,” she said.

“Language, young lady,” he said, “Language!”

She was forty-five.

3. Thrown

At a certain point in time and space, in response to an unknown signal, the spry old man seized her from her seat. She did not struggle, not at first, because he had a gun and the circumstances were poor; but when he began to force her towards the door, and with the plane still in flight, she fought for her very life.

“Quiet!” he said, and struck her on the head. Her vision went white. Her ears rang. Then she could hear the opening of the door; and while she desperately tried to remember how her arms and legs worked, he released her from her restraints and flung her from the plane.

“Cheerio!” he cried, and “Godspeed!”

She fell.

Ms. Dorothy Adams, Private First Class, passed through a layer of clouds, the soft springy substance of them parting only reluctantly as she hit. She disturbed a flock of stairstep birds in flight, her fall broken awkwardly and embarrassingly by first one then the other as she caromed through the sky. Then there was nothing beneath her but a spreading green land, and she said, “I shall, at least, have a story to tell in Heaven.”

Then, with a grace in tragedy and a grim resolve to—if at all possible—survive the impact that would follow, she closed her eyes, made her body limp, and thought of distant lands.

4. Waking

It was the sun that woke her: the rising sun, over the hills. She mumbled and she whined, for a moment not Ms. Dorothy Adams but the small child she had once been, tossing in her bed at the Virginia estate, resenting fiercely such early awakenings. Then the cold realization of her situation struck. She was at once on her feet and staring about.

“I am unbruised,” she thought, and a dizzying wave of confusion passed over her. “I am in a forest and I am still dressed in my clothes from three days ago and I am unbruised.”

In the distance she could hear bird calls, so many bird calls, and an occasional, terrible throaty roar.

To her credit, Ms. Dorothy Adams wasted no time on her confusion. She was a woman, no, more, a Virginian! of the United States Armed Forces. Her first priority was not to understand but to survive. She tuned her senses to their fullest and their most alert. She seized a fallen branch from the ground and stripped it of its twigs and bark. She placed her back against a tree.

Slowly, because of the low priority and reliability of this sensory data, she came to realize that from the branches of the trees around her hung not nuts or flowers but roast turkey; saving, of course, for those from which hung clumps of potatoes or bowls of stuffing, and where the birds had cracked them open, she saw that the potatoes were mashed and buttered inside their skin.

“Gracious me,” she swore, her gutter mouth forsaking her. “It’s a proper feast!”

5. The Vegetable Boy

This magical scene would no doubt have ended with a fine repast or a psychotic break, save that a certain other event intervened; that being that the vegetable boy, fleeing the pursuit of a pack of Kazimajars, burst at that very moment into the clearing.

He was handsome, for a vegetable boy: his hair was green, his skin a fine nut-color, and his eyes as warm as the spry old man’s were bright. He wore fine purple raiment with a white silk undershirt. He was tired, panting, his clothing torn and the leaves in his hair half-wilted; but nevertheless he had some energy left to him.

Ms. Adams had been, during her native country’s unfortunately prolonged excursion in Iraq, reckoned the second-best sword in all the Middle East; though, of course, her skill with the gun was far more relevant. Thus she did not hesitate in considering herself the vegetable boy’s superior in personal combat, and, reasoning that he should have information of value to her, she confronted him. With a lithe step and a fierce demeanor she stepped out and brought her makeshift club to his throat; or so, at least, she had intended.

“Foul!” cried the vegetable boy, stepping back; and from the back of his hand grew a great long thorn, which he brought across to parry her club. “Treachery!”

As she did not know how much time there was to waste, Ms. Adams wasted none; she disengaged her weapon and attempted to strike him on the head. In this she would have succeeded, save that the thorn was amazingly swift in motion. Each blow she attempted he parried or reversed, and as she fenced with her opponent she realized that here was a boy, albeit a boy apparently made principally of vegetable matter, who could easily have ranked as one of the top five swords in the Middle East. After three more exchanges, she found herself admiring him, not so much for his skill but for his style; and after a passata-sotto lunge had failed her, forcing her into an awkward, stumbling retreat while the thorn stabbed about her face, the innate courtesy of her birth overcame her dedication and she exclaimed, “Such a waste that you should be an enemy!”

“The same,” he said, and stepped back a moment to salute. “For I had scarcely expected to encounter a princess of such beauty and such skill in this Kazimajar-infested region, much less find myself wood-to-wood with her.”

“I am not a princess,” she said.

“Then what are you?” asked the vegetable boy.

“Ms. Dorothy Adams,” she said, “Private First Class of the United States Armed Forces.”

“Well,” he said. “It seems to me that a Private First Class is much the same as a princess, only perhaps a bit fiercer; so you must pardon my misunderstanding.”

“What are you?” she said. “What am I doing here? Where is this place?”

“I am the hope of the vegetable tribe,” he said. “When I am ready to plant myself, I will tame this region, and make it habitable for my kind. As for what you are doing here, I cannot say; and as for this place, well, it is the Peapod Forest of Gillikin, as its unusual green color should indicate.”

Then she is staggered; then she says, “I have taken rather a journey—”

But the vegetable boy’s hand goes to his side; he clutches at a tear in his clothing, where his flesh has started of a sudden to leak a dark purple ichor.

“Oh, dear,” he said. He smiled at her. “I guess those beasts back there were more accurate than I’d thought.”

“Beasts?”

“It’s all the activity,” he said. He stares at his hand, which is purple. “I’m sorry. I’m going to pass out now, and here I’ve hardly just met you.”

And she could hear the beasts that hunted him approach.

6. The Tiger-Things

They are everywhere: the hunting Kazimajars, great cats of a sort but with patches of serpent-scale and bear-fur and the voices of men.

“He is our prey,” whines one of them.

“Tasty, tasty vegetable boy.”

And Ms. Adams, with the stern strength accordant to a woman of the United States Armed Forces, denies them. She stands over his fallen body and says, “Find something else.”

Some of them are circling around behind her. She can hear them.

“A turkey. Or mashed potatoes,” Ms. Adams says.

“He’s tastier,” whispers one of the beasts.

She has no time; the position is rapidly becoming untenable. She steps forward and whirls her club and cracks that beast upon its face. It reels back, stunned and whimpering: “You hit me!” it declares.

“I’ll beat all of you to a pulp,” she says. “I’ll show you what it is to fight a woman of Virginia!”

She clubs another sideways. It staggers into a tree. Spinning to drive back another, she unleashes a war cry: an unearthly yell, terrifying, the cry of a goddess come down to make war among men. And there is fear in them, and the will of the pack is breaking, and the Kazimajars are scattering, but there is one, the largest of them, the savage beast named Groth, who does not succumb to fear. He remains where the others have fled. He leaps upon her; she is borne down to the ground under his weight; his teeth bite out her throat, his claws score her sides. Her arms are numb and she cannot feel the club in her hand and she is only thinking, “I must throw him off and drive him back before I die.”

And as a last act to give credit to her name, a moment of heroism to prove that even in these troubled lands the life of a woman—no, more, a Virginian!—was not without account, she woke her arm to life and placed the club under his neck and thrust it upwards; and gagging, wretching, in great misery, the Kazimajar staggered away.

She lay there, soft and quiet, waiting to die.

But in this magical land of childhood, there is no heroism; there is no accounting; there is no virtue to such deeds. Death is unsacred here, and she realizes, when the moon rises and the blood that flows from her and the vegetable boy fades to a trickle, that there is not even any pain.

A tide of hopeless rises in her.

She tastes a sick horror in the back of her throat: for these are the lands of childhood.

Then she sets the matter aside and sits up slowly and turns her thoughts to the south, where if there is an airport it most likely resides; for it is not meet for a woman—no, more, a Virginian!—of the United States Armed Forces to surrender easily to those who find death unsacred.

Sellurt and Morgan: The Ark

It is at first Sellurt’s assumption that Noah is exaggerating regarding the number of animals stored on the Ark.

He can hear them, of course. There are always sounds. There is trumpeting and barking and buzzing and keening and at night there is a thin distant wailing that merges with the creaking and shifting and croaking of the wood.

And he sees no small number of them—the zebras, the antelope, the ostriches, the platypuses, and the lions, of course, the lions, more than two of them, more than seven of them, more than he can count, their great padded feet always stalking through the decks.

There is impressive biodiversity on the Ark.

But Sellurt has studied the Earth. He knows how many species there are.

They cannot all be on the Ark.

They are too many.

They are endless.

Mehanem—or Noah, as everyone calls him—is always busy. He does not have time to meet with Sellurt and Morgan. Thus it is that the two visitors from the Galactic Confederacy are abandoned there to the depths below deck, to watch through the portholes the endless dreary rain and listen to the skittering and scratching in the walls. Sometimes Sellurt’s eyes will close and he will wake up to the feather-soft touch of a spider or mosquito crawling across his leg; and each time, he observes with interested horror, it is a different species than he has ever seen before.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Morgan, after a while.

Morgan is sitting at the window, dropping coins from the porthole, watching for and failing to see that moment when they strike the water and vanish into the immensity of the deep.

“It doesn’t matter?” Sellurt asks.

“I mean,” Morgan says, “humans can’t breathe water, right?”

In Sellurt’s mind there is a momentary fantasy of drowning one of Mehanem’s sons, the human’s arms and legs flailing, his face slowly turning blue, his animal noises grinding to a halt.

Then Sellurt shakes his head.

“No,” he agrees. “They can’t.”

“Then their civilization is dead. It doesn’t matter that we’re not able to invite them to join the Galactic Confederacy. They’re dead. It’s over.”

It has been seven days now and the rain has not ceased to fall.

“Surely it’s just this subcontinent,” says Sellurt.

Morgan looks out.

“A whole world can’t die to rain,” Sellurt says.

“It’s surprising,” says Morgan. “How many animals there are. Whether or not he really got them all. Where do you think they go, when we can’t see them?”

On the ninth day, when Sellurt goes to the hatch that leads to the upper levels, he finds two lions there. They are between him and the hatch. They have gingivitis, thanks to their poor dental hygiene, and their maws are dripping blood.

“You’ll have to let me by,” says Sellurt.

But the male lion yawns, with its great yellow teeth, and its breath is rank.

“God,” mutters Sellurt.

He backs away.

There is the sound of hooves on the deck beside him, the heat of fur in the air, the whining of a fly, but when he turns to track the beast’s location with his eyes he cannot see anything but the wooden halls.

Sellurt finds a place where he can hear human footsteps, endless human footsteps, pacing on the decks above. He hammers on the ceiling. He shouts. He is dignified at first but then he screams until he’s hoarse, until he cannot breathe, until he falls and curls upon himself below.

The air is thick and fuzzy and he is sure he is surrounded by the beasts, but when he opens his eyes they are not there.

“Are you okay?” Morgan says, when he finds him.

“I’m fine,” Sellurt says.

“Okay.”

“I’m fine,” Sellurt repeats, and then he says: “This is intolerable.”

A koala shares their evening meal that day. It is the first time that either of the aliens have ever seen one, and the last they ever will.

When Sellurt checks the hatch again, the lions are still there.

Every time he checks the hatch, the lions are still there.

The humans are beyond Sellurt and Morgan’s reach.

“It must be Noah,” Sellurt tells Morgan. “The humans are more advanced than we believed.”

“Hm?”

“The rain. This isn’t natural rain. It’s something they’re doing. They have a machine. Noah is doing it. He has a machine.

“Why would they kill everyone off?”

“Why aren’t there more of them on the boat?” Sellurt says. “Why were they all left to drown? There’s plenty of room. They could fit twenty, thirty more families in here. But the lions kept them away. The lions stood outside the Ark and kept them away. He wanted them to die.”

“Don’t obsess,” Morgan says.

“What?”

“We’re an advanced galactic species,” says Morgan. “I’m sure we can figure out some way to deal with lions, if we have to. We could use our stunners. Or some kind of telepathic mind control. The options,” and he gestures extravagantly, “are endless.”

Sellurt sits down heavily.

“Yes,” he says, bitterly. “I’m sure we could.”

There is a great long-legged bug probing at his hand. He’s not sure where it came from. It wasn’t there when he sat down.

He will not shudder, Sellurt decides. He is a citizen of the Galactic Confederacy. He is above such distress.

His meeting with Noah will wait.

On the eighteenth day, Morgan observes, “There are too many animals.”

There is a distant sound of slithering. It is very dark and the damp seeps in through the wood.

“Too many?”

“They are endless,” says Morgan. “Never mind what Noah claims. There are too many different animals, just the ones we’ve seen. They can’t all fit in here, not with this much free space.”

The rats stare at him from the rafters, their red eyes glowing. There is the dry scraping noise of scales on wood. There is a peculiar, choking cough.

“They have to fit,” Sellurt says. “They’re here, aren’t they?”

“There’s no room.”

Sellurt leans back. His eyes are blank and white. He is thinking. He is counting, in his head.

“There’s no room,” he agrees.

The air is hot. It is the steam of a zoo, of a kennel, of a hundred thousand bodies pumping warmth and stench into the air.

Sellurt swats at his arm.

“Why,” he asks plaintively, “did Noah save the wasps?”

There is silence for a time.

“We’ll go,” says Morgan. “We’ll go. We’ll deal with the lions. We’ll face them down.”

“Yes,” says Sellurt.

Something clammy brushes against Morgan’s face. He waves his hand at it but it is gone.

“Stupid frogs,” Morgan adds.

They rise.

They walk in the direction of the hatch.

Morgan stops.

“Don’t stop,” Sellurt says. “We have to get out of here. We have to get to the hatch. I think we will go mad, Morgan, if we stay.”

Morgan is staring at the air, with his head tilted to one side, a peculiar expression on his face.

“Morgan?”

“We have walked the length of the Ark,” Morgan says. “And more. And still there is no hatch.”

“Ridiculous,” says Sellurt.

And there in the dimness and in no specific direction: not east, not north, not south, not west, Sellurt can make out a shaft that rises through the levels of the ship, above and below, through more floors and spaces than he can count.

“Don’t you see?” Morgan says, his voice immensely small and tiny in the emptiness of the Ark.

“No,” protests Sellurt. “No. I don’t.”

“It’s endless.”

Sellurt can feel the breath of the lions at his back, and there is everywhere to run.

Wishing Boy (II/IV)

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

541 years before the common era, Mr. Kong is still just a young boy. He lives in the city of Qufu. His father is dead. He lives in poverty with his mother. Sometimes he runs errands for her in the market.

That is what he has just finished doing when he hears gasps from everyone in the market.

“Hm?” he says. “Huh?”

He uses a very polite form for this question. Every adult around him would marvel at the precision of his language except that they are too busy marveling at something else. One of them points upwards and Mr. Kong sees what it is.

“Oh, my,” he says.

There is a maiden wrapped in winds, winds colored like fine silk, descending through the starkness of the sky into the Qufu market. Her eyes are closed. Her face is peaceful and aristocratic. She is surrounded in her flight by four great brooms, and before she lands the brooms sweep the dust away.

She lands.

Her eyes open. She looks around. For a long moment she assesses the situation. She says, in crisp clear speech, “I will need housing, food, pen, paper, and a temporary servant.”

The crowd is falling to its knees before her. They are offering her their worship. But young Mr. Kong has seen something that is even more urgent than worship.

The four brooms are rising slowly back into the air, and Mr. Kong has observed a clod of market filth clinging to the straw of the third.

It is difficult to know what precisely it is that passes through Mr. Kong’s mind at this juncture. He is, after all, a boy in the mold of the sages of old, and we all of us are not. However, it is reasonable to assume that it is something like this:

“Surely, those brooms are sent by a respected elder god, perhaps the August Personage in Jade! It is not appropriate that we of Qufu should send our filth to our elders; that’s like mailing one’s body water to the Emperor!”

So Mr. Kong moves through the crowd to the third broom. When he humbles himself before it, it hesitates in its rise and bobs a little lower. Taking this as an invitation, young Mr. Kong grasps the broom firmly by its handle and begins to scrape it clean against the ground.

“Young man,” says the woman. “Perhaps—”

Her comment, relevant or otherwise, comes slightly too late. The broom is thoroughly spooked by Mr. Kong’s treatment. It jerks off the ground, carrying Mr. Kong with it.

Mr. Kong has only a moment to contemplate the proprieties of this situation, and, as he is very young and does not yet understand the will of the heavens, this is not enough.

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong, still hanging on.

The broom races off into the sky.

One should not imagine that this is the kind of tale where Mr. Kong immediately throws one leg over the broomstick and affects a Quidditch-playing attitude. Nor is it the kind of story wherein he dangles helplessly for a time, falls off over the mist-shrouded mountains, and dies. In fact, it is the kind of history that specifically neglects to examine the manner of Mr. Kong’s travel, assuming that he found an approach to the situation both dignified and survivable, in accords with the broomstick-riding provisions of the lost eleventh volume of the Book of Rites.

When he lands at last, the brooms have traveled not, surprisingly, to Heaven but to a well deep in the quiet woods of Lu. On the edge of the well sits Wishing Boy.

“Oh,” says Wishing Boy.

He’s startled by Mr. Kong’s presence.

“Your pardon,” says Wishing Boy, “dear child. I did not expect the brooms to return with a passenger. Was there something unsatisfactory about their conduct?”

Mr. Kong blinks at Wishing Boy. Wishing Boy is a teenaged child with golden skin and a large opal set into his forehead. He is young but has an air of wisdom to him.

“There is no matter worth your concern,” says Mr. Kong.

“Good,” says Wishing Boy.

He closes his eyes. After a moment, he opens them. He says, “But wait. Then why are you here?”

“It was a regrettable incident,” summarizes Mr. Kong.

“I see.”

Wishing Boy smiles a little. “Youthful spirits, is it? You wished to taste the upper air?”

Mr. Kong closes his mouth firmly.

“Accident, then?”

“If you could kindly direct me to the city of Qufu,” says Mr. Kong, “then I can be on my way and I will not trouble you further.”

“The woods are full of tigers and giant snakes,” says Wishing Boy. “You would be torn to shreds and then get snakebite. Please, sit. Satisfy my curiosity; then I will send you back to Qufu on the wind.”

Mr. Kong takes a seat, after introductions and mild protestations..

“So,” says Wishing Boy. “I can see that you are a fine young man, full of humaneness. That is why I do not assume malicious intent on your part, and have not flung you into space to come down wherever fate directs you.”

“I wished to clap some of the filth off of the broom,” explains Mr. Kong.

Wishing Boy smiles.

“But,” says Mr. Kong, “I must admit that also I am curious how a broom should happen to fly.”

“It is no great matter,” says Wishing Boy. “When I was a younger child I fell into this well and became stuck. Worse, my head was partway under the water; to breathe, I needed to bend my neck painfully back. This was extremely distressing and forced me to develop what I call the alchemy of wishes: that is, the spiritual power to grant myself whatever I wish for. This freed me from the well but has other applications besides. For example, it is why the brooms fly: I wished to them, ‘you! Brooms! Fly!'”

“That is a great power,” says Mr. Kong, quite impressed.

“That is what I thought at first,” says Wishing Boy.

“At first?”

“Well,” says Wishing Boy, “at first, I thought that it was truly marvelous. I had been a poor child. I could barely afford to drink my own water and often I ate the dust from my clothing to survive. Now I could wish for gold and I would have gold. I became so wealthy that I could stick an opal in my head and still have leftovers for buying mansions and hiring servants.”

“Ah,” sighs Mr. Kong. He would have been wealthy, but his family had had to flee the state of Song.

“There was a girl, a princess. Her name was Qiguan. I had loved her from afar. Now I filled her heart with love for me, and abolished the societal conventions that separated us.”

Mr. Kong ponders that.

Wishing Boy raises an eyebrow.

“Your face shows some concern.”

“I mean no criticism,” says Mr. Kong. “But surely that was not correct.”

“No,” admits Wishing Boy. “It wasn’t.”

He looks up.

“I had thought these things would make me happy,” Wishing Boy says. “But they did not. Can you guess why?”

Mr. Kong thinks. He offers, carefully, “Is it a true love, if it is love born of wishes? Can you truly change your social place with magic? Is wealth truly wealth, if it is not earned?”

Now Wishing Boy laughs.

“I had not thought of that,” he says. “My. I suppose that would indeed make me unhappy, if my wishes were false. But no. It was subtler than that. You see, her love was true, real love. And that is how I understood that it is meaningless to search for love. All of my life I had seen the love of others as a prize to be won, but when that game became too easy I understood that it is their business, not mine, whether someone should love me. It was not worthless because it was false. It was worthless because being loved does not make me a lovable person, and that is what I had actually wanted.”

Mr. Kong considers that.

“And the wealth?” Mr. Kong asks.

“It was the same. To have wealth—that just means that I’d wished for it and nobody wished against it. It’s not a big deal! So why should I want wealth?”

“It is better than eating the dust from your clothing,” says Mr. Kong.

Wishing Boy smiles.

“That is true,” he says.

Mr. Kong hesitates. “Honorable Wishing Boy,” he says. “Please forgive me for asking. But it seems to me that you should wish an end to war.”

“Ah,” says Wishing Boy.

He shakes his head.

“I cannot do that, Mr. Kong,” Wishing Boy says. “To wish an end to war is to wish for humanity to change. I do not know how to wish for that. I like humanity.”

Mr. Kong gives Wishing Boy the first true smile he has shared thus far.

“I understand,” he says.

“So that is why I have sent the princess away,” says Wishing Boy. “That is why I do not live in my great mansions. I have decided to sit here at this well and practice austerities. I do this because I desire to be a better person, and also because wealth and privilege give me the luxury to practice austerities.”

Mr. Kong grins at Wishing Boy.

“That’s so,” Mr. Kong agrees. “A poor person goes hungry, and a rich person fasts.”

Wishing Boy laughs.

“But tell me,” says Mr. Kong. “If you do not wish for love, or wealth, or privilege, or an end to war—if you have no wants because you do not think that there is a purpose to having things—then what do you wish for?”

“I wish that everyone should be freed of suffering,” says Wishing Boy.

Mr. Kong frowns. He looks seriously at Wishing Boy.

“But that will not happen,” Mr. Kong says. “You are a very powerful wisher but not even the August Personage in Jade could accomplish that.”

“It is very difficult,” agrees Wishing Boy. “But I am not alone.”

That is the end of their conversation, for the purposes of this history, though there are further pleasantries that pass.

It is thirty years before Mr. Kong returns to that well, a teacher set on learning more about the world. When he does, he finds it desolate, and no Wishing Boy remains.

House of Saints: Intermission at Edmund’s Home

The house is old and empty. Edmund’s father lives alone.

His name is Mr. Domel.

Mr. Domel has no wife. Edmund’s mother was young and beautiful but she left him in the sunshine of three summers past.

He has no servants. Mr. Edgars used to dust his grandfather clock and prepare his meals and wash the wooden floors. But Mr. Edgars is gone.

Edmund’s father sent him away.

Servants can’t be trusted.

He might have freed the wolf.

And, finally, Mr. Domel has no son. Edmund is far away. He attends boarding school. He studies at the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth.

“Why do I have to go?” Edmund asked, back when he was first sent off. “I’m not wayward! I’m quite well-behaved. Everyone comments on my decorum.”

“The school is my weapon,” Mr. Domel said.

This is a decision that Edmund’s father now regrets. Edmund still calls him, now and again, but he is distant and strange and has a wall around his heart.

“I eat people now,” says the Edmund-beast, on the phone.

Also, he eats people.

“That is a novel interpretation of decorum,” says Mr. Domel.

“It is a consuming hunger. I don’t think I should come home for the winter break. I might eat you.”

Edmund’s father thinks about how to broach the question that is nagging at his mind. Finally, he chides himself. Honesty, my good man. Honesty.

“. . . Was it me?” he asks.

“You?”

“Was I a bad father? Is that why you’re eating people?”

The Edmund-beast snorts.

“Better to blame the video games,” the Edmund-beast says. “The loose women. The ginger nuts. Oh, father, why would you think you’re important enough to make me an anthropophage?”

It is cutting and it is meant to be.

“One day,” says Mr. Domel, “the wolf will eat everyone. That’s why I didn’t have time for you as a child.”

“I know,” says the Edmund-beast.

The Edmund-beast makes spasmodic faces at the phone. It isn’t sure how to carry on this kind of conversation.

“It’s okay,” says the beast. “You can’t hurt me. There’s a wall around my heart.”

Long ago, the wall around Edmund’s heart was made of straw. Then the wolf huffed and he puffed and he blew it all away.

There was straw everywhere in the house for weeks.

Now the wall is made of wood.

“Thanks for calling,” says Mr. Domel.

“I love you, Dad,” says the Edmund-beast.

There’s a long, awkward moment. Then Mr. Domel fumbles the phone back onto the hook.

He goes to check on Edmund’s heart.

There’s a small altar in the Edmund-beast’s room. On it is a heart, and the heart is surrounded by a short wooden wall.

There is a howling from below.

Mr. Domel pats the wall. It is sound. It is solid. It is still standing.

So he goes, and he sits in his easy chair, and he remembers.

“Is that a cat?” asked the dwarf, long ago.

The dwarf lived under the ornamental bridge in Mr. Domel’s back yard.

“Yes,” said Mr. Domel. “I bought her for my son.”

“Does it have footfalls?” asked the dwarf. Its craggy face had a kind of avid look on it.

“No,” said Mr. Domel

“Because I could make footfalls for it,” said the dwarf.

Mr. Domel put the cat down. The cat jogged a few steps and then vigorously licked her hind leg. This entire procedure transpired in silence.

“Tell you what,” said the dwarf. “I’ll make it some footfalls, and trade them for your son’s heart. You know the cat’s footfalls in the wolf’s chain are fraying.”

Mr. Domel never really understood why the wolf’s chain was made of things like cat footfalls and mountain roots, but he accepted it as the kind of reification that dwarven smiths were prone to do.

“Fine,” said Mr. Domel.

Later the police arrested the dwarf and gave the heart back to Mr. Domel, but by then it was too late to put the heart back in.

“Stupid dwarves,” says Mr. Domel.

He can hear the distant clicking and clanking of the cat padding through the house. The cat miaos plaintively.

A few days pass.

“How is school?” Mr. Domel asks.

“I’m still not allowed to eat Peter,” says the Edmund-beast. “It’s very disappointing.”

“I bought a muzzle,” says Mr. Domel. “Like they used on Hannibal Lecter. If you wanted to come home for the holidays.”

“It wouldn’t contain me,” says the Edmund-beast.

“I could have Lethal bodyguards standing by,” says Mr. Domel.

“They wouldn’t stop me,” says the Edmund-beast.

“I could coat them in Lethal barbecue sauce,” says Mr. Domel.

“Aww.”

The Edmund-beast clicks its teeth.

“Hey, Dad,” he says. “What have I become?”

“Lethal,” Mr. Domel says.

That’s the brand of Edmund’s school. That’s the brand of everything around him. It’s the brand of the things that in a million subtle ways have steered the affairs of Edmund’s life.

It was a long time ago that Mr. Domel had named the brand. He’d been talking to Ms. Cullers, his marketing VP.

“I want one of those abstract brand names like Pepsi,” Mr. Domel said.

Ms. Cullers blinked.

“Abstract? Pepsi?” she asked.

“It isn’t?” Mr. Domel said.

“It’s the name of a forbidden god,” Ms. Cullers said. “A chthonic god of human sacrifice and the bubbly caverns beneath the earth. I’m pretty sure they drilled into her arteries to develop the delicious taste of Pepsi One.”

Mr. Domel waved his hand vaguely.

“Or Levi’s, then,” he said.

“Short for Leviticus.”

“. . . oh.”

Ms. Cullers looked at him intently. “Listen, Ed,” she said. “Marketing has to be honest. It has to start with a rational consideration of the product’s purpose, boiled down into a simple form. Otherwise the customer will recognize that you’re using the label to impose meaning on the product that it otherwise wouldn’t have. That’s the kiss of death! So, what’s the point of all these diversified products?”

“It’s to kill the wolf,” said Mr. Domel. “It’s all to kill the wolf.”

“‘Lethal,'” Ms. Cullers said.

The Edmund-beast’s voice is icy. “I did not ask to be part of your branding efforts, father.”

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Domel says.

“Damn it—”

But Mr. Domel is too tired to continue this conversation. He hangs up the phone.

Mr. Domel walks downstairs. He goes down into the basement. He looks at the wolf. It is flopped there, larger than a lion, wiser than an owl, clean, lean, and sleek.

“I am working on a boot,” says Mr. Domel.

He takes it out. It is a very large boot. It is made from scraps of many other boots. It is heavy.

“Like the one that’s supposed to stomp you some day.”

“That one would not suffice to stomp me,” says the wolf. “Perhaps if it were one thousand times as large. Or,” and here the wolf is nonchalant, “Not.”

Mr. Domel throws the boot up in the air. It comes down. It lands on the wolf. Its force is insufficient to consider it stomping.

The wolf flicks an ear.

“Alas,” says Mr. Domel, who had legitimately and desperately hoped that some unlikely magic would transpire.

“I’ll get out,” the wolf says. “Then I’ll kill everything, like I told your father and your father’s father and his.”

“But not Junior,” says Mr. Domel. “You never say that to him.”

The wolf lolls out its tongue. “Young Edmund will live to see it,” says the wolf. “That’s why I don’t have to tell him.”

The next day Mr. Domel goes to pick up the mail and the Edmund-beast is there outside his door.

The Edmund-beast’s posture is animalistic. Its hunger is a physical force. And all around the house there are students in yellow hats, watching.

Mr. Domel backs up into the house.

The Edmund-beast follows.

“I’ve decided that I don’t care about your stupid wolf,” says the Edmund-beast.

Mr. Domel bolts for the stairs. He makes it there a bit ahead of the Edmund-beast. He is tumbling down the stairs into the basement when the Edmund-beast grabs his wrist and starts to pull him back.

The wolf stands up.

The wolf howls.

The wolf’s breath is hot and it washes through the room. The sheer sound of it makes the Edmund-beast stagger back. Mr. Domel falls to the basement floor; and at the top of the stairs, the Edmund-beast wobbles back and forth in uncertainty.

The wolf huffs. The wolf puffs. The wolf blows down the wall around Edmund’s heart. For one long moment, the beast’s grip breaks. Edmund stares full into an understanding of what he has become.

“Oh!” he cries.

It is more a wail than a scream. And with it flows away the morale of the Edmund-beast, so that when the beast comes to the fore again it does not follow Mr. Domel down the stairs but instead it flees.

Mr. Domel looks at the wolf. The wolf looks back. It is sitting again.

“Thank you,” says Mr. Domel. “Unless you’re about to break free and raven through the house and eat me, in which case, get bent.”

The wolf laughs, quietly, to itself. It is a cheerful whuffling noise.

“What?” asks Mr. Domel.

“I do not like you either, much,” says the wolf. “But you are company worth preserving in these long last hours of my chains.”

Awaiting the Reconciler

The lion stood outside Sid’s office building. Its tail lashed. It growled.

“It’s hard to imagine that someone let you out on purpose,” Sid said. He looked around him for sanctuary. There was no one else in the square. Behind the lion, the revolving door of the office slowly spun.

The lion padded forward three steps. Sid hefted his briefcase, pulled his arm back across his body, and then flung the case at the lion. It bounced off the lion’s hide, but the beast snarled and stepped back.

“I’d better go in and call animal control.”

Trusting in insouciance, Sid loped past the lion into the building. He made it into the circle of the revolving door before the beast turned and charged. Shoving forcefully against the glass, Sid managed a quarter turn before the beast followed him in. This was enough. Its claws scraped at the glass behind him. Sid waited until he could reach the lobby, then threw his weight against the door to slow and stop its turn.

“Raar?” the lion snarled, hopefully.

“Stay there,” Sid said.

Then he went up to his cubicle. He passed Max on the way, and Claire, and Saul. He waved to them.

“There’s a lion in the revolving door,” he said. “Don’t use the door unless you’re prepared to strangle the beast unconscious.”

Claire rolled her eyes.

“It’s true,” Sid swore.

“This is why I don’t walk to lunch,” said Saul. “If it’s not rain, it’s lions. But if I drive, then the lions can’t pierce my defensive metal shell.”

“‘Car,'” said Sid.

“You should call animal control,” Max said.

“I’m gonna,” Sid said.

“Before the lion gets out and ravens among the cubicles.”

“I’m gonna,” Sid emphasized.

Then he reached his cubicle, sat down, and made his report to animal control. In the distance, he could hear snarls and roars. Then there was the clatter of a toppling swivel chair and the slowly fading mewing, coughing, and grunting sounds of Claire strangling the beast.

Sid sighed. Then he shrugged. He stared for a few minutes into his dharma box.

Sid hung up. He logged on to the system. Then he began to take calls.

Five of them proved irrelevant, in the broader story of Sid’s life.

The sixth did not.

“UDBI technical support,” said Sid. “This is Sid. How can I help you, Ms. Baker?”

“I’m only human,” said the panicked voice on the other end of the line.

The sound of Sid’s typing was like that of a heavy rain.

“How long has it been?” Sid asked.

“Nearly three hours,” Ms. Baker said.

Sid’s pinky finger came down on the carriage return with a loud crack. He was silent for a long moment.

“That shouldn’t ever happen,” Sid said.

Now his fingers were dancing on the keys. Dozens of charts and maps opened up on his screen, cascading from the background to the front.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” said Ms. Baker. “My car didn’t start. My room is a mess. I’m having petty thoughts, Mr. Sid.”

“It happens to all of us,” soothed Sid. “Even UDMI employees. Just hang in there until I can get your dharma system back online.”

He spun the mouse wheel. Convulsively, he stood up. “It’s not just you,” he said into the phone. “It’s your whole junction. I’m going down there to look at the lines. Can you call back, extension 833, if the problem isn’t resolved in twenty, thirty minutes?”

Ms. Baker’s voice is hesitant.

“I guess,” she said.

Sid frowned. He added, “Lock your door.”

Ms. Baker hung up the phone.

Sid left his cubicle. He loped down the hall.

“Sid?”

That was his boss, Dr. Ezekiel Brown, emerging from a side hallway.

“Walk and talk,” said Sid. “We’ve got a whole junction down in Block 43.”

“Damn it, Sid,” said Dr. Brown. “You know you’re not supposed to head out on this kind of thing without my gnomic management wisdom.”

“It’s probably just a short of some kind.”

Dr. Brown held up a finger. “Operations involves preparing for the worst eventualities,” he said, “not the best.”

“A line that needs repair.”

“Soar like the eagle,” said Dr. Brown, “who flies without a net.”

Sid laughed.

“Thank you for the inspiration, Doc.”

“You’ll call?” Dr. Brown said. “I mean, if you need management?”

“I’ll call.”

Sid seized a toolbox from a shelf as he passed. He reached the elevator doors just as they opened and disgorged a tour guide and a set of guests; without pause, Sid turned smoothly for the stairs, flung open the door, and headed down towards the parking garage. Behind him, the guide was saying:

“There’s a Hindu story of a King returning from war when a river flooded and blocked his path back home. He said to each of his ministers and generals, ‘show me your erudition and your heroism—reduce this river’s flow!’

“And they couldn’t.

“But then one of the camp followers said, ‘River, sink low.’—”

The voice faded as the stairway door closed behind him. Sid reached the garage, got into his car, and drove to Block 43.

The phone rang while he was halfway there.

“Hi, Daddy!” said Emily.

“Hi, honey,” said Sid. “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”

“Mole men,” said Emily.

“There aren’t any, honey.”

“There are now,” said Emily. “We aced all the standardized tests, so the teachers said we could establish an autonomous subterranean collective. Now we’re lurking in the caverns underneath the city!”

“They’re not caverns,” said Sid. “They’re access tunnels.”

Mole tunnels,” said Emily. “We tamed an alligator, you know.”

Sid laughed. Then he frowned. “Huh. The zoo’s in block 43; I hope the Animal Wrestler is all right.”

“Do you want us to check? We could tunnel under the city and emerge stealthily at the zoo!”

“Can you achieve consensus on the matter?”

“A band of mole men thinks as one!”

There is the sound of disagreement on the far end.

“Huh,” said Emily. “Leadership challenge. I’ll call you back. Love you Daddy!”

“You too, hon.”

Sid pulled over outside the UDBI satellite installation for Block 43, a small boxy building principally containing supplies, a junction box, and a mechanical console. Sid waved his hand over the handprint reader by the door, went inside, and began flicking switches and taking line readings. A frown slowly deepened on his face.

He flicked open his phone and hit a speed dial. “Doc?”

Doctor Brown’s voice was hopeful. “Sid! What’s up?”

“Can you get the police to evacuate people from block 43?” Sid asked.

“That bad?”

“The whole block is glitching all to Hell,” said Sid. “It’s worse than the 2016 incident, and I can’t find a reason for it.”

Doctor Brown nodded. “I’ll call back,” he said.

Sid opened the door and looked nervously around the street. The sun was bright. Pythons slithered companionably through the green grass. Birds chirped. There were no fires and no obvious looting, which seemed to reassure Sid.

His phone rang.

“Yeah, Doc?”

Emily giggled. “Hi Daddy!”

“That was fast,” said Sid. “How did the leadership challenge go?”

“We struggled fiercely in the dim twilight beneath the earth! Drums beat vigorously! But then someone remembered that the zoo has baby goats, so we all decided to check it out, because, ooh, goats.”

“Congratulations.”

“We’re peering up at the zoo with our mole eyes now. I think someone’s been showing the animals the dharma boxes, Daddy.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well,” said Emily, “mostly, the eerie cooperation of gazelle and panda in smoothly coordinated escape operations! But also the Animal Wrestler is floating unconscious in the alligator pen with little gifts piled around him like the gators wanted to honor a noble foe.”

“Can you round up the animals, pumpkin?”

“Daddy,” said Emily scandalized. “I’m eight.

“Well,” said Sid, “if your mole men aren’t up to it . . .”

There was a long pause.

“We’ll see what we can do,” said Emily. “But the autonomous underground collective disapproves of keeping animals penned. That’s our free mole spirit!”

The phone buzzed.

“Got a call in,” said Sid. “Talk to you later, honey!”

“Bye!”

Sid clicked the Flash button. “Yeah, Doc?”

“The police are on the way. Any progress?”

Sid shrugged. He flicked a few more switches.

“It’s in perfect working order as far as I can see,” said Sid. “If you want to offer gnomic management wisdom, now might be the time.”

Doctor Brown hesitated.

“There was a Hindu story,” said Doctor Brown, “about a King returning from war when a river flooded and blocked his way home.”

“That’s not wisdom!” said Sid, scandalized. “It’s in our company manifesto!”

“He challenged his ministers and generals to lower the river,” said Doctor Brown, who wasn’t the kind of man to abandon a good story. “But it was an ordinary camp follower who solved the problem, saying, ‘River, sink low!’ And the river, which had ignored the entreaties of ministers, generals, and Kings, sank until she could cross it without wetting her ankles. Because, as low as her position was, she was perfect in her dharma. She knew who she was. She knew what she was there for. And because she had that power and that confidence, no force in the universe could stop her.”

“Okay,” said Sid.

“So why are you letting this stop you?

Sid opened his mouth to speak, paused, and frowned.

“That’s a good point,” Sid said, after a moment. He poked at the side of his mouth with his tongue. This somatized his internal attempts to evaluate the state of his soul. “I’m dharma-OK. The glitch isn’t affecting me. So I should be able to fix this.”

“Soar like the eagles, Sid!”

Sid tapped at his forehead with his hand.

“Okay,” Sid said, “so here’s my theory.”

“Oh?”

“We look at the dharma boxes to center ourselves in our dharma,” said Sid. “To become like that camp follower. The boxes resonate with who we really are, down underneath, to help us reach our fullest potential. That’s why you have such a hard time finding reasonable opportunities for your motivational speeches—we’re already at our personal peak of excellence!”

“. . . Yeah,” sighed Doctor Brown, sadly.

“But the dharma boxes aren’t manifestations of a God-like universal will,” said Sid. “They’re machines. They’re mental and spiritual feedback devices, and the first versions were built by ordinary imperfect humans. Here’s what I’m thinking: what if there’s a global error in the design? Something pervasive and subtle, something that none of us can see because every thought we have is shaped by the feedback from the boxes? So that when I stand here, looking at the evidence of the glitch, I’m still unable to see it, because it’s something that can’t exist in the context of my world?”

Doctor Brown considered. “Something that heroes can’t solve, but ordinary people can?”

“No,” said Sid, after a moment. “It’s more a general philosophical problem with turning to external evidence to figure out who we are.”

Sid hung up.

Several flamingoes flew by.

Sid thought.

Then he took out his dharma mini, set it on “Neutral,” and stared into its face.

Sid’s thoughts grew thick and full of error. Some of the glamour fell from his world. A seed of fear sprouted in his heart.

Grimly, he put the dharma mini back into his pocket and began to work.

After a while, the phone rang.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” said Ms. Baker. “It’s been forty minutes.”

“Oh,” said Sid.

Ms. Baker hesitated. “Oh?”

“I’m trying to figure things out,” Sid said. “But I’m off system myself.”

He leaned under the console, took off a panel, and stared at the wiring underneath.

“It’s terrible,” Sid said. “You know? I mean, it’s like I’m climbing a mountain, and there’s a cold wind blowing, and my fingers are numb and the picks are loose and there’s an evil goat and I could fall at any second and die.”

Ms. Baker made a little, pained laugh.

“Yeah,” she said. “There’s an evil goat outside my door too.”

“. . . baby goat, probably,” Sid said. “There was a zoo maintenance error.”

“Oh.”

“I can’t believe we used to live like this. I can’t believe being human used to be like this all the time.”

“Yeah,” sighed Ms. Baker.

“It sucks.”

Ms. Baker hesitated.

“Also,” said Ms. Baker, brightly, “you could get stabbed! By muggers!”

Sid smiled a little.

“Or get hit by a car,” he said.

“Catch gangrene.

“Sniffles!”

“Social conflict!”

“Internet trolls!”

“War!”

“Stubbed toes!”

“Sheer blatant stupidity that you didn’t understand for years until one day you’re sitting at home and suddenly you realize just how wrong you were!

“Oh, God,” said Sid. “I remember those. Those were horrid.

They laughed.

“It’s actually the one thing that surprised me,” said Ms. Baker, after a bit. “I mean, when I moved to a UDBI district. That suddenly everyone got along.”

“Well, it’s natural,” said Sid. “I mean, you perfect people, and—”

Sid hesitated.

“I’d been expecting irreconcilable differences to remain,” said Ms. Baker.

“Yeah,” said Sid.

“It just seemed sound. That sometimes not everyone could have what they want at the same time.”

“That’s erroneous,” Sid said, distractedly. “I mean, in the formal theory of dharma boxes, it’s not so much that everyone gets what they want, as that people recognize that point beyond which they can’t have everything. They lose their connection to the basic human, mortal cruelty of the world.”

Sid frowned.

“But you have a point,” he said. He closed the panel, sat back, and said, “I’ll have to call you back.”

“Thank you,” said Ms. Baker. “I mean, for working, I mean, even when—”

“Only human,” said Sid.

It was still terrifying to him. His gestures were slow and clumsy. His thoughts were cold and confused.

“Yeah,” Ms. Baker said.

Sid hung up. He called Doctor Brown.

“Hey,” said Sid.

“Hey, Sid. Are you all right?”

“What would have happened to the camp follower,” said Sid, “if the river, confident in its dharma, had chosen to continue its flood?”

“That’s not possible,” said Doctor Brown.

“Pardon?”

“It’s basic dharmic theory. That part of our perfection that depends on others is also that part that we can expect from others. If a person and a river are in the world, then the limit of their dharmic excellence as they approach perfection is also in the world. The final perfection of all entities must coexist in . . . God, Nirguna Brahman, the Cantor-Deity, or what have you. Of course, this year’s models only really give an effective perfection around 98.3%.”

“Huh,” said Sid. “Then I have a theory.”

“Shoot.”

“The glitch isn’t a machine error,” Sid said. “It’s a dharma error. Something happened that meant that—to the limits of current technology—not everyone could be perfect at once.”

There was a thumping and a stampeding outside the satellite installation.

“Whee!” shouted Emily, riding by on the back of a water buffalo. She had a length of cord wrapped through its mouth as a bit and was slowly, surely, exhausting its strength.

“Inconceivable,” said Doctor Brown.

“I’m conceiving it right now!”

There was a long silence.

“But what kind of . . . ghoul could have needs so fundamentally incompatible with someone else’s that they couldn’t be 98.3% perfect at the same time without cascading system errors?”

“Whee!” shouted Emily, riding past the other way. The water buffalo seemed to be tiring.

“I’m betting on the sharks,” said Sid. “But possibly an evil flamingo.”

Doctor Brown cleared his throat uncertainly. “Well,” he said. “I figure the thing to do for now is to lower the output on Block 43’s models. If there’s some kind of communications breakdown that makes it impossible for everyone to harmonize at 98.3, maybe they can coexist at 90, 95% perfection.”

“And in the long term?”

“In the long term,” said Doctor Brown, “as the technology of human perfection gets better, and whatever little quirk you’ve found here gets resolved, someone will just have to have a dharma that bridges the gap.”

Sid sighed. He took out his dharma mini. He set it on “Full.” He stared at its face.

“This could be most of the glitches we’ve been seeing,” Sid said.

“I suppose.”

“The little ones, I mean. They’re usually when someone new logs on to the system. When, maybe, reconciling their goals and desires makes for a little hiccup as the system strives to adjust to a new local perfection.”

“Maybe.”

Sid waited for his thoughts to clear.

“. . . what if there isn’t a person whose basic nature spurs them to smooth over the irreconcilable gaps between people?” Sid said. “I mean, what if things get worse, instead?”

Doctor Brown made a little laughing noise.

“Sid,” he said. “Of course there’ll be someone like that.”

“Daddy!” shouted Emily, pounding on the door. “Daddy, I beat the water buffalo! With my fierce mole-like stamina!”

“It’s technologically inevitable,” said Doctor Brown.