Whoever Can Bear the Weight

I will tell you a story.

I will tell you this story because it is time that you heard this story. I will tell you this story because it is true. I will tell you this story because you have wondered for some time, dear child, who it is that stands upon the throne of all this world.

And stand he does: stands, with the forces of the world constellating around him, stands with the fates of all the world like strings tied to the rough reins of his right hand.

He stands with his palm thrust out, and from that hand a mandala of energy once grew; and seven more formed about it; and each touched the others, each orbited the others; each was the center of the pattern, and among them were faces, wings, fires, jade, and gold.

He flung back his head.

He laughed.

There was a great wind before the throne in Heaven and the seraphim cried out. The sun and stars and the planets froze in their procession and the whole world shook.

Thus it was when the monster first ascended to the throne—

Unless, of course, that was somebody else entirely.

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

Let us speak of time.

You don’t need time to become perfect. Time’s just the expression of it.

The maze of us is self-unraveling.

The corridors of our paths to perfection contain the germ of our walking them; and so we can say that seen from four-dimensional space we are a rose that navigates itself, a compass that finds itself, a perfect thing under the veils of its imperfection.

That we suffer is a trick of perception. It is a grain of distilled falsehood caught inside our eyes. If we could pull ourselves away from Time we would see that there is only beauty. Our beauty is hiding from us in the past, in the future, in the flow of things: looking at a single moment, life might seem atrocity instead, but pull back your gaze and even atrocity becomes life

But wait.

Laughing in the fields, sure; taking joy in the unraveling of the riddles of our lives, certainly; the already perfect takes joy in the discovery of that perfection, in the slow shedding of the scales from its eyes that kept it from seeing the perfection of itself, oh, dharma moves, and all is beautiful—

But wait.

The Elysian fields come necessarily to us all, and drifting in that joy we are ourselves, and complete, perfected—

Wait, I say. This cannot stand.

Listen.

I tell you that to drift in endless joy and solitary perfection cannot stand. It cannot be the end.

It is missing half the story, to be perfected and alone.

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me

To live, to really live, we must give over our perfection to the fallibility of the earth. We must crack it. We must break it, dear child, our terrible perfection. We must incarnate again in flesh. We must redeem the mortal clay.

We who are fire must wake the meat to knowing joy.

We have nothing. To be perfect is to have nothing: it is all entangled. So the only thing that we may sacrifice in this is the perfection and wholeness of ourselves.

We are perfect, and yet we must stagger back towards imperfection. We are perfect, yet we must break our godhood on the altering of skin.

To this agenda we have nothing else to give, save our own selves.

We must feast the woglies with them. We must make feast to the woglies with them. And it never ends. It never has. I fear it never shall.

We pour ourselves into the flesh and the flesh keeps failing to wake.

God is that which gives itself away, to the last portion, and gets nothing in return. And in Eleusis we become like God and break ourselves upon the rock that is the world, give out our truths as grain in mortal sacrifice, and yet it does not rise.

Where are the people who were meant to be arising from the ground?

Where is our companionship in the stone?

We laugh at those who long to live forever, for that was the first thing given; what we need is the power to save others from their pain.

It is so still.

The world, it is so terribly, terribly, still.

And yet it yearns to wake.

[The Frog and the Thorn – INTERLUDE]


The nature of the Third Kingdom of the world says, We may change.

We may change.

And in the last days of the Third Kingdom, when the wind fell from the sails of that change, when the wave that was that change broke finally against the meat-nature of the flesh, the woglies were all that remained to us of hope.

This is how things are? they laughed.

This is unfixable, unalterable, this is a place without recourse? they laughed.

And they ate into our dilemma like our hopelessness was their meat, and they said, see? It was not so.

They are the crack in every prison.

They are an uncertainty that moves.

And as for Zeus, he took the treasure of the world and he slipped away; slipped out from under the burden of the throne, he let it fall like a great weight from his back. And the seraphim who’d besieged him, crying out, “Holy, holy, holy,” as if in war, burst in the doors, but Olympus was empty of its gods; there was only the scent of olives, and an olive branch left behind, in honor of the seraphim’s great Lord.

Zeus the son of burden-bearing Cronos took the power of the world and gave it to a woman whom he thought could bear its weight;

And then he went away.

See also The Tip of the Iceberg, An Unclean Legacy, and The Summoning of the King.

“The Lord of Misrule” – From the Journals of Ink Catherly (V/XVI)

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Cronos: When Riffle’s sword touched my neck, I saw a bit more of Cronos’ history. It was from earlier than before, again. The Titanomachy hadn’t happened yet. Zeus was free but the others were still engulleted.

It made me angry.

I scolded it.

I said, No, world! I do not need the history of Cronos right now. If anything, I need the history of Riffle!

This was actually a mistake on my part. I should have blamed myself because it is, after all, my very own power that gave me, perversely, this insight. But blaming oneself is very hard. I’m not sure it’s something people can do.

So I scolded, instead, the world.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

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

The Island of the Centipede

Cronos slouched on the throne of the world.

He was contemplating a sickle. It was a really big flint sickle and it was grey.

Zeus entered.

“Son,” said Cronos. O my love.

That was the weird thing about Cronos. When you’d hear him talk, the world would echo with that in the background: O my love.

Anyway.

“Son,” said Cronos.

“Dad.”

It was an awkward moment.

I thought I’d eaten you, but maybe it was a rock.

I had that thought once, on Floor 93-GA. It was the suckiest eating contest ever.

“You’ve been eating everybody,” said Zeus. “Poseidon and Hera and stuff.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I did not ask to rule a Golden Age,” Cronos said. “Rather I wished to dominate a freakish carnival of horrors. A masque of the imperfect. A world of people with the bones of their pain jutting out so that you can hardly talk to them without saying, ‘O my love, why are you broken?'”

Zeus said, “I understand.”

I don’t know much about Zeus. There’s a bias in the history—a sense of focus to it. Zeus is important, but it’s Cronos whom this history is about, down here in the crust of the world. So I don’t know much about Zeus or what was going on in his head, but I think that he was telling the truth.

He had that Martin sound, all serious and like it’s perfectly natural, of course, who wouldn’t prefer to rule a world wracked with sorrow and pain and full of monsters?

And Cronos smiled, like it was a joy to hear.

Zeus continued.

“I am going to cut your stomach open,” said Zeus, “and spill out my brothers and my sisters, and a rock.”

“And if I forbid it?”

“In this world,” said Zeus, “we bring forth children in sorrow.”

Cronos had trouble finding an answer to that one.

“It’s the rule,” Zeus explained.

This would appear to be one of the Man Laws, like in those Miller Lite commercials. You poke it, you own it. We bring forth children in sorrow. Entropy always increases. Don’t shoot food. Leave the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil alone. Castrating your father and taking over his throne is a punishable offense. Sharing is caring.

Stuff like that.

Not even Cronos can really argue with that kind of rule; but at the same time, he didn’t rise and hand Zeus the sickle.

Zeus waited.

“Who are you, my son?” Cronos asked.

“I’m the Lord of Misrule,” said Zeus. “I’m the answer to your prayers. I’m the one who’ll bring this whole world down around your ears.”

Cronos’ heart fluttered in his chest. It’s weird that he’d never taken it out—you’d think that he would have, since there’s nothing so dangerous as a heart. But he hadn’t.

“Show me,” he said, and his voice was desperate with hope.

Your authority has no foundation,” said Zeus, “for you have done a wicked thing.

It was electric. It cut through the air. But it didn’t impress Cronos.

“More,” Cronos said.

The dog that carries a serpent on his back is vile; the tiger that carries a dog, we call a saint.

Cronos mulled that one over for a while.

Then he shook his head.

He stood.

The sky gathered behind his shoulders and the stars burned bright with Uri’s fires and the world grew heavy as a woman carrying her child and he said, “You are not equal to this task.”

Dread was the nimbus of Cronos at that moment. The power of him held Zeus still. Cronos was Ge’s son in that moment, strong as the earth, unsurpassable, indestructible, horned and terrible, and free—as only one creature in all the world could be—to act accordant to his desires.

Ink’s hand hurts quite a bit more than her neck. The sword has cut her hand deeply. It is still, and thank Heaven for the pathetic muscles of the little rat, no more than skin-deep in her neck.

But it’s the blood that runs down her neck that scares her.

She finds herself wondering, “Is it possible to die?”

She will probably have a choice in the matter. She is the imago and she has been to Hell and back and it seems likely that she would have a choice. But it is also probable that something would be lost. If nothing else, her sense of her own humanity. At worst, the value of the sacrifice of her life, with which she is hoping to carry past any final obstacles that stand between Ink Catherly and God.

I think that I will describe the terror that was Cronos in that moment like this.

We are in ourselves the actual and the ideal. And the actual is all that moves, all that acts, all that speaks. We cannot really demonstrate that there is more: but there must be more, or we are in Hell.

Where is the fire of our intention?

Where does it move upon the earth?

It does not, and in that respect Earth is very much like Hell, and yet, and yet, and yet the difference is that we are here. Hell is to live without experiencing our life. Earth is life knowing our own presence. It is life, flush with our ideals.

But Cronos knew a thing that I did not know.

He wore it like a blaze.

It was the terror of the flesh, the power of the actual, the aura of the substance of him. That with his hands and with his fingers he could move, and Zeus could not stop him from moving; that that substance was raw, unconstrained by Zeus’ volition or the limits that Zeus would rather have put on it, and capable in its action of dragging Zeus’ ideals down.

Those dirty fingernails could break Zeus’ virtue. Those bloody hands could kill him. Those great arms and those great teeth could put a stop to the ideals of the lord of all the gods.

Flesh has that power.

It obliterated the thoughts of Zeus. It held him still.

But Zeus had trained for this.

He had spent years in empty meditation and practice and taught his flesh to act when his mind could not.

The world swam with the blinding rapture of Cronos and it drove away the thoughts of Zeus and the will of Zeus and the fire of him flickered and went dim beneath the wind of all that power, and the flesh of Zeus stepped forward and took the sickle in his hand and cut his father’s stomach open to bring his brothers and sisters into the world.

It seemed impossible to Zeus that it did not hurt Zeus; that the opening of the wound in his father’s stomach brought Zeus no pain, burnt none of Zeus’ nerves; that he could see and hear and smell the wound but he could not feel it.

It seemed a thing that should wound, instead, the all of world and sound.

Out fell the stone; and Hades and Poisedon; and Hera and Demeter and Hestia; and great snaky loops of titantestine too; and Cronos looked down at his stomach and Zeus could hardly see his face through the blindingness of the reality of that moment when he cut his father open at the throne of all the world.

Cronos staggered. The storm shifted at his back. It loomed upon the world and in that moment it seemed very possible that the world would end and there would only be Heaven and Hell forever after, amen—

Somehow, Cronos held it back.

Somehow, Cronos balanced himself and held aloft the burden of all pains while his innards snaked themselves back in.

The fingernails on his hand were cracked and dirty. His hair was wild. He reached for his son with hands soaked in everybody’s blood.

Cloud-shouldered Zeus, the son of Cronos, born in the fullness of Tyranny to bring justice to the world, seized five babies and a stone and fled.

  • Saturday:
    THE HISTORY OF THE SWORD

Ink Invaluable (IV/XVI)

In the belly of the world there is a great wintry battlefield where white slate snowflakes drift down from a ceiling measurelessly high and accumulate slowly on the bodies of the dead. They are sprawled there, creatures warped by any surface measure, people with the features of bugs and fish and writhing squirming weasel-things. Some wield weapons. Others claws. They are dead.

Around and among them works Riffle and his crew.

“There,” he says.

Where he points his crew converges. They prop up planks of wood against one another. They nail them together. They build scaffolds. They connect the scaffolds together in great rickety structures. They grow ungainly wooden structures, awkward and without pattern, towards the ceiling rock.

The cavern is full of the sounds of hammering, climbing, and crashing.

It is full of the dust of fallen wood.

The girl coughs.

All eyes turn on her. It is a look of accusation.

You are coughing, suggest the eyes of Riffle’s crew. This is distracting us from our vital and important work. Why, even the time we take to formulate this thought, to contemplate the knobs and pits and irregularities of our own introspection, is time we cannot afford.

“Don’t give them an excuse,” says Riffle.

The girl is fifteen years old, more or less, with hair as black as ink. She’s wearing a pink backpack that’s too small for her. She’s taller than Riffle. He doesn’t make it much past her elbow. She can tell, because suddenly he’s standing next to her, suddenly he’s guiding her away from the crew.

“They’ll slack if you give them the slightest excuse,” Riffle says. “So you have to keep them in fear of their lives.”

Then he stabs at her.

With a sword he’s picked up from the ground!

He stabs her right at the throat!

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

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

The Island of the Centipede

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly. Short for Ananke, she’ll tell you — Necessity — although we already know that’s not the truth.

There are many legends about her.

People will tell you that she climbed a tower right to Hell, but didn’t find it at the top; or that she dove deep beneath the world to look for Heaven; or that she got caught amidst the soldier’s tents in a duly sanctioned war.

“We cut the freedom from the rock,” said Private Jameson.

That’s from that last legend that we mentioned, the one about the war.

“We cut the freedom from the rock,” Private Jameson said.

Outside the tent blew the wind, cutting and dark and terrible. It kicked up sand and small rocks. The great tall slouching jellyfish of the land moved blindly in that wind, walking amidst and beyond the soldiers’ tents.

Sometimes one of their tendrils brushed against the open flap and Jameson would shudder.

“Here,” he said.

He held a bit of freedom up. It was slick and soapy in his hands. It was translucent and milky and had sparks in it.

“We cut it from the veins in the rock and then we ship it home.”

“Toss it here?” said Ink.

She was shackled to a post in the back of the tent. Her hair blew about, then settled, then blew about again.

“Very funny, ma’am,” Jameson said.

Ink looked down.

“I don’t suppose you’d care to say why you’re in the war zone, ma’am?”

“I was exploring,” she said.

He looked blankly at her.

“I was looking for Hell,” she said.

“Ah,” said Private Jameson. He tapped his nose. “See, that thing, you see, that saying about war? It’s a metaphor.

Ink made a face at him.

“It seems rude,” she said, after a while. “Coming into another country and mining their freedom.”

“I felt sorry for them,” Private Jameson said.

“Sorry?”

“There’s this thing,” he said. “This happiness, this sweetness, this certainty at the heart of totalitarianism. We have it back home. It’s like a blanket wrapped around your heart and a cup of cocoa in your hands. And they were here, out in the Empty Lands, with the jellyfish and the sand. And I said, ‘They must be so cold, so scared, so helpless, there.'”

“With the freedom?”

“Nobody’s free in this world but Jesus and Jehovah, ma’am. They were chained, they were bound, they were helpless like the rest of us, but they had all this freedom just laying around. Just enough to feel it, if you see my meaning. Just enough to be cold.”

The tent shuddered. One of the jellyfish had blundered into it, with its great fat body and its gleaming skin. The top of it bowed in under the weight and there was a tearing sound.

“Oh,” said Ink.

Private Jameson looked up.

It was from the other side. That was why he didn’t have warning or time to stop it: it came from the other side, the tendril that spiked through the canvas of the tent and skewered him. He was looking one way, startled by the looming of the jelly, and the tendril came in from the other and it tore into his skin.

The poison of the jellyfish cut upwards along his spine. He spasmed. The freedom flew from his hand.

Ink stared.

It was very quick, the whiteness and blueness of Private Jameson’s death. It spread across his face. He fell.

“Hey!” shouted Ink.

The tent had pulled up from one of its pegs. The wind was blowing.

“Hey! Captured girl who was wandering around the war zone here! My security’s dead!”

In the distance she heard the echoes of guns and great picks. She could hear running feet. They were not coming for her. Their direction was north.

The tendril of the jellyfish was caught in the tent. It flailed near her.

Her foot stretched out.

The tendril cut across the leg of her pants and she froze; but it did not cut in and she did not die.

Her foot stretched out. Too far — too far —

Just as the muscle in the bottom of her foot cramped she touched her toe against the freedom. She got the tiniest of grips.

The post that held her slipped free.

She fell flat. She pulled at the shackles with her teeth. They gave.

Ink pulled the freedom closer with her foot. She gripped it in her hand.

“South,” she said.

She kicked to her feet. She ran south. The great blind jellies drifted. Behind her, men fought men.

There was more freedom there — just laying on the road. So she picked it up.

She took up more and more of it as she ran until even the gravity well of the world could not hold her; until she could kick up and go flying up from the ground; until the heaviness and slowness of her muscles could not hold her back and she flowed like a river up into the sky.

Se’irite!” cried a voice.

Forbidden thing. Beast. Anathema. Such were the implications of his tone.

Se’irite!” that person said, and she looked over, and she saw a man with horror writ upon his face. He raised a ramshackle cardboard-tube gun with spam cans tied on either side. He fired. Everything around her went white with the explosion of that gun.

The shadow of death rose behind her as she ran into the night.

The gun had only clipped her. Before it fired it again she rose into the sky and she was gone.

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Cronos: The end of human sacrifice was the beginning of time.

I wanted the details of the Titanomachy. I went looking for them. But that’s what I got. Not the origins of the thunderbolt. Not how Zeus freed the siggorts and the woglies, then put them back again. Not how the lord of the gods won the world, or how he saved his family from his father’s fate. Just that: the end of human sacrifice was the beginning of time.

It’s stupid, though, because human sacrifice never ended. We just stopped using the perfect, the beautiful, the valuable, and the precious, and started sacrificing the people we don’t care about instead. We feed them to our gods until their mouths are red with them.

I’m not sure why it doesn’t count.

Perhaps it is the karma of a worm that moves her arm. Perhaps it is the nature of the imago.

Ink’s hand comes up.

She catches the sword before it kills her.

A trickle of blood runs down her neck, and more from her hand, and she asks him, “What the Hell?”

“Fixed-rate liability insurance,” says Riffle, and he twists the blade.

  • Will tort reform destroy Ink Catherly at last? Will Riffle make his quota on scaffold-inches for the day? And what’s that horrific rumbling in Cronos’ belly? Looming up on the horizon, the next exciting installment of the histories of Ink Catherly:
    ACTUAL TERROR.

Ink Interrupted (III/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

Once upon a time a worm had a thought.

I make my own dark judgments.

Coiling in the crust of the world, hating the dark and the soil and itself and all the other worms, it had that thought.

It fell like a hammer upon the walnut of its brain.

It was shattering. It was terrible. It split the darkness into light. The world shook. The world shone.

The cold still darkness of its mind split into great whirling clouds suffused with thought. It was a pain, it was an agony, but the worm knew it as a joy.

Such was the birth of Minister Jof.

The worm rose and took on the form of a man.

He assumed the ten refinements and the thirty-two virtues.

He dressed himself in Minister’s black.

All these things arose from the transformative power of that thought; and ever since, he has run from that thought, like a wolf from the lightning, like a cat from the spray bottle, like a worm from the shattering power that split the walnut of its brain.

In a certain place, and in a certain time, and to reward a girl for the miracle of her existence, he picks a worm and he crushes it with his heel.

It is dross.

It is a failure.

It will never evolve.

“But it had an arm,” the girl protests.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

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

The Island of the Centipede

A chill passes through the gathered ranks of all the worms. Those that have been writhing go still; those that have been still begin, uncomfortably, to writhe.

“—there,” says Minister Jof.

He twists his foot.

“You may carry forth its karma as your reward for having hands.”

The girl tries to figure out where everything went wrong.

She’s told him that her name is Ink Catherly. That’s usually step one and it doesn’t get anything killed. She’s told him that everybody calls her the imago, which is step two. But then—

Oh!

“Everyone calls me the imago,” she says. “Because—“

Minister Jof gestures peremptorily.

“What?”

“That is not a proper name for a girl,” he says.

“What?”

“‘The imago.’ Consider: it proudly proclaims your evolution, yet clings to the nature you held to before. It is like naming yourself ‘Book II’ or ‘No Longer An Idiot’. Are you still what you were, or are you something new? Pick one or the other. Do not wobble uselessly between them!”

“Agh! Iiyegh!” shrieks the girl, and clasps her head.

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Cronos: This bit’s from a little earlier, I think.

It was the end of the Titanomachy. Cronos stood alone and bereft of all his allies and his strength. Zeus made judgment on his father.

“It has come to my attention,” said the lord of all the gods, “that you carry on your back the price of imperfection. That if you should let it lay, then things shall end forever and forever and we shall all know our happy ending and be done.”

“Will you be taking up this burden, then, yourself, milord?”

Zeus made a horrible face. Really, it was impressive. The world rang with the iiyegh! of it.

“It is my judgment, rather,” said the lord of all the gods, “that you shall wear it forever.”

And Cronos laughed.

It was a horrible laugh. It was a funny laugh. It was the kind of laugh that a man laughs after his son cuts him open, throws a thunderbolt at him, casts him off the throne of the world, and now wants to sentence him to carry an impossibly heavy weight forever and ever.

“I can’t possibly do that,” Cronos said.

“Why not?”

“If I were strong enough to carry it forever,” said Cronos, “then I would not feel the pain of it now.”

“Heh,” said Zeus.

And he sank Cronos’ body into the substance of the world and he poured molten brass and iron over his father’s legs and arms and chest to bind him to the crust with chains that would never break. He marked the space around his father with the symbols of the seasons and lay him down below the world to keep his intemperate and loving mother far at bay. He set his judgment upon the man who had wielded first the sickle of grey flint and he called this torture Time.

Ink is fretting. She’s flailing like Sailor Moon caught in the middle of her transformation sequence, only, you know, not naked, and inside her skin it isn’t all pinky rainbows.

“Everybodycallsmetheimagobecause—“

But Minister Jof has already waved her away.

“Go,” he says, cutting over her words. “I won’t have anything to do with worms once they’ve evolved.”

“But I wasn’t a worm,” protests Ink. “I was a fictional character.”

Minister Jof smiles.

“Oh, darling child,” he says. “You must not accept as gospel the experiences you had in those times before you were yourself. By definition they are garbled. If we could understand them, if we could really understand them, we would have been ourselves already.”

“I was an investigation of the nature of the self,” Ink Catherly protests weakly.

“Naturally,” says Minister Jof. “Now, scat.”

“Damn it!” says Ink.

Ink stomps her foot. There is a squish.

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, but everyone calls her the imago.

‘Cause small and dirty things have the power to evolve, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

  • Tune in next week for the next thrilling installment in the series that August forgot:
    RIFFLE! (BEING THE HISTORY OF INK CATHERLY AND THE RAT)

Ink Immeasurable (I/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

Previous histories of Ink Catherly:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

In the weary kingdoms beneath the world there is no sun and there is no moon. The rivers run chuckling and dark. The bugs thrive everywhere. In every direction they stick forth their legs. Some surfaces are barren and dry. Thick slime covers the rest.

Dharma moves.

From the worms there rises Minister Jof. From nothing, he becomes.

The passion of his birth torments him. He casts about for purpose. He sees the other worms. They are wrapped in shells of blindness and self-contemplation.

He smiles.

He conceives his purpose.

He shatters the shells around their minds. He awakens them. He affixes them with little tags on which he records the details of their lives and teaches them the language of the world.

“From this lofty height,” come his brass-bound words, “I will train you to have selves.”

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

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

The Island of the Centipede

“To enable your becoming,” says Minister Jof, “we must have measures.”

The worms look at him.

“We divide the substance of the world into the tellurean and the empyrean,” lectures Minister Jof. “Good rises. Dross descends. In this fashion we transform the bitterest truths into a pure and noble substance. One in three of you—“

Here he pauses. He contemplates.

He nods.

“One in three, I have decided this, shall be the dross. The rest may ascend further towards humanity. Now order yourselves on your present achievements, least to best.”

They seethe in the chaos of the nematodes.

“You hesitate,” says Jof. “And naturally so. You are prey to the limits of your purpose and your vision. Your minds are small and given to the weaker sentiments. That is why you must rely upon my judgment and disregard your own. That is why I am obligated by our natures to sever you into parts.”

His choice of words distresses them.

They writhe.

But severing us, they seem to say, will only make more of us to cull!

“Impudence!” roars Minister Jof.

He stomps his foot.

Salt sifts down from the ceiling.

The worms go still.

Into the room, drawn by the noise, there staggers a girl. She’s a teenager, really, covered in clods of dirt from where she shimmied through a thin crack into the crust of the earth. She’s carrying a backpack several years too young for her.

“Hello?” she says.

Minister Jof’s eyes fall on her.

“See?” he says.

It is his natural assumption that she has evolved, under his ministrations, from a worm and into human form.

“Hands,” he says. “Feet. A thinking brain—“

Here he hesitates. He coughs. He is unwilling to immediately extend this judgment to another being.

“—or at least one capable of mimicking the higher functions of our thoughts. Look, you, worms! Here is what I expect you to become!”

The worms turn. It is the strangest thing. They turn. They look at the girl. They do not look with their eyes as they have no eyes. They look at her with their grayish circle-marked heads.

Bloody hell, they seem to think. Bloody hell!

There goes the curve.

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Cronos: In the darkness Cronos strove.

His task was back-breaking. Heavier than Atlas’ burden was the storm beneath the world. Yet Cronos strove, alone and helpless to do otherwise, while his father laughed and his son reigned over the world.

One day when it seemed to Cronos that his strength would finally give out, Demeter came down to join Cronos in the darkness. She made a sacred ritual of shushing, going, shh! and hush! though Zeus, of course, could choose to know.

She studied him for a while. Then, at her bidding, the roots of the plants came down through all the darkness and wove into the crust to lighten Cronos’ burden.

Later Poseidon chose to hold back the weight of the storm with all the pressure of the seas.

Hades, too, and Hestia, and Hera, and even Ophion. Ophion came to coil upon his chest and softly drip its venom in his eye, and Cronos smiled, and Cronos smiled, and he cried out through his cracked dry lips his joy: o my love.

One day as Cronos struggled Zeus spoke to him in dreams. Zeus said, “Why do you choose this destiny, o father?”

And Cronos said: “Dharma moves.”

“Hee,” laughed cloud-shouldered Zeus, king of all the gods.

Dharma moves.

“My name is Ink—” says the girl.

“I am Jof, Minister to the Evolution of the Worms,” interrupts Jof. “I am humble; ‘Your Eminence’ will suffice.”

The girl blinks at him.

‘Your Eminence’ will suffice, mimes one of the worms; or, perhaps, it just wriggles.

The girl laughs.

The room goes still.

Dross, thinks Minister Jof, with a sudden, overwhelming passion. Frivolous, unregenerate dross! Here is a worm that shall not see human form.

His foot lifts up. He stomps. It writhes.

“You see how it is,” he explains to the other worms, “for those too lazy or incompetent to strive.”

And to drive the point home, he leans down. He peers at its tag through his magnifying glass. He studies its performance number. “A 12—“

He pauses.

How very awkward it is,

That 12,

In the weary kingdoms far beneath the world.

  • Tune in TOMORROW for the next exciting history of Ink Catherly:
    INK UNTANNABLE!

The Borders of the World (IV/IV)

“It is 1560 years before the common era,” says Demeter.

She doesn’t use English, and she doesn’t use our measures of time.

But that’s what she says, as she looks out over the sea.

“It is 1560 years before the common era, and Leto is here, on the water. And she is walking out. And she has Artemis with her, and a guide.”

This is a history of Leucippus. He did not want to be blind. He liked his sight, though it really did give him more trouble than it was worth.

“He is telling her the stories of the things he sees,” Demeter says. “And they are wrong.”

“Most people are,” says Leucippus.

“Hm?” Demeter says.

“Most people are wrong about what they see,” Leucippus says. “We all live in blind man’s country.”

Demeter smiles at him.

It’s the kind of smile that makes half of his stomach lurch with love and the other with stark, raving fear.

But enough about that.

1560 years before the common era, Hera is constructing a cerycur to trouble Leto!

She’s having to concentrate very hard and work very carefully, because the Kouretes on Mt. Solmissos are making a terrible racket.

“Darn it!” Hera says, as she fumbles a crucial connection.

Hera tosses the cerycur down hard. It skitters towards the bedroom door. Just then, Zeus slams opens the door, his face bright with enthusiasm. His form is perfect and illustrates exactly how amazing a sport tennis would be if gods played it with doors instead of rackets. The cerycur smashes into the wall and shatters, and it’s fifteen-love for Zeus!

The pieces of the cerycur trickle down the wall.

In the stillness that follows, Hera sighs.

“Hello, my beautiful darling wife!” carols Zeus. Then he looks down at the broken cerycur.

“Huh,” says Zeus.

“Was that deliberate?” Hera asks levelly.

“It was too delicate,” says Zeus, airily. “You can’t blame me if your machines can’t stand up to my divine glory.”

Hera looks at Zeus.

Zeus grins at her. Then, very carefully, he waggles his eyebrows.

“I wanted to trouble Leto,” explains Hera. “If she bears you a son, I have a lot to lose.”

“That’s not her fault,” Zeus says, “is it?”

“The actual responsibility appears to have vanished into some sort of mysterious void of blame,” says Hera. “Perhaps there was a fault-devouring titan.”

Zeus thinks a moment.

“You could send a giant snake to trouble them,” he suggests.

“You’re not helping,” says Hera.

“They’re very fierce. They bite. I like to trouble people with giant snakes.”

Hera eyes Zeus.

Zeus grins at her. Then, very carefully, he waggles his eyebrows.

“Pfuh,” says Hera, in amused disgust.

Then, because her concentration is just a little bit askew, she sends a giant snake down to trouble Leto.

At that time and at that moment, Leto is in the grove of Ortygia, where she has just now brought Chibi-Artemis forth into the world.

“That was easier than I expected,” Leto says.

She is standing on a tree branch. With the aid of a clever sling and a dexterous midwife, Leto has given birth. She is feeling quite relieved and pleased with herself, but is a little concerned because she hasn’t expressed a placenta.

Chibi-Artemis is tugging on Leto’s sleeve.

“Mommy?” she asks.

Leto leans down. Then, because Chibi-Artemis is the cutest goddess of hunting and killing things ever, Leto sweeps up her daughter and hugs her tightly.

“Oh,” says Leto. “Oh. I am so happy you are born.”

Chibi-Artemis wriggles and kicks her feet until Leto puts her down. Then she thinks about how to explain what she wants to say. Finally, she just comes out with it.

“You’re still pregnant, Mommy. I got a brother!”

“Oh, man,” says Leto, realizing instantly that Chibi-Artemis is right.

She pushes, hopefully. But it is not working out for her.

“But it’s okay,” says Chibi-Artemis. “We can go somewhere where there isn’t land or sea.”

That’s when the giant snake attacks.

More than two hundred years later, Demeter asks Leucippus, “Would you guide me to Never?”

“Why me?”

It’s the wrong thing to say. He knows as he says it that it’s the wrong thing to say. So he stops. He holds up his hand, frantically. He waits in silence for a moment.

Then he says, “I will.”

And, in a choked voice, he asks, “But must I be blind?”

Demeter is hardly listening to him. She is looking up beyond the world at Never. She says, “If there is no hope in all the world, then the world must change. Must it not?”

Sweating, Leucippus squeezes his eyes tight shut and covers them with his forearm.

“There is no place on any map,” Demeter says. “Not to the west, not to the north, not to the east, not to the south. There is no place on any map that holds the answer to my need. So we must go to an impossible place.”

Her words sit in the air. They are still and heavy, like the lump in Leucippus’ stomach.

He nods.

It is like ice to him. It is a line of madness cut across the world of his mind. The system of the world has finite scope and its boundaries have never closed.

He stands at the crossroads. He tries to see without opening his eyes. He flails for bearings and points in a random direction with his free remaining arm.

“South, then,” he says. “Towards Crete.”

“Towards Crete.”

Her voice is rich and deep and as his panic recedes Leucippus can see her even though his eyes are closed.

The presence of Demeter is cutting through the darkness.

He has a bone-deep awareness of her. She is powerful. She is glorious. The madness seethes in her like lightning. The sorrow twists and turns in her mind like a torn black sail in the winter wind. She is holding it all in, but he can see it; that, and the bounty of her.

And something more beautiful besides.

“There is something beautiful,” he says.

Demeter’s teeth are white in the darkness.

“Something crazy mad beautiful,” he says. “Something—”

He can see it. He can hear it, in the surf, in the tide.

“That was my daughter,” says Demeter.

“And ten . . .”

Leucippus hesitates.

“Ten little meat soldiers,” he says. “Dactyls? Phalluses? Fiends?”

“Toes,” says Demeter.

Her voice is bland.

A blush spreads all the way up Leucippus’ body and almost makes him open his eyes.

“She had ten perfect toes,” says Leucippus.

He is walking now. He is moving out over the waves. But even with his eyes shut he can see too well.

He can see the waves under his feet, for she has led him out over the water.

He can see the salt in them and the terrible power to drown that is the sea’s.

He can see the seagulls as they fly above. With each new cry he can see them again.

And he can see clutched in Demeter’s heart the memory of the wonderful thing, the crazy mad beautiful thing that was her daughter to her.

And Leucippus is crying.

He is crying because in the face of this vision he is surrendering his need for sight.

And more than two hundred years before, Artemis—already older, already better, already fading into her perfection—leads Leto out over the waves, with a blind Kourete before them.

And she says, “Mother, what is that?”

Leto is holding something out to her.

It is wooden and round, and it has a handle. It shimmers, just a bit, from the polishing of the wood. It rattles in Leto’s hand.

“It’s a present,” says Leto. “For shooting the giant snake.”

“Pfuh,” says Artemis, dismissively. “Giant snakes.”

There have only been two occasions in the long history of the world when a giant snake has functioned as an antagonist worthy of the name.

This was not one of them.

“And,” says Leto, “for being you.”

So Artemis looks.

And she is already almost too old to see the wonder of it; but still, there is a moment when the sheen of the wood is a marvel and its noise is the most inspiring thing she has ever heard.

And the expression on her face as she hears it is insanely, impossibly incredibly beautiful.

It gives Leto the strength to go beyond the borders of the world.

Never (II/IV)

It is 1560 years before the common era.

“This is my curse,” Hera says to Leto. “You shall not bear your child on the mainland, or on any island, or on the sea.”

Leto is pregnant and her feet are sore. She thinks about this for a moment.

“That’s pretty much going to suck for me,” Leto concludes.

Which, as things turn out, it does.

It is 1317 years before the common era. There is a river that surrounds the world. It separates the whole good land from that which is not. There is a cupping fire that surmounts the world, a burning fulminating ether. Outside these things there are the sun, the moon, the stars.

And beyond them there is Never.

There is no path to Never. The maps that have survived from then that show the way have peculiar lacunae upon them. No matter how you chart the course, the landmarks do not line up, the data is inconsistent, you are led inevitably into the cartographer’s error and the point without continuance. There are some who laugh at the folly of the mapmakers of those days, and some who speak of conspiracy and secrets, and some who deny that there was ever a Never at all.

But it is there, burning in the sky, three thousand years ago and more, with its peaks and minarets and bats.

It is thinking of Never that Demeter falls from stormy skies to Delos, that island of stability at the chaos’ edge.

Leucippus is laying there on the sand of Delos’ beach. He’s coughing up water. He’s just tried to drown himself.

“There is no hope,” says Demeter.

She is wearing black. The wind makes angry sounds as it passes her, like a flapping tarp or a dragon’s wings.

“Granted,” says Leucippus. He does not recognize her.

Demeter blinks. Her eyes focus on him. “Pardon?”

“There is no hope,” Leucippus says. “Everything is madness. Here is how I know. This is Delos. It is a sacred island. It is the island where sweet Leto bore Apollo. Yet she cannot have borne him on an island. It is against the law that orders each and every thing. Thus I cannot trust Ananke; thus I cannot trust anything; thus I cannot even trust in the existence of the world.”

“It isn’t technically an island,” Demeter says. “It’s too small.”

Leucippus looks up. He stares at her steadily.

After a moment, Demeter laughs.

“Point taken,” she says.

“I can’t help but see how things really are,” says Leucippus. “It’s a curse from Apollo. Because I challenged him on matters of prophecy.”

“That was a mistake,” Demeter says.

“Yes,” agrees Leucippus fervently. “Yes, it was.”

Demeter hefts Leucippus up from the beach. She puts him down on his feet. She breathes and the air around him is full of the scent of corn.

“Come,” she says, and she walks out on the water.

“I didn’t know why it was a punishment at first,” says Leucippus. He walks out after her, onto the waves. “It didn’t make me very popular, of course. I mean, the girls were all bashfully upset at my truthful evaluation. Also, the men. And I really, really have to avoid temples. But I didn’t mind so much. Unpopularity is the curse of an honest man. No, the problem I had was with the world. With everything that just doesn’t make sense.”

“You don’t like contradictions?”

Just processing that question makes Leucippus hyperventilate.

“Uh,” he says, staggering.

“Here is one for you,” Demeter says. “Observe. My daughter, my bright fair daughter, she has been taken. There is no hope in all the world. Yet I am calm.”

“You aren’t calm,” says Leucippus. “You are indulging in a patch of detached madness.”

“Pshaw,” summarizes Demeter, waving the matter away.

“Am I going to die?” Leucippus says. “Because, honestly, I’d rather die than spend any more time contemplating Delos. So I won’t mind. But I’d hoped, in a distant corner of my mind, that instead of drowning I’d get sucked down into a whirlpool and cast up on some distant island populated by beautiful maidens, deep-bosomed like yourself. So far, what with your mad despair and such, the portents do not seem good.”

“There is no hope,” Demeter says, somewhat ambiguously.

Demeter looks upwards.

“Listen,” Demeter says. “In all the span of the world, there is no hope for me. I have for some years known that this would happen; that the Son of Cronos would have her taken from me. And what is done, in this matter, cannot be undone. There is no hope for me. So neither is there hope for you. That is Ananke. That is Necessity.”

“Alas,” says Leucippus.

“Still,” says Demeter, “I will be gracious, and say this much: when Leto found it, Delos was no island.”

“Was it a giant fish?” says Leucippus. He is practically sagging with relief. There is a beautiful peace spreading across his face. But it is tentative. It is a peace that’s scared to stay. “Because I thought there might be an exception regarding giant fishes. But the island’s shape was wrong.”

“It was a minaret of Never.”

(Good Friday – Hitherby Annual #1 – I/I) Tre Ore

Once upon a time, the world had a purpose.

Back then, everything did.

Everything had a purpose, and a truth, and a dharma.

This time was full of sorrow. If a banshee howled, then someone would die. If a mermaid called you, you would drown. If a witch cursed you, you would shrivel and suffer ill fate. Such was the nature of the banshee, and the mermaid, and the witch. If Coretta’s Lion had your scent, then it would hunt you down, and eat your skin and muscles, bit by bit, and you would take three days to die. The world was full of things like that.

But these sorrows were small.

The worst of the predators of this time were the predators of truth. For there were things, things like Death, and Sickness, and Old Age, that declared their truths supreme. It did not matter what your purpose was. Theirs would overwrite it. In the end, you could not defeat them, because it was the nature of their truth to mean more than your own. They were a very exclusive club.

The monster was such a thing. He was such a predator. And he was undefeatable. And it is because there were monsters, and because there was death, and because there were truths like theirs, that the world was broken, and the gods were cast from the world of truth into the heart of emptiness.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

Martin stumbles against a man, and his touch does not turn the man to dust. After a long moment Martin realizes that this is so.

“Hey,” Martin says, and refocuses his eyes.

This is a place of deep water, but the man is parched and dry. Fruit is dangling from the trees all around him, but he is terribly thin. His name is Tantalus.

“Hey,” Tantalus says.

Martin backs away a step, tilts his head, and frowns. “You’re not like the others. You’re not a broken god.”

“No,” Tantalus says. “I am a man, and I am dead, and I have been consigned to torture here in the Underworld for roughly three thousand years.”

Martin whistles. “Harsh.”

Tantalus shrugs.

The deepness of the water has put a silence on the woglies, but Martin still feels edgy and twitchy down in his soul. “Hey,” he says. “What makes that okay?”

“Okay?”

“What makes it okay to torture someone for three thousand years?”

“Ah,” says Tantalus.

Then he laughs.

“It didn’t matter,” Tantalus explains. “Zeus sat on the throne of the world, you see, and it did not matter which of his dicta were okay.

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

540 BCE

“It would have been better to kill him,” Mylitta admits.

Mylitta sits tailor style on the dust and grime and brushes White Lion’s fur.

“But the problem with heroes,” she says, “is that monsters have an answer to them.”

White Lion lowers its head to the floor.

“A hero is a storm,” Mylitta says, “and storms are terrible. But there is a place above the storm where the air is calm. And I do not know how. But I could feel it, like I could feel the wind and the sunlight. That he had found that place. And so there was no single specific moment in which the monster could be killed. ”

“I thirst,” rumbles White Lion.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

There is a silence.

“I had fruit,” Tantalus says, “Only a few decades ago. But I would still like some water. If you could hold up some water for me to drink, I would love you.”

“My hands are full of dust,” Martin says.

“Oh.”

“I thought they were people,” Martin says. “I thought they were my predecessors. But when I touched them, it turned out that all they were was dust.”

“It’s the Underworld,” Tantalus says. It’s an explanation or a dismissal; Martin is not sure which.

“My sister keeps making gods to save her,” Martin says, “and all of them fail, and all of them wind up as mud and dust.”

“I remember that,” Tantalus says. “The gods were severed from the world.”

“Severed?”

“In the face of the monster, they were lost,” Tantalus says. “They had no meaning that could compare to his own. So they were cut from the Earth, torn away, and made into isn’ts, lest the monster’s dharma set a new order on the world. It was my doing, in a way; my children could not have learned the truths that make a monster had I not stolen the secret of the gods.”

Martin frowns. “The secret?”

“If you accept a purpose;” Tantalus says. “If you declare something to be your answer to the emptiness; then you must accept the consequences of that answer. It is desirable, for gods as for men, to shrink from that burden; but in the end, it always catches you, and, if it so pleases, it tears you apart.”

Tantalus sits down heavily, and the water sinks into the dust lest he should drink, and the woglies surrounding Martin are in the air once more.

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

“I am born to answer suffering,” says Siddhartha.

Siddhartha and Yasodhara travel through the city. Yasodhara is very pregnant.

Her answer is light and teasing. “And who is not? If you were born to cause suffering, my love, then I should name you a monster.”

Siddhartha says:

Let us speak of death, then, as a monster.
He may be fought,
But the terms are his own.
Each time you make escape from him
He claims his due.
Thus it is that no man may fight death.

Let us call illness a monster.
It may be fought,
But the terms are its own.
We do not choose the behavior of purity.
Even touching a man,
In exercise of compassion,
May bring on sickness.

Let us speak of age as a monster.
She may be fought,
But the terms are her own.
The more you fight, the more she grips to you.
The more you fight, the more she claims her due.
Thus it is that no man may fight age.

This is the flaw in the world.

How can I answer suffering?
Monsters have no remedy.

“The root cause of suffering,” Yasodhara observes, following the train of her own silent thoughts, “is that no one wants to suffer.”

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

Nabonidus is educing a god from her when Mylitta breaks.

“Sometimes,” Mylitta says, clearly, “it’s like there’s this thick yarrow stick in my chest, going through where my heart used to be, stretching from my spine to my ribs. And now, suddenly, it’s like it’s just split, and blackness is leaking out all over me.”

Nabonidus blinks.

There is a light that roils under Mylitta’s skin, and then fades. There are great wracking coughs that shake her, and violent seizures. Then Mylitta stops. Her head lolls to one side. Her eyes dim.

Nabonidus looks blankly at her. He steps back. His arms fold around himself for comfort.

“Um,” he says.

Mylitta sleeps.

There is a great bulk behind Nabonidus in the room. It is white, like a maggot, like the wriggling young of flies. It is leonine. It is soft. Its name is White Lion, and it is a god.

“She will not wake,” it says.

The creature pads forward. It says, “I have asked her to leave this place, to come away with me, a thousand times. But she has always said no. I do not think she will deny me today.”

It leans down. It takes Mylitta in its mouth. It turns to walk away.

“She’s mine,” Nabonidus says.

White Lion looks at him.

“She’s my husk,” Nabonidus protests. “I broke her.”

White Lion leans its great head down. It drools Mylitta onto the floor. It looks up. It opens its mouth. It roars.

It is a terrible thing, that roar. It is like a wind tunnel that blows away the qualities of the world. Nabonidus cannot see. He cannot touch. He cannot taste. He cannot smell. He cannot hear, save for the roar.

.
.
.

Nabonidus is on the floor. He does not know how or why he is on the floor. But Mylitta is gone. So he does the only thing that he can do, in answer to her emptiness.

He makes a god.

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

“Ah,” says Yasodhara. “There is a monk.”

Siddhartha follows her gaze. He frowns.

Who is this, Yasodhara?
This man—
His head is shaved,
He wears a robe,
He has a strange demeanor.

The smile on his face
Seems more
Like the one I seek
Than the smile of my father Suddhodana.

“He is a monk,” Yasodhara says. “He lives in the temple and he travels the kingdom, teaching people how to be good.”

“And what is his answer to suffering?” Siddhartha asks.

Yasodhara studies him with the eyes of a goddess. “A very small fiend,” she says. “It lives in his gums. It locks his jaws in that smile. There are bone passages connecting his teeth to his ears, and this allows it to whisper to him constantly, ‘people need not suffer.’ It is a painful fiend, but it has convinced him not to mind.”

(“If only ancient India had had proper dental hygiene!” Jane exclaims. “He could have brushed the fiend right out and put it to use saving the world!”

“There are many tragedies,” Mrs. Schiff agrees.)

Siddhartha opens his mouth to speak.

“Oh,” says Yasodhara, interrupting him. She has gone pale. She leans against him.

Her labor has begun.

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

Exhausted, weary, broken, and warm:

Nabonidus is crying.

It has cut him raw, to make a god. It is like being a skinless man, for him, naked in the face of everything he is.

It does not hurt terribly. But it stings.

It costs him that control that would keep him from his tears.

There is a snuffling in the room, and the clicking of nails on stone. A cold wet shadow passes over the footprints of White Lion, the altar of Sin, the blood Mylitta left behind. Then the creature he has made, the Dog of Nabonidus, brushes past and around him and leans against his side.

“Why couldn’t I keep her?” Nabonidus says.

The Dog looks at him. Its eyes are expressive. It is almost as if it wanted to say, It is the monster’s nature to consume his victims.

“She was strong,” Nabonidus says. “She could have fought. She could have kept herself unbroken.”

The Dog pants, quietly. If it could speak, Nabonidus thinks, it would no doubt say, She did not wish to. In the end, she chose to leave you with the burden of the contradiction of your lives.

“Why?” he asks.

Because it is the only answer she could find.

So Nabonidus goes home to Babylon, and he whispers to Mylitta’s absence, “You’re right, of course.”

Mylitta’s absence remains constant.

“One of us must pay the price,” Nabonidus says. “And you think I’m not strong enough. You think I’ll bend. But I won’t. I’ll make a host like you have never seen, and send them after you, to make you whole. You won’t escape from me. I will fix you.”

There is a void in the room, an emptiness, a devouring. For a moment, Nabonidus thinks it is his heart, but then he realizes that Belshazzar has let himself in.

“I will help you, father,” says Belshazzar. “If you let me.”

“Help me?”

“I have seen how it is that one pulls forth gods.”

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

Siddhartha is in the garden. The midwives have chased him from the room where Yasodhara is giving birth, explaining:

Every child we pull forth
Is an answer
To the suffering in the world.

You are Prince Siddhartha,
And we glory in you,
And one day you’ll turn the wheel
And conquer all the world
But you will never be a midwife.

Your fussing distracts us!
Your philosophy confuses us!
Out! Out! Give us space
To answer the suffering in this room.

“Midwives are intimidating,” concedes Siddhartha.

He sits in the garden, under a tree, and thinks about the monk, and suddenly he realizes:

I am suffering.
I know the meaning of it!
And it is this:

From the beginning of my life,
I have made observations
And conclusions regarding the nature of the world.

These carry me along
Like a river
Each new truth means another thing is true.

I have built a world
From premises I’ve found
And premises I’ve made

And this is my suffering:
A flaw has crept in.
A wound has snuck into the world that I have made.

Dukkha.
There: I have named it.
Somehow suffering is intrinsic to my world.

To deny suffering
Is to find contradictions—
We can’t have everything we want.

Maya is in the garden. She sits down beside him. Her eyes are shadowed. She says:

I am here to offer you the treasure wheel.
It is power.
It is truth.
It is the nature of the world
And where it goes, it conquers.

If you take it I can let you live.

Siddhartha says:

I am glad you are not here to kill me,
Mother,
But to bind me to that wheel—that is crueler.

It is beautiful
But it is the cause of all my suffering.

“It is not the cause of suffering,” Maya says. “It is the answer to it. If you have power to dictate the ephemera of the world, you may release things from their suffering.”

Siddhartha reaches out to touch her hand, but she drifts away. She is standing now, slightly out of his reach, staring out at the world, holding the jeweled treasure wheel in her hands.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone is wounded, mother,
What would I use the wheel for?

To heal them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone is being tortured, mother,
What would I use the wheel for?

To save them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If they are tortured again, later, mother,
What would I use the wheel for then?

To save them again, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If they suffer in the meantime because they remember torture, mother,
What use, then, is the wheel?

To heal them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone suffers, again and again, mother,
What use is the wheel?

You may end or prevent that suffering each time, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If there are conditions in life that make future suffering inevitable, mother,
What use is the wheel?

Maya frowns at Siddhartha. She says:

It is life itself that makes suffering inevitable.
If you end all life, you will end all suffering
But this is not the Maya-Dharma.
And this is not compassion.

Siddhartha says:

If there are conditions in life that make future suffering inevitable, mother,
Is the wheel then no use at all?

Maya says:

We suffer because we love what might have been.
If you end love, you will end all suffering
But this is not the Maya-Dharma.
And this is not benevolence.

Siddhartha shakes his head. He says:

If someone wounded says,
When I bring the wheel to them,
‘This wound is inevitable,’ mother,
What must I do then?

Maya says:

Such a person has lost perspective.
Ignore their words and heal the wound, Siddhartha.

Siddhartha says:

You have lost perspective, mother.
The world is a wound.
The nature of things is a wound.
That suffering is inevitable, this is a wound.
Do you understand?
Even if I must shatter love,
Or shatter life
To heal them,
I will end that quality of things that makes us suffer.

Maya lowers her head. “So ruthless,” she whispers.

Siddhartha reaches out to her. He says:

If I did not know the Maya-Dharma, mother,
I could not transcend it.

Maya says, quietly,

O Prince, O Prince,
In your rooms
Your son is born.

Will you look upon him?
Will you go, and look upon him,
And know the reason for this world?

“Sons are an impediment,” says Siddhartha.

Maya looks wry.

I shall not. Siddhartha rises, and turns, and looks towards the gate. I will seek an end to suffering.

The wheel burns in Maya’s hands. It is a jeweled treasure wheel, thousand-spoked, with two winky eyes; and now it is on fire. It grows great and terrible, and there are wheels within the wheels, and wheels within those, and it rolls towards Siddhartha like the coldest and deadliest of the killer-gods. And as it touches him, and burns his arm, he falls back; but it is Maya, and not Siddhartha, who screams.

A spoke of the wheel has broken free and fallen to the ground.

There is a hissing inside the treasure wheel of the world, a hissing and a shuddering, and the world has cracked.

Eloi, Eloi, Lema Sabachthani?

Present Time

Sebastien emerges from the shower, wrapped in a towel and using another on his hair. He is almost clean, but not entirely.

The monster is waiting outside.

“I’m not intimidated by relative nudity,” Sebastien says.

“Did you ever wonder,” the monster asks, “why it is that you’re something that can kill monsters, and not something that does?”

Sebastien scrubs at his hair a bit more, then shrugs. “No.”

“I’ve thought it might be,” the monster says, “that we’re difficult to kill.”

“No,” Sebastien says. “It’s just that if you’re someone who kills monsters, then there must always be a monster to kill. You can’t fix anything, you can’t solve anything, you can’t make any kind of difference unless you’re lucky enough to do the matter-antimatter thing and burn out with your enemy in a blaze of glory. It’s safer to be someone who can kill them. And even then—”

It is very important to Sebastien that he not turn away from the monster, and so the pain in him is a crisis point; and in the end, though he does not turn away, he does look down.

“To go all the way means being death. It means being a killer. Even if it’s someone who kills things like you. And it means being part of things like you, even if it’s the part that ends them.”

The monster’s smile is brilliant and white.

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

It is the seventeenth god.

Belshazzar pulls the seventeenth god from Nabonidus, a great and terrible phoenix shape, a yellow and red effluvium that pours forth from Nabonidus’ chest and mouth.

“Go,” says Belshazzar, and it is gone. It seems to Nabonidus that it is following Mylitta into emptiness, as if Nabonidus’ own strength is pouring after his victim into the void.

Belshazzar leans down again. His face is terribly earnest and clinical.

Nabonidus is weak.

“Wait,” he says.

“It is necessary,” Belshazzar says. “We do not know how long until her heart will cease to beat.”

“No,” says Nabonidus. His word is binding, and Belshazzar stops.

Nabonidus is weak.

“Lift this burden from me,” he begs.

So the teeth of the devouring god close around him.

The nature of the monster ends.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

The idea that comes to Martin is as inevitable as the rain.

“This is a place that takes everything from you,” he says. His voice is thick and heavy. “I came down here, and I was strong, but I can’t keep that. Not in the Underworld.”

The woglies are closing in on him, but Tantalus stands up, and the water washes in, and over them, and they grow still.

“I have to give up more,” Martin says. “Somewhere, there is something I am clinging to, that I have to give up, and it’ll be the thing that hurts the most to toss away.”

Tantalus looks at him. “Why would you surrender the thing you love the most?”

“Because there cannot be a poor rich man,” Martin says. “There cannot be an earthworm in the sky. There cannot be a man who is not a man, or a bird that is not a bird, or a void that is not empty. I am the architect of suffering, I am its source and its foundation, and I am good; and because these things cannot share one form and nature, I am severed from the world. My purpose fails because it is a contradiction, and contradictions cannot endure.”

The woglies are buried in the water, and they do not speak.

“There is no birth,” Martin says, “that has no pain.”

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

540 BCE

Mylitta leans over White Lion, her face in the creature’s fur.

“This is the secret of the monster,” Mylitta whispers to him. “It is not random. It is not chance. And none of it is blind. The line of Amiel could not escape her oath, but they could twist it, and they know the secret of the gods. They know that we exist for a reason, that we respond to purpose, that we are bound by the laws of our nature that we cannot break.”

“Leave here,” says White Lion. “Leave, before he shatters you.”

“So they chose a dharma for themselves,” Mylitta says, “that we could not answer. They chose a dharma that redefines our truths.”

“Leave here.”

“That is the reason for Belshazzar,” Mylitta says. “He will not answer the monster. He will break the question. He will destroy what it means to be a god, and I shall have my Elli.”

She is silent for a moment.

“If he is weak,” she says. “If he is weak, before I die.”

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

Martin opens his eyes. He releases a burden, or accepts it; they are one and the same.

“It’s not the monster who’s hurting Jane,” Martin says. “I won’t claim that. I won’t be a passive observer. If I’m going to shape the world through suffering, I’m going to be the one who shapes it; and the monster’s responsibility won’t ever negate mine. It’s my job to make sure that suffering transforms.”

There are fewer woglies now. They are skating off through the water, like toroidal tropical fish or evil aquatic froot loops that have been startled by a splash.

But one remains.

“Do you have the right?” it asks.

“Ye—”

Martin comes very close to nonexistence.

Then he shakes his head. “That’s not important to me,” Martin says.

It Is Finished

539 BCE

There are some who say that Chen Yu broke the world. There are some who lay the blame on Belshazzar in Babylon, or Siddhartha Suddhodana’s son. A few blame Mylitta, or the monster, or even Maya, for all that there was nothing she feared more.

In the end, that the world should break was inevitable.

The weight of its suffering was not a thing the world could bear.

Tantalus (I/IV)

The sky is grey.

Hades seizes Persephone. He takes her to the depths of the Underworld. She cries out to her mother, Demeter. Demeter cannot save her. She visits a dead oracle. She asks him for his words.

“It is a time of myths, ” the oracle says. “The children of Echidna, mother of monsters, wander this world. The gods rule in Olympus. And you are here.”

“How may I be free?” she asks.

“Drink the blood of a man with the secret of the gods,” the oracle answers.

Persephone laughs bitterly.

“Later this year,” the oracle says, “someone will learn that secret. He will rig three gods to explode. He will blow the top off of Mount Sipylus. His line will change the world. It is his blood that you need.”

Persephone returns to her black throne and waits.

It is 1315 years before the common era.

The sea is grey.

Tantalus and Pandareus stand in the courtyard of Zeus’ temple at Crete. “It’s all grey,” Pandareus says. “This is a grey land.”

“Whistle,” Tantalus says.

Pandareus shrugs and whistles. A dog runs up. It’s a shining clockwork dog, made entirely of gold and jewels. Its black sapphire eyes sparkle in the light. Its black sapphire nose is wet. It wriggles its tail and barks happily at Tantalus and Pandareus. Pandareus can’t help but laugh. “What is it?” he asks.

“Hephaestus made it,” Tantalus says. “Its name is Brotos. I figure, if we can steal it, we can figure out the secret of the gods.”

“It must be hard to steal,” Pandareus says.

Tantalus looks at the sky. “There’s a cyclone coming,” he says. “Try picking it up.”

Pandareus scoops the dog up. It wriggles in his arms. He looks up. “It’s coming closer,” he says.

“Quick,” Tantalus says. “Let’s get out of here.”

The cyclone looms closer. The two rush out of the temple and head for their boat. The dog wriggles more and jumps out of Pandareus’ arms. It runs back towards the storm.

“Fudge,” Pandareus swears, and charges after the dog. Tantalus follows. The cyclone stoops. Just as Pandareus’ arms wrap around the dog, it whirls all three upwards into the sky.

“This won’t do,” Tantalus says. He makes a ruthless decision. He struggles through the storm. He has a long wicked knife in one hand. He plunges it into Pandareus’ stomach. He takes the dog. It licks his face. He shoves Pandareus hard. His friend bursts through the cyclone’s edge and falls, broken and wounded, to the earth below.

Tantalus smiles down at the dog. “We have rather a queer adventure ahead of us, Brotos,” he says. “You’ll have to be very quiet.”

The dog wags its tail, almost as if it understands. Tantalus stows the dog in a large sack and fills the rest of the sack with straw.

“Nothing further to be done,” he says. He curls up in the cyclone. He goes to sleep. For six long hours, he dreams. Then a jarring shock wakes him. He rises to his feet, swings the sack over his shoulder, and looks around. The cyclone has deposited Tantalus in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty. He sees lovely patches of greensward in all directions, and banks of gorgeous flowers, and birds with rare and brilliant plumage. A little way off, he sees the banquet table of the gods.

“As I suspected,” he says. “I shall have nectar and ambrosia today.”

He goes before the gods and bows low. Zeus turns to him and rumbles, “Be welcome here, Tantalus; for I have not seen you in some time.”

“You send an unusual chariot.”

Zeus shrugs. Then his eyes narrow. “My son,” he says, “My golden dog, that guarded the temple at Crete—do you know what has happened to it?”

Tantalus’ sack wriggles and barks.

“Stolen,” Tantalus says gravely.

Zeus regards the sack. He raises a white eyebrow.

“It is Pandareus,” Tantalus adds, “of Merops’ family. I witnessed the theft with my own eyes. It’s a tragedy when a good man goes bad like that.”

“Such men earn the wrath of the gods,” Zeus says lightly. “But come, what of the dog then?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” Tantalus says. The sack barks.

Hera nudges Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, who sidles up beside Zeus’s throne. “The dog,” she whispers. “It’s in the sack. I’ll cut it open. Then justice will demand that we smite him.”

Zeus raises a hand, forestalling her. He looks down at his son Tantalus. Tantalus gives him a cocksure grin.

“It would be wrong,” Zeus says finally, “to trouble the person or property of my son while he attends our feasts. No. As long as he does not act against the gods, he is sacrosanct.”

Tantalus leers at Nemesis. “You shouldn’t look so offended,” he says. “It makes your eyes bulge out like twin moons!”

Nemesis glares at him.

“It’s cute,” Tantalus assures her. “Like an angry child pouting over stolen candy.”

Nemesis looks to Zeus. “How many of these insults must I bear?”

Zeus meditates on this. “Fifteen,” he says.

“Hey!” Tantalus and Nemesis say together. Nemesis thinks for a moment, and then gestures to Tantalus, yielding the floor.

“How come a vengeance-obsessed tramp like her gets to override your promise of protection?”

“It is her special power,” Zeus says. “If the provocation is sufficient, she need not abide by the rules of the world.”

“Fifteen is an awful lot,” Nemesis says.

“He’s not very good at insulting people,” Zeus says.

“Ha!” Tantalus says. He glares at Nemesis. “Your nose is too long. Your eyes are too bright. Your hair is too short. Your feet are too big. Your clothes have no taste. I wouldn’t kiss you even if you were the only girl in the world. Your knees are knobbly. Your teeth are crooked. You smell funny. And everyone sleeps under your mother.”

“Thirteen,” says Nemesis coldly.

“Twelve,” Zeus corrects.

Nemesis looks at him.

“Your mother is Night,” Zeus says. “Everyone does sleep under her.”

Tantalus frowns. “Oh,” he says, mildly deflated. “I guess I’ll save two for later.”

“Oh, take three,” Nemesis says casually.

“I wouldn’t dream of insulting such a charming and wonderful goddess,” Tantalus says, and wanders off to mingle.

“If it helps,” Zeus says, after a moment, “I think you look hot.”

“Gee. Thanks, Dad.”

Tantalus finds a god suspended on a pole.

“Good day,” says Anakopto.

“Did you speak?” Tantalus asks, looking up.

“Certainly,” Anakopto says. “How do you do?”

“I’m pretty well,” Tantalus says. “You’re a god on a pole. Are you Priapus?”

“No,” Anakopto says. “I’m the god of scarecrows. They put me up on this pole to keep birds and such away from the gods’ feast.”

“That’s too bad,” Tantalus says. “It’s much more fun down here.”

“The pole is stuck up my back,” Anakopto explains. “So I can’t get down. But if you lift me off the pole, I’ll cut you in for a share of the coolest plan ever.”

Tantalus snags a glass of nectar from a passing waiter. “Well,” he says, swirling the nectar around and then gulping it down, “it can’t hurt, can it?” He reaches up with both arms and lifts Anakopto off the pole.

“Thank you,” Anakopto says. “We’ll need to find the other two. Then I’ll explain.”

Anakopto looks around. “There he is!” he says, and waves.

“Who?” Tantalus says.

“Over there. Kyrievo. The tin-plated god. Hephaestus forged him, you know.”

“He’s not moving.”

“Oh.” Anakopto laughs. “Silly me. I’d told him to stop.” He leads Tantalus over to Kyrievo and snaps his fingers. Instantly, Kyrievo snaps to life. He smiles at Tantalus, whose heart beats faster.

“I didn’t know you could have a metal god,” Tantalus admits.

“He didn’t start metal,” Anakopto says airily. “But Aphrodite doesn’t like him much. So now and again, she chops off one of his bits. Hephaestus replaces them, for politeness’ sake, and now he’s pretty much all tin. And, oh, there’s Arpazo. Hiding from the crowd as usual.”

Tantalus waves Arpazo over. The god, dressed in a lion skin, slouches closer.

“I’ve decided,” Anakopto declares airily, “to bring this fine mortal king in on our plans.”

“Recruiting was supposed to be my job,” Arpazo says sulkily, “but since I’m too afraid to challenge you, I suppose it will have to stand.”

“What is this plan?” Tantalus asks.

“The gods used to be more powerful and terrible than they are,” Anakopto says. “But the Titanomachy changed all of that.”

“Oh?”

Anakopto nods. “The end of human sacrifice,” he says, “was the beginning of time; and with time, entropy; and with entropy, the decay of power.”

“You wish people sacrificed to you?” Tantalus asks.

“No.” Anakopto shakes his head firmly. “I am a scarecrow god. Stuffed with straw! If I filled myself with power, I’m quite sure I’d slosh. I might even explode! No. Our target is Demeter. Should she taste of the richest meat, she may become the Great Goddess again. Hades has stolen her daughter Persephone, and her mind is clouded by sorrow; now is our chance to strike! But we need a human to feed her.”

“I see,” Tantalus says.

“Not you,” Kyrievo interrupts, hastily. “You’re under Zeus’ protection. That’s solid! But if you help us out, then we could help you out.”

“You’ve stolen my heart,” Tantalus says, to the tin-plated god. “So I can’t help but assist you.”

Arpazo pouts. “You’ve stolen his heart?”

“You can’t very well steal his courage,” Anakopto says. “Then he wouldn’t stand against the gods.”

“I wanted to steal something,” Arpazo says.

“Then,” says Tantalus, “you must steal the schedule book for the gods. I’ll write in a feast at my own home, and we’ll make the sacrifice to Demeter there.”

“It’s frightening to play tricks on the gods!” Arpazo says. “Can’t I steal a little of your courage?”

In the sack, Brotos begins barking furiously. Gods around them turn to look. Arpazo flushes.

“All right, all right,” Arpazo says. He lowers himself to the ground, and the lion skin settles around him. “I’ll go! Don’t make a fuss.” He slinks off.

“You have a dog in a sack,” Kyrievo says.

“Yes,” Tantalus says.

Some distance away, at the base of Zeus’ throne, Nemesis spins to face her king. “He just admitted it,” she says. “I heard him admit that there’s a dog in that sack.”

“Sacking a dog is not a crime,” Zeus points out. “Although it’s deucedly odd.”

“I’ll keep listening,” Nemesis says. She steeples her fingers. “I’ll get you, my pretty. And your dog, too.”

Arpazo slinks back to rejoin the others. He has the schedule book of the gods in his mouth. He spits it at Tantalus’ feet. Tantalus writes in a new appointment.

“Remember,” Kyrievo says, “that the gods need good entertainment. You can’t just give her somebody’s head on a platter and call it a meal.”

“Paphlagonia is rich,” Tantalus says. “We’ll make a feast to remember.”

Hearing this, Nemesis turns to Zeus. She hesitates a long moment. “It seems unfortunate,” she says. “I wonder if there are any circumstances under which you would let me punish this man.”

“I am loath to do so,” Zeus says. “He is my son. If he should transgress too far, then I cannot protect him. But it is my nature to show him a certain consideration.”

Nemesis thinks for a long moment. “There are three gods,” she says, “who intend to feed Demeter human flesh. I assume I may punish them as I like?”

Zeus grins. “I hope you’re not thinking of shodding Tantalus in iron and using him to beat them with.”

“Wow,” Nemesis admits. “You’re better at this than I am. But no.”

“Nor dropping him repeatedly on their heads from a great height?”

“I’ll be good,” Nemesis agrees.

“Then proceed.”

A few days later, the party breaks up. Anakopto, Kyrievo, Arpazo, and Tantalus proceed towards Tantalus’ kingdom. After a bit, Tantalus lets Brotos out of the sack, and the small golden dog frolicks all around them.

“What do you learn from the dog?” Anakopto asks.

“I’m not sure,” Tantalus says. “Perhaps I am learning how to change the nature of gods.”

“An admirable wisdom,” says Anakopto, “although one I already possess.”

He points his finger at Kyrievo. “Stop.”

Kyrievo, caught midstride, falls over.

“It’s like he’s rusting,” Anakopto says, cheerfully. Kyrievo glares at Anakopto. After a moment, Anakopto shrugs, and Kyrievo struggles to his feet.

“I crushed a beetle,” Kyrievo says.

“Was it a magic beetle?”

“It could have granted Tantalus three wishes, and made his house prosper forever.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Anakopto agrees.

“Do I have many such beetles in my kingdom?” Tantalus asks.

“They’re elusive,” Anakopto says.

Tantalus looks at Brotos. “If you see one,” he says, “fetch it for me.” Brotos wags its tail, almost as if it understands.

They reach Tantalus’ castle. He shows the gods their guest quarters. He takes them to meet his son, Pelops, and his daughter, Niobe. Then he flips a coin.

“Pelops,” he says, “I am going to cook you and feed you to Demeter.”

“That’s horrible and perverted, Dad.”

“Pelops!” Tantalus says. “I’m ashamed of you. It’s rude to refuse your guests anything.”

Pelops eyes Tantalus. “And it’s ruder to feed them people stew.”

“Granted,” Tantalus admits. “Still, into the pot with you.”

Pelops sulks. He walks with the others down to the kitchen and gets in the stew pots. “I hate you,” he says. “You’re ruining my life.”

Tantalus turns on the fires.

“I could remove his mind,” Anakopto says. “And keep it in my hands. Then he might be restored.”

“I could remove his heart,” Kyrievo adds.

“And I his courage,” says Arpazo.

“If you took his courage,” Tantalus points out, “he probably wouldn’t sit in that pot while I cook him, even if it is his father’s orders.”

“That’s true,” Arpazo says unhappily. But Kyrievo and Anakopto remove Pelops’ mind and heart, after which he sits calmly in the building stew.

“It pains me to do this, son,” Tantalus admits. Then he turns, and gathers Brotos in his arms, and goes to prepare his house for the feast of the gods.

A woman skulks out from between two pillars. She wears a mask.

“Who are you?” he says.

“You may call me Galatea,” she says, “the good witch of Pontus and Lydia.”

The sweet tones of her voice rouse his admiration, and he smiles to her. “Then speak your message, good witch.”

“Four have earned the gods’ wrath,” she says, “and all four known to you, for these are Anakopto, Arpazo, Kyrievo, and Pandareus.”

“Yes,” he says, inclining his head. “The gods who plan a wicked feast, and the thief who stole the gods’ golden dog.”

Brotos barks. Tantalus can hear the sound of gritting teeth under the mask.

“Yes,” says the masked woman. “The gods who plan a wicked feast, and the thief Pandareus who stole the gods’ golden dog.”

“But surely,” Tantalus says, “the gods have ample instruments of vengeance. There are the kindly ones, and Nemesis, and the thunderbolt.”

“The kindly ones have their own calling,” says the woman, “and the thunderbolt is for Zeus’ use alone. As for Nemesis, . . . perhaps she is in disfavor.”

“Aha,” says Tantalus. He takes a few steps closer to the woman. He’s got a bit of a swagger. “She’s earned it, you know. She’s too dumb to see my good qualities.”

“Hm,” says the woman. She touches a graceful, delicate hand to his chin. “I can’t imagine how that could be true.”

Tantalus grins crookedly at her.

“Still,” she says, “It is now for you to carry out their punishment.”

“Me?”

The woman nods. She reaches out to a nearby pedestal, and a golden cap forms on it. “You may borrow this cap,” she says. “It summons winged monkeys. I also give you a prophecy: that Pandareus shall come to this feast, and when he runs from here, the thief shall fall under the shadow of mount Sipylus.”

“Winged monkeys?”

“They will do you three services of your choice.”

“Ah,” Tantalus says dubiously.

“If you cannot find a use for winged monkeys,” the woman says, “you aren’t much of a king.”

“Hm,” Tantalus says, and accepts the cap. He turns it over in his hands, looking at it, and then looks up at the woman. “If I do this,” he says, “it is acting against the gods; and that would break my protection.”

“Do this task,” the woman promises, “and you shall suffer no retribution for acts against the gods.”

“But—”

She touches his lips. “Shh. An you succeed, we shall see one another again.” With that, the woman stepped back into the pillars and vanishes.

“Witches are strange,” Tantalus says. Brotos barks. “Yet . . .”

Tantalus takes Brotos back to his lab. As his son slowly dissolves into Pelops stew in the kitchens below, Tantalus carves into the dog. When it sits in pieces around him, the golden throat still on occasion groaning, whining, and wailing, Tantalus stares into its heart.

“Ah,” he says. “This is the secret of the gods.”

He walks to the kitchen. He pours four glasses of wine. He takes out a long wicked knife. He cuts his hand. Blood drips into the wine. He stirs Pelops and adds some onions to his son. Then he gathers the wine on a tray and takes it in search of the gods. He finds them with Niobe. Arpazo is bragging about his enormous accomplishments. Kyrievo polishes his shirt. Anakopto is staring out the window, lost in thought. Niobe looks at him with wide eyes.

“Dad!” she exclaims. She hugs him. She leans up. She whispers in his ear, “Thanks. I hate these guys.”

“You won’t stay?” he asks. “Have some wine?”

There’s a flash of panic in her eyes. Then she counts the glasses and smiles. “I couldn’t, Dad. Besides, gods bore me to tears.”

Arpazo looks up, stricken. Kyrievo looks shocked. Niobe dives through the door and is gone.

“Hm?” Anakopto asks, turning.

“You could have told her to stop,” Arpazo says. “You never use that power when it’s a good time.”

“It’s mostly for crows,” Anakopto says.

“Wine?” Tantalus offers. They drink. They talk. Then Tantalus puts the golden cap on his head and summons winged monkeys. The winged monkeys snatch the gods and fly them away to a cave on Mount Sipylus. Then they seal the entrance.

“This sucks,” Arpazo says.

“I feel an explosive power rising in me,” Anakopto says. “Perhaps we can break free.” He points at the stone sealing the entrance. “Stop!”

“Helpful,” Kyrievo says. “That’s really helpful.”

At Tantalus’ castle, the gods begin to arrive.

“Nice cap,” Hermes says to Tantalus. He’s also wearing a golden cap, but his has wings.

“Mine summons winged monkeys,” Tantalus says.

Hermes laughs genially. “I can fly and turn invisible,” he says. “Plus, I’m the patron of thieves.”

“Okay,” Tantalus admits. “Yours is better.”

Hermes tweaks Tantalus’ nose and then takes his seat. Tantalus continues greeting guests.

“Great Goddess,” he says to Demeter. “Cybele.”

Demeter, clad in mourning gear, looks at him blankly. Then she shrugs and shuffles to her seat.

“Dad!” he says.

Zeus pats Tantalus on the shoulder. “Nice place,” he says. “Good kingdom.”

Upstairs, Brotos tries to bark. He can’t. He’s disassembled.

“Thanks, Dad,” Tantalus says.

“It better be a good feast, though,” Zeus says. “I mean, I could be having ambrosia and nectar right now.”

“You’ll find it very surprising,” Tantalus assures him.

Zeus and Hera go to their seats. “What did he mean by that?” Zeus wonders.

“Smells like Pelops,” Hera says, sniffing the air.

“How awkward,” Zeus says.

“We’re not going to eat your grandchild.”

“Well, no.” Zeus thinks. “We could pretend to eat. To be polite. But actually feed it to Cerberus under the table.”

“No,” Hera says, firmly.

Tantalus brings out plates of fruit and bread and nuts. The gods begin their feast. The food is not so good as it might be, but not so bad as it might be, either. Then Tantalus rises to announce the main course.

“Here it comes,” Zeus says, sadly. “Still, when he brings his son out, we’ll break the news to him gently.”

The pots of stew come out to the table. Zeus clears his throat.

The doors of the room burst open. Pandareus stands behind them. He stares grimly at Tantalus. His stomach is scarred. His left arm is broken. He shouts. “You stole my dog!”

“He does that,” Nemesis confides.

“And stabbed me!”

“Friend,” Tantalus says, “This is hardly the time.”

Pandareus advances. He has a sword in his hand. “I’ll end you, you bastard!” He leaps onto the table. His foot knocks over a pot of Pelops, and stew spills over Demeter’s plate. He blurs in a lunge, and Tantalus tumbles backwards to avoid his sword.

“He wasn’t as fast as the wind,” notes Eurus.

“Or the thunderbolt,” Zeus confides.

“But still, pretty fast,” Eurus agrees.

“Oh, yes. He’s a hero of some sort.”

“At least there’s entertainment.”

Tantalus screams as the sword blurs at him again and again. He’s not armed. He didn’t expect to need weapons at a feast of the gods. Pandareus’ blade sticks clean through Tantalus’ stone chair, which explodes. Tantalus scrambles backwards, thinking frantically. “You were supposed to run!”

“Run?” Pandareus pauses to sneer. “You pathetic milksop of a king, I’d have to be a rabbit to be afraid of you.”

“He does have a point, Daddy,” Niobe comments. “He’s better than you are.”

Tantalus grasps at the golden cap. “I summon the winged monkeys!”

“See?” Hermes says. “Pretty good cap. Still, not as good as mine.”

The air above the banquet hall fills with a storm of winged monkeys. They swirl around. Pandareus slashes at them, once, twice, thrice, and six monkeys fall. There are hundreds more.

“He’s heroic,” Zeus notes again. “Do you think they’ll tell stories about this?”

“The winged monkeys don’t seem very popular with the poets,” Echidna answers.

“Hm,” Zeus rumbles. “I suppose they do lack a certain dignity.”

“Now, the Nemean Lion,” Echidna says. “There’s a monster.”

Pandareus raises his sword high above his head, and his sword energy flings the winged monkeys in all directions. Hermes picks one out of his fruit plate, shakes it off unhappily, and tosses it back into the storm. Absently, Demeter picks a few bites of Pelops meat from the mess on her plate and chews on them.

Tantalus crawls over to the king of the winged monkeys. “Fetch me Arpazo,” he says. The winged monkeys stream out of the room. Pandareus stands ready to resume the attack. A few minutes pass. Then the monkeys return. They drop off Arpazo and leave.

“What’s this?” Pandareus says. He stares at Arpazo, who leans close to the ground, lion skin draped over him. “Is this the Nemean Lion?”

Echidna sighs.

Tantalus points at Pandareus. “Steal his courage, Arpazo, and I’ll let you go free!”

Arpazo considers. Then he looks at Pandareus. He beckons. Pandareus carefully slinks closer to him. Arpazo whispers a secret in Pandareus’ ear. Pandareus’ eyes widen. He bolts from the room.

“I’m free!” Arpazo says.

“I summon the winged monkeys!”

“What?” Arpazo asks.

The winged monkeys hesitantly flutter back into the room.

“For my third service,” Tantalus says, “I ask you to return Arpazo to the cave.”

They whisk him away.

“Now,” Tantalus says, “back to the feast.” Then he looks solicitous. “Demeter,” he says. “Cybele. You do not seem well.”

Zeus stands, shocked. “She has eaten of Pelops.”

“And my blood as well; for I’ve added it to the stew.”

Zeus scowls. “What foul deed is this?”

“It’s a secret I’ve learned,” Tantalus says, “from your golden dog.”

Nemesis rises. “He admits to stealing it!”

“Now, Nemesis,” he says. “Remember: I may not be punished for any act save those directly against the gods.”

Nemesis’ eyes narrow. “And the deeds of the night do not qualify?”

Tantalus shrugs. “I also may not be punished for acting directly against the gods. Some idiotic deity sent a promise to this effect; and, I assure you, I have thoroughly punished Arpazo, Anakopto, Kyrievo, and Pandareus. I’ve rigged the three gods to explode.”

“Is this true?” Zeus asks, pained. “Someone has promised him this?”

Tantalus leers at Nemesis. “So now you’re just an ineffectual piece of trash.”

“Fifteen,” Nemesis says.

Tantalus hesitates. He counts. He counts on his fingers. He counts twice. “Twelve, before,” he says. “And that one. Thirteen.”

“‘She’s too dumb to see my good qualities,'” quotes Nemesis.

“You heard that?” Tantalus runs his hand through his hair. “Well, fourteen, then.”

“‘Some idiotic deity,'” quotes Nemesis.

Zeus raises an eyebrow at Nemesis. “Have you been putting on a mask and telling people you’re a good witch again?”

Nemesis blushes and looks down. “It makes them summon monkeys.”

Tantalus backs away. “Father,” he says, “you really shouldn’t let her break the rules, just because it’s her special power.”

Nemesis looks up. “Run.”

Tantalus runs. He runs for hours. He falls under the shadow of Mount Sipylus.

“What happens now?” Zeus asks.

Nemesis listens. There’s a roar. “That’s an explosion,” she says. “Unstable gods. The top of the mountain is flying off. It’s going to land on him, if you so will it, and drive him down into the Underworld and death.”

Zeus nods.

“And that,” she says, “is the sound of winged monkeys, disturbed by the explosion, flying out of the mountain.”

Niobe stares out the window at the topless mountain. “It’s really more of a butte.”

The mountain drives Tantalus into the darkness of the Underworld. In time, Persephone comes for him.

“You fed mother human flesh,” she says.

“Yes.”

“Do you know what that does?”

“No,” he says.

“You fed her your blood,” Persephone says. “Do you know what that does?”

“It made her mine.”

“You could feed me your blood,” Persephone says, “and free me from this place.”

“I have no blood,” Tantalus says. “I am dead.”

“Then I shall go,” Persephone says, “and sit upon my throne, and I shall dream of home.”