Ink Unrepeatable (XIII/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Dr. Sarous lives in a world where there is right and there is wrong.

There is goodness.

There is badness.

Badness is an infection of the body. This is clear to him. Badness is a physical affliction. It derives from sicknesses in the organs and bug-like creatures in the veins. It seeks to drag people down even as the bright impulse—

The awakening impulse, the looking-up impulse, the thing that makes people into people—

Seeks to lift them up.

Now he has fallen.

Now he sees for the first time the world of degenerate things.

It seems to involve walking along a very long road in the sky that winds by sheeted rock walls and around and about the stalactites of the kingdoms beneath the world.

“This is not what I’d thought being degenerate would be like,” he complains.

“Oh?” says the girl.

“I imagined a diabolical joy,” he admits. “A consuming will to wrongness. Also, more adherence to gravity.”

The girl picks her way around a stalactite.

“It’s not like that,” she says. “It’s more like winning, you know? It’s like when you’ve won something, and you kind of want to play the game again, but you kind of don’t want to play again, because you’ve won. That kind of itchy dissatisfaction.”

“So you are evil, then?”

For a moment, he’s excited. For a moment, it’s a bit like a breakthrough: has she come past the hyperrachia? Will she understand, at last, that she is corrupt?

Then he remembers, like water being dashed on his head from a dripping stalactite—

Which is, in fact, what’s happening—

That he can’t very well be a doctor, any more, out to cure people of their decay. He’s gone bad himself.

“Oh, I’m terrible,” says the girl. “Not as bad as a siggort, you know, but worse’n a werewolf or a lavelwod.”

“I see.”

She grins at him. It’s this bright cheerful grin. It shames him, that grin, because he did plan on bleeding her to death just a few hours back.

“It’s okay,” she says.

“It’s okay?”

“Dharma moves.”

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.

June, Thursday 3, 2004 – Cronos: Back at the beginning of his reign,

says the girl

Cronos went down to Tartarus to free all the things that his father had chained. He freed the demons and the devils and the slimy things and the wasps. But he didn’t free the siggorts.

Dr. Sarous looks blankly at her back.

“He tried,” says the girl. “But they wouldn’t come out.”

The siggorts didn’t come out; nor the woglies; so he went in after them.

He walked down through the darkness into the siggorts’ home.

He found Bidge there. Bidge was wandering in darkness. The knives of Bidge cut Cronos. They maimed his hand. They lay his face open to the bone. They cut his neck. They caused dark blood to trickle down his leg.

“Come free,” Cronos said.

The key to the gates of Tartarus was small: too small, almost, for the eye to see. But he held it out to the siggort in his hand.

Something stirred in Bidge’s mind.

He awakened to the knowledge of another creature in his place of imprisonment.

He formed a face. A thing like a face. It hovered in the center of him. Around it spun the blades and spheres and cutting wires of the siggort’s shape.

“‘Come free?'”

And Cronos said:

The words are heavy as the girl says them, heavy and trembling, like they’re too big for her to say.

“Be welcome, o my love, into the world.”

And Bidge laughed a horrible, broken laugh. And he laughed and he laughed on.

Cronos stared at him.

“And how did you free us, then?” Bidge asked.

“I have aspired to the throne of the world,” said Cronos. “Now I rule; and I will not set my will against you if you choose your freedom.”

These words fell strangely flat.

Siggorts gathered behind Cronos’ back. He felt a terrible chill of threat. The knives of them cut away his leg, his arm, his dorsal tendril, and his glunin. He tried to remember how to shape them back.

“That would not do,” said Bidge.

Cronos didn’t understand. You could tell. It was in his face.

So Bidge flowed forward until he was this close, two fingers’ close—

The girl holds two fingers up, close apart.

—to Cronos, and he gaped his mouth quite wide. And he did not bite.

And after a moment, Cronos understood.

He said, “Those are not teeth.”

“Where you are warm,” said Bidge, “we are cold. Where you are light, we are shadow. Our teeth are not teeth. Our faces are not faces. We are a dhamma inexpressible in your world. Should I not cut you then, o my love?”

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.”

But people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

The girl walks along.

Her name is Ink Catherly, but everybody calls her the imago—so she says. One must remember that there are exceptions: the silent monks of Tsu Catan; the child-eating stickbugs of the deeps; Dukkha, as previously described; and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, which refers to her only as “that Ink.”

Her last words echo: should I cut you, o my love?

“Were they lovers, then?” asks Dr. Sarous.

“Lovers,” giggles Ink.

She looks like she’s trying to imagine some incredibly complex anatomical marvel in her head—

Which is, in fact, what’s happening—

And then she shakes her head.

“They were people,” says Ink. “That’s why they said things like that. It was so marvelous to them, back then in the early days of the world, that there should be other people. Even baby-eating titans like Cronos and horrible vivisecting things like Bidge. Love swelled in them, it swelled, when they thought on that, like just living with it was going to burst them.”

Dr. Sarous stares at her.

After a moment, Ink shrugs.

“You don’t have to follow me,” she says. “Really, hunting down the person on the throne of the world is a one-imago operation. Like negation or squaring.”

“The other alternative is falling screaming to my death,” Dr. Sarous points out.

“So don’t scream!”

They walk in silence for a while.

“I’m usually critical of the surrealists,” Ink says. “But today, their road saved my life.”

“What happened?”

“I think it was in one of your orderlies.”

“No,” says Dr. Sarous. “I mean, with the siggorts.”

“Oh,” says the girl.

She reviews the history in her mind.

“Cronos’ heart was beating,” she says. “Doki-doki! Like that. It was burning in him like a fire. And Bidge could see it, right through his chest. He wanted it. So the shears cut closer. Cronos’ nipple fell off. His breast and his ribs caved in. He was very bloody. And the question hung there: ‘Should I cut you, o my love?'”

“No,” Dr. Sarous says.

“No,” Ink agrees. “He said ‘No.’ And slowly, reluctantly, the siggorts withdrew.

“‘I shall trust you, then,’ said Bidge, with consummate calm and the tightest control. ‘I shall trust you,’ he said, and he turned away.

“And they left Cronos there, alone, trying to justify himself to himself.

“‘I do not want to keep you here, imprisoned,’ said Cronos.

“‘It’s not my fault!'”

The girl thinks. “I think,” she says, “that that’s how corruption comes to high intentions. When you start identifying those whose integrity you have to sacrifice in its name.”

“Like whomever’s on the throne of the world,” the doctor says. “Or a ziggurat’s.”

There’s a pause.

“Yes,” says the girl flatly. “Yes, those are examples of how corruption might come into high intentions.”

The doctor grins.

“You see,” says the girl, “he could have saved them.”

Shadows stir between the sheets of the wall. There are black stickbugs clinging to the edges. They are pressed against the thin edge of the stone. They are large. They are the size of men, and not just any men, but large men. They are taller than the girl. They are taller than the doctor. Their legs are strangely angled. Their heads are small and their eyes are beady.

There are hundreds of them along the wall. Their taut tense muscles hold them against the cracks.

“He could have saved them,” says the girl.

“He could have saved them, o my love, if he had thrown everyone else away.”

The stickbugs spring.

  • But it doesn’t end there! There’s still three more parts to come! Tune in NEXT WEEK for the next exciting history of the imago:
    INK IMPERCEPTIBLE!*
    * You can’t see the title from this far off.

Starfish Men (I/II)

Martin stares at Jane.

“Why do you care about starfish men?” he says. “They’re gross.”

Jane holds up two fragments of Necessity and touches them, one against the edge of another. Some of the roughness matches. “I think this story’s got Meredith in it,” she says.

This is the story of the starfish men.

Once upon a time, in 1975, a young girl meets and marries a starfish man.

Her name is Clarissa.

Here is how they meet. Clarissa is a runaway. There is a shelter not too many blocks away from the starfish man’s house. She’s noticed that nobody ever goes in to the starfish man’s house and nobody ever comes out. She’s noticed that all the lights are off except that one witchlight burning in the upper window. So she’s figured that something’s happened to whomever lives there, probably something fatal, but maybe just something that needs help.

So she breaks in.

It’s not a very nice house but it does have some nice stuff— sculpture, mostly.

She finds a room.

At first it seems like it’s full of corpses. But it’s not. It’s just full of weird corally lumps. That’s the kind of misapprehension that can happen when you look at a room of weird corally lumps in the dark!

Then she finds the starfish man.

That happens like this. Part of her knows that if she wants to steal things, there’s one room she absolutely shouldn’t check— that room upstairs with the witchlight shining. Conversely, if she wants to maybe help someone, that’s the one room she totally can’t miss. So she figures, making a compromise between the two sides of her nature, that she’ll open it up really quickly and peek in, then run away.

She opens it up really quickly.

She peeks in.

She stops and just stands there staring.

The starfish man is very old. He is sitting very still. He looks just like a human, pretty much, except that his skin’s a little lumpier and his eyes are black.

He’s looking at the door and his eyes capture her.

“Who are you?” she says.

“I sit here every day,” he says. “When one of my limbs rots off, I grow a new one. When the tax man tries to confiscate the property, I grow more taxes. When I’m hungry, sometimes I will eat the roaches, and sometimes I will eat one of my fingers, but I am not hungry very often.”

“Oh,” she says.

His irises are jet black, she thinks, like two little lumps of coal.

“It must be lonely,” she says. “So I thought I’d check up on you. Also, I thought that if you were dead, I’d steal some of your stuff.”

“Dead,” he snorts.

“Well, yes,” she says. “Most people can’t live on fingers and bugs.”

He cracks a smile.

In a rough voice, he confides, “I also have a certain quantity of Twinkies that I picked up long ago.”

She laughs. She doesn’t know why.

“I don’t like people,” he says. “I am practicing to be a bodhisattva, but I am very bad at it, and I generally hurt the people that I encounter.”

Clarissa has no idea what a bodhisattva is.

“Lots of people hurt people,” she says.

“Then you may stay,” he says. “And we will talk.”

She visits him now and again for the next few years. It’s too freaky not to. He’s a starfish man. And eventually he presses her down against the bed and has sex to her, and because she does not resist she considers this process a binding obligation upon her, and they are wed.

They are happy.

Clarissa likes having a home that is always warm and a husband of spartan needs. It is not the marriage she imagined as a child, because he is still and slow and almost lifeless and sometimes he is cruel. Their house has no picket fence, no children, and no dog. If something causes him to lose a limb or other convenience, he waves away her expressions of concern. Irritably, he tells her to leave him alone for a time and the offending limb or article regrows. It is not the marriage she imagined as a child— but it is functional enough.

For the starfish man, the wedding breaks his loneliness. He is a reclusive man and finds her presence grating; but also he finds it warmer than the long years of sitting in the upper room slowly regenerating. So for him also it is a mixed but functional thing.

In any event, it has happened, and both of them consider that they must adjust.

One day, he finds that the endless stepping and breathing and swallowing and burping and scratching and swishing and sitting noises she makes around the house are unbearable intrusions. Rising, wrathful, he forsakes the vow of the bodhisattva to seek the benefit of all sentient beings and hits her. This accomplished once, and seeing the expression on her face and the irritating blood, he hits her again until she is dead, and places her in the room with the sloughed-off bits of himself, and leaves her there.

He becomes lonely.

He regrows her. First she is a lump at the end of his hand. Then she is a body. Then she is Clarissa. He severs her from himself and she assumes an independent identity.

“Oh,” she says.

She rubs the back of her head, feeling a little embarrassed.

“I killed you,” he says. “I’m very sorry. I’ll try to do better. It was not appropriate to my compassionate oath.”

“Um,” she says.

She wraps a blanket around herself. She goes to her room. She takes out some clothes and puts them on and then she sits in her room staring at the wall for a few days.

“I am going away,” she tells him.

So she goes away. It is easier to return to the streets because she does not get hungry any more.

He is lonely.

He regrows her. First she is a lump at the end of his hand. Then she is a body. Then she is Clarissa. He severs her from himself and she assumes an independent identity.

“Oh,” she says.

She rubs the back of her head, feeling a little embarrassed.

“There was an accident,” he says. “That is why you are confused.”

“Oh,” she says.

They are happy.

Clarissa notices that she is not hungry any more, and that when she is, a roach or a Twinkie can conveniently calm her hunger. She notices that she does not get cold and that when she loses a bit of flesh it regrows with uncommon speed.

She does not ask the questions that this poses to her. The implications make her hyperventilate with horror so she simply tries to be a good wife.

Eventually it occurs to her that she should seek work outside the home, which she does, and in the process becomes unfaithful to him with Timothy, an associate.

Wrathful, the starfish man forsakes the vow of the bodhisattva to seek the benefit of all sentient beings and hits her. This accomplished once, and seeing the expression on her face and the irritating blood, he hits her again until she is dead, and places her in the room with the sloughed-off bits of himself, and leaves her there.

He is lonely.

In 1985, Clarissa is struck by a burst of spring cleaning fervor. She airs out the rooms of the house. She dusts everything, even under the refrigerator. She tackles the great project of the sloughed-bits room, and there she finds more than a dozen corpses, each of which bears her face, each of them peculiarly dry and stiff in their death and grown over with starfish mold.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh, dear.”

She stares at them for a long time. Then she gets the starfish man drunk on a sour mix of vodka, lemon, and brine, sets fire to the house, and leaves.

Clarissa works odd jobs long enough to put herself through DeVry and qualify as an electrician. That accomplished, she establishes a new life.

One day she finds a lump at the end of her hand and she sets her job aside for a time. She sits on her bed— unworried about the utilities, which turn themselves on whenever they are turned off; unworried about food, which she does not need; unworried about her friends, whom she suspects now will be better off without indulging in her company. She sits on her bed and she watches the starfish man grow.

“Everything is connected,” she tells him, when the time of gestation is complete and she may cut him from her hand.

“It’s true,” he says.

This is the first step on Clarissa’s road to enlightenment, and so the whole experience might very well be considered a net good for her, except that when he kills her she forgets.

Ink in Emptiness: The Mirror Cracks

the legend of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8, 9, 10)

In Hell there is a city of poison and gold.

Ink Catherly lives there. She sits on its broken throne. She is fifteen years old and she is a savage jungle queen.

She has not thought of her father or her mother in some time.

Instead she thinks of Greystoke, the bull-ape raised by suburbanites, lord of suburbia and king of men. She thinks of the treasures of the jungle. She thinks of the mechanisms by which she might escape her Hell.

It is the unfortunate character of Ink’s circumstances that Hell is inescapable.

Here ends the legend of Ink Catherly: in the city of poison and gold, in Hell, where Greystoke has called up her father against her.

Hell, day 969: The veil-rending gun.

As always the ape opposed my search. I tell him: “You must let me work. I must find an answer so that I can escape from Hell.” But he is a beast and he does not understand.

I found it at last, kept in the claws of Usr-Acigh: the gun that can break the veil between worlds. I fired it. I opened a gap in the jungle. But I could not step through. In any other world I would be a corpse.

I watch my hand as I write this. It is like watching a hand pulled around by puppet strings. It is like a spider. It is like a headless chicken. It is like the flopping plastic bag that one at first mistakes for life. There is direction. There is intentionality. But it is emptiness and not purpose that drives it.

There is no escape from Hell because it is not a place but rather a condition, and a condition not of quality but of absence. I have lost the divine fire that gave me purpose. I have only the bleak insectile intentionality of flesh. I am an outsider to myself. If I were not in Hell I would be dead.

Mr. Catherly stands at the door.

“Greystoke,” Ink breathes. “You go too far.”

Mr. Catherly is gliding forward, his footsteps silent on the gold and marble floor. He says, “It is not your right, Ink, to claim the jungle’s treasures.”

Ink shakes her head.

Her face is darkening with anger.

“The Mirror of Flame will do you no good,” says Mr. Catherly. “This is Hell. There is no avenue by which you may obtain your desire.”

Ink turns. The threat of Greystoke is forgotten, and the ape himself is nearly so. Her world has narrowed down to the Mr. Catherly and the savage challenge that must come—in any species—when a child defies her parent and seeks to define the freedom of her course.

“You would say that,” she says.

There is a growl tickling at her throat. She is not letting it loose: for one thing, the human voice does not yield easily to it, and it replaces speech in use. For another, she does not wish to warn him of the seriousness of her intent. But as she shifts her stance to the lightly-bent crouch that humans use in battle her plans are transparent to the older man. He slows his advance. He is wary.

“Hold this,” Ink says, not taking her eyes from her father’s face.

She holds out the instrument of defiance to Greystoke; for unlike the men he summons, the ape-king of suburbia has such notions of honor as to make this safe.

The bull-ape takes it from her hands.

Incompatible Precepts Catherly takes two steps forward and then springs.

The contest of human and human is savage. Their teeth are blunt. Their claws are weak. Their muscles are poorly suited to murder.

But there are many ways by which they may give one another pain.

The howls of them rise through the jungle. They disturb the birds, that look up once and flee. They cause the frogs and salamanders to retreat into their holes. They shake the ancient city and its poisons and its gold.

And Ink takes her father down onto his back and beats at his chest and he is smiling hideously at her with his white fangs and he says, “See? Incompatible.”

Ink shrieks, a terrifying and an alien cry.

Her cunning talons close around his neck. His face darkens. His terrible words go still. His hands are twitching.

Ink says, “Tell me I’m a person.

But this is Hell.

Hell, day 1406: The mirror of flame.I have captured a mirror that reflects someone with a self—not the Ink who writes this but an Ink such as I was before. It hurts but I cannot stop looking at it.

She would, I think, find an answer to this place. She would explore it, transform it from this horrid absence into a phenomenon worth recording—not Hell but the witnessing of Hell, not emptiness but the recognition that she is not empty. She had wanted that. But I am not that Ink. I am her empty corpse.The ape, I think, will be here soon.

“Stupid fathers,” says Ink.

Mr. Catherly is unconscious.

“Stupid parents. Can you imagine?” she says. She is panting. She is struggling to recapture control over her emotions. “Naming somebody after what having the baby meant?

Greystoke is mute.

Ink rises. She stalks back to the throne. She sits down. Her posture slumps and her eyes go distant and she reassumes the demeanor of a brooding jungle queen.

“Take it,” she says. “Take the Mirror.”

So Greystoke steps forward. He pulls the Mirror of Flame down from the air.

“Leave the instrument of defiance. And go.”

The ape places the instrument of defiance down upon the floor and begins to walk away.

“Wait.”

Ink struggles for words.

“When I was young,” she says. “I accidentally cut off a fingertip. And the funny thing was that it just lay there, empty. It wasn’t a part of me. It was meat.”

“Yes,” says Greystoke.

“That is all we are,” she says. “Meat and bone.”

“Yes,” says Greystoke.

“I remember when I was fire,” Ink says. “I can look in the mirror and I can see that—an Ink Catherly, far away, who is fire and not just emptiness. Someone who is different from that twitching finger.” Her breathing is erratic. “I need it. I need it to remind me that I had something inside me once.”

“That is not need,” says Greystoke. “That is suffering.”

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

The mirror cracks.

Ink in Emptiness: the Lord of Suburbia

the legend of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8, 9)

Greystoke, the lord of suburbia, beats his chest and shouts out his human call.

“Come,” he shouts.

The word is bass and guttural. The bull-ape’s throat was never meant for human speech.

“Come! Come now!”

And the humans come.

Hell, day 242: The yawning door.

This is a door spoken of in the old books. It is supposed to show people the nature of their sins. I felt that if I understood the nature of my sins, I would remember what it was like to sin and it would fill the emptiness inside me. So I went to the door.

The door was guarded by a damnable ape named Greystoke. He spoke like a person and he told me not to open it. I deceived him and did so, and so I saw my sins.

I looked through the door and saw the poisoned fruit that gave sin to our kind. I saw the circumstances of my birth and how it forced my parents—two people of incompatible precepts and attitudes—to live together, bringing them much sorrow. I saw how as an infant I ravenously consumed and returned nothing. I saw my pride and how I dodged responsibility. I cried and the ape tried to comfort me so I hit him.

The jungle is brown and green and shadowed. It is full of scents. There is an abandoned city there, a place of gold and poison, and on its throne there is a girl.

She is dressed in savage finery, most of her skin showing, her clothing dripping with gold and great chunks of jade. She is malnourished. Her court is empty of human life, but thin bedraggled monkeys crawl above her on the rafters and a terrible white snake circles around her throne.

Before her there is a treasure beyond price: the Mirror of the Flame.

It hangs in the air. What it shows her we do not see, but she looks up.

“Greystoke is coming,” she says.

And then in the great arched doorways of the room there stands an ape: tall and powerful and covered in dark fur.

Behind him slink the humans.

A primal horror tickles the girl’s mind as she sees them. Such creatures as these are not known in savage lands.

First there is Mr. Brown. An articulated human neck supports his blocky head; below it, there is a body lean and strong and clad in fine-cut silk. The light of the mirror gleams in his slicked-back hair. The fingers on his hands twitch, each joint partially independent from the next, as he moves in.

Then there is Ms. Ward, thin-waisted like a wasp, her hair piled above her head, the skin of her leg flashing horribly with each step through the long slit of her skirt. She is one of the scientists of suburbia, a wickedly cunning master of that world-altering art, but the heat has shed her of her white winter coat and only the attitude of her reveals it.

Finally there is Mr. Smith, bulbous and slow. This is a spectacled man, hiding part of his face behind a shocking apparatus of copper wire and glass lenses. His tufted eyebrows are visible only as a thin line above the device; when he looks down, his eyes vanish behind perturbations in the glass.

The girl’s hand moves, ever so marginally. Two of the monkeys leap down from the rafters. They snatch up wickedly barbed spears. They move forward against the humans that Greystoke has called.

Mr. Brown roars and vents forth smoke. Blood spatters through the room. The girl jerks back in startlement.

She did not even see the blow the human struck with his smoking hand, but in an instant, one of the monkeys has become red ruin and the other has fled.

So her hand falls to her instrument of defiance: a device, formed of dark wood wrapping around three interlocking purple gems, that has against Greystoke’s humans previously served her well.

“Greystoke,” says the girl. “What do you here?”

“Ink,” he says.

That is his name for her. He calls her that because of the ink that stains her fingers.

He looks at the Mirror of Flame.

“That is not yours,” growls the ape.

Hell, day 703: The city.

I have not been honest. I read the books that these people left behind—abandoned in their city of gold and poison when they succumbed at last to their despair —and I realize this about myself.

My complaints have been ill-founded and my experience inevitable. The purpose of exploration is to transform horrible things into the strange and the beautiful. It is to deny the world its damned, corrupted nature and make it through the eyes that value truth into something better. That is why until I came to this place I lived in beauty.

The people of this city understood the nature of exploration. They labored fiercely to transform Hell. But they did not have those eyes that value truth. They could write of the glories of this world—and oh! it is glorious and it is terrible, in Hell—but at the end it was always empty to them.

As it is to me.

Ape-King Greystoke has set forth his claim.

There is a tension in the room.

“Do you challenge me, then?” Ink asks. “Oh lord of suburbia?”

She rises from her throne. There is a dangerous and musical sound as the gold hangings of her clothing beat against one another.

“To meddle with such things,” says Greystoke, “brings no happiness.”

“There is no alternative,” says Ink.

She triggers the instrument of defiance. There is a wind that rushes through the room. It is a terrible howling wind and there are devils on it.

It rebuffs the humans of Greystoke. Snarling does Ms. Ward fall back beyond the borders of the door. Flailing and issuing loud bursts of smoke, so too does Mr. Brown. Only Mr. Smith remains, bracing his great bulk against the wind; and the devils of that wind cut at the spectacled man leaving only his hidden eyes unharmed.

“It will not give you what you need,” says Greystoke.

“Damnable ape,” says Ink.

She walks forward.

Shrugging off the devil wind as if it were a simple breeze, so too does he.

Ink pokes him in the chest with a finger.

“Do you know how easy it would be to kill you?”

The panel of the floor on which Greystoke is standing lowers, ever-so-slightly, under his weight. He can see, with the flicking of his eyes to each side, poisoned darts gleaming in recesses within two walls. He does not know if they are rusted into place or held still by the will of Ink Catherly, and so he does not move.

“Do you know why I will not?” Ink asks.

And Greystoke rumbles, “You fear me. You are afraid that I am not empty. You are afraid that I am not in Hell.”

Ink’s face goes pale. She turns away.

“Don’t push me,” she says.

Greystoke tenses, because those words are like the rattling of a snake. I have no intent to kill you, they say to him. But if you step on me it is inevitable that I will bite.

But a personal challenge to the savage jungle queen was not the great ape’s only plan.

Someone clears his throat. Ink snaps her head to the left to see the noise’s source.

There are other entrances to the throne room, and in one of them stands a hunching figure whose very appearance fills Ink with primal dread: his hair is high and thinning, his eyes are pale, and his hands are thick, powerful, and large. This is the terror of suburbia, that human male named Mr. Catherly, who in his animal coupling with Mrs. Catherly had expelled into her womb approximately half of the genetic material that became Ink.

“Incompatible Precepts Catherly,” he says. “Do not you taunt Lord Greystoke, King of Men.”

An Unclean Legacy: “Violet’s Sin”

These are three moments from Sophie’s life.

The first is when Christine’s house reaches the castle. It pulls in its iron legs. It squats there and it rests.

Christine emerges.

“Hey,” Violet says.

Christine doesn’t respond. She walks past Violet into the castle, leaving the door of her house open behind her.

So Violet walks in. She walks to the great furnace at the house’s core.

“Hey,” she says.

The furnace has gone cold. There is a great black lump in it. Violet takes a poker and she prods the lump.

Slowly, Sophie uncurls. The ash on her skin cracks and falls away. She is withered, like a homonculus. Her hair is mostly burned away, but it’s growing again, in fits and starts.

“I brought you some clean clothes,” Violet says. She puts them down.

Sophie has a fingerbone in her palm. She’s been curled around it to protect it from the fire.

“How did you know I was here?” Sophie says.

“Where else would you be?”

Sophie frowns at Violet. Then, slowly, she offers Violet the bone.

“If I keep this,” she says, “I’m going to break it. I can’t let him win. He isn’t worthy of it.”

Violet smiles at Sophie. She pushes Sophie’s hand away.

“He’s your brother,” Violet says.

Sophie stares at her.

Then she lowers her head, hair hanging over her face to hide her tears.

“I’m not good,” Sophie says.

But Violet touches her arm, gently.

Sophie looks up, and for a moment she is naked; but then she dons the clothes that Violet brought her and they walk out to Castle Gargamel.

In a time of wizards and kings, one name stood above the rest. He was Montechristien Gargamel.

He seized from the mushroom village one hundred of the blue essentials and transformed them into gold. From that time on his power was limitless. He broke the world and repaired it again. He dispensed terrible destinies and powers as if they were the most ordinary of gifts. And as the time of his death approached his children came to his Castle to dispose of the matter of their legacy.

Violet, his eldest and most dear, who had betrayed him before she was even half-grown.
Francescu, the deathless sorcerer, who had turned his back on the affairs of the world.
Manfred, the fallen knight, whose strength was legend and whose spear was magic’s bane.
Tomas the cruel, who had looked in his tenth year upon the face of God.
Christine, the mad sorceress, who wandered the world in her living house.
Sophie the skinchanger, soulless and Devil-tainted, and once the one Montechristien loved best.
Elisabet, the Devil’s child, a creature as much of shadow as of life.

In the hour of the end, each turned their hands against each other, and the halls of Castle Gargamel ran with blood. This is the twenty-sixth installment of the story of that time.

“Father,” Sophie says, not long thereafter.

Montechristien Gargamel does not turn as she enters the room. He is staring out the window. Now and again his neck will twitch, as if he might turn his head, but he does not.

“Sophie,” he says.

“I’m sorry you’re dying,” Sophie says.

“Are you?”

Sophie stands there, hesitant. She wrings her hands. “Yes.”

“It won’t matter,” Gargamel lies. “My soul is already in Heaven.”

“Hell.”

“. . . it won’t matter,” Gargamel concedes. “My soul is already in Hell.”

“It will matter to me.”

“Did you know,” says Montechristien Gargamel, “that I have in my possession only ninety-nine golden eidolons?”

“Pardon?”

“I will die,” says Montechristien Gargamel, “and there will be nothing left for me but damnation, because someone of my kin and blood took from my treasury the eldest golden man. And I must ask myself: who is it that the Devil hunted at night for seven years? Who is it who went out and faced him alone, and fell beneath his will? Because that person would be, you see, the natural suspect in this matter.”

“I didn’t—”

Gargamel laughs. It is bitter.

“There is a little crack in my defenses now, you see,” he says. “A little hole through which the shadow creeps. I should not have let you live, Sophie, or let you in—”

“What did Christine tell you?” Sophie shrieks.

“Be still!” Gargamel says.

He turns on her. There is no air around her. Her words are swallowed up in the void and her eyes hurt and she cannot breathe.

“You were my favorite,” Montechristien says.

Then there is air again.

“I didn’t fail,” Sophie says, her voice as tight as an overwound spring.

“Get out,” Montechristien says.

“I didn’t—”

“Get out!”

And she realizes that she will leave the room or she will be cast from it.

So she backs away, her face as stiff as stone. She says, “I will come back later, when you have recovered your composure.”

Then she closes the door and runs in swiftness down the stairs.

The old man goes to his bed. He sits down. He lets himself cry.

“Don’t lie to me,” he says to the air.

And as he thinks of what she has endured, he adds, “I never thought it was your fault.

An Unclean Legacy


“Violet’s Sin”

Some time has passed; and four of seven children are dying.

Tomas makes protests to Violet. He seeks to stall her. But she is not stalled. She has picked up the scent of blood and death in the air and Violet follows it at a run.

It is not Elisabet she finds.

Violet bursts into the room at the base of Gargamel’s tower; and what she sees there tears a scream from her throat.

Francescu flicks his eyes towards Violet.

Painedly, he says, “Please excuse us.”

Tomas comes. He stands in the doorway. He stares.

Manfred is slumped on the floor, bleeding out his life. His spear has pinned Sophie to Francescu, and both seem dearly hurt.

Violet, after a moment of frantic thought, steps forward. She pulls on the spear Cursebreaker; but it does not move. The outer layer of skin upon Violet’s hands comes off.

“Manfred,” Violet says.

She kneels down by him.

It is hard for her to think because this is an agony room: though Manfred, Sophie, and Francescu are stern folk, still there burst from them at time to time whimpers and sounds in an erratic symphony that no ears should ever have to hear.

“Manfred,” she says, holding herself from fainting by sheer will, “you must pull it out.”

And Manfred gives her a kind of weary, dizzy grin, and he mouths, “No.”

“I will make Francescu heal you,” Violet says, causing Francescu’s mouth to narrow before a spasm of pain distracts him. “But pull it free.”

“No.”

“Don’t you understand?” Violet says. “Don’t any of you fucking understand? You are so dedicated to how important it is to love or hate or kill or save one another and in my entire life I have never seen any of you be right even once about who the rest of us are.”

Manfred peers at her blearily, as if her words are the bleating of a goat. He makes a wretched gargling sound.

Tomas says, “It is enough, Violet. Let them die.”

And Violet turns on him, and she says, “I love them.”

And the words are raw in the air.

Christine is standing in the doorway behind Tomas. She says, softly, “The Devil is coming. There is a great fire to the west. Where is Elisabet?”

“Elisabet?”

Christine is not looking into the room. She is not processing what she sees there at all. Her eyes and ears are closed to it. Her face is pale and her voice is soft.

“If these are dead, then who else can defend us?” Christine asks.

Manfred is slowly rising to his hands and feet. Violet casts him a startled glance.

“Manfred,” she says, “you have cut arteries. You can’t fight the Devil.”

Manfred hits the ground with one fist. The stone floor cracks. There is a faint white light rising from below. Violet startles back.

Manfred sways to his feet.

Manfred seizes the spear in his two hands. With a growl and a gurgle, he wrenches it out. Then he falls half-dead to the floor.

Sophie staggers. She goes down on hands and knees. She coughs up black ichor mixed with little veins of red and blue and gold.

She is gaunt.

Francescu looks distant and calm again, though his wound is unhealed. The lines of pain on his face are gone.

“Not Elisabet,” Sophie mutters.

Manfred nods.

“She can’t know,” Sophie says.

Violet is staring fiercely at Francescu. After a moment, Francescu growls irritably and makes a gesture and Manfred’s throat is whole.

Then Violet sits by Sophie and gently she strokes Sophie’s hair and she says, “I’m sorry.”

And Sophie does not know that Violet is apologizing for her sin; for her secret; for the fact that still after all these years Montechristien does not know that it is Violet who betrayed him.

So she leans into Violet and she cries and she says, “They abandoned me.”

And Violet holds her; and Sophie is, for the smallest moment, weak; and Manfred stares at them like a man would stare at a great black blotch appearing, unexpectedly, upon the sun.

An Unclean Legacy concludes tomorrow.

Dhiyampati and the Pluto Project (Conclusion)

Continued from yesterday’s post.

Dhiyampati and Ellen have reached the center of the machine. Dhiyampati stands there, still, listening to the afterlife engine’s hum.

“It is like the music of the spheres,” he says.

Ellen closes her eyes.

“It’s not happy, though,” she says.

Dhiyampati grins over at her.

“Well, it’s not,” she protests. “It’s agitated.”

“Yes,” he agrees. He puts his hand on his chin. “So there is the question. Why would a man who has agreed to embark on the exploration of Pluto travel to Pluto in one case, and to parts unknown in another?”

Dhiyampati calls forth his elohite. It bursts into being with a sound that resonates with the entirety of the machine.

“Is the engine working?” he asks.

The elohite stares down at him. Then she laughs.

“The explorers have gone,” Dhiyampati asks, “. . . where they have chosen to go?”

“That is an ambiguous question,” says the elohite. “Where have they chosen to go?”

“The research station on Pluto?”

The elohite looks puzzled. “Why would an explorer want to go there?

Dhiyampati looks up. He frowns.

“Pardon?”

But elohim do not answer the same question twice; and it is gone as swiftly as it came.

Dhiyampati and Ellen walk back to the meeting room. Dhiyampati’s frown persists.

“It isn’t the same,” says Ellen.

“What?”

Ellen is thinking. “It isn’t the same,” she says. “To go somewhere for the first time. Even the second. And later. There’s something special about the first time you see the inside of an afterlife engine. And can you imagine how wondrous it would be to be the first person to have met an elohite, or piloted a plane? But now, these things are ordinary. With each experience, that experience grows less.”

Dhiyampati’s brow clears. Then it furrows.

“Why haven’t you mentioned this before?”

“I can’t call up elohim to tell me obvious things,” says Ellen. “So I don’t see them. Like, for instance, sometimes I think I want pizza. But I really need good food for energy. If I could summon up an elohite, she’d tell me, ‘Don’t get pizza.'”

“Only the first time,” Dhiyampati murmurs, wryly.

“But instead, I summon up Domino’s.”

“Well,” says Dhiyampati. “Then it seems the matter is resolved. Your missing people are off on a Pluto that they can explore for the first time. They are not in contact because—”

Here he hesitates.

“I suppose,” he says, “that there are information issues. I mean, should they contact you, then it becomes impossible that they are the first to explore Pluto.”

“But where are they?” Ellen asks.

Dhiyampati laughs. “Death is a great adventure,” he says. “But there are no good maps.”

They have reached the meeting room. Mr. Cullens spins around in his chair. He says, “I’m thinking Satanic monkeys.”

Dhiyampati stares at him.

Mr. Cullens frowns. He’d been hoping to have correctly anticipated the solution. Now he is forced to stammer out his ideas only partly formed. “I mean,” he says, “we know that elohim are reliable. We can prove that mathematically. But what if you have an unformed elohite—an unfinished creature, only partially manifest, an evil and unevolved creature, a gremlin—”

“I think they’ve chosen to seek out a fresh, new Pluto rather than the same old Pluto that everyone else is exploring,” says Dhiyampati.

“. . . ah,” says Mr. Cullens.

“It’s not a broken machine?” says Mr. Brown.

Dhiyampati goes to the blackboard. He begin to sketch out the equations, with occasional references to the contract that the explorers signed. At several points, Mr. Cullens, Ellen, or Mr. Brown contribute their own thoughts to the matter; when they are done, the truth is staring out at them from the chalk.

“Well,” says Mr. Brown. “That’s not a broken machine, but damned if I can say what to do about it.”

“Hm?”

“We can’t just abandon people to live out eternity in a random Pluto-like environment,” Mr. Brown points out.

“Not eternity,” says Ellen. “I mean, you can’t give someone an eternal afterlife without massive feedback.”

“Regardless,” Mr. Brown says, “They’re a huge investment for the company.”

“We could send anti-explorers after them,” Mr. Cullens proposes. “With nets.”

Dhiyampati frowns.

Ellen leans in beside Dhiyampati. She mutters, “He is good at the engineering side.”

“No nets,” says Dhiyampati.

“Well, we can’t just leave them there!” Mr. Brown expostulates.

“Have you considered damning them?” Dhiyampati asks.

“I’ve been damning them ever since they bloody vanished!”

“No,” says Dhiyampati. “I mean . . .”

“Oh,” says Mr. Brown.

Mr. Cullens frowns. “Isn’t that immoral? I thought you could only damn people for treason.”

Dhiyampati gestures broadly. “In the hellfire and brimstone sense, perhaps. But in the technical meaning?”

Mr. Brown thinks about that. “Technically,” he says, “A damnation is any—”

“They’re volunteers!” says Mr. Cullens.

“Let me finish,” snaps Mr. Brown.

“We’re supposed to protect them,” says Mr. Cullens. “It’s ridiculous. People come in and offer us their services and—”

“Let me finish!” says Mr. Brown.

“Ah,” says Dhiyampati.

Mr. Cullens shakes his head and goes silent.

“I suppose technically,” says Mr. Brown, “that a damnation is feeding people the consequences of any choice they didn’t really want the consequences for. Like when a modest person gets rewarded or a liar trapped in their own lies.”

“Here,” says Dhiyampati, “each of them has made the choice to do something that you did not agree that they could do—to explore the wrong Pluto, and send no data back. Surely enforcing the consequences of that choice upon them—that is to say, forcing them to pay their debt to you in the following life—is a valid damnation.”

“We still have access to their elohim,” concedes Mr. Brown. “We could do it.”

“But it’s ridiculous,” says Mr. Cullens. “They didn’t plan to run out on their obligations.”

“Oh dear,” says Dhiyampati. “What does planning have to do with choice?”