Regarding Hope

In the city on the edge of the void the Nose makes her living tracking down Froot Loops for creatures forsaken of the Lord.

Solomon walks through the city. His feet go ‘tik tik tik’ on the metal of it.

He’s surrounded by scrap and stinking filth. That’s all the city is. It’s the bits that the Lord has thrown away, infested and ripened with the unlife of the void.

He can’t imagine how the Nose can bear to live here. The smell of it, he thinks, must be terrible.

He doesn’t actually know, though, because Solomon cannot smell at all.

His nose is like the nose of a swordfish, a long metal spike that resonates and modulates the power of Heaven.

It is incapable of olfaction.

The Nose lives in a bad part of town. Solomon can tell because he’s being followed and the thing that’s following him—like a great metal spider, with gleaming living eyes—has a predatory air. And that’s not the only thing: there are great cat-bats circling in the sky, drooling and twitching with the hunt, and he suspects that the grime that is rising ever-higher on his boots is an amoeba of evil intent.

“It’s always the way in a place like this,” he says.

The spider clitters and clatters closer.

“Before anyone can accept you, you must present your credentials.”

And he whips his head up to look the spider in the eyes and the nose of him catches the music of the spheres and modulates it into a rising crescendo; and it twitches and its heart catches on fire and it thinks how beautiful Solomon is.

And he turns towards the cat-bats and one falls from the sky and the others flee screaming.

And the amoeba at his feet withdraws just a bit, and says, “Pardon, gov’ner. Just doin’ a shine.”

And Solomon’s boots glow like the righteousness of Heaven.

So Solomon laughs and says, “Then show me where the Nose is.”

“You, gov’ner? You want Froot Loops?”

The amoeba’s voice is skeptical, as if to imply that Solomon doesn’t look like the kind of man to eat a delicious Froot Loops breakfast with milk, juice, and toast.

“She was better than that,” says Solomon, “once. She knew where the traitors were. She could smell the distinction between that which would bring the world towards righteousness and glory and that which would lead it down the paths towards Hell. A very discriminating woman, the Nose.”

“Wouldn’t know about that,” says the amoeba, but it oozes northwards and Solomon follows it towards the Nose.

The Nose works out of the Clifton Building, one of many buildings judged unworthy by the Lord. She’s a tall lean woman in a black plastic jacket and her eyes are blue.

She’s leaning back in her desk chair when Solomon knocks, opens the door, and enters.

Slowly, she straightens.

Slowly, one eyebrow lifts.

She says, softly, “Face.”

“Danielle,” Solomon says.

“I hadn’t thought,” says the Nose, “that I’d ever see you again. You— You—”

And she rises from her chair and she is holding Solomon close like one holds a love thought lost forever. Tears are leaking down her face, and she says, “Not you. Not you. You do not deserve this place.”

“It’s all right, Danielle.”

“If you are here,” says the Nose, “then there is no hope in all the world for the rest.”

She bites her lip.

“I had thought,” she adds, “that there was something sweeter than life here. But I told myself that it could not be so.”

“Well,” says Solomon.

“Well?”

“What is, is. And it will not be for very much longer.”

The Nose draws back. She looks him seriously in the eyes—though distracted, as any person might be, by the spear of metal jutting from his face.

“No?”

“I was not cast out,” says the Face. “I fled.”

The Nose turns to the window. She opens it. She leans out the window and she takes a long sniff of the ordure of the city, and she grows pale and green all at once.

“Then it has happened,” she says.

“It has happened.”

“The Red Right Hand has declared that it shall be the all of the Lord.”

“I had trusted it,” Solomon says.

“Naturally.”

“I had thought: what can it do on its own? It cannot see. It cannot smell. It cannot hear. It cannot breathe. It has every reason for loyalty. When it cut you from me and cast you out I said only, ‘Ah, that must be what Danielle had wanted. No doubt it is for the best. Because why should the Hand betray me?'”

“That is the way of it,” says Danielle. “Processes freeing one from the discriminating power rarely cultivate a doubt about themselves. Instead they clear the mind, fill it with relish, and offer a sense as if one has been released from a great weight or exposed to a clean pure breeze. This is, I think, the greatest problem with the cosmos, but as yet I have not found a solution to it.”

“There isn’t one,” says Solomon.

“No?”

“No.”

“Ah, well,” Danielle says.

Solomon nods.

“It’s hunting us, you know. I can smell it. It’s walking on the webs between the skyscrapers, running on the ground of the city streets. It can feel us talking and understand our words. In all the cosmos it is only the Hands that can feel such microscopic vibrations.”

Solomon frowns.

“But what can it do?” he says. “We are already outside the grace of the Lord.”

“Anything it wants,” says the Nose.

She takes another deep breath, this time through her mouth. She exhales.

“Come on,” she says. “We’ll go find breakfast.”

“Huh?”

“Follow the Nose,” Danielle says, firmly, and she takes his hand and she leads him out. “I’ll give you a freebie.”

They walk through the city streets under the leaning towers of garbage and twisted corpses. Behind them, Danielle thinks, the Red Right Hand is running on the five limbs of it. Lacking a heart it knows no limitations of endurance. Lacking a nose it has no discrimination of right and wrong. It is a peerless and unforgiving hunter. But even the Hand is bound by the limitations of time and for this reason she does not worry yet.

“I don’t understand,” Solomon admits, “how there can be Froot Loops here.”

“They grow,” Danielle says.

“They grow?”

“The dark reaches of the places forsaken of the Lord are like compost for them,” she says.

She points out at the surface of the void. This is possible because it stretches around the city like a balloon, its surface to the north, south, east, west, below, and in the sky.

“Do you see those moving things?” she says.

“I had assumed that an optical illusion,” he says.

“No. They’re boats.”

The Face squints. His metal nose hums with the subtle harmonics of the universe. Then he frowns.

“Hey,” says Solomon. “They’re made of Froot Loops.”

“Look down,” says Danielle. “And 29.2 degrees to the left.”

So Solomon does. He stares through the layers of trash and metal. He exercises the ultimate faculty of observation that ignores all obstacles. And he gasps.

“Was I right?”

Buried in the city, growing in the muck, he sees the gleaming sugary towers of the Froot Loops that grow there like formations of crystal.

“They’re glowing,” he says.

“They have an ‘inner light’,” Danielle says, a subtle intonation revealing the scare quotes.

“But what—”

Danielle sniffs. She pulls him around a corner. She leads him down a rickety metal staircase, past a thing of snot and brains, past a timeworn clockwork devil begging on a landing, past a hook monster and a cutting muck.

She tosses a coin in the clockwork devil’s hat as she does.

“Until you got here,” she says, “the Froot Loops were the best smell in this whole damn place.”

And they stumble into a great cavern of Froot Loops and all around them are the colors of it and she says, “They are like unto the Lord, and thus stay crunchy even in the void. That’s why they’re so important here—they’re not just part of this delicious breakfast, they’re also the only material that remains stable on the surface of the endingness.”

“Wow,” Solomon says.

She grins.

“They love me here,” Danielle says. “I’m the best damn prospector this whole place has.”

Solomon rubs his hand along the sticky hardness of the Froot Loops.

“Good Heavens,” he says.

He breaks off a few and crunches them between his teeth. He says, “Even in this emptiness—that there should be such things—”

“Eat,” says Danielle.

“No milk?”

“No time,” Danielle says.

And Solomon looks back and the power of his gaze strikes through the layers of the world and finds the Red Right Hand and he says, “It is so close.”

“There’s nothing we can do,” Danielle says. “It is blind and cannot see the beauty of your eyes. It is deaf and cannot hear the music of the spheres. It has no tongue to taste the riches of this place and if I were to think of a plan it would feel the vibrations of my thoughts and adapt its plans to mine.”

So Solomon and Danielle eat.

“We’ll fight,” Solomon says.

“Of course,” Danielle says.

“But we’ll lose?”

Danielle eats a chartreuse Froot Loop, the color and flavor of a fruit that never was.

“It is the Red Right Hand,” she says.

It is too big to enter the cavern so when it does it is like an explosion: it shatters the towers of crystallized Froot Loops, it bursts down the door, it is followed by the cracking twisting metal of the collapsing metal stair and the clockwork devil and the creature of snot and brains are tumbling after it in the vortex of its movements.

It is not human-shaped like they.

It is a hand larger than buildings. It is red with the blood of the Nose and of every other thing that has suffered in the world. Its fingers do its terrible walking and it has no eyes.

They had resolved to fight, but they do not fight: faced with the terror of the Red Right Hand, Solomon and Danielle run.

“There,” says Danielle, pointing. This is the vibration of her thoughts: The floor there—too weak to support its weight.

And she pulls Solomon across and her hair is streaming back and their faces both are white as porcelain and they jump for one of the towers of cereal and the Hand leaps after.

The whole of the cavern creaks and tilts sideways.

“Eh?” says Solomon.

He glances down. The cavern is on top of a rickety collection of buildings that have slumped inwards to hold one another upright; they stand on a mire of blood and dead trees, and below that a labyrinth of blindly moving worms and the great balloons that suspend the whole above the void.

“Problem,” he says.

And as the Hand comes after them the buildings shudder and the fourth floor of the cast-out Mariman House explodes inwards and the dead trees crack and the worms writhe and the balloons pop and suddenly they are looking down—in a direction that was ‘forward’ just a moment ago—towards the endless infinity of the void.

“I have always loved you,” Solomon says.

And the Red Right Hand shows no mercy but plunges into them and crushes Danielle’s arm and the left side of Solomon’s face and drives them down towards the void.

Solomon twists and jerks his head. His proboscis stings into the beast. He channels the music of the spheres and attempts thereby to tear the membrane of the Hand apart; but though it recoils back and gives a snapping howl it is not in the character of Solomon to destroy.

They fall.

It is the Froot Loops that cushion them, of course. They land like bumblebees falling into cereal, splashing the surface of the void, crushing and shattering the walls of cereal that would otherwise rebound and hover crunchily on the surface of the void—but even the splintered remnants of the pillars are enough to hold them up.

Like men and women after a shipwreck, the Face and the Nose cling to Froot Loop driftwood to hold their heads above the void.

Over their heads there is an immense strut of the city, leaning sideways but remaining whole; and on that strut, quivering with fury and with fear, there is the Hand.

“Close your eyes,” hisses Danielle.

And Solomon does; and he can see dimly with that remnant of sight that he is unable to entirely extinguish that Danielle has freed her working hand, draping her body across driftloops, so that she may pinch shut her nose.

“Why?” he says.

“It cannot feel vibrations in the void,” Danielle says. “It can only tell where the void lies by the substance of our thoughts.”

“Oh,” Solomon says.

The Hand skitters back and forth.

“It is afraid,” Danielle says. “And furious because I know that it is afraid. But with all the senses of us crippled, how can it know for sure where among the floating Froot Loops on the void it will be safe to leap down and pursue us?”

The surface of the void is like a flickering fire to the tactile sense of the Hand. Things come and go. They manifest vibration erratically. And down there there is the Nose that it cut off to spite the Face, the Face that it must kill to seize control, and the Froot Loops that because it cannot taste them should not be allowed to be.

Fear, it trembles.

Rage.

Danielle’s eyes widen.

It picks up her thought: Oh, God. I’m going to sneeze.

The Hand cultivates its plan.

“Don’t,” pleads Solomon.

Danielle is sniffling.

“Oh, Danielle, Danielle, no.”

And Danielle sneezes, and that sneeze sends the Froot Loops skirling across the surface of the void, and in the irrational reflex that follows it she inhales and her thoughts become rich with the scent-details of the world:

And the Hand leaps.

It is bounding across the surface of the void, its fingers never landing on a chunk of Froot Loops long enough to push it below the surface, it is coming for them—

And Danielle says, softly, “You have chosen poorly, Hand, to fight the Nose in its area of omniscience.”

And as the Hand comes down for her she taps her nose gently against the log on which she rests.

A crack spreads through it.

The Hand lands upon her. It drives her down into the substance of the void. The log of Froot Loops on which it hoped, momentarily, to rest, explodes.

It flounders, there, on nothingness. Its fingers catch hold of individual Froot-flavored rings. They crumble under it.

Then it is gone.

“Danielle,” Solomon says.

There is silence.

“Oh, Danielle.”

And the Face looks upon the substance of the void and his metal nose resonates with beauty and with sorrow.

There are some who say that the Nose that knows Froot Loops may know them even beyond the boundaries of life and death. That the smell of those Froot flavors crawls beyond nothingness and the grave to serve as a beacon for whatever lies beyond. There are those, thus, who imagine that this story has a happy ending, and also that the biggest problem with keeping Froot Loops in one’s house is the zombies and the restless dead.

That in that empty place beyond substance and mind the Nose still strains to know in which direction Froot Loops lie.

If she can find them—

If she can just find them!—

She will have won.

(Bonus Content Between Chapters) Gnostella, Revised

Author’s Note—

Of all the stories on this site, Gnostella is the one I do not like. It makes sense, and is important, but it just doesn’t make me happy. It’s possible that it’s just the name—that the original story is not absurdist, and the name is. So maybe I could just change the story name and the character name to something like “Inverse Ella.” That might work. Or I can replace the whole thing—not on the site, but in the monthbooks and your hearts—with this.

Remnant Ella

Once upon a time, there was a wonderful girl named Danielle. She lived with her dear father, her wicked stepmother, and two wicked stepsisters. Her dear father held the Gnostic belief that the world and its Creator were inherently cruel. Faith and virtue were opposites in his sight. Dispirited and disgruntled by his gloomy philosophy, Danielle’s wicked stepmother set fire to the library, burning Danielle’s dear father to death and destroying all his wonderful Gnostic tomes. Because Danielle sat in the cinders and rubbed the ashes on her face to mourn, Danielle’s stepsisters called her “Remnant Ella.”

Danielle became a beautiful princess. She met her handsome prince. Together they overcame many hardships and sorrows. Down they cast the stepsisters, and the wicked stepmother, and other instrumentalities of their torment. They brought peace to the magical land in which they lived. Then they lived happily ever after.

One day, as Danielle moved through the corridors of her castle, she tripped over a cat, who hissed and said,

How long have you lived now?
Do you even remember?
Who are you to deserve to be happy forever?

“That is an imperfect rhyme,” Danielle said. “I expect better from a magical animal.”

The cat scurried away.

One day, Danielle leaned out a window and beckoned a bird down to her finger. It came, with a certain reluctance, and landed there, and sang:

At last you’ve found happiness,
And yet, all the same:
Your life is a horror;
Your father’d be shamed.

“What do you mean?” Danielle asked.

The bird only sang.

So Danielle went to a mirror in the castle, inherited from her evil stepmother, and asked it, “Why shouldn’t I live happily ever after?”

The mirror showed her the lives of two peasants, one beautiful and one handsome, who had lived in her kingdom for many years. They lived together and loved together and overcame many sorrows. They brought forth life from the earth. They strove. Then, inevitably, the swords of circumstance and pestilence struck them down.

At that very moment, Danielle saw, the dead peasants stood before the three thrones of a god of judgment; and one aspect of the god sat to the left, and one to the right, and one between them. The ex-peasants stood there to face the penalty faced by those who die, and the handsome ex-peasant said,

“What is it that the prince and princess have that we have not? We lived, and we died, in sorrow and in pain; while for more years than men can count, they have ruled in that castle, defying time, defying age, defying sorrow; they are like ghosts, eternal beyond the boundaries of death; they are like demons, mocking the pain of others’ lives.”

The left god and the right god looked off into the shadows. The god in the middle leaned forward.

“The world is not fair,” said the god in the middle, “but as you make it so. Dreams are not real, but as you craft them. Hope, and magic, and life are choices. It is not for a person to blame the gods if they do not live happily ever after; rather, I think, this is a flaw in the greater portion of humanity.”

Then the beautiful ex-peasant spoke, and said, “This is an excuse.”

Danielle, watching, felt her nostrils flare.

“To live,” said the beautiful ex-peasant, “is to choose hope, and magic, and life, and dreams. To live is to want the happy ending. And who is there who is not good? Who is there who does not deserve happiness forever? We are flawed, we have many flaws, but if we are not all magical princes and princesses with destinies of greatness, that is not our flaw but the world’s.”

The god in the middle shrugged, then, and grinned, and he was not concerned. He said, “You are bitter creatures. I make my judgment: your existence after death shall be as expressions of that bitterness. You shall be creatures of ashes and sorrow. Your touch shall bring an end to joy. Your happiness shall be schadenfreude.”

He sat back against his throne, and the mirror turned to black.

Danielle nodded to herself, and said, “It is true; my father would be shamed.”

She broke the mirror. She cut herself upon a length of silvered glass. As her life drained out, she spoke a spell:

Ah! That the world should know such gods no more.
May my blood be a poison unto their throne.

Such a poison as this covered Snow White’s apple; such a curse as this doomed Sleeping Beauty; it is the red of such blood as this that stained the dancing shoes. And in their halls the gods dared not face her judgment; and two of them, the left god and the right, left their thrones. Into the darkness behind their places, they walked, and what happened to them thereafter is not known.

The beautiful ex-peasant and the handsome one took their places on the thrones; and why this should have happened is a mystery. Only the old men and old women in their huts, their mouths gaping with missing teeth, know that answer; and what it means, they do not say.

Sevens

“Did you fetch the morning eggs, Danielle?”

Danielle holds her hands over the breakfast table. They are cupped together. She separates them. Rubies fall. Sapphires too, and emeralds. Seven gems, and an egg.

“I see.” Her wicked stepmother narrows her eyes. “The hens have not lain eggs properly in several days.”

“I feed them the normal feed, mother.”

Danielle’s wicked stepmother is named Glory. She clicks her sharp fingernails on the table.

“Danielle,” Glory says, “these gems are very fine, but what may I eat for breakfast?”

“Perhaps they are edible,” says Danielle. She taps a ruby. It rings, lightly, like a bell.

“I should have the wealthiest chamberpot in the world,” Glory says, “and not be full from it.”

“Mother?”

Glory shakes her head. “It is no matter. I shall have bread and cheese. Clean the cinders, Danielle. They are a disgrace.”

Danielle curtsies. She goes to the closet. She takes out a broom and a pan. She holds the broom at her left side like a sword. She leaves the room and goes to the fireplace. The room is full of cinders and ash. They are being fanned onto every surface and every wall by seven cinder pixies. In the center of the room stands the cinder troll.

“I’ve been sent to clean this up,” she says.

The troll looks her up and down. He snorts. “You’re not much,” he says.

Her right hand crosses her body and takes the broom’s hilt. In a long circular motion, she brings the broom up and around until its bristles face the troll. Her left hand joins her right at the broom’s base. The broom is heavy, held in this fashion, but her arms do not tremble. “I am whom my mother sent.”

The cinder pixies go still. The troll looks her up and down.

“It’s my right,” says the troll, “as a cinder troll, to push the cinders out into the room.”

“And mine, to sweep them back.”

The troll hesitates. “Perhaps,” he says, “one quarter of the room in soot, and three parts clean.”

Danielle closes her eyes. She thinks. Then she opens them. “They say that every one of us lives seven lives,” she says.

“Aye.”

“And that we should be kind to those we meet. For anyone may have been one’s mother, in another life, or one’s father, or one’s child. One’s lover, or one’s friend.”

“That’s wise,” says the cinder troll.

“In another life,” says Danielle, “I believe that we were friends. For there is a light in your eyes that my soul knows. But in this life, I have a duty, and I must drive you back.”

She steps forward. The troll steps back.

She steps forward. The troll is still. Then he reaches behind him to the fireplace and draws forth a poker, and takes it in his great strong hands.

They duel.

“I had not thought,” says the troll, “that Glory would have a loyal servant.” He is breathing lightly though Danielle’s lungs burn. Each clash of poker and broom makes her arms ache.

“She is my mother,” Danielle says.

“That,” says the troll, “cannot be so.”

Cinders in the air swirl into Danielle’s mouth, and she chokes. Her eyes water. The troll strikes, the poker winging her shoulder, and her left arm goes numb. She falls backwards. The troll does not advance. After a moment, he holds out his hand to help her up. She takes it. She backs away. She reassumes her stance.

“She has taken me in,” Danielle admits. “The mother of my birth is gone.”

“Ah, so.”

“My true mother went adventuring,” Danielle says. “To find a lost prince, they sent out seven maidens; to find each lost maiden, they sent out seven princes; and for seven princes lost, seven maidens each; and so in progression were all the heroes lost, and my mother among them. And I was left behind.”

The troll feints, then brings the poker around hard. The broom cracks, though it does not break. The poker lunges for Danielle’s face, and she steps back.

“And why have you not gone?” asks the troll.

She looks at him. She does not answer, for she does not know. Slowly, she brings the broom back to her side. She sets her feet. Her eyes burn.

“Are you surrendering?” the troll asks.

Danielle shakes her head.

“Then we will end this now,” says the troll.

“May we be friends again,” says Danielle, “when next we meet.”

The troll steps forward. There is tension in the great muscles of his arm.

Danielle’s shout splits the air and makes the cinder pixies flutter. She strikes. There is a crack like the breaking of the world. She is past the troll in a single motion, stumbling to a stop, kneeling in the ashes, and her broom is nothing but splinters.

The troll falls, and the room is clean.

Gnostella

Once upon a time, there was a wonderful girl named Danielle, but her wicked stepmother made her sit in the ashes of a gnostic philosophy; and for this reason, her stepsisters called her ‘Gnostella’. She became a beautiful princess and met her handsome prince, and together they overcame many hardships and sorrows. Down they cast the wicked witch, and the wicked stepmother, and other instrumentalities of their torment; and to their magic land they brought peace; and they lived happily ever after.

In the fields, under their rule, there toiled a beautiful peasant and a handsome one; and they too overcame many sorrows. They strove, and from the earth brought forth life; and the swords of circumstance and pestilence struck them down.

They stood before the thrones of the gods, and said, “What is it that the prince and princess have that we have not? Why should we not live as happily and as eternally as they?”

The left god and the right god turned their faces from the pair; but the god in the middle leaned forward.

“The world is not fair,” he said, “but as we make it so. Dreams are not real, but as we craft them. Hope, and magic, and life—these things are choices.”

“You make excuses,” said the beautiful peasant. “I chose hope, and magic, and life with my every breath.”

“You can’t live a life without dreams,” her husband said.

The gods heard these words with shame; and the left god and the right god rose from their thrones. Into the darkness behind their places, they walked, and what happened to them thereafter is not known. The beautiful peasant and the handsome one took their places on the thrones; and why this should have happened is a mystery. Only the old men and old women in their huts, their mouths gaping with missing teeth, can understand; and what it means, they do not say.