Frognarok

First, evil frogs talk. Then they kill.

“So,” says the evil frog.

It kicks its legs.

It’s sitting next to Marilyn on a branch overlooking the swamp. She looks a little green, but not so green as the evil frog.

“So,” she says.

The evil frog inflates the bladders by his head, as if an idea were coming to him, then lets them deflate and shakes his head.

“It’s not your fault,” Marilyn says. “Communities project their sins onto evil frogs, producing your blood thirst and various mutations.”

“That is good of you to say,” he concedes, “but I must make my own meaning.”

He emits a noise, burrup, which for all we know is his meaning; nothing further is said, for in the next moment, he is turning, webbed fingers opening around his palm, and the sigil of Carcaon (which was his name and his aspect) is burning like a coal therein.

They dance the great circle. Her wrist strikes his aside. Then there is only red and green.

She lands, lightly, in the swamp.

She leaves footprints, behind her, as she goes.

Later she hangs out in a hot spring with another frog.

“I loved once,” Marilyn says. “I loved so brightly. But the people of the town, they would not have me. They said, ‘frog hunters are green.'”

“It isn’t easy,” the frog admits.

This one is poisonous. Vapors waft off of it. If they talk too long she will die and won’t even get to fight it first. But it has a very approachable air that makes her want to talk longer than frog hunters usually talk with evil frogs.

“Did you know that we absorb it?” she says. “The green?”

“I did not.”

“We kill the frogs and take in their color, to remedy the fallen condition of humanity.”

“So in a way,” the frog says, “we are the same.”

“Always,” Marilyn says passionately. “I would so be insulting you if I did not feel empathy as I killed.”

The frog has no response to that.

It wants to complain or criticize—to observe that it is more concerned with killing than propriety—except that it has never particularly tried to feel as its victims must.

So he just sits, stewing in his poisonous vapors, and thinks, and after a while says, “I too have been a’ courting.”

“Oh?”

“I thought that I would marry a lovely woman,” he says. “And poison her in the process of our love. But then a dove swept me up and carried me off to a distant land.”

It is wearing a dove feather in its baldness.

“That must have been a miracle,” Marilyn says. “Some kind of miracle bird.”

“Or a bird enemy of marriage.”

Marilyn nods. She drags herself out of the water. She sways. She is an ugly color, yellow brown.

“Time to kill?” the frog says politely.

Marilyn’s vision blurs.

“No,” she says. “It’s already done.”

She staggers away, two steps, three, then five.

The frog nods wisely.

“My poison mixes with the steam,” he says. “That’s why it’s hard to see.”

“Not me,” she says.

And she dunks her face once, twice, and three times in the swamp, before taking a few more steps away and vomiting noisily against a startled thrush until she looks a bit more green.

“You’ve boiled,” she says, at last.

Days pass.

“I wish I weren’t green,” she says.

She’s hunting for a third frog. She’s heard it’s drawn to sorrow. And indeed, no sooner has she spoken the words than it eddies up, like ichor on the marsh.

It is transparent, practically invisible. Its hand clasps over her mouth, dripping with slime, and it tries to draw her down.

She bites down, sucking in a mouthful of horrid frog, and gives a muffled scream.

It pulls.

She fumbles at her belt. She pulls out a frog hunter micro-dynamite. She slams it into the side of the frog and twists and pulls and breaks free as it bangs.

They separate.

She gasps and shudders. It pulls back and wraps around a tree, sucking out the life force of the tree to heal its wound.

“Evil frogs talk,” Marilyn says, “then they fight.”

It hisses.

“There are rules,” Marilyn says.

Finally, it sighs.

“I have nothing to say to you, human,” it says. “I am frog. You are frog hunter. There is no point in conversation.”

“We have to make connections with the things we kill,” Marilyn says.

“That is your scruple.”

It is alien. She has never fought an evil frog so alien and cold.

“Why are you like this?” she protests.

It is silent. Ripples pass through it, this way, that way. Finally, as if the words are torn from it, it says, “I was the first. I was the frog of finding words. I was the frog of assumption of mastery of death. I sucked death into my air bladders. I rattled his bones. I spat him out and took power from him. Then he slunk away to live at the outskirts of the world. But I was green.”

She looks at him.

“It isn’t ea—” she starts.

“Shut up!” it howls.

So she falls silent.

Behind it the sky is full of the aurora; and it makes red and blue light to flicker in its skin.

“I was cursed with green,” it says. “It was my testing. And I could not bear it. And I said, ‘Lord, take this burden from me.’ And it was granted to me, my wish.”

“Colorless,” she says.

“It is better!” it says. “Better, this. I need no color. I live alone. I kill humans that come into my realm. Women, men, frog hunters, even the little girls and little boys and their hungry soul-devouring swords. Colorless I am supreme. But you trouble me with your words and make them itch inside my head.”

She looks down, briefly.

“I didn’t mean—” she says.

It hisses. It gives her no time to finish. It leaps into the air, spreading out like some great smothering tarp, and she is falling back and hoisting a twisted branch as if it were a spear.

Its ichor covers her as she emerges from the swamp. She is dripping with it.

Underneath it her face is the color of a peach, and the ichor trail behind her is wet and green.

It’s like it’s sucked the sin from her, she thinks, but something unaccountable’s been lost.

(Parousia) To Light a Candle (5 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Now, some people, thinking on these events, might come to the conclusion that there’ll be some kind of reason Max’ll be able to come back.

Like:

Death’ll gallop through the sky on the last of days and Sid will reach up and seize him by the arm and pull him from the horse and down to shatter on the island below.

Crunch! Death will say, or at least emote, and Sid’ll steal Max’s life from him.

Or:

Somebody’ll find Max’s skin, just floating free on the chaos, and—because you shouldn’t waste a good skin—fill it up with booze. Then Max’ll show up, lookin’ all like Max, only he’s an ale-man now.

Or:

Spattle’s still got its hooks in everyone who’s ever been there.

Max can’t actually die.

He’s lived in Spattle.

Or maybe even:

Sid’ll buy some new luggage one day, you know, for traveling, and he’ll open it up, and there Max’ll be.

“Hey,” Max’ll say.

Hey, Sid says. Thought you were dead.

“It’s a special.”

And Max’ll indicate the display with his head, and it’ll turn out that it does in fact say, “Free resurrection with every suitcase; and luggage $179.99”

And maybe it’s just the kind of thing that happens, you know, eventually. People coming back.

The world’s really old, and it’s got a long future ahead of it.

We wouldn’t necessarily know.

So you could be reading this, you know, and come to the conclusion that there’ll be some reason, like a suitcase sale or a Spattling or a bit of a double thing, and Max’ll come back.

But that ain’t so.

Not exactly, anyway.

See, it’s an epiphany. It’s a mystery. It’s one of those things that’s like a seething well.

There ain’t no reason.

He just comes back.

It’s June 6, 2004, and he just comes back.

It’s like a candle lights, and suddenly where things were invisible, they are visible; and where things were inaudible, they’re audible; and the world fills out with the glistening blue and silver of the sea and the wind as it roars in the sky and the cold refreshing spray that generates when the waves strike against the brown-black rocks.

And the scattering of points and colors becomes the beach.

And swaying patterns become the sun, and the shadows, and the trees.

And there’s Max, right there, with a hangdog look, like he’s never been away.

Maybe someday it’ll be a little more explained.

You can get close to the truth, sometimes, even when there’s no truth to be had.

So maybe we’ll get a bit of explanation here, a bit of explanation there.

But not a reason, not whole and entire.

Some things in this world ain’t ever really explained.

Like:
People always fight the things they love.

I would hug you, says Sid.

A mirrored shape flicks out to show him his own form, and the terrible perplexities and sharpness of it, and why that isn’t necessarily a very good idea. And he can see the darkness that weaves through him, too: for siggorts, like most things that aren’t Max, are terribly, terribly easy to cut.

Max looks up.

“You’re real,” he says.

Like Sid’s the one who shouldn’t be there. Like Sid’s the one who, last we checked, wasn’t in the world.

And there’s a drop of chaos on Max’s face, under the shadow of his hair, and his eyes are brown and deep.

Hesitantly, he says, “Did you—“

Sid cuts him.

Not much. Just a tiny bit, to get the blood he needs, to get a flake of flesh. And he can tell that Max is yielding it, not suffering it, because just this once Max isn’t hard to cut.

He should probably have asked.

But he didn’t; and Max lets it be.

“Did you—“

Sid begins to make the body of him, from flesh and blood and clay, and he says, Did I?

Max gropes for words.

“I figure,” Max says, “That Ii Ma said something like, ‘How can you live with somebody else’s guilt?'”

There is the rushing withdrawing of water and then the roaring of a wave.

“And ‘walk in like you own the place’ doesn’t quite work on that one.”

No, Sid agrees.

He’s almost got the body put together. They’re fast workers, siggorts. It’s the hundred hands.

“So—did you—“

Of course, Sid says.

Then he opens up the body of him and he pours himself into its core and he closes the hollow of the entrance with a hook of him, all Sid-like, snap.

And Max stands there for a long time looking at him, while Sid dresses himself with pants and socks and shirts and stuff that drift in from the sea.

“How?”

He means: Can we . . . fix things? Is it okay now? Is it okay, even though I’m not still dead?

Because he’s a sharp one, Max, and he knows that must’ve been an answer Sid was using for a while.

Is it okay?

Can broken things be remade?

And Sid can hear these questions in his voice; and they’re not the only questions Sid can hear.

How can you forgive him? whispers the voice of Ii Ma, like it always does.

How can you forgive him? Ii Ma asks.

And Sid gives this great big smile like the morning of the world, and he kicks away a cardboard box drifting upwards from the sea, and he says, “Because I’d like to.”

Nothing more; nothing less.

“Because I’d rather,” he explains.

Because we make our own judgments, light and dark, and they are our servants—

Not the other way around.

The Island of the Centipede
Fin.

Bang

There are twelve avatars, and the thirteenth which is Death.

It is normal for the royal family to produce fewer than twelve children in any generation. It is rare that there should be a thirteenth.

Thus there is no difficulty when an older child takes it upon themselves to walk down to the pit of the avatars and jump.

For example, one cannot consider Cedric selfish in any manner for taking the first of the twelve avatars.

When he made his choice he was fifteen and he had three siblings only. His condition was one of abundance. He walked down to the avatar pit. He stared down: the pit was deep and black and full of edged in sharp rocks. It resembled an ecstatic’s vision of the entryway to Hell. Cedric steeled himself against fear. Then he jumped.

As he fell he connected to an avatar. This proved his blood and confirmed him as a child of the throne. Great black wings surrounded him. Stars burned around his head. In this fashion he became one with Night.

Similarly Ernest claimed Fire, Samantha the Blade, and Mark the Sea.

When the Queen gave birth to Doreen, expectations changed. All eyes turned to Doreen and the other young children to see if they would live.

Doreen, you see, was the thirteenth.

There is no established protocol of precedence for distributing the avatars when the royal family has more than twelve children. It is generally presumed that the twelve oldest will claim them, unless one is disabled, disgraced, or in some fashion unwilling to take up the duties of their blood. However the actions of those who have claimed avatars are essentially superior to law and custom. Since society has no power to enforce its decisions on those who claim an avatar out of turn, and since the compact between royalty and the avatars does not specify a resolution, the matter remains a lacuna in the fabric of the law. Those who try and fail to break the line of succession bear a burden of shame. Those who succeed in doing so demonstrate their worth.

Doreen was a girl who dreamed of avatars.

She would run and imagine she ran with great wings on her back. She would cut at the air with a play-sword. She imagined herself bringing woeful defeat to the enemies of the realm. She listened with rapt admiration to the stories Cedric told and the lectures that Samantha gave. She climbed up to the chandeliers, dangled from them, and fell, dreaming as she did so of her future.

Of course, as her younger siblings assured her, she had none. There were only twelve avatars, save the thirteenth which is Death.

Her future was drab.

She would be a royal princess and no more.

Matthew put it to her plainly: “You probably won’t have an avatar,” he said.

And Bertram slyly: “Well, of course, you can have one, if, you know, there’s one left.”

Sarah played quietly with her dolls. She did not meet Doreen’s eyes.

Doreen made this contention every time the matter came to hand: “Surely it is an issue for rational decision. Perhaps someone is the least worthy, or the least injured by the avatar’s lack; or some of us will have measurable natural compatibility with certain avatars, which sum we can then maximize.”

And while she theorized Matthew, age 12, walked down to the avatar pit. Green with the nausea that looking down gave him, he could not jump; but he could lurch forward and, while scrambling to recover his purchase, fall. The rocks cut him terribly, but he bound himself to the avatar of Morning and rose in numinous bloody brilliance from the pit.

Cedric sat down beside Doreen one day and he told her this:

“You must not expect reason to apply.”

She frowned at him.

Cedric’s eyes gleamed in the darkness. He said, “Listen: if there were a unifying principle that guided you all, then reason should apply; then you might set in order those who receive the avatar and those who do not. But you cannot expect this to be so. Each of you has an individual bond to the pit; it is a mystic experience that transcends social expression. No one will bind themselves to a proposal that excludes them; the right they have to the pit is palpable to them. Thus the only matter at hand is this: when you are ready for the pit, will an avatar remain?”

“It is not fair,” she said.

“Scarcity is unfair,” Cedric agreed. “Murder one of your elder siblings; then the matter is in balance.”

Doreen considered. “I had rather be virtuous and good.”

It took her several days to understand that Cedric had meant to encourage her.

There was a niggling seed in Doreen’s heart. It writhed like a worm. It made her sick on some occasions.

One day, as she understood the world, this seed would mature into readiness for the pit. Then she would face the choice: to jump, or not?

But Sarah jumped. And Bertram jumped. All twelve of her siblings jumped.

Before the seed sent forth its shoots and flowered, her siblings claimed the twelve avatars of the pit.

On the day that Bertram jumped Doreen became unimportant to the politics of the realm. Because the royal family wielded great and reckless power, she had no immediate obligation to them; they did not need to sell off their princesses as families in other places do. The path remaining to her was hers to choose: she could live in luxury or find some way to serve the throne. She could become a scholar, a tactician, or a spy; a soldier, a theologian, a baker; a lady who reclines in gardens; or something else as yet unstated.

The seed in her heart flowered.

She went down to stand beside the pit.

“It is problematic,” she said. “If I should jump, it will cause no end of sorrow.”

As has been mentioned, there are only twelve avatars, save the thirteenth, which is Death.

Staring down, she decided that jumping would be selfish; though exactly so selfish, of course, as the decisions of those siblings who had jumped since she was born.

She teetered on the edge.

Then she leapt.

A chill breeze came among her siblings then. Cedric was the first to feel it: his head snapped up. His eyes took fire with rage.

“There is Death,” he said.

And his words were a low rumble that all in the castle heard. In a moment the twelve avatars of the realm took flight and spun in the air above the palace where they dwelt.

“She jumped?” asked Bertram.

His voice was rank with disbelief.

“She can’t have jumped.”

And Mark said, “She should be hung.”

“Torn apart by hounds.”

“Gutted, and left to die.”

“Starved, in wracking pain.”

And the night rang with the thunder of the royal family, and there were dark clouds throughout the realm, and trees grew stunted and black, and the sea boiled, and the morning came bloody and black, and as they waited for Doreen to rise from the pit their cursing grew more vehement and rich with fear; for while each generation of the royal family yields inevitably to the next, they may only truly perish in a time of Death.

The hands of Doreen’s twelve siblings trembled. They formed into claws eager to cut her down.

But Doreen did not return. Not that night, not the next, nor the one after.

In the winter there is snow, and their mother takes ill and dies.

In the summer a man of the island Crete shoots Cedric down with a gun of dragon’s bone.

Bang.

A Comparative Study of Two Fighting Styles

The sky is full of red and orange.

Sid’s standing on the broken freeway under the clouds. His trenchcoat’s blowing back. It’s not clear why he’s there, why anyone would be there—the freeway doesn’t even end, just breaks in half to make a cliff a hundred feet above the ground.

But he’s not alone.

Max is walking up the path. He’s breathing hard. It’s a bit of a climb on foot, but broken freeways aren’t the kind that you take a car on.

(That’s not a poetic exaggeration, either. Sally took a car on this freeway, a few years back. It was a mistake. The car’s dead now, broken, down at the bottom of the cliff. It’s cold and crumpled and it’s got a shell-less hermit crab in it. The crab is trying very hard to illustrate the concept of hubris.)

“Hey, Max,” says Sid, as Max gets closer.

“Hey, Sid.”

Max looks around. He takes a breath of the evening air.

“Just us?”

“Yeah.”

“You shouldn’t be here,” Max says.

“I went away for six years,” says Sid. “I studied business administration.”

“Oh?”

Sid centers himself. He masters the reckless Chi that flows through him. His mind calms and his consciousness unfolds like a lotus. This is the Chi Gung Business Administration enlightenment.

“I can handle it,” Sid says.

“It’s the apocalypse, Sid,” Max says. “It’s the four bloody riders. You won’t be able to get rid of them by redefining your business objectives.”

Sid considers his business objectives.

“I won’t have to,” he says.

Max looks at him. It’s kind of a pained look, half-sad, half-laughing. “It’s your own business,” he says.

“That it is.”

The riders are coming now. They’re on their horses and their horses are running through the sky. The riders are bringing suffering and torment and the end of things, dragging it down behind them from somewhere beyond the red-orange clouds, pulling it down towards the broken highway and the Earth.

They ride not towards the whole end but towards the broken one. The horses’ hooves will not touch asphalt but rather pass inches beyond its ragged edge; and by no coincidence. It is the premonition of those hoofbeats, the fluttering stomach-twisting awareness of their coming, that broke that arching structure down.

Max turns to face the horsemen of the apocalypse.

He draws his gun.

“You could at least stand back,” Max says.

The wind is blowing hard now.

“I’d fall,” Sid says.

“Not that far back.”

Sid shrugs.

Max sights carefully. He misses with his first shot. He misses with his second. Now he’s sweating. He grits his teeth. His hand is not trembling, but everywhere else his muscles are.

He fires a third shot. It is as if thunder has struck the rider on the white horse; his neck jerks back, his head blossoms red and black, and he falls limply sideways in his saddle. The white horse slows only marginally in its run.

“Good,” Sid says.

Max moves his hand. He fires. The rider on the red horse stares down in disbelief at the redness of his chest. His sword and reins fall from his hands. He clutches his wound. Slowly the life passes from him.

“My business administration,” Sid says, “could not do better.”

“Heh,” says Max.

He points his gun towards the rider on the black horse. He fires. There is a voice that rises in and around them, saying: “The slaves are restless.”

But the rider is not wounded; the rider does not fall.

“Hell,” says Max.

His face grows fiercer. He steadies his hand. He fires again. The rider on the black horse has half a face; he stares at Max with gallows intensity, his jaw dangling to the right, for three long seconds. Then, as Max frantically reloads, he falls.

Max is too late. He has wasted too many bullets. The fourth rider is upon them.

“I am Death,” says the pale horse’s rider.

“Sid,” says Sid, with the most abbreviated of bows.

The hoofbeats are louder than a neighbor’s music in the air.

Sid’s hands move left, right, left, in the style of his teacher. He is like air. He is like water. As the rider thunders past, Sid seizes him by the arm. Death commits an error; he pulls his arm inwards, and Sid is moving, in the air, his feet bracing momentarily against the horse’s head, his body coiled, as he drags Death around in the direction of that motion; and spectacularly, terribly, Death twists off his horse, one bony knee snapping, and his head and Sid come down horribly against the broken road.

Sid flails as he falls. He catches hold of the road with one hand.

Death comes, through the sun roof, to the hermit crab below.

Sid dangles.

“That’s not business administration,” Max says, looking down. “That’s martial arts.”

“Is so.”

“Is not.”

“It’s a revolutionary approach to maximizing a company’s revenue stream,” Sid recites, “inspired by traditional Oriental philosophy.”

Max holsters his gun. He spits, off to the side.

“I see,” Max says.

“If you syncretically fuse the commonly understood notions of profit and loss,” Sid says, “you can see beyond them into the true nature of things—the eternal Dao from which all revenue springs. This is the strategy of Chi Gung Business Administration.”

There’s a silence for a bit. Sid tries to reach the road with his other hand.

“You gonna ask for help?”

But Sid doesn’t answer. He just strains.

So slowly,

Shaking his head,

Max walks away.

An Unclean Legacy: “The Marvelous Fingerbone”

The Lady Yseult Gargamel was pregnant with her second child.

Gargamel caressed her stomach with his long thin fingers. “Witness,” he cackled, “the terrifying power of my little gold men.”

Yseult rested her fingers on her forehead for a moment.

“Dear,” she said, carefully. “The power of your magic is beyond compare but it is not, in this case, responsible for my condition.”

“Eh?”

Yseult walked to the window. The birds were singing outside. She held out her hand, and two strikingly-colored robins spiraled around her arm.

“It is like this,” said Yseult. “These birds—they love one another. The life in them surges up. It cries to the world: let there be more life!”

Gargamel squinted at the birds. He went to the dresser. He picked up his spyglass. He looked from one bird to another.

“I see,” he said, dubiously.

Yseult took two steps back into the room. Butterflies swirled in through the window and spun in the air around her.

“Or these butterflies,” she said, as the prelude to a longer speech.

“They’re from my butterfly tree,” observed Gargamel proudly.

Yseult hesitated. In the garden, the ten thousand wings of the butterfly tree folded, unfolded, and fluttered.

“Or . . . some other butterflies,” she said, losing her momentum. “From . . . other places.”

“Eh?”

Yseult was blushing full on now, but still the Lady was bold.

She took the hands of Montechristien Gargamel. She looked into his eyes, and as always, the breath left him and he felt like he was floating on the sky.

“It is not the magic in us, my love,” she said. “It is the love. It is the life. It has roused itself to desire further expression. It has woven together the truth of me and the truth of you to make a child who is both of us. In this fashion though we are frail and will die, that principle of life within us will go on, driving forward and on through all the endless years.”

“And this,” said Gargamel, raptly, “is what my little gold men have done.”

Yseult, with a heroic effort unremarked upon in the sagas, suppressed an innuendo.

“It’s because of that night when we flew together, love,” she said.

Gargamel squinched up one eye. He stared at her suspiciously.

“That?” he said. “Not the magic?”

“That,” Yseult confirmed. “Not the magic.”

Gargamel gulped once.

His mind went awhirl. But then he straightened, just a little bit. He found acceptance.

Gargamel caressed his wife’s stomach with his long, thin fingers. “Witness,” he cackled, “the terrifying power of life!”

“Ha ha!” laughed Yseult.

“Ha! Ha ha ha!” laughed Gargamel.

“Ha ha ha!”

Thunder boomed in their sunlit garden, and the laughter of Yseult and Montechristien Gargamel rang out through the forest and the sky.

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the tenth installment of the story of that time.

It is not long before the night of fear.

Francescu is nine.

He stands before his father in the cracked courtyard of Castle Gargamel. There are flowers growing through the stones around his feet.

He’d asked his father why people die.

So Gargamel had dragged him out.

Gargamel says, distantly, “People die when they’re done.”

“Huh?”

There is a death’s-head butterfly swirling lazily through the courtyard. It has colorful wings and the face of death on its back, which it uses to discourage predators.

Gargamel gestures in the butterfly’s direction. “That. It’s pretty, yes?”

“Yes,” Francescu nods.

Gargamel’s bony finger points at it. The butterfly explodes, precipitating a somewhat ironic afterlife scene to which we are not witness.

“It’s no longer useful,” Gargamel says.

Francescu recoils.

“There’s a purpose for all of us,” Gargamel says. His body language is ungainly, uncomfortable. “When it’s done, we’re done.”

“But how do we know?” Francescu asks.

“For this,” says Gargamel, “your mother and I planted timing flowers. Hers are dead; mine still remain.”

Francescu looks down at the flowers in the courtyard.

“What, under the stones?”

“My gardening practices are not so rigorous as Yseult’s,” Gargamel concedes. “Still, they have sufficiently broken the stones to see the sun, so all is well. Now, we’ll use them to measure how much purpose you’ve got left.”

“—Okay.”

The flowers around Francescu begin to grow.

“See?” Gargamel says, as they rise. “That’s the surging purpose of your life. That’s what you’re for, son.”

The flowers are still rising.

“And when they stop—” Gargamel says. He waits for them to stop.

The flowers continue rising.

Gargamel backs up. He starts over. “They’re measuring how long there is before life is done with you,” he explains. “It’s different for every person. And when they stop—”

The flowers continue rising. They are all around Francescu now. He can barely breathe through the flower stalks. He begins to flail.

Gargamel looks irritable. He stomps his foot. He unleashes magic. The flowers, driven by his will, cease to grow.

“When they stop, you’re done,” Gargamel concludes.

Francescu flails his way out of the prison of green. He kneels on the ground, catching his breath. He’s mildly allergic to timing flowers, so this is hard.

It is there, with his face low to the ground, that he sees the flowers at Gargamel’s feet, and notes without understanding that they are withered, black, and dead.

An Unclean Legacy


The Marvelous Fingerbone

Francescu is ten.

He is rubbing the little finger in his left hand. He is squeezing it, holding it, getting to know it, because he intends to cut it off.

“Life is magic,” he says.

“Hm, hm,” agrees Francescu’s angel.

“It’s this . . . thing,” he says. “It’s bigger than me, and brighter, and there’s nothing that’s standing between it and the dark.”

“Hm,” says Francescu’s angel, more skeptically.

“I’m going to put it in my fingerbone,” Francescu says, “and cut it off. It’ll be the most magical, wonderful, marvelous fingerbone ever.”

The angel visualizes a really shiny fingerbone. It sighs happily. “Mm, hm,” it says.

Then it pauses. It parses.

“Um—”

Will Tomas break the fingerbone?

How valuable is a life?

Tune in on Monday for the Unclean Legacy adventure: “Tomas vs. Francescu: Fight!”

Who Dwells in Timeless Tsu-Leng

Dev’s dreams burst apart in a rain of black and red shards that dwindle as they fly from him into tiny dream-burrs that scatter across his bedspread and melt away.

Dev wakes up. His eyes open. “Aha!” he declares.

Dev rolls from his bed, great fluffy mounds of bedspread falling in his wake. He tumbles across the carpet. He lands kneeling beside his alarm clock. He watches. He waits, with his hand held high.

There’s a little cat face on the clock. It looks nervously at Dev. The numbers count from 7:59:55 all the way to 8.

The alarm clock attempts to beep. But it doesn’t make it!

Bee–

That’s when Dev hits the snooze button.

“Take that, tofo,” says Dev. “SNOOZE.”

Tofo is Dev slang. It means “time fucker,” a crude allegation that the clock has carnal relationships with time. Depending on how one defines carnality this is either transparently true or patently false, so the clock doesn’t mind.

Then, more politely, Dev pushes the regular ‘off’ button and wanders over to his dresser.

Dev wears black, of course. He wears seven kinds. His shirt is the black that’s inside Cheerios at night. It’s the delicious hollow void eating at the heart of every healthy breakfast. His jacket is the black of that space at the back of his closet where the old toys go—the ones from all the ancient dreaming eras of before. He can button his jacket himself! So he does.

Dev’s pants are jeans. They aren’t black. But his socks are the black of the rust scraped from all the musical notes he can’t sing. And there’s also the black of his shoes and his three black buttons, all of which would say completely different things if you could read them, which you can’t, because the background and the writing are the same color.

Dev taps one button. If you could read it, it would say, “Smile!”

Dev says, “You know it!”

Then he’s out of his room, his feet sinking into the berber carpet, and he’s heading down the great circular stairs.

“Mom!” he yells, like he does every morning. “Shut off the heavy metal!”

His Mom Ceph is at the breakfast table. She’s wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. There is dirt on her knuckles and her hair is tied back. She is eating cereal and listening to death metal.

Ceph shakes her head sadly. The music fades into softness, then silence.

“Thanks!” says Dev.

He plops down in a seat.

“You don’t like Hatebeak?” she asks.

He ducks her appraising glance.

“Oh, man!” says Dev. “How can anyone not like Hatebeak? But you know how it is. If I listen to too much heavy metal, I’ll shoot everyone at my school again.”

Dev pours milk onto his cereal.

His cereal goes, Snap! Crackle! Pop!

Dev stares at it admiringly.

“There could be a band,” Dev says. “Expressing this cereal’s rage against the world. You could call it Deathpop.”

Ceph says, “Cereal doesn’t know rage, dear.”

“Everything’s raging,” says Dev. “If you know how to listen. Even flannel!”

In the back of Dev’s closet there’s a flannel shirt. He doesn’t like to wear it. Not after it got all the blood on it. So it just moves back, further back, every time he gets new clothes. Soon it’ll fall into the void. That’s the nihilism at the heart of flannel music.

Dev munches on his cereal.

“I picked up that video game you wanted, dear.”

“Yes!” says Dev. He pumps his fists. “I hear it lets you stalk and kill important people from the video game industry!”

Ceph looks at him appraisingly. He can see himself in her eyes. He can see that she’s reading his buttons and seeing his cheerfulness and loving him. He can tell that she’s counting off the hours until everything’s covered in blood.

Dev blushes. He looks down.

“You know how it is,” he says.

And Ceph says, “Walk with grace.”

Dev quickly scoops the last of his cereal into his mouth. He goes to the game console. He peeks at the package. He doesn’t want to be late for school, but he’s got time to try it, and it’s probably his last chance until tomorrow.

He opens the package. He ignores the rulebook and its brightly colored pictures of anime video game industry figures. He puts the CD in the PS3 and whirls it up to life.

“I hope the tutorial isn’t too dumb,” he says.

As he plays a cold wind rises.

Dev looks up. He brightens. He smiles brilliantly. Because over by the counter, next to the glass bowls filled with candy and fish and the table stacked with papers and ornaments, there’s Mikey.

Mikey’s all over blood, but Dev doesn’t mind. He springs up.

“Mikey!” he says.

He hugs Mikey fiercely, getting dried blood on his black.

“I thought we’d walk to school today,” says Mikey.

“Dude, you’re dead.”

Mikey looks uncomfortable, like he usually does when Dev brings this up. “I have lots of unfinished business,” he says. “Like, going to college. Getting a car. Kissing a girl.”

Dev looks Mikey up and down.

“Good luck with that,” he says, skeptically.

“There are goths,” Mikey protests.

Dev shakes his head sadly. Then he brightens. “Hey, it’s good that you keep trying, man. Where’ve you been, anyway?”

Mikey shrugs. “Here and there. Out and about.”

Dev studies him piercingly.

Mikey’s voice is too pleased. There’s something he’s not saying yet.

Mikey finally laughs and admits, “Disneyhell.”

“You dog!” says Dev. Dev hits Mikey on the arm. It makes a kind of hollow thumping sound.

“Um,” says Mikey. He looks at the clock.

Dev sighs. He nods. He clicks off the television and puts the controller down.

“Okay,” Dev agrees. “Let’s walk!”

The trees cast shifting shadows on the street. There are very few cars here, but occasionally one of the tempoi cycles past.

“Stop!” says Dev, pointing at the stop sign.

They stop.

Mikey looks both ways. Dev looks both ways. Then they walk across the street.

“Yield!” says Dev.

Nobody actually yields. Those signs are pointless.

“Are you going to kill everyone at the school today?” Mikey asks.

“It’s my myth cycle, dude. I kill everyone every day.”

Dev puts one hand on his hip. He extends his other fist to the sky. “For I am Dev, the shadow of rage, the faceless god of murder and music who dwells in timeless Tsu-Leng!”

A distant bass solo backs up Dev’s words, and he giggles.

“How do you stand it?” Mikey says.

Dev thinks about this.

“I only care about the changing parts,” he says. “Like, today? I didn’t have cheerios. I had krispies. The k makes them hard core. And last week?”

“Yeah?”

“I met you.”

“Huh,” says Mikey. “Yeah, I guess that was lucky.”

The school is deep thick granite, and its windows they are jeweled. The scent of cinnamon drifts in on a westward wind, and there are plants of heavy green draping down the school.

“Today,” confides Dev, “I’m hoping to learn geometry.

(History: Boedromion 15) Round Man vs. Manners

This is a history of Round Man.

It is the beginning. There is no before. If there is something that precedes the beginning, Round Man does not know of it.

Round Man cannot know of it.

The before that is forgotten is indistinguishable from the before that was not there.

Round Man’s world begins with chaos. It is the chaos that dwells outside the light cone of his world. His world emerges from that chaos and he is alive.

His life is full of trouble.

Here is why Round Man’s life is full of trouble. He is married to Chaos Woman. She is always telling him things.

Like, “Don’t eat that! That’s your child!”

Or “Stop cohabiting with dead things like that.”

Or “Please don’t bother me when I’m turning into a wolf. It is already very difficult.”

(Which it is.)

This kind of thing always embarrasses Round Man. He feels strange because Chaos Woman knows him. She knows the truth about his failings and also about his virtues. This makes him acutely self-aware.

Self-awareness is awkward. So you can see why Chaos Woman is no end of trouble.

Round Man has a dog.

The dog barks. The dog wags its tail happily. Then one day a person breaks the dog by hitting it with a spear.

“No!” says Round Man.

The dog makes a whining noise. It wriggles unhappily. It is dead.

“I will fix you,” says Round Man.

Round Man operates on the dog.

“I will give you lasers,” says Round Man. “But you must promise not to use them unless it is important.”

So Round Man gives the dog lasers and brings it back to life. It’s just like the opening credits of the six million dollar man!

That’s why dogs have lasers but hardly ever use them.

One day Round Man is walking with his dog. He is chewing on a piece of someone. He has an insight.

“This person does not taste right. This is not a person for eating!”

He looks around.

In every direction he can see people who are not being used in the proper fashion. There are skilled hunters who are living in the fields eating grass. There are inventive geniuses relaying sunlight from place to place by hand. There are cows lording it over people from their blood-drenched thrones.

So Round Man says, “Let things happen in a fashion that is more appropriate.”

Now hunters hunt. Geniuses think. Cows go, “Moo!”

So Round Man is very pleased. He thinks Chaos Woman will be pleased too.

But his dog is looking at him.

His dog isn’t pleased.

It is whining again. It is looking terribly betrayed.

“Huh?” says Round Man.

The dog leaves him. It goes to a bleak and distant land.

Sometimes it’s okay to rebuild a dead dog with cybernetic parts. Sometimes it’s not. But it’s never appropriate for the dead to stay with the living.

You can even ask Ann Landers!

She’ll tell you the same thing!

Celebration of the Seals

The first of the seven seals opens. The voice of the four living creatures cries out, “Come!”

Then there is a man on a white horse. Then he is caparisoned with a crown. Then he rides forth, a conqueror bent on conquest.

From the Earth rises a hologram. The hologram depicts the great diva, Shelley.

Shelley is dressed in a sailor suit, and she sings:

Fall on me! Love’s an avalanche.
Crumbling rocks like a bolt for my heart!
Fall on me! Love’s a hurricane
Total apocalypse is claiming my heart!

The conqueror pauses. He is the first of the horsemen of the end times, the sign of wrath unleashed upon the world. Yet even he hesitates before this song.

The Lamb dexterously removes the second seal. The voice of the four living creatures cries out, “Come!”

Then there is a man on a red horse.

“You shall have the power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay one another,” say the four creatures. “Take this sword. Defeat the people of Earth!”

Yet there is Shelley, and she is singing:

Why is it always murder today?
Can’t you wait a little longer
Until we’ve had our play . . . honey . . .
I get uncertain, hide my face from the throne
But can’t you see that my heart’s racing
Can’t you see that I’d like to atone?

Baby
FALL ON ME! Love’s a disaster movie
Towers burning
Red horse riding away!
Fall on me! Love’s Revelation is:
Total apocalypse claiming my heart!

Then lightning comes from the eyes of the rider on the red horse, and he opens his mouth and a sword flies out and he says, “Lo! This hologram maketh a joyous noise.”

“She shouteth aloud the J-Pop of salvation,” agrees the man on the white horse. His robes shimmer like the foam of the sea. His hair shines like love’s hurricane.

“Can even such as we attack an Earth that this diva defends?”

The horns of the Lamb burn with the light that is like the glimmers of ice and the third seal breaks. Then the creatures cry, “Come!”

The black horse rides from the deeps of the outer darkness, whence the seal held it. On its back is a rider carrying a pair of scales. Then there is a whispering among the creatures, saying,

A bit of wheat for a day’s wages,
A bit of barley,
A few bananas

The rider on the black horse casts forth great plagues in his displeasure. His horse stomps its foot and there are earthquakes all over the earth. Still Shelley sings:

I want to dance with you
Without leaving our room.
I’m hungry for you
All night alone.

Fall on me! Love is a famine
When I see you it’s like
I’ve had seven lean years!

The fourth seal opens, and there is a pale horse. And its rider is named Death, and he is smiling and his toe is tapping to the music. And the four creatures say, “Death is unleashed upon the Earth.”

Fall on me! Love’s Revelation is:
Total apocalypse claiming my heart!

Then there is a howling in the stars as the song ends and the moon turns black and Death says, “These Earth humans—so short-lived, so bold. Surely we can wait another three thousand years to kill them all.”

But there is a man robed in mist and thunder who says, “It is written that it must end now. Go now and let no mortal singing soothe your savage charge.”

So Death turns his horse and his horse stomps its feet and it tosses its head as he drives it for the Earth. Then there is a great turmoil in the sea and the hologram of a beast rises from it, and it has three crowns on three heads. And one of the heads has the likeness of a cricket, and one of the heads has the likeness of a youth, and one of the heads has the likeness of a large bopper, and there is the seeming on those heads of a fatal wound but this beast still lives, and the beast is singing:

I love you, Peggy Sue.

And the beast is singing:

Bamba bamba
Bamba bamba

And the beast is singing:

Oh baby, you know what I like!

And it is not a mortal singing, and the beast hath music to soothe the savage charge, and Death reins short his horse and there is stillness in the Heavens until the opening of the seventh seal.

This is not what will take place, and this is not what may take place, but this is what must soon take place, if humanity is to survive.

— from the Strategic Operations Plan of the First Human Defensive Ministry, Section 6, Subsection R, recorded 2998 AD

The Old Well

Someone’s in trouble down in the old well!

It’s not so surprising. Timmy’s dead. Timmy’s parents are dead. There’s no one to know.

“All things are transient,” mourns Cold Bone Eddie, looking up towards the sky.

“Even Lassie is dead,” says Morgan Sachlaw.

“She’d rescue us,” says Eddie. “She’d drag us out. But Timmy’s dead, and his parents are dead, and Lassie is dead. It’s the transience of all things. That’s why we’re here.”

“Bloody Hell, Eddie,” says Sharon. “We’re sinking.”

A lot of people are in trouble down in the old well.

Actually.

“I remember when I saw the news,” says Cold Bone Eddie.

“Yeah?”

“Lassie passed away, gently, at the age of 20. 20! That’s like 140 human years. But that’s when I knew that there wasn’t any point any more.”

“Testify,” says Frank Scheclon.

“I knew there wasn’t any point in being good. What’s the use in being good if Lassie’s dead? What’s the use in the straight and narrow if there isn’t a dog to herd you there? So I came up with the perfect crime. I’d steal a million dollars from the bank and hide in the old well until the trouble cleared. But my rope snapped, and anyways, it’s kind of crowded down here.”

“You’re telling me,” says Sharon. “Frank, your foot?”

Frank, reluctantly, moves his foot off of Sharon’s face and contorts his knee so that he can brace it against the wall. It doesn’t help. They’re still sinking.

“You wouldn’t have succeeded, you know,” says Morgan. “I mean, if Lassie were alive.”

“Of course not,” says Eddie.

“I mean, it’s only because she died—”

There’s a bit of a pause.

Frank looks up, his neck crammed at an odd angle, so he can see part of Morgan’s face.

“Mr. Sachlaw?” says Frank. “You got somethin’ to say?”

“Well,” says Morgan, “it’s like this: when Lassie was alive, the bank didn’t really need much of a security system. I mean, why bother? So I got this guy, this contractor I know, to install the system cheap. And I took the kickback from one end and overcharged at the other and I bought a vintage bank security system off of eBay in the middle, and I figured, no problem, if anyone robs this place, Lassie’ll save the day.”

“Wuf!” agrees Sharon.

“But then she died.”

“Word,” says Eddie.

“And when you robbed the place,” says Morgan Sachlaw, “I lost everything.”

“I don’t blame Lassie,” says Eddie. “I blame death. I blame the fact that good things always go away. That’s what happened to us.”

“Not to me,” says Sharon. “I never had good things. That’s why I jumped in here.”

“Never?”

“I’m the ugly kind of girl,” says Sharon. “And I thought—well, I thought, I’d never amount to anything. So I came down to the old well and jumped in.”

“Oh, honey,” says Frank. “Don’t you know that if Lassie were alive, she would have shown you the beautiful special person inside you?”

Sharon sobs.

“Why couldn’t she have been there, then?” says Sharon. “Why don’t I get the magic?”

“She wasn’t magic,” says Cold Bone Eddie. “Just an ordinary dog.”

They sink further.

“Hey, down there?” calls Frank, nervously.

There is a mumbling and a rustling from the hundreds of people on whom they’re standing.

“Why are we sinking? What’s happening? Is there like a mole kingdom eating us from the bottom up? What’s going on?”

There’s a pause. Someone calls up, in a thick deep voice, “We are compressin’. It is the intense pressure down here. It is compahcting us progressively into a new form.”

“Great,” says Frank.

“What’s your story, preacher?” says Eddie.

“I fell.”

“That’s it?”

“I was lost in rapturous contemplation of God,” says Frank Scheclon. “I was marveling at his mysterious ways and not looking down. And suddenly I fell in a well and broke my leg.”

“Well, that was just plain dumb,” says Eddie.

“Thanks,” says Frank. “Thanks a lot.”

They’re sinking a bit faster now.

“Um,” says Morgan.

“Um?” Sharon answers.

“Um, if we’re compacting based on pressure, shouldn’t it, you know, stabilize? I mean, now that no one new has fallen in for a while?”

“. . . huh,” says Eddie. “Any physicists here?”

There’s a silence.

“Hey!” shouts Eddie. “I need a physicist!”

There’s a startled noise from up above. Ellen McCloud rushes up to the edge of the well. “I’m a physicist!” she shouts. “What’s the . . .”

She wobbles at the edge of the well.

“Momentum, have you no shame?” she shouts, indignantly. Then she falls in.

Thump.

“Hello,” says Ellen McCloud, as they sink. “I was just having a picnic out by the old well. What’s gong on?”

“We’re sinking,” says Eddie. “On account of the compression.”

“I’m sorry,” says Ellen, guiltily. “I didn’t mean to fall. It was my old enemy, momentum, at work.”

“It’s okay,” says Eddie. “It was accelerating anyway.”

“I’m afraid,” says Sharon. “I don’t want to die by being crushed into a black hole at the bottom of the old well.”

“Don’t be afraid,” says Ellen. “There’s nowhere near enough mass in this well to create a black hole. Not even a pinpoint singularity!”

“Oh, good.”

Ellen rubs her chin, thoughtfully. “Still, I think I can recognize the hand of Acceleration at work.”

“Are you really a physicist?” Frank asks, suspiciously.

“Oh, yes,” says Ellen. “I just practice physics in a two-fisted manner. But I think at last natural law has come up with a deathtrap I can’t get out of.”

Sharon’s voice is bleak. “What?”

“The more we sink, the faster we sink,” says Ellen. “Pretty soon, we’ll be an undifferentiated mass of incredible density and power.”

She sketches some equations on the wall in chalk. “See?”

“But they don’t add up,” says Eddie, who was going to be a mathematician before Lassie’s death sent him into a life of crime.

“Well, no,” says Ellen. “Equations don’t balance any more. Not without Lassie. She was the hidden variable—the dark matter, as it were, in every law of physics and science. That’s why all the planes have been crashing, you know, and swarms of demon-locusts bursting through the interstices of reality. Also, pickle and corned beef sandwiches don’t taste good any more.”

“I’d eat one,” says Sharon. “Anyway. Right now.”

Ellen looks sad, in part because her equations are now far above her.

“I left them up above,” she says.

“I can feel strange matter around my toes,” whimpers Sharon.

“It’s the impending critical mass,” says Ellen.

“God:” prays Eddie, “I know I said you were dead to me, I mean, what with Lassie being dead and all, but, you know, if you were to resurrect Timmy’s rotting corpse and send him here with a rope, I sure would be inclined to change directions in my life.”

“That’s not what God does,” says Frank. “He moves mysteriously. . . . Sharon?”

There is only a bubbling scream.

“Mind,” says Frank, “If God wants to do it, I mean, for Eddie, for love of humanity, I mean, maybe Jesus could slip it under God’s radar.”

“If he loved us,” says Morgan, “I’d still have a job and a Porsche.”

“It’s very hot,” says Frank.

“And dense,” says Ellen.

“And strange,” says Eddie.

The substance in the well reaches its critical mass, and with one last scream, the transformation begins.

Night falls.

Day dawns.

Night falls again.

A dog wriggles up out of the well. It is a Collie. It is clean and young and new, and its fur still glistens with the ichor of those whose compression created it.

“Bark!” barks the dog. “Bark!”

The dog runs around. The dog dashes across the field.

The sun rises.

It will be a long and beautiful day.

(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.