The Last Unspoken Words

It endures in timeless endings.

Something in it remembers its time of flesh and motion. It has no theory of this time. It has no process to cognize with. It does not relive its memories in temporal order or experience generalized nostalgia. It is simply imprinted on its lifeless form that once it lived.

It experiences the slow decay of its moment of ending.

Then a creature of bony legs and fingers kneels down beside it and touches it through the skull and into the brain.

“Wake,” the creature says.

A hunger stirs. It arises from every part of the dead thing’s body and suffuses through its returning consciousness.

The dead thing hungers for the warmth of the living.

“I am death,” speaks the bony creature.

The dead thing does not understand.

It only knows a few words; its name, perhaps, if it were to be reminded. Treat. It knows the word “treat.” And also “bacon.”

“I am death,” the bony creature says, “or at least, a kind of death. I have made a bargain with a man you knew—”

And here a familiar scent drifts across the dead thing’s nose.

It is of pack.

Reflexive loyalty bursts through the creature’s consciousness; but even fiercer than the loyalty there is the hunger, for the scent is the scent of the living, of something warm and not dead, not moldering in the ground, not endlessly lifelessly alone.

“And,” the bony creature says, “he has broken it. He has not returned to me at the stated hour, but rather woven defenses and incantations about himself. So wake you and hunt you for his warmth and let us see if this man comes around.”

The bony thing departs.

The dog is hungry.

Its fur is matted with blood and dirt. And it realizes—perhaps—that it cannot have been dead as long as it imagined, for there is still more than 95% of its livingness with it. It is closer to the meat than to the bone.

It is buried, though, deep in the dirt.

Its master’s warmth is up; up, up, up, and in that direction, so says the path of scent.

The dog begins to dig.

It itches briefly. It wriggles its head and would snap, if it could, at the source of the itch. But it is buried and still its motion is much impeded by the ground; and further, the fleas that bothered it are dead.

It knows this through some preternatural sense possessed by a risen canine.

They are dead. They are cold. They are only giving the dog the memory of an itch, the memory of a bite, where they linger in the shrouds of its fur clung tight against its flesh.

It is unjust.

The dog pauses for a moment in the course of its dig.

It did not think very well when it was a living dog, and it thinks less well now. But still, it thinks, this is unjust.

So the dog whispers to the fleas the secret of awakening, the words that wake the dead, and one by one they shake off the long and endless sleep and flex their legs.

“Ow,” mutters the dog: “Ow-wow.”

For the fleas had but to live before they bit.

There is a stillness in the grave and then, apologetically, one flea says, “That was a bit of ingratitude, I suppose.”

The dog grumbles, deep its dead throat.

“It is because we’re fleas,” says another flea.

The dog does not deign this with an answer. It only resumes its long slow clawing towards the surface of the ground.

“But we are grateful,” says the first flea. “We—”

Something strange happens to the flea’s voice at that point. The dog does not understand it. It is something raw and emotional but in the dialect of fleas; and while dogs may understand when a flea apologizes or speaks of bacon, they do not have all the nuances of the tongue.

“We are grateful,” the flea repeats.

It would be better, thinks the dog, after a fashion, if you would help me dig, than itch such words.

It breaks the ground. It rises.

It shakes itself and gets its grave-dirt all across the yard.

The scent is very strong now.

It shambles to the door.

“A dog shouldn’t kill its master,” opines a flea. “Not even when dead.”

“All part of the cycle of life,” another flea protests.

The theories of the fleas do not involve the dog’s name, nor “treat,” nor “bacon,” so the dog ignores them.

It scratches at the door.

Time passes.

It scratches at the door again.

Now there is something happening inside the house. Now there is a light—

“Aha!” exclaims a flea.

—and a sleepy shuffling, and the face of a beloved creature at the window by the door.

It is John!

The dog’s tail thumps, rotten, and it thinks: It is John! It is John! He is warm with the warmth of the living! I am so hungry for him, John!

John’s face goes pale. He makes a strangled sound. He backs away.

The dog scratches at the door again.

“He isn’t going to open it, guv,” observes a flea.

The dog stiffens his legs in protest.

“He’s just not. Look, he’s nailing the door shut.”

The noise that John is making is atypical for John. This frustrates the dog. John is not letting it in, and he is warm and living, and he is doing something interesting but not allowing the dog to participate.

Experimentally, the dog pushes against the door.

There is a creaking of wood and an explosive, terrified yell from John.

The dog panics.

Its claws tear through the wood. The hunger and the fear and the concern meld into one. It is ripping the entrance to the house apart.

And there is Gloria, the sound of Gloria, coming up to John, crying, “What is it, Daddy? Daddy?”

Fear reeks from John. It washes out from him. The door comes down:

“Take me,” John cries to the air. “Oh God. Oh God. You win!”

And he is down on his knees before the dog, sprawled with his hands out, and it would be the most natural thing in all the world to leap into his arms and wriggle with great joy and devour the flesh and warmth of the living—

Though is that good?

Is it good to eat one’s master’s warmth?—

But the war of instincts in the heart of the risen dog does not play out.

Its life instead deflates. Its brain and heart go still. It skids, dead again, across the floorboards and sprawls lifeless in front of John.

For death is here.

“No further protest, John?” speaks the bony death. “No more to run from me, no more to hide from me, no more the rituals and wards to keep me out?”

John speaks but his words are held in time and they do not register on the lifeless dog.

“Then,” says death, “you shall come with me, and be my dog, as this was yours; and we shall speak no more of breaking bargains.”

But John stops, as he goes out with death, and he kneels beside the dog, and he is cold as the dog is cold, and lifeless as the dog is lifeless, and he kisses its head with icy lips and whispers that the dog is good.

And then he moves away, and Gloria cries out, over and over again, in the empty house without her father and the cold corpse of the dog.

But that is not the story’s end.

For after a second long timelessness the dog finds a strange cold wakening; and it realizes that there is a flea deep in its heart, tunneled through the flesh, irritating it to motion; and another, with a mad scientist’s detachment, operating the levers and the ganglia of its brain.

“It woke me,” says the dog. “It woke me, but I was not warm.”

“You were never to have the warmth of the living,” whispers the flea inside its brain. “It used you and then discarded you, all to terrify a man.”

“So let there be revenge,” whispers the flea inside its heart, and irritates the dog’s heart’s lining with a cold red rage.

But the dog discards these thoughts.

I will find Gloria, it thinks.

A wave of hunger washes through it. It swallows the hunger. It drives it down into the deep cold emptiness of death and lets it pass away.

I will find Gloria, it thinks. And I will not eat her, if she is alive. I will make sure she is all right. And then I will find John.

These thoughts are horrifying to the flea that operates the levers of its brain.

It is as if the flea has woken some alien creature that it cannot control; as if the mastery of the substance of the brain gave no deep insight into its soul; or at least as if the process that it sought to wake was too complicated for the composition of a flea.

“It’s thinking weird doggy thoughts,” it cries out, to its brethren in the dog’s dead flesh. “I don’t know what it will do!”

There is a hum of consternation.

“Should I let it stop? Should I stop?”

But there is no flea so brave in its moral cowardice as to cry out, “Yes.”

And so the flea in the brain, and all the other fleas, surrender to the avalanche; concede to fate to ride the vehicle of the dog’s heart and brain and not control them; and juggle desperately the tools they have to keep the dog awakened as it moves in a direction they neither anticipate nor understand.

It shambles to the far corner of the farthest room in the house, where Gloria cowers, and it thrusts its cold dry nose into her face, and licks her with its rotten tongue; and it does not take the warmth from her save that which radiates as first she strives to push the dog away and finally, crying, to wrap it in her arms and whisper, “Daddy, daddy,” and “Hank, hank, dead hank,” which features the dog’s name.

The dog pushes her back and turns away.

Its body chills as it separates from her. It feels again the emptiness of death. But like so many it died with things unsaid, thoughts unspoken, a last breath lingering in its lungs.

So it howls.

The dog howls to wake the dead.

And in that howl is loneliness and emptiness and the great gap in its life where John should be; and also

there are

the words that wake the dead. The secret that is life. The thing that makes old rotten bones and new-wrecked flesh and even, on some level, the still-living, to move.

And hearing that cry, afraid of what it means, bony death comes to the door.

The dog anticipated this.

It had always known that death, if thwarted once, would soon return.

It meets death at the shattered door and stands on the threshold of the house and growls deep within its throat.

The bony death speaks words that are not “bacon.”

“I will quicken your understanding,” says the flea inside its brain.

It is difficult to modify a brain while keeping it alive; difficult to expand a consciousness while also you are sustaining it; it is a juggling act, and fortunate it is and more that fleas have each six legs.

“Foolish creature,” spake the bony death. “Have I not indicated I am done with you?”

The dog advances, stiff-legged.

Bony death sweeps its arm and strikes at the dog. The wind rising from that blow makes the house to shudder and Gloria to scream. The dog smashes back through a wall and through a cupboard, causing cans of peas and corn to fall around its broken form.

But the dead feel little pain.

It rises and it shakes itself. It walks forward once again.

The bony death makes a hollow under the house; the floor begins to sink and sift away, and the dog finds itself scrambling.

A dead woman’s hand rises from the earth to grip at the ankles of the bony death.

The kitchen is caving in around the dog. Its hip is struck by the sink and one leg fails. It is howling. But neither is the bony death in a state of weal.

It is a moment, a single sweep of a horrid scythe, to shatter the hand that grips it; but there is not just one last dead person in the world.

The howl of the dog has woken more than one.

It has risen all.

And so as death turns to look behind him he sees a great seething of the earth; a thousand hands, but more than hands, the very particulate essence of the world, rising to defend—

Well, something.

For it is not clear to him—to bony death—whether they seek to save the dog that he confronts or to enact a flea’s bleak sense of justice. He does not know as the wave of cresting death rises whether there is any path for him that does not end in silence.

“John,” he says.

A twisted thing is in his shadow. It smells of John. But its limbs are long and backwards bent and its body is dead and its eyes are full of madness.

“John,” says the bony death, “bring an ending to this creature.”

Then it turns, and leaps to the roof of the house, and bounds up towards the sky, to leave the scene that just might end in justice far behind.

The world ends to the east; it falls away, gaping with the graves empty of dead; and from the west a wave of hungry cold arises, cresting above the house and crashing down as the dog scrambles with its three legs to pull free.

A flea kicks hard on the lever of an instinct as the bony death leaps past and the kitchen sink slips free of its mooring to fall past the dog into the earth.

The roof is open.

There is a flash of bone beneath the dank gray robes of bony death, and the dog twists and leaps for it.

His teeth gnash hard and crunch into the marrow of the leg of bony death.

Like a spider John seizes the dog with his great long limbs and snaps at him with maddened jaws.

Caught in the wave, the house cants sideways and falls—slides—pours, crumbling, eastwards towards the great hollow there.

And all things would have ended there, save for this:

Though twisted and broken, still the servant of death was John; and when he flailed at the dog the dog understood that somehow he’d been bad.

It terrified the dog—

This strange and twisted beast that somehow was its master—

But if it was angry, then something must be wrong.

So the dog released his grip on bony death, and instead he whined, and whispered to John the secret that was life.

It woke John not for John was broken.

It woke John not for he’d given himself to death of his own will, and made it thus an extension of his life—

But it made a change in him, and with his great long limbs, still gripping the dead dog, he scrambled up the floor of the falling house, and seized Gloria, and threw them both away to tumble across the loam as the world caved in on bony death, and John.

So the dog and Gloria survived; or, well, escaped at least, and huddled close together on the remnant earth.

And slowly the dog cooled as the fleas did let it go, the last dead thing in a world woken all to life, and Gloria gripped it and shook it and offered it her warmth, which it had no way to hold but loved.

The Devil and His Daughter

When the Devil showed up to troll Tanith’s blog, he hadn’t planned to read it.

It was his goal to speak his point, succinctly, and block it in with obstacles to dispute. He said,

“Everybody knows if you sell your soul
You’ll be loaded down with treasure.
Just what kind of wickedness is in your heart
You don’t want a life of pleasure?

“A man’s got to live and a dog’s got to die,
When you’re scrounging in the gutter
It makes Jesus cry
So take care of yourself and
Sell your soul for treasure.”

The Devil knew, when he wrote that down, that even if she left it someone else would take a swing. And he knew that that’s what matters—getting people thinking about whether or not to sell their souls.

He got two birds with one stone, too.

The more people talk about the Devil, after all, the less they talk about Tanith.

And it would have stayed that way, too, if the Devil hadn’t gotten bored one night.

He doesn’t have to read replies.

He’s the Devil.

But one night, you see, he got bored. And he went back to Tanith’s blog to see what people had said.

Now it’s the oldest lie that the Devil does tell that your words can reach him down in his Hell, but he’d forgotten that one of Tanith’s regular readers was his daughter.

And she said, “I’ve gone Red,
I’m a Commie now,
Just call me Comrade Mara
And tell me how
You can sell your soul
Without controlling the means of production?”

The Devil got mad, and a little bit sad, and he regretted not insisting on homeschooling his daughter. Nevertheless he made a game effort to reply.

“lol …” he said. “I’d just requisition it from the Party.”

Now, you might think that other readers would hesitate to jump in on a conversation between the Devil and a communist, but only if you’ve never read a blog.

There was Margot with the telling point: “Yeah, and wait in line for seventy years only to find out that all the souls were shipped to a different afterlife.”

And Steve and Ginger, who hashed out in a twenty-post thread that the communists, being atheist, had probably never formally regulated the soul.

And after a while, Mara herself, who inaccurately characterized his argument as “ad hominem.”

So the Devil tried again, a bit more formally now. He said:

“You can say what you will, but it’s a human right,
Unarbitrated by the law
To give up what you’ve got when it’s Devil-sought
In exchange for wealth and pleasure.

“Innate to the body, innate to the soul,
It’s always been that way
And I’m not a troll.
Don’t tell me you don’t know
That it’s right to hunt for treasure.”

And the argument went on long into the night. People mostly took the Devil’s side, for a couple of reasons. First, they thought it was kind of daring and counterculture to do so. They’d never sell their soul themselves, but they liked to think that other people should. Second, Mara was a communist demoness, and nobody in America takes communist demonesses seriously. We like our demons to be larger versions of ourselves, here in America. We want our ultimate capitalist democratic Christian devil, more ruthless than our tycoons, more corrupt than our politicians, living his life every day by scripture and by damn having the demons vote on rigged machines to back it up, in America. So a communist demoness is a little bit like a Prohibition demoness or a Nixon apologist demoness.

Not a bit respectable.

We’ll still fight someone like that. But we’re Americans. We can’t very well respect a devil backing a stupid idea.

So, anyway.

Tanith didn’t post much when this happened.

Some of that was a frisson of supernatural awe. It’s not every blogger who gets comments from the Devil. Most bloggers only get comments from the Devil’s payroll, or from those automatic spammers that from time to time he shits.

But most of it was just—

That kind of “what do I say?” sense that can trouble a person, on those nights.

And because she hadn’t said anything, the Devil kept on reading her blog, intermittently, over the next few months.

Sometimes he’d post, and a bunch of the regulars would jump on him. Or sometimes Mara would post, and he’d make sure to bring up her many inadequacies as a person and a demoness.

And one day, Tanith wrote this.

“The word we have for someone who buys the intangible—the traitless, the ill-defined, the ephemeral sensation of satisfaction carried by the inconsistent belief that we have obtained a thing that we cannot define—is ‘fool.’

“I find myself wondering if the Devil hasn’t trapped himself in a pyramid scheme set forth by his Creator.

“I find myself wondering if it’s anything more than a confidence game, this business of buying souls. If it isn’t all backed by the dubious goodwill of the various divine and temporal institutions that have chosen, for the nonce, to pretend that that concept has value—

“A value that is fundamentally unsustainable, a spiritual tulip market, relying on the metricization of our own unquestioned assumptions.

“So I’d like to ask the Devil
If he’s sure it’s on the level
And just what he thinks he’s buying
If the Devil don’t mind.”

Some people say that that actually reached him. Others think he just got distracted by the pressures of being buried in ice at the bottom level of Hell and decided to stick to more generally pro-Devil blogs.

But he didn’t argue, and in the end that killed him.

The Devil can’t live if he doesn’t keep posting.

If you get to make your point—

Even just once!—

He withers away.

So there’s a new Devil now, just like there always is, just the same as the one before him. He’s red and he’s mean. He’s been as cold as ice from the day that his mother bore him.

But there’s one thing changed.

He doesn’t buy souls.

Not this one.

Not any more.

You’re supposed to give this Devil your soul. He doesn’t buy: he asks. You’re supposed to give it to him; and a lot of people do.

Freely, freely, and with brightness; so they say.

The Battle of Christmas

Elaine runs.

The pounding wings of Take Life As It Comes sound like great drums across the wintry plain. The roc’s terrible beak drips with dirt and ice. Its cruel talons tuck up by its sides.

It is dark.

She can barely see.

She weaves around the mound where is buried the Christmas of 1872. She shudders at the blank-orbed wooden gaze of the eidolons of the mound. She throws herself flat, tongue swelling in her mouth with fear, as the bird sweeps past.

Her breath comes in great gasps.

Her clothes are ragged.

She is not far from the forest. It is not far now.

She makes herself stand. She wobbles. She runs. A great wind rises behind her. She is almost there.

The impact of the bird’s foot on her back flows through her and out her chest. She gags as the talons close around.

It is picking her up.

It is dragging her to the sky.

She hammers at its toes with her fists. The bird croaks, a dismal croak like an angry wind. She works one hand down to the sheath at her belt. She draws the knife Laughing-at-Sorrows.

A high wailing shriek comes from her lips.

The blade cuts in. Black blood splashes her. The bird drops her. She falls amidst the trees and lands hard on pine needles and cold dirt.

She cannot breathe.

She is aware only of a whistling urgency rising in her, a chest-accordion sensation as her lungs struggle to remember their nature as her lungs.

She gasps.

The breeze brings a flicker of warmth. Panic pounds loudly in her ears. There is only one warmth in the Forest Next to Christmas, which is the Last Light and the First Light of the Sun; and that which it touches is devoured and is not seen again.

She kicks something. It resolves into her leg.

She staggers up.

Limping, she runs.

Something moves!

The trees before her brush aside. They’re swept from her path like grass bowing in the wind. She catches a glimpse of bone before the head of a great creature rises.

It is the reindeer Looking Forward and Looking Back. Its forward head is as tall as she is. She cannot grasp the immensity of the rest. She remembers its legend: one head’s gaze always fixed forward and welcoming of what comes, one head always looking backwards in acceptance of what has been.

Its head is elegant like a soap sculpture and its eyes are deep.

“A human girl,” says Looking Forward.

“I’d like to meet her,” laughs Looking Back.

It’s a raucous and terrible joke.

Then the reindeer dances upwards and its hooves are coming down on the earth, thump, tump, tamp.

She dives under its feet. She reasons that it cannot see what is beneath it. But it does not need to: its dance is lethal, and once, twice, thrice she is nearly crushed.

For a moment, it is past her.

“There!” roars Looking Back.

And the creature pivots until it faces her and she is crying, stagging, crawling away.

Its foot comes down.

She twists in desperation. She catches hold as it strikes her. She digs her knife into the foot where it joins the hoof and Looking Forward makes a shrill noise with its nose, which spurts with red.

The world wobbles crazily, up and down, up and down.

To the left she catches sight of a thicker stand of trees. Her body is everywhere warm. She lets go and she flies or drifts—to her it is as if she is floating, like a leaf—

And impact and a staggering, dazed scramble into the trees.

“Too slow!” cries Looking Forward, and it plunges its head after her, and its great teeth grasp her shoe; and she drags herself back to sit against a tree and pant as it struggles to push in.

“Too big, reindeer head,” she says, between her gasps.

The creature begins to wriggle backwards. But then it stops.

“Why have you stopped?” asks Looking Forward.

And taut with fear comes the voice of Looking Back: “Behind us is the Last Light of the Sun.”

So Elaine drags herself to her feet and she slips further in to the Forest Next to Christmas, and she does not listen to the piteous screams that rise behind her.

She staggers into Christmas, then.

Great white-beard kettle-belly Father Christmas roars at the head of the Christmas table. He waves his mug with one hand and his axe with the other. When his bleary eyes see her, he says, “What’s this, a human girl?”

And Mr. Make-Do squints down at her with his great big eyes and flutters his damp and pale hands. The Snowman whirls and chills and flurries. Hanging from a tree above the chair of Father Christmas is a mesh sack containing the coals of the Christmas fire.

Elaine bows to Father Christmas and she tries to keep from him the knocking of her knees.

“Don’t you know,” roars Father Christmas, “that this is not for such as you?”

She licks her lips.

She says, “The table of Christmas is not so small as that. Can’t I come in from the storm?”

“Ho, ho, ho,” booms Father Christmas, and his stomach shakes, and winds blow wildly around the world.

“Well, you’ll do that,” he says.

But he thumbs over his shoulder to the Christmas pole. It’s hung with the heads of the human children who’ve died on Christmas Day, with their staring eyes and their warm red hats, and it’s carved with ancient symbols the meaning of which even Father Christmas does not know.

“But tomorrow,” he says, “if your head’s up there, then you can’t blame me!”

So she leaps three times until she catches hold of the crossbeam of a Christmas chair, and she climbs the leg to catch its seat, and she sits there and she drinks the plum brandy until her head is heavy with it; and now and again she dances on the table, flirting with the chestnuts and the crumbs.

She listens to the boasting of great deeds.

Father Christmas says, “I slew the Demon of Despairing Nights, his eyes like raisins and his skin like pudding; through all the night we fought, until the dawn took the skin from him.”

“I made a person from odds and ends,” says Mr. Make-Do. “Nothing but odds and ends.”

“That Prester John!” laughs Father Christmas, remembering. “Ho, ho, ho.”

“I drowned the Moon in bitter cold,” says the Snowman. “Its people could not stand to me!”

And Elaine clears her throat and speaks as loudly as she can, “I wasn’t good all year. Not even once.”

“Not even once?” says Father Christmas. “Ho, ho, ho! Then you’ll get a whipping and a coal!”

His voice chokes off.

He goes paler than Snowman. Even his beard looks grey against the paleness of his skin.

“I’ve had the first,” says Elaine. “So I’ll take the second.”

The Snowman shifts uneasily, and Mr. Make-Do scowls.

Elaine walks, wobbling, down the table. She climbs up to the Christmas fire. She takes a coal. It smokes most terribly in her hands.

Then she drops down to the ground, her leg buckling horribly, and she begins to limp away.

“I’ll let you leave,” says Father Christmas in the stillness.

And Mr. Make-Do nods.

“But you won’t get far,” he says, “and Jack Frost will find you, and I’ll have your head, little human, for my pole.”

“Come take it,” says Elaine.

Now, sooner or later he must’ve, since it’s hanging from his pole; so some people say that that’s his victory. But others say that he never caught her, and Mr. Make-Do must’ve made a head just like hers from odds and ends, scrips and scraps, and hung it from that pole.

It doesn’t seem to anyone like it’s very likely that she just up and died on Christmas.

But she did.

She lived for many years, and then she died. And every day and every night she lived was Christmas, for she’d brought the fire of Christmas to the world.

Ink Unrepeatable (XIII/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

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

There is goodness.

There is badness.

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

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

Seeks to lift them up.

Now he has fallen.

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

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

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

“Oh?” says the girl.

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

The girl picks her way around a stalactite.

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

“So you are evil, then?”

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

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

Which is, in fact, what’s happening—

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

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

“I see.”

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

“It’s okay,” she says.

“It’s okay?”

“Dharma moves.”

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

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

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

says the girl

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

Dr. Sarous looks blankly at her back.

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

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

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

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

“Come free,” Cronos said.

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

Something stirred in Bidge’s mind.

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

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

“‘Come free?'”

And Cronos said:

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

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

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

Cronos stared at him.

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

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

These words fell strangely flat.

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

“That would not do,” said Bidge.

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

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

The girl holds two fingers up, close apart.

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

And after a moment, Cronos understood.

He said, “Those are not teeth.”

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

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

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

But people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

The girl walks along.

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

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

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

“Lovers,” giggles Ink.

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

Which is, in fact, what’s happening—

And then she shakes her head.

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

Dr. Sarous stares at her.

After a moment, Ink shrugs.

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

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

“So don’t scream!”

They walk in silence for a while.

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

“What happened?”

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

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

“Oh,” says the girl.

She reviews the history in her mind.

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

“No,” Dr. Sarous says.

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

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

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

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

“‘It’s not my fault!'”

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

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

There’s a pause.

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

The doctor grins.

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

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

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

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

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

The stickbugs spring.

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

“The Golden Age” – From the Journals of Ink Catherly (XI/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Cronos: Upon his ascension to the throne of the world, an endless time before great Hestia’s birth, Cronos went down to Tartarus and cast open the gates.

He said, “Come out, ye that may.”

Past him in a stream flowed the damned and terrible progeny of the couplings of Uri and the world. Some skulked low and chittered. Some shivered with cold slime. Some screamed foul prophecies as they flew above his head. Lastly there slunk forth the worst of them, a cutty angel, saying, “There is hope.”

They went out into the world and the world took the weight of them.

That was the beginning of Cronos’ reign—the day the horrors went free.

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

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

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

It is incumbent on a man, if he will lapse the leash on monsters, to bear the weight of their actions.

Cronos had unleashed great horrors on the world.

The world did not suffer from them.

Rather, from his place on the throne of the world, the titan held that suffering at bay. He made a plate of stone and set it behind him and upon it he bore the weight of imperfection. Thus when swarmed the namecatcher wasps, they did not cause harm. Thus the staggering crooked heartless men did not bleed out their life into the hollows of their chests. The titan reconciled in himself their dharmas, saying: “Swarm here, wasps, where their names are a burden to them.” Or “Stuff your chests with herbs, and palpate them with palpation bugs, and live and farm thereafter quietly and in peace.” He set the demons against the narcissists. He sent the angels to the bleak.

9512 pesserids before time began, a nymph wandering the roads encountered an ogre.

“Raar,” cried the ogre. “Raar! I am a hideous man-eating ogre.”

“Oh, thank Heaven!” the nymph replied.

“Eh?”

“There is a hideous man,” said the nymph. “There is a hideous man behind me, and I would much rather he were eaten.”

The ogre looked.

In fact there was: a telchine wizard practicing as a highwayman, whose intentions were in no way serene.

The ogre looked back and forth. He reached his decision.

“The telchine has more meat,” he said. “So I’ll eat him!”

“I don’t mind being eaten,” the telchine conceded. “If you’ll spit up my bones afterwards into your pile of gold, that I may be rich for ever.”

In such a fashion, again and again throughout the world, were all conflicts neatly and equitably solved. In such a fashion did the chains of Necessity make all people dance to a perfectly harmonious tune. The weight of effort for pulling all those shifting chains fell to the only creature who was not bound to them: Cronos, titan, lord of all the world.

“It is heavy,” he admitted to Rhea.

It fell to Cronos to reconcile the horrors and the lambs; the killers and the saints; the humans and the gods. He mediated between the perfect and the real.

“It is so very heavy,” Cronos said.

Rhea rubbed his shoulders, but it did not help. She tried to carry her share of it, but she could not: because the chains bound her, she participated in the system of them, and the efforts that she contributed solved out in the equations of it all.

“What would happen,” asked Cronos, “if I let this plate to fall?”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“In all the world,” said Cronos, “only I may stand aside, and shrug aside this weight, and let things happen as they will. And it is heavy. So I wonder: what would happen if I let this plate to fall, and the storm run riot across the world?”

“Then we should live in the Elysian Fields, I suppose, where there is no sorrow, and everything be well forever after for us all.”

I cannot describe the look on Cronos’ face.

It was the look of Santa when he discovered that presents kill; the look of the Gonz, when he dreamed for the first time of Abu Ghraib; the look of Dr. Sarous, at the recognition of his own corruption.

To work so hard—

So very hard—

And to think, for just a moment, that you have done no favors for the world.

  • Tune in FRIDAY for the next exciting history of Ink Catherly:
    THEORIES REGARDING THE BOX!

The Extinguishment of Karma (IV/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

The sea stretches out forever. On its surface the wind chases itself about. Great bulky clouds pile in the sky. To the west the sun burns yellow. Rahu shivers in Sid’s arms, stinking of blood and sweat.

Sid walks into the tower.

He casts about. He finds a room with a light on. He opens its door. In a room of shining wooden floorboards and creaky old chairs Mr. Schiff pushes back his chair and stands.

“What have you there?” says Mr. Schiff.

“Rahu,” says Sid.

“Set him down,” says Mr. Schiff.

The reflections of the ceiling light skitter away as Sid lays Rahu down upon the floor.

Mr. Schiff walks over. He squats beside Rahu. He studies him.

“It is rare,” says the geology teacher, “to see an evil planet skewered by a siggort spike, much less in pristine condition.”

He peels back one of Rahu’s eyelids, causing Rahu’s head to shift and roll a few inches upon the floor.

“He’s a planet?” Sid asks.

“Rahu is the mystery planet that occludes the sun and moon on the occasion of an eclipse,” says Mr. Schiff. “A thing-that-is-known explaining a certain body of evidence.”

He takes a clipping from one of Rahu’s nails and holds it up to the light.

“Naturally obsolete in the Newtonian model,” clarifies Mr. Schiff.

“He might be dying,” says Sid.

“Not this one,” says Mr. Schiff.

Rahu breathes harshly, eyes rolled back, mouth drooling against the floor.

“No?” Sid asks.

“He’s one of the demons who stole into the house of the sun and drank the elixir of immortality.” He looks up at Sid. “You don’t know that story?”

Sid stares at Mr. Schiff blankly.

Sid’s jaw is turning puffy where Rahu broke it.

Mr. Schiff pats Rahu down, then straightens his body and head out so that Rahu is laying more comfortably on the floor. “I’ll get a cot and a blanket for him,” Mr. Schiff says.

“How can anything be immortal?” Sid asks.

“Well, it can’t, I suppose,” says Mr. Schiff. “Everything arises from karma, and everything dies with the extinguishment of the karma that caused it to exist. But he’s tasted the amrit so he can’t really die to anything less.”

He pauses. He smiles fondly at the fingernail.

“And here I am with a sample of him.”

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11)

Mr. Schiff walks to the door and out, his feet ticking against the floor.

Sid watches Rahu.

The hands of the clock high on the wall turn.

After about fifteen minutes Mr. Schiff returns with a cot and some blankets. He starts to lift Rahu. Sid helps. Together they place Rahu on the cot and cover Rahu’s body with the blanket.

“How can anything be immortal?”

It’s like nothing’s changed in Sid’s head since he asked that question the first time.

Mr. Schiff looks up at him.

Suddenly Mr. Schiff is grinning wider than a geology teacher should grin, and there are shadows shifting everywhere in the room.

“When he drank the amrit, he achieved enlightenment,” says Mr. Schiff. “He became rival to the Buddha. He understood everything that is, was, and will be. But he was not free. He was chained by his karma. He said, ‘Before I claim my rightful place as lord of all things I must answer the suffering of Prajapati and atone for this theft of treasure from the sun.’

“The thundering of years did not dissuade him from this course.

“The severing of demons from the world could not dissuade him.

“He has hunted the sun and devoured it through the days of the Third Kingdom and the Fourth and not anyone who’s tried has ever stopped him in his course.

“He will not stop until such suffering as Prajapati’s is no longer possible, which even the Buddha did not achieve. He will not stop until he has expiated the crime of stealing elixir from the sun, which he cannot do, as that act will forever stain the world. He is immortal because he is not finished with these basic tasks that no creature can attempt.

“That is how Rahu is immortal.”

“Oh,” says Sid.

“But don’t be afraid,” says Mr. Schiff. “It is the nature of all karma to resolve itself given sufficient time in which to work. If it is not this year, then it may be next year; if it is not, then certainly before the passage of another three hundred trillion years.”

Sid shakes himself.

“Will you watch him?” Sid says.

“Why did you bring him here?” Mr. Schiff asks.

“I didn’t know what to do with him,” Sid says. “And I figured Martin would. But you’ll do just as well.”

It is June 1, 2004.

Sid returns to the balcony. He sits on the battlement. He’s quiet.

“Aren’t you a sight,” says Max.

Sid shrugs.

Sid looks about.

“Iphigenia?”

“She’s with Jane,” says Max.

“Did she see the spike?”

“I told her not to watch the fight. I said, you’d win, but not by any way that’s good for children to see. And then you did.”

Sid sighs.

“You okay?” says Max.

“No,” says Sid.

“No?”

“We go ’round and ’round,” says Sid, “and nothing ever changes.”

“Yeah,” acknowledges Max.

“You don’t have to be here,” Sid says.

His voice is taut. His throat is sore. It hurts to talk.

But Max ignores him.

“Didn’t ask you if I did,” Max says.

“You don’t even like it here.”

Max sighs.

“Just— let it go, Sid.”

It’s getting darker now. It’s moving on towards evening. Shadows swell across the sky.

“You weren’t worth it,” says Sid.

Max’s lips tighten.

“Don’t you get it? I waited, I waited, and you’re just some damn stupid— just—“

“Just?”

And suddenly Sid is empty and the air is cold and he says, limply, “I wasted my dreams on you.”

Max looks up.

He grins tiredly. It’s pretty shocking to himself, that he has what it takes to grin. But he does.

“You wanna go?” he says.

It’s not an invitation to leave.

It’s an invitation to fight.

And for a long moment it seems as if Sid doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And then for a long moment like Sid will hold back.

Then the siggort is off the battlement and his wheel of knives is spinning and his fist comes forward and it strikes Max’s head, thok.

The Looming Cloud (III/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

There’s red in the sunlight and gold in the sky. The damp leaves that pile up beside the bridge are a muddy brown. There’s a cold wind blowing by Sid. His black hair is wet from a shower and a lock of it clumps against his forehead.

He stands on an island of grass and trees and behind him there is Gibbelins’ Tower.

All around him there is the chaos.

The aspect of the chaos today is like water and trout scales. The chaos surges like a sea. It crests and foams. It is low, with the tower and the island and bridge above it. The surface of each wave is covered in tiny scales. Its color is pale and silver and red and brown.

Sometimes the surface will divide and part of it will jump forth like a fish, then fade back into the water when it touches the surface once again.

And Iphigenia watches from a high tower window and looking at Sid’s back she cannot see that he is afraid.

But from the front you can see it.

His face is torn with fear, and it is not the fear of a man confronting a tiger but the fear of a man putting down a dog; that is to say, the fear of a terrible and necessary loss.

He is holding himself there by grit, a substance he has little of, as Rahu walks across the bridge.

Continuing the history of Iphigenia (1, 2, 3).
See also this discussion of the nature of demons.

The air smells of dead things.

It’s hot.

It’s June 1, 2004, and Rahu is coming to the tower.

He is wearing a white shirt. He’s wearing a vest and pants of red fur. He’s got a ponytail and a collar. The ponytail’s tied to an iron screw ring screwed into his spine at the base of his neck.

If it weren’t for the ponytail and the collar his head would fall off.

Rahu sniffs as he walks. His nostrils are wide and black.

He’s smelling out the sun. He doesn’t even look up to see Sid until he’s almost there.

“The sun must be tasty,” Sid says.

Rahu’s irises are the color of almonds. His eyebrows are the color of teak. His skin is warm.

“Because,” says Sid. “So many people want to eat it. You; Sukaynah; the wolves—”

“No,” says Rahu.

Sid’s eyes, in contrast, are dark.

“The sun is intolerably bland,” says Rahu. “It burns going down. It is not a pleasure meal. It is an expiation. For me, and for her.”

“She doesn’t want to expiate,” Sid says.

Rahu’s shoulders roll like a boat on the sea. “Who does?”

Then he is punching Sid.

His fist hits Sid’s stomach.

A grey and brown feeling spreads through Sid. The skin over his stomach cracks and bleeds. But Rahu does not have time to do more damage. The wheel of knives comes down in front of Sid and Rahu is jumping back and Rahu’s arm is bleeding fresh red blood.

Sid feels a wrenching, sickening pain in his stomach.

He causes the pain to vanish.

Sid feels a distant physical panic and something is making his vision all wobbly.

He causes the restoration of his equilibrium.

Before he has quite begun to double over, he straightens his back, and he looks at Rahu.

“Don’t make me shed this body,” he says.

Like a frisbee the wheel of knives arcs out towards Rahu. The demon does not leap back again. Instead he rushes in, towards Sid, on the inside of the path of the wheel’s motion.

His hand breaks Sid’s jaw.

The knives are tracking Rahu. They turn back towards Sid. Rahu has time for a second punch, sending Sid up into the air; then Rahu hears the knives at his back and perforce must, with a knee-twisting effort, throw himself flat.

Sid lands.

Red pain spreads through Sid. He causes it to vanish.

The knives hover above him.

Slowly, Sid pulls himself to his feet. Rahu is already up. Rahu is grinning like a puppy.

“You are interesting,” he says. “You’re not like a god at all.”

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Sid realigns his neck.

He frowns.

“Iphigenia said you’re a demon,” Sid says.

“Yes.”

Rahu nods. This is a mistake. His head falls off, showing gruesome neck-innards. This forces him to replace his head and readjust his collar.

“Yes,” he repeats, after recovering his composure. “I am a demon of Prajapati.”

“Can you help me accept something?”

“If you like,” says Rahu.

Sid is breathing heavily, though he doesn’t notice. His lungs are a little out of order.

“There is a man,” says Sid. “Named Max. And he said, ‘Sid, you’re so unworthy of the world. I’d go to Hell myself if I could just be sure of dragging you with me.'”

Rahu’s eyes are bright.

“Is that so?” he says.

“How do you forgive that?” Sid asks.

“I had a stepbrother like that,” Rahu says.

“Did you?”

“I did.”

“Did you forgive him?”

“Eventually,” says Rahu. “Because you see, he was just a man. He had tonsils and hair and an appendix and big ears and blood that ran in his veins. He considered himself very lofty and had an important dharma but he was just an ordinary man and ordinary men do things like that.”

“Ah,” says Sid.

“The world teems with them,” Rahu says.

“Does it?”

“Billions of them now,” says Rahu. “Awkward and fleshy and stupid and meaningless men.”

Here is a funny thing.

As Rahu talks to Sid, he is sweating.

His body is hot and there is tension in him.

It’s like it’s harder to talk to Sid than it is to fight him.

And “They’re just people,” Rahu says. “They hurt people. It’s what they do.”

The power of those words peaks in Sid and breaks and everything is clear and Sid sighs release.

It is strangely peaceful, that moment.

“I’d wanted him to be better than that,” Sid says.

But he’s just a man.

“So badly. So much. I’d wanted him to be better than that.”

Rahu watches Sid.

But he’s just a man.

And Sid’s eyes close and he is smiling at Rahu with genuine gratitude and then he hears a noise and opens his eyes and widens his eyes because Rahu is charging.

How could I ever have expected anything else?

Sid is still smiling.

He unlimbers a single spike of siggort from the body he’s built of mud and clay and feathers and blood. It sweeps upwards through Rahu. It hooks under Rahu’s ribcage and holds the demon suspended off the ground.

“I don’t want to kill you,” Sid says. “But you can’t have Iphigenia.”

Rahu utters a short, sharp cry and his eyes roll back and his arms and legs dangle limply, like a sleeping cat’s.

After a moment, he shudders twice and his head falls off.

Sid blinks like a man coming out of a trance. He pulls back into himself and Rahu falls.

“. . . are you okay?”

Rahu is still breathing.

The power of the demon is receding. The peace in Sid is fading.

A wild rage is rising in him; a terrible anger and betrayal; a sense of loathsomeness and the helpless awe of love.

Emotions surge through Sid.

He causes them to vanish.

Then he picks the demon up and, for lack of anywhere else to take him, carries him towards the tower.

Paradise Forgotten

Sing, O muse, of the siege of Illidium,
That opened up the tower to the moon
And left fair Helen’s plans in ruin
And nearly unleashed destruction on the world.

Hippolyta has made her child out of clay.

The girl stands there, frozen, lifeless, shaped with that surprising finesse that mothers have upon the potter’s wheel.

“It’s all in the fingerwork,” Hippolyta says.

But soon her pride gives way to tears, and she says, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Oh, Diana, don’t wake up.”

For Hippolyta is one who knows the secrets of the world.

She’d wanted to stop the pottery partway through. Sometime during the creation of the girl Hippolyta had realized how damnable and evil her work might be; that the curse of this girl would bind her to the pagan gods, to the dark and horrid gods who’d held sway in these lands those long cold centuries before the preachers came.

So she’d wanted to stop.

But her husband hadn’t let her, and the law was on his side.

She’d shaped the girl as best as she could over the grueling months at the potter’s wheel. She’d made Diana to resist the lure of darkness. She’d made the girl to have some good in her. She’d tried, as was mandated by the law, to care.

But now the pottery is complete and the law leaves Hippolyta to her mourning.

She turns away.

She goes to her bed and she sleeps, and there she has a dream.

“We will gift her,” say the pagan gods, the ancient gods, the accursed gods. “We will gift her with our powers.”

And there is the road runner who gives unto the girl that terrible speed with which it flees the judgment of the angels.

And the coyote, part beast, part man, who gives to her that reforming, rebuilding, sanity-defying cellular regeneration that sustains him against the ceaseless wrath of God.

And the pig-beast, dwelling now in some fell sty within the Pit, who gives to her his “power of conclusion.”

And the rabbit with its cunning; and the duck with its madness; and the sheepdog; and the slovenly Fudd; and the swan.

They give the girl their gifts, one by one, and that is the dream of Hippolyta on that night.

And she wakes with a cry and she fears the curse of Galatea and she rushes to her child’s side; and she sees that beneath her husband’s ministrations her generative power has marshalled life to clay.

And her daughter, whose name is thus Diana, she takes into her arms, and she weeps, and she prays, “Let you be sacred. Let you be sacred. Let you not be damned.”

But in the girl’s eyes there is the madness of the gods.

**

It is some twelve years later.

Mars burns red in the night.

“Please,” whispers Helen.

She is an astronaut. She has earned her place on the first manned Mars mission by being approximately 40% better than any man. Yet still there is the fear.

She knows, as she has always known, from the moment her mother shaped her out of clay, that she is cursed.

“At the moment that you should achieve your greatest ambition,” say the words woven into the clay of her, the weave and weft of her, “you shall fall instead into unimaginable pain.”

She has coped in the only fashion she knows how: by intending ever greater things. From the moment success seems possible, she is setting the stage for a greater ambition; and so far, this plan has served her well.

She holds two doctorates.

She has several world records in marathon and track events.

She has played professional football; been one bad referee ruling away from a Super Bowl victory; cured cancer by developing a new kind of cell; and now she is on the first manned mission to Mars.

“Don’t let this be the one,” she says.

And she plans how she might become President, after, or scale the heights of the Omphalos; or break into the Garden that was Lost.

The ship shudders.

Mars burns.

And then the ship is gone, the spacesuit is gone, the air is gone; these things are stripped from her, and she hangs in nothingness before the great red face of Mars.

“Helen Alexandros,” says the voice of Mars.

She is dying. She cannot breathe. Her eyes hurt most terribly, and she is cold.

“Helen Alexandros, I will give you power. I will make you immortal. I will give you wings. But it is God’s will that you should destroy the Earth.”

Her lips are cracked. She speaks her last breath: “Illudium.”

What this means even Helen does not know.

“You must accept, Helen. You must accept the power of Mars or you shall die, and God shall cast you down into the Pit.”

Forgive me, she thinks.

And she accepts.

**

Down into the world she plummets, burning, screaming, coated in silver.

She lands.

For a very long time, she rests upon the earth and heals.

**

There is a tower wherein Pandora dwells.

She is locked there forever. She must never walk free. That is the doom worked into her—

For it is impossible, as all men know, to shape a girl from the clay who hath not her own and personal doom, in furtherance to the sin of Eve—

That she should never leave.

Inside her flesh there boil demons of all kinds.

If she is freed then they shall be freed to swarm over the world. Then shall God turn his burning eye aside and send down Heavenly waters and the world shall drown in sorrow and in pain.

Ah!

She is fragile, Pandora.

She is easily crushed.

The law would not allow her firing.

Outside of her tower, at this very moment, the great black red-eyed dogs look up, because Helen Alexandros comes.

Her footfalls are like a distant thunder.

Her shadow is black like a pool of pitch.

“You will let me through,” she says.

She is dressed not as an astronaut but as a masked supervillain: Illudium, The Swan.

And she says, “You will let me through;” and when the dogs do not yield, but rather bark, Illudium shrieks, and such is the modulation of space held in that cry that the closest dogs explode and the remaining dogs fly back, land broken.

And casually she tears the wire fence aside, and knocks from their posts the cameras, and with one shriek as from a thousand lips bursts topless the tower; and Illudium—

Sweet Helen, to tear the world asunder with her kiss—

Strides forward to take Pandora.

But:

“Beep beep!” beeps Diana, racing up from some distant region and stopping there, quivering, before Illudium;

And she is young, still, not yet the hero she will become, but something in her heart responded when the tower of Pandora fell, and so she came;

And there is something about her that gives Illudium concern.

“Hmph,” snorts Illudium, the Swan.

She opens her mouth. She lets forth a lick of sound, just enough to make a person’s head explode; and Diana’s face grows crisp and frizzed with black and her eyes are horrified and startled in it. But as Illudium turns away she knows that something is terribly, obscenely wrong.

Diana is not dead. She is merely holding up a sign that says, “Ow!”

Slowly, Illudium turns back.

Illudium says: “Art thou what the world has raised up as champion to me?”

“I am the urn that holds the ashes of the gods,” Diana says.

Her face is scarcely burnt at all, now. Her ears have healed.

“Then I will scatter them,” says Illudium, “and no more this world will know the presence of such gods.”

And as she conceives this intention and opens her mouth wider to kill Diana with a roar, Illudium feels a cold knife of horror twist inside her, as if she were standing in the presence of a blasphemy.

And winged words flow through Diana like a wind, and Diana says:

“They were here before your God, and they will be here after. They are the filthy things, the horrid things, the gambolers in dark places, the cold, cruel, evil lustful things, the piping praisers of the darkness at the heart of the cosmos. They are eternal and they do not yield.”

And it is in that moment, and strangely, not before, that Illudium sees—

With a sharpness, like the cracking of a pot—

That all that which she has valued in her life is false. That the structures of the world that should sustain her are nothing more than waypoints of purity thrust into an abyssal darkness that even the burning eye of God does not illumine. That reality is madness; and life, as malleable as clay.

And the thin black line that is Diana’s smile grows larger, and darker, and it consumes the world like the very opposite of a Cheshire cat, and for all the explosive modulation of the space inside her there is no haven for Helen Alexandros’ soul;

And “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks,” says Diana;

And of Illudium, we do not speak.

StalaCtites hang from the Ceiling

Mr. Schiff hits the ground hard.

There is dirt in his eyes. There is a swell of nothingness. He passes out.

When he wakes his body aches and his wrist is broken.

It was a single misstep, but a spelunker cannot afford missteps. Now he is in a hopeless place. Now he is buried forever in the caverns beneath Death Mountain.

StalaGmites grow from the Ground.

He fumbles for his flashlight. He turns it on. The rocks around him are gray and slick with bumps and mottles and veins of something sparkly. He plays the light upwards.

He is in an oubliette of stone. The ceiling is ten feet above him, with a narrow chimney leading from it towards safety. There are stalaGmites and stalaCtites but they do not allow him a way up.

And there is a stalaKpite.

StalaKpites love to Kill.

“I don’t want any trouble,” says Mr. Schiff.

He stares at the stalaKpite. He watches it warily. It does not move. Its serrated edges are cruel and its eyes are cold but it does not move.

After a time, he realizes that the stalaKpite is asleep.

“Oh,” he says. “Heh heh.”

StalaNthites love only Stalin.

He is bleeding onto the tiny, pebbly stalaNthites of the floor. He ignores them. He feels at his chest, his stomach, his neck; the wounds are too shallow to bother with, when other factors make him certain to die.

The stalaNthites ignore him. He has nothing to contribute to the Party. He is not a communist but he is not a threat to their dominion. He is simply Mr. Schiff.

StalADdites view Aaron with Disapproval.

“What am I going to do?” he asks.

He’s trying not to cry.

“I shouldn’t have spelunked below Death Mountain,” he says. “Nobody ever returns from Death Mountain. Not even Aaron, and Aaron was a god.”

There’s no real answer.

StalaLwites Love you forever.

He calms himself. He begins to play the light over the surfaces of his tomb. He is looking for something—anything—that could save him.

“I could make a ladder out of . . . stone,” he says.

It’s a feeble hope.

StalaMPvites enjoy Mashed Potatoes.

He is going through the list of rock formations in his head. He is muttering. “L for love. MP for mashed potatoes. R for rocket . . .”

There are no stalaRjites.

With a sudden shock of hope he says, “C for Climbing?”

But C is for stalaCtites. There are no Climbing stones. After a moment, Mr. Schiff laughs at himself, because that idea was just dumb.

His light comes to settle on a stalaAeite. Slowly, Mr. Schiff relaxes.

He sits back in the dark and begins to think, in the time he has remaining, of all the beautiful and wonderful things that in his life Mr. Schiff has known, and now and then the bitter ones.

StalaAeites bring you Acceptance.

“Sometimes geology sucks,” Mr. Schiff admits.

An Unclean Legacy: “One Hundred Golden Men”

With apologies: there will be two more episodes, because after editing the ‘final episode’ was longer than Tre Ore.

In the west there is a fire.

Montechristien Gargamel descends the stairs. He looks into the room where six of seven children have gathered. He sees the blood; the wounds; the tears; the stares of horror.

He shakes his head sadly.

He is using a cane. He looks very weak, as he walks.

“Follow,” he says.

He is walking towards the Castle door. Mutely, his children file in behind him.

His lower lip is trembling.

“Father,” Violet says.

“It is only sane,” says Montechristien Gargamel.

His robes make a shuffling sound against his legs.

“Who wouldn’t murder for limitless power?” says Gargamel. “Who wouldn’t do anything, however depraved? However empty? However destructive? Why, even to kill your own siblings—that’s not so much. Perhaps when you hold the little gold men you’ll bring them back from the dead, in a more pleasant form. You could give Manfred bunny ears to lighten his somber appearance. Or teach Tomas the jig.”

There is an uncomfortable silence.

“Are you going to tie up the Devil again?” Violet says.

“No,” says Montechristien Gargamel.

Sophie stops in place. The others walk on for a few moments, then Montechristien turns. He stares at her.

“I’m not going out there,” Sophie says, “if we’re not going to fight.”

“Stupid child,” says Gargamel. “I’m not going to give you to him.”

Sophie hesitates. Then she shrugs, looks up and to the side, and rejoins the group.

“So,” Montechristien says, “Violet. To whom do I give the little gold men?”

“Me,” Violet says, without hesitation.

“Heh,” Montechristien says. “And if not you?”

Violet hesitates. Then she opens her mouth. She starts to say a name. Then she closes it. She opens her mouth again. She starts to say a name. Then she closes it.

“Santrieste?” she offers.

“Are your siblings so bad?”

“That’s not it,” Violet says, uncomfortably.

Montechristien reaches the Castle gates. He opens them. He looks out to the west.

There, amidst the terrible fire, stands a blue essential in a red, red cap. He is dead. His eyes are replaced by crosses. His beard is filthy gray. He is three apples high and animated by an unholy life.

He had never had a name.

He’d only had a title.

So we’ll call his walking corpse something unholy and new.

“Hello, Montechristien,” says old dead Papa Scratch.

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

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

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

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

Manfred looks down. His brow furrows.

“You are smaller, sir Devil, than the last time we fought.”

Montechristien coughs, weakly. He holds out his arm to bar Manfred from moving forward.

“This isn’t your fight,” Montechristien says.

“I’m here to free the others,” says old dead Papa Scratch. His head lolls to one side, and he pushes it back up. There’s the scraping sound of broken neckbone against broken neckbone as his head realigns. “I figured, I’d give you a chance, Montechristien, since we’ve been through this before, to give them up now.”

“If I still had an evil cat,” Montechristien says sadly, “he’d leap on you. He was good at scratching.”

He hesitates.

“Do you have someone sneaking into the Castle behind me?” he says. “Or is this going to be one of those things where you throw down an alchemical bomb and rescue them while I’m coughing?”

“Father,” says Sophie, as a gentle reminder. “That’s the Devil.”

“I’ve had people in the Castle forever,” says old dead Papa Scratch.

“Oh?”

“They sit on the shoulders of Manfred and Francescu,” says old dead Papa Scratch. “They crouch on the corpse of Yseult Gargamel. They flit this way and that among the guardian statues and the teeth of the barking dog.”

“Well,” says Montechristien, considering that. “You’ve certainly come out ahead of me in this madcap caper.”

Now Papa Scratch narrows his dead-fish eyes.

“Pardon?” he says.

And Gargamel, ever so creakily, lowers himself onto one knee. He rests his hand under his chin. He says, “It was good, you know. To come back as the one person I couldn’t ever defeat. To come back with the power of a golden eidolon in addition to your own. But if you wanted to beat me, you really should have gone with Yseult.”

“It would have been clever,” the Devil agrees. “But I wouldn’t give you the pleasure of seeing your bitch again.”

And as Montechristien’s face tightens with anger, old dead Papa Scratch gathers himself; and with a bound he flies towards Gargamel’s face, and his hands are claws and his teeth are pointed and there are worms crawling beneath his skin.

Montechristien, with the highly tuned reflexes of a blue essential hunter, catches him.

“Papa,” he says, and he is not speaking to the Devil, but nevertheless the Devil goes still and shuddery in his hand.

“Papa,” says Gargamel, and his voice is broken. “You are not so dead as to allow this abomination to proceed.”

And for a moment the eyes of the thing in Gargamel’s hand are living eyes. For a moment it is not the Devil’s voice that says, “Then let them go. Gargamel, I beg you—”

“They’re gold, Papa. You’re all gold. Gold and dead. Forgive me.”

And the head of the thing in Gargamel’s hand lowers, and its eyes go blank again; and the flames are burning Gargamel’s hand until there is little to it but bone and blackened meat; but there is a blueness that rages through the fire and puts it out and then slowly, slowly, with the infinite reluctance of any power yielding to its death, succumbs to gold.

An Unclean Legacy


“One Hundred Golden Men”

Montechristien straightens.

“Where is Elisabet?” he says.

“Dead, I should hope,” Tomas says.

The glare Montechristien turns on him is terrible; it would inspire legends of devils and of angels; but Tomas simply shrugs.

“I explained to her what she really is,” he says.

And Violet shouts: “Manfred, no!”

For Manfred is in motion.

But it is not Violet but Montechristien who stops Manfred from skewering Tomas; Montechristien who blasts Tomas and Manfred back and hangs them in the air each separate from the other; Montechristien who grinds his teeth together and struggles against his inclination to dance with rage.

“In front of me? You would do this in front of me?”

Manfred does not speak. He simply looks sullen, like a man evaluating whether it’s worth killing his father in order to conduct his other business.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Gargamel.

He lets Manfred and Tomas drop.

“The power of the blue will not hold the Devil away for long,” Montechristien says. “This is expected; I did not plan to live the night.”

He sighs.

“It is time to discuss what we must, the eight of us, discuss.”

“Can you help Elisabet?” Violet asks.

“If she’s alive,” Montechristien says.

Is the legacy of Montechristien Gargamel desirable?

How did Gargamel defeat the blue essentials at last?

These questions, and others, will be answered tomorrow in An Unclean Legacy: “Whoever Can Bear the Weight.”