Ink is Backstage: “Accidental Dispositions”

the continuing adventures of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

Ink is in a phone booth. Outside there is a gorgosaurus.

It is a talking gorgosaurus.

It is one of the talking gorgosauruses that live in the backstage of Earth, where cardboard cutouts stand in for people and sets for places and time.

Its hands are thin and clumsy. Its teeth are very sharp. And it is given to it, as to all talking gorgosauruses, to appoint and dispense with the things of the mortal Earth.

In accordance to their great design do we have joy and liveliness. In accordance to their whims and errors did gold panning, disco, and communism fall.

From Ink’s Journal

Floor 93-A: I cried to the sky to open me a path to Hell, and a hole in the sky yawned wide; and said to me, “I will let you pass through into the realm beyond; but such pain as you know there is at my sufferance, and of my possession.”

I did not like the condition, but I went through; for it is my mission to explore. And since that time I have seen many of the strange worlds that are beyond Floor 93, but have not yet found Hell.

Ink opens the door of the phone booth. She is very hesitant. She walks out.

“You are less afraid?” the gorgosaurus asks.

The beast looks puzzled.

“Did the fall of communism or of disco somehow reassure you?”

Ink shakes her head.

“It occurred to me, is all,” says Ink, “that you are too cruel to eat me.”

She walks gingerly along the sidewalk. She is stiff with tension.

After a moment’s pause the gorgosaurus lumbers after her. It is trying and failing to catch up to her. It is stepping around the cutouts of people and cars that clog the street, which crowd in such numbers as to severely hamper its course.

“Too cruel?” it asks.

“The world is very hard,” Ink says. “People die in droves. There’s horror and cruelty and hunger and disease. Love dissolves. People fight. And being human means that you can destroy someone’s life without even hardly trying, and nothing you do can ever make up for it. It is very cruel. But it is much crueler if it’s all just some kind of freaky gorgosaurus art.”

The creature works very hard to step over a car without knocking it over, but it fails. That is how Mr. and Mrs. Stevens and their two children die: screaming, terrified, as their control of the car fails and it skews sideways into a telephone pole.

The gorgosaurus looks at its foot and the toppled car with some regret. Then it shrugs and continues its slow pursuit of Ink.

“I have explained,” it says. “It is clumsiness. We do not mean to break these things.”

Ink walks in the black velvet space between two sets, and then along a crowded street dotted with vendors and marked with Arabic-lettered signs.

“You make them,” Ink says.

“Yes,” says the gorgosaurus.

“It’s all some twisted game. What was gold panning really for?

“There is treasure everywhere in the world,” says the gorgosaurus. “We wanted you to know.”

“Disco?”

“It is healthy,” the creature says, “to dance.”

Ink hesitates. She discards several possible questions painfully relevant to her own life.

“Communism, then,” she says. “Communism and capitalism. They split the world in half. One of them’s screwy and the other one never worked and whole generations grew up in fear until some drunk gorgosaurus puttering around in Party HQ knocked over the USSR. Was it some kind of weird gorgosaurus metaphor? ‘Look how deep our political theory is! This side can wear Russia like a condom whose time has come and the other can kill nuns in Nicaragua to keep America safe?'”

The gorgosaurus’ great foot accidentally staves in a vendor’s stall and tips the vendor over. That is how Jalal Hameed dies: in an explosion, ill-placed and ill-timed, that crunches him crown to toe like the falling hammer of God.

“You misestimate us,” the gorgosaurus says. “First, you cannot evade me by traveling between sets; second, if you continue in this manner, I will hunt you down less civilly and eat you to prevent further chaos; and third—“

“What?”

“It’s not the secret conspiracy of backstage gorgosauruses who are the problem,” the dinosaur says. “It’s the humans themselves.”

“You set us up!” Ink protests.

“You’re projecting your own moral failings,” the gorgosaurus says. The dangerous rumble under its voice has reached full volume now. It is moving faster, heedless of the risk that some of the cutouts may fall. “It is the defining human characteristic that you will ignore the lessons we send you and twist their meaning to suit yourselves.”

“What was communism for, then?”

“So that people would remember that the workers were important,” says the gorgosaurus.

“Oh,” says Ink.

There is a rising fury in the dinosaur’s voice, and its pace is far too swift. Cutouts tumble in its wake. Another man dies; a fire hydrant topples; a dog has a stroke; a cloud of insects, hanging in the air, ceases ever to have existed.

Ink staggers into the blackness between sets.

“That’s what both communism and capitalism were for,” the gorgosaurus rumbles. “That’s what everything is about. Everything we make. Every creed and every institution and more than half the events, simply and clearly to teach you how meaningful you and your fellow people are And. No. One. Ever. Wants. To. Get. It.”

Ink falls.

The creature’s teeth come down.

Ink screams.

“Egg-eating mammals,” the gorgosaurus says in disgust. It has her arm in its jaws. There is blood running down her forearm and onto her chest.

“Wait,” says Ink. “No. I’ll be good. What do you want?”

The gorgosaurus catches Ink’s leg in one hand and, without quite loosening the grip its teeth have on her arm, it jerks its head.

Floor 93-HG: On this floor bureaucracy made things more efficient, and not less. It was astonishing to see people pulling up at stop signs and filling out paperwork on their travel; to see the painfully precise accounting of time that each worker pursued; to watch the evolving bureaucracy of the birds as they winged overhead in a whirl of self-organizing committees. They laughed at entropy, on floor 93-HG, but I think it haunted them. They died not by slow withering but by obsolescence, when efficiency concerns rendered their physical existence redundant.

The spiderwebs on 93-HG were fractal. You could see each color in the sunrise. And when I stood looking back on everything in that world I realized that I could see the superstructure of its evolution, that I could make out the shapes of its ultimate destiny, that the struts of order already in place would grow stronger and not weaker as time went by. It had a future glorious beyond the dreams of man, and flawed.

I wonder if that is something intrinsic to us?

That even in our completion there are flaws?

The sound is like the tearing of dry cloth.

Intermission 2

Ink is Backstage: “Unexplorable Places”

the continuing adventures of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

The sun is bright yellow paint on hard wood paneling. There are birds. They dangle from the sky on wires.

The people are happy. They are cardboard cutouts.

The girl wanders among them with a smile on her face. She touches a cardboard woman feeding pigeons in the park. She touches a cardboard man suffering in a cell for political prisoners. She scribbles down details about a cardboard gunman standing on a grassy knoll. Then she spins around and around and runs on the soft felt grass before finally stopping next to a realistic plastic phone booth.

“What a wonderful place!” she says.

There is a footfall. It is like thunder.

The girl looks over her shoulder.

“Except for the gorgosaurus,” she says. She takes out her journal. She takes down a note.

Looking at the gorgosaurus, she adds, “I hope you are not hungry.”

It issues a terrible roar.

Floor 62: I saw a creature made of mouths and sorrow.

“As fair warning,” the creature said, “Ink Catherly has certain misconceptions regarding her nature and destiny, and these are going to lead her astray. She cannot be trusted in such matters. If you wish to understand her truths, you must watch the world around her. Those fates that govern her life have taken the unusual course of arrogating to her exactly what Ink Catherly deserves.

“As for you, that is not so.”

Addendum, in a different hand:
It’s weird to think that creatures made of mouths and sorrow were talking about me long before I came to the tower. It’s weird to think that I’m so thoroughly wrong about myself that random damned souls are getting a briefing on the subject. But what really bugs me is that here I am on floor 62 and the only tangible weird thing I could find was a can of Spaghetti-Os.

It was past its “use by” date. Its packaging gave me no cryptic oracles. When I opened its handy pull-tab top a thing fell out, wrapped in layers of crispy, paper-like skin. It struggled, mewled, and tore the layers away. Its skin and eyes and wings beneath shone like jewels. It rose into the air and I gasped and the light hurt my eyes. I conclude that it was canned mistakenly, and that in perhaps one in a million Chef Boyardee products unplanned seraphim are packed.* Also there was pasta, and spaghetti sauce, and meatballs, which were all skinny so I did not eat them.

* Seraphim and/or other valuable prizes.

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly. She might tell you that it’s short for Inquisitive. She is, but her name is not. She might tell you that it’s short for Inconclusive. Her journey has been, so far, but her name is not. She might tell you that it’s short for Incompatible, but if she does, she’s unlikely to tell you why.

She is hiding in a phone booth.

“I don’t see why there should be gorgosauruses here,” Ink says, plaintively.

She dials 911. The phone rings in a police station far away. The cardboard cutouts of police officers fail to answer.

“Come out,” rumbles the beast. “We will discuss the matter.”

“You are a huge meat-eating dinosaur that lived during the Cretaceous period,” Ink says. “I am a twelve-year-old girl. How can we negotiate on an equal footing?”

The gorgosaurus crouches down. It tilts its massive head on one side and stares in at her. “I am willing to vouchsafe assurances of peaceful behavior.”

“That is not my interpretation of your earlier roar,” Ink notes.

“A passing rage,” the gorgosaurus says dismissively. “I had assumed you were a small egg-eating mammal loose among the cutouts.”

“I do eat eggs,” Ink admits unwisely.

The nostrils of the beast contract. It rumbles the broken-motor purr typical of dinosaurs in the grip of a strong emotion. “Then perhaps it is best that we negotiate through the glass. How have you come here, child?”

“I am exploring.”

“This is not a valid location for exploration,” the beast says flatly.

Ink opens her mouth to explain that she doesn’t intend to stay. But the injustice of the gorgosaurus’ remark is too much for her. “There isn’t any such place!”

She takes a deep breath.

Then Ink says, all in one long stream, “It is fundamental to the character of every fixed location that it should be a valid location to explore. For if it is not then its traits remain unknown. Its impact on the broader world remains unknown. Any quality that it might have that could render that exploration illegitimate ceases as a direct consequence of its unexplorability to matter. Because it could never be unearthed. Because it would never have a comprehensible, coherent impact on anything in the surrounding world. Unexplored lands are nonexistent. They are meaningless. They are chaotic, empty voids pleading against the wind for travelers to chart them. To declare a place unexplorable is to make it a home for chaos without boundaries and monsters without number. And if there are boundaries that we cannot cross then those boundaries must be charted and the things that pass in and out weighed and measured. And every place that we—”

Here she runs out of breath and sways dizzily for a moment. She puts her hand to her forehead, then shakes her head and hand alike.

There is a pause.

“And every place that we cannot explore,” Ink summarizes, “becomes the same place: the endless hungry void.”

The gorgosaurus shrugs heavily.

“This is not a location,” it says. “This is a context. This is the backstage of Earth, where various gorgosauruses create and dispose with the things of your world.”

There is a crash in the distance.

The gorgosaurus winces.

“What was that?” Ink asks.

“An accidental disposition,” the gorgosaurus says.

“What?”

“We are clumsy creatures,” says the gorgosaurus, in heavy tones, “to be the makers and disposers of your world.”

The gorgosaurus does not look penitent. It looks like it been rehearsing this speech in its head for some time, in case it should ever have to justify itself to a human.

Ink looks confused. “What?”

“Not in vision,” the gorgosaurus says. “Not in vision we are clumsy, but in our hands. Our hands are stubby, twisted, and small. So that is why sometimes things must fall.”

Visions of dead bodies and burning cities flare up in Ink’s mind. Suddenly she thinks she knows what the gorgosaurus means by ‘fall’, and she half-says, half-shrieks, “Like?

The gorgosaurus is rumbling again. Its lips have come back from its terrible sharp teeth. This frightens Ink, and she holds up her hands in a conciliatory gesture.

“I just want to understand,” Ink says, moderating her tone. “For the record of my exploration. What kinds of things ‘must fall?'”

“The practice of gold panning,” says the gorgosaurus. “The popularity of disco. Passion plays. Communism. Things like that.”

“Oh,” Ink says.

“The things we make for you,” says the gorgosaurus, “but cannot quite manage to balance.”

There is another distant crash.

Somewhere, somewhen, backstage, the ungainly hands of a gorgosaurus have just sealed the mullet’s fate.

Intermission 1

Standing and Watching

Saul is a man who stands and watches.

He is at the wall at the edge of the world. He has no social life. He has no hobbies. He scarcely sleeps.

He stands, and watches, lest the age of disco come again.

Now and again, creatures come to the wall, and ask he let them in. Some are horrible, such as the gentleman from that place we shall not name. Others are radiant and beautiful, with wings of starlight arching in the void. He takes their names. He stamps their papers. He lets them through.

He has left behind him the woman he loved. He has no hope of children, or of fame. He will stand at the wall, and watch, until he grows too old. Then he will retire, on a measly pension, to scratch at the dirt of his old family farm.

He does not particularly hate disco. He simply feels that its time has passed. This is the sacrifice the world has asked of him.

Sometimes he will hear it coming to the gate. He will see it, glinting and shining beyond the far horizon. He will brace himself, and when it comes strolling up, he will tell it, “No.”

Saul is a man who stands and watches, at the wall at the edge of the world, lest the age of disco come again.

Ghost Lemurs and Pygmy Zombies vs. Happy Valley (a Small New England Town)

Happy Valley
“A place without challenge, flaw, or soil.”
Invasion-free for over 18 years.
Population 15,841
Elevation 271

It is a graveyard. It is the lemurs’ graveyard. It is the place, near Happy Valley, where lemurs go to die. They grow old. Then they swim across the ocean. They run across six lanes of traffic. They reach the lemurs’ graveyard. They dig cute little graves for themselves and lay down in them. Then they die. Leaves float down from above to cover them. That is why no one in Happy Valley knows that the lemur graveyard is there.

Katie and Joe eat lunch in the lemurs’ graveyard. It’s a picnic lunch. Joe drinks a Diet Mountain Dew. Katie drinks a Coca-Cola. Joe tosses his can into their picnic basket. Katie leaves hers on a lemur’s grave. It’s bad, but, in her defense, the shiny red autumn leaves provide camouflage for the can.

One by one, the lemur spirits begin to sift out of their graves.

Coraline hovers by her grave. She licks one paw.

Michael suspires stormily from his grave. His brow is clouded. He was the first of all lemurs to die.

“I call this meeting to order,” Michael says. “Humans have previously offended us with their disco music and laissez-faire economics. Now they desecrate our graves. We must therefore seethe outwards in a boiling ectoplasmic lemur sea and destroy the closest human settlement—Happy Valley.”

Something disturbs Coraline. She expresses hesitation.

“We destroy without qualm,” Michael says. “This is the lemur motto!”

“It occurs to me,” Coraline says, “that neither our existence nor our rage is in any fashion probable.”

Michael hesitates. “And why is that relevant?” he asks.

Coraline swoops into the sky in ghostly fashion. Her eerie eyes scan the world around Happy Valley. Soon, in great swirls of colored light, the other lemurs rise to join her.

“Look,” she says. She points. “Pygmy zombies.”

“They also know rage against humanity,” Michael says. “These upstart hominids offer no end of offense!”

“They are shuffling towards Happy Valley,” Coraline says, “but confounded by the natural geography and their own height, they find themselves tracing a terrible circle around that ridge. If I am correct, they will never reach the habitat of humanity. Their hunger for brains grows but they can never satisfy it.”

“You have a hypothesis?” Michael asks.

“Pygmy zombies,” Coraline says. “Lemur ghosts. And the distant moldering corpse of a terrifyingly large potato bug.”

“A potato bug need not be terribly large to terrify,” Michael says. “But granted. These things are not probable. Is there a common element?”

“Adversity,” Coraline says. “It is clear to me. We provide adversity; we bring terror, growth, and change to the population of humanity; then, with terrible effort, they defeat us. Where we have passed we leave the littered population of their dead. But they will win, because we are a test, and nothing more.”

“Hm.” Michael’s nose twitches. Then he leans close to Coraline. He sniffs at her fur. “You have been sneaking out of your grave.”

“Yes,” she admits.

“To somewhere . . . buttery.”

“The B-documentaries,” she says. “At the drive-in down the road.”

“Ah,” he says.

“Even had I not seen this story,” she says, “played out a dozen dozen times, still it would be obvious that we were the pawns of a greater agency, existing outside the normal processes of the world.”

“It could have been radiation,” Michael hazards. “Perhaps there was some sort of . . . atomic explosion near the graveyard, and we are atomic ghosts. Everyone knows that atomic radiation can cause such effects as these. It might also explain the pygmy zombies—they’re ordinary atomic zombies, but their growth was stunted by power lines.”

“I can tell,” Coraline says, “that you’re no physicist.”

“I took my degree in English literature,” Michael admits.

“We are unnatural,” she says, flatly. “And history shows that we are doomed. I recommend that we retire to our graveyard and apply for tax-exempt status as an article of the lemur faith.”

“Yet,” Michael says, “I see no adversity in Happy Valley.”

“Hm,” Coraline says, dubiously.

“Hm?”

“No doubt,” she says, “it is that very absence of adversity that inspires our existence.”

Michael frowns. “The legend of Happy Valley,” he says, “is that it is a place without challenge, flaw, or soil. It says so on the sign.”

“It must have soil,” Coraline says. “Otherwise, no plants would grow.”

“To the east,” Michael says, using his incomparable vision, “I see a city besieged by ‘devil grasshoppers.’ And to the west, by carnivorous Verizon-men. In Happy Valley, there is no pain. Do you understand why this offends and concerns me, Coraline?”

She curls in on herself, somewhat nervously, and thinks. “They alone have despoiled our sacred graveyard; so why should they alone be safe?”

“That is the nature of my offense,” he says.

“And we are giving serious discussion to leaving them be, which, in effect, plays into their adversity-less hands. Had we possessed merely ordinary ghost lemur intelligence, we would have attacked, and ravaged their people; yet, through the sheer coincidence of our advanced lemur minds, we are considering abandoning the project.”

“You follow the thrust of my thoughts perfectly.”

Coraline ponders. “It may be,” she says, “that the character of the valley forbids our entrance in force.”

Michael drifts slowly downwards on a wayward breeze. Uncertainly, the other ghosts follow.

“We will not enter by force,” he says. “We will enter by stealth, and make the pygmy zombies our allies. Against a subtle and painless invasion, they will have no hope.”

Five years pass, and Happy Valley changes their sign.

Happy Valley
“A place without challenge, flaw, or soil.”
Beware the pygmy zombies and ghost lemurs.
Masters of disguise—They Could Be Anyone!
Population 17,008
Elevation 271

Scared by this sign, ninja werewolves stay away.