Ink Ascending (XVI/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Sometimes when things seem darkest a flying carpet will come and swoop you off and carry you to the answer to all your pains.

In the lands of Romance you will battle ogres and dragons.

You will find bottles containing the secret hearts of djinn.

Dashing princes will bend their head to look at you, their eyes gleaming with that ancient light of Romance.

They will say: “I see you have come here.”

. . . but no.

That is not right.

The carpet—that seems right.

But not the rest.

The girl is surfacing to consciousness and something is not right. The Prince is not standing over her. That is someone else. He is not saying, “I see you have come here.”

He is saying something else.

The girl focuses her eyes.

It is Minister Jof.

It is Minister Jof, and not the Prince.

He has said, if anything, “I consider you to blame.”

She shakes her head, just a little. She turns her head. It hurts to do this, but she turns her head.

Is that the Prince?

It is Riffle. He is washing his hands.

And there:

Dr. Sarous, glum and sour. Not even speaking.

And there:

The general of the stickbugs. He is approaching. He is lowering his mouth towards the foot of the girl. Dr. Sarous bats at him and he skulks away.

It is distinctly not the lands of Romance.

If anything, it is the murky land of Dismal.

Still, the girl sits up. She makes a game try of it. “How marvelous,” she says. “You, Dr. Sarous; have you been treating our wounds?”

Dr. Sarous’ mouth remains a line.

“Minister Jof, Riffle, you followed me?”

They look away.

The girl makes a face. “Really,” she says, “when one rides a flying carpet to the answer to one’s pains, one is supposed to smile.”

“This?” says Riffle.

His voice cracks.

Something is wrong. No, she knew that. Something is wronger.

She turns.

Behind her there is a chasm, and from that chasm rises a great stone pillar, and bound to that pillar there is a man—

No, a creature like a man—

He is sealed against the stone with molten brass and molten iron. They bubble with great heat. He is sealed into the stone, and the nerves and veins of him run uninterrupted into the rock. Marked in a great circle around him are the symbols of the seasons, and the zodiac, and of time. His flesh in places gaps to show bones and organs beneath.

He is Cronos.

His eyes are open.

They can see the specks of his left iris and the light on his left pupil. They can see the agony in it.

His right eye is burnt ruin.

He is the crust of the world. He is the mechanism of time.

He is aware of them.

He winks.

“Oh, don’t,” says the girl.

His face crinkles, just a bit, around his pain.

“Oh, no,” she says.

It is not words. It is simply an implication in his expression. But it is there all the same.

I see you have come here.

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.

“This is what I experienced in delirium,” says Minister Jof. “A shadow came. It flicked by. It caught me up. Then I was here, with Dr. Sarous extracting the splinter from my eye.”

“For me,” says Dr. Sarous, “it is essentially the same. There was a confusion of stickbugs; I caught the general’s lapel and fell.”

“I am done with this,” says Riffle.

He looks dissatisfied.

“Enough with the business of saviors and killing God. I propose we push the girl over the edge, thus putting the throne of the world in our debt; we then retire to Sarous’ kingdom, where he shall appoint me his high executor and allow you minor appointments in his administration. In exchange, I will advise Sarous as to how to live with the knowledge of his corruption; all of us see profit.”

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, although everybody calls her the imago. It’s short for imagoro, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

She’s staring at the face of the titan in the pillar.

“Is this how it begins?” she asks.

Riffle looks at her.

“Is this the first moment of our history?” she asks.

“Hardly,” says Riffle.

But Ink turns on him and she is burning with the power of the interpretation of ended things and her voice cuts across all his thoughts and she says, “Cronos was laying on the sand.”

June, Thursday 3, 2004 – Cronos: Cronos was laying on the sand.

To what end, time?

The stickbug general is a mean and dirty creature. His heart is small and rotten. Time is the vehicle for his resentment: a field in which he may experience things that are not gorging on child flesh, not stickbug sex, not hiding against a tree.

Time is a vehicle for pain and for hunger and for fear without satiety.

There is a heat that washes off the girl as she says these words and it drives the stickbug general flinching back. But this does not quench the stickbug’s determination. If anything it affirms it. Things are too uncomfortable. The girl must die.

Cronos was young. He was young. He was so very young. He was tired. He did not know who he was.

He was a castaway on the shore of the world.

He lay there and he did not move.

The sun was very hot.

It began to burn him.

When his skin turned red he made a strangled sound and rose to his feet and he staggered off to find a cave.

To what end, time?

Time is a vast reach filled with disorder. Time is the vehicle for Riffle’s discontent: again and again it slews him from his purpose. It drives him to the end of narrow aims and imbues his broader projects with a sense of dim futility. It is littered with elements he cannot incorporate into his closed designs.

As the girl speaks Riffle becomes aware of a deep and timeless agony. It is not hers, nor his, nor Cronos’, but the agony of Ge.

He cannot solve it.

He cannot even begin to solve it.

He cannot ignore it, either; and so, in that moment, imagoro, he hates Ink Catherly with a burning passion.

All around him rose the deep voice of the earth.

“My child,” said the earth. “Gotten of a sinful father.”

Cronos put his hands upon the rock.

It was wet. It was hard. It was rough.

“I have a mother,” he said.

Joy rose from his stomach to burn through him. “I have a mother, I have a father, I am a child of the heavens and the earth.”

To what end, time?

For Dr. Sarous time was once a playground: an opportunity to make all things well. But the more deeply he studied the world the more things he found that were not well. The more he bent his fallible eye to scrutiny, the more it seemed that the world was a fractal made out of errors built on errors, noise stacking on noise, with virtue nothing more than an emergent pattern on the whole. In the end, his dream unraveled; time seized his prize from him, and his pride.

It hurts him, to hear the joy in Cronos’ voice.

The world is sick, he thinks. Where is its shame?

“Be not proud to be Uri’s son,” said the earth. “For he first thought of shameful things, and cut away the wrongness from the world.”

A question lies hard on Cronos’ mind, but it is not a question that the earth can answer.

“What is the proper manner of my shape?” Cronos asks. “Ought I be tall or short? Have I three legs or two?”

“Hide yourself,” said the earth, “between the sea, the sky, and the land, and wait for darkness, and I will show you how your father has injured me.”

Though confused, still Cronos obeyed.

He shaped himself into a thing that could make webs and he spun a web between the sea, the land, and the sky. He hung there, waiting, trying to decide how many legs a titan has.

The sun left the sky.

The world grew dark.

The web trembled and shrank. The vault of the stars came down and pressed close upon the world. Cronos shivered in the dark.

To what end, time?

Time is a vehicle for evolution. That is why Minister Jof fears it.

He loves evolution. It is his work. But he fears it. To change— to grow—

He is Minister Jof.

Where could he go?

He does not allow himself to imagine that he is fallible; that he is imperfect; that there is an upwards arc. And those times when he does—when it slips through into his heart that we are unfinished, mean, imperfect creatures, and Minister Jof no different—are exactly the times when he cannot imagine any means of becoming better.

He can feel change coming. It echoes in the words of the history of the girl.

He shutters his heart. He focuses on his judgments and his spite.

He turns away.

The clouds lit with pink and scarlet fires. The earth ground open and in it were pools of darkness and green and coldest indigo. The sky rubbed against the earth and fires slipped from it into the depths and danced upon the waters there. The wind blew. It came down off the hills and it roared across the plains. It chilled the peaks of the mountains and bent the trees of the forest. Stars fell and lost their fire. The chasms under the world ignited. The world and sky strained against one another and the sky grew damper and the air began to taste of rain.

As the sky coupled with the earth, the earth said, “For whom have you made this world, o my love?”

And the sky said, “For Oceanus; and Tethys; and Hyperion; and Theia; and Coeus; and Phoebe; and Cronos; and Rhea; and the birds; and the trees; and the insects; and the flowers; and the naiads; and the oceanids; and the teeth gnomes; and the antelope; and the burrowing things; and the climbing things;” and he went on in just this vein for quite some time.

And as he said these things the earth sighed, “Ah,” for these things were precious to her.

But in the later hours of the night it grew halting and slow, that recitation of the sky. “And for the platypus;” he said, and he thought, and he sought for words, “and the sandpipers; and the dogs—“

And there he had run out.

And fire blazes everywhere throughout the world and Cronos said, “. . . but what of Ophion?”

And the earth trembled and Cronos understood a thing, and he said, “. . . but what of Ophion? But what of siggorts? But what of woglies? But what of all the exiled things? But what of these?”

And his question made no impact on the sky, which only spun, and gave him a ruffling about the head, and said, “Do not love ye evil, child.”

And then the sky withdrew behind the curtains of the dawn.

And Cronos thought of Ophion, and the siggorts, and the woglies: o my loves.

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

In the end they are too small.

In the end they are hopeless and dismal, all of them.

But dharma moves.

Ink is stepping back. She can tell what moves in the wicked hearts that face her: one to three murderers, and one to three who will not help. She is stepping back towards the chasm. She has no idea how she will survive a screaming plummet into unknown depths but she has fallen from high places a fair amount recently and is starting to trust her ability to improvise. She suspects that it is less of a danger than her four companions, but:

“You know what the coolest thing ever is?” she asks.

The general of the stickbugs shakes his head.

It’s not actually negation.

He’s just breaking the spell of her words.

“People,” Ink says.

And she grins at them, flush with an echo of Cronos’ joy, as Minister Jof looks away; as Dr. Sarous and Riffle exchange dark glances; as the general of the stickbugs scuttles towards her with murderous intent.

Freaks, the lot of you, thinks Ink Catherly; o my loves.

And then there is the miracle.

She steps back.

Behind her, dharma moves. The titan’s hands stretch forth. He catches her. And in that motion they see it. They see it in the motion, all four of them. They see the motivation for time.

They see the purpose for the crust of the world.

He holds at bay the price of our imperfections, and behind them our happy endings; he bears the immeasurable weight of all these things.

Time is Cronos, standing there in the crust of the world, bearing his impossible burden, so that before our histories and our stories end in bright perfection, we that are imperfect have the opportunity to grow.

Though people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

It is the terrible truth of Heaven and Earth that the Elysian Fields await us all—

Well, except for the woglies, and the siggorts, I suppose—

That the Elysian Fields await us all. That we are accepted as we are by the actual and the ideal, and bent by destiny towards an inexorable fate of bliss for ever. And that it is only by the sleight of Cronos and his work that we may have a chance, before the end, to make ourselves worthy of that ending.

That he does it for them no less than any other: for Riffle, and the stickbug general, and Dr. Sarous, and Minister Jof.

Thus we say, however rare that it might be that purpose changes, or life evolves: dharma moves.

For just a moment, as he lifts Ink from that place, four of the five who remain behind recognize those great and horrible truths.

As for the fifth, it is over already.

Jacob’s carpet releases its hold upon its fate and falls: flutter, flutter, flutter, down through the storm below.

As performed in the Gibbelins’ Tower on October 20, 2005, in remembrance of Ink.

  • But we’re not quite done. Tune in TOMORROW for the unbelievable epilogue:
    THE BEGINNING.
    Then the letters column! Then back to Sid and Max—and let’s see if we can’t finish up The Island of the Centipede this November!

Ink Inappropriate (II/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

See also:
Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw and
On the Endings of Stories.

“I am a destroyer,” says the girl.

She is a teenager and she hangs amidst tangled roots on the other side of the crust of the world. She listens to the beat of a hummingbird’s wings. She clings to the sticky root of a gongluestuck tree. She strokes the head of a fabulous creature that she has found here, in this place, tangled in the trees with the dirt sky above it and a screw-root through its brain.

She is calming it. She is soothing it. She is speaking to it, as it seems to like, of terrible and horrid things.

“Where I go,” says the girl, “things come apart from other things. Things fall to ruin. Structures do not stand.”

The creature’s eyes find hers.

It stares at her.

“And you might ask, why would a destroyer rescue you, here in the roots beneath the world? And I would say, ‘because I am also a girl, and I can’t just leave a magical animal hanging here with a screw-root in its brain.'”

“That isn’t what I’d ask,” the hummingbird says.

It’s drunk on absinthe and that’s why it seems able to talk. Or, at least, why it’s willing to. It’s drunk on absinthe and it’s hovering next to her and it’s talking as she tries to soothe the creature in the roots.

Sometimes it will dart away and take another drink. The hummingbird metabolism burns its liquor fast. Each time it will return.

I’d ask,” the hummingbird says, “how can a destroyer rescue someone, here in the roots beneath the world. I mean, if you are, by nature, destructive?”

“How?”

“Yes. How?”

The girl makes a deliberately horrified face.

“So very, very badly,” she admits.

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

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, but everyone calls her the imago. It’s because all the good nicknames were taken already, she’d tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

It’s why nobody calls her Lord Vader, anyway, or the King.

They were taken.

“Here is my first plan,” Ink says. “Plan A:”

She braces herself.

“Insult a tree.”

She takes a deep breath.

She rests her hand gingerly on the spiral root screwed down into Jacob’s carpet’s brain.

She says, “Boring tree, you suck!”

There is no response.

“Boring tree!” she says louder. “You suck! Who said you could stick a root into Jacob’s carpet’s brain? No flying carpet’s going to take you off to the lands of fable and adventure!”

There is a wriggling in the soil. A clod falls on Ink’s head. She looks up nervously at the earth above her, wary of sudden screw-roots taking an interest in her brain.

“You just stick your screws in every girl’s dream pet,” she accuses.

This apparently refers to the creature — to Jacob’s carpet, a flying carpet made out of shadow by an abused boy djinn who later grew up to work for an evil company only to have his soul eaten by the maw. It is every girl’s dream pet and also every boy’s. It is basically what kids are wistfully thinking of these days when they get that weird look in their eyes;

Or so one must assume.

“You’re like those people who flew model airplanes into Barbie’s dream superblock,” Ink rants. “And then didn’t apologize! Trees that won’t let other people be happy are just shriveled up misers! Being mean is like blocking out your own light with special non-chlorophyll-having leaves!”

The boring tree is disturbed now. No one has ever talked to it like this before. No one has even considered talking to it like this before.

It wriggles but it does not take its root out of the carpet’s brain.

“God hates you!” cries Ink. “In the timeless time before the world, he planned your destiny and how he’d torment you with evil pants! With evil pants! You eat deer poop! Your father slept with squirrels!

There is a long silence.

“Normally,” says Ink, “this would have shamed the tree into backing down, or prompted it to send a second for a duel.”

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Jacob’s Carpet: For months after Jacob gave in his carpet fought.

It would sneak into the monster’s lab. It would find a beaker. It would carry the beaker off to distant lands of fable and adventure. Dashing princes and vivacious princesses would lean over the beaker, their eyes gleaming with that ancient light of Romance, and say, “I see you have come here.”

Clink, the beaker replied.

The carpet tugged bolts from the monster’s wall. It wriggled them loose. It carried them far away to do battle with great ogres and dragons in the lands beyond the world. The ogres and the dragons won, except in one case more notable in its absurdity than in its outcome.

In the end the carpet failed.

Jacob met it in the night.

It lay itself before his feet. It lashed its tail. It bellied up low to the ground. And Jacob poured acid upon it and the carpet screamed and writhed while a filthy little runt cried and said, “O, no, no, no, o my heart, do not.”

The carpet left when it could bear no more pain.

It did not return.

“You really are bad at rescuing things,” the hummingbird says.

And the imago is just a little bit flustered, which is the only way we can explain her answering, “Yeah? Well, you’re drunk!”

The wind blows beneath the world.

Finally, Ink blushes.

She looks down.

Her voice is wistful when she speaks.

“Why do you suppose,” she asks, “of all the kinds of gods there are, there isn’t one that rescues you?”

The hummingbird considers this.

“Absinthe severs you from a position of judgment,” it says.

And for quite some time Ink thinks that this is a demurral. It is not until the night of June 7, 2004 that Ink Catherly will wake from a sound sleep and realize that it was a suggestion; and at that night and in that hour she will shriek viciously at the sky, “That’s recusing!

  • Tune in TOMORROW for the next exciting history:
    INK IS EMBARRASSED!

The Skandhas of Head Island (IV/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

The ship is made of wood and stone.

Its name, blazed on the side, is Honest with Myself. Its prow is a granite Buddha. His posture offers compassion and benevolence to every living thing. The ship’s flag is the Jolly Roger. Its skull and crossbones promise death and mayhem. One could argue, though not every pirate would do so, that its presence dilutes the Buddha’s message.

Perhaps, a previous victim had thought, such dilution is a hazard of honesty.

Then the cannon of the ship had torn her from material existence and blasted her straight into Nirvana.

Around the ship, some years after that incident, fog billows. The fog is white and energetic. It’s curling in on itself like an orgy of snakes and dragons.

The dread pirate Tara stands on the deck. Sid stands beside her. All around them gaps in the fog arise, contort, and disappear.

In one such gap Sid sees himself.

He is, he thinks, reflected on the fog.

He’s standing there, a drawn-looking man with a bit of a slacker’s slouch, in a nice kind of suit. He’s got his hands in his pockets and there’s a wheel of knives at his side. A feather hangs limply from his hair.

He’s still bleeding. He reminds himself that he’ll have to deal with that.

His reflection sticks out his tongue at him.

Sid frowns.

“Don’t make trouble,” he says.

Tara shoots him a sharp pirate’s glance, full of mirth and dark knowledge and a willingness to assault random strangers at sea.

Sid’s reflection shoots him with an arrow.

“Gluh!” says Sid. He falls backwards.

Anatman, dukkha,” chant the monks.

“Are you okay?”

Tara is there in front of his face. She’s leaning over him. She’s remarkably concerned given that she intends to kill him anyway.

“Hey. You. Guy.”

She doesn’t actually know Sid’s name.

“You okay? You’ve got an arrow in your head.”

“It’s okay,” Sid says.

“What?”

“Luckily I was carrying a skull.”

“How ironic!” Tara says, because normally a skull is a symbol of death, yet in this case it has blocked much of the force and length of the arrow and helped protect Sid’s brain.

Sid takes a moment to remember how to make the dizziness go away.

Then he says, “It was my reflection.”

“No,” Tara says.

“No?” Sid asks.

And Tara stands up. She shouts, “Hard to port! And put on speed!”

As the monks begin the work of moving the great Buddha-prowed ship, she asides to Sid, “Reflections don’t shoot people. People do.”

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 coracle 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 Island of the Centipede

Anicca, dukkha,” chant the monks. “Anicca, dukkha.

The chant has changed to incorporate a reference to the transience of all things, presumably because ships sail faster when reminded of transience.

Three acolytes with shaven heads and pirate eyepatches climb out onto the Buddha statue.

They manipulate a series of cunning levers and catches.

The Buddha’s stone arm swings.

Where the stone Buddha had been in the hand-extended mudra that offered compassion and benevolence to all living things, now it swings its arm left in the mudra that opens the minds of all sentient beings to new awarenesses. Such blessings! Surely it has become an iconic granite representation of your becoming more aware and opening your mind to the beauty and reality of the universe.

The balance changes.

Looking perfectly impassive, like a tipped yet meditative cow or Buddha, the statue falls over leftwards. Some might imagine a transient moment of panic in its eyes, a moment of reflection wherein the statue asks itself:

Do I stop meditating or do I stop my fall?

This represents a subtle error in the sculptor’s design.

Then the hand comes down to brace against the sea. It does not break the surface tension of the ocean. Creaking and leaning, the ship turns to port.

It rights itself.

There is noise. Tara is asking Sid about the arrow.

“Should I pull it out or are you too attached to it?”

Sid shakes his head in irritation, causing a wave of dizziness, and then he isolates the injured section of him and makes it no longer important to his functions. With a growl he pulls out the arrow and throws it to the deck.

“Why did it look like me?”

“They’re skandhas,” Tara says.

She gets to her feet. She stares out at the fog.

“One of them hung back to try to delay us.”

There is something hanging in the air in front of her. It does not move but because the ship is sailing swiftly it seems to loom upon her. It is a net, hung still and steady between four tufts of fog. It catches her, clotheslining her entire body and dragging her back along the deck.

But:

Anicca!” shout the monks, whirling their prayer beads. “Anicca, Tara! Anicca, Tara!

All things are transient. One moment a person is caught in a net. Another they are on the deck. Who can say what causes one condition to arise or another to fall? In this case it is a young midshipmonk diving forward to chop open the fog and unravel the net. Tara lands with the lotus of her hand touching the deck and the net blows away from her and dissipates into its component strands.

Sid looks at her.

“Skandhas?” he asks.

Tara stares at him.

Then she blinks and shakes her head. “Sorry! Terminology!”

She’s blushing brightly.

“I forget that not everyone’s a bodhisattva yet. Skandhas are . . .”

She spreads her hands, looking for the right word. At that moment the lotus in her palm points directly at Shirley Havanaugh, a CPA in Detroit, who recognizes suddenly that many of her problems are self-inflicted and experiences a bubbling transcendent and transformative joy.

“Heaps,” Tara says. “Piles of stuff. Like bodies, which people often think are the same as themselves but are actually just stuff stuck together out of mud and feathers or whatever. Or perceptions. Thoughts. Sensations. Bandits. Mirrors. Certain flavors of M&Ms. Skandhas. Things that can look like yourself, to you, but aren’t.”

“Ah,” Sid says.

“That was one of their nets,” Tara says.

And suddenly the fog is clear enough that they may see the great island where the bandits dwell and whence they make their raids, and the great peak that hangs over it all and the shriveled head that hangs from that peak, ludicrously clear despite the distance and the scale, every crease in its leathery flesh visible from afar though the mountain is just a blur. And in that moment, from behind and around the ship there rises the great iron net that guards the harbor and from a blocky stone fortification on the beach there fires a great black ship-destroying spear. Suddenly Sid has a moment of clarity.

“I’ve been fighting so hard not to be honest with myself,” he says.

The spear crashes into the wooden deck.

“And now I’m bombarding that honesty with giant spears!”

“Actually,” Tara says, contemplative and uncertain, “I think that’s the skandhas.”

In the name of the infinite blessings that we all deserve, and in profound thanks that one particular head is still attached and one particular skull did a perfect job of protecting its brain, and in dedication to the wish that nothing in this world shall ever diminish or constrain the brightness or the beauty of those you or I or anyone know and love, but only make them grow.

Ink Indestructible (I/I)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

“I think that God lives at the center of the world,” says the girl.

She is sitting on the head of a monstrously oversized warbish lavelwod, a horror bound under a tower in the sea of chaos to the west of the world, and her hand is brushing gently against the surface of the sea.

“I think that he’s at the heart of the world like the seed’s at the heart of a pearl. That it surrounds him so that in every direction he may look out and see the world; and that the crust is there so that he cannot see too clearly the suffering that he works with his existence.”

The warbish lavelwod breathes: ho-ha, ho-ha.

“So that’s why I need you,” says the girl. “Not to go up and eat the sun, but to go down and devour God.”

“That’s all very well,” says the warbish lavelwod, “but I am not sure that we have been properly introduced.”

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

The Island of the Centipede

Ink giggles.

“My name is Ink Catherly,” she says. “But everybody calls me the imago. ‘Cause i’m-a-go in’ to kill whomever’s on the throne of this bloody ol’ world, you see.”

“I see,” says Sukaynah.

“And you’re Sukaynah?”

“Yes.”

Ink’s hand is pink against the surface of the chaos. It is causing ripples to be. But now a sea change comes to it; and she gives a great gasp and stretches back; and the substance of Ink becomes history.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004 – Sukaynah: Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Sukaynah.

She loved the storms.

When it rained she would run out into them and play.

If there were a purpose to Sukaynah, it would have been to rush through the world into gathering storms and then take joy in them.

But this is a purpose that she did not understand.

One day Sukaynah broke a promise.

It wasn’t much. Just a little thing. But it made her ashamed.

It rained that day, and she couldn’t face the rain.

The fairies of the clouds and the dragons of the storm called to her, but Sukaynah would not come.

She curled up in her room.

She would not hear them.

And one of the truggumps that sometimes grew in the hay told her, “So make a promise that you won’t break.”

She drew on the strength in her.

“I promise that I’ll make the sun go away forever,” she said, in the face of those storms.

She became something horrible.

She became something great and terrible, a warbish lavelwod, and the skin of her was mottled and the teeth of her were sharp.

“Would you take me down below the sea?” Ink asks. “And crack for me the surface of the world?”

“If I were free?” Sukaynah says.

“Yes.”

“The currents would sweep you away,” Sukaynah says. “Then if you remained with me, we would crash into the crust of the world and hurt our heads very badly; and if I made it through, you would not.”

“That’s one thing,” says Ink, “and this is another.”

“But—” Sukaynah is frustrated. “We would find lava. And possibly some kind of magnetic thingie. Like iron or something.”

Ink laughs.

“You mustn’t be so afraid of the world,” Ink says. And points out, “You’re a gigantic horror, you know. It’s more scared of you than you are of it.”

Sukaynah breathes.

Then something in her snaps. Ink’s enthusiasm reaches her.

“Sure,” she says. “Sure, I’d do that.”

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – She chased the setting sun, across the world from the east to the west, chased it out into the sea that lies beyond world and sound; and there, on a small bit of rock, she closed her eyes to sleep;

And while she slept the gibbelins chained her down beneath the sea and built a tower on her face.

If this were not enough, they fed her on no food more good than human flesh, great gobbets of it, raw, until she would rather have choked than eat another bite. But eat she did.

And if that were not enough, they went away.

They left her there to starve. And she cried out to the Heavens that she would forgive even the flesh, if someone would just feed her in that way again.

It was a lie.

What has a lavelwod to do with such forgiveness?

The bonds on Sukaynah weaken.

They strain beneath her strength.

Something is different, though the nature of it is not yet clear.

Then one by one, the ropes that bind Sukaynah snap.

Sukaynah tears herself loose and there is a monstrous turbulence and a cry of terrible pain. After all of these years freedom burns like acid admixed with fire.

The tower, weakened by her earlier thrashings, caves in above her.

Sukaynah dives.

She maketh a whirlpool of the chaos.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – And the years passed, and Abel Clay came to the tower.

Sukaynah cried out to him.

How could she not?

She cried to him that if he would feed her on sweetness and good things that it would give her the strength she’d need to break her bonds; that she could snap them and be free and rise to eat the tower and the sun; that the gibbelins had made the rope to bind a creature outcast by the world and it would not hold a creature who knew love.

And he loved her.

He loved her, but not the whole of her.

He loved the girl who’d run to love the storms and the great gnashing maw of her and the burning eye of her and the endless warbishness of her. He loved that part of her in that rough-edged way of a man beyond the boundaries of the world;

But what man could love the part of her that yearned to eat the sun?

Ink leaves contrails in the chaos as she descends.

She thinks, as the many long limbs of Sukaynah thrash at the chaos behind her: This would be a really good excuse for being named Ink.

The lavelwod’s a bit like an octopus, after all.

Ink’s streaming behind her as she jets.

She’s leaving contrails of herself—motion lines of imago. She’s warping the chaos as it tries to warp her.

But it’s hard to reduce that to a short phrase she can use in an introduction.

And all around her she can taste the chaos.

It’s not like air. It’s like Sukaynah and Tep and Ink and thousands of years of suffering.

Ahead of them in the chaos are the first wisps of the gathering storm.

With a great loud whump Sukaynah strikes the crustline of the world.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – One day she thought, as she lay imprisoned there, that perhaps she should not devour the sun, after all.

That her inherent nature as a creature driven to destroy all human life forever and leave the world horrible and cold was why nobody loved her; or, at least, the part of her nobody in the world could love.

So she promised.

She screwed up her courage and she promised that if someone would feed her on wholesome things and the substance of the world, that she would not rise. That she would stay deep, and bring no more trouble to the world. That she would let the sun to live.

She changed that day.

A person who makes a promise that a warbish lavelwod can’t fulfill can’t be a warbish lavelwod, after all.

Again and again Sukaynah pounds against the world.

It has unleashed a fiend in her, this freedom.

It has made her a creature of mad destruction, great beyond comprehension, and determined to batter her way through the chaos-weakened shell of the world.

And her head rings and her vision blurs and there is blood to glut ten thousand sharks. It floats around her like great clouds. It piles on layers upon layers and great thunderheads and some of them are green and some of them are grey.

There is a high-pitched screaming that seems too pained to be her own and far too loud to be Ink’s.

The world shudders with repeated shocks.

Her vision flares with each bump against the ground and one, maybe two seconds later she will hear the roaring of the world.

A moment of stillness comes. She is surrounded by cacophany and mist and chaos and she thinks, like a pleased child, is this mine?

Did I make this?

Everything changes when she breaks through.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – There’s nothing in the rules that says that just because someone isn’t a warbish lavelwod, that you can’t tie them up at the bottom of the sea.

If there were, then there’d be a lot fewer people on the bottom of the sea.

Like, two, or maybe eight. Twelve at the most.

Certainly not as many as there are now.

So Sukaynah’s newest promise doesn’t free her.

In fact, you could even argue that it’s kept her bound; because not too long after that latest of her cries, Martin came to the tower, and Martin’s the kind of boy who could love a lavelwod.

Of course he could.

He’s always loved things like that, great and terrible and awful, like Sukaynah, like he wishes the monster would be.

So he fed her on sweetness and on wholesome things and he loved her and she would have loved him had it not been for the stillness that had grown in her over all these thousands of years.

And one day he tried to free her; and he cast down a gift of all sweet wholesomeness; and had she been a warbish lavelwod then the sugar in it would have set her free.

But there was nothing in his gift to free a girl who rushes laughing into the gathering of storms.

And it stung her horribly, it made her writhe, because it showed her—more than anything else could—that she’d lost herself; that she’d overextended herself; that she’d made too many promises and had forgotten what to be.

And that there wasn’t any gift she could ask for that would really set her free.

Ink drifts in darkness.

She thinks: Another really good excuse for being named Ink.

There is a pressure at her back. Chaos is pushing downwards through the crack, pouring down around her in great streams.

There is a howling wind.

Her arms and legs begin to tingle as she comes to fuller consciousness.

Ink opens her eyes.

She brushes aside her hair.

Beneath the world, as everyone knows, there is a great long emptiness; she hangs above it, tangled in the roots of the world and the limbs of Sukaynah.

And far below her,

just scarcely smaller than the world that hangs above,

there is a great and seething storm.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – People always forget that it’s impossible to keep a promise that is unnatural to you.

They twist themselves up.

They try really hard.

But the truth of a person comes out, no matter what strictures you hold it to.

We don’t know the truths of ourselves.

We’d like to, but we don’t.

We only know the edges.

One of the reasons we make promises, I think, is so that we can fill them in.

Ink’s mouth is moving.

She’s saying words that Sukaynah cannot parse because of the cognitive loudness of the beauty of the world.

They are these.

“In retrospect,” Ink says, “Looking for God under the crust of the world was probably a stupid idea.”

Dedicated to Hitherby Admin. Thanks for keeping the site going all this time!

That Moldless Legacy of Hell (IV/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

Leaves scud about on the surface of the chaos. They are yellow, mostly.

There’s an odd amount of sky visible up above, thanks to all the heaving about of the tower.

Tep’s wearing a loose orange sweatshirt, now.

It’s the color of the powdered brick that had clung to him as he fell.

There’s an alchemy of combination to that. He knows. The brick had melded into him, right down to the bone, before his nature rejected it.

Werewolves are good that way.

They never let go of what they are.

They never let go of anything, really.

That’s why for the rest of his life, whenever he likes, he’ll be able to close his eyes and see the great sweep of Sukaynah beneath the chaos and the ancient crusted bonds that had held her down while he challenged her.

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

The Island of the Centipede

“Don’t rightly know what to say,” Tep says.

Sukaynah breathes.

She does not answer.

If there is one thing he has learned from sitting irritably above her mouth for more than a century, it’s that Sukaynah doesn’t talk very much.

“How did it happen?” he says.

He’s asking about Ned.

And Sukaynah says, “He fell. He was old, Tep.”

“Oh.”

Tep had sort of forgotten that people got old. Even dogs.

“And the other thing?”

Sukaynah breathes.

“The tying-up thing?” he elaborates.

“I’d promised to make the sun go away,” Sukaynah says. “And I followed it all day, west and west, to the boundaries of the world. And the gibbelins tied me down.”

Tep whines softly.

Sukaynah breathes.

“I would surrender,” she says, “If I could. Because, in all honesty, I would not want to lose the rest of my teeth.”

“Well, that’s good,” says Tep.

He stares down.

But he can’t help grinning. It gets bigger and bigger.

“What?” Ink asks.

“I won,” he says.

The Tower of the Gibbelins
by Abel Clay

August, Tuesday 5, 1890, Today I fetched in a jellyfish that spoke & offered me three wishes, but when I asked for the death of God it offered me regrets & suggested that easier wishes would involve gold or jewels, which prompted me to great laughter as I am no doubt the richest man in all the West & I threw it back without acceptance of its offer.

January, Thursday 1, 1891. It is the new year. I have settled myself quite comfortably now and do not think I shall have the opportunity to dethrone the Tyrant; for my indisposition in its peaks and swells is worse on each occasion, and I have not cracked but the thousandth part of the gibbelins’ knowledge herein. Still I find that I am not so hard taken by this as Ned is a faithful companion & I have even grown somewhat fond of Tep & Sukaynah. How can a man find himself so comfortable with savage beasts when the Lord, that fount of goodness, proves a Tyrant? I wonder if we have been In the Wrong and goodness is topsy-turvy from the start.

January, Sunday 12, 1891. I saw him in the distance, moving on the sea, and cast my spear; but I have missed the Tyrant and so he shall remain upon his throne.

I am not certain of the date but I felt that I should close out this volume in some better fashion & not so much speak of my inefficacy as of the great and generous favors that Providence and my adversary have granted me & to acknowledge that in all the cruelty that harangues the world there is still grounds for hope for I shall not regret knowing Emma or Lily or Charles or Tep or Sukaynah & if you find this please take care to feed Ned & Tep & Sukaynah as I do not believe that they can fend well on their own;
Abel Clay.

There are a few minutes of silence, punctuated principally by the sound of turning pages. Ink is reading the journal of Abel Clay.

Then she closes it.

She taps her nose, looking very intent.

Then she takes off her backpack—pink and very flat and a bit too small for her—and puts the journal in it. In exchange, she removes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It is wrapped in plastic and looks about as ancient as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can look without actually being green.

She tosses this to Tep.

He catches it. He looks at it more or less as anyone would.

“Sheesh,” says Ink. “You people don’t know how good you have it.”

“Oh,” says Tep.

“It’s food! You chew it and swallow it and then it’s in your stomach fueling the divine fire of your life.”

Tep looks at the sandwich sidelong.

“That is the theory,” Tep agrees.

“Hey,” Ink says.

And now she’s looking solemn.

“If you’ve won,” she says, “you can go, right?”

Tep whines again. It’s soft and under his breath and not so much an answer as a vocalization before his words; and he shortly adds, “She is tied down.”

“You’d sit here for a hundred years waiting for a dead dog to come back and fight you,” says Ink, “and now you’ll stay until someone unties a giant sun-killing horror with limbs as big as jet airliners?”

“Yes,” says Tep.

“Outside,” says Ink, “there are a billion souls to love as you’ve loved those here; and sunsets like rocketfire; and candy with chocolate inside and letters on the front, if you can hold that thought in your head without going insane from the sheer head-pounding magical majesty of it—

“‘Cause, seriously, I mean, just think about that for a moment—

“and balloons that fly up to the ceiling and get stuck there until they die; and ten hundred zillion books; and bees made out of ice and bees made out of rocks and bees that have sex with flowers. And when you breathe there’s air and it comes into your lungs and they push out and then suck in like this,” she says, demonstrating. “And sometimes people light little sticks on fire and breathe part of it into their lungs and then spit out smoke just like they were tumorous dragons.”

“There’s air here, too.”

“Huh,” says Ink. She breathes again: it makes the sound ho-ha, ho-ha, but smaller than Sukaynah’s. “So there is.”

She grins to Tep.

“But I’m taking her,” Ink says. “You can fight me over it, and she’ll stay tied up here forever, or you can say good-bye, and go, and find other people to love out in the endless immensity of the world.”

Sukaynah has been shifting softly in her bonds, pulling against them, a tiny motion that Ink did not feel and Tep did not see until it stopped.

It is still now, below Gibbelins’ Tower.

Softly, Sukaynah says, “Go.”

It is like the lifting of a shackle. It is the ending of a hundred years.

Smiling wildly, and leaning out across the chaos to touch Sukaynah’s face, Tep makes his goodbye; and then, his whole body one great moment of transition, he goes up the wall and away.

What is the imago?
Why does Sukaynah even care that fig newtons are fruit and cake?
Why, in just a few short minutes, will a quarter of Gibbelins’ Tower fall into a jumbled ruin?

Check back on Tuesday for the exciting conclusion to Chapter Two of The Island of the Centipede:
Ink Indestructible (I/I)

“What are you?” Sukaynah asks.

Ink’s hand comes down to touch the surface of the chaos.

“I’m a destroyer.”

The Peculiar Case Of Miss Mu Lung (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

It is 532 years before the common era. Mr. Kong works in the state of Lu as a keeper of farm animals and parks.

He finds a scaled anteater—a pangolin—caught in an illegal trap.

Sluggishly, it licks its entangled paw.

Mr. Kong squats down. He distracts the anteater. He holds up a finger so that it tracks his finger with its eyes. He says, “It’s no shame that you can’t solve these knots; if you could, you’d be queer for a pangolin.”

The anteater attempts to process this information. It blinks its eyes lazily.

A woman’s footsteps approach.

“In this,” says Mr. Kong to the anteater, “we are alike. Diligently I study, but there are questions that I can’t answer, because I’m a man.”

The anteater shakes its head. Then, irritated that it cannot understand Mr. Kong with its tiny brain, it curls itself up in a ball.

It’s all right.

He’d held its attention long enough.

His free hand has already cunningly unraveled the knot that had trapped the anteater’s paw.

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

The Island of the Centipede

“It is very human,” says a woman’s voice, “how it waits to curl until once it has been rescued.”

Mr. Kong straightens. He looks towards the clearing’s edge.

Miss Mu Lung stands at the edge of the clearing. She wears the elaborate dress customary to the Lung family. Its fringe has blood and dirt and grass upon it.

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong. His voice is warm and his face shows pleasure. Her presence here is an impropriety, the blood on her hem a warning, and the texture of the woven trap reminds him of Miss Lung’s tapestries, but she is a fellow human being and as such receives his brightness. He gives her a courteous bow.

She looks upon him and her face is still.

“It is bold of me to say,” says Miss Lung. “But I have heard you called a great scholar and a man of discernment, Mr. Kong. So surely you tease the pangolin when you mention questions that you cannot answer.”

“I should not think to call myself a scholar,” says Mr. Kong. “If I were ten times more erudite, perhaps, and understood the Quinquennial Sacrifice, then I might be worthy of that name.”

“Ah,” says Miss Lung.

He holds up one finger so that Miss Lung tracks his finger with her eyes.

“I think that we are all trapped, in this life, like that unfortunate pangolin,” he says. “We do not measure to the standard of our ancestors, and so there are questions we cannot answer. There are questions we cannot answer, and so we do not execute our practices with precision. We find ourselves unable to comport ourselves with order and harmony; justice does not prevail; and emptiness flourishes throughout the world. One day, if the world does not explode, I hope to make myself a legendary minister and redeem these practices, but, of course, I can make no guarantees.”

Miss Lung thinks on these words.

Her eyes close, then open.

“Forgive me, Mr. Kong,” she says, “but I cannot see the emptiness of the world.”

“It affects to fullness,” says Mr. Kong, “but it is hollow, like the scar on the pangolin’s leg.”

Something in his words has freed her; the strength leaves her; she sits down.

She swallows and her eyes grow bright with tears.

“Miss Lung,” he asks, gently, “are you in some distress?”

Bleakly, she says, “More than some.”

“Come;” he says, “if there is need, you may impose upon me. But if there is not, I am afraid I must soon be on my way to catch the person who sows illegal traps upon this land.”

She looks miserably at the trap.

“No one can assist me,” says Miss Lung. She shakes her head. “I am in an ungodly state; someone has murdered the spirits of my ancestors and circumstances compel me to torment small animals to survive.”

To his credit, Mr. Kong blinks only once.

He straightens his clothing. He says, “Naturally I am at your service.”

Miss Lung says, “I cannot refuse so gentle an offer, but I fear your good character will bring me misery.”

Mr. Kong lowers his head in acceptance of this rebuke.

Miss Lung rises. She takes him to her house. As he walks its halls he frowns.

“Ah,” he says. “There is a hollow sound.”

“It is the absence of men, where once they would be talking. It is the absence of women, where once they would be working. It is the absence of the laughter and whimpering of children,” answers Miss Mu Lung.

She leads him to the shrine of her ancestors.

Its doors are heavy black wood. They are sealed with many sacred marks. They are scarred with hollow rings, white rings, like the marks of a lamprey’s jaws.

“I cannot go within,” says Miss Lung. “In my youth, we would say, ‘brik, brik, brak, open a crack!’ and the doors would open. Inside the spirits of our ancestors would dispense wisdom and benevolence.

“Then seven years back, as I walked this hall, I heard the great brassy voice of ancestor Zedong declare, ‘The more I look up at It, the higher It rises. The more I probe It, the more impenetrable It becomes. I catch a glimpse of It in front and It is instantly behind.’

“Then I heard an ungodly wind and I felt a sudden fear and I banged my fist upon the door, but since that day, they have not answered.

“Two years ago, I climbed atop the roof and looked down through a small round gap. Inside, the shrine was empty, save for some vague notion that took me of ethereal blood.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.

“Was it improper?” asks Miss Lung. “To bang upon the door?”

“What is impropriety?” says Mr. Kong. “I can’t criticize the selfless concern for your ancestors.”

He stares at the doors, deep in thought.

“Pardon,” says Mr. Kong. “But if I may, your family? The Lung family?”

“One by one they succumbed to kindness,” says Miss Lung.

“Hm?”

“It is like this,” says Miss Lung. “The Lung family has traditionally held some virtue of position in the celestial hierarchy. Assiduously we would seek to develop our personal merit to facilitate our ascension into the ranks of Heaven. Since our ancestors fell silent, the matter has become problematic; upon refining our spirit to a full measure of virtue, we explode. Now I and my obdurate brother remain; myself because I am a woman and dedicate myself to the methodical torment of animals, and he because, constantly insensible with wine, he is awake too rarely for the acquisition of virtue.”

For a long moment Mr. Kong stands there.

“Then,” he says, “if I may, I have solved the mystery.”

“Please,” she says.

“It is the emptiness of the world,” says Mr. Kong.

“If only you were the Grand Secretary of Justice,” says Miss Lung, with grave courtesy, “you could arrest it at once.”

Mr. Kong smiles at her.

“You are skeptical,” he says.

“Only, dulled with grief and fear,” she says.

“These are the scars of emptiness,” says Mr. Kong. He rests his hand on one of the circles in the door. “The methodology, I take to be as follows. The emptiness proposed to Lung Zedong, ‘In what fashion should a man conduct himself to bring harmony and order to all things?’ He could not answer this question without compromising the affairs of Heaven, and thus allowed the emptiness to devour him. The hollowness of your home represents a marker of its passage.”

“If that’s so—“

She struggles to hold back her emotions.

“If that’s so,” she says, “what can I do?”

“Open the doors,” he says. “Sacrifice to your ancestors. Set aside this animal torture and lawless skulking; cultivate the quality of kindness that you have denied yourself.”

Bitterness drives her to unworthy words: “Even to the destruction of my soul?”

“It often seems that virtue operates against our interests,” says Mr. Kong. “But if we do not cultivate the habits of virtue, then what value are our interests?”

She lowers her head.

“As you say,” she says, tonelessly.

“Here is my recommendation,” says Mr. Kong. “When you commit an act of kindness, do not seek to cultivate yourself but rather to build harmonious relationships with others. Then you need not fear unless you are so kind as to elevate all the world.”

“And if I am?”

“If the world explodes because of my advice,” says Mr. Kong, “then I fear I shall never find government employment, nor become a legendary practice-righting minister.”

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 )

The chaos has completed its adaptation to the knife.

Red Mary swims in a sea of Confucianism and blood.

Drawn by the blood the sharks have come. They are monstrously large. They dwarf her as they dwarf Max.

One of them bumps Max gently with its nose. He curls around the pain as a pillbug might.

“Red Mary,” the shark says, with scrupulous precision, “I cannot say your actions have been correct.”

“Yes, thank you,” Red Mary says irritably.

“If the sirens are not humane,” presses the shark, “then how may they expect the oceans to remain in order?”

Red Mary bares her teeth and the shark subsides.

“I have acted in error, but you may not correct me,” she says.

“The blood frenzy overcame my judgment, and I forgot my place,” the shark concedes.

“Hmf,” Red Mary says.

Then with one hand Red Mary lifts Max and with the other the knife and she draws them both up from the sea.

Should Siggorts? (I/I)

The doom of Spattle approaches.

It is like this.

Sid and Max are talking. It is 1989, and Max is an adult now, a breaker of horses, and he lives in Spattle. They are sitting on the balcony of Max’s one-room apartment, looking east towards the desert.

And Max is saying, “We are a corrupt people.”

The wind blows softly.

“I think that if God came down, like in the gospels; that if he sent his angels among us to collect all who cause others to sin and all evildoers, and to throw them into the fiery furnace, that we would rise against him in our hosts and our armies and we would be like the rebels of the angels, saying, ‘no, those are Americans; they are not for your furnaces.’ I think that we would turn our nuclear weapons against the Lord.”

Sid considers that. “Well,” he says, “why not?”

“Because it’d be God,” Max says.

“Ah.”

“Is it all right to fight God?”

“It’s not all right or not all right,” Sid says. “It depends on why.”

There is a breath of time.

“Why?” Sid asks.

“I have been dreaming of a judgment,” says Max.

And Sid frowns.

He rises to his feet. He looks around. He says, “Ah.”

“Ah?”

Sid points out east.

“Do you see that?”

And Max frowns, and he narrows his eyes, and he squints out into the desert. And he can see it.

There’s something rippling, twisting, strangely purple beyond the horizon.

He shakes his head, once, twice. He tries to focus.

He sees—

And that is when the sick hook of horror catches in his stomach and twists everything around.

It is 1989. The sun hides behind a caul of clouds. A cold wind blows.

Max blacks out.

We remember Spattle, though few do: In California, near Palm Springs, it was, touched once by chaos and then by death.

Its streets were littered with the corpses of the birds when its ending came.

When he wakes Max is unsteady on his feet and Sid is holding him upright.

Max says, “It is the coming of a King.”

The city is under a pall.

“A King?” Sid says.

“A King of an Unforgivable Dominion,” says Max.

He stares out east.

“There is a King,” says Max, “of the old countries that came before the world. He is bloated with a clotting of life. It moves damply and uncomfortably within him. As if a man had swallowed ten other men, or a fish the ocean.”

“Ah,” says Sid.

“He is coming to Spattle,” Max says. “He will drown this place. It will be forgotten, and the people here will suffer torment.”

The frogs croak, distant in the desert: ke-kax.

“Will you leave?” Sid asks.

Max shakes his head.

“No,” he says.

And the doom of Spattle nears.

These are the signs of the coming of a King: dreams and portents. Death. Trouble between friends.

The progress of the King is slow.

Max has time to think; to worry; to consider.

He buys fairy-traps. They are horrid things with clappers, teeth, and bells, designed to take the magic that lights upon them and swallow it up.

He takes them out east. He stands before the line of it: the great rim of the King. It is like a wall of a distortion across the world. Cars drive through it, unheeding. Birds fly across it, unknowing. But it infects them as they pass, and their lungs grow thick with mold.

Max has seen those birds in town, dead and fallen on the streets.

Max sets the fairy-traps down along the King’s great rim. He sets them on the sand and on the road.

A car drives past.

Its wheel strikes a fairy-trap. The fairy-trap skitters and jangles with the ringing of its bells. The people who pass over it, Max thinks, are insignificantly and indescribably less.

And Max watches.

The rim of the King shifts inwards, twisting, ever-so-slowly, ever-so-slightly. It passes onto the fairy-traps with a great jangling of bells. The clappers close. The traps bite into the lip of the King.

It might have helped. Then again, it might not have.

Max does not know.

The King in vestments of indigo and green is the King of bloated life. He is a tide that washes into the world. He pools. He gathers. Then he withdraws, and pulls a bit of our world with him, growing in himself more bloated yet.

“Sid,” Max says.

As suddenly as a dream the siggort is there.

“There’s a man in town,” Max says.

“A man?”

“He sells charms against the gods,” Max says. “The kind that are forbidden; the kind that are cruel.”

“I see,” Sid says.

“I need more than fairy-traps,” Max says, “to fight the King. But I can’t afford his rates.”

And suddenly Sid looks wry.

“You want me to threaten him,” he says.

“Yes.”

Tension flares up between them. Humor becomes outrage.

“You don’t like what I am,” Sid says. “You don’t like that I’m a siggort. Except when it’s useful. Then suddenly it’s good that I have a wheel of knives; that I have feathers in my hair; that I’m older than this mortal world.”

And Max flushes. Shame coils in him like a dragon around its nest. But he doesn’t flinch.

“A King in vestments of indigo and green,” he says. “A King of bloated life. He’s coming to Spattle. And I can’t get the tools I need to try to stop him.”

Sid hesitates.

“We should just leave,” he says. “Warn as many people as will listen, and leave.”

“This is my line, Sid.”

And by that Max means that he is standing at a place with only one recourse: that he is backed against the lines inside his soul and has only one direction in which to move, and that is against the coming tide.

And Sid looks at Max.

And Sid can see that it is so.

Sid sighs.

“Fine.”

These are the signs of the coming of a King: memories. Helplessness. Abandonment of principle.

Peter Sorgen lives in Spattle and deals in arms against the gods.

For a profit, he will sell them.

For a fee, he will employ them, using the tools and armaments of his trade to remove angels, fiends, fairies, devils, and other gods.

He survives in this trade because he is careful of his karma; because he asks gods honest questions and listens to the answers that they give; because he hates the things he hunts and shows appropriate fear when faced with those too great to kill.

That, and the lion’s share of gods he meets are figments of mortal imagination, which he may kill with a placebo, and the bulk of those remaining are born from weak and impure emptiness.

Peter Sorgen lives on the second floor of a rented house. He is thick and balding. He is a killer of gods.

Sid enters, pursuant to their appointment.

Peter looks up and smiles.

Then he frowns.

“Wait,” he says. “I know you.”

—“I know you,” says Grouchy Pete.

Sid stares at him, and matches up the facial features, and suddenly he laughs.

“You were that bully,” he says. “You’d chew gum and spit it out, ptui, like that!”

And now, as he faces the siggort in his home, Peter’s face contorts with fear and hatred.

He pulls a gun.

He fires, just like that.

Just like that! And he’s shot Sid, and the bullet sticks in him.

Sid looks down. He makes the horrible face that people make when someone makes them eat horrible icky vegetables or hot lead.

Pete fires again— again, and again, and again, until the gun is empty and eight bullets are lodged in the wall, and two in Sid.

Sid has his hand pressed against a bullet wound. His fingers are covered in blood.

“Geez, Pete,” he says.

He sways.

And he falls down.

The King has drowned Spattle; it is in the substance of him, in the distance of him, and it is no longer remembered in this world.

“I never found a formal technique to use for wheel-of-knives gods,” Pete says. “I never even found out what you’re called. I looked. But I never did.”

Sid has woken up.

“I can see,” Sid says, blearily, “that I should have backed a Presidential candidate who was stronger on gun control.”

“I figure,” Pete says, “that if I take you apart, though, that’ll work.”

Sid is handcuffed to a radiator. Pete doesn’t actually have much of a budget for this kind of thing. But he does have a knife.

“You’re going to cut me to pieces?” Sid asks.

“Yes.”

Sid begins to laugh again.

It’s funny to imagine Grouchy Pete, such an earnest kid, vivisecting the siggort. It’s funny, even if Grouchy Pete has grown.

Pete watches him laugh. He waits for Sid to wind down. Pete is a man with great experience with gods.

Finally, Sid recovers. His wounds are leaking badly, but he doesn’t seem that hurt.

“It won’t work,” Sid says.

“Why not?”

“A long time ago,” Sid says, “I was in a place of terrible durance, and moving in the fashion that one moves, and where there was light I was in darkness, and where there was substance I was in emptiness, and where there was heat I dwelled inside a terrible cold. And on occasion I would catch sight of myself against a place of reflection and I would recoil, thinking, ‘Hideous; hideous; unspeakable.'”

Pete studies Sid.

“You look okay,” he says.

Sid looks at him.

“I mean, if you like Sids,” Pete says.

“I am a terrible comprehension,” says Sid.

“Oh.”

“And one day,” says Sid, “An insight pierced me, like a javelin from the mind of God. And I said, in the language of my kind, ‘I am not alone.’

“Then, for thirteen hundred years, I waited for Max Lamner to be born.”

Pete is hesitant.

“Can you tell me,” he asks, “whether I should begin cutting you apart now, or wait until the completion of your story?”

Sid looks at him.

“What kind of a question is that?”

Pete shrugs.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sid says, shaking his head, looking appalled. “It’s just—

“This is a body I made of mud and clay and feathers and blood. If you cut it up, you’ll probably go mad.”

“Thank you,” Pete says.

He draws back slightly. He thinks.

“How can I kill you?” he asks.

Pete is, of course, a man well-versed in gods, and one who therefore expects a shocking honesty and openness of them. Sid, however, stares at him like he’s daft.

After a moment, Pete blushes.

And suddenly Sid has the power in the room. Suddenly, because of Peter’s repeated misestimations of him, it does not matter that Sid is bound and Pete is free.

The wheel of knives spins.

Sid straightens against the radiator.

Sid says, “I need everything you have. I don’t care if it’s for curing warts. There’s a King coming to Spattle in vestments of indigo and green, and if we don’t stop him, you’ll be drowning forever.”

Pete stares at Sid.

“Damn it!” Pete says. “Damn it. I should get to kill you.”

And because Sid is starting to understand the ways in which Peter Sorgen expects a Sid to act, he answers thus: “That would lead you to a horrid end.”

And Peter sighs.

And he lets Sid go.

These are the signs of the coming of a King: corrupt actions. Fear and hatred. The pollution of the groundwater, so that sinks run with green water and with black.

They stand out at the edge, before the rim of the King.

They lay out talismans of oak and rowan, curses, and nasty bits of iron.

With the chalks of amterise they work— Sid and Max, as Grouchy Pete has abandoned the town and fled—

With the chalks of amterise and the sigils of Rao they work to hold back the tide.

It is a horrid tangle that they build, a monstrous thing made to devour gods—

But when the rim of the King moves past, they cannot even tell if it is hurt.

“Is it hurt?” Max asks.

“I can’t tell,” Sid says.

And Max squints and stares into the body of the King, and the nature of it assaults his mind, and madness sweeps over him and he is retching and for a long time he knows nothing but loathing, hatred, and fear.

His reasons are not specific.

It is simply that in apprehending the King he feels a disconnection with the substance of the world and a futility of the striving of humankind, and this makes him sick, like an animal, with fear.

Is it right to kill a King?

We ask ourselves this because it is essentially our purpose. To change the world is to drive forth the shadows that dwelt upon it and change is always accompanied by blood. We look upon the King and he is a sickness upon our mind, but is it right?

If we could ask the people of Spattle, they would give us license, no doubt; they would say from the belly of that beast that we should strike. But their voices are not heard within the world. We may not use their witness.

That night Sid and Max camp out in the desert and watch the doom of Spattle come.

And some of the nature of the King is still twisting in Max’s mind, so he says, “Here’s a thing I’ve been thinking.”

“Hm?”

“Vivisecting people is wrong,” Max says. “Like, you walk up to someone and they’re happy, right? And then you vivisect them. And they’re all, ‘Hey, I liked those organs. Now I’m in hideous pain and dying!’”

“True,” Sid says.

“So . . . how can any moral person— god— THING, how can anyone, you know?”

Sid considers that.

“We were ugly,” Sid says.

“Hm?”

“When we were made,” Sid says. “We were so ugly that our father would not let us walk upon the Earth under the sun. Instead he cast us into deepnesses where we dwelt.”

Max studies Sid.

“You look okay,” he says.

Sid shrugs.

“It is like the tide, I think,” he says. “The reason that siggorts vivisect. One day there shall be a man, and inside him I shall see something like . . . a gleaming jewel. And I will take him apart and lay him out piece by piece to find it, but I will not find it. And this will be a good thing, an honest thing, a thing that will end something of my shame. It will put me back in harmony with the world, with what I am, with the nature of things. It will be right; and I, of course, will be a murderer, and foul.”

“Oh,” says Max.

“It won’t be a moral thing,” says Sid. “If it were, then I’d be all conflicted. I mean,” he adds, honestly, “more so than I am. It’s not a moral thing. It is simply a thing that happens. I am astonished, in truth, that it has not happened yet.”

He grins a little, sadly, like a Sid.

“My brothers say I am slacking, but I do not think that this is so. I think that I am selective and I simply have not found the person I will kill.”

And it is not to these words but to Sid’s eyes that Max says: “Jesus, Sid.”

Sid rises.

He says, “I will shed this body, I think, and fight the King. Do not call me again. If I am as I was . . . I will fear to answer such a call.”

The Kings of the Unforgivable Dominions break the covenant that holds together the pieces of the world.

And Max is on his feet.

Max is hugging Sid.

And Max says, fiercely, “Do not make yourself a thing I cannot love.”

There is a breath of time.

And suddenly Max blushes, and turns away, and flails, because Max does not want Sid to misunderstand.

And the thunder of Sid’s heart comes close to cracking the mud of him; the distance and silence in his head comes close to aerating the clay of him; and he doesn’t say anything, but rather is still.

“Tell me,” Max says.

“Hm?”

“It is all right to kill the King that comes to Spattle, in vestments of indigo and green?”

“Is it . . .”

“Yes.”

Sid can’t find words. He stares out at the King.

“No,” he says.

He lays his hand on the surface of the King. He feels its ichorous and corruptive membrane.

“It’s not all right or not all right,” he says. “It depends on why.”

“Then leave it be,” Max says.

And they leave it be, and go;

And doom comes to Spattle.

On the Endings of Stories (2 of 3)

“Where were they,” Martin asks, “when we left off, yesterday?”

“It was cold!” Jane says. “And dark! And ominous!”

“That’s a good word,” Martin agrees. “Ominous.”

On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are cold and dark.

“This is the last place in the world I want to be,” says Jacob.

Jacob walks beside the angel in the basements under Central. He carries the spear that killed him in his hand. In the dark, his foot bumps against his runt. He growls and curses and reaches for it with his free hand but it is not there for his hand to find.

“The last place,” Jacob emphasizes.

“It is generally true that success is best achieved by pursuing the least pleasant course,” the angel says.

“That seems implausible,” Jason notes.

“There is the most progress to be made,” the angel says, “in those directions where we have made the least; that is to say, along the paths we are most loath to travel.”

Jacob nearly stumbles again. “Filthy runt,” he mutters.

He can see the angel’s eyes on him, even in the dark.

“Pardon?” the angel asks.

“I keep tripping on my runt,” Jacob says.

The angel watches.

Jacob gestures indistinctly with one hand. It is the gesture of someone who cannot easily explain.

“It is something the director gave me,” Jacob says. “A . . . thing. A horrid thing. A vessel for my imperfections.”

“Ah,” the angel says.

“I was very young,” says Jacob. “I was very young and I loved it very much. Because it made mistakes for me so I wouldn’t have to. It learned how to do math wrong when I learned how to do it right. It stumbled and crouched and scurried and spilled and I ran like a gazelle. When he kept me awake it was the runt who grew tired and weak. And I forgave it its errors and I kept it close and one day it went mad and began to rot so that I would not have to.”

The angel walks for a time in silence.

“It is a difficult thing,” says the angel, “to be a man; but sometimes it is harder to stand outside humanity and know that you can only grant those wishes that are possible to grant.”

I do not want to be this, Jacob thinks.

“I do not want to be this,” says the runt.

“Did you know,” asks the angel, “that when you were young, I thought you’d be a hero?”

Jacob shakes his head.

“You still have that choice,” the angel says.

Jacob laughs.

“Everyone does,” the angel says. “Everyone has a path to grace. You are never so far fallen that you cannot find the dharma within you, the thing that you can be, the brightness, and give yourself to it in sacrifice and joy and be a thing of beauty in this world. That is why I answered your call, Jacob. That is what I want for you. That is what the door to the right was meant to bring.”

“Then show me,” says Jacob.

The angel holds up the thousand shards of palm and fingers that are her hand and in it is an image of a fire and a light.

“What is that?”

“Coretta’s fire,” says the angel. “Dharma. Dragon’s light. The beacon towards the road that you should walk.”

Down the corridor Jacob sees the maw.

It is a characteristic of angels that their words are most difficult to understand for those who need the most to hear them. Thus one may reasonably say that the message the angel gave him was gibberish; that her words were incomprehensible; that it was not his fault that he could not understand. Still, he sees something in the light she holds, and gropes towards it in his mind.

But Jacob does not have much time.

The maw is like a serpent’s mouth, corded and fanged, but it has no inside or outside. It is not a physical thing. It is a principle of devouring.

Inside the maw,

Of course,

It is empty.

And the maw drives towards Jacob like the hammer of a god.

“Heroes can kill monsters, can’t they?” Jacob asks.

It is a distant, distinct question. He knows that his runt is scrambling and squeaking away. It has probably wet itself; it is certainly ungracious in retreat. But Jacob is perfect by the virtue of its imperfection, and he is simply thinking and gliding back, smooth as silk, his spear rising.

“Yes,” says the angel.

It has been two and a half weeks since Sebastien came to Central. It has been thirty-eight years since Jacob died. But what he is thinking of now is something that came between.

It was only six months back.

Iris was one of the children that Central held. The case review for her was on his desk. Her keepers recommended her release:

“. . . even in severe duress, the child is disinclined to issue supernatural manifestations. It is recommended that she be released and monitored rather than continuing to spend Central resources on her care and training. . . .”

Jacob knew better.

It was obvious for anyone who knew these children, for anyone who’d been one of these children, that Iris was falsifying her duress; that she was presenting as a child broken to fend away the chance that she would break; that she was suitable and strong but clinging to the power to feign weakness. Such gambits cannot last forever.

Release approved, he wanted to write. That’s what his runt was muttering.

But to write that would be a lie. It would be unprofessional. It would be false. It would not be correct for a man in his position. If he wrote that he would be forced to take up arms against the things that Central stood for, against the men who paid him and who’d tortured him and who’d killed him nearly forty years before.

He could not do that. That would be more false. That would put meaning to a world that had none and assert the humanity of an empty, worthless girl.

Jacob watched himself write the letter that condemned her to further pain, and then he went back to the games of Tetris that helped relieve his stress.

The runt was sniffling and crying and mouthing at Jacob’s hand, so he slapped it away and it stuck onto the wall.

Six months passed.

Jacob’s spear, sharp as a thorn, comes down. It pierces the maw and pins it to the floor. Jacob reaches for the fire within him, the waking of his dharma, the path that leads him from that place.

It is with a still small terror that he sees that the runt is caught in maw and spear.

They are thrashing together like the synchronized shuddering of the dead.

“It is hungry for you,” says the angel, “because of your contradictions.”

“Is it?”

“To exalt the sense in which things have no meanings,” says the angel, “is to create a contradiction. It overwrites the rules of meaning with imported context from a world that has none. That contradiction is like a knot: pull and twist at it, and it grows tighter until it resolves down to a single flaring NO at the center of your world. Pragmatically, this leaves you with two choices: accept oblivion, or grant things meanings. My ability to save you is entirely contingent on your doing the latter, and choosing a life in which salvation is coherently defined.”

Jacob struggles to keep the maw pinned down. The floor is writhing and shaking.

I will shoulder this burden, he thinks. But he does not say it.

“Shoulder,” mumbles the runt.

Then it coughs up blood and dies.

Jacob’s vision of the fire blinks out.

The maw bucks him off, and Jacob falls against the wall, and it is with a clockwork grin that he smiles at the angel.

“I’m sorry,” Jacob says. “I wasted your time.”

The angel’s voice is strained but the word she chooses is almost insanely polite. “Pardon?”

“To be perfect is to be unredeemable,” says Jacob. “Eternal. Unchanging.”

Imps eat the soul that you cannot bear to keep.

“When I took my runt,” Jacob says, “I lost the power to be other than what I am.”

The maw rises.

“But thank you for telling me I will not end,” says Jacob.

The maw falls on him.

Jacob feels himself dissolving and

“And?” Jane asks.

“The end,” says Martin. “The justification for eternity has ceased for Jacob to apply.”


See also The Fable of the Lamb,
Tigers in their Cages
Coming Home (a legend about Iris)
Saturday
Priyanka
and Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw.

The Old Man of the Sea (1 of 2)

It’s Tuesday, the 20th of April, 2004.

“We’ll go away from Santa Ynez,” says Liril.

So they do.

“And do we just run?”

“We’ll go to where I screamed,” Liril says. “To Elm Hill. We’ll take back every god they took and steal every tainted bill and coin and favor they bought. Then we’ll run away to the hills and live richly forever.”

“I didn’t know,” Micah says.

“It’s what people do,” Liril says. “They keep their own gods.”

Micah looks tired. He is still recovering from torture. He is not at his best. But he tells everyone where to find the supplies he stole from a grocery store on Saturday. They find the cache.

“I should have realized,” Micah says, “about the milk.”

“I like the peanut butter,” Liril says. She has opened some up and spread it on crackers.

She thinks.

“We can live off the milk of the land,” she adds.

“That’s a good idea,” Micah agrees. “Please make one for me?”

Liril looks at him. She’s a bit startled. But then she nods, and puts peanut butter on a cracker, and offers it to him. He takes it. He bites it.

“What’s up ahead?” he asks.

“There’s a river,” she says. “That’s where we probably all die, except Tainted John. He probably dies in a train wreck.”

Tainted John looks at her, or rather, doesn’t look at her, because his eyes are all blood and shimmer.

“Oh,” says Micah.

“If we can survive two years or so,” Liril says, “we’re okay.”

“So if I get eaten by a shark,” Micah says, “I should try to hang on for at least two years.”

“Sharks are sharp. But you should try. Or if you get burned. Or whatever.”

“If I’m dangling off a cliff?”

Liril looks at him. Her eyes are deep. “Pull yourself up,” she says. “Don’t just hang on for two years.”

Micah smiles at her.

Liril blushes.

“Don’t,” she says, in a small voice.

“What happens at the river?”

“There was a gate,” Liril says. “Once upon a time. And ministers in attendance upon it. I was screaming. But they wanted me to grow up and become something else.”

“You can grow up,” Micah says. He’s deliberately ignoring the fact that he’s been the same age ever since he was born. “It’s okay to.”

“I didn’t want to,” Liril says. “Not that way.”

“Oh.”

“There were ministers I couldn’t touch because they were too strong,” says Liril. “And ministers I couldn’t touch because they were too gross. It was just the way it was. I couldn’t touch them. But there was one who was pure and bright and kind of cold. His nametag said, ‘Proteus’, and under that, ‘Cruelty.'”

“The monster is really bad at Greek,” Micah says.

“I could touch him,” Liril says, “because he was impartial to me. He didn’t have anything he was for. He was just there. So I gave him a purpose. I said, ‘Proteus, wait for me at the river, and I won’t pass through the gate until I see you there.'”

“And he did?”

“Yes,” Liril says. “And since that time there’s been no change, except when a wind blew off the chaos and brought him strength.”

“Also, I rolled a rock,” Micah says. “It changed things.”

Liril considers.

“It did,” Micah says.

Liril touches his mouth with a finger. “It was a cause,” she says. “Things have more than one reason. It’s okay. You’re a good Micah.”

He looks at her wryly.

“You’re delicate with me today,” he says.

“I looked at what she was doing to you,” Liril says. “I was crying the whole time but I couldn’t face her yet.”

“Things have reasons,” Micah says, and he shrugs. He sees her face, and his own face starts to get a little weird.

“No,” Liril says. “We won’t discuss it now. Later. Later, when it’s not—we can’t discuss it now.”

“Okay.”

They walk towards the river, carrying their bags of groceries.

“We shouldn’t cross at a bridge,” Micah says. “We shouldn’t cross anywhere people are. But the river’s kind of hard to wade.”

“I know,” Liril says. “But there’s a river-man in the river. He’s part of why it’s so deep. Tainted John’s going to hold his face down in the mud and the river’ll sink. Then we can cross.”

“Kuras did that once,” Micah says. “To defeat Belshazzar.”

“What?”

“He lowered the river that ran through Babylon, and marched his people in on the riverbed.”

“Oh,” says Liril. She looks pleased, because Micah seems a little less drained when he’s talking about this.

They reach the river. Micah looks at the river. It’s deep and wide.

“Is he . . . can John do stuff like that?”

Micah’s voice is a little resentful now. His greatest talent is surprisingly relevant historical trivia. It bothers him that Tainted John has actual magic powers.

“Can,” Liril confirms.

Tainted John looks at Micah. The boy reflected in those eyes is small and tired and dirty and smells of sweat and pain. Then John grins, and turns to the river, and flows in. The water level begins to fall.

“He’s a jerk,” Micah says.

“It’s okay.”

The water level falls further.

There’s a man standing by the river, rising from the river, falling from the trees, forming from the air. He’s old but in good shape for his age. He’s wearing a white shirt, and there’s a nametag attached that says, “Proteus,” and beneath that, “Cruelty.”

Micah looks at him.

“I think,” Micah says, “that you’re really happy that at last Liril can grow up, and so you’re going to join our rag-tag band, seal a promise of friendship with us by eating a cracker with peanut butter on it, and you’ll accompany us on our magical adventure to Elm Hill.”

“Your theory is flawed,” Proteus says.

Micah looks really tired. “Come on,” he says. “Please? I’m really tired. I don’t want to fight you.”

“I am an agent and a creature of change,” says Proteus. “They called me the Old Man of the Sea. And I have been held in stasis for more than twenty years because I chose to participate in a process otherwise marked only by horror. Now I am resentful and bitter and wish to kill you all.”

“You were there when they were breaking her,” Micah points out. “You could have helped.”

“The sea is cruel.”

“You can’t have the moral high ground at sea level,” Micah says, “unless you’re like a squid or something.”

“I buttress my moral standing with raw power,” Proteus says. He demonstrates, transforming into a tower of flame, a terrible lion, a serpent, a tiger, a silk shirt, a porcelain doll like Liril’s Latch, a dragon whose eyes are like the emptiness, an angel, a twig—

Micah steps forward, sharply, and snaps Proteus in half.

Then he sags.

“What?” Liril says.

“He was a twig,” Micah justifies. His eyes are blinking pretty quickly and there’s a horror at their back.

“Oh,” Liril says.

The river runs dry. But Micah does not stride boldly forward.

“It’s—I mean, I mean, you have to, you have to fight,” Micah says.

Liril tries to take his hand, but he wrenches away from her. He’s staring blankly at the twig.

“Oh my God,” he says. “Oh my God.”

“Micah—”

Micah snaps out of it. “We have to go,” he mumbles.

“We can fix him.”

“We have to go. It’s just a twig. Twiggy face Proteus oh God.”

Liril takes his hand. This time he accepts.

“It’s okay,” Liril says. “We can fix him. It’s okay. I didn’t tell you to break him. I didn’t mean you to.”

“He was in the way,” Micah says. “He’s . . .”

Micah’s voice is rising towards a child’s howl.

There are distant sirens.

Liril’s hand tightens on Micah’s. Slowly, he calms.

“All right,” he says. His face is pale. “How?”

Liril looks at the broken twig.

“You can fix a broken twig with construction paper,” she says. “You cut it up into pieces and paste them on as a brace. Then the twig is whole, because paper and twigs are the same.”

“I didn’t know that,” Micah says.

“Most people just leave twigs broken,” says Liril. “Most twigs aren’t, aren’t, aren’t—um.”

“People,” Micah says.

He roots around in the groceries. There is construction paper, and scissors, and tape, and glue, and paste, and crayons, and pens, and paper, because Micah’s life has provided him with a startlingly complete exposure to the lessons of kindergarden. There is also a coloring book that describes the fall of Belshazzar. He had stolen it in hopes that Liril would find time for coloring on their journey.

“Use too much paste and you’ll stick to everything,” Liril warns.

Micah ignores her. He begins to work.

“Uh,” Micah says, as he works. “There’s handwriting on this paper.”

“Like?”

“‘Anger.’ ‘Blood.’ ‘Fury.’ ‘Resentment.'”

“Huh,” Liril says.

“Huh?”

“It’s probably to make him hate us,” Liril says. “It’s too bad.”

“‘Mene,'” Micah says.

“Huh?”

“‘Mene,'” Micah says. “It just got written on this paper twice.”

“Write ‘miney moe,'” Liril advises.

Micah complies.

There’s a long pause.

“It was probably going to say ‘tekel parsin’,” Liril says. “Mene mene tekel parsin. You have been measured and found wanting and will be divided among the Medes and the Persians.”

“I don’t want to be divided among the Medes and the Persians.”

“I know,” Liril says. “It probably won’t happen. I mean, nowadays.”

“Now there’s an illustration of a middle finger,” Micah says.

“Just fix,” Liril says.

So Micah fixes Proteus with paste and cut-up pieces of construction paper. Micah gets paste on his hands and arms. Proteus gets his life back, and transforms himself into a man.

“That was rude, boy,” Proteus says, referencing the fact that Micah stepped on him and broke him in half while he was in a vulnerable ‘twig’ form.

“I tried to fix it,” Micah protests.

“I should kill you now.”

Proteus lunges at Micah. Micah’s face grows paler, but he has not lost the will to fight. He wraps his arms around the man even as they fall over backwards. Proteus becomes a thrashing shark. He becomes acid. He becomes a pony with a mouth full of terrible teeth. Then he is a man again.

“You’re holding on well,” he admits. “It’s practically heroic.”

“I don’t want to,” Micah says.

“What’s that, boy?”

“I have paste on my hands,” Micah says. “I’m sticking to everything.”

Liril looks slightly away.

“Oh,” says Proteus.

“We’re attached to the things that hurt us,” rasps out Tainted John.

There is a long silence.

Tainted John looks down and away.

There is a further silence.

Then Proteus transforms into a hissing serpent, a many-limbed horror, a tree, and a cloud, wrestling against Micah and his paste.

“Are you actually going to hurt me, or just turn into things while I’m stuck?” Micah asks.

Proteus becomes a tiger. He bites deep into Micah’s arm. Micah’s arm runs with blood. His brain fills up with endorphins, which allows him to swallow back his scream. Then Proteus is a man again, spitting and cursing.

“Um?” Micah says. He sounds a bit upset. After all, Proteus bit him, and now he’s acting all like Micah’s done something wrong.

Proteus spits.

What?

“You taste like paste.”

Micah stares at him.

“I don’t like eating paste,” says Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea.

“I’m a boy,” Micah says. “I’m supposed to taste funny.”

“You taste like paste and dirt and sweat and grass and mud.”

“Then don’t eat me,” Micah says. “I dunno. If you learn anything in kindergarden, it’s not to eat paste or boys. They taste bad and you don’t know where they’ve been!”

“Did you even go to kindergarden?”

“I . . . I’m like Kuras,” Micah says.

“Kuras?”

“His grandfather believed that Kuras would rule over all of Asia, so he ordered his servant Harpagus to set the infant Kuras down on a hillside and watch over him until he died. Instead, a miraculous sheepdog suckled him until Harpagus gave up and said, ‘Fine, he gets to live.’ It wasn’t like kindergarden, but it gave him a startlingly accurate simulation of kindergarden’s life lessons without actual attendance.”

“Ah,” says Proteus. “You mean Cyrus.

“I guess.” Micah grins a little. “He’s kind of my idol.”

“Your story differs from Herodotus’ account of the matter,” Proteus says skeptically. “In his History, he alleges that the miraculous dog-suckling was a rumor Cyrus spread purely for political gain.”

Micah handwaves, as best he can while pasted to a god.

“I think Herodotus is too cynical,” Micah says. “Kuras beat Belshazzar. He’s smart enough to have put forward a less embarrassing animal to suckle him. Like a shark. Or an eagle.”

Micah is actually sounding better, because he likes talking about Kuras.

“Probably not a shark,” Proteus says. “In the mountains.”

“A grizzled mountain shark,” Micah says.

“Hm?”

“That’s what I’d say. A grizzled mountain shark, so tough he didn’t need water and could just swim on rocks, suckled me. Then everyone would know I was badassed. But since he didn’t say that, the whole sheepdog thing must be the truth.”

Proteus reaches a sudden resolution.

“Let us not debate the veracity of Herodotus,” he says. “Instead, I will wash you off!”

He begins to run towards the sea. Micah is dragged along with him, and cannot stop him, but he shouts, “Wait! Wait! I have scissors!”

“What?”

Proteus slows.

“I have scissors,” Micah says. “You’re running with scissors. Somebody could lose an eye.”

Proteus stops cold, face going ashen.

“Your life did provide a startlingly accurate simulation of kindergarden’s lessons without actual attendance,” he says.

“I know,” Micah says.

Proteus looks towards the distant sea. He ponders how long it would take to walk to it while pasted to a boy.

“If we work together,” Proteus says, “we could probably get unstuck.”

“You’d eat Liril,” says Micah. “And then Tainted John. And me.”

“I’d eat Liril, boy. She doesn’t taste of paste. The rest of you, I dunno.”

Micah looks at the river. He looks at Tainted John. His nose curls.

“You could eat him,” Micah says.

“I don’t want to find out what he tastes like,” Proteus says. Micah is annoyed, but can’t help seeing Proteus’ point. “I just don’t.”

Tainted John smiles impassively. He is holding the river down. That’s why he can’t help!

“I can’t let you eat even Liril,” Micah says. “She’s important to me.”

“Why?”

“I’m a startingly accurate rendition of her volition,” Micah says. “I mean, I was. Before. Now maybe I’m just someone who fights for us.”

“Ah,” says Proteus.

“Ah?”

“I could give her a head start,” Proteus says.

“Or let us go?”

“I’m not inclined to be forgiving,” says Proteus. “What with the words ‘anger’, ‘fury’, ‘blood,’ ‘resentment’, and ‘mene mene miney moe’ written into my very flesh.”

“Uh,” says Micah. “I only wrote the miney moe part. Who did the rest?”

“Some creepy handwriting girl,” Proteus says. He shrugs.

“Oh.”

Micah would investigate further, but right now, he’s affixed to a man who can turn into a shark. It distracts him.

“I’ll help you get unstuck,” Micah says. “Then you’ll give her a head start.” He thinks. “But it has to be a good one. It can’t be like five seconds.”

“What about seven seconds?”

Micah looks at Liril.

Liril judges, “Seven seconds is like five seconds, even though it’s two seconds longer.”

“Five minutes?”

Liril looks unhappy.

“What?” Micah asks.

“Well, it’s not like five seconds,” Liril says, “but it’s awfully short.”

“Ten, then,” Proteus says.

Micah looks at Proteus. “Deal.”

“Deal.”

They pull at one another. They wrestle. Eventually the paste succumbs to the transience of all things. Micah and Proteus stumble apart.

Proteus turns into a talking bear.

“Run,” Proteus growls.

Micah turns to run.

“Not you,” Proteus says. He slaps Micah with the paw of a bear and Micah falls senseless to the river bed. Proteus points to Liril. “You.”

Liril runs.

Tainted John looks up. He frowns.

Liril looks back.

“Stay,” Liril says to Tainted John, for Micah is in the river bed.

And then she runs.

Myths and Heroes (II/IV)

It is 703 years before the common era.

Ella lives in the castle of King Sennacherib. Its upper levels are a thing of great majesty and glory, and the King and Ella’s sisters live there. Below that are the humbler quarters of the servants and Ella herself. In the warren beneath are cages, endless cages, full of fiends. And deeper yet, there is a dark and private place, full of a fetid, feline stench. When life is too much for her, Ella goes there, and finds the hidden rag doll she calls Tanit, and talks to it in the dark.

“Tanit,” she says, “I will tell you a story.”

“Story!” cheers Tanit. “Story!”

“There is something that even the monster fears,” she says.

“Ooh.”

Ella imagines that Tanit’s eyes are round.

“When Sodom fell,” she says, “there were two sisters who survived the scourge. Their names were Lia and Amiel.”

“Yes,” Tanit agrees, wisely.

“And Maya looked back on the city, and saw an oracle there that made her cry. It said: Amiel and Lia will love one another forever. But Lia will die, and her children will die, and all her line be mortal. And as Lia dies, Amiel will promise her, ‘I will guard your line, and our families be entwined forever.’

“And this she promised.

“And the oracle said: And these words will be false, for the guardians will prove false. Amiel shall have a daughter, and she a daughter, and she a son. And he will bear a line of men turned monsters, and they shall prey on Lia’s brood, and bring them every misery and sorrow.”

Tanit stomps her foot, or so Ella imagines. “But the monster is afraid!”

“Before she died,” Ella says, “Amiel returned to Sodom, and cracked the pillar of salt; and Maya came forth, and spoke her oracle; and Amiel set a curse on her own line. That as long as there were monsters, there could be heroes.”

Tanit considers this.

“Do you see?” Ella says. “Somewhere, there is a hero. Someone who can kill him. Someone who can fight him. He’ll come here. He’ll save me.”

She picks up the rag doll and hugs her.

“Like a prince,” she says.

Ella is prized among Sennacherib’s maidens. She is a treasure of his realm. But she takes no joy in it. He makes her do hard work from morning until night. She gets up before daybreak, carries water, lights fires, cooks and washes. She sleeps in the ashes of the fire, for she has no bed. Her sisters spill her meals there, or fill her drawers with spiders. Sennacherib cuts her, sometimes, with a thin silver blade. And one day, he names the duty: “You must clean the fiends’ cages.”

Where the fiends dwell, caged like animals, it is dark and cold and quiet. They have the faces of men or monsters, but they are not either. They are madness given form. And she lowers the grate that divides their cages, and scrubs out one half; then lets them back and scrubs out the other. She does this in silence, for she is terrified of fiends. Yet she cannot help naming them, for they are her only companions in this darkness. Razor, she calls one. Tsebanath, she names another. The worst she calls White Lion, for its great bulk is leonine in its way. Its face is the least human of them all, and its mouth larger than her sleeping hearth.

One day, as she cleans its cage, White Lion rumbles:

Ella, Ella, maiden raw.
Come and sleep between my jaws.

She turns and regards it, her heart rate rising. Only one word comes to her mind, so she speaks it: “No!”

White Lion’s eyes close, softly. “I will wait.”

Weeks pass, and months. Ella’s sister Aishah finds Tanit, Ella knows not how, and makes a show of disemboweling the doll before the court. Laughter beats against the boundaries of Ella’s mind. And, as she does every week, she goes down below to clean the cages of the fiends.

Ella, Ella, end your grief.
Let me taste you, root and leaf.
Maiden shining, maiden raw.
Rest your head between my jaws.

“No,” she insists, voice breaking with fear. And White Lion’s eyes close.

“I will wait.”

Weeks pass, and months. Ella dreams of a hero, but the dreams are cold and distant. It is harder to cling to such dreams in days like these.

Ella, Ella, fair of face.
I know a special, secret place.
Let your winter turn to thaw.
Come and sleep between my jaws.

She sits down, exhausted, on the floor.

“Please,” she says. “Do not do this.”

It regards her, silent.

“I don’t want to die.”

“Ah,” rumbles White Lion.

“So I don’t want you to eat me.”

White Lion hisses, and its fetid breath casts clouds of dust across the room. “Child,” it says, “I do not wish to devour you. I wish to know you.”

“Pardon?”

“You know how we are made,” it says.

“My sisters,” Ella says. “Aishah. Zenobia. He . . . emptied them, and broke them. Then he used their emptiness to make you.”

“There are angels in this castle,” White Lion says. “They are born to fill Zenobia’s emptiness with hope. And fiends, to answer Aishah’s hurt with madness. And demons, and ghosts, and dragons, besides. Yet we are not whole. He keeps us from them. In that separation is his strength.”

The fiends in their cages are still now. They are listening to White Lion.

“I wish to know you,” White Lion says. “To become yours. And then to know you further. Then I will not be weak. I will be complete. And I will be free.”

“I won’t,” she whispers. “I don’t want you.”

So she goes up to the hearth, and curls up in the ashes, and shivers herself to sleep.

“Good morning, Ella,” says a voice. It’s a girl’s voice, but still Ella starts awake, and thinks of heroes. It is with two sickening shocks in turn that she sees the truth: not a hero, nor a girl, but rather a tiny fairy maid, leaning against the hearth. In defiance of the dirt and ash, the fairy’s blue gown is as pristine as the sky.

“No,” Ella whispers.

“My name,” the fairy says, “is Tanit. And I have come to deliver you from this place.”

“Please don’t be real.”

The fairy looks dispassionately at her. “It’s not for you or I to decide such things. I exist; I am here; we must both learn to cope.”

Ella holds out her hand, and the fairy steps into it, and Ella holds her up. “He wants me to break,” she says. “He wants to drain away the pieces of myself, until my soul is a patchwork of gossamer. Then he will use the emptiness and use it to craft gods. If you are real, then it means that I am breaking. That I have begun to resemble the void. And that you are the first child of it.”

Tanit sighs and sits down, cross-legged in Ella’s palm.

“Do you know what fairies are?” she asks.

“No.”

So Tanit speaks:

Each person has a world.
It is just so long,
And just so wide,
And just so tall.
Yet there are things beyond its boundaries.
Wildness and magic.
Power.
A fire.
When emptiness looks on the beyond,
The fire casts reflections.

“That is a fairy,” Tanit says. “We are the reflections of that fire. The radiance of the beyond. And I can offer you freedom.”

“No,” Ella says, and her eyes fill with tears. “I’ve tried. I ran, once. I ran all the way to the castle gates. They were there. In sight. And I stopped. I could not make myself go further. I sat down. I waited for him to find me. To punish me. Because I was not strong enough.”

“Ah.”

“I could only choose two things,” Ella says quietly. “To hate myself, or to say, ‘There can be no freedom.'”

Tanit looks down at herself. Her wings shimmer. “Yet I reflect something,” she says. “For I am here.”

Ella tilts her head to one side. “You smell of cat,” she says. Then there’s a mad rage in her eyes, and she flings the fairy to one side, and Tanit flutters dazedly about and scarcely misses the wall.

“No!” Ella shouts.

“Ella?”

At the sound of that voice, Ella goes still. Tanit becomes the drifting of disturbed cinders in the air; and if this is voluntary or involuntary, Ella does not know. She does not care. The voice is Aishah’s, and Aishah is walking in.

“Ella,” Aishah says, “you must not shout so, early in the morning.” She smiles. It’s a crooked, bent smile. “It is not surprising from a filthy cinder girl, but it is still improper.”

“I’m sorry,” Ella says. She ducks her head.

Aishah’s eyes widen. “Dear Ella,” she says.

“No,” whispers Ella; but Aishah walks to her, and lifts her chin.

“Why,” Aishah says, “there’s a hollow in your voice, and in your eyes.”

“No.”

“You are becoming like us.” Some of the coldness fades from Aishah’s voice. It is layered, for a moment, with a bright, mad joy.

“No.”

“Sister,” Aishah says, “it is a thing to celebrate. If this is so, I can give aside my torment of you, and spilling your meals in the ashes, and filling your drawers with spiders. At long last! We may be siblings again. I can dress you in finest raiment, and we can braid one another’s hair, and we can talk of fine and precious things.”

“I am not like you yet.”

Aishah’s eyes shutter. “No,” she says. And she walks to the door. “Yet still I will hold to pleasure, in my heart. For I have longed for this. I have longed for him to raise you up, to join us at his side, and no more the fiends, and no more the knives. I have missed you; and you have been too stubborn in your self to care.”

Then she is gone. And as Tanit reforms, Ella snatches her from the air, and Ella flees like a beast down into the castle’s depths.

“White Lion, White Lion,” she says.

White lion, white lion,
Would you taste of my skin?
Rip the King open from torso to chin.
White lion, white lion,
Do you want to be mine?
Rip the King open from stomach to spine.
White lion, white lion,
This maiden is yours
If you’ll kill the King whom my sister adores.

White Lion studies her for a time.

“I will tell you a secret,” it rumbles.

“What secret is that?”

“In all the years since Lia and Amiel,” White Lion says, “there has not been a hero.”

It is a cold white shock.

“Why are you not a god, Ella?” White Lion asks. “Why are you flesh? Why can my teeth cut you? Why can my claws cleave your bones?”

Ella hesitates. The pressure of its gaze is on her, and a blinding headache rises.

“Because there is a price.”

It pads forward, and its cage cracks and breaks. It sets its paw on her chest and she sinks like paper to the ground.

“Listen,” it breathes, and its stink washes over her. “We are as we define ourselves, whether fairy, fiend, or maid. If you wish a hero, then become one.”

Its mouth comes down over her, and swallows her in darkness and pain.

“What price?” she asks the darkness.

But in the end, it does not matter.

“I want to kill him,” she says.

Wrong.

The stench makes her dizzy. She is on the verge of fainting. She thinks about what she has chosen; and then makes a small correction.

“I promise,” she says. “I will kill him.”