No Crutches for an Angel

The angel cannot see and cannot hear.

So he imagines forests.

The sun is hot and sometimes he tastes sand. But he imagines forests and talking animals. In the evening when he is thirsty he imagines that there is a river blue and clear. In the mornings he thinks that there is a pillow made of loam.

In his heart there is a drumming.

It drums because it is a warning. It drums because he will bring devastation. It drums the vengeance of the Lord.

It will burn the things around him.

It will burn with a terrible fire, unless he finds ten just and good and wholly righteous men.

“I think,” says a sloth, that is hanging from a tree, which the angel now imagines, “that you have already released this fire. For look, the sun is hot, and all around you there is sand.”

“Sometimes,” the angel says—

Though he cannot say much, as his tongue has melted to the bottom of his mouth—

“Sometimes I brush up against what seem like buildings, or I am pelleted with bullets. So I do not think that this is so.”

The answer is as haughty as a Queen’s.

“We sloths, we disagree.”

The angel stumbles on.

It is late in the day and he is tired and it is hard to hold back the fire that lurks behind the drumbeat in his heart when he meets Mikhael.

That is the name he gives the man.

He does not know the true name for the man because he cannot hear and he cannot see and he cannot speak. This is something that makes introductions difficult, particularly when you do not share a common tongue.

So he names the man Mikhael.

He says, “I feel you. I feel you in my heart.”

He is seized up. People grab his arms. Something goes over his head. He is pulled and he is dragged and his feet leave the ground.

Tum-dum, goes his heart.

Tum-dum.

He flares his great feathered wings. He makes a choked-off sound. He gargles.

But because he feels Mikhael near him, still, his heart retains some element of peace. He is frustrated. He is disoriented. He is angry and confused.

He is not enraged.

Something slides into his arm, metal in a vein, and time becomes a whirl.

“I feel you,” he says.

He is groping through a fever and looking for the sensation that told him that Mikhael was near.

“Ha,” laughs a duck. “You are an angel deaf and blind. What makes you think you are ever anything but alone?”

The sensation is distant. But he clings to it.

His heart still beats: tum-dum.

He is treated roughly. His wrists are sore.

Then he feels a mouth against his cheek. It is whispering to him through the vibration of his bones. It is too hard to hear but because his heart feels Mikhael he makes sense of certain words.

“You fell to earth,” says Mikhael. “And you were deaf and you were blind. And it is sad, because that makes it difficult to find a righteous man.”

“You have no idea,” says the angel.

It has a lot more humor and joy than something like that should have—gallows humor, but still this explosion of mirth in him, that someone would see that hidden pain and then think that perhaps the angel might not already be aware.

“You were captured,” says Mikhael. “Studied. It was decided that you should be turned loose against strategic targets. That you would wander here, in our homeland, until you failed to find ten righteous men. Then our land would be destroyed.”

“Ha,” says the angel.

He makes moaning, mumbling noises with his mouth. But what his heart says is, “You have no idea. You are making this about you. You are forgetting that I am laboring with every moment of my life not to hurt you but I am suffering myself.”

“You have been captured,” says Mikhael. “You have been bound. My people, they thought at first that they could contain you in this fashion.”

He makes an apology with his next words.

“I told them how to find you. I told them you were here.”

“Mikhael,” says the angel. “Will you bring me righteous men?”

“I am afraid,” says Mikhael, “that they have all been slain. There were never very many. There are children still, and dogs and cats, who are not unworthy. And they were indifferently incomplete in eliminating the women; three righteous such remain. But if it is only men whose hearts will serve then there are none; and if infants are excluded, then we can muster only eight. The rest are dead. They have been slain.”

The angel frowns.

“They have been slain,” he repeats.

“They were hunted for their righteousness,” says Mikhael. “It was elementary. There would be no point to send you here only to allow some incompetent discovery of ten righteous men to stop the fall of Heaven’s wrath.”

“Oh,” says the angel.

He turns his thoughts inwards for a time. He is thinking that perhaps Mikhael is righteous and that perhaps Mikhael is not. It is difficult to tell from the rough voice against his cheek and the tremor in his heart.

“Then you must hold me deep,” says the angel, “deep beneath the earth, deep in some far and isolated place, where the Heavens may rumble and the earth may crack but lives shall not be lost. Let the skies burn out their outrage against a nothing target and then all shall be well. —Or kill me.”

“I cannot do these things,” says Mikhael.

“But you must.”

“I have told them,” says Mikhael, “that you are an angel, and that we must therefore let you go. I have argued long and hard and finally I have won out. They fear me because I understand their hearts and they do not dare to go against this wisdom. They will hate me, of course. One day they will probably kill me out of fear. But while they let me live they listen to my voice and so they will let you go.”

“There are none?” asks the angel. His voice is a plea.

“The standards of an angel—“ says Mikhael. “They are not like ordinary men. I tell you, there are darknesses in every human heart. There are weaknesses and follies. They are not righteous. Save sometimes I would meet one of those who moved among us—frightening, inhuman, perfect, clear. They were the opposite of monsters, antipaths to devils that walked among us men. They shone and they frightened me and I thought that most likely they were as unworthy to live among us as we to live with them. They were obvious to those like me. They were obvious and easy targets and one by one their lives went out.

“They welcomed it, I think,” Mikhael says. “These are hard times for the righteous.”

“O,” cries the angel.

The bonds are stripped roughly from his wrists. He is dragged somewhere. He stumbles and he twists his leg but still they drag him on.

He feels the presence of a door.

“But I must kill you all,” says the angel, “if I find no righteous men.”

He falls onto the street outside. It is rough beneath his hands. He feels Mikhael go.

It comes to him softly there that if he is deaf and blind he must decide the presence or absence of righteous men upon his own; that the world, it cannot tell him, whether the angel now must act.

But he does not understand.

He does not see.

He does not understand how Mikhael let him go.

Wii News*

“Shake your fists at bad news,” the television explains.

Jane grips a peculiar controller in one hand. She grips an attached controller in the other.

The television displays an ordinary street in an ordinary town.

Jane shakes her fists!

A red bar stretches across the bottom of the screen. It fades to orange, then to yellow, then peaks.

“Mild outrage,” declares the television. “HIGH PRICES!”

The prices in the store windows of the town go up. Pedestrians walk around in outrage.

“It really happens, you know,” Martin comments.

“Hm?”

“That’s what makes it ‘news’ and not a ‘simulation.'”

“Oh!”

Jane looks apologetically at the unhappy pedestrians.

“I mean, it’s okay,” Martin emphasizes. “News happens all the time. But it happens.”

“News is everywhere,” Jane agrees.

The television image shifts to a fire in California. “Cheer for good news!” it explains.

The fire is sweeping through the undergrowth.

Birds die. Chipmunks roast. In a house next to the woods a baby is crying.

Hesitantly, Jane puts her thumb up.

There’s silence.

Cheer for good news,” the television reminds her.

Jane looks at her thumb. After a moment, she blushes.

“Right!” she says.

She pumps her right fist in the air, the left controller dangling. A green bar rises. It crests.

“This just in,” the television declares, a little reporter popping up in the upper right corner. “Fire extinguished!”

The fire vanishes.

A fireman rushes in.

“Bonus good news!” the television says, “Fireman saves baby!”

The fireman seizes up the baby and runs out of the house.

The television shifts to a riot in Ghana.

“Free play!” it says.

Jane pumps her fist in the air. She pumps harder and harder.

“Good news!” the television declares. The riot settles. Everyone realizes that violence solves nothing. Jane pumps her fist harder. Systemic injustice vanishes! People begin to riot from sheer happiness.

“Let me try,” Martin says.

“No way!”

“I bet I can shake my fists harder than you can,” Martin says.

Jane hesitates.

“Here,” he says. “It’s got a two-player mode.”

Martin’s already taking up his own controllers.

“Only if you’ll help me eradicate systemic injustice.”

“In Sweden,” Martin counters.

“The Americas.”

“Sweden and Chicago.”

“The Middle East.”

“Canada. And that’s my final offer.”

Jane thinks.

“Maybe if we waited for a neutral story?” she suggests.

“What, like adorable baby tigers found on the subway?”

“Mm,” Jane says, happily, imagining. Then she jolts out of her reverie. “Hey!”

Martin coughs.

“Evil ducks threatened by tidal wave,” the television notes.

“Evil ducks?”

“Tidal wave?”

Jane and Martin look at one another. Together, they say, “It’s win-win!”

* for technical reasons this legend is not actually about the Wii News Channel.

Letters Column for April 2006: Blogging Against Bath Martin Day

If 10% of the chaste and holy monks are gay, does that fulful the requirements of b-a-hetronormativity day?
— mneme

Isolated single-gender populations tend to exhibit a sharply higher incidence of homosexual attraction than is otherwise natural. There are also social factors that would presumably skew the base population towards high Kinsey.

That said, you can make the strong case that monks are heteronormative by default. They support the default assumption of our society that when you have two men together, they won’t so much be kissing as praying, cultivating a simple life, or training one another in powerful kung fu.

I feel kind of sad that blog against heteronormativity day is the *one* blog against X day I’ve managed to make so far, so I would also like to take this occasion to note that I am also very much against X.

Do you dream about Hitherby characters sometimes, Rebecca?
— tylercat

Not when I’m asleep. ^_^

I just remembered that in the dream there was a miniature man named Bath Martin who the queen had created to clean bathtubs. That’s just strange.
— tylercat

And thus Sir Quacks-A-Lot came to the black court of Bath Martin on the other side of the drain.

Bath Martin sat slumped upon his throne, his hat askew.

Casually, he gestured.

“Raar!” cried the Bath Scum Beast. It reared its shining head. Its maw dripped open. It galumphed towards Sir Quacks-A-Lot. But in three moves the knight slew it. Its substance boiled as it died, cracking, releasing heat, and sizzling there, in the black court of Bath Martin, on the other side of the drain.

“Do you have more?” asked Sir Quacks-A-Lot.

Bath Martin considered. He raised his hand.

The Lady of Hair stepped forward. Beneath the eddying of her hair Sir Quacks-A-Lot was sure he saw a face.

“I can’t kill a Lady,” said Sir Quacks-A-Lot.

“What is your chivalry to me?” asked Bath Martin.

So there happened deeds not spoken of in the bathtime books, nor sung of on Sesame Street.

“I had expected her to kill you,” said Bath Martin.

“I have come on a holy mission,” said Sir Quacks-A-Lot. “I am here to destroy this black court you have builded, on the other side of the drain. I cannot let myself be killed.”

“Fool of a duck,” said Bath Martin.

He rose. He took off his hat. He set it down.

“What business has a bath toy down the drain?” he asked, stepping forward. “What is it to you what I build with the scum and hair and dirt that the owner leaves in the bathtub between cleanings? Can’t you understand that there is no virtue in a bath save that created by the contrast between light and darkness, cleanliness and shadow, the porcelain of the bath and the scum of my court?”

“It is true that bathtime loses something,” said Sir Quacks-A-Lot, “if it is only light, and never darkness. But you are clogging the drain, Bath Martin. You are clogging the drain.”

“And will you fight me, then?” asked Bath Martin.

His hands ringed themselves with an aura of lye such as to scrub the faltering dreams of light from any rubber duckie’s eyes.

“No,” said Sir Quacks-A-Lot. “I would never defeat you.”

“What then?”

And Sir Quacks-A-Lot touched the button on his chest and the bath bomb ignited.

And of the black court of Bath Martin on the other side of the drain little more is heard.

There are some who say that to bathe in a tub where light opposes darkness is best; and there are some who say that a bath bomb from Lush supercedes the virtue of dark kingdoms. But to pontificate on such things is cruel and arrogant when you have never been Bath Martin, a creator tasked with an employment of destruction, or Sir Quacks-A-Lot, driven by necessity beyond the chivalry of ducks.

I guess vampire hell is modular arithmetic…
— cariset

It’s one of the best Hells to go to if you’re a human, though.

I imagine that it would be something like this.

Mr. Dobson rears up from the stinking muck, tentacles flailing, eyes blazing with infernal fire. Wielding the judgment given unto him by the LORD, he says, “I curse ye to HELL!”

You plummet, screaming, towards the lake of fire and brimstone. But at the last moment, you whip out your parasol and open it. The wind of the netherworld, driven by the heat of the lake, catches hold. It yanks you sideways into the Hell of Modular Arithmetic.

“One, two, three, zero, one, two, three,” counts a helpless vampire beside you.

But you!

You are not intimidated.

“I demand sandwiches!” you cry.

The modular arithmetic devils snarl and make you do modular arithmetic. “What’s seven plus two?” they sneer.

“One,” you say.

They cringe before you. You are the master here now.

“Sandwiches,” you remind them, your voice low and dangerous.

They scurry off. They bring you sandwiches.

“Two, three, zero, one, two, three,” counts the vampire.

“Someone increment that poor bastard’s modulus,” you say.

“FOUR!” cries the vampire. “Four! Ahahahahahaha!”

Lightning flashes. Thunder booms, for the first time in a million years, in Hell.

“All right,” you say. “You devils. You vampire. And you, over there, with your special bag. We’re going to take that Dobson on.”

“But what about me?” asks Mr. Phelps. He was totally prepared for Hell—he had a parasol and an enchanted deck of poker cards. But he never studied modular arithmetic, so he never got his chance to win Hell from the Devil in three hands!

“You stay there, Mr. Phelps,” you say. “Next to the Pain Octopus.”

It’s cruel to the Pain Octopus, but you can’t help it! You’re a firm believer in predestination, and you know God had planned the damnation of that octopus all along.

Your score is 5 points out of a possible 7, giving you a title of RAPTURE ROOKIE.

Anyway! That’s all the letters for this month. Thanks for reading, thanks for donating, thanks for commenting, thanks for everything!

I’ll be aiming to update every other day until I feel better.

Rebecca

Paradise Forgotten

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

Hippolyta has made her child out of clay.

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

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

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

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

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

So she’d wanted to stop.

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

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

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

She turns away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

It is some twelve years later.

Mars burns red in the night.

“Please,” whispers Helen.

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

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

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

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

She holds two doctorates.

She has several world records in marathon and track events.

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

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

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

The ship shudders.

Mars burns.

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

“Helen Alexandros,” says the voice of Mars.

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

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

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

What this means even Helen does not know.

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

Forgive me, she thinks.

And she accepts.

**

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

She lands.

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

**

There is a tower wherein Pandora dwells.

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

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

That she should never leave.

Inside her flesh there boil demons of all kinds.

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

Ah!

She is fragile, Pandora.

She is easily crushed.

The law would not allow her firing.

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

Her footfalls are like a distant thunder.

Her shadow is black like a pool of pitch.

“You will let me through,” she says.

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

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

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

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

Strides forward to take Pandora.

But:

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

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

And there is something about her that gives Illudium concern.

“Hmph,” snorts Illudium, the Swan.

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

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

Slowly, Illudium turns back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a sharpness, like the cracking of a pot—

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

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

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

And of Illudium, we do not speak.

Hans’ Farm

Hans’ farm is deep beneath the earth. It’s under the great gate. It’s under the giant centipede. It’s under the bridge where the dead soldiers march.

The rock over Hans’ farm is beautiful and dark. But the farm is doleful because Hans does bad things.

It’s bad to sharpen a goat.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

You can sharpen goat cheese but it’s bad to sharpen the actual goat.

Hans’ goat is sawing, sawing, sawing on the bars of its pen.

It tosses its head. It cuts the wooden boards of the ceiling with its great sharp head. Then it returns to its sawing, sawing, sawing on the steel bars of its pen.

It is not a good goat.

Nobody wants Hans’ goat to escape.

That would be bad.

It’s bad to plug in a cow.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

Electricity is good, but not too much electricity, and just about any amount is too much for a cow.

Hans’ cow is there, on his farm deep beneath the earth. It’s pretty shocked. It’s crackling. It’s dancing. It aurores. Soon it is on fire.

Hans’ cow burns.

Hans’ cow burns, deep beneath the world.

It’s bad to whisk a duck.

No, seriously. I know a lot of people think it’s hip.

But it’s not.

It’s bad to whisk a duck.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

Whisking is cool. You can whisk things and make them fluffy. You can whisk them to and fro. It’s good to whisk eggs and make them foam.

But it’s bad to whisk a duck.

When you whisk a duck, it quacks vigorously and flutters, and that part is good. But then it dies, and its spirit can never rest.

Hans’ duck is glowering.

It is hungry.

It is glowering.

It endures its whisked existence:

On Hans’ farm, deep beneath the earth.

The Trouble with Bubbles

Margaret slips into a warm bubble-filled bath.

“Calgon,” she says, languidly, “Take me away!”

Then come the Calgon-horses down from the sky, four of them, caparisoned with the foam of the stars. Their eyes are burning with blue fires and their breath is smoke in the void.

They are racing past the bathtub now. There is a wrench and a jerk as their bathhooks catch hold. Margaret’s bathtub lurches into motion. It crashes through the bathroom wall into the hallway of her apartment complex. It skitters down the hall, now leaning right, now leaning left. It breaks through the outer wall of her apartment complex and arcs majestically across the street.

A truck horn roars.

“No, Calgon!” cries Margaret. “Left! Left!”

The horses rear and whinny. The bathtub whisks to the side. It careens against the window of a Chinese food store, drenched with hanging ducks. It rattles along the sidewalk.

Now Margaret points upwards, towards the city that is her destination.

“There,” she says.

But the horses lower down their heads, and look into the grates along the street; and a cold chill horror joins the lavender of the bath.

“Please,” says Margaret. “No. Calgon, don’t take me below.”

Mr. Clean is standing in the distance, on the streets, his bald head shining. His hands are on his hips. He is laughing.

And Margaret casts her eyes to him in appeal, but that doughty man of affordable cleaning solutions is as ruthless as the sun.

“Someone,” says Margaret.

And there are a few who run towards the bathtub rather than away, but they are not enough.

What has been said cannot be unsaid; and Calgon takes Margaret to a place without recourse.

The Fable of the Lamb (1 of 2)

It is Friday, the 23rd of April, 2004.

Cunning Melanie, beloved of the gods, wears a dark black suit and a nametag with one name. She eats well. She drinks in moderation. She bikes to work every morning. Most people drive, but they don’t get to feel the wind. She feels the wind. Every day, on the way to work, she feels the wind. She knows it’s changed. So she watches. She watches the trees outside her window, and the squares of concrete, and the lawn.

She is the first, of all who work at Central, to know that the hero and the monster have come.

She walks into her lab.

“Stefan, Vincent, Harold,” she says.

They look up from their computers. They are her students, close to her heart.

“The hero and the monster have come,” she says. “This means that Central is not safe.”

“He is only Sebastien,” says Stefan.

“Perhaps.”

“And the monster outranks us,” Stefan points out.

“The hero can kill monsters,” says Melanie. “So I must ask you: have you committed such crimes that you might bear that name?”

“It seems unfair,” Harold grouses. “He exists to kill that monster. He should not branch out to anyone who simply behaves in a monstrous fashion.”

“Alas,” Melanie says. “Harold may not arrange the world!”

“Alas,” Harold phlegmatically confirms.

“We must remove him,” Melanie says. “It shall be Stefan first.”

“Why?”

“Because you have said, ‘he is only Sebastien.'”

“It was my optimistic confidence,” Stefan says. “Don’t punish such a cheery attitude—it will lead you to sorrow! Your subordinates will paste Dilbert comics on their cubicles and mock your management practices.”

“They should regret such actions bitterly,” says Melanie.

“Fah,” declares Stefan, resigned.

Stefan

The hero opens the door. He walks into Central. He has the monster at his side.

There is a security desk at the entrance to the building. Dave is a guard. He’s sitting behind the desk. He nods to the monster. The monster nods back.

“Cheerio, sir,” says Dave. “Good to see you again.”

“Cheerio,” says the monster.

“Does he know what happens here?” the hero asks.

“Oh, yes,” says the monster. “But it’s a living.”

“Ah,” says the hero.

Dave ducks his head.

Upstairs, Stefan takes down a gun. He checks it. Then he practices the swift-step. He is behind the hero. The gun is in his hand. He is firing. The bullet tears through the hero’s chest, piercing right through the heart.

Uh oh, Stefan! There’s just a hollow where the hero’s heart should be.

The hero is staggering back. There’s a lot of blood and trauma in a heart shot, even if your heart’s in a box somewhere far away.

Stefan swift-steps to the armory.

“I need a shotgun,” he says.

There’s a web, or a net, or maybe just a shredded mesh of raw tissue, spread throughout the room. It has eyes suspended in it. They turn on him. They swivel. There are teeth. They chatter.

“It’s an emergency,” Stefan says.

The eyes turn away. A shotgun clatters to the floor at Stefan’s feet. He picks it up. He readies it. Ka-CHUNK.

He thinks about angles. Dave will probably die too, and maybe the monster, but you have to finish what you start. If you don’t, you end up dead.

Stefan practices the swift-step.

The hero’s sword meets his neck. Stefan swift-stumbles backwards to the office, but it’s too late. His head is hanging on a thread of tissue.

“Damn it, Melanie,” he says.

Then his head falls off, and all he can do is blink until he dies.

Vincent

“Vincent,” Melanie says.

“No,” Vincent says.

“Why not?”

“Harold’s invulnerable,” Vincent says.

“You’re more likely to win,” Melanie says.

“He’s invulnerable.

“Technically, I’m vulnerable to Kryptonite,” Harold points out.

“But there’s no such substance.”

“That’s true,” Harold concedes. “It’s a good weakness for Superman, but it’s not very balanced for me.”

Harold

A long time ago, they gave Liril a doll named Latch. They let her keep it for a while. They promised it would be safe if she was good. So she was good. She combed its hair. She hugged it tight. Then they took it from her. She had to watch as bad things happened to it. She didn’t know what she’d done wrong.

But she didn’t let Latch die.

The god of such moments is called an aegis. Harold carries one, because they are the subject of his study. He has charts on his wall of their spiritual anatomy. He has done surgery on his aegis, and other things besides, to stretch the limits of the god.

He feels it gently. It is in his pocket.

Then he walks down to meet the hero.

The Hero

“Are you all right?” Dave asks.

Dave’s hand is under the hero’s elbow. His other hand is behind the hero’s shoulders.

“‘m ff,” the hero says. He’s trying to imply that he’s fine.

“I don’t . . .” Dave looks at the monster. “I don’t understand.”

“All-hands in the main conference room in twenty minutes,” says the monster. “I’ll explain then.”

“He’s really lucky he’s not dead,” Dave says. “I mean, what with the not having a heart and all.”

“Got a heart,” the hero says. “It’s in a box.”

“Oh.”

“The box is in a duck,” the hero says.

“Oh,” Dave says again.

“I need air,” the hero says. He walks back out. He sits down heavily in the square. The monster follows. There’s not a speck of blood on the monster’s outfit.

“What?”

“I don’t kill people often,” the hero says.

“He had a swift-step god. That’s sort of like being an escalator.”

“What’s the point of a bike rack,” the hero says, “with only one bloody bike?”

“It wasn’t bloody before you started leaning on it,” the monster says.

“I’m cranky,” the hero says. “I’ll stab you if you don’t stop it with the humorous commentary.”

The monster flares his nostrils.

“Who was he?” the hero asks.

“Stefan,” says the monster. “Experimental theologian.”

“I ate lunch with him every day,” Harold says, emerging onto the lawn. “He never picked up the check.”

“Ah,” says the hero. “More company with guns.”

Harold fires at the hero’s head. It misses. Most bullets do.

The hero’s sword comes up, right through the bike rack, right through Melanie’s bike, and stabs into Harold’s chest.

“That’s not good,” says Melanie, watching.

“Ow,” says Harold.

He looks down at his chest. He looks at the hero’s chest. Then he giggles.

“Now you and us are even stevens,” he says.

The hero gets to his feet, and drives the sword in deeper. It’s up to its hilt in Harold’s chest. Harold doesn’t seem to mind.

“I took generic ibuprofen before coming out to fight you,” he says. “That’s why the pain’s not so bad.”

Harold aims his gun under the hero’s chin. The hero elbows it out of Harold’s hand. It skitters across the ground and lands in soft verdant grass. Then the hero gets tired from blood loss and exertion and finds himself leaning gently against Harold’s shoulder.

“This is an awkward moment,” observes the monster.

“Why did you bring him here?” Harold asks.

“If you’d held off the assassination attempts until after the all-hands,” the monster says, “you’d probably know.”

Harold sighs. He shoves the hero away. The hero, blearily, refuses to shove. He grips Harold’s arms and holds them tightly against Harold’s body.

“I’ll squeeze,” the hero warns. So he does. The hero is very strong. Then blood comes out and he’s very weak. Then he’s very strong again. Then he falls back against the bike rack. Because it’s neatly cut in two, there are sharp edges pushing against his back.

“I’m invulnerable,” Harold says, apologetically. He starts walking towards his gun.

The hero leaps onto Harold’s back, and Harold falls to the ground. There’s a bike lock wrapped in the hero’s hands, and it’s choking Harold.

“Damn it,” Harold says. He’s not prone to profanity, even when he spills acid on himself or a really good woman dumps him, but he’s just realized that it’s a Kryptonite lock.

Then he’s dead.

All Hands

“Vincent,” Melanie says.

“I have really good hearing,” Vincent says. “That’s my only power. I have a rabbit familiar. I can hop. I can hear things. I’m not going to be able to kill him.”

“Oh.”

“Besides, the monster says that we should save assassination attempts until after the all-hands meeting. That sounds reasonable to me.”

“If you kill him before the all-hands, then there’ll be more seating for everyone else.”

“We can pull in an extra chair,” Vincent says. “It’s okay.”

So they go to the all-hands meeting.

“I bring a message of love,” says the monster, “from a girl named Jane.”

The monster has a laptop. It’s connected to a projector. The first slide in his PowerPoint presentation shows a large picture of a heart. It’s a formal Valentine heart and not a pulsing human heart. It’s labeled as slide one.

The monster clicks to the next slide.

“Jane wants you to redeem yourselves,” he says. The slide shows a picture of the monster, looking very uncomfortable, hugging a puppy. The puppy is licking the monster’s tie. It’s labeled as slide two. “We have committed acts of evil here, and horror unmeasured by morality. It is time to rededicate yourselves and this installation to compassion, love, and the healing of the world.”

Most of the people in the all-hands look uncomfortable. One hand raises. The monster points. “Yes?”

“What’s the threat?”

The monster’s voice is silk. “The threat?”

“What is she holding against you and/or us?”

“Ah,” says the monster. He clicks past several slides. He reaches slide five. It’s a chart of profit over time for 2002, 2003, and first quarter 2004. “In 2003,” he says, “the Earth Division cleared over two hundred million gross, with nearly forty million in profit. We control one of the three most powerful arsenals of theological weaponry in the known world, and have the chance to pioneer an uncharted and illegal science. What’s wrong with this picture?”

He clicks. There’s a picture of a globe. It’s lightly tinged with red—a dusting here, a deepening there, a bit of crimson spotted through the seas.

“This is the sum of our influence,” he says. “We have theoretically unlimited power, but in practice, our profits are penny ante and our influence tiny. The gods we make are isn’ts. They are severed from us. The greatest host of Faerie assembled in our time failed to topple the Nicaraguan government. The unbounded horrors born unto the Federated States of Micronesia are dying at human hands. And we make forty million a year from the ability to circumvent natural law and bend humans and nations alike to our desiring. We are an isn’t.”

The monster clicks to the next slide. There’s a picture of Martin. He’s leaning against the wall, looking away from the camera.

“This is what Jane has. She has a creature that can breach the boundary and make gods real. He can manifest dharma. If he sends to us a killing god, there are none of us safe. Conversely, should he manifest Ii Ma, then we may imprison any man we choose, without recourse, without jurisdiction, without protection. We would simply speak a man’s name, and Ii Ma would take him away. This creature’s contemners could destroy our enemies with near-perfect reliability. His footsoldiers—”

There’s a little giggle in the room. At this point, the footsoldiers are not much more than an in-joke to the Central crowd.

“Well,” says the monster, expressively.

He clicks ahead a few more slides.

“The rules are simple,” the monster says. “She is willing to forgive. Simply come up to this podium, and say, ‘It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.’ Then turn, and walk through the door on the right, and begin your new life as an employee of a new, brighter, more loving Earth Division. Or walk through the door to the left, and continue your life as normal.”

The rules are displayed on the screen.

A hand raises. The monster points.

This is a Vice-President in Charge of Sales. His name is Miles, for what it matters. “This is a game, right? I mean, you’re not bloody serious. We’re not going to—I mean, it’s fucking crazy.”

The hero kills a Vice-President in Charge of Sales. His name was Miles.

The monster clears his throat.

“It is juvenile,” he says. “In the literal sense. I’ve sold you all out, and that puts each and every one of you at the mercy of a child. She’s about six years old, and each of you has collaborated, directly or ex post facto, in torturing her. If you refuse to play in her little tea party, I won’t save you, because that’s not in my interest. You can repent in jest, treating it as a game, but I imagine that something horrible would come out from under your bed and devour you in the night. It’s up to you. Leave through the left, or leave through the right.”

The monster turns off his laptop. “That’s all.”

The first man stands up. His name is Leonard. He walks to the front. He says, quietly, “It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.”

He walks out through the door to the right.

The second man stands up. His name is Douglas, not that it matters. He walks to the front. He turns to the left. He walks left. The hero kills him.

“Hey,” says a woman in the back. Her name is Heather. “Hey!”

“What?” the monster asks.

“You can’t redeem people at the point of a sword.”

“Maybe I just had a grudge against that particular guy,” the hero suggests. He turns Douglas over. He reads the nametag. “‘Doug.’ Maybe he killed my cat.”

“It’s not morally correct as a means for gaining contrition!” Heather protests. She’s an armchair ethicist, and gets very vigorous about such things.

“If it’s within you to be redeemed,” says the monster, “then it shouldn’t matter what incentives are applied. If not, then redemption is impossible, even at the point of a flower.”

Heather frowns in frustration. “Did you . . . did you say those things, doctor? About it being wrong and vile?”

The monster smirks. He didn’t have to. Jane’s emotionally entangled with him, Martin needs him, and the hero’s messed up in the head. “It’s not relevant, dear lady,” he says.

Heather’s face pinches. She looks very upset. But she walks to the front. She looks nervously at the hero. “I didn’t collaborate,” she says. “I mean, not really.”

She turns left. She walks left. The hero kills her.

One by one, they go towards the front. Most of them make the speech now, and turn right. Two of them fight the hero. One of them dies normally. The other one dies with a shout and a bitter complaint on his lips, something to the effect of, “He didn’t have a harpoon when I attacked him.” A few others slink forward to die.

The Fable of the Lamb

Melanie takes out the needle and puts a bandaid on Vincent’s arm.

“Go,” says Melanie.

Vincent walks to the front. He turns left. The hero looks at him.

“I grew up here,” Vincent says. “It took me a long time to know that what we did was wrong. And then I couldn’t think of anything that could stop it. There’s nobody to tell, nobody to warn. Half the system is corrupt and the other half wouldn’t believe me. So I help the kids when I can. I try to give them a little bit of light. And I help the staff. Because I work here, because they gave me a place here, because I love them too. So I’m going to go left, and you’re not going to kill me, because heroes can kill monsters, and I’m just a screwed-up guy who never did figure out what to do.”

The hero shrugs. “If you’re right, then I can’t kill you, but it sounds a lot like excuses.”

Vincent walks left. The hero’s sword is in his hands. He is moving, swift and beautiful, a blur of gray and death; but he has lost a lot of blood, and there are many chairs, and he stumbles, and he falls.

Behind Vincent, Melanie walks out left; and one by one, the rest, as the blood beats slowly from the hero’s chest onto the floor.

In the time before the hero overcomes his dizziness and rises, there are only three who say the words and leave to the right.

“Is it really true, then?” Vincent asks, looking back, after he has left the building. “Am I really clean?”

“I extract your sins during the monthly blood test,” Melanie says. “I keep them in a bottle. You never know when you shall need a lamb.”

Why Don’t Ducks Have Hides?

Ducks don’t have hides. They have feathers!

Bears have hides. That’s why you can’t see them. Look! There are no bears in evidence.

Geese have down. Down is a quark. Geese are indeterminate! If you observe geese, they collapse. That’s why geese aren’t used to guard houses any more. Burglars got too observant!

Elephants have hides, but Daredevil can see them. This is because he does not actually see. Instead he has enhanced all of his other senses.

Giraffes have spots. Here and there. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. You get through the bad spots to get back to the good spots. That’s the giraffe attitude towards life.

Fetuses have placenta. The placenta is a form of currency. It is a medium of exchange. Fetuses use the placenta to obtain goods and services. Fetuses have a strong economy. Everybody invests in fetuses. That’s why they don’t use pladimas or plaquarteras. It’s too much money. Fetuses don’t have anything they need to buy that would merit upgrading their currency past the cent. They could get a Ferrari, but it wouldn’t fit into the womb. It would need to be a mini-Ferrari, and those are nice and all, but at a certain point you just can’t have miniaturized fetus versions of everything. It’s bad enough that they can buy crack, nicotine, and subscriptions to special fetus-enabled massively multiplayer online games.

Wolves have fur. This makes wolves furries. Since they’re already wolves, they don’t pretend to be wolves. They pretend to be humans. A small excerpt from wolf furry-play follows.

The alpha male struts in. He puts down his briefcase. He says, “Hello, honey, I am home! Since you do not need estrus to stimulate your sexual interest, perhaps you would be up for a rousing bout of Church-endorsed missionary position sex?”

“Oh, no, honey, not now! I am too busy shooting my gun at the wolf who culled the weakest members of our herd of cows! Bang!”

“That sounds like fun. Shooting wolves improves the strength of their gene pool! But surely we could have sex and shoot wolves at the same time?”

“That is very kinky. I admire your dirty mind!”

“Bang!”

“Bang!”

Together: “Bang!”

That is how wolves imagine human intercourse must be.

Birds feather their nests. Invest in birds! In the old days, everyone invested in birds. That made social mobility very easy. Today, few people invest in birds. Instead, they give them to other people. That’s their investment mistake!

Lions have manes. Sewer lions have sewer manes. Gas lions have gas manes. Sewer lions are like regular lions but they live in the sewer. They have long flowing hair. They stink. They are greenish. Gas lions live in the upper atmosphere. They are ethereal. They also stink, but it is only because the gas company adds a foul smell to them. Newborn gas lions are odorless killers. Legerdelions have legerdemanes. They’re tricky, though, so I can’t explain them here.

American eagles have lush heads of obviously natural hair. They’re not just the Presidents of the hair club for birds. They’re also members!

Fish have scales. They weigh your soul against a feather. The feathers are just laying around in the ocean. They’re duck feathers. They are very heavy. A fish weighs your soul on the scales to determine whether you deserve Heaven. Then the fish realizes that it cannot breathe air. It flops about in increasing agony. Someone hits it with a rock. That’s pretty much the end of things for fish.

Giraffes, on the other hand, don’t die when they find themselves out of the ocean. Maybe it’s because their lungs can breathe air. Maybe it’s because they’re immortal! Or maybe it’s just because nobody hits them with a rock.

Lemurs have lema. It’s a special kind of skin. It’s also used for lemons. That’s why lemurs seem so zesty all the time.

Clocks have faces. They are good at facing their doom. They know that they are counting down the seconds to their own oblivion, but this does not bother clocks.

Sharks have sharkskin. Ducks don’t like being eaten by sharks. When a shark attacks, the ducks try to hide. But they don’t have hides! They have feathers. This is sad for the ducks, but good news for the fish.

The Farm

Old MacDonald is a gingerbread man. He is very old. But not as old as an old human would be.

Old MacDonald has a farm. On that farm he has a duck and a cow and a sheep and a goat and an unidentifiable animal that might very well be a lemur. They are all made out of gingerbread.

Next to old MacDonald’s farm is a river of molasses.

“It’s rising,” says old MacDonald, one day, after some measurements.

“Quack,” says the duck. “Quack quack.”

“It was all the rain in the candy mountains,” old MacDonald says. “It’s flooded the river.”

The molasses rises. A few days pass.

“It’s still rising,” says old MacDonald. So he builds a fence around the river. It’s a lovely white chocolate picket fence.

The molasses rises. It seeps through the fence. It sweeps up the duck. The duck quacks piteously.

“Duck!” cries old MacDonald, later that day. “You’re stuck!”

But there’s nothing he can do.

Molasses is cruel.

Old MacDonald thinks. Then he sets out sandbags. He sets out sandbags all around the river. They’re full of sugar. He could call them sugarbags. But he doesn’t. He calls them sandbags.

“Moo,” says the gingerbread cow. “Moo!”

It’s trying to warn him.

“Moo!” it says here.

The river rises. It seeps through the sugarbags. It swirls slowly into the cow’s barn. It carries the cow away.

“Moo!” it says there.

“Oh no!” cries old MacDonald. “You’re my best milking cow ever. Because there’s a little bit of milk in you!”

Milk makes a gingercow sweet.

Old MacDonald reaches from the river’s edge towards the cow. He risks his life against the molasses. “Take my hand!” cries old MacDonald. But the cow has no way to do so. It is swept slowly away.

“Moo,” it says, in the distance.

Molasses is cruel.

Old MacDonald builds a metal fence. He builds it with love so it’s extra strong. It surrounds the river on every side.

“Baa!” says the sheep.

“Bleat!” says the goat.

“Baa,” corrects the sheep.

“Bleat!” the goat declares obstinately.

The sheep sighs. “I leave you to your obviously incorrect sentiments,” it says, and stomps off to the other side of the pen.

“Bleat,” says the goat. It feels that it has won this confrontation. But then the molasses seeps deep into the ground. It seeps under the wall. It seeps into the pen. Now the goat does not know what to do.

“Bleat!” cries the goat. It attempts to eat the molasses. “Bleat!”

“Baa,” says the sheep.

The sheep does not help the goat eat against the tide. So the goat is swept up in the molasses. Then the sheep is swept up.

“Baa,” says the sheep again, only this time the sheep is not here but there.

Molasses is cruel.

“I will set fire to it,” says old MacDonald.

“Bam!” says the unidentified animal. It sounds nervous.

“I will set fire to it, and burn it away.”

So he does so. But the molasses is sluggish to burn. Mostly it caramelizes.

“I will rain nuclear devastation upon it,” says old MacDonald, as a form of escalation.

“Bam!” whimpers the unidentified animal, which is caught up in the molasses now and a likely incidental casualty of any nuclear barrage.

“But it’s the only way.”

“Bam…”

Old MacDonald looks into the unidentified animal’s pleading eyes. He realizes that he cannot do it.

Slowly, his shoulders sag. Some of the icing fades in his eyes.

He retreats. He goes to the hills. He watches from the hills as the molasses takes his farm.

The flood recedes, taking the animals and much of his furniture with it.

MacDonald returns home.

He has survived.

But molasses is cruel.

Old MacDonald is just one gingerbread man, and the world soon forgets his story.

But the children remember. And the gingerfolk remember. And the duck remembers, as it swirls slowly out to sea.

They’ll tell you, if you ask.

Molasses is cruel.

The Elephant Gun

It’s the Whoville outback. It’s not very big. It’s got some grass, and some animals, and a set of telephone poles. A pair of sneakers hang from the telephone wires.

John is out shooting elephants in the Whoville outback. It isn’t working very well. For one thing, he hasn’t found any elephants. For another, he’s out of ammunition.

“Cindy!” he yells.

Cindy comes running out of the house. She looks up at him. One lock of hair hangs in a perfect curl right in front of her forehead.

“I need more solid shot,” he says.

“Have you killed an ollyphant?” she asks.

“No,” he says. “Just a barn.”

Her face falls.

“It was working with the elephants,” he confides.

Cindy brightens. “I’ll get you more ammo!” she says. She runs inside. She comes back with a box of solid shot. She hands it to him proudly.

“Thank you,” he says. He ruffles her hair.

“I remember the trenches of God,” she says.

He looks a bit sad.

“They were pretty,” she says.

“Shh,” he says. He ruffles her hair some more. No matter how hard he tries, the curl always falls back to the exact center of her forehead. “We don’t need the trenches. We don’t need all that fancy theological stuff. People are people wherever they are.”

He whirls. His elephant sense tingles. He fires.

“Yay!” says Cindy. “You got Mommy’s sneakers back!”

“Ah,” he says. “Yes.”

“They fell to the ground,” she says. “Even though our world is very small. Why did they do that?”

“Whoville is spinning very fast,” he says. It’s an official handwave passed down to him by Whoville scientists. “It generates artificial gravity.”

Cindy reflects.

“I remember the trenches of God,” she says again.

“Shh,” he says. “We’re still just as good. Even if we aren’t right there next to the trenches, they’re still in our hearts. People are people, wherever they are.”

He whirls. He shoots, anticipating an elephant sense tingle. There is no tingle. There is no elephant. The noise does startle a duck, which quacks indignantly and takes off. He considers shooting the duck, but he is hunting elephants, and there are few things John abhors more than mission creep.

“Why can ducks fly?” Cindy asks.

“Whoville isn’t spinning hard enough to ground a duck,” he says.

“The trenches were pretty,” she says. She reflects. She holds her hands wide apart. “They were this big. And it was like they cradled our world.”

“They did,” John says. “They gave us our place. They held us close and made us wise. But we don’t need the trenches, Cindy. People are people, wherever they are.”

“We could make our own,” she says. “We could dig them, in the dirt!”

John laughs. “We already have them,” he says.

“We do?”

“The world’s full of trenches,” he says.

He points down. “Between the stalks of grass. Between the hill and the dale.”

He points up. “Between the clouds, there are the trenches of the sky.”

John grins at her. “Why, Cindy, there are even trenches in my gun.”

“There are?”

“Yes,” he says. “They’re all along the sides. They’re called rifling or grooves. They make the bullet spin so that it can fly straight.”

Cindy laughs.

“What’s so funny?” John says.

“Trenches everywhere,” she says. “It’s like God isn’t special!”

“Well,” John says, “I figure that people are made in the image of God. And guns are made in the image of the Godship.”

Cindy looks very serious, all of the sudden. “So the bullets are like Whoville?”

“Yes,” John says. “There could even be little people just like us living on each bullet I fire.”

“A little Cindy,” she says, “and a little John!”

“Yes,” he agrees. “That’s why it’s very important that I find an elephant. It’d be horrible if little Cindy and little John lived their lives in vain.”

“But it’d be okay,” she says. “Right? I mean, people are people, wherever they are.”

“Yes,” he says.

“What if Whoville doesn’t make it to the promised land?” she asks.

His elephant sense tingles. He turns. He fires. There’s an appalled trumpeting and a horrible thump.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I like to think He’d forgive.”