Ink Unrepeatable (XIII/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

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

There is goodness.

There is badness.

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

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

Seeks to lift them up.

Now he has fallen.

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

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

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

“Oh?” says the girl.

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

The girl picks her way around a stalactite.

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

“So you are evil, then?”

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

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

Which is, in fact, what’s happening—

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

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

“I see.”

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

“It’s okay,” she says.

“It’s okay?”

“Dharma moves.”

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

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

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

says the girl

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

Dr. Sarous looks blankly at her back.

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

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

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

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

“Come free,” Cronos said.

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

Something stirred in Bidge’s mind.

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

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

“‘Come free?'”

And Cronos said:

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

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

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

Cronos stared at him.

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

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

These words fell strangely flat.

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

“That would not do,” said Bidge.

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

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

The girl holds two fingers up, close apart.

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

And after a moment, Cronos understood.

He said, “Those are not teeth.”

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

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

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

But people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

The girl walks along.

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

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

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

“Lovers,” giggles Ink.

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

Which is, in fact, what’s happening—

And then she shakes her head.

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

Dr. Sarous stares at her.

After a moment, Ink shrugs.

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

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

“So don’t scream!”

They walk in silence for a while.

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

“What happened?”

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

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

“Oh,” says the girl.

She reviews the history in her mind.

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

“No,” Dr. Sarous says.

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

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

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

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

“‘It’s not my fault!'”

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

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

There’s a pause.

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

The doctor grins.

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

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

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

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

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

The stickbugs spring.

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

Ink Infallible (IV/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

“You’re lucky,” says the girl, “that Dukkha doesn’t hold sway down here.”

She’s in the topsy-turvy land on the other side of the world. Everything is upside-down. The great earthen vault of the sky stretches above her, dirty and wholesome and leaking the tangled roots of trees. Instead of a sun below her feet there is an endless raging storm. Instead of sedimentary rocks there are aureous and fulguric balloon minerals colored red and silver and black. They are puffy and they are lighter than air. Some balloon minerals are rough and cling to the surface of the earth. Others are smooth and skitter freely in the wind. And, of course, instead of a pervasive universal characteristic of suffering, there isn’t one.

The girl is trying to rescue a flying carpet.

It’s a despairing flying carpet, made and abandoned by an abused child who grew up to be an abuser and then had his soul eaten, and right now it’s starving and it’s lonely and it has the root of a tree burrowing into its brain. So it really is lucky that it’s not in a place where there’s a pervasive universal characteristic of suffering, because it doesn’t need that on top of everything else.

“Up above,” the girl says, working to disentangle the carpet from the tree roots all around it, “people are always wrong.”

Always? the carpet thinks.

“Always,” the girl confirms. “Even librarians!”

Why?

“It’s like this,” she says. “When you know a thing, you don’t know a thing. You know a knowing. The knowing isn’t the same as the thing. It’s always going to be different than the thing. So you don’t know what color things are, or what other people think, or what you should do. You don’t even know what you know, or how to know it better, or whether you’re getting closer or not. And maybe it’s not the most practical way of thinking about it, but it’s nice and concise and doesn’t take up much room in your brain: whatever you’re thinking, when you’re up on the surface of the world—you’re wrong.”

A hummingbird floats in the air near the girl.

The girl thinks the bird can talk, and that it’s pretty, but in the absence of Dukkha, the girl doesn’t know whether either of these ideas could possibly be correct.

“I used to be that way,” the hummingbird says. “Always wrong, I mean. But then I found absinthe.”

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. She’ll tell you that everybody calls her the imago, but that’s not really true. At best it’s only a large fraction of the people who speak English and know enough about her to make a reference who call her that, and it most specifically doesn’t include Dukkha, the incarnate principle of universal suffering.

That bastard calls her Ms. Catherly.

She takes a moment to fume about this, even though she’s never actually met him.

“He’s a total jackass,” she says.

“Who?” the hummingbird asks.

“This guy,” she says.

She waves a hand.

“He makes the universe not perfectly harmonious in every respect with people’s desires.”

“Oh,” the hummingbird says. “Him.

Ink finally has the carpet most of the way untangled. She pulls a few plant barbs from its flanks.

“Here’s the deal,” she says to the carpet. “You’ve still got to save five people, like I asked. But you’ve also got to fly me to a place where I can go back up towards the surface of the world.”

The creature hesitates.

“It’ll matter,” she says. “I mean, it’s a big, world-changing thing. I’m going to find whomever’s on the throne of this world and kill him. And, I assume, fire will rain down and monsters will spontaneously explode—just like pinatas—and sharks will live with lambs and everyone will eat rainbows for breakfast every day.”

An inner struggle in the carpet ceases.

It emits a soft chirr.

And because she has given the carpet sufficient purpose as to save it from immediate extinction, the boring tree withdraws the screw-root from its brain. Slowly, it lets the creature loose, to fall or fly as the carpet may. The carpet flutters shakily sideways to lean against the skinless root of a dying gonshuckt tree.

It is terribly, terribly wounded.

It looks at Ink.

“I’m not going to fix you!” Ink protests.

It looks at Ink.

“I’m a destroyer!”

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – People: People are lumps of clay, filled with fire, broken by circumstance. People are imperfect.

Ink Catherly looks at the horrible wound in Jacob’s carpet’s head.

She looks away.

She looks at it again.

She looks at the adorable rest of the creature, and back—

“Fine,” she says.

She takes some scotch tape out of her backpack. She tapes the carpet back together. She hugs the creature, gingerly, and it squirms and licks her face, though, without a tongue, she can’t see how.

“I can’t believe I helped you,” the imago says.

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Jacob’s Carpet: Finding ourselves imperfect, we long for Heaven.

Somehow we choose, instead, to stay here, striving,
In the hopes we can perfect ourselves.

And we are ashamed of this.

We are ashamed because we are imperfect,
when we should be proud.

Ink rides the flying carpet back into the world.

At first, because tape is not the best solution for serious head wounds, the carpet flies slowly and the hummingbird is able to keep pace.

The hummingbird says, “But if people are here, and if bad things are here, how does it even make sense to say that Dukkha doesn’t hold sway?”

Ink points up. “Earth,” she says.

She points down. “Storm.”

She points at the tape. “Tape, applied by a destroyer.”

“And?”

“Everything’s topsy-turvy,” Ink says firmly. “Dukkha can’t hold sway.”

“But how—“

“Do you really have to know?”

The hummingbird is silent.

The flying carpet dances between the roots that dangle from the bottom of the world. The wind of its passage blows the balloon minerals about.

Ink sighs.

“Dunno,” Ink admits. “I’ll test it with a Dukkha Call.”

She braces herself.

She utters the Dukkha Call:

“‘Help, help!'” Ink cries theatrically.”‘The placidity in my heart is stifling my potential for growth!'”

The suffering that permeates all life answers.

Dukkha localizes with a swirl of his cape.

“Ms. Catherly,” he says.

He’s calm, Dukkha is. He’s cool. He’s terrifying. He makes the world seem to stop and he fills the air with cruel. He’s standing there and it seems like they’re all of them just in the palm of his hand, like the dangling roots are his fingers, like the arching dirt’s his palm. He’s scary and powerful and he gets a little scarier and a little more powerful every time Ink processes just how terrifying he is.

He’s totally in charge and he certainly seems to hold sway.

He’s ready to show any old imago who abuses the Dukkha Call what’s what.

Ink can’t breathe and the hummingbird’s already passed out.

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Sukaynah: In memoriam.

If she had had a purpose in this world, it would have been to rush into gathering storms and then take joy in them.

She rushed into the storms beneath the world.

She was laughing.

If she has not died, she’s laughing still.

Then Dukkha’s eyes flick down.

That’s all it takes.

Just one flick down, to orient himself.

Gravity takes hold.

His feet go first, just like a coyote’s might. They stretch out his legs.

The last Ink sees of him for a very long time is his endlessly malevolent ears and the sign he holds up, “I hate you all.”

  • See also The Forest (II/IV), and tune in again AN UNDEFINED TIME NEXT WEEK (PROBABLY TUESDAY) for the next exciting history:
    INK HAS FEET!

Ink and Abandonment (I/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

On the bottom of the world everything is topsy-turvy.

The trees stick their roots out of the ground instead of their branches. The dirt is on top of everything. Birds are very confused and can’t decide which way their belly should point when they fly around. Groundhogs burrow to the surface, look around, and fall screaming into an endless storm.

A sundae costs 29 cents, if you can find one for sale at all.

There’s a teenaged girl picking her way through the roots of the world. She’s using a metal ruler as a kind of crampon and a lunchbox as a kind of brace and she’s being very careful not to fall.

“Everything’s opposite here,” she says.

She thinks about that.

“On opposite day,” she says, “at my middle school, we abandoned our attachments to the skandhas and experienced the world without suffering. Also, everything was permanent and it was itself exactly.”

A hummingbird pauses in the air beside her.

Alone among all the birds, it does not seem confused about direction. Sipping on the nectar of the absinthe roots, it has grown wise.

It says, “I am permanent.”

“Well, there you go,” says the girl.

The hummingbird looks smug.

“Also,” the girl says, thinking, “light took almost ten years per meter, so everything was very dark, and people would do annoying things like steal my lunch and say, ‘It’s everybody else’s lunch!'”

The girl looks sour.

She looks so sour as she picks her way through the roots that the hummingbird prompts, “It is good that you had abandoned your attachments to the skandhas.”

“Stupid opposite day,” sulks the girl.

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 everybody calls her the imago. It’s because she’s the Apple Corporation’s entry into the reified ideals market, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

In a thicket of roots she sees squirming black. She sees the tendrils of trees stretching and relaxing. She sees a creature tangled in the roots of the world.

“Oh!” she says.

The creature has a whisker. No: it has six, three on each side of its face.

Its head is flat like a manta ray’s body. Its tail is long and serrated. Its body is black but has white stripes like a skunk’s.

It is the size of a table and it is struggling to tear free.

“It’s adorable,” says the girl, eyes round.

She balances on the great long root of a Steel Rowan. The root’s metal surface has rubber tracks to help it cling to the crust of the world. These help the girl, in turn, to stand.

The girl reaches out.

She almost touches it—

An obsolete groundhog falls past them, screaming.

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Flying Carpets: Flying carpets take you from the confines of your world.

The girl jerks back her hand.

She hesitates a long moment.

She is thinking: Is that going to happen every time?

She looks down after the groundhog.

Was that something I should have cared about?

But in the end she decides that it will not, and it was not, and she reaches forth again.

She sets her hand to the creature.

Her skin runs with the colors of its history.

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Jacob’s Carpet: Jacob suffered in a little room. He could not leave its confines. It had no carpet that he could make to fly. All there was was a shadow.

He made a flying carpet of that shadow.

Its body was black but it had white stripes like a skunk’s where the light from the window in the door came down.

He stepped onto it. He said, “Away!”

It rammed the wall with Jacob on it. It made his nose to blood. It tried again, to Jacob’s sorrow, and again.

Then they fell down and it was shadow for a while.

They tried again later, to no better end.

This happened many times before the monster tore out Jacob’s heart and shoved a spear through Jacob’s brain and Jacob’s carpet flew away.

Tangled in the roots that dangle out the bottom of the world, Jacob’s carpet mewls.

“My name is Ink,” says the girl.

She rubs her hand on the carpet and shows it to the carpet’s face. It’s all smeared with black.

“See?”

The carpet freaks out. It flails in the roots. It keens. It bobs around.

Ink steps back.

Ink waits.

“Shh,” she says. “Shh. It’s okay. Everyone calls me the imago. —oh!”

She is not repeating the last syllable of imago.

She is making a horrified noise.

She is making a very specific horrified noise.

It is the horrified noise that a girl makes when she finds a magical animal and then realizes that it has a root of the world stuck right through its brain. It’s just there, speared through it, a screw-root from a boring tree, twisting in the lobes.

“No wonder you’re not talking,” the imago says.

The carpet whimpers.

“Poor thing,” she says. “You’re going to die and fall into the endless storm, aren’t you? And its winds are going to blow you around and you’ll fly this way and that and by the time you find out what’s on the other side you’ll be so dead and torn to shreds you won’t even have a coherent identity?”

It’s total speculation. Imagoes are one of the very few kinds of gods that suck at predicting things. But even so the carpet stills. It goes calm. It seems to like this particular tone of Ink’s voice.

Ink rubs at her chin. She looks grave and serious, like a rabbi with a beard, except in all the ways in which she looks nothing like that at all.

“I’ll tell you what,” she says. “I’ll try shaming the boring tree out and maybe you’ll still have some brain left.”

The carpet is growing restive. Ink’s eyes widen. She tries to think.

“I mean,” she says, “Everything’s awful and the world is going to end except for the worst bits which will go to Hell!”

The carpet relaxes.

It makes a little chirr noise.

“Sweet baby,” says Ink, rubbing its tail. “You like the inevitable annihilation of all things, don’t you? Don’t you?”

And there is peace for a moment, in the deeps beneath the world.

The histories of Ink Catherly: 1, 2, 3, 4
And most relevantly: Ink Indestructible

“On the top side of the world,” Ink says, “where there’s a pervasive character of suffering, girls find magical animals that aren’t dying and aren’t desperate for the annihilation of all things, you know.”

The creature hesitates.

“I’m just saying,” Ink says.

“Maybe it’s the difference,” the hummingbird suggests, “between the actual and the dream.”

  • Tune in tomorrow for the next exciting history:
    INK INSULTS A TREE!

Red Mary (3 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

Currents rush through the purple sea.

Ahead of Max are the scattered remnants of an island. Some great power has struck and shattered what once was whole so that now it is a dozen, perhaps two dozen pieces of land with watercourses between them. The sunlight runs in white and golden streams along the chaos’ surface.

Max dangles from the edge of his catamaran by one arm and the strictures of his harness. Red Mary swims towards him.

Her movements are effortless and swift.

Max flounders and tries to drag himself up. The catamaran wobbles. His hand catches a wooden box. He closes his fingers around it, pulls it down and tries to catch Red Mary’s head with it.

It flails without efficacy and the claws of Red Mary open a gash on his side and the impact of her drives him and the boat back.

The box opens.

Inside, there is a knife of melomid skin, a shard of the lens Necessity, and it contains within it the history of Confucius; or, that is to say, of Mr. Kong.

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 June 3, 2004, in the latter years of the tyranny following the Fourth Kingdom of the world.

Max seizes the knife.

Red Mary draws back. She is ten yards away from him in the blinking of an eye. She curls her tail into a spiral and her hair drifts and she stares at him with cold black eyes.

He cannot imagine how it is that her shirt neither clings nor falls away.

“Wisdom tells us that we are not important as we are,” she says.

Max takes a tentative breath. The chaos is breathable but sickening, like the air in a slaughterhouse, so he kicks his feet to rise.

In that moment of blindness when he crests the surface she closes in; but he draws up his feet and he flails with the knife and honoring the wisdom of Mr. Kong Red Mary’s charge pulls short.

She circles, lazily. Max watches until she disappears around the catamaran; then, to track her, he must drop his head below the chaos once again.

“This is the argument for your death,” she says.

Max takes another lungful of chaos. He coughs. He bows inwards on himself. His mind’s eye blurs out with pain and stress. She flicks towards him.

Max extends the knife. Once again the point of the history keeps her at bay. She flicks back.

“The thrust of a mind’s attention distorts the chaos,” she says. “It agitates the substance of the world. From this we arise: rocks and trees and mortal men and gods. We serve as cysts for love and pain. And where we go we bestow these commodities, such that when we see the things that please us we distort them with the imprint of our suffering and when we see the things that hurt us we distort them with our love.”

The chaos picks up the rhythm of her words.

It is everywhere singing with them, and billowing with darkness like a God-squid’s ink.

“We carry forward the pains that gave us birth.”

Max goes to rise to the surface; but the coldness of her eyes stops him.

If I rise, he thinks, she will eat my leg.

He can hear that as a harmony in the chaos. The music tells him: You are entangled, and to struggle will hurt you more.

If I rise, he thinks, she will eat my leg. But here I cannot really breathe.

“We are imperfect and pitiable creatures,” she says. “Because where we go no paradise can sustain. Why did the Buddha fail to save the world? Why was the maiming of Uranus in vain? Why has every effort ever made to craft a Heaven of this world failed us? It is because of who we are. We are unfinished. We are imperfect. Our existence necessitates a condition of imperfection.”

Diamond patterns play across his vision.

“But there is an answer,” she tells him.

Oh?

“There is a perfect anodyne.”

This is the music that once Odysseus found beautiful; and it would have killed him were he not tied to his mast.

Max cannot think. The knife drifts from his hand.

“You’re soaking in it,” she says.

Max sags.

He drifts there in the water.

He can feel it, everywhere around him: the infinity of things.

He is small in it.

He is a speck.

He is a handful of organic molecules and thoughts whose insistence on material integrity have bound him to suffering and to fight that which he loves.

“There was a siggort,” says Max.

And perhaps that is why he does not dissolve and scatter into the foam of the sea; but it is not enough.

“You are part of this great infinity,” Red Mary tells him, and he feels himself the whole of the chaos and the land and he does not feel her teeth.

Ink in Emptiness: The Mirror Cracks

the legend of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8, 9, 10)

In Hell there is a city of poison and gold.

Ink Catherly lives there. She sits on its broken throne. She is fifteen years old and she is a savage jungle queen.

She has not thought of her father or her mother in some time.

Instead she thinks of Greystoke, the bull-ape raised by suburbanites, lord of suburbia and king of men. She thinks of the treasures of the jungle. She thinks of the mechanisms by which she might escape her Hell.

It is the unfortunate character of Ink’s circumstances that Hell is inescapable.

Here ends the legend of Ink Catherly: in the city of poison and gold, in Hell, where Greystoke has called up her father against her.

Hell, day 969: The veil-rending gun.

As always the ape opposed my search. I tell him: “You must let me work. I must find an answer so that I can escape from Hell.” But he is a beast and he does not understand.

I found it at last, kept in the claws of Usr-Acigh: the gun that can break the veil between worlds. I fired it. I opened a gap in the jungle. But I could not step through. In any other world I would be a corpse.

I watch my hand as I write this. It is like watching a hand pulled around by puppet strings. It is like a spider. It is like a headless chicken. It is like the flopping plastic bag that one at first mistakes for life. There is direction. There is intentionality. But it is emptiness and not purpose that drives it.

There is no escape from Hell because it is not a place but rather a condition, and a condition not of quality but of absence. I have lost the divine fire that gave me purpose. I have only the bleak insectile intentionality of flesh. I am an outsider to myself. If I were not in Hell I would be dead.

Mr. Catherly stands at the door.

“Greystoke,” Ink breathes. “You go too far.”

Mr. Catherly is gliding forward, his footsteps silent on the gold and marble floor. He says, “It is not your right, Ink, to claim the jungle’s treasures.”

Ink shakes her head.

Her face is darkening with anger.

“The Mirror of Flame will do you no good,” says Mr. Catherly. “This is Hell. There is no avenue by which you may obtain your desire.”

Ink turns. The threat of Greystoke is forgotten, and the ape himself is nearly so. Her world has narrowed down to the Mr. Catherly and the savage challenge that must come—in any species—when a child defies her parent and seeks to define the freedom of her course.

“You would say that,” she says.

There is a growl tickling at her throat. She is not letting it loose: for one thing, the human voice does not yield easily to it, and it replaces speech in use. For another, she does not wish to warn him of the seriousness of her intent. But as she shifts her stance to the lightly-bent crouch that humans use in battle her plans are transparent to the older man. He slows his advance. He is wary.

“Hold this,” Ink says, not taking her eyes from her father’s face.

She holds out the instrument of defiance to Greystoke; for unlike the men he summons, the ape-king of suburbia has such notions of honor as to make this safe.

The bull-ape takes it from her hands.

Incompatible Precepts Catherly takes two steps forward and then springs.

The contest of human and human is savage. Their teeth are blunt. Their claws are weak. Their muscles are poorly suited to murder.

But there are many ways by which they may give one another pain.

The howls of them rise through the jungle. They disturb the birds, that look up once and flee. They cause the frogs and salamanders to retreat into their holes. They shake the ancient city and its poisons and its gold.

And Ink takes her father down onto his back and beats at his chest and he is smiling hideously at her with his white fangs and he says, “See? Incompatible.”

Ink shrieks, a terrifying and an alien cry.

Her cunning talons close around his neck. His face darkens. His terrible words go still. His hands are twitching.

Ink says, “Tell me I’m a person.

But this is Hell.

Hell, day 1406: The mirror of flame.I have captured a mirror that reflects someone with a self—not the Ink who writes this but an Ink such as I was before. It hurts but I cannot stop looking at it.

She would, I think, find an answer to this place. She would explore it, transform it from this horrid absence into a phenomenon worth recording—not Hell but the witnessing of Hell, not emptiness but the recognition that she is not empty. She had wanted that. But I am not that Ink. I am her empty corpse.The ape, I think, will be here soon.

“Stupid fathers,” says Ink.

Mr. Catherly is unconscious.

“Stupid parents. Can you imagine?” she says. She is panting. She is struggling to recapture control over her emotions. “Naming somebody after what having the baby meant?

Greystoke is mute.

Ink rises. She stalks back to the throne. She sits down. Her posture slumps and her eyes go distant and she reassumes the demeanor of a brooding jungle queen.

“Take it,” she says. “Take the Mirror.”

So Greystoke steps forward. He pulls the Mirror of Flame down from the air.

“Leave the instrument of defiance. And go.”

The ape places the instrument of defiance down upon the floor and begins to walk away.

“Wait.”

Ink struggles for words.

“When I was young,” she says. “I accidentally cut off a fingertip. And the funny thing was that it just lay there, empty. It wasn’t a part of me. It was meat.”

“Yes,” says Greystoke.

“That is all we are,” she says. “Meat and bone.”

“Yes,” says Greystoke.

“I remember when I was fire,” Ink says. “I can look in the mirror and I can see that—an Ink Catherly, far away, who is fire and not just emptiness. Someone who is different from that twitching finger.” Her breathing is erratic. “I need it. I need it to remind me that I had something inside me once.”

“That is not need,” says Greystoke. “That is suffering.”

And in her last glance in the mirror, as he carries it away, she can see a great tower that is not her tower; and beyond it a sea of surging chaos; and an Ink who is not herself, but somehow possessed of that which is forbidden to her in Hell.

The mirror cracks.

Theologians of Mars

It is December 3rd, 1999.

“Sometimes I think that clinging to the outside of the Mars Polar Lander was not the smartest idea,” says Emile.

“Oh?” says James.

“Well,” says Emile, “No matter how much I breathe, I can’t get enough oxygen. And no matter how much I shiver, I can’t get warm.”

“That’s just your bad karma at work!” says James. “You can’t blame space.”

Emile and James fly through space, clinging to the sides of the Mars Polar Lander.

“I guess,” says Emile.

Emile munches quietly on a tiny bit of space food. It’s a microorganism, that lived in space! But no matter how much of the microorganism he gnaws away Emile still feels hungry.

“It’s just a bit inhospitable,” Emile says.

“Rather,” admits James. He looks out at the vacuum. Then he smiles. “That’s why I calculated my sins for a rebirth as a hungry ghost, you know.”

“Oh?”

“I figured, if I’m born as a human, then all I get is another chance to hear the teaching, and I might achieve enlightenment, but it’s pretty unlikely in these Latter Days of the Law. And if I become a god, then I’ll be too happy and powerful to escape the wheel of karma. But a hungry ghost—a hungry ghost can go into space.

“That’s reasonable,” says Emile. “It is certainly prettier to starve and shiver and thirst in space than on Earth.”

Emile stares at the stars for a while.

“I didn’t plan to die yet,” Emile explains. “That’s why I wound up a hungry ghost! I thought that I would learn to control my desires and earn better karma later.”

“What happened?”

“It turns out that it’s a bad idea to attend an event labeled ‘Assassins! Live in Concert.'”

“Ouch,” says James.

“They lived in concert, but the audience did not.” Emile sighs. “You?”

“Strapped to a giant laser. It wasn’t pretty.”

“Ah!” says Emile. “I’d wondered about the burns.”

“It was like the torments visited upon souls in Hell,” says James. “Except shorter and more cinematic. There is this moment when you’re shot by a giant laser when, I don’t know. When you’re probably already dead, right, because lasers hit you faster than your perception of lasers, but still you can see this brilliant light dashing towards you, and everything’s crystal, and you’re one with the cosmos. Then it hurts.”

They look down.

“Then it hurts a lot.” James laughs self-deprecatingly. “That’s why giant laser safety is so important.”

They watch the Red Planet for a while.

“Are you nervous?” Emile asks.

“What, about Mars?”

“Yeah. I mean, no hungry ghost has ever been there before. What if it’s worse? What if there’s nothing edible anywhere, and no water, and no air? Not even any Buddhists to make our lives better with prayers?”

James laughs.

“What?” Emile asks.

James leans in. “This is Mars,” he says. “Life isn’t characterized by universal suffering, desire, and attachment on Mars. That’s an Earth thing, like original sin.”

Emile blinks.

“I thought you knew,” says James. “11 months in space, and you’ve just been clinging to the side of the ship for lack of anything better to do?”

“You looked like you knew what you were doing,” Emile says, “during the launch. And afterwards, well. You’re better company than the vacuum mites and space bats.”

“Don’t knock the space bats,” grins James.

“I’m not knocking them,” says Emile. “I’m grateful that they put us back on course after that NASA navigation error, and their princess was ravishing. But they kept looking at me like they hoped I’d turn into an insect.”

“Space bats live on a diet of insects,” James observes. “Not many insects in space.”

Emile grins wryly. “You’re right. I shouldn’t really blame them.”

James opens his mouth to say something. Instead, the Mars Polar Lander strikes atmosphere. It begins using the friction of the Martian atmosphere to decelerate rapidly from its initial velocity.

“Hot!” says Emile.

As the wind whips by them, James says, “We need . . . shelter . . .”

James points. Emile follows him around to the lee of the lander. Buffeted by wind and weakened by the twelve gees of acceleration, Emile loses half of his grip on the white-hot lander. He hangs on by one hand as the Mars Polar Lander races down through the Martian sky.

“Can’t . . . hang . . . on . . .” says Emile.

“You’re notional,” says James, in disgust. “Get over it.”

Emile hesitates. Then, sheepishly, he reasserts his grip on the lander and climbs over to shelter next to James.

Whoosh.

The parachute opens.

“It’s strange,” says Emile. “First I was very cold and couldn’t warm myself, and now I’m very hot and can’t cool myself. But something’s different.”

“It’s the loss of dukkha, the pervasive universal character of suffering,” James says. “The closer we get to Mars, the more we’ll be suffering because we’re clinging to a white-hot lander on an alien world and the less we’ll be suffering because it’s an inevitable consequence of ignorance and desire.”

“Huh,” says Emile. “Are we getting less ignorant?”

James points down. “Look! Mars!”

“Oh,” says Emile, softly.

They watch Mars loom. Each new detail they can make out dispels a bit more of the ignorance that breeds the desire that chains them to the wheel of karma and the pervasive universal character of suffering. The heat and gee-forces of the landing strip away their original sin. On the negative side, James slowly realizes that his advanced understanding of Tantric sex practices won’t do him any good on Mars, where sex is savage and primitive.

“Hey,” says Emile. “Is that a city?”

The lander legs deploy. The ship hits the Veil.

“Apes!” shouts Emile, in terror.

Inertial gyros and accelerometers orient the Mars Polar Lander. It is rapidly steering itself towards a nest of great white apes.

“There’s nothing for it,” says James. “We’re going to have to jump.”

The Martian atmosphere shivers with the primal cry of the largest of the great white apes. It beats upon its chest. Emile notices, in a state of distant detached fear, that the ape has four arms.

“Jump? Jump?

James reaches out. He touches Emile’s hand. He smiles.

“It’s okay,” James says. “I planned for this. Everything has been leading up to this moment. Kick off—now.”

They push away from the lander. They fall.

James holds his watch up near his face. He has worn it the entire time that Emile has known him, and not once has the watch been correct; for among the many things that hungry ghosts are starved for is time.

The watch is working now. James frantically adjusts the knobs and buttons, and the face of the watch is glowing green, and there is a countdown on it.

The lander strikes down amidst the apes. It has been four minutes and thirty-three seconds since the Mars Polar Lander struck atmosphere.

The timer on James’ watch hits zero.

The lander explodes.

Emile and James tumble across the red sand of Mars. The apes are a bloody ruin, all save the strongest of them. That one is still lurching towards them, though great chunks have been ripped out of its flesh, though one arm is missing, though its entire back is baked clean of fur. Emile looks over. James has not landed quite as well as Emile, and for a long moment James is stunned. So Emile does the only thing he can.

Emile pulls his holdout knife and hurls it at the creature’s face. It is a perfect strike; and the great beast topples to the bloody sands of Mars; and as it falls, James says to Emile, “Good man.”

(Good Friday – Hitherby Annual #1 – I/I) Tre Ore

Once upon a time, the world had a purpose.

Back then, everything did.

Everything had a purpose, and a truth, and a dharma.

This time was full of sorrow. If a banshee howled, then someone would die. If a mermaid called you, you would drown. If a witch cursed you, you would shrivel and suffer ill fate. Such was the nature of the banshee, and the mermaid, and the witch. If Coretta’s Lion had your scent, then it would hunt you down, and eat your skin and muscles, bit by bit, and you would take three days to die. The world was full of things like that.

But these sorrows were small.

The worst of the predators of this time were the predators of truth. For there were things, things like Death, and Sickness, and Old Age, that declared their truths supreme. It did not matter what your purpose was. Theirs would overwrite it. In the end, you could not defeat them, because it was the nature of their truth to mean more than your own. They were a very exclusive club.

The monster was such a thing. He was such a predator. And he was undefeatable. And it is because there were monsters, and because there was death, and because there were truths like theirs, that the world was broken, and the gods were cast from the world of truth into the heart of emptiness.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

Martin stumbles against a man, and his touch does not turn the man to dust. After a long moment Martin realizes that this is so.

“Hey,” Martin says, and refocuses his eyes.

This is a place of deep water, but the man is parched and dry. Fruit is dangling from the trees all around him, but he is terribly thin. His name is Tantalus.

“Hey,” Tantalus says.

Martin backs away a step, tilts his head, and frowns. “You’re not like the others. You’re not a broken god.”

“No,” Tantalus says. “I am a man, and I am dead, and I have been consigned to torture here in the Underworld for roughly three thousand years.”

Martin whistles. “Harsh.”

Tantalus shrugs.

The deepness of the water has put a silence on the woglies, but Martin still feels edgy and twitchy down in his soul. “Hey,” he says. “What makes that okay?”

“Okay?”

“What makes it okay to torture someone for three thousand years?”

“Ah,” says Tantalus.

Then he laughs.

“It didn’t matter,” Tantalus explains. “Zeus sat on the throne of the world, you see, and it did not matter which of his dicta were okay.

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

540 BCE

“It would have been better to kill him,” Mylitta admits.

Mylitta sits tailor style on the dust and grime and brushes White Lion’s fur.

“But the problem with heroes,” she says, “is that monsters have an answer to them.”

White Lion lowers its head to the floor.

“A hero is a storm,” Mylitta says, “and storms are terrible. But there is a place above the storm where the air is calm. And I do not know how. But I could feel it, like I could feel the wind and the sunlight. That he had found that place. And so there was no single specific moment in which the monster could be killed. ”

“I thirst,” rumbles White Lion.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

There is a silence.

“I had fruit,” Tantalus says, “Only a few decades ago. But I would still like some water. If you could hold up some water for me to drink, I would love you.”

“My hands are full of dust,” Martin says.

“Oh.”

“I thought they were people,” Martin says. “I thought they were my predecessors. But when I touched them, it turned out that all they were was dust.”

“It’s the Underworld,” Tantalus says. It’s an explanation or a dismissal; Martin is not sure which.

“My sister keeps making gods to save her,” Martin says, “and all of them fail, and all of them wind up as mud and dust.”

“I remember that,” Tantalus says. “The gods were severed from the world.”

“Severed?”

“In the face of the monster, they were lost,” Tantalus says. “They had no meaning that could compare to his own. So they were cut from the Earth, torn away, and made into isn’ts, lest the monster’s dharma set a new order on the world. It was my doing, in a way; my children could not have learned the truths that make a monster had I not stolen the secret of the gods.”

Martin frowns. “The secret?”

“If you accept a purpose;” Tantalus says. “If you declare something to be your answer to the emptiness; then you must accept the consequences of that answer. It is desirable, for gods as for men, to shrink from that burden; but in the end, it always catches you, and, if it so pleases, it tears you apart.”

Tantalus sits down heavily, and the water sinks into the dust lest he should drink, and the woglies surrounding Martin are in the air once more.

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

“I am born to answer suffering,” says Siddhartha.

Siddhartha and Yasodhara travel through the city. Yasodhara is very pregnant.

Her answer is light and teasing. “And who is not? If you were born to cause suffering, my love, then I should name you a monster.”

Siddhartha says:

Let us speak of death, then, as a monster.
He may be fought,
But the terms are his own.
Each time you make escape from him
He claims his due.
Thus it is that no man may fight death.

Let us call illness a monster.
It may be fought,
But the terms are its own.
We do not choose the behavior of purity.
Even touching a man,
In exercise of compassion,
May bring on sickness.

Let us speak of age as a monster.
She may be fought,
But the terms are her own.
The more you fight, the more she grips to you.
The more you fight, the more she claims her due.
Thus it is that no man may fight age.

This is the flaw in the world.

How can I answer suffering?
Monsters have no remedy.

“The root cause of suffering,” Yasodhara observes, following the train of her own silent thoughts, “is that no one wants to suffer.”

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

Nabonidus is educing a god from her when Mylitta breaks.

“Sometimes,” Mylitta says, clearly, “it’s like there’s this thick yarrow stick in my chest, going through where my heart used to be, stretching from my spine to my ribs. And now, suddenly, it’s like it’s just split, and blackness is leaking out all over me.”

Nabonidus blinks.

There is a light that roils under Mylitta’s skin, and then fades. There are great wracking coughs that shake her, and violent seizures. Then Mylitta stops. Her head lolls to one side. Her eyes dim.

Nabonidus looks blankly at her. He steps back. His arms fold around himself for comfort.

“Um,” he says.

Mylitta sleeps.

There is a great bulk behind Nabonidus in the room. It is white, like a maggot, like the wriggling young of flies. It is leonine. It is soft. Its name is White Lion, and it is a god.

“She will not wake,” it says.

The creature pads forward. It says, “I have asked her to leave this place, to come away with me, a thousand times. But she has always said no. I do not think she will deny me today.”

It leans down. It takes Mylitta in its mouth. It turns to walk away.

“She’s mine,” Nabonidus says.

White Lion looks at him.

“She’s my husk,” Nabonidus protests. “I broke her.”

White Lion leans its great head down. It drools Mylitta onto the floor. It looks up. It opens its mouth. It roars.

It is a terrible thing, that roar. It is like a wind tunnel that blows away the qualities of the world. Nabonidus cannot see. He cannot touch. He cannot taste. He cannot smell. He cannot hear, save for the roar.

.
.
.

Nabonidus is on the floor. He does not know how or why he is on the floor. But Mylitta is gone. So he does the only thing that he can do, in answer to her emptiness.

He makes a god.

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

“Ah,” says Yasodhara. “There is a monk.”

Siddhartha follows her gaze. He frowns.

Who is this, Yasodhara?
This man—
His head is shaved,
He wears a robe,
He has a strange demeanor.

The smile on his face
Seems more
Like the one I seek
Than the smile of my father Suddhodana.

“He is a monk,” Yasodhara says. “He lives in the temple and he travels the kingdom, teaching people how to be good.”

“And what is his answer to suffering?” Siddhartha asks.

Yasodhara studies him with the eyes of a goddess. “A very small fiend,” she says. “It lives in his gums. It locks his jaws in that smile. There are bone passages connecting his teeth to his ears, and this allows it to whisper to him constantly, ‘people need not suffer.’ It is a painful fiend, but it has convinced him not to mind.”

(“If only ancient India had had proper dental hygiene!” Jane exclaims. “He could have brushed the fiend right out and put it to use saving the world!”

“There are many tragedies,” Mrs. Schiff agrees.)

Siddhartha opens his mouth to speak.

“Oh,” says Yasodhara, interrupting him. She has gone pale. She leans against him.

Her labor has begun.

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

Exhausted, weary, broken, and warm:

Nabonidus is crying.

It has cut him raw, to make a god. It is like being a skinless man, for him, naked in the face of everything he is.

It does not hurt terribly. But it stings.

It costs him that control that would keep him from his tears.

There is a snuffling in the room, and the clicking of nails on stone. A cold wet shadow passes over the footprints of White Lion, the altar of Sin, the blood Mylitta left behind. Then the creature he has made, the Dog of Nabonidus, brushes past and around him and leans against his side.

“Why couldn’t I keep her?” Nabonidus says.

The Dog looks at him. Its eyes are expressive. It is almost as if it wanted to say, It is the monster’s nature to consume his victims.

“She was strong,” Nabonidus says. “She could have fought. She could have kept herself unbroken.”

The Dog pants, quietly. If it could speak, Nabonidus thinks, it would no doubt say, She did not wish to. In the end, she chose to leave you with the burden of the contradiction of your lives.

“Why?” he asks.

Because it is the only answer she could find.

So Nabonidus goes home to Babylon, and he whispers to Mylitta’s absence, “You’re right, of course.”

Mylitta’s absence remains constant.

“One of us must pay the price,” Nabonidus says. “And you think I’m not strong enough. You think I’ll bend. But I won’t. I’ll make a host like you have never seen, and send them after you, to make you whole. You won’t escape from me. I will fix you.”

There is a void in the room, an emptiness, a devouring. For a moment, Nabonidus thinks it is his heart, but then he realizes that Belshazzar has let himself in.

“I will help you, father,” says Belshazzar. “If you let me.”

“Help me?”

“I have seen how it is that one pulls forth gods.”

Behold, Your Son (X/?)

546 BCE

Siddhartha is in the garden. The midwives have chased him from the room where Yasodhara is giving birth, explaining:

Every child we pull forth
Is an answer
To the suffering in the world.

You are Prince Siddhartha,
And we glory in you,
And one day you’ll turn the wheel
And conquer all the world
But you will never be a midwife.

Your fussing distracts us!
Your philosophy confuses us!
Out! Out! Give us space
To answer the suffering in this room.

“Midwives are intimidating,” concedes Siddhartha.

He sits in the garden, under a tree, and thinks about the monk, and suddenly he realizes:

I am suffering.
I know the meaning of it!
And it is this:

From the beginning of my life,
I have made observations
And conclusions regarding the nature of the world.

These carry me along
Like a river
Each new truth means another thing is true.

I have built a world
From premises I’ve found
And premises I’ve made

And this is my suffering:
A flaw has crept in.
A wound has snuck into the world that I have made.

Dukkha.
There: I have named it.
Somehow suffering is intrinsic to my world.

To deny suffering
Is to find contradictions—
We can’t have everything we want.

Maya is in the garden. She sits down beside him. Her eyes are shadowed. She says:

I am here to offer you the treasure wheel.
It is power.
It is truth.
It is the nature of the world
And where it goes, it conquers.

If you take it I can let you live.

Siddhartha says:

I am glad you are not here to kill me,
Mother,
But to bind me to that wheel—that is crueler.

It is beautiful
But it is the cause of all my suffering.

“It is not the cause of suffering,” Maya says. “It is the answer to it. If you have power to dictate the ephemera of the world, you may release things from their suffering.”

Siddhartha reaches out to touch her hand, but she drifts away. She is standing now, slightly out of his reach, staring out at the world, holding the jeweled treasure wheel in her hands.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone is wounded, mother,
What would I use the wheel for?

To heal them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone is being tortured, mother,
What would I use the wheel for?

To save them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If they are tortured again, later, mother,
What would I use the wheel for then?

To save them again, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If they suffer in the meantime because they remember torture, mother,
What use, then, is the wheel?

To heal them, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If someone suffers, again and again, mother,
What use is the wheel?

You may end or prevent that suffering each time, Maya says.

Siddhartha asks:

If there are conditions in life that make future suffering inevitable, mother,
What use is the wheel?

Maya frowns at Siddhartha. She says:

It is life itself that makes suffering inevitable.
If you end all life, you will end all suffering
But this is not the Maya-Dharma.
And this is not compassion.

Siddhartha says:

If there are conditions in life that make future suffering inevitable, mother,
Is the wheel then no use at all?

Maya says:

We suffer because we love what might have been.
If you end love, you will end all suffering
But this is not the Maya-Dharma.
And this is not benevolence.

Siddhartha shakes his head. He says:

If someone wounded says,
When I bring the wheel to them,
‘This wound is inevitable,’ mother,
What must I do then?

Maya says:

Such a person has lost perspective.
Ignore their words and heal the wound, Siddhartha.

Siddhartha says:

You have lost perspective, mother.
The world is a wound.
The nature of things is a wound.
That suffering is inevitable, this is a wound.
Do you understand?
Even if I must shatter love,
Or shatter life
To heal them,
I will end that quality of things that makes us suffer.

Maya lowers her head. “So ruthless,” she whispers.

Siddhartha reaches out to her. He says:

If I did not know the Maya-Dharma, mother,
I could not transcend it.

Maya says, quietly,

O Prince, O Prince,
In your rooms
Your son is born.

Will you look upon him?
Will you go, and look upon him,
And know the reason for this world?

“Sons are an impediment,” says Siddhartha.

Maya looks wry.

I shall not. Siddhartha rises, and turns, and looks towards the gate. I will seek an end to suffering.

The wheel burns in Maya’s hands. It is a jeweled treasure wheel, thousand-spoked, with two winky eyes; and now it is on fire. It grows great and terrible, and there are wheels within the wheels, and wheels within those, and it rolls towards Siddhartha like the coldest and deadliest of the killer-gods. And as it touches him, and burns his arm, he falls back; but it is Maya, and not Siddhartha, who screams.

A spoke of the wheel has broken free and fallen to the ground.

There is a hissing inside the treasure wheel of the world, a hissing and a shuddering, and the world has cracked.

Eloi, Eloi, Lema Sabachthani?

Present Time

Sebastien emerges from the shower, wrapped in a towel and using another on his hair. He is almost clean, but not entirely.

The monster is waiting outside.

“I’m not intimidated by relative nudity,” Sebastien says.

“Did you ever wonder,” the monster asks, “why it is that you’re something that can kill monsters, and not something that does?”

Sebastien scrubs at his hair a bit more, then shrugs. “No.”

“I’ve thought it might be,” the monster says, “that we’re difficult to kill.”

“No,” Sebastien says. “It’s just that if you’re someone who kills monsters, then there must always be a monster to kill. You can’t fix anything, you can’t solve anything, you can’t make any kind of difference unless you’re lucky enough to do the matter-antimatter thing and burn out with your enemy in a blaze of glory. It’s safer to be someone who can kill them. And even then—”

It is very important to Sebastien that he not turn away from the monster, and so the pain in him is a crisis point; and in the end, though he does not turn away, he does look down.

“To go all the way means being death. It means being a killer. Even if it’s someone who kills things like you. And it means being part of things like you, even if it’s the part that ends them.”

The monster’s smile is brilliant and white.

Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

539 BCE

It is the seventeenth god.

Belshazzar pulls the seventeenth god from Nabonidus, a great and terrible phoenix shape, a yellow and red effluvium that pours forth from Nabonidus’ chest and mouth.

“Go,” says Belshazzar, and it is gone. It seems to Nabonidus that it is following Mylitta into emptiness, as if Nabonidus’ own strength is pouring after his victim into the void.

Belshazzar leans down again. His face is terribly earnest and clinical.

Nabonidus is weak.

“Wait,” he says.

“It is necessary,” Belshazzar says. “We do not know how long until her heart will cease to beat.”

“No,” says Nabonidus. His word is binding, and Belshazzar stops.

Nabonidus is weak.

“Lift this burden from me,” he begs.

So the teeth of the devouring god close around him.

The nature of the monster ends.

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

The idea that comes to Martin is as inevitable as the rain.

“This is a place that takes everything from you,” he says. His voice is thick and heavy. “I came down here, and I was strong, but I can’t keep that. Not in the Underworld.”

The woglies are closing in on him, but Tantalus stands up, and the water washes in, and over them, and they grow still.

“I have to give up more,” Martin says. “Somewhere, there is something I am clinging to, that I have to give up, and it’ll be the thing that hurts the most to toss away.”

Tantalus looks at him. “Why would you surrender the thing you love the most?”

“Because there cannot be a poor rich man,” Martin says. “There cannot be an earthworm in the sky. There cannot be a man who is not a man, or a bird that is not a bird, or a void that is not empty. I am the architect of suffering, I am its source and its foundation, and I am good; and because these things cannot share one form and nature, I am severed from the world. My purpose fails because it is a contradiction, and contradictions cannot endure.”

The woglies are buried in the water, and they do not speak.

“There is no birth,” Martin says, “that has no pain.”

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

540 BCE

Mylitta leans over White Lion, her face in the creature’s fur.

“This is the secret of the monster,” Mylitta whispers to him. “It is not random. It is not chance. And none of it is blind. The line of Amiel could not escape her oath, but they could twist it, and they know the secret of the gods. They know that we exist for a reason, that we respond to purpose, that we are bound by the laws of our nature that we cannot break.”

“Leave here,” says White Lion. “Leave, before he shatters you.”

“So they chose a dharma for themselves,” Mylitta says, “that we could not answer. They chose a dharma that redefines our truths.”

“Leave here.”

“That is the reason for Belshazzar,” Mylitta says. “He will not answer the monster. He will break the question. He will destroy what it means to be a god, and I shall have my Elli.”

She is silent for a moment.

“If he is weak,” she says. “If he is weak, before I die.”

Tre Ore

March 25, 1995

Martin opens his eyes. He releases a burden, or accepts it; they are one and the same.

“It’s not the monster who’s hurting Jane,” Martin says. “I won’t claim that. I won’t be a passive observer. If I’m going to shape the world through suffering, I’m going to be the one who shapes it; and the monster’s responsibility won’t ever negate mine. It’s my job to make sure that suffering transforms.”

There are fewer woglies now. They are skating off through the water, like toroidal tropical fish or evil aquatic froot loops that have been startled by a splash.

But one remains.

“Do you have the right?” it asks.

“Ye—”

Martin comes very close to nonexistence.

Then he shakes his head. “That’s not important to me,” Martin says.

It Is Finished

539 BCE

There are some who say that Chen Yu broke the world. There are some who lay the blame on Belshazzar in Babylon, or Siddhartha Suddhodana’s son. A few blame Mylitta, or the monster, or even Maya, for all that there was nothing she feared more.

In the end, that the world should break was inevitable.

The weight of its suffering was not a thing the world could bear.

The Forest (II/IV)

The tunnels are deep. The tunnels are dark. They have lots of water in them, and giant spiders. They also have a subway. Sometimes, the subway hits one of the giant spiders. Whoosh! Bam! The spider goes flying end over end. Then it scurries off to the side with a horrid shambling gait. It licks its monstrous spindly legs. It meant to do that! That’s what its body language says.

Jenna lives in the tunnels too. She likes to watch the subway train. She’s decided that it can hit anything. She’s seen it hit ruby-studded zeppelins. She’s seen it hit frogs. She’s seen it hit ancient mummies groaning with the weight of years. In December 1981, Jenna watches it hit Dukkha, the principle of universal suffering, the world’s fundamental tendency to include hostility and anguish in everyday life. Dukkha goes flying end over end. Then he scurries around on the tracks, scarring them black with his passage. He licks his left bipedal quality. He meant to do that. Oh, yes. It was all part of his plan. Whoosh! Bam! The subway hits him again. Jenna giggles.

On the landing, not far from Jenna, Ninja Tathagata watches. He’s as still as the mind that knows emptiness. He’s as calm as a placid lake. His expression is flat. It shows no gloating. Ninja Tathagata has freed himself from attachment to material existence. He does not gloat like ordinary men. His smug satisfaction is a flower blooming in nothingness; a diamond shining in the darkness; a perturbation in the nihilistic void that is Nirvana. He is a ninja Buddha, and he does not giggle. Instead, he turns away and slips into the trees.

Jenna shouts, “Hey!”

Dukkha looks up, eyes blazing. He doesn’t see her. Ninja Tathagata’s already taken hold of Jenna’s wrist and dragged her away.

“You shouldn’t shout around Dukkha,” Ninja Tathagata says. “It’ll only attract his attention.”

Jenna puts her foot down. “There shouldn’t be any trees here. Tunnels are a subterranean environment. Trees are superterranean! Down here we only have their roots. You’re hiding in an illicit forest!”

Ninja Tathagata smiles. “Your anger stems from an irrational attachment to the prevailing conditions of your home. It’s natural, but the key to happiness is understanding that all things change.” Wisps of enlightenment rise from Ninja Tathagata like the steam from a fresh-baked pie.

Jenna pokes his chest. “You’re the Buddha,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want and blame it on other peoples’ irrational attachment!”

“That’s a fair cop,” admits Ninja Tathagata.

“Good,” says Jenna. She sits down with her back against a tree. “I suppose that the trees aren’t so bad. It’s really only because of the character of suffering and torment pervading the universe that I mind.”

On the track, the subway hits the pervasive universal character of torment and suffering. He shrieks. Then he narrows his eyes. “If I get off the track now,” he murmurs softly, “everyone will know I didn’t really plan to get hit three times. I’d better just lounge here, bitter and languid, until I hear a Dukkha Call.”

“It’s difficult waging a constant shadow war against Dukkha,” Ninja Tathagata explains. “Sometimes I need a break. That’s why I carry a forested glen with me everywhere I go. It’s relaxing to sit under the green and watch the shadows drift by.”

Ninja Tathagata sits under the green. The light of the subway train washes across the branches. Shadows race by. There’s a thump.

“You’re deliberately not looking smug,” Jenna observes.

Ninja Tathagata winks.

The light of the subway train washes across the branches. Shadows race by. There’s a thump.

Jenna sighs and pats the tree. “I get tired of pain, too,” she says. “I suppose you’d say that I should cultivate enlightenment?”

“In the long term,” Ninja Tathagata agrees. “In the short term, if you’d like, I could leave the forested glen here.”

The light of the subway train washes across the branches. Shadows race by. Someone shouts, “What’s that? Is that a Dukkha Call I hear in the distance?” There’s no thump.

“Oh!” Jenna says, disappointed. “He must have swirled his cloak around himself and become a nonlocalized phenomenon before it hit.”

“I didn’t hear a Dukkha Call,” says Ninja Tathagata. “I think he made that part up.”

“What’s a Dukkha Call?”

Ninja Tathagata doesn’t get a wicked grin. His sudden, mischevious impulse is a blind man’s sunrise; a fire without fuel; a warmth and a heat rising in and filling and falling in the emptiness of Ninja Nirvana. He stands and walks over to a pile of leaves. “Help, help,” he says. “The placidity in my heart is stifling my potential for growth.”

With a swirl of his cape, Dukkha localizes. “Then face the malevolent wrath of Dukkha!” he shouts. Under his feet, the leaves give way.

“The covered pit is a nice touch,” Jenna admits.