On the Origins of Common Foods

Flying on a plane is very nice.

It is not as nice as wings. But it has more peanuts. Unless you are a peanut elemental, spreading great peanut-pattern wings. Then the peanuts of a plane are comparatively few.

This is not to say that peanuts are always an advantage.

Some people are allergic to peanuts. They do not value the peanuts on a plane. Some peanut elementals are allergic to peanuts. They go immediately into anaphylactic shock and die. We do not talk about them much unless they fall through our roofs, at which point it becomes difficult for the rest of the year to talk about anything else.

Some people are not allergic to peanuts. They have the advantage in that if they do meet a peanut elemental they do not necessarily die; and if they meet an elemental of non-peanut-ness, they are still generally all right.

(An elemental of non-peanut-ness is an elemental spirit formed from and exemplifying the conceptual category “not a peanut,” such that, when you see them, you immediately recognize that here is the pure distilled essence of not being a peanut—possessing none of the trace impurities that exempt most things in the world from Platonic non-peanut-ness. For example, the Earth is shaped too closely to resemble a peanut to qualify, while Eggos are legumes.)

This advantage of being able to survive contact with a peanut elemental is principally intangible and a matter of form (unlike the peanut elementals themselves) because peanut elementals are rare, and, when encountered in flight, have difficulty forcing their way onto the plane. Nor are they able, in this era of heightened security, to sneak easily onto the plane as a passenger unless they are willing to take off their shoes, limit their toothpaste allowance, and have names that do not resemble a terrorist’s name. (So, for instance, Mr. Peanut would have trouble, as would Al-Qaffar, but Mr. God of the Thousand-Slaying Legume Kick is probably okay.)

In the old days peanut elementals were a greater trouble for air traffic. This is how Mr. Carver invented peanut butter. People will say that he developed peanut butter in the laboratory but in fact George Washington Carver was the preeminent air ace of World War II. His contribution was ignored at the time as the United States government feared that, if they acknowledged it, the Axis would deride them as politically correct.

During one of many dogfights with German nationals Mr. Carver caught a peanut elemental in the engine of his plane and the rest was secret history.

But peanut elementals were not the only inhabitants of the stratosphere who would prove troublesome for air traffic in those troubled years. The Metatron Incident (wherein Metatron descended to the earth in a cloud of grace to reveal the new gospel and was caught in the engines of an uncertified Boeing) made angelfood cake possible for the first time in the history of the world. The efforts of hundreds of French chefs to reproduce this masterwork of massacre eventually created the “vegetarian angelfood” that we know today, using baking powder, whipped eggs, and flour to approximate the manifold virtues of Heaven. Masons traditionally added a snake, which they would wrap around the egg and convince to bite its own tail before baking; this added a sense of timeless mysticism to their delicious recipes and rightly they were honored throughout the culinary world.

The impact of the Metatron Incident was not to end there. Many of the people on the plane became focal points for mysterious phenomena. One of them, struck on the forehead by a bit of Metatron debris, became Billy Graham. Another became Vice-President Cheney. The plane plowed into the East Oak Lake house of a previously ordinary schoolboy; he would later grow up to become Noam Chomsky!

Tofu was originally made from ufos.

—Not to quit talking about Noam Chomsky when we’ve barely just begun, but he’s really not a common food!

So, anyway, tofu was originally made from ufos. Japan never admitted it, but you can tell because of the letters of its name.

—And why are the letters in tofu’s name in English, anyway? It was probably made from *British* ufos! Back benchers probably evolved into ufos because somebody fed them after midnight, and then they flew unwisely into Japan. All of this is hypothetical, because the true nature of the ufos is still unknown. But it seems likely—and yet, like Noam Chomsky, ufo pedantry is not a common food, and we must leave it lie.

Tofu, as noted earlier, was at one time made from ufos. But now it is not made from ufos. There are simply not enough ufos in the sky to support the scale of the modern tofu economy. So now most tofu is made out of a blend of textured swamp gas and weather balloons. Only trace impurities of alien origin remain!

Ballet is a wonderful art. Often in the grand jete the dancer will appear to fly. Conversely, while not so very grand, Boeing jets do fly. On one occasion, a joyous serendipity generated the Reese’s peanut butter cup; on another, to speak very delicately, battement fondu.

Ironically despite its historical origins fondue is rarely served on planes. One reason is that there is not enough leg room on a plane for a ballerina to survive. Confined in the middle seat they wither away and die. Another reason is that in the event of turbulence it is hard to explain to people that they will need to wear clear plastic masks to minimize the risk of cheese burns. The third and last reason is fear. In the post 9/11 era, fondue is just too scary for the no-longer-friendly skies!

“That Was Quick,” The Monster Said (I/III)

A history of a mean and ugly time.

Meredith is born. She explodes!

It is 1978. The sun is bright.

The monster looks surprised.

Not everyone explodes a few seconds after they’re born. Most people start out as babies. Babies are amazingly non-explosive. Even when you activate them using a nipple they remain inert, constraining their endless trillions of kilojoules within their adorable mass.

Even people who do not start as babies do not always explode. Gods tend to appear full-grown. Goats start out as kids, and Dick Cheney was actually born older than he is now. Some universal figures exist without beginning or end, such as God or Ouroborous. In addition there are suspicions regarding the people of Kansas who may in fact hatch out of great clutches of tornado eggs.

But Meredith has exploded; so, “That was quick,” the monster says.

Jenna giggles.

“She lasted longer in GMT,” Jenna says.

There’s a pause.

“What?”

“‘Cause it’s later there. In Greniggs!”

“No,” says the monster. “No, it’s not.”

He wipes off his face. He walks away. He leaves her there, and slowly Jenna’s head falls forward and her eyes flutter shut.

“PST sucks,” she says.

She dreams of Greenwich, where everything happens much later and in a stately fashion, where strange European people eat their midnight snacks at four, and where partings take eight hours at a time.

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.

She Had Forgotten All the Red

The sky is brilliant. It’s crisp. It’s blue and purple and black and full of dot-like stars.“It didn’t used to look that beautiful,” says Sid.

He is in a glade. The guardian spirit of the glade is sitting beside him. She is a woman clad in the colors of the place: in the crisp green of the wet grass, the muddy brown of the dirt, the thick deep color of the trees.

The clothing of her blends into the world.

She says, “It’s been a long time.”

There’s a sadness to her as the spirit says, “In the days of my childhood it always looked like that.”

“What happened?” says Sid.

“It rotted,” she says. “The sky just rotted right away.”

When Sid gets home there’s a proclamation posted on the neighborhood kiosk. It’s got nice scrollwork and a fancy font.

“Be it known,” he reads, “that in pursuit of justice and democracy, the Drug Enforcement Administration hereby adopts the following zero-tolerance policy towards drug use and participation in the drug trade;

“That those alleged to commit such crimes should have their house taken from them;

“And their vehicles;

“And all their earthly goods;

“And as another matter, should it be deemed by the Agent on the scene that such a person has tainted their soul forever with the murk of drugs, so that redemption is impossible in this earthly frame, the Agent may take that soul, for sale or retention as befits the necessities of the time.

“Signed,” and then an illegible scrawl.

Behind Sid a lamp post sheds golden sparks into the night.

“Harsh,” says Sid.

He finishes going home and sleeps that night in peace.

Sid is sitting outside on his lawn chair on a Sunday afternoon. An ant crawls along the house’s outer wall behind him.

The ant encounters a break in the boards. It hesitates. It wibbles its antennae furiously.

“Little help?” it asks.

“Hm?” Sid says.

“I want to go up,” says the ant. “I can’t go up.

“Oh,” says Sid.

He holds out his finger against the wall. The ant uses it as a bridge. It climbs upwards and away.

“Sometimes, when I’m hungry,” Sid says, “I can see a palace in the sky, made of shining gold and suspended on four great lotus blossoms. It is east of the sunrise and north of the stars.”

“That’s a long way away,” says the ant.

“It’s very big,” says Sid.

“Bigger than the stars?”

“Bigger than galaxies.”

The ant pauses. It contemplates the grandiose scope of Sid’s vision.

“Dude,” it says.

“Why do I see these things?” asks Sid.

“It’s probably because you’re practicing austerities,” the ant says. “That often opens you up to spiritual visions. Like, this one time, I smelled funny and no one would disgorge food into my mouth? And then I fell into an ecstatic trance and saw a terrible vision of the Avici Hell!”

“Wow,” says Sid.

“My heart was moved to great compassion for the suffering of the sinners there,” says the ant. “But then I found a crumb and I was like, ‘hey, crumb!’ and I woke up.”

Sid turns away from the ant. He looks off into the sky.

“Radical,” Sid says.

Far above them, an unmarked black car pulls out of the driveway of the palace made of gold.

It drives down towards the earth.

Sid’s sitting in his living room staring at his lava lamp when there’s a knocking at his door. So he gets up. He answers. There’s a man from the DEA on the other side.

“Hey,” says the man.

The man is tall. He’s stunningly handsome: nut-brown skin and white white teeth, hair like black wood, and eyes an incredibly crisp blue. He’s wearing a black coat and black slacks and he’s got a gun at his side.

His name tag says, “Brad Summers.”

“Hey,” says Sid, charmed.

“I’m here to inform you,” says Agent Summers. “There’ve been allegations made against you. That you’ve fallen in with a bad sort. That you’re participating in the drug trade.”

“Come in,” says Sid.

He steps away from the door. He lets Agent Summers in. He gestures Agent Summers towards the table.

“Just allegations, right?” says Sid. “I mean, you don’t have any reason to suspect me?”

“I know you’re a good man, Sid,” says Agent Summers.

He walks in. He sits down. Sid sits down opposite.

“But I don’t know if you’ve fallen from the path of righteousness.”

Sid frowns a little.

“You look disturbed,” says Agent Summers.

“You’re acting weird,” says Sid.

“Ah.”

Agent Summers says:

When the world was made, it was full of endless beauty.
Joy and love cascaded down from Heaven and filled the things on earth.
They soaked into the world like water into a sponge.
They spread through the world like fire leaping from blade to blade of prairie grass.
The sunrise was this brilliant orange like a chemical reaction.
The night was as deep as silence.
And then as the years went by, bit by bit, all that was lost.

His eyes are bright. His words are like a river. He catches Sid in their spell like a preacher or a rock star catches their flock.

“That’s why the work we do is so important,” says Agent Summers. “That’s what the DEA is for. To halt that breaking of the beauty of the world. To pull back from it. To restore what has been lost.”

He holds out his hand. He pulls Sid’s soul from his chest. It’s a lump, like an egg, but it’s clear and crystal and blue. It’s glowing from within.

Sid stares for a long moment; then, in the midst of Agent Summers’ next words, he blinks and shakes himself, hard, and opens his mouth in protest.

“See,” says Agent Summers.

He rubs his hand along the soul. He holds up his fingers. They’re coated with a little bit of gunk—sticky grime, like one might find under a never-cleaned sink.

“This is the impact of the material world on your soul,” says Agent Summers. He stands up.

“Hey!” says Sid.

“I’m going to have to confiscate everything,” says Agent Summers.

“Hey!”

Sid is staring at Agent Summers and his face is horrified. He can’t quite form his protest into coherent words; the situation has turned into something Sid can’t grasp.

“Hey!”

“It’s the allegations of drug use,” says Agent Summers. “Can’t be helped. You can keep your clothes. They’re not druggy clothes. And—do you have a dog?”

“No.”

“Goldfish?”

“No.”

“Then I’ll take the rest.”

Agent Summers slips the soul into his breast pocket.

Sid is on his feet, still incoherent with protest. “But— how—”

“It’s necessary,” says Agent Summers. “We’ll let you know if you can have anything back.”

He puts his hands on Sid’s shoulders.

Agent Summers says, “Buck up. We’re not arresting you yet.”

Sid pulls his fist back to punch Agent Summers in the face; but Agent Summers has skated back three steps and his hand has fallen to the gun at his side.

Sid stops.

Agent Summers turns, as Sid stands there.

He walks away.

When the paralysis breaks in Sid and he charges to the door, Agent Summers is already pulling closed the door on his unmarked black car, starting the engine, and driving away.

Sid sits on the confiscated sofa in his confiscated house.

He’s been sitting there for sixteen hours, except when he uses his confiscated bathroom.

Sometime or other, he’s pretty sure, someone’s going to show up to kick him out and take his keys. Maybe they’ll rough him up. Sid is aware of this in a distant fashion.

He finds it hard to care, without his soul.

“What if I die?” Sid wonders.

Sid goes to the public library. He takes down all the books on souls. Five hours later, he’s come to the conclusion that a soul is inseparable from the broader metaphysical system in which it takes part; that the habit of speech that would identify “Sid’s soul” as a meaningful object in the world is imprecise and imprudent; and that in physically seizing Sid’s soul and carrying it off, Agent Summers of the DEA has committed a poorly-defined executive act. This does not answer Sid’s underlying question.

“It’s irresponsible, is what it is,” Sid says, to the librarian.

“Hm?”

The librarian’s a woman named Donna with a short blonde mop of hair.

“Stealing people’s souls without properly defining them,” Sid says.

“That’s the kind of thing that gets resolved in the courts,” the librarian says. “Scratch v. Stone, Hotep v. Stiggens, U.S. v. Persephone, and so forth.”

“Oh.”

Sid slumps.

Donna looks Sid over. He’s thin and getting thinner right before her eyes, and there’s a raging grief in him.

“I can help you find a lawyer,” she says.

But there’s something nagging at Sid’s mind.

He shakes his head. He says:

There is no court that could constrain him.
He is immutable:
Cold; certain; strong; and clad in black,
Like Death.
Winds will sweep across the world
And the air go chill
At the mention of his name.

“Whose?”

“Agent Summers’.”

The pages of the books then blow.

“Huh,” the librarian says.

“Hey,” says Sid.

He’s on the phone with the DEA Information Office.

“Hey,” says Sid. “I had my house taken by this guy. And my soul. And I was wondering—”

“I’m sorry, sir,” says the man at the other end. “But that’s just an urban legend. The DEA doesn’t confiscate people’s souls.”

That gives Sid pause for a moment.

“But you can sell them to raise money,” Sid points out. “I mean, traditionally, they’re worth a mint.”

“You can only exchange currency for fungible goods, sir.”

“Wait, what?”

“Well,” explains the DEA Information Office agent laboriously, “it’s impossible to separate a soul from the broader metaphysical system in which it takes part.”

Explaining this to Sid is part of the man’s job as a fully-empowered information agent of the United States government.

“What this means,” the DEA Information Office agent concludes, “is that while souls have concrete monetary value, one cannot meaningfully exchange them for that value. To sell a soul means to slight it; to diminish it; to sacrifice some portion of its value in the interest of other goods. This is not the official policy of the DEA or the United States government.”

“Oh.”

There’s a pause.

“Will there be anything else, sir?”

“Agent Summers—”

There’s a chill.

The information agent clears his throat. He interrupts Sid. He says, “We don’t know of any such person, sir.”

“You know that just from his name?”

“Yes, sir.”

The DEA Information Office agent recites:

He is immutable:
Cold; certain; strong; and clad in black,
Like Death.
Winds will sweep across the world
And the air go chill
At the mention of his name.

“Is it not so?”

“It’s so,” concedes Sid.

“There’s no one like that with any connection to this agency, sir.”

So Sid sighs.

He sits down in the pay phone booth.

“If there were—”

There’s a pause.

“If there were,’ says the agent, moved to a certain sympathy, “then he would live in a golden palace in the sky, supported by four lotus blossoms, east of the sunrise and north of the stars.”

Sid walks out of the phone booth and he’s thinking hard.

He goes to the glade. He sits there in the clothes that Agent Summers left him and he waits.

He gets hungrier and hungrier.

And the night sky is as beautiful as anyone can imagine. It’s crisp and clear and it makes his heart ache to look at it. It’s blue and black and purple and it’s pure. Set amidst it there’s a palace made of bone and wheat and ice and sorrow; and Sid blinks three times and sees it as the moon.

Then there’s the day, and the sun is a great and endless fire; and off to the northeast there is a golden palace that glimmers with its light.

And Sid says, “I shall not eat save sunlight, nor drink save the morning dew, until Heaven grants me a path into the sky.”

And many days pass, and Sid grows as thin as a stick, and he is sprawled on the grass and he shakes with the footsteps of the ants as a leaf might shake to the footsteps of a man.

And he eats only sunlight, and he drinks only the dew that forms, crisp and pure, on the blades of the grass.

And one day, in the musty late hours of the evening as the sun is descending towards the horizon, he looks up and Heaven has given him his answer.

The branches of the trees form a staircase of living wood. It rises endlessly into the sky and Sid goes up.

And he thinks as he walks the endless stairs:

I am lucky;
I am blessed;
for it is only the DEA whom I must fight,
and not Intelligence.

Sid knocks on the door of the golden palace. It opens. There’s a man from the DEA on the other side.

“Hey,” says the man.

The man is tall. He’s stunningly handsome: nut-brown with white white teeth, hair like black wood, eyes an incredibly crisp blue. He’s wearing a black coat and black slacks and he’s got a gun at his side.

His name tag says, “Brad Summers.”

“Hey,” says Sid. “I’ve come for my soul.”

Agent Summers’ eyes narrow a little, but he doesn’t blink.

“Come in,” he says.

And he leads Sid in; and Sid sees that the shadow of the man has eight arms, like a spider practicing to be a centipede.

“Take off your shoes,” says Agent Summers. “Stay a while.”

Sid does not take off his shoes. Instead, he stares. In the living room beyond the foyer there is a mosaic on the floor. It is full of stones that are blue and purple and black. They are the night sky, as crisp and perfect and beautiful as Sid had ever seen.

There is a long stillness, and then Agent Summers sighs.

“Go ahead,” he says.

Sid kicks off his shoes and walks out onto the mosaic; and it is past twilight, below, on earth, and Sid’s passage casts shadows over the night sky.

Sid kneels beside his soul and rests his fingertips against its shape.

“How did it happen?” Sid asks.

“A sickness,” says Agent Summers. “A long slow sickness. Bit by bit the sky rotted and its pieces fell into the world.”

“This bit is mine,” says Sid.

“Is that so?”

“I grew up with it inside me,” Sid says. “It’s my soul. It’s what defines me.”

And Agent Summers gives Sid a deep and solemn bow, because insofar as that is true Sid is a person who deserves his great respect; but then the Agent rises, and he is stern.

“It is for the people of this world that I have taken it; it is in defense of a public trust; and for this reason there is no one at the Agency or its oversight who will object.”

The man is cold; and certain; strong; and clad in black.

In the mosaic that is the sky resides Sid’s confiscated soul.

“Please,” says Sid.

Answers Agent Summers: “A man who clings to a portion of the sky and will not release it—isn’t that the height of presumption?”

“I need it,” Sid says.

“Or is it that the sky refuses to be the sky?” asks Agent Summers. “That it demands to walk around on earth with the feet and hands of a Sid?”

Sid rises.

“This thing is a wonder,” he admits, and his voice is unsteady.

Three hundred souls, perhaps, he thinks. The light in them and the color in them and the sweep of them—put together in the sky, they are infinitely larger and grander than souls had seemed when the man from the DEA had seized Sid’s from his chest.

Sid tries to move away, but he can’t.

“But that’s mine,” says Sid, a strangled noise. He seizes the stone that is his soul.

Agent Summers draws his gun.

He shoots Sid in the head.

The spirit of the glade is reclining on the grass, and casting her eyes upwards, and wondering what has become of Sid.

The sky is like it was when she was a child—blue and purple and black and full of dot-like stars. It is beautiful.

Yet there is something missing in it: something that fails in its evocation of the memories of her youth.

In the golden palace of Agent Summers, above the mosaic of the sky, there is gunfire.

“Oh,” says Sid.

And all through the world there are screams of horror.

All through the world there are children staring, and people pointing, and others covering their eyes.

“Ah,” breathes the spirit, understanding.

The sky is dark with blood and bits of bone and brain. There is a shadow on it as Sid falls, a heavy weighty shadow that remains until Agent Summers drags his corpse away.

“I had forgotten all the red.”

Manchester-in-the-Gulch

In the vast caverns wreathed in sulfurous smoke, where the ground is a milky bog and the skies are full of wheeling imps; where the damned stumble and build and hold tight their memories of Earth; where there are great creatures walking in human form, their skin as hard as stone and their bodies taller than the hills; in that place that some call Hell, each person carries an egg.

There are rocks that fall. There are flames that rise. There are beasts in the night.

And there are eggs.

Annie wakes up there, sprawled in her daisy-print dress upon a viscous bog. She wakes up already sinking into the mud and in a panic, but there are hands grasping for her, the hands of men and women standing on the stable places in the bog. They are lifting her. They pull her up.

“Hello,” she says. “My name is Annie.”

“Annie,” murmur the people, in acknowledgment.

“Where am I?” Annie asks.

Then Minister Brown steps forward, and his hand is gentle on her arm, and he says, “Annie, you have been damned.”

“Oh,” Annie says. “Oh.”

Then Annie curls tightly around the egg so that none may take it from her.

“Peace,” says Minister Brown. “There is no one here who will hurt you. We are a sad lot, an unpleasant lot, but there is not the least of us here that would ever hurt your egg.”

There is an odd ring of truth to these words, and Annie peers at him.

“Oughtn’t you lot be horrid ruffians?” she says.

“Such was also my theory,” says Minister Brown. “But it does not seem the case. I thought on the matter, and here is my conclusion: if this is Hell, we are suffering immeasurable agonies and torment, which we tune out reflexively as the nature of our condition. In such light, the only greater harm that we could suffer is the shattering of our eggs. In all history there have been no humans, or at least few humans, so depraved as to exceed in their actions the torments offered by Hell. Thus, against the background evil of this place, all people stand out as good.”

“I see,” Annie says.

She takes a few steps away from them, feeling her way through the bog. “I don’t remember being terribly evil,” she says. She looks up at the sky. “I suppose I could have been a sociopath who just didn’t recognize the truth of all my deeds.”

Minister Brown sizes her up.

“More likely a contributor to the background ignorant malice of the world,” says Minister Brown. “But it is a question that others do not investigate, here. If you should like to know, you may ponder it in your egg. If you do not, we shall not inquire.”

“I understand,” says Annie.

They take her to their community, Manchester-of-the-Gulch, and there she spends some years. She learns, of her own accord, to plait yarn from the wispy, smoky matter that trails from the branches of the trees. She learns to knit clothing using needles made of the great bones, shed by long-forgotten beasts, which from time to time surface in the bog. She joins the people on their excursions to hunt the food, the water, and the sparkling foxfire-globes of electric power that help their town to live. And for years she holds her egg close, in her hand and later a pocket of her dress, but she does not look inside it.

Sometimes she sees the great stony creatures walk by, silent in the mist. The people call them the Demon Princes, for they are eidolons of fear and mystery to them.

They pass, great and terrible in the night, and they do not speak.

“I am minded to take up religion,” Annie says, one day, to Minister Brown. “But I am not sure how to proceed, this being Hell.”

“There is no proviso in the Good Book,” says Minister Brown, “that the damned cannot take up the faith. There is only the implication, apparent to certain learned theologians, that we cannot master it. Given that we are bound by our nature and unable to accept God, we cannot know the Word; the Word that we know is not the true Word; we cannot ever truly understand the majesty of the Lord. But we may come close.”

Annie is stricken. “To study, Minister, and aspire, always knowing that the truth by definition eludes us?”

“It is a burden,” Minister Brown agrees easily. “Some take up other faiths, of course. It is the Asian perspective that this Hell is a temporary place of torment, and that by apprehending the truth we lighten the burden of our karma. Some Christian sects would have it that even the damned are vulnerable to salvation, although the nature of the transition is not entirely clear—as we are dead, we cannot change our natures, but surely God’s light can breach that gap? And then there are the various rationalist faiths.”

“Why, then, Minister, are you a man of the Book?”

Minister Brown shrugs. “Because I cannot apprehend the truth does not mean I may not seek it.”

Annie scratches at the side of her face.

“I suppose,” Annie says, “that you might manage some epistemological sleight. Some manner of knowing-without-knowing, faith-without-faith, witness-by-implication.”

“I have time,” says Minister Brown.

So Annie studies with him, and they stare around the enigma of the belief they may not hold; but in her hour and in her day, it is Annie’s decision to part ways, saying, “Lo, I have found faith, in this simple place; and I cannot deny this flame I feel inside me on the doctrinal basis of its impossibility.”

“May you be wiser in this than I,” says Minister Brown.

And it is driven by that faith, supported by that tender reed of God, that, three months later, Annie finally finds it in herself to draw aside from the others, travel out beyond the borders of Manchester-of-the-Gulch, walk into the bog. There, she makes inquiry of her egg after the sin that damned her.

Now her egg is a filigree of gold that wraps around a pulsing core of red. And there are numbers in the egg and there are sounds and there is whiteness and there is fire. And there is an ancient wind and shouts of war and more of these things besides, and in its heart, she sees the sin that damned her.

Annie shrieks, as is typical of the damned, and casts the egg aside onto a tuft of grass; and she cowers there, in the bog, shaking and trembling, biting on her lip until there is blood, scratching at her arms.

“Leave her,” says Minister Brown, when a hunting party finds her there. “She will recover.”

He bends down and tries to touch her arm, but she rebuffs him with flailing blows, and he rises and nods.

But they have not gotten thirty paces thence when the rocks begin to fall.

There is something nagging at Annie’s mind. There is something twisting in it. And then she suddenly flounders to her feet, and begins to cast frantically about her, crying, “My egg!”

And all around her there are great stones falling from the sky, falling from the heights of stone that are the roof of Hell, and she does not know where the egg was cast, or whether it is vulnerable on the surface of the ground or deep and sheltered in the bog.

The others are hurrying back already as she sees it. She is grasping for it, a scream bubbling from her throat like nothing known on Earth. But she is too late; a stone is falling.

In the vast caverns wreathed in sulfurous smoke, where the ground is a milky bog and the skies are full of wheeling imps; where the damned stumble and build and hold tight their memories of Earth; where there are great creatures walking in human form, their skin as hard as stone and their bodies taller than the hills; in that place that some call Hell, each person carries an egg.

It is the hand of a Demon Prince that saves her; a great and steel-skinned hand. It passes over the bog like a shadow, and the stone shatters on that skin.

And there is a wonder in that, and an awe, but mostly the jagged residuals of fear.

Clutching her egg tightly to her chest, mumbling a mix of frantic blessings and terrible strangled sounds, Annie stumbles back to Manchester-in-the-Gulch.

“Why Can’t I Fix You?” (I/II)

Cockatrices are born when a serpent coils around an abandoned chicken egg until it hatches.

They are rarer than hen’s teeth or eel’s wings. To see one is a marvel, a rarity, a precious and a magical thing. Few in life will ever meet the prince or princess of their deepest dreams; receive a vision of Heaven’s grace; or transcend the natures of the world and know enlightenment. Compared to a cockatrice, all of these things are dirt common, like winter or the flu.

Cockatrices are, unfortunately, very ugly.

It is 548 years before the common era. A cockatrice slithers into Belshazzar’s room. It finds him in darkness, but Belshazzar does not need light to see.

“How awful,” Belshazzar says.

“I am ugly,” concedes the cockatrice. “That is why most people die when they see my face.”

It shows its face to Belshazzar. Belshazzar does not die. He is, however, sickened.

“How do you live with it?” Belshazzar asks. His voice is faint. His nostrils have flared.

“I’d hoped you’d die,” says the cockatrice. “I thought, if I’m going to be so ugly that I kill everyone who looks at me, I should kill someone whose existence brings agony to the world.”

“I don’t know if I can die,” says Belshazzar.

“It’s all right to be a cockatrice,” says the creature. “I said that when I opened my eyes for the first time. I uncoiled myself from the membrane of my shell. I tasted the cold stone on which I rested. I looked at my mother, the snake, and she died. And I said, ‘it’s all right. Because I can slither, and taste things, and feel the sunshine, and kill people who need it.’ But mostly I kill people who don’t need to die.”

“It’s all right,” Belshazzar agrees. He devours the nature of the cockatrice. “But why would a serpent coil around an egg?”

There’s a thing, and it’s snaky, and it’s avian, but it’s not a cockatrice any more. It twists and coils. It eddies away along the ground. As it leaves the presence of Belshazzar, it passes a servant, who looks down and sees its face.

“How awful!” the servant says, and hits it with a tray.

543 years before the common era, Belshazzar visits Nitocris’ gate. This is a gate in Babylon. It has a tomb built into it. It is the tomb of Queen Nitocris. Anyone who walks through the gate walks under the dead.

Belshazzar runs his fingers along the writing on the stone.

If there be one among my successors on the throne of Babylon who is in want of treasure, let him open my tomb, and take as much as he chooses—not, however, unless he be truly in want, for it will not be for his good.

Belshazzar devours the nature of the stone, and now he may walk through it. He enters the tomb without breaking its seals. There he sees the limitless wealth of Nitocris, and the living corpse of Queen Nitocris herself.

“Are you truly in want of wealth?” the corpse asks him.

“No,” says Belshazzar.

“Then taking it will not be to your good,” says the corpse. “That’s as the writing indicates.”

“The world is in agony that I’m alive,” says Belshazzar. “I thought you might have advice.”

“It’s all right to be a living corpse,” says Queen Nitocris’ abandoned body. “But it limits the answers available to me. I can give you advice on the treasure. Don’t take it! It won’t be to your good. I can also recommend against mummification. I’d think better if they hadn’t pulled Nitocris’ brains out through my nose. You don’t need brains to think, but they’re really helpful.”

“I don’t know if I have a brain,” says Belshazzar. “Sometimes I think that I’m just a ring full of sharp, sharp teeth, even if I look like a boy.”

“Let me feel you,” says Nitocris’ corpse. It runs its foul hand over his face. Then it sighs.

“What?”

“Most of the tactile processing was in my brain,” the creature says. “So I’ll tell you this. Pain is caused by wanting. So if the world’s in agony because you’re alive, then you’re probably making it want something.”

“What do you want?”

The corpse grins ferally. “Someday, someone’s going to come in here who doesn’t really need the treasure. Then I’ll make it all vanish, and I’ll point my long skeletal finger at them and say, ‘Had you not been so insatiate of money, and careless how you got it, you would not have broken open the sepulchers of the dead!’ Then I’ll crumble into dust and leave them wondering for the rest of their life if they really saw me.”

“What lingers in the body after death?” Belshazzar asks.

He devours the nature of the corpse.

The withered remains of Queen Nitocris give him no answer.

It is in a state of uncertainty that Belshazzar returns to his father Nabonidus.

“What is a monster?” Belshazzar asks.

“It’s someone who thinks it’s all right to be a monster,” Nabonidus says.

“Is it all right?”

Nabonidus smiles at him. “I think so.”

“It’s not so good to be a devouring god,” says Belshazzar.

“It’s because you haven’t figured out how to live with it properly,” says Nabonidus. “If you take the right path, it’ll satisfy you.”

“Thank you,” Belshazzar says.

It is all right, Belshazzar thinks, to devour the bad things. It would be all right if he could eat the nature of the monster; the nature of Hell; the nature of suffering. That would be a fair answer to the pain that gave him birth.

But he cannot bite Nabonidus. He is an instrument in Nabonidus’ hand, and Nabonidus is not so clumsy as that.

So he waits, a ring full of sharp, sharp teeth, for the chance to kill his father; and while he waits, he prepares to defend Babylon against the army of Kuras by devouring everything that makes the invaders who they are; and he leaves his mother Mylitta to suffer in the temple of Sin; and he does not think that these things are wrong.

Monsters think it’s all right to be a monster, after all.

Nightmare of the Rustling

It is night. Micah and Liril are sleeping. Tainted John is laying down.

There is a rustling.

Micah is instantly awake.

There is a further rustling. Something is scurrying and slithering in the pine needles. It is evil.

Micah is on his feet. He is looking towards it.

It is great and serpentine and slithery. It is pale moonlight colors, blue and cold. It has a terrible maw. It has black feathers on its head and raven eyes. It is just the sort of thing that one finds making rustling noises in the forest.

“Once upon a time,” the creature whispers, and its voice is moon and stars and wind, “a runaway child broke his leg here. So he died. And I grew inside him. And then I came out. And now I must kill runaway children to lay my eggs in them.”

Micah looks at Tainted John. Tainted John does not seem to have noticed the rustling or the creature’s speech.

The creature’s head sways back and forth in the air. Then it arcs viciously towards Micah. Micah moves to meet it, then stops, his hands splayed in the air, as if against an invisible wall. The creature stops too.

“There’s a glass door,” Micah bluffs. “Bump! If you attack, you’ll hit your head on it!”

The creature hesitates. “Open it,” it says.

“There’s no handle!”

The creature eyes him narrowly. It has bumped into glass doors before. They are one of its natural enemies. But the air is undisturbed.

“I do not believe you,” it whispers.

“I wouldn’t let her sleep out here defenseless,” Micah bluffs.

And if this works, we cannot know.

Forgotten Things

Peter Cottontail hides eggs.

“This one,” he says to himself, “I painted like the world. It tells the story of how Attaris Bunny broke the sky and stole the stars.”

He looks around. He scampers over to a bush. He plans to hide it under the bush. He looks up nervously, as he does each time, towards Eden Above.

That story, Peter?”

Peter startles. He almost drops the egg. He spins around. Then he hides the egg behind his back. “Why, Betty!” he says.

Betty Bunny has her hands on her hips. She’s pink, except for her tail and waistcoat, which are yellow.

“It’s important,” says Peter.

“It’s not important. Nothing’s important. Not this close to Eden.”

Peter pouts. After a long moment, Betty relents. She looks down. She sighs. “But why that?” she says. “Why would you ever want anyone to know that?”

Peter brightens. He turns his back on her and finishes hiding the egg under the bush. Then he hops off towards the forest.

“Peter?”

“Come on!” he says.

Reluctantly, she hops after him. She follows him into the forest. He hops to the left. He hops to the right. Finally, he finds just the right tree. He pulls out an egg. It’s painted a dull cold red.

“This one,” Peter says, reverently, “is going to have the story of the serpent. And I’m going to hide it here, right under the tree of life.”

Betty flushes.

“You have to tell it,” Peter says. “You’re the best at it. I always get choked up.”

Betty frowns at him.

Peter puts the egg back in the basket. “It’s okay,” he says. “You don’t have to do it yet.”

He finds a different tree. He takes out an egg. “This one’s about the genocide in Asia,” he says. “When we killed all the lucky rabbits.”

It’s painted brilliantly. It’s a den and a backdrop of blue and there are white rabbits sitting in it, drinking tea and looking out their window at the night. The rough blue-black paint of the sky catches just the slightest spark of light.

“That was exaggerated,” Betty says.

“They weren’t all that lucky,” Peter agrees. His voice is sad. He looks up at Eden Above. He looks down. Then, quickly, he hides the egg. He scampers to an abandoned mouse hole, looks down, and then glances back at Betty. “Do you have any eggs?”

“Peter!”

“You knew I’d be out here,” he says. “You knew I’d be doing this. You didn’t bring any eggs? Even if it’d break my heart?”

Betty sighs. “Fine,” she says. She rummages around in her waistcoat pocket. She pulls out an egg. It has stick figures on it. They are the stick figures of rabbits. They look a lot like human stick figures except for the quintessential quality of bunnyness.

“It’s about peace,” she says. “It’s about every bunny who muddled through, even—”

She looks up. “Even knowing—”

Peter takes it gently from her paws. He hides it in the mousehole.

“See?” he says. “It’s important that they know.”

He thinks, and then he takes out an egg of his own, painted with a thin and wasting rabbit carrying a lantern and staring down a deep dark hall.

“Starvation,” he says.

After a nervous look upwards, he hides it with hers.

“I’ll tell you the story,” Betty says. “If you want.”

Peter takes out the dull red egg. He cradles it in his clever paws. He holds it up to her. It listens.

“We were young,” Betty says. “In the dawn of the world. In the garden. And the serpent tempted us, as it did Man.”

“Yes,” Peter says.

“We took down the apple,” Betty says. “A bunny and a cottontail. And ate it, so that we would know good from evil. We learned to make waistcoats to hide our shame.”

Peter nods. For a long time, Betty is silent.

“But we were very small!” Betty cried.

“You have to finish,” Peter prompts. “The egg won’t be done until you finish.”

“We weren’t hungry enough,” says Betty. “We couldn’t finish the whole apple, not even between the two of us. So we only learnt enough to last a thousand years.”

Peter nods.

“That’s how it was,” he says.

“Soon we’ll forget,” the bunny says, looking very small against the wind, “and go back to Eden, and we won’t have choices to make any more.”

The garden hangs above them. The strange devices that hold it out of human reach thrum low.

“It is a little closer,” Betty says, “every day.”

She thinks.

She adds, “The end.”

The egg clicks. The egg whirrs. “Data stored,” it says.

Peter takes the egg back to the tree of life. He leaves it at its root. He hops away. When he is at the edge of Betty’s sight, he stops, and turns back.

“Come on,” he says. “Come on!”

“There’s no one who’ll ever find them,” Betty says. “No one who’ll know—”

“We have to hide the egg about my birthday,” Peter says. “Otherwise no one will know which day to celebrate!”

“Oh,” Betty says.

She begins to hop after him.

“And the one about the War?” she asks.

“And the one about the War.”

Saturday Afternoon Gospel Special, with Mr. Nabisco

Irinka Marigold Starchilde is an ordinary girl in an ordinary neighborhood. Everyone can identify with Irinka! She lives in a high room overlooking a tree. There is a nest in that tree with baby birds chirping in it. The tree is growing out of a sidewalk. That’s how normal Irinka is!

“Hey, Irinka,” says Slick. He’s her boyfriend.

More of a friend, really! Irinka corrects.

“Hey, Irinka,” says Slick. He’s her . . . friend.

“Hey, Slick!”

“So, Irinka,” says Slick. “Want to try drugs?”

Irinka looks at Slick with shock. “No!”

“Why not?”

Irinka thinks. “My anti-drug is a history of abuse by my drug-addled father-in-law. But my mama chased that weasel out of our house!”

“That’s a pretty good anti-drug,” Slick admits. “Mine used to be that I was too poor to afford them. Then I cleaned up, got a good job, and now I can have all the drugs I want.”

“Wow,” says Irinka. “Your Puritan virtues cancelled out your anti-drug!”

“It’s wonderful, but also sad,” says Slick.

“I thought you had a backup anti-drug,” asks Irinka, “in Saturday Afternoon Specials?”

“What’s today?” Slick asks.

“Monday,” says Irinka abashedly. And, “Oh.”

Slick looks smug. “So, do you want to try some?”

“It’s tempting,” says Irinka. “I come from a broken home. How can I resist that kind of easy pleasure?”

With Mr. Nabisco! thinks Dr. Terror. But he’s not in this story yet.

“Oh, what the heck,” says Irinka. “I’ll try some. But just a taste!”

“It’s made by Drug Company,” says Slick. “So you know it’s good!”

Irinka tastes a bit of drugs.

“Mm, mm,” says Irinka. “This is some fine horse.”

Slick looks a little sick. “They make it out of horses?”

“No, no,” says Irinka.

Suddenly, Irinka’s mama bursts in. “Irinka! Are you trying some of those no-good drugs?”

“They’re actually quite good, mama!”

Irinka’s mama snatches away the bag of drugs. She casts it out the window. It opens and spills all over the bird’s nest. The baby birds devour the drugs and become rude, bad, and poorly molted. That’s their terrible destiny!

“Gasp,” gasps Irinka. “What have I done? I have become an addict! But now I face a fateful decision—do I go cold turkey, or allow myself to be drawn into the terrible world of drugs? Mama! Can you help me?”

“I’ll talk to the preacher man,” says Irinka’s mama, whose name is Cherise.

SCENE II

Cherise talks to the preacher man. He doesn’t have a name. That’s how preachy he is!

“Preacher man,” she says, “can you help my daughter?”

“I’ll give you my answer in a song,” he says.

Seems there’s nothing in this world of ours
That doesn’t strive to drag you down
Hunger, sickness, violent video games
Drugs, and crime—don’t let them get you down.
The world is harsh, it’s painful, but whatever
Wheat Thins’ Love is Forever.

Wheat Thins’ Love is Forever,
Salty love is all around,
When you’re tired, when you’re in the dark,
Salty love will lift you off the ground.

Wheat Thins’ Love is forever, girl,
It’s the gift Mr. Nabisco brings.
He sends his love to you in cracker form,
Wheat Thins’ Love is a wondrous thing.
And if you wonder if it’s night or day,
If maybe that love’s diurnal?
I’m here to tell you such a wondrous thing:
Wheat Thins’ Love is eternal!

SCENE III

Dr. Terror sits in his lab in Drug Company. He’s watching a screen. The screen has a little picture of Irinka on it.

“I don’t know what to do!” says Irinka.

“Hm,” says Dr. Terror. He scruffles at his goatee. “This is an interesting case. I can see that Mr. Nabisco has an interest in her soul.”

He presses a button. “Boss,” he says.

The mysterious Boss of Drug Company answers. “Yes, Dr. Terror?”

The Boss’ voice oozes evil.

“I’m going to go make sure Irinka chooses drugs,” Dr. Terror says. “That’s the best way for Drug Company to profit!”

“It’s true,” admits Boss. “We make all of our money from revenue. Then we spend it lobbying for evil!”

On the screen, Irinka frets. “I should cling to my anti-drug,” she says. “That’s the right decision.”

“Oh, no, you don’t!” cries Dr. Terror. He vanishes in a puff of smoke and appears before Irinka.

Irinka startles. “You’re a no-good boy!” she says. “I can’t have no-good boys in my room! I’m grounded for trying drugs!”

“I’m not just a boy,” says Dr. Terror. “I’m also a no-good doctor!”

“Oho,” says Irinka, catching on. “You must be Ernest’s drug contact!”

Call me Slick! thinks Ernest, aka Slick. He’s not in the scene, so Irinka ignores him.

“You might say that,” says Dr. Terror, scruffling his goatee. “You might say that indeed.”

“I have been tempted,” says Irinka, frankly. “It’s because of the addiction, you know.”

“I know,” whispers Dr. Terror, seductively. “Once you’re addicted, we have claimed your soul.”

“Wait,” says Irinka. “I don’t have any recourse?”

“None whatsoever!” says Dr. Terror hurriedly. “No recourse. Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous! You’re trapped in the cycle of drugs. But it’s not so bad! Drugs are perfectly good snacks. People just paint them as evil. It’s what the man wants you to think!”

“Oh,” says Irinka. “That’s surprisingly plausible, because the man has little or no credibility with me.”

Dr. Terror rubs his hands together.

Suddenly, Irinka has a realization. “Wait,” Irinka says. “I remember my occult lore! You’re actually the enemy of Mr. Nabisco! When the Drug Company doctors talk about the Man, they mean Him!

Irinka sings.

Mr. Nabisco never keeps you down,
His crumbly love will answer every frown,
He watches all of us from HQ high,
He sends his love to answer every sigh.
And if you turn away from him you must be high.
‘Cause Wheat Thins’ Love is Forever.

“No!” cries Dr. Terror. “No!”

“I’m saved!” cries Irinka. “I’m saved from drugs! By consumerism!”

“No!” shrieks Dr. Terror.

But Irinka just goes to the pantry and pulls out a box of Wheat Thins. She shakes it at him.

“The rattling! The rattling!”

“That’s right, Dr. Terror,” says Mr. Nabisco. He strides into the room. He’s a delicious man made entirely of crackers! He shakes a finger at Dr. Terror. “MY anti-drug is buying vast quantities of deliciously cheap snack food! And that’s the best anti-drug you can get!”

“You haven’t won yet,” says Dr. Terror, his voice low and dangerous like a snake’s. Like a very loud snake’s. “She’s tried the drugs. She belongs to us!”

“Which do you want, Irinka?” says Mr. Nabisco. He fishes a wheat thin out of the box. He holds it up before her. “The drugs? Or this, this my body, this my blood?”

It’s not actually blasphemous. Mr. Nabisco is made of wheat thins! See above!

“I . . . I . . .” says Irinka.

“It was mighty good horse, wasn’t it?” offers Dr. Terror.

“No!” shouts Irinka. “I reject thee!”

Dr. Terror shrieks and vanishes.

Irinka’s mama reenters, with the preacher man. Everyone sings.

Your brain on drugs is like a broken egg,
Your brain on love is like a whole one,
Salvation’s there if you just reach for it,
Nabisco’s light can save your soul, hon.
Wheat Thins’ love don’t fade away none.

“I love you all!” cries Mr. Nabisco, throwing his arms wide. Crackers fountain from his hands and bear his love to every corner of the world.

That’s just the tiniest bit creepy, Irinka admits.

THE END

The Puppy is Sad

Saul is just a kid. He’s growing up out in the country, bit by bit, every day.

“I don’t want to do my chores,” he says.

“If you’re bad,” says his mother, “then the gibbelins will come and take you away.”

“Oh,” says Saul. So he goes and he milks the vampires. He collects the mummy eggs. He hauls hay into Barnface.

He doesn’t protest his chores again.

One day, Saul finds a puppy. It has three heads. Its mouths drip acid. It is very hungry because its last owner starved and beat it.

“Come here,” Saul says.

The puppy hesitates.

“Come on,” Saul says. He holds out a steak. It was meant for the river men. But they can go hungry for a day.

The puppy inches forward, low to the ground. Then it rips the steak from his hands. Its teeth and acid rapidly turn the steak to an ex-meal.

“I’ll take you home,” Saul says.

So from that day Saul has a puppy. They play in the fields.

“Mother,” he says, one day, “why do I have to work so hard?”

“If you’re good,” says his mother, “the sugar fairies will come and take you away.”

“Oh,” says Saul. So he goes and he fixes the tractor. He rebinds the limbs of the great round-bellied field demon. He leaves out some milk and his shoes for the cobblers to fix.

Saul goes to school sometimes. Just a little. His mother doesn’t hold much with education, but she wants him to give it a fair shot. Every time the grim white arms of the bus haul him inside, the puppy barks. It licks the bus. Then it sits down and waits patiently for Saul to come home.

When he comes home, the puppy is very happy.

“It’s your sixteenth birthday,” Saul’s mother says, one day. “Have you been good?”

“I have, mother,” says Saul.

“I thought so,” his mother says. So she gets up from their breakfast. She goes around the table. She hugs him goodbye. “Go on, son,” she says. “The sugar fairies are here.”

“Can the puppy come?” he asks.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “The puppy’s evil.”

“Oh.”

He goes outside. The sugar fairies find him. They take him, two to each arm and three to his body, and they drag him off to the Land of Pleasure and Happiness.

The puppy is sad.