The Loneliness of the World (2 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

Once upon a time, if you can believe Red Mary, the Buddha walked the world.

Back then, everything was exactly as it was.

Things had their own natures. A cloud was a cloud. A person was a person. A tree was a tree.

And more than that, every last person had their own way of being.

The world chose some people to be Kings by birth, gave rise to them with a nature for rule, and they sat on thrones and this was right. To others the world assigned a destiny of merchanthood or prostitution. The world birthed witches, killers, and creatures with terrible talents. It also gave rise to people with no more magic to them than the right to have a name and a family and an origin and an age.

The Buddha took that away.

He looked around and he said, “Because Kings are Kings, there is suffering. Because prostitutes are prostitutes, there is suffering. Because one man is a witch and can cast terrible spells, people suffer, and because another man is not and cannot, people suffer. It is even occasionally problematic that clouds are clouds.”

“Sure, but what can you do about it?” his mother asked.

The Buddha, if you can believe Red Mary, was always arguing with his mother. Even when you might think he’d be taking care of his son or meditating under a bo tree or achieving enlightenment or something, if you listen to Red Mary, he was probably arguing with his mother instead.

“What can you do about it?” she asked. “Because it’s so very precious to people that they are as they are.”

“It’s precious,” he said. “But that won’t stop me! I’ll still take it all away.”

And he spoke the word anatman and from him issued a great breath of change that stripped the natures from the world and from that point it was no longer true that things were always themselves.

From that day forward, when somebody was King, it wasn’t because it was right or even wrong that they were King. It was because of a causal chain of events that had put them on the throne. And when somebody was a merchant or a prostitute, that wasn’t dharma either. It just was. Even if you could figure out what the world had made you to do, it wasn’t necessarily so that you could do it.

Trees weren’t always trees.

The sun wasn’t always the sun.

Sometimes clouds turned to vapor and just drifted apart.

And as for the gods, they weren’t there.

The gods, the magic, the power of the witches, it was just . . . gone.

And for five hundred years this made people happy even in the face of the torments of the world; and then for fifteen hundred years, no matter how unhappy people were, they still had access to salvation.

But all that’s over now.

Now it’s the latter days of the law. The power of the Buddha’s word is fading. Magic is creeping in around the edges. People sometimes act in accordance with their nature. Kings by birth sit on the thrones again. People find themselves pawns helpless before their dharma.

The old ways are coming back.

But we already know that magic doesn’t fix things. We already know that it’s not enough to save anyone.

And as for the Buddha’s answer?

The powerlessness of anatman?

It’s kind of surprising, in these the Latter Days of the Law, that it ever helped anybody at all.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue 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.

The Island of the Centipede

“What was it like?” Max asks.

“Hm?”

“For the gods,” Max says. “I’ve always wondered.”

“And hadn’t I just said we were gone?”

“Not all of you,” Max says. “Not Rahu. Not Pelopia. Not even Santa, if Jane is to be believed.”

“Santa,” says Red Mary.

She laughs.

“Disbelief?”

“Disdain.”

“Ah.”

Red Mary sighs.

“We were severed from the world,” she says. “We lived but we could not touch you. We spoke but you could not hear. I sang my song to Halldis who suffered and whom I imagined needed the power to dissolve. For she who made me, I sang, and to open for her a gateway to the freedom from her pain. But she did not dissolve. I cried to the White Christ to give her surcease but He did not answer. I begged favors of the sun, of the moon, of the stars. And four years later Halldis died in childbed and I went on. I lived in a fountain with cracked stone lions and I sang to kill the lamps and the pigeons and when that failed me I crawled westwards to the sea, and none in all that place to remember my passing or that I had ever been.”

“Why?”

“‘Why?'”

“Why?”

“‘The problem with egolessness,'” Red Mary says—and the inflection is strange, so that Max thinks she is quoting—“‘is that it never happens to the right people.'”

The catamaran drifts left and Max can see the texture of the island, the wrinkles of the rock, the black stones embedded in it, the mussels at the chaos’ edge.

“We’d never had the power we thought we had,” Red Mary says.

Max looks blankly at her.

“I’d thought it was the dharma of a siren to dissolve others into the greatness of the world,” she says. “But better to say: it is the dharma of a siren to dissolve others for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time, and to the wrong outcome.”

“Ah,” Max says.

“And yet we must try to be good.”

There’s an edge of skepticism to her voice that worries Max, so he doesn’t answer her.

“We can’t,” says Red Mary. “But somehow, we must try.”

She laughs.

“Disdain?” Max asks.

“Disbelief.”

And the catamaran sails on in the channels of the broken island, in the sea of chaos to the west of Gibbelins’ Tower, in the loneliness of the world.

Angels

“There are angels in this castle,” White Lion says. “They are born to fill Zenobia’s emptiness with hope.”

Angels are a kind of spiritual being (“god.”) They generally wear jackets with holes for their wings. Where angels go there is the potential for virtue and good outcomes—even when things are bleakest. The smallest, but genuine, chance of impossible and unlooked-for grace travels with them, drifts down where they pass, flies with the sound of their wings. Thus we say angels answer emptiness with hope.

Sadly angels aren’t quite so much as one would want.

Their power is real. Sometimes an angel goes into a hopeless situation and something good happens that couldn’t have happened without the angel. Sometimes that possibility of a good outcome, of being good, of finding good in another—sometimes that possibility wasn’t even there without an angel, and sometimes once the angel arrives, you find it.

Or, a lot of the time, you don’t.

Known angels include:

Daniel, who knew what it took to save Jenna but couldn’t do it;
Evasive Angel, who allows anyone who catches her to change their fate, even to the breaking of the cycle of the world (but who cannot be caught);
Forbidden A, whom one ought not think about;
Magic A, who can do anything (sometimes); and
Realistic A, who can provide a pragmatic evaluation of any situation.

Sometimes when people are hurting all we can do is dream up legends for them.

It hurts! But that’s all that we can do.

And Pelopia says that that’s sort of what being an angel is like. Only, when she says it, it’s when we’d expect it to be sad, and instead she looks—

Like the sea is crashing, somewhere, on the shore; like the world is brilliant with love; like the sky is bright, too bright for mortal eyes to look at, and with the sun.

Pelopia Visits Martin (1 of 1)

THE POSTMAN 1
1. Neither snow nor sleet
2. Nor heat of day
3. Nor gloom of night
4. Stays the postman
5. From his appointed round.

THE POSTMAN 2
1. Martin sends a letter.
2. The postman walks up to Pelopia.
3. “Delivery,” he says.
4. Pelopia is too far away.

THE POSTMAN 3
1. “Ma’am,” says the postman.
2. The postman is running.
3. He doesn’t get closer! She’s still too far away!
4. She is too far away. It is now very hot.

THE POSTMAN 4
1. “Ma’am!” cries the postman.
2. The postman runs faster.
3. He doesn’t get closer. She’s still too far away!
4. He doesn’t get closer. It is now very dark.

THE POSTMAN 5
1. “MA’AM!” yells the postman.
2. The postman runs faster.
3. The postman he stumbles off the edge of the world.
4. The postman he tumbles.
5. The postman he tumbles.
6. And as for Pelopia
7. She’s still too far away.

THE POSTMAN 6
4. “Great,” says the postman.
5. “This was not in my creed.”

PELOPIA VISITS MARTIN

It’s not because of the letter.

“I sent you a letter,” Martin tells her one day, and Pelopia just gives him this guilty hiccup of a look.

It’s not because of the letter that Evasive A is there.

And it’s not because of effort.

Martin’s tried a lot of things to change his fate and break the cycle of the world. He’s worked hard at it.

But he never tried to catch this angel; so that isn’t why she’s there.

It’s not because of effort, or because he’s of her blood—

Though he is, in a way, many times removed.

It’s just that sometimes when we’re working hard to make our own meanings in a Godless universe, grace walks through the door.

One day she’s just there.

The other angels have their invitations, but not Pelopia. She’s not there to watch the show.

She’s on the stage talking about long walks to Hell.

She’s back behind it pumping the levers of the chaos.

She’s in the lights, balancing the colors, tumbling end-over-end with the ladder and lights falling down and Sid and Jane yelling, “Catch her;”

And crying, of course:

“No one can catch me! I’m Evasive Angel!” as she lands hard on her side.

Being uncatchable hurts sometimes, like when you’re falling from a rafter or jumping into your own dear love’s arms.

And one day she asks Martin if he’s OK with things, with the fact that there she is and in theory the answer to all his problems—all anybody’s problems—only he’s not trying to catch her.

And he looks at a dial on the sound stage—

Next to a mirrored sheen, and set, in a moment of unexpected vulnerability, to 11—

and he says, very clearly, “I can see your boogers.”

If you forgot what to call them, you’d have to say ‘consolidated snot capsules.’ That’s just how awkward it would be!

Aegisthus (IV/IV)

Tell me, oh muse, of the decision of Aegisthus, who learned the truth of his heritage: son and grandson both of the monster Thyestes, who sired him by force on Pelopia’s womb. Tell me of Aegisthus, who stood with sword in hand in the cold wet cell where Thyestes sat enchained, and chose, not to kill, but to strike free the monster’s chains. I must turn to you, oh muse, for this decision is not one I can encompass; but still he made it; and so have countless others through the years; down the line from one to another, to the monster Jenna and Liril knew.

**

It is 1212 years before the common era. The sun in the clouds is the color of a flame. A young boy named Aegisthus stands upon a hill. He holds a sword. He cuts his hand with it and smears its edge with blood. Then he thrusts it into the ground. The world cracks open. He calls out, “Tiresias! Tiresias! Prophet and oracle!” A ghost suspires from the ground and sips the blood from the edge of the sword.

“Oracle,” Aegisthus says. “I am Aegisthus, son of Atreus, and one day I shall be King. Yet I wish to be more. My ambition does not end with such paltry measures. I must command the gods themselves. Speak me an oracle. Give me an answer to my dream.”

Tiresias turns blind, dead eyes on Aegisthus. “Many in the world have desires. Why should yours take precedence?”

Aegisthus shrugs.

Tiresias sighs. “What you ask is impossible. If you must attempt it, then go to the spring of the nymph Cyane and wake her with your blood.”

The earth takes breath, and pulls Tiresias away. Aegisthus withdraws his sword and the world grinds closed.

The next morning, four people leave Mycenae. Aegisthus goes to Sicily, where the spring of Cyane is found. His half-brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus travel to the Oracle, searching for the King’s hated brother Thyestes. These three leave with fanfare and with wealth, for Atreus King loves them well; but Atreus’ youngest wife, Pelopia, hearing certain rumors regarding Leda’s daughter Helen, walks away in silence, and few mark her departure.

Aegisthus takes a boat, and then a road, and finds himself in Sicily next to an ancient spring. He stirs the water with his finger. It forms an image. Aegisthus sees the chariot of Hades, charging across the world, with captive Persephone in Hades’ arms. Then the nymph Cyane rises from the stream. She spreads her arms to bar Hades’ way.

“‘No,'” Aegisthus says, watching the image of her mouth. “‘No,’ she says, and ‘Go no further! This maiden must be asked, not taken.'”

Then Hades smites the spring, and the world cracks open, and his chariot gallops down into the Underworld, and the waters of the spring seal over. Cyane weeps, and as she cries, she loses substance, until the spring and nymph alike are nothing but her tears.

The water goes still. The vision ends. Aegithus frowns. He cuts his hand. He smears his sword with blood. He dips it through the water to touch the stone Hades’ sceptre broke.

“Ew.” Cyane rises from the pool. “Ew. Don’t do that. Ick. Ew.”

“What?”

Aegisthus, uncertainly, withdraws his sword.

“Memories. Symbolism. Mind in the gutter.” Cyane looks at him. She shudders. “What do you want?”

“Can you do impossible things?”

“I’ve tried. I failed. I wish I could.”

“I am Aegisthus,” he says, “son of Atreus. I wish to sit at Olympus on the high god’s throne; or, if I cannot, that my heirs should do so. I spoke of this to the dead prophet Tiresias, and he sent me to you.”

She sits on a rock and thinks.

“So I’d rather like you to tell me what to do,” he says. “Or give me some kind of magic to achieve my ends.”

She thinks more.

“Please?”

Cyane looks at him. Her expression is calm. “Go home,” she says. “Call for me again when everything you know is true proves false.”

“It’s a long walk,” he says.

“You’ve got sandals,” she answers. So he leaves.

Cyane sits upon a stone. She thinks. Then she turns to the water, and an image of Persephone forms. Persephone looks up.

“Cyane!” she says. Her voice is glad and bright. Cyane smiles crookedly.

“I’d thought you might be angry,” Cyane says.

“Why?”

“I failed.”

Persephone thinks about that for a moment. Then she reaches up a finger to touch the surface of the water; and Cyane sets her hand upon it; and for a time, the two of them are still.

“I have anger, hate, and rage enough,” Persephone says, “to fill the world, and slosh against each person in it. But none for you.”

“Can I free you?”

“No,” Persephone says. “It’s impossible, even for a nymph.”

“But you’d like me to.”

Persephone sighs. “There’s that in all of us that wants the impossible. The real can hurt so much.”

“I’ll free you,” Cyane says. She closes her eyes. “I promise.”

Persephone’s eyes narrow. “Cyane—”

The sun passes above the spring, and the glare of the sun on the water turns blinding, and Persephone can see the nymph no more.

In Laconia, near Mount Taygetus, Atreus’ wife Pelopia looks up at the sun. “So bright,” she says.

She trudges down the road. Her feet are bloody. It’s a long way from Mycenae, and she’s lost her sandals along the way. She comes to a clearing.

Helen sits against a tree. Her hair runs down the bark. She’s not yet the most beautiful woman in the world. She’s very young.

Helen opens her eyes.

“I wondered if you’d come,” Helen says.

Pelopia hesitates. “I want things to be different,” she says.

“Why?”

“Not all of us can be the children of gods and swans,” Pelopia says. “My father was Thyestes, now an exile. I went into Athena’s service, and on the night of a ceremony, a masked stranger caught and forced me and got a child on me. I took his sword as he lay sated, but found myself unable to kill—not him and not myself. So I fled. My uncle Atreus, who would kill me if he knew my parentage, thought me the daughter of another King, and took me to wife. When I bore the stranger’s child, he imagined it as his own. I had hoped to make some small brightness from this, but my son Aegisthus is as empty as the sky. His eyes are hollow. He cuts his own flesh with the sword I stole and gave to him. There is nothing I may do to save him. This is the world I live in. I want it to be different.”

Helen bites her lip. Then she reaches out a hand. She touches Pelopia’s elbow. “You’re like the sea,” she says.

“I went to the sea once,” Pelopia says. “I washed the blood off. And the dirt. And the tears. And all the foulness of mankind. And the sea stayed clean. But I’m not like that.”

Helen makes a sad face. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“When your father dies, go and stand before his grave and call to me. I’ll make you an immortal.”

At the Oracle of Delphi, Agamemnon and Menelaus, sons of Atreus, meet their uncle Thyestes. They catch him and bind him and return home; and on one weary evening, Agamemnon, Meneleaus, Aegisthus, and Pelopia reach their home together. Atreus consults the entrails of a goat. He turns to Aegisthus and Pelopia. He says, “As Thyestes was Agamemnon’s and Menelaus’ to capture, he is yours to kill.”

“Ours?” Pelopia asks.

“Yours.”

“Come, mother,” Aegisthus says, and leads her down into the dark. There, he opens the door of Thyestes’ cell, and goes in. Thyestes slouches languidly against the wall, bound in irons. There’s a touch of fear in his face as Aegisthus enters; but it fades as he sees Pelopia, and dissolves entirely when Aegisthus draws his sword.

“I know that sword,” Thyestes says. He smiles lazily. “But how did you come by it?”

Aegisthus hesitates. Thyestes’ expression and his choice of topics confuses the boy. The execution has turned unexpectedly uncomfortable. “My mother,” he says. “She gave it to me.”

“Then,” says Thyestes, “this is the sword my daughter took from me, after I lay with her to conceive you; and you are my son, my grandson, and my destined instrument of vengeance, raised in my enemy’s house as his very own son. You will kill him for me,” continues Thyestes. “You will kill him for me, and set me on the throne, for this is the revenge promised me by the Oracle, and now I see you shall fulfill it.”

There is a silence. Pelopia’s face grows paler. Aegisthus’ eyes are blank and white.

“I should kill you,” Aegisthus says. “I should kill you thrice over. For Atreus, and Pelopia, and myself.”

“You’re my son,” Thyestes says.

The corner of Aegisthus’ mouth twitches. The sword wavers in his hands. Then he turns, and strikes the wall. The blade splits the stone, and water pours into the room like blood. Aegisthus beats his head upon the wall. “Cyane!” he cries. “Cyane!”

A woman rises from the water. She shivers at the cold air. She draws the water up from the ground. She wraps it around her. It’s like a long jacket. There are lumps under the back, like budding wings.

“You’re different,” he says.

“I made a promise that I couldn’t fulfill,” she says. “So I changed.”

“Into what?”

“Someone who could do anything,” she says. “Sometimes.” She smiles at him. “Thank you,” she adds. “I thought about it, when I watched Hades take her off, but I didn’t dare. Not until you came along, impertinently bringing me to life to fill your own emptiness and then asking the impossible.”

“Make it not true,” Aegisthus says. “Make him not my father.”

Cyane looks at Thyestes. She makes a helpful gesture. Then she smiles wryly at Aegisthus. “It didn’t work this time.”

“Oh.”

“Monster!” Pelopia shouts. She pulls the sword from the wall and lunges towards Thyestes, but Aegisthus grabs her arm, and pulls her back, and casts her against the wall, where she sits.

“Monster,” she says again, and stares at the sword. She runs it along the edges of her wrists.

Thyestes grins at her. Then he looks up at Aegisthus. “If she keeps bleeding on it like that, you can take it to Atreus and say it’s my blood. Then kill him with it later, by surprise! It’s like a family reunion, all that blood on one sword.”

“Why would I do that?” Aegisthus asks.

Cyane tilts her head to one side. “Because he can tell you the secret of the gods,” she says.

“What?” Aegisthus’ voice is hoarse.

“You asked me to give you power to command the gods,” Cyane says. “I can’t. But he can.”

Aegisthus hesitates.

Cyane kneels by Pelopia. “I had to tell him,” she says, apologetically. “I belong to him. Kind of. Because I was dead, and then he put his blood in the spring, and called me forth. But I can try to save your life. If you want me to.”

Aegisthus claims the sword, and walks to Thyestes, and strikes down the chains.

“Monster,” Pelopia mutters.

Aegisthus leaves the room, and Thyestes too, and they close and lock the door behind them.

“He tried to change,” Cyane says, clinically. “Thyestes tried a hundred plans. He tried a hundred ways not to do what he did to you. But all of them were too hard, so he gave up.”

“Save my life,” Pelopia says.

Cyane wraps her jacket around Pelopia’s wounds; and slowly, the bleeding stops.

“I’m going to stand at his grave one day,” Pelopia says. “And I’m going to call to Helen, and become a god.”

“What kind of god?”

“I’ll be like a nymph,” Pelopia says. “They’ll come. People will come, and try to catch me. Because if they catch me, their plans will succeed. If they can catch me, they can change their fate, and break the cycle of the world.”

“And will they catch you?”

“No,” Pelopia says. “I won’t let them. I can’t let them. Not again. I’ll be as evasive as the wind.”

Cyane leans back against the wall.

“That’s what drives them, you know,” Cyane says.

“What?”

“People like your son. They make gods. They have such emptiness in them, and can make such emptiness in others, that gods come to them in swarms. But they can’t ever be one. It’s what makes them monsters.”

“I’m not sorry for him,” Pelopia says.

“No,” Cyane admits. “Neither am I.”

“It’s his own decision,” Pelopia says. “As ours are ours. But I wish he hadn’t locked the door.”

The Castle (III/IV)

The forest is dry. Its soil is brittle. Its air is sharp and clean. The pine trees smell like antiseptic. Spirits live in the forest. They invite Jenna to play.

“It’s great fun to look for truffles, ” suggests Boar. “Also, if there are any knights around, we can gore their sides.”

“Take to the air as a duck!” offers Duck. “Nothing flies as elegantly as a duck.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Coyote says dubiously.

“It’s not a lie,” says Duck. “There’s an implicit ‘exactly’. Nothing flies exactly as elegantly as a duck.”

“I can’t come and play,” says Jenna. She’s chewing on a hamburger and writing in a black and white composition book. “I’m writing a book of examples of filial piety.”

“Oh?” says Duck. “Can you read some to us?”

Jenna swallows, and recites:

In 1983, the giant spiders were very hungry. One had a clutch of eggs, so she was extra-hungry. They tried to eat me, but I’d always bonk them on the nose. So the mother grew very thin. She thought she might die. “Don’t worry, mother,” said the little spiders, hatching. “You can eat us!” So she did. By keeping their mother alive at the cost of their own existence, the little spiders fulfilled their filial duty.

“That’s very moving,” agrees Boar. “But is it really virtuous?”

Jenna considers. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I think the sacrifice is beautiful, but does it compare to the beauty of a giant spider’s life?”

“I don’t know,” Duck answers. “What is the beauty of a giant spider’s life?”

“I’m biased,” Jenna says, “since they keep trying to eat me. But I think it’s the way that they’re cruel without hating. They do monstrous, horrible things. But inside their heads, it’s cold, clear, and empty. They’re not ugly like demons. They’re pretty. Like the winter. And they have potential.”

“You should read another,” Coyote says, slouching.

Jenna recites:

Vicious Lily was a robotic assassin created in 1925 to advance the cause of Impressionism. “What is your o-pin-ion of Mo-net’s pain-tings of the Thames?” it asked me. I assured it that all of Monet’s works were masterpieces. “Good,” it said. “I will let you live.” Then it turned to the wall. “What is your o-pin-ion of the Rou-en Ca-the-drals se-ries?” The wall made no answer. Vicious Lily’s laser arm clicked. A dial spun. Vicious Lily blasted the wall until nothing remained but rubble. “Take that in the name of ro-bot jus-tice!” it said. Not a moment went by that Vicious Lily did not think of its creator, Monet.

Boar grunts. “It’s a robot. It can’t help it.”

“Robots can break their programming,” says Jenna. “It happens all the time on TV. Plus, I heard that if you flip your Transformers toys into a special third configuration, they come to life, embezzle your money, and flee the country in disgrace.”

“Point,” says Coyote. “In a way, a robot that doesn’t break its programming exhibits filial loyalty. Still, I’d think that a true example of robotic loyalty would be a death machine that, having broken its programming, decides to go around killing people for the agency that created it anyway.”

“That would be more impressive,” says Jenna, “but I haven’t seen an example of that. Do you think I should fictionalize my work for greater impact?”

“Not really,” says Coyote. “I’m just sayin’.”

Jenna takes a few more bites of her hamburger, swallows, writes a bit more, and then recites:

Mei Ming was born in 1975. The monster pulled her from the shadow’s womb. The shadow kept her in the tunnels to protect her from the world. Mei Ming wasn’t scared of spiders, but thieves—that’s scary! I tried to look at her with my flashlight helmet, but she shrank from the light. “It’s best to live in the shadows,” she said. “That way my mother always knows where I am.” She gave up light for her mother’s peace of mind—that’s how pious she was.

“What did she look like?” wonders Duck. “I mean, was she all shadowy?”

“A little,” agrees Jenna. “You could definitely see the filial resemblance.”

“You should stay away from her,” counsels Coyote. “The tree never falls far from the branch. Bad eggs like that only lead you into trouble.”

“It’s an interesting issue,” Jenna decides. “I don’t think she can be a bad egg, because if she’s evil, that’s just being loyal to the shadow. And if she’s wonderfully sweet and nice, then that’s not very much like a bad egg, either.”

“Nor like a deviled egg,” Boar points out. “Those aren’t sweet. They taste of mustard.”

“I want mustard,” Jenna says unhappily. It’s hard to find condiments in the tunnels sometimes.

“It’s not about taste,” Coyote answers. “It’s about security.”

Jenna recites:

I met a girl standing over her father’s grave. She was wearing a jacket. “He had a hundred plans,” she said. “But none of them ever worked. So I’ve decided to honor his memory. If you can catch me, your next plan will succeed.”

“It’s dangerous to make promises like that,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “When you make a promise that humans can’t fulfill, you can’t be human any more. I’m okay with that.” By making this promise, she put her filial duty to her father’s memory above the human condition.

“The human condition’s not so great,” Coyote points out. “Now, me, I’m great. Compare and contrast as you will.”

“Humans live out in the world,” Jenna points out. “You hang out with Duck, Boar, and me.”

“See how my fur shines? That’s classy. The human condition doesn’t have class like that. And my teeth are just glorious.” Coyote smiles. “Case closed.”

“What are you going to do with the book when you’ve finished writing it?” asks Duck.

“I’m going to take it to the market and trade it for three magic beans. Then I will plant them, climb to the top of the beanstalk, kill any nearby giants, and, making a block and tackle from their ligaments and bones, lower the castle into the forest.”

“That’s a stupid plan,” Coyote says. “Why don’t you just trade Cow?”

Jenna lifts a finger to answer, pauses, and turns bright red.

“What?” Coyote asks.

Jenna ducks her head. “My lunch had no foresight,” she embarrassedly admits.

The Angels (III/IV)

“Surprise!” says Jane’s mother. “We got you an early Christmas present.”

“Ooh!” says Jane, and tears off the wrapping. “It’s a burning bush action figure, with real prophetic action! And it sings!”

“That’s right!” announces Jane’s mother. “I knew you’d like it. I couldn’t wait for Christmas!”

“That’s very bad, mother,” lectures Jane. “Presents should wait until Christmas Day!”

“I’m sorry,” admits Jane’s mother, and hangs her head. “Here, you should light it on fire and see what action figure God says!”

“Okay!” says Jane, who can’t stay angry at her Mom long. Fwoosh! The bush catches on fire.

“I AM THAT I AM(TM),” the bush announces. “I’m a burning bush with real prophetic action!”

“Wow!” says Jane. “It’s even better than I imagined.”

“You must be Jane,” says the voice of the plastic Yahweh action figure. “That’s good! I need you to save the world.”

“I’ll do it!” Jane exclaims. “But I have to be in bed by 8.”

“You must push every software CEO in town,” explains the burning bush action figure. “PUSH! Otherwise I’ll have to blow everything up, and that’s bad.”

“That’s very bad, plastic God,” lectures Jane. “Pushing people is impolite! A good girl never pushes. Not even people with MBAs.”

“Very well,” concedes the burning bush. “You may give them a bouillon cube instead, if they do not want to be pushed.”

“Yay!” shouts Jane. “I’m going to save the world.”

“Be careful!” cries the burning bush. “You will have many enemies!”

It’s no good, burning bush action figure! Jane’s already dropped you and bolted out the door. She’s a hasty heroine!

Jane visits three CEOs. She gives two of them a bouillon cube. The third, she looks over. He doesn’t understand the importance of Ops. So she says, “Excuse me, sir, but can I push you?”

“Only if it’s necessary to save the world,” says the CEO. He laughs to himself. He’s so clever! She’ll never push him now!

PUSH! Jane runs away. You always have to get permission before pushing someone, but if it’s to save the world, they just might give it to you. That’s the lesson!

Jane’s at the mansion of a software CEO. You can pick which one! It’s guarded by fierce attack dogs. They snarl and slaver at Jane. She makes faces at them. They can’t cross the invisible fence! But Jane can’t cross it either — they’d snap her up! She pokes her finger over the fence. SNAP! SNAP! SNAP! go the dogs.

Jane falls over backwards. She’s got all her fingers, but that was close!

“Oh, Heaven,” she says, looking upwards. “I have to give this CEO a bouillon cube. Or maybe push him! But I can’t — his dogs are too fierce!”

Heaven is silent. Jane gets up. She pokes a finger past the invisible fence again. The dogs look shifty. Their eyes shift back and forth! They’re discussing a suspicious plan in dog language. Jane can’t speak dog language, so she doesn’t know. All she knows is, they’re not biting her.

Slowly, she steps forward, past the invisible fence. The dogs don’t move. They just wag their ears and tails. Dogs speak in semaphore! That’s their secret.

Jane steps forward again. Suddenly, the dogs lunge! LUNGE! LUNGE! LUNGE! They look like they’re made of teeth and claws! Their eyes burn like fire and blood! Jane screams and falls down. Bouillon spills from her bouillon pocket and scatters across the ground. Oh no! She can’t give the CEO a dirty bouillon cube, can she? Plus, the dogs want to bite her in half. Jane closes her eyes.

The teeth don’t bite.

“You can chomp all you want, but you can’t bite me!” That’s a mysterious voice shouting. “No one can bite me! I’m Evasive Angel!”

Jane opens her eyes. She’s surrounded by four angels. One’s standing in front of the dogs, but every time they try to bite Evasive Angel, they miss.

Evasive Angel’s a girl. She’s wearing a jacket. It’s got holes for the wings. It’s got a big logo on the back that says “Evasive A.” She’s got a halo. The dogs can’t get a hold on her. It’s not that they’re bad at biting. It’s not that they don’t want to bite her. It’s just a part of who Evasive A is.

Jane looks at all the angels’ jackets. “You must be Realistic Angel, Forbidden Angel, and Magic Angel!”

“Probably not,” says Realistic A.

“Ignore her,” says Magic A. “We’re the Angel Four, and we’re here to make sure you can push this naughty CEO!”

“That’s very bad, Magic Angel,” says Jane. “You can’t push people just because Heaven wants you to.”

“Actually,” says Forbidden A, “that’s kind of a knotty theological question.”

“Can you even apply standards like that in the modern world?” wonders Realistic A.

“No one can defy me! I’m Evasive Angel!”

Jane looks confused. “How does that work?” she asks.

Evasive A takes a moment to think about it, then snaps her fingers. She doesn’t have to answer that question. She’s Evasive Angel. “That’s not important,” she declares. “What’s important is, we have a CEO to trouble!”

“Then let’s go!”

“I’ll stay here and distract the dogs,” says Evasive A. She’s scared of what awaits Jane inside. She’d rather distract the dogs. She likes dogs, and they can’t bite Evasive Angel!

Jane and the angels rush up to the mansion.

“Be careful,” says Forbidden A. “There are lasers strafing the entry hall.”

“Lasers?” asks Jane.

“Worse!” says Forbidden A. “Heat-seeking lasers! And exploding robot butlers on the other side.”

“That’s bad,” concedes Jane. “Do any of you have any special powers?”

“I can provide a pragmatic evaluation of any situation,” says Realistic A.

“I can do anything, but only sometimes,” answers Magic A.

“You aren’t supposed to think about me,” says Forbidden A. “Although people do anyway.”

“Her special power sucks,” notes Realistic A.

“Realistic Angel, how can I get past the heat-seeking lasers?”

“I’d recommend distracting them with something hot, like the sun.”

Jane searches her pockets. “I don’t have it on me!” she wails.

“Or a burning bush?”

“That either!” Jane sits down. Her lip trembles. She might have to cry. The angels are no help at all! But then she has an insight. “I know! The burning bush has an omnipresence mode. When you activate it, the burning bush is everywhere — just like in the Bible!”

“Go Jane!” says Forbidden A. Forbidden A is pretty cool, but remember that you’re not supposed to think about her!

Jane reaches out and activates the omnipresence mode. Soon, her burning bush action figure is everywhere. She turns it on. It lights on fire. “I AM THAT I AM(TM),” says the bush.

“Action figure!” commands Jane. “Distract the heat-seeking lasers.”

BURN! The burning bush action figure flares up. It’s omnipresent, so it’s in the hall too. The heat-seeking lasers all fire. Silly lasers! You’re just helping action figure God burn!

Jane and the angels dash through.

“Oh no!” cries Jane. “Exploding robot butlers!”

“That’s right,” says the chief robot butler, twirling his steel moustache. “I’m going to serve you tea, and then explode, showering you with thermonuclear radiation! No one will be able to live near you for generations!”

“But I have to push the CEO!”

“I won’t let you!” The chief robot butler laughs manically, boiling water for tea with hideous mechanical efficiency. Jane watches the pot, but how long can that save her?

Forbidden A steps forward. “Hey! Robots!”

The robots all look at her.

“Oh no!” says the chief exploding robot butler. “I’m thinking about you, but I’m not supposed to! This is an error in my programming!”

“Oh no!” say all the other robot butlers. “Us too! We’re just as bad as our boss!”

“01010101001110100101,” exclaim the robot butlers, and deactivate. Thank Heaven for Forbidden A! And then stop thinking about her!

“Let’s go!” cries Jane, and rushes onwards. But then she comes to a giant pit. It’s all that’s between her and the CEO — he’s standing on the other side. He looks lonely. No one’s come and pushed him or given him bouillon since he bought the heat-seeking lasers. He wanted to be safe, but now he doesn’t have any friends!

“I can’t jump that giant pit,” says Jane. “Can you fly me to the other side?”

“Hardly,” says Realistic A. “My wings are far too delicate.”

“I oughtn’t,” admits Forbidden A.

“Of course,” says Magic A. “But only if it works.”

“All right,” says Jane. “Then I’ll have to trust you!” She leaps into Magic A’s arms. It’s a leap of faith! Magic A backs up, then runs for the pit. She jumps!

“Hey,” says the omnipresent burning bush. “Don’t you four have tickets to a show?”

“Eep!” says Evasive A. “No one can make me late — I’m Evasive Angel!” Evasive A vanishes. Realistic A vanishes. Forbidden A vanishes.

Magic A soars with Jane across the pit, but in midair, she looks at Jane. Her face is very apologetic. “It won’t work this time,” she says. Her wings give out. She falls. Jane falls. They’re going to hit the far wall. It could break their heads! But Magic A shoves Jane back towards the center of the pit and vanishes.

Jane’s still falling. She’s thinking this: “I just wanted to give bouillon to every software CEO in town, or push them. Now I never will. I guess my burning bush action figure will have to blow up the world tomorrow.”

No, Jane! It’s not that way. The bottom of the pit is covered in stock certificates. The CEO has so many, he has to use them to pad his pit — otherwise, he’d be covered in them from head to toe! Sploosh! Jane splashes into the stock.

“Hey,” she cries up. The CEO comes curiously to the edge of the pit and looks down. “Would you like some bouillon?” she shouts.

“No, little girl,” says the CEO. “I’m too important for your dirty old bouillon. Also, please stop swimming in my stock.”

“If I can’t give you bouillon, can I at least push you?”

“I don’t see as how you have any alternative,” says the CEO, who is a realistic man.

Suddenly, Jane rises from the pit. She’s standing on the head of a colossal stock squid! If you leave stock sitting around too long, you’re going to have colossal squids — that’s just how spontaneous generation works. The stock squid rockets skyward. Jane leaps down to stand in front of the CEO.

PUSH! Then Jane runs away. The angels left for a show, but she’s got bouillon and a squid — no one can stop Jane now!