And Three Points is the Game (II/V)

Now, the Devil had said not to make this a game; but no sooner said than it slipped away. And Vincent’s sipping at his drink, and thinking, I do not want to go to Hell.

And maybe there’s a lesson there, but the lesson’s hard to find.

“You’re meaning things you’re not doing,” Vincent just said. He’s just called out the Devil on how he’s different from most gods.

“Ha!” says the Devil. “That’s a point for you, then, Vincent. And three points will be the game.”

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last

Vincent squints at him.

“Is this a game I can choose not to play?” he says.

“When you’re winning?” the Devil asks.

“I’m not a child,” Vincent says, inaccurately. By this he means that he can see through the Devil’s words to a grim world where there is only losing and continuance—a world of which he would rather have no part.

“Well,” the Devil says, “you can choose not to play, but you’ll probably end up with suffering intrinsic to the condition of your life, followed, after some years, by death.”

Vincent squints again.

“Fine, fine,” the Devil laughs. “Listen, Vincent, I’m here for one reason only, and you’re here for one reason only, and that’s for me to buy your soul; to make you an offer for it, anyway. So tell me. What’s it gonna take? What do you need from me if you’re going to give up Central and its ways and come and work for me instead, in this life and the after?”

“That’s stupid,” Vincent says. “I mean, you’re the Devil, right?”

“Reassurance that it’s the moral path, then?” the Devil says. “Reassurance that it’s doing the world a kindness to side with me instead of the other?”

Vincent hesitates. It’s a lot to ask of a kid.

“Tell you what,” Vincent says. “You gotta make me smart enough to bargain this out with you, free of charge. Smart enough to see through your tricks, smart enough to figure out what you’re really saying, and if it’s just a trick anything I give up to you is out.”

“Oh,” says the Devil. “That’s another point for you, but I can’t do it.”

“Eh?”

“There’s no way I can make you that smart,” the Devil says. “Look at it the other way around: if I’m not tricking you, then I’m practically breaking the rules right there; and if you want me to trick you, but make you so smart that you’re not fooled, and get what you want from it anyway— well. So let me tell you what I can do. I can give you three questions, free, Vincent. Three things you can ask me, to decide what you’d like to do. And I’ll tell you right now that I’ve got a trick worthy of the Enemy himself, which is to say, I can’t promise you that walking away and turning me down is the right and moral thing to do, much less the way to save your soul.”

“Is it?”

“Oh dear,” says the Devil. “That’s point three. I’m afraid, Vincent, that there ain’t no way to save your soul; and as for walking away and turning me down, well, that’ll make you a slimy worm in the end, worth less than a gobbet of my spit.”

Vincent stands up.

“Oh?” the Devil asks.

“Tell me,” Vincent says, “what’d my Dad say for me to do, if he could tell me?”

And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

The Devil shifts from his seat and rises. It’s smooth and natural and Vincent doesn’t even think that it might be a danger until the Devil’s already gone away to tend the fire.

“I figure he’d tell you to ask me a question I can’t answer,” the Devil says. “Don’t know if he’d have a guess what that could be.”

“Seriously?” Vincent asks. The Devil raises an eyebrow at him. “That’s not a question,” Vincent says. “That’s a . . . an interjection.”

“Seriously,” the Devil says. “It’s because—he’d probably say—in all the stories of the Devil, people don’t win by walking away. They win by beating me. Of course, that’s mostly seeing as the stories where I win are the stories they don’t tell— but still. He’d want you to win, and put me in some sort of chains, because that’s what the stories suggest to him and because that’s basically what Central’s fundamental philosophy and methodology is, in re: fiends. Do you want me to suggest a question, Vincent?”

“I should just leave,” Vincent says.

“Really,” the Devil says. “Just throw out all those centuries of tradition, all those stories, Central’s own bleeding methodology, just because I hinted at it in answer to a question that you asked me your own self? You’re a wicked child, Vincent, a wicked child and an unruly one.”

“It’s just,” Vincent says, “that I don’t want to go to Hell. You see. Sir.”

“Ah,” the Devil says.

“It’s all the endless suffering,” Vincent says.

“Yes,” the Devil says. “It would be.”

“I’m glad that you understand.”

“Do you want me to tell you what you’ve won, Vincent?”

Vincent looks down.

“Hey,” he says. “Hey, if I leave now— if I leave, will I grow up to be . . . like my Dad, you know, with magic and gods like Iphigenia and maybe even one day a dharma of my own?”

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me.

“Yeah,” says the Devil. “You leave now, and you get everything you’ve ever wanted. Though not, I should say, very much of it; just, you know, some. A little here, a little there, a bit of every dream of brightness, and then you’ll die, if you’re lucky, or you’ll drown forever, if you’re not.”

“Thanks,” Vincent says.

“I’ve got great things to offer you,” the Devil says. “Seriously. Magic carpets. Fire in a bottle. Wealth and treasure. I could probably even swing a bit of dharma, though, to be honest, it’s not like you don’t have one so much as that it isn’t what you’d like.”

“I’m happy,” says Vincent.

The Devil looks away.

“Isn’t that OK?” Vincent says. “To just go back to the simple life, and have a family, and games, and books, and fun, and a purpose, and one day do some good in the world with what I know?”

“I can’t answer that,” the Devil says. “I’ve given you four answers, ‘interjection’ or no, and a prize. You can’t expect me to be your friend.”

Vincent nods. He walks to the door. He turns around. He’s thinking hard.

“Hey,” he says. “Hey.”

“Yeah?”

“Why do we have to suffer?” Vincent asks. “Why do people have to suffer, and hurt, and die?”

The Devil looks at him blankly. For a moment Vincent thinks he’s got him; that at only 13 years old, Vincent’s stumped the Devil, conquered him, beaten him, bound him over to Ii Ma to be immured forever, and that everybody’s going to cheer him on when he gets back.

It’s a passing fantasy.

“Why?” the Devil asks. “You ask me why, Vincent?”

“Yeah.”

And with great calm but fury underneath it, the Devil answers, “Because, Vincent, this is Hell.”

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER TWO]


September 18, 1987

Vincent wakes up. He clutches at his chest. He’s screaming.

Then he calms.

It’s OK. The sun is bright. His world is good. He is safe at home in Central.

Oh, Harold Dear (I/I)

It is 1981 and Liril is in a terrible place.

She is in a room bulked out with shadows. She is in terror and the dark. She is scratching, desperately scratching, to get her name down on the wall.

In case she forgets.

In case she forgets, or everyone else forgets, and there’s never anything more to show that she exists, just a name written on the wall.

LIRIL.

Tomorrow they’ll move her to a different room, and she’ll stare at the place where she scratched her name, and the writing won’t be there.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 28, 2004

Now in the Latter Days of the Law the heart may not know the true doctrine; so rightly it may be said that this sunlit afternoon in May is the winter of the world.

Grey clouds shadow the brightness of the sky.

The clouds scuttle in clumps, this way and that, their movements driven by the wind.

It is May 28, 2004, and Liril is in a terrible place, and before it is Melanie’s army.

There are failing-gods and flying-gods. There are great stretchy gods drawn in crayon. There is a terrible black dog. There are twelve humans worth the fearing. There are twenty humans who are not—secretaries, psychologists, a system administrator, and the like, who had collaborated with the monster and survived but gained no measure of his power.

There is a ragged thing.

There are footsoldiers and two contemners. There is a long-legged beast and a scarab bomb. There are remembering gods, and an angel and a half, and fiends in a motley crew.

And then there are four more fearsome than this host: Threnody, whose nametag notes that she wields the lightning; Vincent, whose heart is pure; that crooked tyrant labeled “The Keeper of the Wheel;” and Melanie, cunning Melanie, most frightening of them all.

They are an ungainly force. They are escapees from a disaster and not an organized and deadly host. Still, they are an army, and the bulk of them are gods.

“In this place,” says Melanie to that host, “there is a girl more valuable than gold. She is enough to kill us all, I think, or to make us rich and powerful for all time.”

She is taking Vincent’s backpack off.

She is rummaging around inside.

He is surprised and disgusted to find the thoughtful things that she’s packed him for their journey.

A notebook. An apple. A few texts—Behavioral Psychology, and the like. Half of a ham sandwich. The other half she ate. And most disturbingly Harold’s head.

“If she is strong,” Melanie says, “we are in danger. If she learns strength, we are in danger. But she will not be strong.”

“Melanie,” Vincent says.

She hushes him.

“Hush,” she says.

“When—what—when did you even—“

She glances at him. She says, “When I was recovering my bike.”

Back before they’d been rousted out from Central, Melanie had biked to work every day. It’s normally a healthy and environmentally conscious habit, but in the end it had killed Harold and she’d nearly pulled a muscle leveraging his corpse off of her bike. Then she’d sawed off his head with her broken bike lock and left the rest of him there to rot, so in the end, it wasn’t a very healthy or environmentally conscious habit after all.

Also, she didn’t like to wear her helmet.

Vincent is still staring at her. It’s as if he hasn’t heard her explanation, or hasn’t parsed it.

“Two months ago,” Melanie says, “at the dinner party, he’d said that in an emergency, it was very important to keep his head. You were there.”

She opens the corpse’s mouth. She looks inside it clinically. She pushes on its nose. She rolls open one, and then the other eye, but they just close again.

She shrugs and looks back at the gathered host.

“Liril is broken,” Melanie says. “If she has recovered her will and spine at all, they’ll be no stronger than a twig.

“So we’ll shatter them. We’ll stomp her down. And then we shall rule this rotten world.”

“His head should be rotten,” Vincent protests.

What he wants to say is something about how shattering someone’s will is wrong. But he fails to do so. Harold’s head has distracted him completely.

Melanie shrugs.

She breathes into the corpse’s mouth and it jerks opens both its eyes.

“What—“

That’s Vincent’s voice. He’s terribly glad that it’s his voice. For a moment, he’d thought it would be the corpse’s.

Wasn’t it?

He’s suddenly not sure.

Melanie holds the head up high. She turns it to face the facility on Elm Hill. She says, “Oh, Harold, dear, you’re dead.”

And Harold screams.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

The scream of Harold’s head is like a bird, at first; and then it is a horn; but Melanie has grit her teeth and put behind this deviant act the fullness of her strength, and she sinks that long shout low. It becomes a rumbling. It becomes an organ sound. It becomes a shaking of the earth, a burgeoning and world-completing and a trembling cry, resounding off the world and sound and sky.

There is only so much sound that one ought to be able to make with a single breath. This beyond that by a hundredfold.

There is an additional, secondary limit on the sound one can make.

And so eventually this sound goes still.

She has announced herself, has Melanie, her and the army of her gods; and she does not have long to wait.

There is a balcony on the seventh floor.

Micah comes out to stand on it. He looks down at them. He is pale. He is afraid.

Her heart gives a thump, because Micah’s there, and Liril’s not alone; and then the joy bubbles up inside her, it’s giggling out of her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her lungs and chest and heart, and she’s shouted out before she’s thought about it any a great shout of all triumph and sweet success.

He is afraid.

He is afraid.

He isn’t the defiant boy that once she met. He’s gone all pale and all weak. He’s standing there and his mouth is moving and she thinks he must still know her name;

But from the look on his face, he’s the kind of boy right then who only barely remembers his own.

Anatman (I/VII)

Anatman’s the god of a godless world.

He’s stood against the Devil himself and said, “You don’t exist.”

(And oh! how the Devil laughed; but that’s a story for another time.)

He’s stood against the demons and the fiends, and fought them back; and the angels and the fetches too. He’s won ten thousand different battles against ten thousand different gods.

He’s the man who stands at the boundary of the world and keeps theology at bay.

Here’s how it goes.

801 years into the common era, an octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god of unspeakable and abominable torments tries to break into the world.

Anatman puts an end to that.

“Those are some pretty abominable torments,” concedes Anatman, “but they’re totally speakable.”

The hydra glares at him.

“You know I’m right,” Anatman says.

It’s not easy to talk about the torments of the octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god. You have to put yourself through a mental wringer just to figure out where the bird’s beak goes, and that’s before you even get into the torments.

But you can.

And if they’re not unspeakable, then it’s not the kind of octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god-abomination that it thought it was, and so it doesn’t break into the world.

Later, in 816, the wolf of space comes down to eat the Earth.

It takes Anatman himself to go out there and stop it. Alchemy doesn’t work and people don’t have nuclear weapons yet and longbows are notoriously ineffectual in space, but Anatman, he goes out to where the wolf is ravening towards the world and he says, “The Earth is bigger than your head.”

This brings embarrassment to the wolf.

The wolf says, “It is sometimes difficult to correctly judge perspective when you are in space.”

“See that you’ve learned better, then!” Anatman laughs.

And that’s the resolution for the matter of the wolf.

Finally, there is a firvuli.

To become a firvuli is the destiny born into a girl named Halldis, the purpose seething in the flesh and fire of her, 981 years into the common era and under the Icelandic sun. She is born for no other reason, and to no other purpose, than to one day decide it is better to be a firvuli and cast aside her mortal flesh and ascend to become a great grey god-mountain firvuli that is winter and death and the substance of THE END.

Right now, of course, she’s still a baby girl, because she’s just finished being born.

Anatman slips into the room while the midwives are distracted. They probably couldn’t have seen him anyway, since he’s the person of there-aren’t-really-any-people as much as he’s the god of there-aren’t-really-any-gods, but he isn’t taking chances.

He slips into the room, and he looks down at the baby, and he stares into her fire.

“You’re gonna be a firvuli,” he says, “little girl. And that’s no good.”

It turns on him.

It’s shocking. It’s terrifying. It’s not even technically or literarily possible. It’s like suddenly reading a book that the writer hasn’t even started writing yet—that’s how unexpected the rising of a firvuli can be. It fumes up from her soul like the steam from a fresh corpse’s blood and it looks at him, it looks at him, and suddenly instead of a baby girl or a firvuli he’s looking at THE END.

His senses desert him.

He flails in emptiness.

He remembers suddenly forward to the moment of his death.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


981 CE

“Why, you rotten old Anatman,” he hears future-Anatman say. “You’re a no-person man!”

A no-person man!

A philosophical conceit!

Not a god, not a person, not really anything at all!

And under the power of those words, just like he’s going to do one day, later, on the day Anatman dies, he finds himself unfolding, unraveling, dissolving and stopping being, because you can’t very well be a god of godlessness or a person of no-persons, after all.

Today, though—

Today, he shakes it off. Today, he laughs. Today, he scruffs the baby’s head, and he plucks the firvuli from her soul, and he kisses it lightly on its brow.

“It’s OK,” he tells it, cheerfully, and hugs it close against his heart. “It’s OK. You don’t have to fight me. You don’t have to be afraid of not existing. I do it all the time, and it’s really not so bad.”

So he carries the firvuli away, off to the lands of fable, to live estranged from the humans and the good earth and the wind. He carries it off to the borderlands of the world, to live in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, in the corner-of-the-eye, in the hypothesis, the supposition, and the edges-of-the-map. He takes it away from the earth to the fairy regions, where hydras and great wolves and firvuli were still allowed to be, and he tells it the secret that cuts it off forever from the world and sound: that nothing ever ends.

That everything’s always ending.

That nothing’s ever even really started.

And that might sound like more than one secret, or even a contradictory passel of secrets, if you’re someone like you or me; but if you’re a no-person man like Anatman, all those secrets are the same.

And Anatman and the firvuli become great friends; but as for Halldis, she is empty, she is desolate, she is born to know great suffering, for she is a girl who should be a firvuli, who should become a firvuli, anyway, a great grey god-mountain of THE END, and who can never be a firvuli at all.

Well, that wasn’t the noble truth we were expecting! Still, you’ll probably have to wait another week before we allude vaguely to a different noble truth instead.

In the meantime, you could

Paradise Forgotten

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

Hippolyta has made her child out of clay.

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

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

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

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

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

So she’d wanted to stop.

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

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

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

She turns away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

It is some twelve years later.

Mars burns red in the night.

“Please,” whispers Helen.

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

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

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

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

She holds two doctorates.

She has several world records in marathon and track events.

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

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

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

The ship shudders.

Mars burns.

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

“Helen Alexandros,” says the voice of Mars.

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

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

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

What this means even Helen does not know.

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

Forgive me, she thinks.

And she accepts.

**

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

She lands.

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

**

There is a tower wherein Pandora dwells.

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

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

That she should never leave.

Inside her flesh there boil demons of all kinds.

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

Ah!

She is fragile, Pandora.

She is easily crushed.

The law would not allow her firing.

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

Her footfalls are like a distant thunder.

Her shadow is black like a pool of pitch.

“You will let me through,” she says.

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

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

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

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

Strides forward to take Pandora.

But:

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

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

And there is something about her that gives Illudium concern.

“Hmph,” snorts Illudium, the Swan.

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

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

Slowly, Illudium turns back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a sharpness, like the cracking of a pot—

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

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

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

And of Illudium, we do not speak.

Iphigenia’s Story (1 of 1)

Tina is hunting Liril; through dangerous byways and sharp straight courses she hunts her.

Iphigenia knows.

“I should be dead,” she says, to Martin, that morning. Iphigenia is looking out at the sky and Martin is applying a wrench to the pipes of the stage.

Martin makes a noncommital noise. He loosens a nut. He begins to untwist the screw. “That’s not unusual,” he says.

“There’s a need to pay the price for sin,” Iphigenia says. “Otherwise the world goes out of balance. And there she is—sinning—”

“And you weren’t sacrificed properly?”

“Yeah,” Iphigenia says.

The screw comes off. The pipe separates; a numinous mist of chaos fogs out into the room. Martin reaches a long skinny arm into the pipe and begins to feel around. Something bites him, and he pulls back a finger swollen, red, and black. He sucks on the tip and thinks.

“It is an old miracle,” says Martin. “To substitute an animal for a sinner at the moment of a sacrifice. It’s so old that even humans started doing it, but originally, it was a trick of the gods.”

“It wasn’t an animal,” Iphigenia says. “It was a Cadbury bunny.”

Martin rummages around until he finds a pair of forceps. He reaches into the pipe. He pulls out a spiny eel, its long white mouth-tendrils reminiscent of a beard. He holds it up, unhappy. Then he takes it to the window and tosses it back into the sea.

“Cadbury bunnies can die for people’s sins,” Martin asserts. “It’s allowed.”

“Even mine?”

“Even Stalin’s!”

“Communism, then,” Ink says. “Communism and capitalism. They split the world in half. One of them’s screwy and the other one never worked and whole generations grew up in fear until some drunk gorgosaurus puttering around in Party HQ knocked over the USSR. Was it some kind of weird gorgosaurus metaphor? ‘Look how deep our political theory is! This side can wear Russia like a condom whose time has come and the other can kill nuns in Nicaragua to keep America safe?'”

The bunny had burned as Iphigenia fled. The wind had carried her away, and she had left the bunny behind to burn.

And it was the nature of Iphigenia to know that chocolate is not deaf to pain; that a Cadbury creature pressed into service as a messenger is not insensate or without desire; that to leave it there was wrong. But to stay would have been more wrong. So she had left the bunny there to burn in her stead.

Tina ate some of the chocolate later. Iphigenia could never figure out why that disturbed her so.

“You’re projecting your own moral failings,” the gorgosaurus says.

Ink Catherly is running from a gorgosaurus. Its footsteps shake the firmament and the fundament. Its teeth are very sharp.

It dries Martin’s mouth out a little, watching.

It makes his stomach just a little bit sick.

So he crouches, in a high and dusty place, and looks out to sea.

“There’s something out in the sea,” he says.

The sun shines on the chaos and often its burning makes a golden road across the top. Today there is a turbulence in the chaos that breaks that road into a thousand jagged parts.

The thing that is swimming towards them is larger than the tower; larger than the sun; quite possibly larger than the sea. Its tail is lashing and there are storms for that reason everywhere in all the world.

Its name is Andhaka. It was once a dream of Mrs. Schiff’s.

“Is it my fault?” Iphigenia asks.

“Hm?”

“For being here. For . . .”

Martin is looking at her flatly.

“No,” Martin says.

“No,” says Mrs. Schiff. “No, Andhaka is mine.”

The horn of the beast has risen from the water now.

The madness in its blind red eyes is shining through the water now.

“He is coming for me,” says Mrs. Schiff. “Because I dreamt him long ago.”

They wait.

“Wait,” says Ink. “No. I’ll be good. What do you want?”

The gorgosaurus catches Ink’s leg in one hand and, without quite loosening the grip its teeth have on her arm, it jerks its head.

There is . . .

“She’s down! She’s down! Stop the show!”

That’s Sid’s voice. It’s loud and sharp and shaken.

Martin moves swiftly. He drops from his perch and catches the shutoff valve for the stage. He’s pulling it down with his weight and his feet descend onto the gears. He heaves it down the last few inches until it clicks.

It is Intermission, and a curtain falls across Ink’s fate.

The tower shines with a thousand lights; one by one, they dim. There is a potency in the air around Gibbelins’ Tower; slowly, it dissipates.

And still Andhaka comes.

Mrs. Schiff is walking out on the bridge now. She is looking at the creature now. It rises over her and there are blind and questing tendrils at its mouth. There is a wave that crashes and tears upon the tower walls and over the bridge, and only barely does Mrs. Schiff keep her grip upon the railing.

“She’ll die,” says Iphigenia.

Iphigenia’s knuckles are white.

“I liked her,” Iphigenia says. And she wills Andhaka to burn, but the beast is larger than her power.

Andhaka’s head comes down. Its mouth opens wide. It shrieks. Then it pours itself into Mrs. Schiff. It is an endless rippling tide flowing from the chaos into her soul.

Iphigenia’s eyes are closed. She does not watch.

And the broken dream that is Andhaka is now within Mrs. Schiff, twisting and turning in her mind and soul, and it is burning with madness. And Mrs. Schiff stands there, still and prim, but the edges of her soul are loose against the seething tide.

For that is what one does with broken dreams: one takes them back, and holds the madness in oneself until it turns to peace.

Such is the theory and practice of Mrs. Schiff.

Such are the things that happen, backstage at Gibbelins’ Tower.

Regarding Ink’s Intermission (1 of 1)

There are things that swim in the chaos.

One of them is Andhaka. Andhaka is a great blind beast. He is white and enormous and shaped like a seal, and a long horn protrudes from his head.

“Sometimes when you dream unfortunate dreams,” says Mrs. Schiff, “they fall into the chaos and are lost. They grow there into strange and twisted things.”

The beast Andhaka is rushing for the tower. It is rushing on a current that reaches from the farthest edge of unmapped existence to the shores of Santa Ynez. It is driven by madness and by blood in the water. It is driven by strange hungers.

There are heralds of Andhaka that swim ahead and followers that swim behind.

The heralds have hooked fins, sharp teeth, strange potencies, and burning eyes.

They have been crashing against the tower’s base all night. Some have crawled up the tower’s side, moving with the swift jerky motions of the fiends of horror. They have reached windows, drawn infallibly to the light, only to have Martin or Mr. Schiff hit them with a lantern and knock them back into the sea. They have pounded at grates and swum through an ancient crack into the Gibbelins’ abandoned emerald-cellar.

“We may have to stop the show,” Martin says. “If the sea’s this agitated.”

“Impossible,” says Sid.

Martin calculates. “Then a one-day intermission.”

The fallen dream of Mrs. Schiff approaches. The seabirds have abandoned the tower.

Broderick has fled. He stands on the shore. He watches the tower and nervously washes his hands.

The sea surges.

“That’s reasonable,” Sid agrees.

Andhaka is coming closer.

Woo-Wobble-Wobble

Jinga the Sea Monster is wobbly and fierce. He is hideous and horrid. He sits in the Council beyond the Edge of the World and he judges.

“Woo-wobble-wobble,” he says, shaking himself. “Humanity is terrible and full of sin.”

His tendrils and his body shiver like jelly. If you could taste them, they’d taste more like offal than jelly, but there would be a bit of a sweet huckleberry sugary taste to them.

“Woo-wobble-wobble-wobble,” says Jinga the Sea Monster.

Then he gestures, with a slimy tentacle, at the Mirror of Sight!

The image in the mirror skims across the world of human life. It pauses briefly on Shelley, who is making brownies.

“DEE generate,” declares Jinga.

The mirror skims past Emily, who is in school, listening to her teacher and sometimes picking her nose.

“Sinful!” snaps Jinga.

The mirror finally settles in on Diane, who is sitting at a table, at a restaurant, out on her first date with John.

Lester the Adorable Earwig is a giant squiggly earwig. His nametag designates him adorable. He sits in the Council beyond the Edge of the World and he judges.

“How perfidious a creature is woman,” says Jinga.

“Ah-ah,” smiles Lester. “But is she more or less perfidious a creature than man?”

Jinga shivers. His body woo-wobble-wobbles softly. “That is a difficult one, Lester. Very difficult!”

Lester chitters smugly.

“I would say,” says Jinga, “that because a woman can become pregnant, she has more capacity for perfidy; and because humans in general exercise such capacities fully, that she is more perfidious—on the whole.”

Lester scowls. He had wanted to stump Jinga.

Pecuny is a silky ooze. There are bits of many colors in Pecuny. They are not admirably arranged.

Pecuny sits in the Council beyond the Edge of the World and he judges.

“These two,” Pecuny says. “Their minds are full of unworthy thoughts. Let us punish them.”

“Punish! Punish! Woo-wobble-wobble-wobble!” says Jinga.

“No!” says Lester. He is still sulking. “We have an arrangement. We cannot punish them until they are dead.”

“But look at how she is eating that breadstick,” says Pecuny. “And he! He is using the dinner fork for his salad!”

“Not until they are dead,” Lester says. He squiggles about in mild agitation. “We have rules. They may still redeem themselves while they’re alive, you know.”

“Pfah,” pfahs Pecuny.

“Lester is right,” says Jinga, sadly. “Look. She is muttering something. Can anyone read lips?”

Diane is leaning in towards John. She mutters, “Hey, I think we’re being watched by the Council beyond the Edge of the World.”

“Bugger,” says John.

“I think they’re talking about sex,” Lester says. He squints. His eyes are not very good, even though they’re faceted.

John eats another bite of salad. He uses the dinner fork again.

“Want to play a trick on them?” Diane says.

John suddenly grins. “Really? You have a radiator?”

“I do,” says Diane.

Lester leans back. “Well, that’s that. Judged and found unworthy. Let’s move on.”

Diane reaches into her purse. She subtly sets her radiator to evil.

“Wait,” says Jinga. He wobbles.

Diane picks up her salad fork, malevolently. She takes a bite of her salad. She chews. She chews her salad like each bite is a genocide.

“Woo-wobble-wobble!” says Jinga, in distress.

Diane licks her lips with filthy, horrid intent. She reaches for her water glass. She picks it up. She drinks it.

“Scum!” shouts Lester. “Scum! Scum! Scum!”

Lester does the earwig dance of absolute horror. It is not adorable at all.

Diane adjusts the radiator to encompass John.

“What’s it set to?” John asks. His voice is ripe with evil; there is good probability, Pecuny assesses, that he is even at that moment indwelt by the Devil.

“Evil,” Diane says. It is suddenly obvious to everyone who looks at her that she has never been baptized.

“Um, is that a good idea?” John frets, eyes bulging with selfish shortsightedness.

“Wait,” says Diane. She stretches out the torture. “Wait—”

“We must punish them now!” shrieks Pecuny. “Now! Now! N—erk.”

Diane has flipped the radiator to perfect good.

“Huh,” says Jinga.

There is a dead silence in the Council beyond the Edge of the World as Diane finishes her salad and pushes the plate back.

“Huh,” agrees Pecuny.

“Woo-wobble-wobble-wobble,” whispers Jinga, uncertainly.

“It is a miracle,” concludes Lester.

“Grace,” Jinga agrees.

“We are privileged to witness a miracle,” says Lester. “Because we ourselves are good.”

“Woo-wobble-wobble.”

“Yet—”

Diane grins. Her water glass in front of her lips, she says, “Now I’ll take the radiator out and dump it in the trash, and they’ll probably spend the rest of the day thinking about how wonderful trash is.”

“W00t,” says John, in the blessed fashion of the saints.

Diane walks out of the restaurant. She looks around. There is a public trash can on the other side of the street. She begins to cross.

“Woo-wobble-wobble!” cries Jinga. “That car! It will hit her!”

“It will end her perfect grace!” shouts Pecuny.

“This must not be!”

Jinga dives through the mirror and into the human world. The sound of the car as it strikes the sea monster is the sound of death come to huckleberry. There is Jinga splashed on the windshield and on Diane’s new suit and on Diane’s face.

Diane sprains her ankle as she falls.

(Holy Saturday) Stories of Deliverance (I/I)

Belshazzar’s Feast

Babylon

Daniel works at his desk. He balances accounts. He looks for discrepancies. He reads the records of the dreams of the people of Babylon, and searches them for meaning. It is the hope of his masters that he may discover corruption and incompetence within Babylon’s bureaucracy by correlating the records and the dreams.

He is not surprised when the seraph enters his room.

“I dreamed,” Daniel says, “that the people of Judea fled from a lion, and were met by a bear. The bear was bitten by a serpent, and the bear and the serpent tore one another apart. Then I flew away and was suddenly naked.”

“That is the kind of thing that happens in dreams,” says the seraph.

“The lion was Nabonidus,” says Daniel. “The bear is Belshazzar, who rules in Babylon now that the monster is gone.”

The seraph is a creature of beauty. It is tall. Its skin is strange. Its wings are great and terrible. Its eyes are jeweled.

“I had hoped,” says Daniel, “that he would be a better King. The people of Judea have suffered under the monster for too long; and we are not the only ones.”

“The Lord has not rendered His judgment,” says the seraph.

“Then,” says Daniel, “I ask that the Lord be merciful, and redeem this man. Move his heart, and have him release us from captivity. I have seen into his soul, and there is hope for him.”

“He is no more than any other man,” says the seraph, “and like any other man, he must make his own chances for redemption.”

It is 539 years before the common era.

It is the night before the Feast of Belshazzar.

The Bo Tree

India

Siddhartha has wandered for six years and several months. He is tired, and he has not found his answer. So he sits beneath a bo tree, and he says,

I will not leave this spot,
Until I find supreme enlightenment—
Until I can make answer
To the suffering of the world.

The wings of Maya beat against him, and she whispers on the wind:

Do you not wish to know your wife again?
To indulge in sensual pleasures with her?
And hold your son, your wonderful son,
And raise him in the duties of the house?

Have you forgotten all the pleasures
That found you in your palaces of gold?

Siddhartha’s smile is clean enough to break her heart.

Should such knick-knacks tempt me? Siddhartha asks.

Belshazzar’s Feast

Babylon

Belshazzar slouches on Babylon’s throne.

“It falls to me, now,” he says.

He is dressed in the regalia of a King. He did not know what else to do with it when his father Nabonidus cast it aside.

“I must assume the burden of their dharmas. I must conquer the world. I must break the chains that hold Mylitta’s gods. I must devour everything that is.”

He considers.

“It is fortunate,” he says, “that I am a man who can bear contradictions.”

He snaps his fingers. Mana, an incubus like a giant stick-bug, answers Belshazzar’s call. He is wearing a minister’s robes.

“Release the gods from their bindings,” Belshazzar commands. “And tell them: ‘Go. Make horrid revel, or strike down the armies of Kuras, or help the people of Babylon, or hide under the beds and fear the dawn; do as you like. Serve your nature. Go free.'”

“They will not want to leave you, sire,” oozes the incubus.

“Tell them that their long pain is answered,” says Belshazzar. “Tell them that Nabonidus is gone. That Mylitta is gone. Tell them I have won. Tell them that it is time.”

“And of the people of Babylon?”

“Tell them to make celebration,” Belshazzar says. “Tell them that tomorrow I shall hold a feast, and they shall see the wonders of my kind.”

“They will be afraid,” says the incubus. “There will be fiends that burrow in their skin and move their hands like puppets. There will be angels preaching unimaginable hopes. There will be ghosts of the things they cannot let go of. There will be cruel claws under the bed, and black wings in the sky, and purple light in the depths of the city. If you do not lead them with a strong hand, fear and doubt will break their minds.”

“It is not for me to judge them,” says Belshazzar. “I would go mad. The power I have in Nabonidus’ army—I would go mad! Should I choose whom the gods shall make puppets, and whom they shall exalt? Should I command the hungering beasts, ‘Eat those who stray from the traditional morality, but leave the rest alone?’ When someone sees an eye in the darkness, shall they say, ‘Ah, Belshazzar wishes to know what it is I do?'”

Belshazzar shakes his head.

“I am alone,” he says. “I am an orphan. I am naked in the face of the world. Let them be the same. Let them face the infinity of gods and sort out their own judgments from among them.”

“Such wisdom,” says the incubus. “Truly, you shall be the King of all the world.”

Belshazzar smiles thinly.

“You too are free,” he says. “I need no praising god.”

The Bo Tree

India

As the feast of Belshazzar approaches, Siddhartha sits beneath the bo tree and thinks on life. Maya’s wings are beating, and she says to him:

Surely, Siddhartha,
If you continue this meditation
It will bring you your death.

Over the horizon, he can see them come. They are swift. They are terrible. They are an army of horror, summoned from the world to answer Maya’s need. And Maya names them as they come:

Look, this is Sakkaya-ditthi,
Raksha and enemy of the gods, but still she comes,
Twisting wind, white light in a hurricane,
Mumbling the truths of power.

Look, this is Vicikiccha,
A world-breaking fiend, like a panther, like a snake,
Crawling on two legs towards you
Dragging his tail behind him
Burning you with his eyes.

Look, this is Silabbataparamasa,
Dark sorceress clad in writhing rituals,
Hidden in a cloak of night,
Practicing the magic of your end.

Look, here are my daughters, child:
Tanha, whom you must love;
Arati, whom you must hate,
Raga, whom you must lust for.

Here is Arupa-raga, a distancing god,
Here is Mana, raksha, clad in robes
Here is Uddhacca, born of the monster’s need
Here is Avijja, demon, your undoing.

Look, Siddhartha, as they come,
Boiling over the horizon.
They shall be your death.

And Siddhartha looks at them, and he sees the laws of their natures, and he says, I shall die, mother, but not in such a fashion as this.

Belshazzar’s Feast

Babylon

The celebration rages through Babylon. It is punctuated by screams and cries of ecstasy. And Daniel stands before Belshazzar, and says, “My people cannot be here, Belshazzar. Living under your rule will destroy us. It is time to let Judea go.”

Belshazzar rises from his throne. He is drunk. His eyes are cold.

“Where was your God when I needed him?”

Daniel shakes his head. “That isn’t relevant.”

Belshazzar’s nostrils flare. He is not a bad man in all ways, but he is not a very good drunk.

“I find your people wanting,” he says. “I will devour you. I will break your faith and prove your Lord is meaningless and in so doing I shall unmake everything your people are.”

Daniel lowers his head. He walks away.

Belshazzar turns to a servant.

“Fetch forth the ceremonial vessels taken from the temple at Jerusalem,” Belshazzar commands. “I shall defile them here, at the feast of Belshazzar, and then there shall be no people of Judea, no tribe of Abraham, no servants of Daniel’s almighty God, but henceforth only emptiness.”

And so he drinks, but as he drinks, the seraph enters the room; and there is no one whose eyes follow the seraph but Belshazzar himself.

The seraph’s hand is red.

“Mene,” writes the seraph on the wall, in letters of crimson and black. “Mene. Tekel. Peres.”

The Bo Tree

India

Siddhartha is unmoved.

The army of Maya has cast itself against him, and it has broken. Stone, and ice, and knives have rained from the heavens upon him, and even the devas opened their umbrellas to shield them from so terrible a rain—but Siddhartha is unmoved.

Flaming rocks fall upon him, and in Maya’s eyes Siddhartha sees the bite of an unmeasurable pain, and he bows his head, but he does not leave, and he does not die, and he does not break.

Finally, Maya is exhausted, finally there is nothing left in her, finally she is curled upon the ground and saying:

Why have you left me alive, my son,
To know my helplessness?

Belshazzar’s Feast

Babylon

It is later that night, and Belshazzar has devoured the alcohol from his blood and now there is only a headache.

“Daniel,” he says, “what does it mean, this writing on the wall?”

“‘You have been measured and found wanting.‘”

Belshazzar laughs. He cannot stop laughing. He shouts, into the air of Babylon, “It’s so! It’s so! I will judge myself so!”

The Bo Tree

Dualistic Existence

Siddhartha holds out his hand to the treasure wheel, and says,

You weep, mother, because I will be a Buddha.
Yet only the Buddha can end your tears.

Listen. This is enlightenment:
Suffering is unnecessary.

To make it unnecessary—
That is the nature of the Buddha.
That is my dharma.

There is no room in all the natures of the world for the truth he has just named; and in that moment, the purpose of the world is emptiness, and the treasure wheel is hollow. And in Babylon, Belshazzar’s teeth cut and tear at his own flesh, and the devouring god devours himself, and into him like a rushing river pour all the natures of the world.

539 years before the common era, the world is delivered from sorrow.

(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.

Nabonidus’ Gods (IV/IV)

It is 550 years before the common era.

“I wanted to cleanse you, ” Mylitta says. Her voice is soft, distracted, and dazed. “I wanted the power in our love to rise and consume us both. I wanted it to take away your pain and make you clean. It could be sacred. It could fix this. The world could still make sense, Elli.”

Nabonidus only shakes his head. His voice is sorrowful and certain. “We are hero and monster,” he says. “We dare not be that close.”

I dared,” she says.

**

572 years before the common era, Nabonidus creates his first god. He is six years old, very earnest, and attempting to escape from the governor’s palace at Harran.

No one’s eyes are on Nabonidus. A great field of barley is near the castle wall. Each passing second, it grows a little nearer. It spreads across the road. It reaches the wall. The wall dissolves at its touch. The field spreads inwards. The guards assigned to Nabonidus turn to look and give a shout, but it is too late. Instead of playing in his room, the boy is in a field of barley, wriggling away on his stomach and elbows, invisible in the grain. Soon he is outside, and beyond mortal capacity to discover. He rests for a moment, and sits up.

“Ninlil,” he says. His goddess appears. She is the first god of his emptiness, the first creature wrested from him: a goddess of the grain for the house of Harran. Her hair is the color of straw, and she is smiling.

“Nabonidus!” she says. She hugs him.

“We must run,” he says. “We must run far away.”

Ninlil makes a face. “You will be more powerful,” she says, “for staying.”

Nabonidus flops his head back and forth. He’s somatizing an internal conflict. “I know,” he says. “But it really hurts. So I want to run away.”

“If you stay,” she says, “your Mom will hollow you out. Then you’ll fill up with gods. You’ll have lots of company. And we can do stuff for you! It’ll be neat.”

“No,” he says.

So they run.

“Send Enlil,” says the monster. She is the monster of 572 BCE. Her name is Adad-guppi and she is Nabonidus’ mother. “Send Enlil, and he shall hunt them down.”

“How will he track them?” asks her servant, Nusku.

“Nabonidus is a young boy,” the monster says. “He will use his power. Where people were starving, there will be harvests. Where people laugh at him, grain shall grow from their ears and nostrils. Where he passes, he shall make the world more orderly with his god. By these things Enlil shall find them.”

Nabonidus travels. Where people are starving, Ninlil makes the harvest. Where people tease the young and ragged boy, grain grows from their ears and nostrils. Where Nabonidus passes, the world grows more orderly. At last he and Ninlil reach the sacred river.

“I wish to bathe,” Ninlil says.

The naiad of the river rises before them. “O Ninlil!” the naiad cries. “Do not bathe here.”

“But I wish to bathe,” Ninlil says.

“O Ninlil!” says the naiad. “Do not bathe here. Lord Enlil comes!”

“But I wish to bathe,” Ninlil explains. She strips off her garments and shakes out her hair. She bathes herself. The sky above thunders with Lord Enlil’s wings.

“Ah!” Lord Enlil says, landing. “You are beautiful.”

Enlil flops his head back and forth. He’s somatizing an internal conflict. He looks around for a moment. “I do not see the wayward boy,” he says, in an exaggeratedly loud and clear voice. “Perhaps, while I consider how I might best find him, this bathing maiden and I could make love.”

Nabonidus is pale and unhappy. He does not have good associations with these words. He whispers from the grain abutting the river’s banks: “Tell him no. It hurts. You are too small and do not know how to stretch. You are too young for kissing. Also, your mother would be upset.”

Ninlil looks down at herself. She is a fertility goddess and somewhat uncertain as to how she can best present this argument. She opts for a deadpan delivery. “My parts are little,” she says. “And you would be uncomfortable. Also, I am too young. My mother would slap my hand if she saw us making love. My father would shake my shoulders.”

She looks at the naiad, who has buried her face in her hands.

“Also,” Ninlil says, “think of the naiad! You have embarrassed her.”

“I will build a boat,” Enlil declares gallantly. “In the water, our making love might embarrass her. But not in a boat! Inside the boat is outside her proper jurisdiction!”

Nabonidus looks at the naiad, who shrugs.

“Just refuse,” Nabonidus says.

Enlil, busily, begins assembling a boat. Ninlil, noticing Enlil’s distraction, ghosts quickly over to the bank and dries off. She sits down next to Nabonidus.

“I don’t want to refuse,” she says. “He’s hot. Besides, if he gives me his seed, then I’ll have power over him. It’ll help us get away!”

Nabonidus looks down. “But I don’t want to do things that way,” he says.

Ninlil sighs. She pats his hand. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t get the answer we want when we’re hurt. I’d be an angel if I could, for you, but I’m not. I’m just Ninlil.”

“But it doesn’t work,” he says. “Helping them hurt you—it doesn’t give you power. Even though it should.”

“It’s not always about hurting,” she says.

Nabonidus frowns. Then he shakes his head. It is a gesture of negation, but his words are: “I won’t stop you.”

He crawls back to hide in the field. He watches. Beside him is a fiend in a blank brass mask.

“I think he’s done,” Nabonidus says, after a while.

“It’s horrible,” says the fiend. “We’ll seize him and throw him out of the city.”

“Yeah,” Nabonidus says. He smiles. The fiend divides itself and becomes legion. It grasps Enlil’s arms from every side.

“I will be certain to look you up later, fair maiden,” lies Enlil in a loud, clear voice as the fiend drags him away. “Or you can find me. My name is Elli.”

The fiend returns. Its hands grasp Nabonidus’ arms from every side.

“You are also horrible,” the fiend says to Nabonidus. It hurls him from the river’s banks and he finds himself at home.

570 years before the common era, he escapes again.

No one is watching him. The moon is bright in the sky. Moonbeams pour down into his window. Suddenly, Nabonidus jumps onto a moonbeam and runs up into the sky.

“After him!” shouts the captain of the guard. The other guards look at one another. One tests the moonbeam with his foot. It makes his foot highly visible, even though it is night time, but it does not support his weight. Nabonidus is beyond mortal capacity to catch.

“Sin!” Nabonidus says. His god appears. He is the third god of Nabonidus’ emptiness. He is the moon god, terrible and powerful, an old man whose beard is made of lapis lazuli and whose cap has bull’s horns. He takes Nabonidus’ hand and leads him into the palace of the moon.

“It is good that you are safe,” says Sin. He is grave, and seems disturbed.

“I will never go back,” Nabonidus promises.

Sin strokes his beard. It clanks. “Is that wise?” he says.

“I will stay in the palace of the moon, and no one will ever hurt me again.”

“And will you be happy?”

Nabonidus hesitates. He clenches and unclenches his hands.

“I am the gate of honesty,” the moon god says. “I am the guarantor of the word of kings. Do not lie to yourself here.”

“I don’t want to go back,” Nabonidus says. “When I am bad, I am hurt until I can’t stop screaming. And I don’t want it to happen again.”

“But it is cold on the moon,” Sin says, “and we have a limited food supply. And you do not think it is right to evade punishment by running away.”

Nabonidus curls up. “I don’t want to go back.”

Sin considers the matter. “Then one must ask, how is it right to evade punishment?”

There is a long quiet. Then Nabonidus looks up. “I am to become a monster,” he says. “If I am a monster, then other people can be hurt instead.”

“Will that make you happy?”

Nabonidus shakes his head. “No,” he says. “It’ll just mean that I can’t be bad any more. To be happy—”

He gestures. It’s a gesture of uncertainty. “There is no path from here that leads to happiness. I’m not supposed to be happy. All I can be is pure.”

“I will give you aid,” says Sin. He walks to his window. Nabonidus follows. He can see events that are very far away. Sin’s light shines down on the husk of Ella. The servants who tend her, fearful lest someday the hero awake, draw back in terror. They watch as Sin fills the hero’s womb. Her water breaks. Two children are born. “Go down before your mother kills them,” Sin says. “Claim the girlchild for your own.”

Nabonidus hesitates. “How does it work?” he says.

“I have named you her guardian,” says Sin. “Her protector. Her god. It is your destiny to care for her, and watch over her, and set an order to her life. There is no one but you who may judge her. There is no one but you who may do her harm. What you must achieve, you must achieve through her. If she chooses, she can kill you. When you accept this duty, you will become a man beyond the monster’s capacity for harm.”

Nabonidus looks down at her.

“I want her,” he decides.

**

It is 550 years before the common era. It is quiet, in the temple of Sin.

There is a fiend in the temple, wearing a blank brass mask. The fiend is weak and dare not act, but still it mutters to itself. “It is not possible that he has the right to do such things,” it says. “I look to the universe and its laws. They say: he may! But what of my personal morality? He tramples it so carelessly!”

Ninlil is gentle. She is smug. “Oh, my lord,” she says, in softest tones. “You have made the future of this land.”

The light of Sin shines full into the room. There is moonlight all around the ruin of Mylitta. It shows every bruise and every mark. The moon shines on Nabonidus as he clenches and unclenches his hands. He cannot decide between exultation and despair. Moonlight pools around the child-god Belshazzar, who has formed by the altar as the answer to an unanswerable circumstance.

“Belshazzar,” Nabonidus says.

The god looks uncertainly between Mylitta and Nabonidus. He smiles, and it is an unhappy smile.

“I shouldn’t exist,” Belshazzar says. “The world is in agony that I am alive.”

Nabonidus tilts his head to one side. “Can you stop Kuras and save Babylon?”

“Maybe,” Belshazzar says. “I don’t know. I’ll try.”

Mylitta looks up. She stares at Belshazzar.

“What are you?” she says.

“I am a god that devours,” Belshazzar says. “I am the answer to your emptiness.”

He rests his hand on her forehead.

“I will free you from your nature.”

The hero ends.