Newton’s First Law (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

The baited hook falls, falls, falls.

There is a pause.

There is a great crunching and munching of teeth.

“Perfect,” says Martin smugly. He glances slyly at the Roomba. “See, if you had a better set of lexemes, you’d be able to admire that cast.”

The Roomba’s “I don’t want to get eaten” LED lights up.

There is a swallowing sound like the receding of the tide.

“I’ve got her,” Martin says.

Here is how it came to pass.

The morning of June 1, 2004, had gone well for Martin. Sukaynah was placid, made happy by the falling of apples. Mei Ming, insofar as he could guess, was giving serious contemplation to his ideas. Jane, overwhelmed by the task of piecing together histories in the broken lens, was uncharacteristically quiet. And there, shining amidst the aisles of Costco, he’d found a flat of delicious Fig Newtons: 125 packages of 24 cookies each, bundled together, 5x5x5.

The flat shone like the stars.

He took it home to the tower and set his purchases on the counter. Jane descended like a vulture, but—

“No,” said Martin, flush with the power that was in him.

“No,” he said. He held out his hand. “Not the cookies,” he said.

Jane pouted, but Martin did not bend. She tried to sneak around him to the cookies. Martin stood firm, like the sentryman of Heaven.

“You can’t eat 3000 cookies by yourself!” Jane protested, driven at the last to the employment of reason. “You’d turn into a cookie. And explode!”

Martin said, dramatically, “I’m willing to take that risk.”

But Jane’s star was in ascendance. She made her very best face at him. He trembled under the power of that face. Her eyes bored into his. “You have to share them with everyone in the tower,” she said.

“I have to?”

“Yes.”

And sometimes Martin wonders why he made her, why he shaped her from the ruin that he’d found, why he’d bothered to bring an ending to the firewood and to Bob: but not today.

On June 1, 2004, he loves her; and with gloatful satisfaction says, “That’s more than 2800 for me.”

And against the glow of that brilliance Jane can offer no protest.

Martin leans back. He prepares to reel Sukaynah up. He spins the wheel on his fishing pole. It turns easily at first but then it slows down. It gets harder and harder.

“Will you keep your promise?” Martin says.

He’s sweating as he struggles with the line.

“Glugnuh?” Sukaynah says, meaning: Promise?

“Because I gave you a cookie,” Martin says.

“Ah,” says Sukaynah.

“You said that if anyone fed you cookies, that you’d be able to break free, but that you’d have to eat the tower and the sea and the sun.”

“‘orry,” Sukaynah says. “‘ut, ieyah.”

Martin is sweating. He’s trying to reel Sukaynah in but he’s making very little progress.

“Because I have to admit,” he says, “I don’t actually want you to do that. And also, this isn’t working very well.”

“‘y ‘ot?” Sukaynah asks, meaning Why not?

The Roomba’s “Newton’s First Law?” LED lights up.

Martin glances at it. He shakes his head irritably.

“Hush,” he says.

The line goes still and trembling.

There is a momentary hush.

Then there is anger from below. There is a thrashing in the sea. The hook tears loose and Martin falls back and Sukaynah shrieks, “But this isn’t a cookie!

“What?”

Newtons are fruit and cake!

The tower shifts, the tower shakes. The Roomba slips free from the newton on which it is impaled. The imago slumps to lean against the tree.

The crust of the world cracks.

In the distant west there is a sound: Whump!

“Oh,” Martin says.

Depending on Shoes

Bombs do not stop the wolf.

It is coming to eat the world.

A crack team of astronauts carrying a nuclear payload land on the wolf. They send digger robots into the wolf’s skin. They drop bombs into the shaft. They fly away.

But the wolf only sneezes.

It is coming to eat the world.

McGruff the Crime Hound lectures children. “If a wolf comes to eat the world,” he says, “tell him NO!”

This does not stop the wolf.

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

Prayers fall on deaf ears. Threats are unheeded.

The Norse gods are specifically unreliable in this matter.

A specially engineered virus made out of dead camels does not help.

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

So people turn to their shoes.

“I’ll depend on our shoes!” says Mr. Brown.

“That’s right!” chirps Emily.

People turn to their shoes in a troubled time.

They pile their shoes at the edge of the world. They wait.

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

“I don’t know if they’ll really save us,” says Sid. He frets. “I mean, shoes aren’t really that much, when it comes down to it.”

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

“I heart shoes,” says Emily. “I heart them.”

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

People have to depend on shoes, you see, because the astronauts failed and the armies can’t march against the wolf and the planes and the viruses and the oil spills and the kitten stampede and the giant mutant fleas and the ice cream barrage and the tinfoil hats and the hawk and the dove are all useless against the wolf.

So people depend on shoes.

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

There’s a great stomping sound.

There’s a clamor and a clonk.

There’s a gagging noise and a choking noise.

Everyone in the whole world has their eyes closed. So they don’t know why. But the wolf is gone.

It’s important to save your shoe leather. Just ask Tyr!

Emily never found her shoes after that. It’s a pity. They were adorably cute Mary Janes.

She’d liked them rather a lot.

Martin and Thess (II/III)

On March 22, 1995, Jenna receives a certified letter. It has her full address on the front, including “The Firewood World” at the very bottom. It is delivered by postal jet. The letter reads as follows:

Jane,

I hope you are well.

I had never thought to let you go. You were close to my heart, and I thought that you would die or remain with me forever. Yet life takes funny turns.

Still, I have need of your services again. I hope that you’re available. I know that you’ve been confused and angry and acting, well, as one would expect Jane to act. But you should visit me soon.

You belong to me.

On the letter is drawn the crest of the monster’s house.

Three days pass, and most of another.

It is March 25.

Martin, stumbling through the mud of the underworld, meets Thess.

Thess is a young man, with clear blue eyes, angel’s wings, and a jacket.

“People loved me,” says Thess.

Thess is building. This is his punishment. He is building creatures, always, making new kinds of life.

Then they die, and turn to dust, and the dust blows away.

Thess is steeping in mud and failure and it has not improved him yet.

“I radiated it,” Thess says. “It was my answer. ‘You can escape your pain. Just love Thess!'”

“Oh,” Martin says.

“It was a clinging love, a reaching love, a scrambling love,” says Thess. “It was more real than the world. It was an awakening love. I was going to walk right into Central and they would have loved me. And I would have asked them to let her go. I would have told them that I was her brother. And she would have come and taken shelter with me, and them too, and she would have been safe.”

“What happened?”

“I died,” Thess says. “In a little town, by a little school. A faceless god bound me to the earth, cut my ribs out, and pulled my lungs out my back. Then love died and the world was hollow.”

“I’m sorry,” Martin says.

“Help me,” says Thess.

“I could leave you here to suffer, thus allowing you to transform into something better,” says Martin.

Thess looks at Martin. It’s a very sardonic look.

“Yes,” says Thess. “That plan is certain to be effective.”

Martin looks down.

“It’s what I know how to do,” Martin says.

“Nothing?”

Martin hesitates.

“If you leave me here,” says Thess, “I will suffer eternally and gain nothing from it. Then one day you will go and face the monster, and he’ll point his finger and laugh. And you’ll say, ‘watch out! I’m going to leave you alone so hard your head will spin!'”

“I’d planned to revise the speech a little,” Martin says, “First.”

“Give it a few drafts?”

“Yes.”

Thess looks at Martin, and suddenly Martin loves him so much his heart hurts.

“I made a glorious frog-thing,” Thess says, “I called it Alitheia. But it died. They all die. Each of my children. I grow hollower and hollower but there is no end to me. Help me.”

So Martin reaches out for Thess, and at his touch Thess turns to dust.

Before He Was Cool (I/I)

Between the Earth and the Moon there is a world made entirely out of firewood. It’s five hundred miles wide and ten miles deep. It has lots of firewood animals and firewood cities and firewood people. It is an innocent world, a young world, but it is no paradise. It is a savage jungle.

Martin is born on March 22, 1995, at 6:38 pm, on a night of screams and fire, on a world above the world.

The first thing he ever sees is the monster’s face.

Martin ducks instinctively. He throws his forearms before his eyes. But then there’s a shock of recognition, and a wave of relief, and he laughs.

“Why, this is just a firewood monster,” he says.

The firewood monster adjusts its lacquered tie. “You be-long to me,” it says. Its voice is vaguely animatronic.

There’s the sound of explosions in the distance.

Martin’s in a little room made of firewood. It’s like the monster’s house. There’s a spider, which is a real spider. Everything else is made out of firewood: the belt, the archaic aversion therapy devices, the couch, the bookshelves, and the bottles of pills. There are weird white spots here and there on the wood, like some birch got mixed in with the rest.

“You be-long to me,” says the firewood monster again.

The whole world creaks. A crack runs through the floor, stopping short of Martin’s feet.

Martin grins wryly at the firewood monster, gives him a little wave, and opens the door. He steps out onto the street. Death looks him in the face. Death has a scythe. Death has a cloak. Death is a skeleton.

Martin almost steps back and slams the door. But then he understands, and he laughs.

“Why, this is just a firewood Death,” he says.

“Solve prob-lems through ex-tinc-tion!” declares the firewood Death. He sweeps his scythe at Martin. Martin ducks under it and kicks Death’s knee. Death’s knee cracks. Martin scrambles away.

“Even a firewood Death is dangerous!” he realizes. So he runs. He ducks into a barber shop. There’s a spinning red and white log outside, and a ghastly barber inside.

“I’ll shave your hair in-to a bowl cut!” the barber declares.

“You’re just a firewood barber,” says Martin nervously. He’s a thirteen-year-old boy. He doesn’t want a bowl cut, but he doesn’t want to fight a ghastly barber, either!

Then he sees the mirror.

His soul knows its truths. You are nothing, it tells him. A firewood boy. An isn’t.

“Oh, God,” Martin says.

A great shadow moves along the street. There are firewood screams.

Martin sits down. He covers his face with his hands. He thinks.

“I can-not shave your hair on the floor,” says the firewood barber. “There are al-read-y sha-vings on the floor.”

“I’m thinking,” says Martin.

The barber processes this unusual situation.

“Do not o-ver-heat your brain,” the firewood barber cautions.

“I’ll overheat if I want to,” says Martin, sulkily. But he doesn’t. Then he stands up. “Will you bless me?” he asks.

The barber is nonplussed and ghastly. “I am a bar-ber,” it says.

“I have to do something really hard,” says Martin. “And you’re the only person I know.”

The firewood barber hesitates. It is horrid and stodgy and animatronic and it is not a priest. “I would pre-fer,” it says, “to shave your hair.”

“You’re the only person I know.”

So the barber nods. It puts down its shaver and its bowl for the first time in its long existence. It takes Martin’s arms, one in each clumsy hand.

“Bless you,” it says. “Be well. Good luck. En-dure.”

Martin is a thirteen-year-old boy. He does not let his tears show. He does not hug the barber. He simply walks out. He finds the gate to the Underworld. He goes in.

His soul knows its truths. You are nothing, it tells him. A firewood boy. An isn’t.

It’s his destiny. It’s the law of his nature. It’s his dharma. It’s the truth of his soul that he can’t escape. But then there’s a realization and a decision and a wave of defiance and he laughs.

“Why,” he says, “you’re just a firewood dharma.”

Martin puts it aside and he descends.

The Meringue City

Meran is a city near Venice. It is made of meringue. There are lemon canals.

“Do not eat the city,” caution the signs. “Simon says!” But this does not stop anyone. There are tourists who come all the way from America or Sri Lanka simply to eat Meran. They consider this delightfully scandalous, as if they were breaking off ancient Roman architecture and popping it in their mouth. There are residents too impoverished for discretion, and dogs and cats incapable of it. For all these reasons the meringue is often eaten.

There is a cook’s guild in Meran. Its chief cook is Simon—the very Simon of the sign. He is broad-framed and red-cheeked but surprisingly thin. He eats well but anxiety preys on him.

“The aqueduct has fallen,” cook’s apprentice Marguerite tells him.

“Again?”

“It is the gnashing teeth of tourists,” Marguerite says. “Gnawing in the night.”

“Can the police do nothing?”

Marguerite is silent. The police of Meran are notoriously bribable.

“Very well,” says Simon. “Another twelve thousand eggs. Another thousand cups of sugar. Another merin, for me.”

Merins are magical creatures that help make sense of the world. They aren’t actually cooked into the meringue, except once, by accident, and that wasn’t Simon’s fault.

“We could use stone and wood,” Marguerite says.

“No.”

“How long can we keep this up, Simon?”

Simon’s eyes are haunted.

There’s a knock on the door. “Simms to see you, sir,” says Simon’s secretary Stacy.

“Let him in.”

Mr. Simms enters. He’s an ugly man. He’s wearing a nice gray suit and his features are nice enough, but something slimy lives behind his face.

“The meringue is seeping down again, Simon,” he says.

“Is it?”

Mr. Simms’ eyes narrow. “Yes. In Ogbota Lake. Beneath the business district. The things that live there are quite disturbed.”

Simon rubs at the bridge of his nose. “I seem to recall that that area is marked as uninhabited,” he says. After a moment, he adds, “On the charts.”

Mr. Simms shrugs. “We are a thriving people,” he says. “We need our space.”

“But the rot is within the normal levels?”

“Be reasonable, Simon,” Mr. Simms oozes. “If the meringue drips into the city below, then it can’t seal the rot from the city above. It’s bad for both of us.”

Simon looks at Mr. Simms bleakly. But he will not show weakness. “I could lay down an extra layer above,” he says. “The businessmen would only laugh as meringue washes over their feet, you know, and tell me, ‘This tickles.'”

“And I could prick the flesh of the god that sleeps below,” Mr. Simms says, “and leak its rot into the lake until the sugar is annulled.”

“That would bring it closer to waking,” says Simon. “He’ll eat your people first.”

Mr. Simms hesitates. “We could help you with your tourist problem,” he says.

Simon closes his eyes. He puts his head down on the desk.

Ten seconds later, he lifts his head. He looks quite strangely small.

“I’ll bolster the meringue,” Simon says. “I’ll get the money from somewhere. God. I wish I could accept, but no. Just . . . get out of here.”

Mr. Simms hesitates.

“Sometimes,” he says, “it seems as if my people—never understand—how much it is that I do for them.”

Simon’s eyes meet Mr. Simms. He smiles a little, involuntarily. Then he scowls.

“Go,” Simon says.

Sevens

“Did you fetch the morning eggs, Danielle?”

Danielle holds her hands over the breakfast table. They are cupped together. She separates them. Rubies fall. Sapphires too, and emeralds. Seven gems, and an egg.

“I see.” Her wicked stepmother narrows her eyes. “The hens have not lain eggs properly in several days.”

“I feed them the normal feed, mother.”

Danielle’s wicked stepmother is named Glory. She clicks her sharp fingernails on the table.

“Danielle,” Glory says, “these gems are very fine, but what may I eat for breakfast?”

“Perhaps they are edible,” says Danielle. She taps a ruby. It rings, lightly, like a bell.

“I should have the wealthiest chamberpot in the world,” Glory says, “and not be full from it.”

“Mother?”

Glory shakes her head. “It is no matter. I shall have bread and cheese. Clean the cinders, Danielle. They are a disgrace.”

Danielle curtsies. She goes to the closet. She takes out a broom and a pan. She holds the broom at her left side like a sword. She leaves the room and goes to the fireplace. The room is full of cinders and ash. They are being fanned onto every surface and every wall by seven cinder pixies. In the center of the room stands the cinder troll.

“I’ve been sent to clean this up,” she says.

The troll looks her up and down. He snorts. “You’re not much,” he says.

Her right hand crosses her body and takes the broom’s hilt. In a long circular motion, she brings the broom up and around until its bristles face the troll. Her left hand joins her right at the broom’s base. The broom is heavy, held in this fashion, but her arms do not tremble. “I am whom my mother sent.”

The cinder pixies go still. The troll looks her up and down.

“It’s my right,” says the troll, “as a cinder troll, to push the cinders out into the room.”

“And mine, to sweep them back.”

The troll hesitates. “Perhaps,” he says, “one quarter of the room in soot, and three parts clean.”

Danielle closes her eyes. She thinks. Then she opens them. “They say that every one of us lives seven lives,” she says.

“Aye.”

“And that we should be kind to those we meet. For anyone may have been one’s mother, in another life, or one’s father, or one’s child. One’s lover, or one’s friend.”

“That’s wise,” says the cinder troll.

“In another life,” says Danielle, “I believe that we were friends. For there is a light in your eyes that my soul knows. But in this life, I have a duty, and I must drive you back.”

She steps forward. The troll steps back.

She steps forward. The troll is still. Then he reaches behind him to the fireplace and draws forth a poker, and takes it in his great strong hands.

They duel.

“I had not thought,” says the troll, “that Glory would have a loyal servant.” He is breathing lightly though Danielle’s lungs burn. Each clash of poker and broom makes her arms ache.

“She is my mother,” Danielle says.

“That,” says the troll, “cannot be so.”

Cinders in the air swirl into Danielle’s mouth, and she chokes. Her eyes water. The troll strikes, the poker winging her shoulder, and her left arm goes numb. She falls backwards. The troll does not advance. After a moment, he holds out his hand to help her up. She takes it. She backs away. She reassumes her stance.

“She has taken me in,” Danielle admits. “The mother of my birth is gone.”

“Ah, so.”

“My true mother went adventuring,” Danielle says. “To find a lost prince, they sent out seven maidens; to find each lost maiden, they sent out seven princes; and for seven princes lost, seven maidens each; and so in progression were all the heroes lost, and my mother among them. And I was left behind.”

The troll feints, then brings the poker around hard. The broom cracks, though it does not break. The poker lunges for Danielle’s face, and she steps back.

“And why have you not gone?” asks the troll.

She looks at him. She does not answer, for she does not know. Slowly, she brings the broom back to her side. She sets her feet. Her eyes burn.

“Are you surrendering?” the troll asks.

Danielle shakes her head.

“Then we will end this now,” says the troll.

“May we be friends again,” says Danielle, “when next we meet.”

The troll steps forward. There is tension in the great muscles of his arm.

Danielle’s shout splits the air and makes the cinder pixies flutter. She strikes. There is a crack like the breaking of the world. She is past the troll in a single motion, stumbling to a stop, kneeling in the ashes, and her broom is nothing but splinters.

The troll falls, and the room is clean.

The Truth

While waiting for dinner, Jane and Bob made a world out of firewood. It was five hundred miles wide and ten miles deep. It had lots of firewood animals and firewood cities and firewood people.

“Jane! Bob!” said their mother. “Look what you’ve done! How are we going to burn our firewood now?”

“But Mom!” said Jane. “We were bored!”

“You are very bad little children, ” said their Mom, and sent them to bed without supper.

Jane and Bob were very angry. So they snuck out to the world they had made and became monsters. Each had seven hundred teeth and five hundred claws! They also had LAW rockets.

That’s why firewood is so afraid of people. It’s not because you might burn it. It’s because you might turn out to be Jane or Bob!

Silly firewood. Jane and Bob aren’t real! They’re just a story somebody made up.