(History: Boedromion 21-22: Things and Choices)

Flagging this as something I’m totally going to let myself change later. I’m not at home and have a real time deadline. I’ll remove the flag if I’ve edited to taste. For example, I’m currently uncertain of the closing line, and might not actually edit. ^_^

Update, 5 years later: I’ve never been totally happy with this series, but I won’t be fixing it until the archives are working at least up to Island of the Centipede.

The Underworld is full of things.

There are the little roly-poly round things. They’re like pillbugs. If you poke them, they’ll curl up tight. Then they’ll curl you up with them.

“Help!” you might cry. “I’m stuck!”

But nobody will hear you except the bug-eating giants, and so that’s hardly a win for you.

If Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the roly-poly round things will be gone. Maybe they’ll blow up. Maybe they’ll scurry down. Maybe they’ll just vanish. But they’ll be gone.

No more stories of great heroes descending into the Underworld and getting rolled up by little bugs before they return.

Legends, maybe, but not stories, because those bugs will be lost.

There are shark-human hybrids in the Underworld. Everyone knows that. If there weren’t then who would swim up just when you thought you could relax and do horrible human things to you with their horrible human teeth?

Down in the Underworld they swim.

There are little fish that live near their teeth, little Crest-brand fish that live near the teeth of the shark-human hybrids and dart in between meals to gnaw the scraps from the horrors’ mouths. You can find them in the Underworld, and in Greece, and, really, everywhere where Crest’s ancient inhuman power isn’t bound by the sevenfold law of the FDA.

And if Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the fish will die.

And the shark-human hybrids will die.

And there will be a silence in the deep.

Perhaps they will go on in some form, of course. It’s hard to say. Where is a soul after a soul-eater’s eaten it? Where is a light after the candle is snuffed? Where will be the noble shark-human hybrids and their terrible blunt teeth?

But we can call it “dead.”

Also in the Underworld there are the streaks. They’re colored red, yellow, and green. They’re in the air, like a classical painter got really tired after painting the Underworld and went suddenly modernist in frustration. They jangle and twist when you look at them. The souls in the Elysian fields can’t see them. The souls in torment in Tartarus try to ignore them. One day Tantalus will eat one and find that it tastes just exactly like artificial pudding, which in turn tastes more or less like his son Pelops. That’s why he will always look so funny when he eats a delicious vanilla Jell-O pudding cup. It’s not the flavor. It’s the nostalgia!

And if Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the streaks will be gone, and any purpose they might have to their long and colorful deaths will pass. And perhaps there will be a few lingerers, one or two stragglers, a few bright streaks of red and chartreuse hanging on the surface of the void, but they will go away and the ones who stay will die.

There are the burrs in the Underworld. They live under things. That’s why you don’t want to poke too much at things under other things in the Underworld. There could be burrs. The Underworld is already under other things, so it makes sense that going too much further under would be spiky. But they’re not spiky because it makes sense. They’re spiky as a natural evolved defense mechanism. It protects them from predators!

There are echoes. They’re not actually Echo, who didn’t die precisely but who made the wrong promise and couldn’t be human any more.(1)

(1) For reference, if Zeus ever asks you to make a promise pursuant to one of his pursuits, consider carefully the consequences. They’re not always as nice as you might imagine, and sometimes they involve having pampered tourists at the Grand Canyon shouting at you all day.

The echoes in the Underworld are not actually Echo, but they are the echoes of distant footsteps, and you can hear them if you try.

If Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the burrs will be gone. The echoes will be gone. There will be nothing but the emptiness where once there stood the cathedrals of Hades and the legions of the dead.

No more will trails of blood call the unliving back.

No more the Elysian fields; no more Tartarus; no more Hades; no more Persephone.

She can do this. It’s in her history, if you read back far enough. That’s what a Persephone does. She ends everything. She takes it away.

So as she stands there, with Hades holding out the pomegranate, Persephone licks her lips nervously and then she bows her head.

“Whatever,” she says. “You can do what you want, I guess. I won’t kill all this stuff you made.”

This is a pretty common decision for someone in her position to make, even though everyone always criticizes them for it later.

And she finds firmness in it and a sense of strength, so she lifts her head.

“I’m letting you live.”

And Hades says, “But that’s not what I want.”

“Huh?”

“End it,” says Hades. “Reach down to the nature of this place and make it an undiscovered land.”

Persephone blinks.

“Let it be a mystery,” he says. His face is avid. “Let no one know what happens here. Let them hope or imagine that it is a place of joy. Let them dream with bloodlust of their enemies suffering here in torment. Ease this from the world. Make it not known. That is what I have brought you here to do. That is what I have chosen.”

And she looks at him. And he looks back.

And she says, “You can’t make that choice for me.”

“I can,” he says.

“You can’t!”

And they’re both right, of course. They think they’re disagreeing, but they’re not. They’re just in the grip of Semantics, that bleak god, cousin to Ananke, from whom alone of all the gods and men great Zeus is free.

Never (II/IV)

It is 1560 years before the common era.

“This is my curse,” Hera says to Leto. “You shall not bear your child on the mainland, or on any island, or on the sea.”

Leto is pregnant and her feet are sore. She thinks about this for a moment.

“That’s pretty much going to suck for me,” Leto concludes.

Which, as things turn out, it does.

It is 1317 years before the common era. There is a river that surrounds the world. It separates the whole good land from that which is not. There is a cupping fire that surmounts the world, a burning fulminating ether. Outside these things there are the sun, the moon, the stars.

And beyond them there is Never.

There is no path to Never. The maps that have survived from then that show the way have peculiar lacunae upon them. No matter how you chart the course, the landmarks do not line up, the data is inconsistent, you are led inevitably into the cartographer’s error and the point without continuance. There are some who laugh at the folly of the mapmakers of those days, and some who speak of conspiracy and secrets, and some who deny that there was ever a Never at all.

But it is there, burning in the sky, three thousand years ago and more, with its peaks and minarets and bats.

It is thinking of Never that Demeter falls from stormy skies to Delos, that island of stability at the chaos’ edge.

Leucippus is laying there on the sand of Delos’ beach. He’s coughing up water. He’s just tried to drown himself.

“There is no hope,” says Demeter.

She is wearing black. The wind makes angry sounds as it passes her, like a flapping tarp or a dragon’s wings.

“Granted,” says Leucippus. He does not recognize her.

Demeter blinks. Her eyes focus on him. “Pardon?”

“There is no hope,” Leucippus says. “Everything is madness. Here is how I know. This is Delos. It is a sacred island. It is the island where sweet Leto bore Apollo. Yet she cannot have borne him on an island. It is against the law that orders each and every thing. Thus I cannot trust Ananke; thus I cannot trust anything; thus I cannot even trust in the existence of the world.”

“It isn’t technically an island,” Demeter says. “It’s too small.”

Leucippus looks up. He stares at her steadily.

After a moment, Demeter laughs.

“Point taken,” she says.

“I can’t help but see how things really are,” says Leucippus. “It’s a curse from Apollo. Because I challenged him on matters of prophecy.”

“That was a mistake,” Demeter says.

“Yes,” agrees Leucippus fervently. “Yes, it was.”

Demeter hefts Leucippus up from the beach. She puts him down on his feet. She breathes and the air around him is full of the scent of corn.

“Come,” she says, and she walks out on the water.

“I didn’t know why it was a punishment at first,” says Leucippus. He walks out after her, onto the waves. “It didn’t make me very popular, of course. I mean, the girls were all bashfully upset at my truthful evaluation. Also, the men. And I really, really have to avoid temples. But I didn’t mind so much. Unpopularity is the curse of an honest man. No, the problem I had was with the world. With everything that just doesn’t make sense.”

“You don’t like contradictions?”

Just processing that question makes Leucippus hyperventilate.

“Uh,” he says, staggering.

“Here is one for you,” Demeter says. “Observe. My daughter, my bright fair daughter, she has been taken. There is no hope in all the world. Yet I am calm.”

“You aren’t calm,” says Leucippus. “You are indulging in a patch of detached madness.”

“Pshaw,” summarizes Demeter, waving the matter away.

“Am I going to die?” Leucippus says. “Because, honestly, I’d rather die than spend any more time contemplating Delos. So I won’t mind. But I’d hoped, in a distant corner of my mind, that instead of drowning I’d get sucked down into a whirlpool and cast up on some distant island populated by beautiful maidens, deep-bosomed like yourself. So far, what with your mad despair and such, the portents do not seem good.”

“There is no hope,” Demeter says, somewhat ambiguously.

Demeter looks upwards.

“Listen,” Demeter says. “In all the span of the world, there is no hope for me. I have for some years known that this would happen; that the Son of Cronos would have her taken from me. And what is done, in this matter, cannot be undone. There is no hope for me. So neither is there hope for you. That is Ananke. That is Necessity.”

“Alas,” says Leucippus.

“Still,” says Demeter, “I will be gracious, and say this much: when Leto found it, Delos was no island.”

“Was it a giant fish?” says Leucippus. He is practically sagging with relief. There is a beautiful peace spreading across his face. But it is tentative. It is a peace that’s scared to stay. “Because I thought there might be an exception regarding giant fishes. But the island’s shape was wrong.”

“It was a minaret of Never.”

Why Don’t Ducks Have Hides?

Ducks don’t have hides. They have feathers!

Bears have hides. That’s why you can’t see them. Look! There are no bears in evidence.

Geese have down. Down is a quark. Geese are indeterminate! If you observe geese, they collapse. That’s why geese aren’t used to guard houses any more. Burglars got too observant!

Elephants have hides, but Daredevil can see them. This is because he does not actually see. Instead he has enhanced all of his other senses.

Giraffes have spots. Here and there. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. You get through the bad spots to get back to the good spots. That’s the giraffe attitude towards life.

Fetuses have placenta. The placenta is a form of currency. It is a medium of exchange. Fetuses use the placenta to obtain goods and services. Fetuses have a strong economy. Everybody invests in fetuses. That’s why they don’t use pladimas or plaquarteras. It’s too much money. Fetuses don’t have anything they need to buy that would merit upgrading their currency past the cent. They could get a Ferrari, but it wouldn’t fit into the womb. It would need to be a mini-Ferrari, and those are nice and all, but at a certain point you just can’t have miniaturized fetus versions of everything. It’s bad enough that they can buy crack, nicotine, and subscriptions to special fetus-enabled massively multiplayer online games.

Wolves have fur. This makes wolves furries. Since they’re already wolves, they don’t pretend to be wolves. They pretend to be humans. A small excerpt from wolf furry-play follows.

The alpha male struts in. He puts down his briefcase. He says, “Hello, honey, I am home! Since you do not need estrus to stimulate your sexual interest, perhaps you would be up for a rousing bout of Church-endorsed missionary position sex?”

“Oh, no, honey, not now! I am too busy shooting my gun at the wolf who culled the weakest members of our herd of cows! Bang!”

“That sounds like fun. Shooting wolves improves the strength of their gene pool! But surely we could have sex and shoot wolves at the same time?”

“That is very kinky. I admire your dirty mind!”

“Bang!”

“Bang!”

Together: “Bang!”

That is how wolves imagine human intercourse must be.

Birds feather their nests. Invest in birds! In the old days, everyone invested in birds. That made social mobility very easy. Today, few people invest in birds. Instead, they give them to other people. That’s their investment mistake!

Lions have manes. Sewer lions have sewer manes. Gas lions have gas manes. Sewer lions are like regular lions but they live in the sewer. They have long flowing hair. They stink. They are greenish. Gas lions live in the upper atmosphere. They are ethereal. They also stink, but it is only because the gas company adds a foul smell to them. Newborn gas lions are odorless killers. Legerdelions have legerdemanes. They’re tricky, though, so I can’t explain them here.

American eagles have lush heads of obviously natural hair. They’re not just the Presidents of the hair club for birds. They’re also members!

Fish have scales. They weigh your soul against a feather. The feathers are just laying around in the ocean. They’re duck feathers. They are very heavy. A fish weighs your soul on the scales to determine whether you deserve Heaven. Then the fish realizes that it cannot breathe air. It flops about in increasing agony. Someone hits it with a rock. That’s pretty much the end of things for fish.

Giraffes, on the other hand, don’t die when they find themselves out of the ocean. Maybe it’s because their lungs can breathe air. Maybe it’s because they’re immortal! Or maybe it’s just because nobody hits them with a rock.

Lemurs have lema. It’s a special kind of skin. It’s also used for lemons. That’s why lemurs seem so zesty all the time.

Clocks have faces. They are good at facing their doom. They know that they are counting down the seconds to their own oblivion, but this does not bother clocks.

Sharks have sharkskin. Ducks don’t like being eaten by sharks. When a shark attacks, the ducks try to hide. But they don’t have hides! They have feathers. This is sad for the ducks, but good news for the fish.

The Spearman Stays His Hand

It is an ocean somewhere in the never, on the shores of dream.

The captain harries the serpent from east to west. Hard-pursued, she dives. She passes the layer of fire, where the phosphorescence of the worms turns the sea red, yellow, orange, and white. She passes the layer of darkness. She passes into the land of the Princes.

“Help me,” she says, to the spearfish, its nose as sharp as a razor and long as the day. But it gathers its raiment of gold and its chorus of anglers and swims away.

“Help me,” she says, to the great dark eye of the squid. For a long moment, it studies her. Then there is a flickering and a fading in the great eye’s depths. The squid’s attention has turned away.

She batters at the gate of the Sea King’s palace.

“Help me,” she says to the guardsman there.

“The Sea King sees no one,” says the guard. “Nor may I help a straggler by.”

“If I am slain,” says the serpent. “If I am slain, that day the world dies.”

“Aye,” says the guard. “But things are as they are.”

“That is the day the world will die,” says the serpent, as if she cannot comprehend.

“I’m sorry,” says the guard.

So the serpent flows upwards to break the surface of the sea, and there is the captain, who has gained much distance on her in this time. His ship is made of darkest wood, and its sails are tattered as from knives; and the sky behind it is splashed with blood, and the wheel is made of bone; and on the deck stands the spearman, braced to throw.

“Kill her,” says the captain.

She flees across the water, as hard and as fast as still she may.

“Kill her,” says the captain.

For just a moment, the spearman stays his hand.

So I Will Eat Fugu1

1 uses the storytelling conventions and stock elements of “magical girl” anime. Readers unfamiliar with this genre may find themselves startled by everyday events like humans transitioning through a catch phrase and a moment’s nudity into costumed angels or the spontaneous generation and disappearance of mysterious romantic interests while missing the true heart of the story: what would it mean to be human in a world where eating blowfish doesn’t carry with it the risk of death?

The room is cold.

There is a young girl’s body sprawled by the kitchen. Her name was Lisa. She was studying to be a doctor. There are the remnants of a meal on the table—hand-made sushi, mostly unagi and dynamite rolls, but also a few bits of tamago and a piece of what might be albacore. There is blood on the dynamite roll; on the table; on the clock hanging on the wall. Lisa has been stabbed to death by sushi knives.

Amelia is a crime scene investigator. She studies, but does not touch, the corpse. She carefully packs the sushi into evidence bags. She collects fingerprints from the walls and knives. She squats down, studying a strange little oddment in the carpet. It resembles a piece of fingernail, but the coloration and translucency are off.

Amelia hears the voice of her magical animal companion and straightens.

“Amelia, Amelia,” Gray Beauty says. “The knives of time are cutting fine.”

Amelia looks up.

The walls are full of the shadows of knives. They are serrated at their edge. They are moving, sweeping from the forward corner of the ceiling to the backward corner of the floor. They are moving faster and faster with each second that passes, until the blur no longer resembles shapes.

“Then I shall be Crime Angel,” Amelia says.

She reaches into her purse. She takes out two bracelets. She puts them on and crosses her wrists in front of her.

“To save the world from the agents of darkness,” she says. “To bring the new millennium of peace. To end the shadows of lost days, I am Ayurvedic Crime Angel!”

She assumes the costume of the Crime Angel. The brief interlude of nudity, here in a locked and shuttered room, is only a slight embarrassment.

There is a glow in the room, and she can see Gray Beauty now. The small flying unicorn hovers in a bubble of light.

“We stand outside time,” says Amelia. “Outside the normal forensic process. I ask you, Gray Beauty—unveil the light of truth!”

Gray Beauty’s horn glints, shimmers, and shines. Amelia surveys the room. There is a strange luminescence over an incision in Lisa’s chest.

The clock has stopped.

Amelia takes out the forceps of the Crime Angel. With infinite care, she pushes the two sides of the incision apart. The light of Gray Beauty pours into the wound.

“There is something missing,” Amelia says, “in her heart.”

“Yes,” Gray Beauty agrees.

“That is the cause of death,” Amelia says. “Someone has taken the purity from her heart—the pure heart that loved people and sushi!”

“It must be an agent of darkness,” Gray Beauty concludes. “Quickly, Crime Angel, investigate the murder scene!”

Amelia glances around. There’s a dark scurrying on the wall. Amelia darts forward and catches it with her hand. It is the shadow of a girl. Caught in her hand, it ceases its motion.

“A girl,” Amelia says.

“Lisa?”

“No,” Amelia says. “See, this shadow has long fingernails. Lisa kept hers bitten short. It also has strange and almost unrealistic hair.”

“Gel,” Gray Beauty says, in condemnation.

Amelia releases the shadow. It flows away. “But it’s not enough. A girl with long fingernails? That could be anyone.”

She lifts her head. “I smell him,” she says.

There is a swirling of a cloak in the doorway. There is a man standing there. He is shrouded in darkness and smells strongly of the rain.

“Never despair,” he says, “Crime Angel.”

She looks at him. “But—”

“If you trust in your heart,” he says, “and meticulously review the available evidence, you will always solve the crime.”

“Mystery Officer,” she says. “You have never told me why you—”

He holds up one finger. “‘I cannot see her tonight,'” he quotes. “‘I have to give her up. So I will eat fugu.'”

Then he is gone.

“Argh!” Amelia says, in real frustration. “Gray Beauty, will I never know if Mystery Officer is an enemy or a friend?”

“I cannot say,” says her wonderful animal companion diplomatically.

“Still—” Amelia says. Then she brightens. “Fugu! Of course! Gray Beauty, look at this!”

Amelia sinks down on one knee. She points at the carpet. “That strange object. It’s not a fingernail. It’s a bit of blowfish spine!”

Gray Beauty swoops closer. The unicorn’s light brings out a hundred shimmering colors in the fishscale bit.

“But what good is that?” Gray Beauty says.

“Most blowfish comes from farms,” Amelia says. “The farms are small, isolated breeding populations, which leads to genetic abnormalities in the fish. Effectively, it’s a DNA fingerprint—which can lead us right to the farm that sold this fugu!”

“Do you want me to scan it?” Gray Beauty asks.

“There weren’t any signs of blowfish preparation in the kitchen,” Amelia says. “Or in the apartment. Is there any in her stomach?”

“No,” Gray Beauty says.

“Then yes,” Amelia says. “Because for whatever reason, the killer must have taken the fugu with him.”

Her voice becomes soft and ritual.

“We stand outside time,” says Amelia. “Outside the normal forensic process. I ask you, Gray Beauty—begin your marvelous DNA scan!”

Golden light blooms in the room. It shines all around her. Roses wreath through the air and then they are gone.

“Cross-checking data with the Crime Angel database,” Gray Beauty says. The unicorn’s teeth click together as it transmits its message.

There is a pause.

“Gray Beauty,” Amelia says, “you look sickened.”

“I am,” whispers the unicorn.

There’s a pause.

The unicorn tries to continue. “It’s . . . it’s a . . .”

Gray Beauty flutters weakly to the ground, contaminating a spot of blood with marvelous unicorn radiance.

“It is a farm,” whispers the unicorn, “that breeds naturally toxin-free blowfish.”

“That’s horrible,” Amelia says.

There’s a long silence.

“Let’s go,” Gray Beauty says. “It’s the Stemm-Branning fugu farm. I have the address.”

“Let the knives of time cut fine,” Amelia says. “Let the shadow folk draw nigh. Cut Crime Angel away!”

The brightness in the room is gone. There is only the harsh yellow light of a naked bulb, shining in the outlet above. There are no angels.

Amelia walks away.

It is only thirty seconds before her cell phone rings. She picks it up. She answers. She listens. “I understand,” she says. Her voice is bitter. “I understand.” Then she puts the cell phone away.

She gets in her car. She drives to the Stemm-Branning fugu farm. The sign out front depicts a happy half-dissected blowfish. Two fugu chefs look on in amazement. One says, in a speech balloon, “No poison!” The other says, “A miracle of fish!”

Amelia knocks on their door.

“Hello?”

The man who answers the door is Lu Stemm. He’s a young idealist in a suit. He smells of fish. There’s some fish scent stuck behind his ears.

“Cri—” Amelia says. “Er, I mean, Amelia. I’m a forensics investigator.”

Mr. Stemm looks down at himself. He looks up. He has an expression of mild concern. “Am I dead?” he asks. It’s hard to tell if he’s worried or simply being facetious.

“No, Mr. Stemm. I’m investigating a murder elsewhere.”

“Oh, good,” Mr. Stemm says. He smiles at her. “I hope it wasn’t done with fugu. But if it was, it wasn’t our fugu! Our fugu is safe.”

“Perfectly safe?”

“Perfectly safe,” he assures her. “It’s genetically inhibited against developing the poison glands. Instead, it bastes its organs in a natural soy sauce.”

It is, again, difficult to tell if he is kidding.

“I don’t have much time,” Amelia says. “I need to know if you’ve had any unusual clients of late.”

Mr. Stemm sounds mildly sad. “All of our clients are unusual. But if you mean new unusual clients, only three. A fraudulent magician wishing to add extreme fugu consumption to his act. A pretty girl with odd hair, nails, and sharp teeth. And a shadowy chocolate conglomerate based out of Switzerland.”

“The conglomerate!” Amelia exclaims.

Then she thinks.

“Wait, no,” Amelia corrects. “Tell me about the girl.”

“She was named Cornelia,” says Mr. Stemm. “She was very hot. She works for a local restaurant. I have her card, if you would like?”

“Please,” Amelia says. Mr. Stemm leads her into the building, and to his office, and he looks through the rolodex. When he looks up, Amelia has stepped out of the room.

“To save the world from the agents of darkness,” he hears. “To bring the new millennium of peace. To end the shadows of lost days, I am Ayurvedic Crime Angel!”

The card held in his hand vanishes.

Amelia is outside time, and outside the normal forensic process, but still she moves swiftly.

“Gray Beauty,” she says. “Does it have her fingerprints on it? Do they match the ones in the room?”

“Indeed, Crime Angel,” says Gray Beauty.

“Then bag that card and let’s go.”

“I hate bagging evidence,” Gray Beauty sulks. “I don’t have fingers.”

Amelia rushes to her car. She waits for her magical animal companion to finish bagging the evidence and join her. She drives to the restaurant. She hops out of the car. She locks the steering wheel. She closes the door and engages the security system. She rushes into the restaurant.

Cornelia is waiting. She is wearing a green dress and leaning against the bar. Her hair is long and spiky. Her teeth are sharp. Time has not stopped for her, and her long nails drum against the bar’s surface.

“You stole the pure heart of a girl who loved sushi,” says Amelia. “That bright purity of spirit that endorses unagi and salivates over spider roll. For that you face Crime Angel’s wrath!”

“I did these things,” says Cornelia. “But I will face no wrath. Fierce Fugu!”

Out of the kitchen a strange and terrible creature bounds. It is a giant blowfish that walks on two legs like a man. It also has arms and hands. In each hand it holds a long and lethal knife.

“When a blowfish has no poison,” Cornelia says, “it must use knives to defend itself. That is the curse of Stemm-Branning blowfish—the fugu fights fiercest when backed into a corner!”

“FIERCE FUGU!” declares the blowfish.

“This is my heart-extracting blowfish,” Cornelia says. “I corrupted it from an ordinary blowfish in order to achieve my ends.”

Amelia gasps.

“It has already cut out one pure heart that loved unagi and felt indifferent to sashimi,” Cornelia declares. “Now it will take yours!”

The monologue has taken too long. Amelia has recovered from her surprise.

“We stand outside time,” declares Amelia. “Outside the normal forensic process. I ask you, Gray Beauty—commit the traceless murder!”

Fierce Fugu charges, inflating. The unicorn meets it halfway. There is a horrible pop.

“Well,” says Cornelia. “That did not work as anticipated.”

“Indeed,” Amelia says. “Now, Ms. Cornelia, you are under arrest.”

“I think not,” says Cornelia. “Lisa did not own her apartment, but borrowed it from a friend; and the warrant under which you searched it was invalid.”

Amelia pales.

“I am surprised,” Cornelia says, “that they did not call you, and tell you this. It has been some time since the law discovered this fact.”

Amelia grinds her teeth. “Fine,” she says. “So you know. But you won’t win!”

Cornelia steps forward. She pats Amelia on the cheek with a long-nailed hand. “So sad,” she says. “The poison was in the evidence, and not the fish.”

She walks out the door, and she is gone.

“I cannot catch her tonight,” Amelia says, almost to herself. “I have to give her up.”

She picks up a scrap of Fierce Fugu from the floor.

“So I will eat fugu,” she says, and bites down.

It is delicious but not satisfying, for it is the fugu of her failure.

It’s a Wonderful Murder

Cain sulks in his Caincave.

“Why was I born, ” he says, “into a world full of sorrow?”

Clarence attempts to console him. “So much would be different,” he says, “if you’d never been born. There wouldn’t be any leavened bread. Angels would speak Japanese. Great white sharks would be captured, belled, and released. People would generally be a lot less apologetic about murder. It would be madness.”

“Ha,” Cain says. “I’d like to see that.”

The next day, the angel Clarence shows him.

Interjection

Frogs rain down. Newts rain up. But only axlotl rain sideways. That’s their special gift, given only to them and to nobody else.

The greatest shark ever captured was Menace, a horror weighing more than thirty thousand pounds. He slew more than twenty ichthyologists during his capture, but it is the character of scientists to forgive; so he was belled and released, never to trouble the beaches of humanity again. At times, he tried, but the ringing of his bell drove the swimmers out of the water before he could taste of their flesh. He found himself forced to subsist on fish, and so he swam deeper and deeper into the ocean, growing great on grouper and halibut, and ever as he swam came the tolling of his bell.

Today, Menace is a great bulk that one might easily confuse for Atlantis. He sits in the deep, tolling, tolling, ringing, and chiming, like a great angel-winging machine. That’s the problem, after all. He’s giving wings to too many angels. They’re breeding as fast as they can, which is arguably “not at all,” but they’re still running out of the wingless kind.

It’s not just because Cain was never born. This problem has been looming for centuries—ever since a meddling gang of theologians and their talking dog discovered that angels exist in finite numbers. A finite number of angels means a finite number of wings. A finite number of wings means a finite number of rings. Sooner or later, despite the best efforts of the Unringers that dwell under Northumber Abbey, they’re going to run out.

Dramatic Reenactment

“Jinkies!” declares Thomas Aquinas. “What’ll the angels do when they’ve all got wings and bells are still ringing? It’s a mystery!”

“A rifftery!” agrees their talking dog. “Uh-huh!”

“Surely,” argues Teilhard, “that occasion will mark the completion of the world’s evolution towards God.”

“Revolution towards rod!”

“Rod is dead,” snarls Scrappy Nietzsche. Standing on two legs, he punches at the air. Without the art of leavening, humanity cannot make Scrappy Snacks, and the younger dog has grown up cold, hard, and philosophical.

Some have hypothesized that, once all the angels are winged, ringing will convert directly into luxury goods—every time a bell rings, an angel will get a Lamborghini. Others have theorized that this occasion will mark the Singularity, when the terrible chiming of bells will fill the air above Earth and humans will grow wings as one. But the angel Clarence knows the truth. Every time a bell rings, in this terrible alternate reality, an angel will get their gills.

It begins.

The endless ringing of Menace’s bell begins to draw them there, gilled angels in groups of one or two. They bring presents before him—grace, and wishes, and power.

Then one bleeds.

Flashback

“Why was I born into a world full of sorrow?” Menace asks Monstro.

A swift school of carp dart by.

“It is not sorrow,” Monstro says. He breathes the deeps. A puppetmaker, somewhere inside him, screams. “It is simply existence.”

“But is there not good and evil?” asks Menace. “Are we not creatures that should strive for something higher than the savage ocean of Hobbesfish’s anarchy?”

“Good is a beam of tachyons,” Monstro says, meditatively. “To create pure evil, reverse its polarity. To create pure good, revert it to base values. Yet a society bombarded by tachyons cannot survive. Remember this, Menace: the fish of mind must make his own path. Were you not born, the world would still be every bit as cruel.”

“I am sorry,” says Menace, sincerely, to the angels. “But I am entering the blood frenzy now.”

“Hai, wakarimasu,” Clarence says.

“Wow,” realizes Cain. “It really was a wonderful murder, after all.”

A Succession Of Magical Fish

Ellen sits on the shore of Lake Tahoe.

There’s a splash. A fish lands on the beach next to her. It wriggles in the sand.

“Fish, ” Ellen says. She raises an eyebrow.

“I am a magic fish, ” the fish says. “If you throw me back in, I’ll grant you your heart’s desire.”

“I don’t have one,” Ellen says.

“Oh.” The fish thinks. “I could give you a free ice cream.”

Ellen picks up the fish.

“Mind the tail!”

Ellen throws the fish back in. It wiggles, happily, in the water. After a moment, Ellen receives a free ice cream.

Ellen leans back. She looks up at the sun.

There’s a splash. A fish lands on the beach, a bit past her. It wriggles in the sand.

“Again?”

“I am a magic fish,” it proclaims. “If you throw me back in, I’ll grant you your heart’s desire.”

“Oh,” she says. “You’re a different fish.”

It looks embarrassed. “This has happened before?”

Ellen indicates the ice cream wrapper on the ground beside her. “I got ice cream.”

“Funny heart’s desire, that,” the fish says. “Well, I can give you a subscription to Popular Mechanic. If you like.”

Ellen picks up the fish. She throws it back in. The fish uses its powerful flipper to stand, for a moment, on top of the water.

“I’ll need your address,” it says.

“Just deliver it to needy orphans,” Ellen says. “With an interest in science.”

The fish dives under the water and is gone. Ellen dozes off. The sun goes down. The sun rises. Ellen rubs briskly at her arms to warm herself.

There’s a splash. Then a whoosh. Ellen watches a fish glide by, attached to a paraglider formed of shells and small stones. It is aerodynamic but insufficient; the fish flops to a halt not far past her.

“Nicely done,” she says. “That’s the best distance yet.”

“I am a magic fish,” it declares proudly. “In addition to my obvious technical ingenuity. If you throw me back in, I’ll grant you your heart’s desire.”

“I don’t have one,” she says.

“Oh.” It looks at her sidelong, which, being a fish, is the best it can do. “Did someone else get to you first?”

“I got an ice cream,” she says, “and a subscription to Popular Mechanic for some orphans. But I already didn’t have a heart’s desire. I lost it a couple days ago.”

“That’s too bad,” the fish says. “I’ll give you a get out of jail free card.”

“I’m rarely arrested,” Ellen points out.

“Sell it to terrorists,” the fish says. “Or captains of industry!”

“Fair enough,” she says. She picks up the fish. She throws it back in.

She looks at her slim metal wristwatch. She times it. It’s two hours and forty-five minutes before the next fish flies by. It’s on a primitive rotary aircraft, which putters and shudders vigorously as it moves past her. Moved by a vague generous impulse, she follows it to the tree line. The aircraft is not powerful enough to rise above the trees. After weaving past three trees, it crashes, and the fish flops to the ground.

“Are you a magic fish?” she asks.

“I like to think of myself more as an innovator,” it says. “But yes.”

“I don’t have a heart’s desire,” she says. “But I’ll throw you back in.”

“That’s decent of you,” the fish says.

“It’s kind of like a calling,” Ellen says. “I sit on the beach, fish fly past me, and I put them back in the lake.”

“It’s one of those jobs you pretty much have to luck into,” the fish observes as she picks it up and walks back towards the lake.

There’s another fish flopping helplessly on the sand. Ellen picks it up with her other hand. She heaves the first fish back in.

“What are you doing?” she asks the other.

“We’re trying to reach the sea,” it says. “We’re salt-water fish.”

“Oh,” she says.

“I’m magic,” it says. “Thus, you know, why I’m still alive. If you want, I can grant your heart’s desire.”

“I don’t have one,” she says.

“Maybe you should go to the sea,” it says. “I mean, that’s my heart’s desire, and it seems like a pretty good one.”

“Huh,” she says. “That seems kind of arbitrary.”

A fish ascends tremulously from the lake in the gondola of a hot water balloon.

“It’s not arbitrary,” answers Ellen’s fish. “Just think of all the salt!”

Excerpt from a Larger Thought

Apple trees are not fish. If they were fish, they would live underwater. They would have interesting survival adaptations. Since they have many branches, they would most likely swim like an octopus. An apple tree fish would look upside down from a surface person’s perspective. It would keep its branches underneath it and swish them through the water. Its roots would stick up. It would only invert and use its roots for swimming in an emergency. It’s not clear why a fish would need to grow apples. It’s possible that they would be luminescent organs that would help the apple tree fish see. Or they would be used, as in the surface world, for mating. The female apple tree fish would shake off the apples. Then the male apple tree fish would fertilize them. This would probably involve aquatic bees. Apple trees are not fish. So apple trees will end.

Bookshelves are also not fish. This is because fish can’t read. There’s no need for fish to have other, special fish to store their books on. If fish could read, then the fish-bookshelffish relationship would be symbiotic. The reading fish would eat little tiny fish and plankton. They would digest them. Then they would extrude the resulting mess into the bookshelves’ mouth. This is because bookshelves cannot hunt. In exchange for food, the bookshelffish would protect the reader fish’s books from predators. When a plagiarism shark snuck up, the bookshelffish would rattle its shelves and emit a great cloud of ink, scaring the shark away. Bookshelves are not fish, so bookshelves have bookends.

Despair is not a fish. Despair does not live underwater. This means that hope is a fish. Hope swims. Hope darts this way and that. Hope is an elusive fish. No one can eat it. It shall not end. If despair were a fish, then no one would want to eat it. Sharks would look at it and then go away. “That’s a despair fish,” they’d say. “That’s too bitter.” That’s just silly; so as long as there are fish, everything else has hope.

Cereal is not a fish. No one bothers to make fish whose only purpose is to be eaten by other fish. Except aquariums and pet shops. They don’t count, since they’re not a natural part of the great cycle of life.

It’s really not very hard to think of things that are not fish. It’s harder if you limit yourself to organic things that live in water, though. Sharks are not fish. Dolphins are not fish. Whales are not fish. Vice-President Cheney is not a fish. It’s not clear whether he lives in water. The television does not show him as underwater, but that could be the liberal bias of the media. It’s possible that we finally have an aquatic Vice-President and the liberal media actually edits the film to ensure that no one knows. If he would just wear a swimsuit more often, it would be easier to tell.

Anemones are not fish. They have no fins and they do not pursue their lives in a fish-like manner. It’s possible that they are simply deviant fish. It seems more likely that they’re an entirely different classification. If all of the anemones and aquatic Vice-Presidents in the world linked hands, they could form an anemone Cheney of love. But they have no hands. That’s why they weep.

Anemones have no hands. They have no feet. Sea cucumbers can invert themselves, shooting their internal organs into the sea. Orca command a fearsome arsenal of nuclear weapons. Seals can balance balls on their nose. Anemones don’t even have hands. But they do have something. A special something. They keep it secret. They don’t tell people about it. It’s something every anemone learns about before they’re born.

In that place before birth, they see a visitor; and it gives them the thing that they have; and it whispers, “Hold this safe. Do not let it go. Do not use it until the sky turns red and the sea turns black and it seems all hope is lost.”

They wait for that day; for that hour; for the hour of the anemone to come. In that moment, only anemones, fish, and the ocean itself will survive. Silent will be the halls of humanity, for humanity is not a fish. No more shall be the elephants, for elephants are not fish. The lions shall not roar on the African plains, for lions are not fish. Unless they’re lionfish. It seems odd that there should be lionfish, but there are.

So many things will end.

Banks are not fish. You can’t make a deposit in a fish. You can’t withdraw from a fish. There aren’t any tellers in a fish. If they were fish, people would go to open a checking account and they’d drown, screaming in their minds about the injustice of it all. But banks are not fish. So banks will end.

(continued at the start of this entry)