The Top

A legend about small red things that live in boxes.

The top is red.

It spins.

It is covered in the blood of the knight who’d had it last.

It is in a cave and there are great long-limbed trolls with their claws and their teeth hunched around it.

When the top slows down they spin it again.

The top is hungry. It isn’t an ordinary top. It’s a virtue-eating top. It’s a top that takes the virtue in its spinner and eats it.

That’s where evil people come from.

They spin too many tops.

But this top is hungry. The trolls have no virtue to eat—not much, at least. Scraps. Bloody little scraps of virtue.

It could starve to death here. That’s something it never imagined. It never dreamed that it would spend time in the world, spinning but unfed. It never imagined that there’d be people anywhere devoid of virtue.

Yet here it is.

The top wishes that it could flee. It wishes that they’d stop spinning it at least, break the addicition that it imposes on its owners and abandon it, so that it could wait in the darkness for a virtuous person.

But they do not.

They should be able to. The addiction should be weak. They don’t have enough virtue to feed it, so the pull of the top should be minuscule at best.

But they have pride.

They are grunting to themselves, as they spin the top, about how virtuous and noble they are.

They know what the top is doing to them.

They must know, it realizes.

And still they spin.

They are as hungry to have virtue to feed it as the top is hungry to eat.

Forgotten Things

Peter Cottontail hides eggs.

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

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

That story, Peter?”

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

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

“It’s important,” says Peter.

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

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

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

“Peter?”

“Come on!” he says.

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

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

Betty flushes.

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

Betty frowns at him.

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

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

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

“That was exaggerated,” Betty says.

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

“Peter!”

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

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

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

She looks up. “Even knowing—”

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

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

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

“Starvation,” he says.

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Peter says.

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

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

“But we were very small!” Betty cried.

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

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

Peter nods.

“That’s how it was,” he says.

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

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

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

She thinks.

She adds, “The end.”

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

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

“Come on,” he says. “Come on!”

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

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

“Oh,” Betty says.

She begins to hop after him.

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

“And the one about the War.”

The Castle (III/IV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenna swallows, and recites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenna recites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenna recites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Coyote asks.

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

The Forest (II/IV)

The tunnels are deep. The tunnels are dark. They have lots of water in them, and giant spiders. They also have a subway. Sometimes, the subway hits one of the giant spiders. Whoosh! Bam! The spider goes flying end over end. Then it scurries off to the side with a horrid shambling gait. It licks its monstrous spindly legs. It meant to do that! That’s what its body language says.

Jenna lives in the tunnels too. She likes to watch the subway train. She’s decided that it can hit anything. She’s seen it hit ruby-studded zeppelins. She’s seen it hit frogs. She’s seen it hit ancient mummies groaning with the weight of years. In December 1981, Jenna watches it hit Dukkha, the principle of universal suffering, the world’s fundamental tendency to include hostility and anguish in everyday life. Dukkha goes flying end over end. Then he scurries around on the tracks, scarring them black with his passage. He licks his left bipedal quality. He meant to do that. Oh, yes. It was all part of his plan. Whoosh! Bam! The subway hits him again. Jenna giggles.

On the landing, not far from Jenna, Ninja Tathagata watches. He’s as still as the mind that knows emptiness. He’s as calm as a placid lake. His expression is flat. It shows no gloating. Ninja Tathagata has freed himself from attachment to material existence. He does not gloat like ordinary men. His smug satisfaction is a flower blooming in nothingness; a diamond shining in the darkness; a perturbation in the nihilistic void that is Nirvana. He is a ninja Buddha, and he does not giggle. Instead, he turns away and slips into the trees.

Jenna shouts, “Hey!”

Dukkha looks up, eyes blazing. He doesn’t see her. Ninja Tathagata’s already taken hold of Jenna’s wrist and dragged her away.

“You shouldn’t shout around Dukkha,” Ninja Tathagata says. “It’ll only attract his attention.”

Jenna puts her foot down. “There shouldn’t be any trees here. Tunnels are a subterranean environment. Trees are superterranean! Down here we only have their roots. You’re hiding in an illicit forest!”

Ninja Tathagata smiles. “Your anger stems from an irrational attachment to the prevailing conditions of your home. It’s natural, but the key to happiness is understanding that all things change.” Wisps of enlightenment rise from Ninja Tathagata like the steam from a fresh-baked pie.

Jenna pokes his chest. “You’re the Buddha,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want and blame it on other peoples’ irrational attachment!”

“That’s a fair cop,” admits Ninja Tathagata.

“Good,” says Jenna. She sits down with her back against a tree. “I suppose that the trees aren’t so bad. It’s really only because of the character of suffering and torment pervading the universe that I mind.”

On the track, the subway hits the pervasive universal character of torment and suffering. He shrieks. Then he narrows his eyes. “If I get off the track now,” he murmurs softly, “everyone will know I didn’t really plan to get hit three times. I’d better just lounge here, bitter and languid, until I hear a Dukkha Call.”

“It’s difficult waging a constant shadow war against Dukkha,” Ninja Tathagata explains. “Sometimes I need a break. That’s why I carry a forested glen with me everywhere I go. It’s relaxing to sit under the green and watch the shadows drift by.”

Ninja Tathagata sits under the green. The light of the subway train washes across the branches. Shadows race by. There’s a thump.

“You’re deliberately not looking smug,” Jenna observes.

Ninja Tathagata winks.

The light of the subway train washes across the branches. Shadows race by. There’s a thump.

Jenna sighs and pats the tree. “I get tired of pain, too,” she says. “I suppose you’d say that I should cultivate enlightenment?”

“In the long term,” Ninja Tathagata agrees. “In the short term, if you’d like, I could leave the forested glen here.”

The light of the subway train washes across the branches. Shadows race by. Someone shouts, “What’s that? Is that a Dukkha Call I hear in the distance?” There’s no thump.

“Oh!” Jenna says, disappointed. “He must have swirled his cloak around himself and become a nonlocalized phenomenon before it hit.”

“I didn’t hear a Dukkha Call,” says Ninja Tathagata. “I think he made that part up.”

“What’s a Dukkha Call?”

Ninja Tathagata doesn’t get a wicked grin. His sudden, mischevious impulse is a blind man’s sunrise; a fire without fuel; a warmth and a heat rising in and filling and falling in the emptiness of Ninja Nirvana. He stands and walks over to a pile of leaves. “Help, help,” he says. “The placidity in my heart is stifling my potential for growth.”

With a swirl of his cape, Dukkha localizes. “Then face the malevolent wrath of Dukkha!” he shouts. Under his feet, the leaves give way.

“The covered pit is a nice touch,” Jenna admits.