Happy Endings (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede — Chapter Three]

Max breathes shallowly. He can feel the pain. It is like static. In his leg it is large-grained static, woven through with long sinuous purple-brown strands of pain. In his hands and arms it is loud, fine, angry static. In his left hand it has a twisting interference pattern: the pain can’t bear itself, it drowns itself out, it wrestles with itself to impress great oscillations on his perceptions.

From the pain comes fear. The fear closes down the functions of his mind. It narrows his world to specks of thought.

The waves lapping against the boat and the sky and the clear purity of the rock and the sheer greenness of the grass—

He has these sensations too. They pass in and out of his consciousness.

He tries to notice them.

On some level he feels that it is important to notice them and the thinness of his presence in the world frees him to focus on what is important.

But when the pain dies down, even for a time, less meaningful things edge in, and he finds himself wondering,

Am I going to turn into a pumpkin?

Had the giraumon touched him? Was a touch enough?

The sheer purposelessness of that fate terrifies him, obsesses him, catches him up in it the moment the power of conscious thought returns to him.

He passes between these states—between pain-haunted awareness and near-maniacal obsession—for an hour and some change.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime
But he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

The Island of the Centipede

“We fought,” Red Mary says.

Max is staring at his left hand.

He’s thinking: I don’t want to turn into a pumpkin. Is it going to turn into a pumpkin? God, I wish that white bit wouldn’t keep moving. Please don’t turn into a pumpkin. Or move into my wrist. Can I wiggle my finge—

Pain.

Damn it.

“Eric wanted to save us. So we fought. Because people always fight the things they love.”

Max looks up.

“Where are we going?”

“West.”

Max nods.

“We fought,” Red Mary says, “and we won, and we lost everything, and there wasn’t any hope any more.”

“Are you going to kill me?”

“The longer you are here,” Red Mary says. “In the vicinity of this island, the worse things will be.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“I don’t want to turn into a pumpkin,” Max says.

“Neither do I,” Red Mary says.

“Then I saved you.”

“The giraumon’s still alive,” Red Mary says.

“Oh.”

“The light in him gets a little dimmer every time he sets fire to the chaos and burns of himself to build. He is suffering. I cannot imagine how much he is suffering. But one extra splash won’t kill him.”

Max laughs a little.

“What?”

“You’re going to turn into a pumpkin too,” he says.

He even sings a little song:

I’m a pumpkin, you’re a pumpkin,
Wouldn’t you like to be a pumpkin too?

“I’ve been a siren for a long time,” says Red Mary. “But no one’s ever tried to sing me into despair before.”

“It’d be poetic,” Max says.

“No,” Red Mary says.

“What?”

“I was listening. It wasn’t poetic.”

“I meant the justice,” Max says.

Red Mary snorts.

“What?”

“Scansion before justice,” she says.

“But he’s going to.”

“Yes,” Red Mary says.

“Yes?”

“Unless I kill him first.”

“Ah.”

“We don’t have long,” she says. “Like I said. We only had a scant one thousand years. Then the fighting starts.”

Pain surges.

Time passes.

“It’s not rude,” Max says. He is squinting at the sky in the fashion that one might squint at a jigsaw puzzle.

“What?”

“He was talking about killing me anyway.”

“Yes.”

“So I had a right to be belligerent.”

“Are you making an appeal to me as a siren, or as a Confucian?”

Max hesitates.

“As a punching bag,” he says. “I’ll stop.”

“Okay.”

“But if you eat me,” he says, “you have to start with the hand.”

“What?”

“Man’s got a right to choose the order in which he gets eaten.”

“He could have infected you,” Red Mary says. “So you’re right. No eating.”

“Good.”

Then the island clears away down the seacourse to the west and for the first time Max sees the goodblow.

Miles and miles and miles away, but there:

A burning radiance with the shape of lightning, and it looks at him.

It looks at him.

It sees him.

The power of that gaze!

One hundred miles away if it’s an inch, and still it has the power to transform him, to catch him up, to drive into him and permeate the skin, the bones, the muscles, and the soul.

It loves him. In that moment he realizes that it loves him. That it names him and sees him in ways not even Sid has managed.

It is burning him.

It is destroying him.

It is knowing him too fast, and eating through the measures of his life. It is completing him.

It is the laying down of burdens. It is peace. It is all-enfolding joy.

It is ripping away his fragile sense of what is good and right and just and replacing it with adoration of the light.

He casts up a tarp. It flutters in the wind. It gives them some small shadow from that regard. Red Mary catches it before it flies away.

They huddle there.

In a small and feeble protest against Heaven, he says, “I’m not finished being Max.

The wind upon the tarp makes a sound like gunfire. The tarp bends in like the wind is pounding fists.

Then the goodblow fades and Max realizes through its absence that it has been staring at him through the tarp for all this time.

Red Mary lowers the tarp.

The sky is blue and purple and the clouds rush past above like cars.

Good is visible to the west but some sleight of weather or chaos or circumstance makes it temporarily more dim.

“Enough,” Red Mary says.

She seizes Max in the two arms of her and she leaves the knife of the history of Mr. Kong upon the deck and she kicks herself off the boat and they fall down into the sea.

“I should not,” she says, as the pressure builds, “have let you live.”

Her eyes are cold and black and murderous and like shade to him on the hottest summer day.

Pumpkin Sickness (3 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

It is June 3, 2004.

The sky is blue and the wind is fresh and Max’s blood is thick and red.

It’s soaking through the sailcloth of his bandages.

Red Mary’s face is not human but it is beautiful. Her eyes are black. Her teeth are sharp. Her skin is smooth and rounded. On her neck flutter purplish gills.

The sun makes a shadow from one cheekbone and seems thereby to evoke old sorrows.

Suddenly, Max laughs.

Red Mary looks at him.

“Iphigenia’s all right,” he says.

“Your . . . telepathic girlfriend?” she guesses.

“The sun,” says Max. “I’d been worried about her. But, look, she’s right there, you can tell by the light.”

Red Mary looks at him.

“Your nose is sunburnt,” she observes.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime
But he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

The Island of the Centipede

Seacourses wind through the broken island. The catamaran glides past the island’s grassland, dry land, and trees.

Max catches the heavy smell of pumpkin, a flat sort of scent, just a little bit rotten.

The seacourse cuts into a hill — cuts clean through it, without a tunnel, so that the island rises on both sides of it but the only thing above it is the sky.

There is rind in the rock: orange corrugated rind.

Over the edge of the hill, and ambiguously presenting themselves to Max’s vision, he can see great round orange distant shapes.

Max looks down. He starts to say, “Why the pumpk—”

But Red Mary’s face is taut and she is shaking and he thinks it is with rage.

“It is the giraumon,” Red Mary says.

The catamaran approaches a long gentle curve in the seacourse’s path. Red Mary slows it as they turn.

“The giraumon?”

“He has been making.”

She stares ahead. The muscles of her jaw tense up. Then she says, “If he comes, do not speak to him. If he approaches, do not let him touch you. If he attacks, do not kill him, or I will feed you to the firvuli and humaneness be damned.”

“Oh,” Max says.

And the catamaran comes slowly around the great bend and there, standing on the water in their path, the giraumon waits.

He is reminiscent of a man, tall and bold, with windblown hair and skin the same sweet color as your own. His eyes are incredible, full of laughter and compassion and beloved secrets.

He has pumpkin sickness.

He has wings, these beautiful wings, flexible like rubber and strong like stone. He has wings and a sword and he is beautiful.

But he is sick.

Pumpkin is inching across the left side of him. Patches of its rind jut forth from the skin. The sickness makes a corrugated orangeness of his features. It has turned his left ear into a hole. It mars and makes lumpy the smooth flawlessness of his arm.

It has not quite yet reached that marvelous left eye.

Red Mary slows the catamaran. She takes down the sails. She lets it glide to a halt.

The giraumon walks forward on the waves.

“Hello,” he says. He smiles. “I’d hoped you’d come by. I made a road for you.”

Red Mary glances down at her fishtail.

“I thought, ‘what if I made a path by which Red Mary could reach perfection? Then she’d stop maundering on about the necessary impermanence of all solutions to our fate.'”

The giraumon gestures broadly. He indicates the island behind him. There is a path in the distance like a great bridge arching up from the rock towards Heaven. Most of it has fallen down. The rest has gone orange and saggy and rotten.

“Better you were dead,” Red Mary says. “Than wasting your fire thus.”

The giraumon grins. His teeth are more suggestions than discrete. “It was better before it turned all pumpkin.”

“I’ve asked you not to make things for me,” Red Mary says.

“Yes,” the giraumon agrees.

His grin fades so that he can lick his lips. He looks at Max.

“This is Max,” Red Mary says.

Pumpkin shudders across the giraumon’s face and brushes against the edging of his eye. The creature blinks in irritation.

Max’s hand inches towards the knife.

“He’s trying to find God,” Red Mary says.

“Men can’t find God,” the giraumon says. “They do well for a while but then they turn into pumpkins and, as often as not, fall into the sea.”

“I think, in this case, it’s shorthand for virtue.”

The giraumon spreads a hand, as if to say: But what does that change?

“I’m helping him,” Red Mary says.

Her body language poses this as a challenge.

The giraumon’s eyes flick over Max’s wounds. His grin returns. “Max must taste awfully.”

Red Mary makes a little face. It involves poking out her tongue and adopting an expression of disgust.

“Let us do this instead,” says the giraumon. “I will kill Max and transfer my consciousness to the corpse. Then I will have a handsome new body to wear for formal occasions.”

Max lunges for the knife. The sailcloth bandage tangles his arm. He kicks his legs to help with balance. The bandage on his leg catches against one of the blocks. Max rolls over. For a terrible moment he supports himself on his maimed left hand while his right hand claws at the knife. Then he screams an ungodly scream and twists to take the weight from his hand, loses his balance entirely, rolls over the knife, sinks it smoothly into the muscle of his arm, and falls halfway out of the boat with his head lolling into the sea.

The giraumon blinks.

“Or he can kill Max,” the giraumon says. “If he insists.”

Red Mary leans forward and catches Max’s collar and drags him back onto the ship. Max sputters, coughs, and collapses against the deck.

“How can you call yourself my friend,” Red Mary says, “giraumon, if you kill somebody I’m trying to help?”

Pumpkin spreads over the giraumon’s eye and makes of it an empty gash with candlelight behind.

The candlelight flickers.

“Don’t presume,” the giraumon says.

“No?”

“A thousand years ago,” the giraumon says, “I thought I saw something in you. A thing to make it worth my while to leave you in existence. But I have spent a thousand years in contemplation of the matter and every way I find to leave you lot alive just turns into a pumpkin and rots and falls into the sea. So do not mind me if I think that perhaps it is too much trouble to call Red Mary my friend.”

Sluggishly, Max pulls himself back into a sitting position. He tries to tug the knife out of his right arm using his right hand but he can’t get a grip. His face is pale.

“Come here and fight me,” he says.

“Whisht!” snaps Red Mary.

The candle behind the pumpkin gleams.

“I don’t want to listen to this,” Max says. “Fight when I’m gone.”

“Leave him alone,” Red Mary hisses.

Max slumps. His maimed left hand drops into the sea.

The pumpkin sickness edges rightwards and the giraumon loses his nose. Then he is moving, he is close, his orange knobbly finger is lunging in towards Max.

Max’s hand comes up to meet it.

He splashes chaos straight from the sea into the candle of the giraumon’s brain.

The giraumon shrieks. He recoils. He recedes along the seacourse, steam bursting forth from the top of his head. It rises in great clouds which form into circling bats, a piano, forgiveness, a white sword longer than a ship, and a sheet of paper on which is written the answer to all pain.

The giraumon bounds up to the shore and he is gone.

Slowly, Red Mary extends her hand to catch the paper. It drifts into her hand. Its surface is thickening, growing orange; she squints to make out the first word, and by the time she reads the second the writing on it is gone.

“Will he live?” Max asks, by way of asking, Will I live?

“If it were not bats and a piano,” Red Mary says, “he would have used it up on something else.”

They are surrounded by orange and the catamaran gently sways. The sea beneath them stinks of pulp.

Max isn’t sure whether she’s answered him or not, or whether that answer would be positive or negative.

Red Mary starts the catamaran to moving again.

Something large and gray and terrible rises from the center of the island and catches three of the bats in its great flat teeth.

Max slumps.

“We souls within this world,” Red Mary says.

The sea licks blood from the catamaran’s side.

“I think we do not need to find God,” Red Mary says, “so much as a way to live with what we love.”