Wicked Children (I/I)

Now squat sits the facility upon Elm Hill, like some great and bulbous beast, and wrapped around it its tangled fences have the look of chains, and its windows of great sad eyes, and when the sun sinks down behind the facility at Elm Hill the children of the neighborhoods beneath imagine it whimpering and muttering to itself, bound down onto the earth, and resentful of humanity that can roam free—

Not that those children, tucked down for the night, bound by their quilts and their blankets and their parents’ rules, were free.

But the wicked ones, well—

If they were wicked children, why, they could loose themselves from their bindings and creep out from their beds. They could walk on their bootied feet to the darkened windows, and there to stare out at the facility and the moon.

Some, like Sam did, like Bird did, could grow up later and go in.

Others were to live and die and sometimes even live again before they ever dared to test its gates.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

The facility at Elm Hill is not active, not now. It has been years since children screamed there. It has been years since the monster worked there, in the fashion of his kind, and Tina, and the rest.

And to look at the green on the facility’s roof and its lawn all specked up with graves, and the dead black gates and the crooked doors, is to suspect that here was an awful mistake. That this was the monster’s Chernobyl. That here had been his Leipzig and his Agincourt.

Here had nearly ended the monster’s ambitions, at the facility at Elm Hill.

It has gone sick, this facility, root and branch.

It has gone wrong.

There is something organic in it now, something dreadful and alive, and in its basement are pipes, and stagnant water in those pipes; and the walls are lightly overgrown with a strange slick substance that is neither mold nor moss; and a bleak karma dwells within those walls that longs to expunge the suffering that gave it birth and revenge itself on those who within its boundaries do harm.

It is a bad house.

It is an evil house.

But as horrid as the facility can be, it is kinder to innocents than to monsters.

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

It is May 28, 2004 and the grangler is dead.

As for Liril, she’s down in the room where they used to keep her. She’s touching the place where she’d once scratched LIRIL on the wall.

“I don’t know,” she says.

It’s too big for her.

She’s trying to wrap her mind around it but she can’t. It’s not the letters, even though they’re capitalized and the part of her name after the L usually isn’t. It’s everything.

It’s just too big.

“I don’t know,” she says. “Do you?”

Tainted John is somewhere. She’s not sure where. Micah’s on his way upstairs. He’s hoping to find out what happened to a great dead bird; that, or to fall down, to rest, because some sleep would be OK.

The thing that’s behind her in the room isn’t one of Liril’s gods.

It’s the last remnant of the grangler.

Now Liril is young but Liril is wise and she knows that the grangler must be dead—for no living grangler could have gotten to her, not past Micah and Tainted John. And she knows that it must long for nothing less than to seize her and never let her go—to have one last thing of its holding before it is given over to the grave.

There was a time when it had held her in its claws. There was a Halloween when it had lunged out of nowhere amidst the screaming of the goblins and the ghouls and seized her up—

It hadn’t liked to let her go.

And Liril does not know whether, by this token, it will drag her down from the halls of life into the Underworld, there to be its prisoner in death, or simply cling to her ankle and succumb there, a new and permanent attachment until decay consumes its flesh.

But still she says, “C’mon, then.”

It comes over by her. It hunches down. It shakes its head.

“Oh?”

And she is crying a little, and she doesn’t really know why, except that she can. It’s all bound up with Melanie. Crying in front of it shouldn’t be allowed.

Except, she can.

So she hugs it first. She cries, and she holds the grangler before it can hold her, and she says, “You’re a grangler, grangler. You’ve gotta.”

It’s still shaking its head.

She doesn’t even see how that can be. She’s been held by ghosts before—not just the grangler, but the monster’s too—and she knows them.

The grangler is a god of hanging on.

It’s just the tiniest bit of broken and lingering soul, at this point, but that part doesn’t change.

But it doesn’t hang on to her. It’s not there to hang on to her. She can feel its ichor where she hugged it and the slime of it is on her and in the openness of her soul and after the very long seconds of her confusion she manages to understand.

Of course it won’t grab her. Of course.

It’s been touched by a growing god.

Her eyes untangle the grangler now. She is alive and fierce with an alien interest now. She sees along the knots and cords of karma—of one thing, which leads to another, which is continued to the next—in search of the pattern that has brought it here.

She sees how to save it. She sees how to bind it. She sees how to reunite its soul. She moves a hand—

Gravity fails. She is disoriented. Everything is white, then black.

There is a scream.

She has lost her connection to the land.

She is flying and the ringing that is Liril smashing into metal pipes is like a shout; is like a horn; is like a great trembling, rumbling, shaking cry dividing the Heavens from the Earth.

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

Where is Liril?

Liril is against a wall.

Is the monster there?

The monster is not there.

Good.

The monster is not there.

Where is Liril?

Liril is in her room. No. It is not Liril’s room. It is the old room. It is not her room. It is not her room not any more.

Where is Liril’s hand?

Liril cannot find her hand.

Wait.

No.

It is there. It is on the end of her arm. How silly!

She opens her mouth. Her tongue is thick.

What is Liril going to say?

“Is she—is Melanie OK?”

Is that what volition sounds like? Is that the kind of question that a person, who has volition, and a will, would ask?

Liril is not sure.

She closes her eyes.

Her world is going black.

Liril’s world is going black.

She thinks she saw the strangest thing, the strangest thing was written on the wall.

It’s like the grangler has unraveled, but before it died, it scrawled an X upon the wall. Like it had marked a spot—

Is that Liril’s thought?

Or. No.

Like it hadn’t known its name. Hadn’t remembered it, couldn’t write it, or maybe had never known it—

How very strange, someone thinks. It is probably Liril. How very strange.

Doesn’t a person have to have a name?

And the Birds Fall Dead (IV/VII)

Liril is thinking about formica because she is supposed to be making an urban sort of god. She’s supposed to be composing a construction deity—a fertility god of cities. To be making herself the vehicle for its eduction. To be isolating from the world that dharmic principle that causes to arise great fields of concrete, steel, and glass; shaping her whole being into a vessel for its eduction; tracing lines of pipe and wire across the blueprints of her soul. She is supposed to be readying herself for it, tuning herself like a musician to her instrument. So she is sitting in the monster’s office, in the waiting room of the monster’s office, rather, kicking her feet and reading a bit of Highlights, but her real thoughts are elsewhere.

She is in the ground beneath the cities of the world. She is in the skies above them.

She is breathing in their stone and fire. She is dancing in their antennae. She is exhaling their smog.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 18, 1995

And she is so rapt, so wrapped up in this, that she almost misses Melanie—would have missed her, in fact, would have not noticed her coming back into her life for the first time in seven years, if she hadn’t suddenly remembered back to when she first remembered forward to noticing Melanie, a half a second or so from then, later in this very sentence (to be precise), and turned her head to catch sight, startledly, of Melanie coming in.

She feels awkward and desynchronized, like she always does around Melanie. The woman’s got some wicked way of out-anticipating prophets.

Oh, hi, she thinks.

She doesn’t say it.

She doesn’t even focus her eyes on Melanie, just skims them past, in case Melanie isn’t part of the monster’s organization yet.

Don’t give me away, Melanie had told her, once. So she doesn’t.

But Melanie comes over and kneels down beside her.

“Don’t touch me,” Liril says.

Melanie’s teeth are very white. Her hand is on Liril’s hand. “If I were a god,” Melanie says, “I would take you from here, and I would let nothing have you. I would stand between you and the world.”

Liril rolls her eyes.

This, her gesture indicates, is an unnecessary distraction from this fine magazine Highlights, whose diabolically clever puzzles I am attempting, even now, to solve.

“I don’t want that,” Liril says.

“I know,” Melanie agrees.

“I don’t want anything,” Liril whispers. It’s precious, like a secret. It glitters like the bracelet on her wrist.

“I know,” Melanie agrees.

Liril looks back to her magazine.

She is quiet.

She is still.

Then Melanie grins. It’s like a Cheshire Cat. It’s like she’s suddenly in ten thousand miles of endless dark, broken by the light of her white teeth.

And somehow they seem sharp—

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

Liril tries to recoil.

It only happens in her thoughts.

Liril tries to get to her feet. Her body doesn’t move.

Liril tries to scream.

Instead she breathes in, breathes out, in just the usual way.

I don’t want that.

It’s like an echo of wanting, an echo of needing, an echo of desire coming a few seconds before the thing; and Melanie says, “Want it,” and the engines of the world crash to a halt and the stars extinguish in the sky and the birds fall dead from the trees outside the window of the waiting room of the monster’s office

and Melanie has said it in that voice the monsters hath.

let’s try Wednesdays and Fridays for a bit, with Mondays going to Chibi-Ex.

The No-Good Bird (I/I)

Sing, muse, of Melanie, beloved of the gods, and how she came at last, and with her army, to Elm Hill. Tell us how she led unto that place a tattered host of women and of men; of humans, and of gods; and among that host a black dog and a flying god and the Keeper of the Wheel; and Threnody, who held the thunderbolt in this degenerate and broken age; and, for now, and for the shortest time to come, the grangler. Tell us how the footfalls of her soldiers beat down on the asphalt way. Tell us how the wind blew all around them and grey the storm clouds came. Tell us of the laughing joy that filled her, despite the darkness of that day; and tell us of the grangler, that old ghost, and how it died.

At Elm Hill there is a building old and rank, and in its basement many cages, and it is abandoned now, but once—not so many years ago—it was a place of suffering for Liril and for Jane.

At Elm Hill is a facility.

As Cunning Melanie leads her army to that place, she sees an omen, and it comes upon her thus. From a copse of trees by the building’s gates there flies a bird, and the bird flies out over her host, and the number of its wings is four, and it is growing larger as it comes, and it holds the grangler in its claws, and the grangler holds it, and the bird—to all appearances—is dead.

She stares at it as it flies.

The omen is elaborate. It takes her a long moment’s stare to decide that she is seeing a real thing and not a vision sent her by the gods.

“Threnody,” she says.

Threnody looks up. Her eyes seethe with the whiteness of the storm. The bird is struck by lightning, from clear sky.

It shrieks.

It does not fall.

Threnody’s expression grows tight with anger. “Dead things ought not shriek,” she says.

She stands in a javelin-thrower’s stance. Her hand begins to burn with light. Then it is as if the sky has hurled the fire of the sun directly to her hand; the thunder roars across the hill; and the bird is shattering, splaying out and sundering into bits, falling like a gross and gobbet rain, and the metal chains with which Threnody weights down her hair do her no longer any good, for it has fluffed out like a cloud.

A chunk of bird hits the ground between them, rolls like the debris from an explosion, bounces from a rock, and jumps past Melanie’s right leg.

A drop of filth would have touched her cheek, but doesn’t.

Before the end of its trajectory it decides to swerve, instead. For she is Melanie, cunning Melanie, beloved of the gods.

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

They gather around the ruin.

The creature’s heart is beating. It’s stuttering in its fear. It will continue to beat—this is Melanie’s guess—for three more darknesses and three dawns.

Where the chunks of the bird have struck the ground the earth is bursting forth in life—grass and grains and trees are exploding upwards, and new elms are already building-height.

As for the grangler, he’s broken.

He oughtn’t really be able to be broken, since he’s a ghost and all, but the thunderbolt passed too close to him before he fell.

She squats down beside it.

“So,” she says.

It reaches for her leg. She shakes her head, and its hand falls back.

“Now it came to pass,” Melanie says, “after the death of Moses, that the Lord spake unto Joshua, the son of Nun, saying, ‘Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give them, even to the children of Israel.’”

“It’s so,” the grangler concedes.

“And to Jericho he sent two men to spy secretly, and determine the nature of its readiness; and they took shelter with the harlot Rahab; and when the King of Jericho learned of the spies’ presence and their purpose, she preserved them, kept them safe, if only they would promise that Israel would spare her family and their possessions when Jericho’s walls came tumbling down.”

And the story is a pleasantry amidst the grangler’s great pain, a coolth inside its fire, and it says, “It’s so.”

“And they said: tie a scarlet cord, a grangler, to the window when we come; and by that bond of blood shall we be held to you and yours, and you to we, and never to let go.”

It occurs to the grangler that it is dying.

It is impossible to imagine it—to die, and after so very many years.

“And it tangled you up in that red, red cord, and bound to a sacred trust; but—oh, grangler. Oh, grangler. Look upon you now.”

He is a very old ghost, is the grangler. He’s a god of hanging on. But the edges of the world are fraying for him, just like the untwisting of a rope, and her words have loosened a string wound round his heart.

She lets him touch her, then, though he cannot hold her.

He rests his claw upon her hand.

“It was a no-good bird,” the grangler says.

“Was it?”

It is struggling to rise, but it cannot rise. It is struggling to look at her, but her eyes are far too kind. It is desperate with a sudden need of justification, and it pulls its claw back to its chest and hugs it there and says, “It was a Liril-bird, milady, it was a bird-god made by Liril, oh, milady, she is there, she unleashed a growing god.”

Melanie blinks at the grangler.

Its words confound her. She cannot quite grasp them.

“Liril,” she says.

“She is encamped there, I could smell it, I could taste it on the bird.”

“Liril,” Melanie says again.

“She is.”

There is no reason for it that Melanie can possibly imagine. She knows where Liril is. Liril is in Santa Ynez, guarded by her brother Micah, protected by him from humans and gods alike.

Liril is not in the cages beneath Elm Hill.

That was before, Melanie thinks, clearly. That was back then. The facility is abandoned. The cages are empty. Liril cannot possibly be there.

She looks up.

She stares blankly at the facility at Elm Hill.

She is not here for Liril. She is here for a temporary base of operations. She is here because she has no other place to go, her and her ragged army, driven from their homes—

“More valuable than frankincense,” she says.

It’s from a song the monster sang to her, a long, long time ago.

“More valuable than gold.”

Children like Liril are the source of granglers and thunderbolts, of flying carpets, angels, fiends, and killing gods, after all.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 28, 2004

Does she know we’re here?” Melanie asks.

She is angry at herself.

The question is wasteful. She discards it. She asks the only question that has relevance.

Is she afraid?

But the grangler is dead.

Bam (IIa/III)

“I ran away from Billy,” Melanie says.

She is holding her feet. She is sitting on the empty bed across from Liril’s. It is 1985.

“I don’t want to be afraid of him,” she says.

“You should find a really old ghost,” Liril says. “And tie it to your soul. Then, if he tries to hit you, bam! It can stick its claws through Billy’s eyes.”

“Like that’ll happen,” Melanie says.

Liril shrugs.

“Stuff happens,” she says.

“Really?”

“If you go to Jericho,” Liril says, “and you rip a string from a grangler’s cord, and tie it to your hair, then you’ll have a grangler. Then it goes like I said.”

And Melanie says, “Oh.”

Liril grins at Melanie. Later they braid one another’s hair.

“You won’t have to run,” she says.

To Serve the String (I/I)

Melanie walks into a bar.

THUNK!

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


April 18, 1989

It’s in a rubbish bin in Jericho that she finds the grangler. He’s a spirit bound to a red, red cord. He’s a ghost from Rahab’s days.

“Poor thing,” she says. She’s kneeling down.

She’s picking up the cord.

And the grangler’s hands are claws, like this—like spears of withered bone—and they slice at her like a siggort’s knives, only, Melanie rolls away.

She’s fast.

She’s ripped a thread from the weave of the cord and still she had time to dodge his claws—that’s just how fast she is.

The grangler is faster.

She’s ripping a lock from the hair of her head, and she’s knitting it together with the thread from the grangler’s cord. She’s scrambling back, but the grangler is faster.

He’s as fast as falling.

He’s as fast as running out of air after your dying cough.

He’s fast like a puma’s jump.

She kicks out, hard, as the grangler comes. She shatters the grangler’s nose. He shakes his head. He snarls then. She skips back three times before he moves again.

It isn’t fast enough.

He seizes her. He’s got her leg. He’s pinned her down. He will rip her with his next blow.

“Guess what?” she says. She isn’t scared.

She isn’t scared, so the grangler blinks.

Just a blink! But it’s long enough.

While the grangler’s blinking, she’s pulled tight the knot—bound the thread to her bloody hair. While the grangler’s blinking, she’s bound him up, and to the grangler become the master.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


May 7, 1977

Her brother’s Billy but Billy’s bad.

Melanie walks into a bar.

THUNK!

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


April 17, 1989

The grangler’s an old ghost. He’s a god of hanging on. But there isn’t much to hang on to, any more.

He’d been killed by the people of Israel.

They’d promised not to kill anyone living with his Auntie Rahab: anyone sheltering in her care; anyone hiding, in short, behind the crimson cord that she’d use to mark her home.

And they’d come into his city, and they’d knocked away his sword, and they’d killed him, and all because he wouldn’t stay at home with his Auntie Rahab, whom he’d despised.

For a very long time that had seemed like enough reason to live, as much as a ghost can be said to be living, all tangled up in his hate and the threads of the crimson cord.

But lately it’s felt a little awkward and pointless and unnecessary to be a god bound up in string.

He’d hung in a bar, or the cord had, anyway, like maybe one day the tribes of Israel were going to get confused and attack Jericho again, only, they’d see the red cord hanging from the bar, and stop.

“Wait!” the hardened Israeli commander would say. “We cannot attack this bar. That would break our covenant with Auntie Rahab!”

In the 50s and 60s this was a possibility.

In 1989, with the city firmly in Israeli hands, the scenario seems remote.

And maybe that’s why the barkeep eventually took down the cord, and trashed the grangler, like he was any other piece of string.

Or maybe he’d just killed too many customers.

Human reasoning is often opaque. The grangler doesn’t know.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


May 7, 1989

Melanie walks into a bar.

THUNK!

That’s the sound of the door that she’s just kicked open striking Connor on the head.

And Duncan growls, “What the Hell?”

Melanie is young. She’s not a legend yet.

Duncan reaches for her arm.

Her weight shifts. His grip is just a tool to her, to pull him off his feet. She’s turning, and her heel is on his foot, and her elbow is in his gut. It’s all very quick and painful then and Duncan follows Connor to the floor.

Melanie looks at Billy.

Her attention’s shifted a bit too fast. It’s a bit of a mistake. Duncan is outclassed against her skill, but he’s also a big strong man. He’s throwing his weight against her as he falls.

For a moment she’s off balance.

Billy’s growling. He’s closed the distance, bloody fast, and bloody fast he’s thrown a punch. She’s leaning right into it, on account of being off balance, and it looks to shatter Melanie’s face.

The grangler’s claws come through Billy’s eyes and they squeeze tight, instead. They short the circuits of his brain.

Melanie has caught her balance. She’s advancing through the bar. And Billy’s gang are already on their feet, but she moves through them like the wind.

She’s laughing.

She’s laughing, and it’s brilliant, and she yanks up Billy’s head and she tells her brother’s shattered, staring eyes, “Remember me?”

It’s 1989 and Melanie’s only 17, but she’s bright and burning with hubris. She’s wound a red cord in her hair. She’s learned the secrets of the gods.

And she whispers, sweet, to Billy’s head, “I’ll never live in fear again.”

But what about you?

Can you make it a week—a terrible, whole week—until Hitherby posts again? Can you endure without the darkness closing in?

Maybe you should pass the time by . . .

  • rereading the first storyline Hitherby had, which is named:
    At Gibbelins’ Tower
  • learning what we meant by the phrase “a siggort’s knives”
  • debating whether it’s that Duncan and that Connor
  • reading about the forthcoming 3rd edition of Nobilis, by Jenna Katerin Moran! (3, 2, 1!)
  • admiring this awesome news story about a shark charitably expiating a debt of karma owed from a former life
  • mourning my inability to watch literal music videos while in China
  • glancing over the Book of Joshua, so you can laugh at me when I mangle it? or even
  • reading the entire archives of Gunnerkrigg Court in a single sitting, and then falling over blind and legless for five days!