The Heaps (III/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

Once upon a time, Simon wandered in the high mountains under Mluna, near Sa Fel.

Five bandits assailed him.

They cut off his limbs. They took his purse. They cut under his eyes. They hung his head on a hastily assembled construct of twigs and glue and those tiny lego connectors that people generally find difficult to use for any other purpose.

Simon sighed with happiness.

That was his last breath: a smile, and ahhh.

“Why are you so happy?” the bandits asked him.

Simon, being dead, said nothing.

Some would say that a man when killed by bandits in the mountains under Mluna by Sa Fel should take no action to provoke the bandits further.

Cooperate, they would say.

You’re already dead.

Don’t make things worse.

But Simon sat there mute as a stone. His dead eyes did not flicker. A tiny smile played around his mouth, leftover from what he’d smiled before, and proof against all their curses and shouts to him.

The bandits acted.

The chief among the bandits, one Harrison Morne, held Simon’s head aloft by the queue of his hair.

He spake a curse.

Now we do not know where Harrison Morne learned this curse. Some say that he learned it from his father, and him from his father, who had it from the statue that stands over the doorway of the house of Hath: that statue, Ill Tidings by name, with its leonine head, its spider’s limbs, its shaven fur that leaves it bare against the cold, and standing improbably suspended and peculiarly balanced above the doorstep of the house. Many a malevolence the storytellers have ascribed to this statue, more in quantity than the venom in its heart could sire, so all such stories fall under a certain cloud of doubt — but still, we have no more plausible theory to advance regarding the curse of Harrison Morne.

In any event he spake a curse.

The wind blew cold. The mist billowed, much as it bellows here. Shrieks rang out through the mountains under Mluna, at Sa Fel. The eyes of the beheaded Simon gleamed red and his jaw fell loose and he said, “Ah.”

“Now,” said Harrison Morne.

“Ah,” sighed Simon.

“As to the matter of your joy.”

“It is this,” confessed Simon’s head. “I had feared that you were heaps.”

“Heaps?”

“It is good to be killed by bandits,” said Simon’s head, “when the alternative is heaps.”

Harrison looked in helplessness to the bandits of his pack; but they shrugged, and one—the youngest, the smallest, one Lillek by name, said, “Some kind of horror native to these peaks, perhaps.”

So Harrison looked sourly at Simon and said, “Well, you know better now.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” says Simon.

“Now you shall know eternal suffering,” Harrison says. “Thus we the bandits have served you worse than even might the heaps, and hopefully this has spoiled your last quixotic joy.”

“Ah, well,” says Simon.

“Ah, well?”

“Don’t we all suffer eternally anyway?”

And with a growl Harrison slung Simon over his back, still holding to his queue, and with the head bouncing and bumping against the cured hides of his shirt Harrison walked away.

And Simon said, in tones of some regret, “Ah, there they are.”

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

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

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

The Island of the Centipede

And Harrison Morne looked back, and all around the bandits, emerging from the mist, he thought he saw the heaps. And that was the day, it is said, that the heaps did learn the fashion of carrying heads slung o’er their shoulders; but they never got it quite right, because the faces on the heads they carry are not the faces of the men they killed, but rather and always so the face of Harrison Morne.

In gratitude that horrors did not come to pass, and in prayer that they shall not, either, in any near and meaningful measure of time.

The Extinguishment of Karma (IV/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

The sea stretches out forever. On its surface the wind chases itself about. Great bulky clouds pile in the sky. To the west the sun burns yellow. Rahu shivers in Sid’s arms, stinking of blood and sweat.

Sid walks into the tower.

He casts about. He finds a room with a light on. He opens its door. In a room of shining wooden floorboards and creaky old chairs Mr. Schiff pushes back his chair and stands.

“What have you there?” says Mr. Schiff.

“Rahu,” says Sid.

“Set him down,” says Mr. Schiff.

The reflections of the ceiling light skitter away as Sid lays Rahu down upon the floor.

Mr. Schiff walks over. He squats beside Rahu. He studies him.

“It is rare,” says the geology teacher, “to see an evil planet skewered by a siggort spike, much less in pristine condition.”

He peels back one of Rahu’s eyelids, causing Rahu’s head to shift and roll a few inches upon the floor.

“He’s a planet?” Sid asks.

“Rahu is the mystery planet that occludes the sun and moon on the occasion of an eclipse,” says Mr. Schiff. “A thing-that-is-known explaining a certain body of evidence.”

He takes a clipping from one of Rahu’s nails and holds it up to the light.

“Naturally obsolete in the Newtonian model,” clarifies Mr. Schiff.

“He might be dying,” says Sid.

“Not this one,” says Mr. Schiff.

Rahu breathes harshly, eyes rolled back, mouth drooling against the floor.

“No?” Sid asks.

“He’s one of the demons who stole into the house of the sun and drank the elixir of immortality.” He looks up at Sid. “You don’t know that story?”

Sid stares at Mr. Schiff blankly.

Sid’s jaw is turning puffy where Rahu broke it.

Mr. Schiff pats Rahu down, then straightens his body and head out so that Rahu is laying more comfortably on the floor. “I’ll get a cot and a blanket for him,” Mr. Schiff says.

“How can anything be immortal?” Sid asks.

“Well, it can’t, I suppose,” says Mr. Schiff. “Everything arises from karma, and everything dies with the extinguishment of the karma that caused it to exist. But he’s tasted the amrit so he can’t really die to anything less.”

He pauses. He smiles fondly at the fingernail.

“And here I am with a sample of him.”

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11)

Mr. Schiff walks to the door and out, his feet ticking against the floor.

Sid watches Rahu.

The hands of the clock high on the wall turn.

After about fifteen minutes Mr. Schiff returns with a cot and some blankets. He starts to lift Rahu. Sid helps. Together they place Rahu on the cot and cover Rahu’s body with the blanket.

“How can anything be immortal?”

It’s like nothing’s changed in Sid’s head since he asked that question the first time.

Mr. Schiff looks up at him.

Suddenly Mr. Schiff is grinning wider than a geology teacher should grin, and there are shadows shifting everywhere in the room.

“When he drank the amrit, he achieved enlightenment,” says Mr. Schiff. “He became rival to the Buddha. He understood everything that is, was, and will be. But he was not free. He was chained by his karma. He said, ‘Before I claim my rightful place as lord of all things I must answer the suffering of Prajapati and atone for this theft of treasure from the sun.’

“The thundering of years did not dissuade him from this course.

“The severing of demons from the world could not dissuade him.

“He has hunted the sun and devoured it through the days of the Third Kingdom and the Fourth and not anyone who’s tried has ever stopped him in his course.

“He will not stop until such suffering as Prajapati’s is no longer possible, which even the Buddha did not achieve. He will not stop until he has expiated the crime of stealing elixir from the sun, which he cannot do, as that act will forever stain the world. He is immortal because he is not finished with these basic tasks that no creature can attempt.

“That is how Rahu is immortal.”

“Oh,” says Sid.

“But don’t be afraid,” says Mr. Schiff. “It is the nature of all karma to resolve itself given sufficient time in which to work. If it is not this year, then it may be next year; if it is not, then certainly before the passage of another three hundred trillion years.”

Sid shakes himself.

“Will you watch him?” Sid says.

“Why did you bring him here?” Mr. Schiff asks.

“I didn’t know what to do with him,” Sid says. “And I figured Martin would. But you’ll do just as well.”

It is June 1, 2004.

Sid returns to the balcony. He sits on the battlement. He’s quiet.

“Aren’t you a sight,” says Max.

Sid shrugs.

Sid looks about.

“Iphigenia?”

“She’s with Jane,” says Max.

“Did she see the spike?”

“I told her not to watch the fight. I said, you’d win, but not by any way that’s good for children to see. And then you did.”

Sid sighs.

“You okay?” says Max.

“No,” says Sid.

“No?”

“We go ’round and ’round,” says Sid, “and nothing ever changes.”

“Yeah,” acknowledges Max.

“You don’t have to be here,” Sid says.

His voice is taut. His throat is sore. It hurts to talk.

But Max ignores him.

“Didn’t ask you if I did,” Max says.

“You don’t even like it here.”

Max sighs.

“Just— let it go, Sid.”

It’s getting darker now. It’s moving on towards evening. Shadows swell across the sky.

“You weren’t worth it,” says Sid.

Max’s lips tighten.

“Don’t you get it? I waited, I waited, and you’re just some damn stupid— just—“

“Just?”

And suddenly Sid is empty and the air is cold and he says, limply, “I wasted my dreams on you.”

Max looks up.

He grins tiredly. It’s pretty shocking to himself, that he has what it takes to grin. But he does.

“You wanna go?” he says.

It’s not an invitation to leave.

It’s an invitation to fight.

And for a long moment it seems as if Sid doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And then for a long moment like Sid will hold back.

Then the siggort is off the battlement and his wheel of knives is spinning and his fist comes forward and it strikes Max’s head, thok.

Hitherby Annual #2 – Maundy Thursday (I/I)

Where did Sid come from?

Sid is born.

His body is vast. It is not human. It is beads of chaos clinging to a scaffolding of abstract form. It is a cacophony of shape, its endless muscles and organs twisting about aimlessly because the science of anatomy does not yet exist.

It is unapproachable because it is ringed in knives.

Someone tries to speak to Sid: they are cut.

Someone tries to touch Sid: they are cut.

In this fashion he is inaccessible within his riot and chaos of shape. But interwoven among the pieces of him, the gross flesh of him, there is the divine fire.

It gropes for selfhood and finds it.

Sid sorts impressions. He begins to understand the world. In a many-timbred voice he says, “Hey.”

A wind seizes him up.

Claws and hands surround him.

He is cast into a nebulous region, immured in direst bondage.

He is in that place of darkness and of emptiness that will be Siggort Town one day.

How did Max find “Prester Gee and the Ragged Things?”

It is many years later.

There is only once in all the histories of the conversations of Sid and Max when Sid admitted his nature as a burden upon him.

It is in 1992 and the sky is dark with clotted clouds.

Sid is looking after the back of a woman who has come this close to fulfilling the criteria for his destiny, and he says, “I think that the world has no place for siggorts.”

And Max looks at him.

“It’s a really cool world. And we are unworthy of it.”

Max points out, “It’s not like the humans are so great.”

Sid grins.

“Well,” he says, and gestures to show he cannot dispute the point.

And then he goes left, because he’s going to pick up some paint from the hardware store while he’s in town, and Max goes right, to the used bookstore.

Max shops. He finds an old Louis L’amour he hasn’t read. He finds the new Danielle Steel.

He looks at the special shelves next to the counter. He pulls down an odd-sized children’s book. It is called, “Prester Gee and the Ragged Things.”

It is brightly colored.

The proprietor of the used bookstore, one Dannon Cleim, says, “I wouldn’t.”

“Hm?”

“Reading that kind of thing,” says Dannon, “attracts their attention.”

“Oh.”

The cover shows a girl staring at a sign saying, “Wrong Place.” while something emerges from around a corner behind her.

Max finds it oddly fascinating.

“Someday,” says Dannon, “they will come for me. They will come from the air, from beyond the borders of the world where I live. And as they seize me I will hear the whispering of Ii Ma’s voice.”

“Yeah,” Max says, distractedly. “That happened to me once.”

Dannon’s jaw sets. He does not look pleased with Max. He says something truly spiteful, which is, “Well, you can buy it if you’d like.”

And so Max does.

Did Max worry too much about the nature of siggorts?

If Max were to see a vivisected corpse on the street he would fret terribly and wonder if Sid killed it.

Fortunately this never actually happens.

Max has never seen anyone vivisected except for that one time.

But sometimes there’ll be some tarp or something on the road and he’ll think it’s a vivisected body, just laying there.

That can happen when you’re worrying too much about the nature of siggorts.

How did Max find out about the place without recourse?

Max reads.

This is how the book begins:

“Hello!

This is Prester Gee’s book.

I’m Prester Gee!”

There’s a picture of Prester Gee next to it. She’s a cheerful young woman but she is not very photorealistic.

Max turns the page.

“I had a friend named Margerie.

One day the ragged things came in and took her away.”

Max admires the picture. It shows the ragged things taking Margerie away.

Then he begins to read in earnest.

He reads on right to the end.

Prester Gee and the Ragged Things

From the archives at Gibbelins’ tower.

Hello!

This is Prester Gee’s book.

I’m Prester Gee!

I had a friend named Margerie.

One day the ragged things came in and took her away.

She yelled so much!

They took her away through the cracks in the world.

I went right away to the Sheriff. He had a shiny badge. I told him, “Sir, they have taken Margerie.”

But he did not want to talk about it!

“Shoo,” he said.

He waved me away with his shooing gun.

I also talked to the Mayor.

I said, “Mr. Mayor, sir, they have taken Margerie.”

The Mayor said, “This is a city council meeting about dogs. I want to talk about dogs. I do not want to talk about your stinky Margerie!”

There was nothing I could do.

I had to apologize!

I even talked to Margerie’s husband. He’d taken off his wedding ring but you could still see where it was missing.

I said, “It was ragged things. They were big and red and their footsteps were heavy.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Margerie’s husband. “There are no things like that anywhere in the world.”

“Oh,” I said.

This made me very sad and I began to cry and he made me coffee. We did not talk about Margerie. We just drank coffee.

Eventually he cried too.

I guessed that maybe I’d made up Margerie all along. It is hard to believe in your reality when nobody else does.

But I kept seeing cracks in the world.

Sometimes strange things make what you know seem thin. Like a layer of puff pastry. The truth seems so thin you could crunch through it. You start to say, “I can’t trust me.”

You trust other people.

They’re smarter than you.

You say, “They probably know best!”

Everything looked like it was shaking in place, all the time, because I did not believe in myself. Also every shadow looked extra-dark and squirmy with unknown things.

And there were cracks.

They would be here or there. In my cupboard or under my stairs. I found a crack on the sidewalk once. I did not step on it. My mother was already dead but I thought, that could be so rude.

So rude!

She would be in Heaven playing her accordion and then I would step on a crack. Suddenly snap her back would break! All of the other angels would laugh and her accordion would whine, wee-guh, wee-guh, like sad accordions do.

I told a police man about the cracks.

I pointed him at one.

He said, “That’s very bad, ma’am!”

I was very embarrassed.

He blew his whistle. Beep! Beep!

“You have gone mad,” he concluded.

“Oh no!” I said.

I did not want to have gone mad.

I went to the hospital. All of the doctors in their white coats looked at me.

“You are not mad,” they said.

“I’m not?”

“No,” they said.

The doctors all smiled.

“You’re just corrupt!”

This apparently was better vis-a-vis state regulations. If I were mad then I would live in a padded room. But I was corrupt so they let me go back home.

My boss did not like me much. He said, “I heard about you and the hospital. I’m firing you, Prester Gee!”

I made a very sad face but he stuck by his decision with determination!

So I left.

I got another job typing and then a job packing fruit and then I lived on Garden Street with a puppy I found. When people would be mean to me the puppy would shoot them up with lasers.

“That puppy’s defective!” they’d say. “Dogs should hardly ever use lasers!”

It was a bad puppy and should have been killed but I loved him.

One day Margerie’s husband came and sat down next to me.

He said, “I know you didn’t lie.”

It was a wind.

It was a wind that he said those words. Suddenly the world stopped shaking.

He said, “I will pay you a lot of money to go to the ragged things’ academy and ask after my wife.”

The puppy barked and then licked his hand.

My puppy did not shoot him with lasers. So I said, “I trust you.”

The next time I saw a crack, I peeked my head through.

You should tear this page out. I cannot tear it out because my publisher would get mad at me. He would shake his cigar and puff up his cheeks. But you should. You should tear out the pages that have the pictures of the ragged things’ world. You should tear them out and burn them.

I don’t know why I am leaving these pages in.

But it looked like badness.

It looked like the world but nobody had souls. Not even the grass had souls. You could walk on it and squish it and it would not care.

I took many pictures. Sometimes people who look at them throw up! Or their pants get bulgy like there is a mouse in them. Or they yell at me.

I am very sad when people yell at me.

I did not find Margerie in the ragged things’ world.

I think that it is bad to look in the world behind the cracks. If you can see them do not look. Just look away.

Do not tell police men.

Do not tell the Mayor.

Do not tell the doctor.

Do not even tell people’s husbands.

Just look away.

One day they will come for me. I dream of it. They will come for me and Ii Ma will come for me.

Ii Ma will ask me a question I cannot answer.

He will take me away from the world to a place without recourse.

And nothing I do, and nothing I have ever done, will matter again.

How did Max come to understand the nature of the world?

Max puts the book down.

He thinks for a while.

“Huh,” he says.

And he hears in memory the whisper in his mind: How could you betray your wife?

He trembles, there, like a leaf.

He stands on the last vertex of reason with the endless net of unacceptable truths just a step or so outside of his reach.

He is this close to understanding.

He remembers the King that came to Spattle.

His mind throbs with the pictures of Prester Gee.

Shifting in and out of the edge of his consciousness is the image of Ii Ma. He cannot focus on it. He cannot not focus on it. His mental efforts skirl about like water striders on a pond.

Then, suddenly, he understands.

“Mr. McGruder could never have answered it. He would have melted before that question like ice before the sun.”

And thus Max apprehends the fundamental nature of the world. He is afraid and he is horrified but he is also excited.

Rising in him like Frankenstein’s ambition there is a plan.

How did the ragged things catch Max?

It is almost two years before knowing the story of Prester Gee catches up to him.

Max has said nothing to Sid; in fact, for the past six months, he has scarcely called on Sid at all. Instead he has wrestled with the fey understanding that has been rising in him that the ragged things will come for him soon.

That he sees too much; that he knows too much; that in apprehending Ii Ma he suffered apprehension by Ii Ma.

They will come for him.

Dannon Cleim is already gone. Max does not miss him; the man had never mattered to Max’s life.

In his dreams Max sees Ii Ma. He knows what impends.

Ii Ma will come for him.

He will ask Max, a second time, a question that Max cannot answer, and where the first was irrelevant this one will be colder than winter and more devastating than fire.

“Perhaps,” Max theorizes, “He will ask me, ‘what would you do if you could steal people’s noses?'”

That’s a hard one to call in advance because power corrupts.

“Or, ‘you love a guy who tortures people to death.’ That’s not really a question but it might as well be.”

It is neither of these.

He is in the supermarket between aisles 6 and 7—

Where in most supermarkets there is a weak place, a problematic place, a place occult to our reality—

When there is the soft slow pounding of heavy feet.

He looks around.

He thinks about running.

Then he seizes a box of cereal, for the road, and holds it tight against his chest, and waits.

Claws seize him from four directions. They heft him high. And Ii Ma whispers, How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?

There is a cleanup between aisles 6 and 7.

Max is gone.

Why can’t Sid forgive Max?

Max puts on the water for tea. He watches it for a while, but it doesn’t boil.

“Sid,” says Max.

And as suddenly as a dream, Sid is there.

It is 1994 and the sun is this brilliant golden glow and Max is happy—so incredibly happy— because he’s put one over on the world.

He says, “Sid,” again, and it’s this caramel of smugness on the ice cream of his joy.

And Sid blushes and looks from side to side, like maybe Max means the Sid behind him.

“It’s all right now,” Max says.

And Sid frowns.

“It’s been all right,” he says.

“No,” Max says.

He rises. He goes to the glass doors that open out onto the balcony. He opens them. He takes a breath of clean and bracing air.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Max says. “You’d never have let me try it. But it worked.”

He takes a breath.

Max says, “You’ll never kill anybody.”

Sid frowns. He looks around.

“What?”

Max turns. His eyes are brilliant. He says, “This is the dominion of Ii Ma. We have been abstracted from the world by virtue of the questions that we cannot answer. Here, Sid, we mean nothing, do nothing, to no effect. Here the knives of you will not cut; here the hands of you will not hold a knife; here we are severed from substance but, Sid, we are safe from doing harm or becoming anathema to ourselves.”

It pours from Max in a rush, this anodyne and peak to two years of careful silence. It pours from him, the expression of his gift, that sacrifice that he has made of life and sanity, bound over to Ii Ma without resistance to save Sid from murdering. The brilliance and the sacrifice of Max’s plan glimmers there in his sight, lain out—

The perfect solution;

The necessary solution;

The plan to give up everything else so that Sid does not become a thing Max can not love.

And against the look in Sid’s eyes it becomes the ashes of a cruel ambition.

How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?

“Sid,” he says.

And Sid grins, a little.

Sid’s shoulders relax.

“Tell me you are making a virtue of necessity,” Sid says. “Tell me you are scared and alone here and you risked me because you needed me here.”

“No,” says Max. “You don’t understand.”

Distantly, he can hear the kettle whistling.

“Tell me that you did not do this on purpose,” Sid says. “That you did not conspire with the nature of the world to immure me in a place without recourse.”

“I didn’t want you to vivisect anyone,” Max protests.

And here one should stop and observe that for all the naked betrayal in Sid’s voice that Max’s was a reasonable aim.

Yet—

“How could you imagine that you could do such things and have them be okay?” Sid asks.

And the last air leaves Max’s lungs. Bleakness closes in on him. He is drowning.

Until that moment Max did not understand the question of Ii Ma.

Until that moment Max had remained in the place without recourse by virtue of that will that denies itself its options. Until that moment he had stood on a line with a path still open before him, actions still available to him, possibilities to remain a creature of the is and not an isn’t still naked before him. Until that moment he had options because until that moment the question that Ii Ma had given him was one that he did not comprehend.

But Ii Ma is cruel, and with Sid’s words it is no longer so.

Max sees the completeness and the elegance of that truth: he sees the world of emptiness close in about him: he experiences the jangling severance of Max from the places of the world.

In every direction it is the same: every course of action is the same: the place without recourse unfolds around him like an infinite-reflections jewel.

“How beautiful,” Max says.

And to Sid it is like watching a loved one die.

How did Max leave the place without recourse?

It is Maundy Thursday when these events transpire, by some coincidence or design: an anniversary, of a sort, celebrating that day when Jesus said to his companions,

“You will have to devour me to earn eternal life.”

On Maundy Thursday the bells cease to ring. The vestments depart from the table, leaving barrenness.

It is the custom of Ii Ma, on Maundy Thursday, to shift its great bulk in its mud. To wallow. To drip with black blood. To take petitions from its prisoners, which are traditionally not granted.

“How could you imagine that you could do such things,” Sid says, on Maundy Thursday, 1994, “and have them be okay?”

And the fire fades from Max’s eyes and he says, transported by something greater than himself, “How beautiful.”

And with a flash of insight Sid understands why this is so.

“That’s what he asked you,” Sid says. “Isn’t it?”

The kettle is wobbling on the stove; and Sid looks sideways and swears, “Bucking kettle. … That’s what he asked?”

“‘How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?‘” Max quotes. “Or, well, yeah. What you said.”

And Sid laughs.

He can’t help it. It’s worse than when Grouchy Pete shot him because it’s more painful and it’s funnier.

But the laughter passes.

A cold wind blows.

The vast bulk of Ii Ma shifts.

And Sid sighs.

He relaxes, just a bit.

Sid says, gently, “’Walk in like you own the place.’”

It is not clear to Sid, even after all his years of life, whether this answer is abstractly the right one— but it is a pragmatic one.

He has seen it work for monsters, kings, and siggorts;

And it seems to work for Max.

How does Maundy Thursday end?

The night office is celebrated under the name of Tenebrae: the service of darkness.

After the vespers of Maundy Thursday Sid is raw, like a skinless man.

He is raw but he is not given the grace of that pain.

He is taken from the agony of it, without transition, to the morning, to smiling outwards at the beauty of the dawn.

“How beautiful.”

And thus one fond of the liturgy of the holy days must ask:

What manner of thing is Easter, if it comes too soon?