The Skandhas of Head Island (IV/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

The ship is made of wood and stone.

Its name, blazed on the side, is Honest with Myself. Its prow is a granite Buddha. His posture offers compassion and benevolence to every living thing. The ship’s flag is the Jolly Roger. Its skull and crossbones promise death and mayhem. One could argue, though not every pirate would do so, that its presence dilutes the Buddha’s message.

Perhaps, a previous victim had thought, such dilution is a hazard of honesty.

Then the cannon of the ship had torn her from material existence and blasted her straight into Nirvana.

Around the ship, some years after that incident, fog billows. The fog is white and energetic. It’s curling in on itself like an orgy of snakes and dragons.

The dread pirate Tara stands on the deck. Sid stands beside her. All around them gaps in the fog arise, contort, and disappear.

In one such gap Sid sees himself.

He is, he thinks, reflected on the fog.

He’s standing there, a drawn-looking man with a bit of a slacker’s slouch, in a nice kind of suit. He’s got his hands in his pockets and there’s a wheel of knives at his side. A feather hangs limply from his hair.

He’s still bleeding. He reminds himself that he’ll have to deal with that.

His reflection sticks out his tongue at him.

Sid frowns.

“Don’t make trouble,” he says.

Tara shoots him a sharp pirate’s glance, full of mirth and dark knowledge and a willingness to assault random strangers at sea.

Sid’s reflection shoots him with an arrow.

“Gluh!” says Sid. He falls backwards.

Anatman, dukkha,” chant the monks.

“Are you okay?”

Tara is there in front of his face. She’s leaning over him. She’s remarkably concerned given that she intends to kill him anyway.

“Hey. You. Guy.”

She doesn’t actually know Sid’s name.

“You okay? You’ve got an arrow in your head.”

“It’s okay,” Sid says.

“What?”

“Luckily I was carrying a skull.”

“How ironic!” Tara says, because normally a skull is a symbol of death, yet in this case it has blocked much of the force and length of the arrow and helped protect Sid’s brain.

Sid takes a moment to remember how to make the dizziness go away.

Then he says, “It was my reflection.”

“No,” Tara says.

“No?” Sid asks.

And Tara stands up. She shouts, “Hard to port! And put on speed!”

As the monks begin the work of moving the great Buddha-prowed ship, she asides to Sid, “Reflections don’t shoot people. People do.”

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

Anicca, dukkha,” chant the monks. “Anicca, dukkha.

The chant has changed to incorporate a reference to the transience of all things, presumably because ships sail faster when reminded of transience.

Three acolytes with shaven heads and pirate eyepatches climb out onto the Buddha statue.

They manipulate a series of cunning levers and catches.

The Buddha’s stone arm swings.

Where the stone Buddha had been in the hand-extended mudra that offered compassion and benevolence to all living things, now it swings its arm left in the mudra that opens the minds of all sentient beings to new awarenesses. Such blessings! Surely it has become an iconic granite representation of your becoming more aware and opening your mind to the beauty and reality of the universe.

The balance changes.

Looking perfectly impassive, like a tipped yet meditative cow or Buddha, the statue falls over leftwards. Some might imagine a transient moment of panic in its eyes, a moment of reflection wherein the statue asks itself:

Do I stop meditating or do I stop my fall?

This represents a subtle error in the sculptor’s design.

Then the hand comes down to brace against the sea. It does not break the surface tension of the ocean. Creaking and leaning, the ship turns to port.

It rights itself.

There is noise. Tara is asking Sid about the arrow.

“Should I pull it out or are you too attached to it?”

Sid shakes his head in irritation, causing a wave of dizziness, and then he isolates the injured section of him and makes it no longer important to his functions. With a growl he pulls out the arrow and throws it to the deck.

“Why did it look like me?”

“They’re skandhas,” Tara says.

She gets to her feet. She stares out at the fog.

“One of them hung back to try to delay us.”

There is something hanging in the air in front of her. It does not move but because the ship is sailing swiftly it seems to loom upon her. It is a net, hung still and steady between four tufts of fog. It catches her, clotheslining her entire body and dragging her back along the deck.

But:

Anicca!” shout the monks, whirling their prayer beads. “Anicca, Tara! Anicca, Tara!

All things are transient. One moment a person is caught in a net. Another they are on the deck. Who can say what causes one condition to arise or another to fall? In this case it is a young midshipmonk diving forward to chop open the fog and unravel the net. Tara lands with the lotus of her hand touching the deck and the net blows away from her and dissipates into its component strands.

Sid looks at her.

“Skandhas?” he asks.

Tara stares at him.

Then she blinks and shakes her head. “Sorry! Terminology!”

She’s blushing brightly.

“I forget that not everyone’s a bodhisattva yet. Skandhas are . . .”

She spreads her hands, looking for the right word. At that moment the lotus in her palm points directly at Shirley Havanaugh, a CPA in Detroit, who recognizes suddenly that many of her problems are self-inflicted and experiences a bubbling transcendent and transformative joy.

“Heaps,” Tara says. “Piles of stuff. Like bodies, which people often think are the same as themselves but are actually just stuff stuck together out of mud and feathers or whatever. Or perceptions. Thoughts. Sensations. Bandits. Mirrors. Certain flavors of M&Ms. Skandhas. Things that can look like yourself, to you, but aren’t.”

“Ah,” Sid says.

“That was one of their nets,” Tara says.

And suddenly the fog is clear enough that they may see the great island where the bandits dwell and whence they make their raids, and the great peak that hangs over it all and the shriveled head that hangs from that peak, ludicrously clear despite the distance and the scale, every crease in its leathery flesh visible from afar though the mountain is just a blur. And in that moment, from behind and around the ship there rises the great iron net that guards the harbor and from a blocky stone fortification on the beach there fires a great black ship-destroying spear. Suddenly Sid has a moment of clarity.

“I’ve been fighting so hard not to be honest with myself,” he says.

The spear crashes into the wooden deck.

“And now I’m bombarding that honesty with giant spears!”

“Actually,” Tara says, contemplative and uncertain, “I think that’s the skandhas.”

In the name of the infinite blessings that we all deserve, and in profound thanks that one particular head is still attached and one particular skull did a perfect job of protecting its brain, and in dedication to the wish that nothing in this world shall ever diminish or constrain the brightness or the beauty of those you or I or anyone know and love, but only make them grow.

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 Pirate (II/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

Sid stands on a grey reflective plain. White lines blow across it like the waves that wind makes upon the grass or upon the snow. The sky is corrugated, textured grey above him: grainy light grey touched with light; bulging rain-filled dark grey; wispy, dissipated whitish mist; and in the distance beyond that grey the sun.

He is walking.

He is walking on the sea of chaos and it is still beneath him, it is supporting him, because it does not love him and does not want him to break its surface and mingle with it.

Five bandits surround him. They have staves. They wear cloaks that billow. They are dampened with a mist of chaos and it causes peculiar alterations in their countenance.

Sid stops.

He says, “I am Sid.”

It is a naked threat. Knowing that they cannot know him, he still says it thus: flat words, like drops of mist that fall onto the surface of the sea.

But the bandits howl; and one casts forth a rope to wind around him, and two come forward with their spears; and two set arrows to their bows.

Sid has spent too long in a place dominated by the conventions of early 21st century media. He cannot quite encompass the fact that they’re all attacking him at once. An arrow hits him in the back of the head. Another pierces his lung. The rope wraps around him. The spears come in towards him. The knives that spin in their wheel beside him turn and cut and the rope frays to threads; he is up, standing on one of the spears, kicking at the bandit with his hands in the pockets of his coat, and the other spear hits him from behind.

He can feel bile in his throat. He can feel blood. But today he has no time for it.

The bandit he’s kicked falls down. The bandit’s cheek is dented and there’s blood at the corner of his mouth.

Knives cut away the haft of the spear that’s stuck in Sid so that it can’t pull out again.

Sid’s angry. His hand catches the next arrow. He hurls it on towards the other bowman and turns—

There are too many bandits. He’s quite sure there’d been five, and one knocked down, and one halfway disarmed, but there are five circling him still.

What am I standing on? he says, because the scene has come a little bit undone within his mind. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing he could fail to know, but he doesn’t.

Another spearthrust. He falls back. He lands on the sea and it splatters aside to make room for him, bowing down like a sheet of cellophane attached on every side and struck by a falling fruit. The bandits wobble up and down.

Through the mist of grey Sid sees a great granite hand.

“Hell,” says one of the bandits.

It’s the first thing any of them has said.

Sid can see the arm.

Sid can see the body. It is a Buddha. It is a great granite Buddha. It is the great granite Buddha prow of a ship that sails in these seas.

The bandits shout and flee and leave Sid there.

Monks walk on the head of the Buddha. They pace their meditation tracks. Their footsteps are a soft shuffling that rebounds off of the fog.

They click their meditation beads.

“Anatman, dukkha,” say the monks. “Anatman, dukkha.

Slowly, Sid straightens. He pulls himself to his feet. He stands there on the chaos, facing the approaching ship.

The monks seem puzzled.

“Anatman?” they say, as if expecting Sid to react. “Dukkha?”

Sid stabilizes his form and begins to walk west, but there’s an apologetic voice that stops him.

“If you won’t willingly abandon your attachment to material existence,” says the dread pirate Tara, “I’m afraid I’ll have to use the cannon.”

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

Sid looks back.

“I’m not attached to material existence,” he says. “I’m just kind of here.”

He lifts one foot, then the next. He gestures to his shoes. They’re loafers, the shoes of a man not terribly attached to material existence but who has to walk in it anyway.

Tara pulls herself up onto the arm of the Buddha. She walks out. She looks down at him. She’s a black-haired pirate with a sword in one hand and a lotus in the palm of the other.

She says, “You can’t just resist the enlightenment of the Buddha Pirates. It’s not done.”

“I’m my own first experience,” says Sid. “Why should I accept anatman?”

“Technically, that’s an error,” Tara says.

Sid looks at her.

“You’re not your own first experience. Information theory and the law of the sea insist that you can’t directly experience yourself. Instead, you experience things that you falsely associate with yourself, like perceptions and conditions. Do you need medical attention?”

“No.”

“Because you are rather bleeding.”

“Bandits.”

Tara’s eyes go wide. It’s an expression of shocked joy.

“This close?”

“Eh?”

“I have been hunting them,” Tara says, “For so long.”

She bites her lip. She’s thinking.

“Come on board, then,” Tara says. “Everyone knows that ships are faster than walking, on the ocean. We’ll hunt them down and then I’ll try and kill you again and then, if that doesn’t work, I’ll give you a ride to wherever you’re going.”

Sid thinks about this.

Finally, he shrugs.

So Tara gives a happy shout, “Kya!” and those few among the monks with eyepatches and peglegs and other pirate accessories decorating their orange robes leave their prayer tracks and throw down ropes.

Sid climbs.

Soon he stands on the deck of the ship.

“You’re not enlightened,” he points out. “You’re a pirate.”

“Yes,” Tara admits.

Sid looks at her.

Airily, Tara says, “I decided it’d be faster to bring enlightenment to all living beings if I skipped the last few million years of the process and just became a pirate. These are my monks.”

Sid looks down. The deck of the ship is marked with a great mandala. Around its edge it depicts the noble eightfold path.

“I didn’t know that was an option,” Sid says.

Tara brings her finger to her lips.

“Don’t tell Amitabha,” she hisses.

Then she is moving; then she is racing about the deck and he sees her only in moments. A flash of red from the inside of her cloak as she calls to the divine spirits that work the sails. A moment of half-profile as she stands, pointing out at the sea with her sword. Shouted orders involving words like jib and block that Sid—as a man with little need for ships—does not entirely understand.

“But isn’t it an error?” he says.

“What?”

Tara is looking at him again. The ship is turning, gently, in the direction in which the bandits disappeared.

“Becoming a pirate and forcing enlightenment on people with monks and cannons.”

“It’s a terrible error,” Tara says. “Mad, crazy wickedness. I’m committing so many mistakes it’ll be a few million years before I fix them all. But isn’t that the joy of it?”

“What?”

“Making mistakes and fixing them. Learning. Growing. The sharpness of regret and the brilliance of accomplishments you really shouldn’t have attempted.”

“No, I meant, of what?”

“Oh,” Tara says.

She thinks about that for a bit.

“Of being at sea,” Tara says.

In the name of hope and joy, and dedicated to someone whom I hope very much will be back with us by the time this post appears. Do it! Do it! Wake up! Ganbatte!

The Uncanny Valley (I/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

Sid wakes up.

He smiles eastwards towards the dawn.

It’s wonderful, sometimes, to be Sid. The birds are singing. The sun is bright. His body is fresh and practically unhurt and his hair’s just the way he’s always wanted it to be.

He takes a deep breath of pure clean air and says, “How beautiful.”

Then everything goes wrong.

Branching from the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 )

It is June 2, 2004.

Martin is sitting on the grass by Sid.

Sid has fallen on his back and he’s got this stricken look like he’s just come home from vacation to discover that everything everywhere in the world is broken.

“Did you ever hear that old question about whether you’d prefer to torture one person or let everyone in the world die?” Martin asks.

“No,” Sid says.

“No?”

“For some reason,” Sid says, “nobody ever asks siggorts that one.”

“Huh.”

Martin is sitting there on the grass by Sid. He’s looking at his fingers.

“What is it that’s so beautiful?” Martin asks.

Sid laughs. It hurts him to laugh, but he does.

Martin’s still looking at him.

Sid shakes his head.

“Jane tells me,” Martin says, “that the answer is, ‘You are.'”

Sid doesn’t say anything.

“That that’s what you see when you wake up in the place without recourse and the beauty of it overwhelms you. Not the dawn. Not the sky. You. The inside of your eyes.”

“Why did you make her that way?”

“Best I could do with the materials I had.”

“Really?”

“I’m a boy of pride,” Martin says.

“It’s not me,” Sid says.

“No?”

“Siggorts are legendarily ugly,” Sid says. “It’s not so much the visuals as the dharma.”

“Pointy,” Martin concurs.

Sid makes a face.

“What is it, then?” Martin asks.

“Not me.”

Martin laughs.

“What?”

“Real insightful, Mr. Dialectic.”

Sid snorts.

Martin gestures out at the sea. He says, “Max is out there.”

Sid’s neck goes taut. It’s like his larynx is strangling him. He stands, his hands awkward in the air in front of him, the long muscles of his legs pulling and pushing against one another to draw him up. He stares out at the distant glimmers on the sea.

“Why?” Sid asks.

“I sent him west to seal a fountain of good,” Martin says.

“You didn’t have to.”

“No.”

“No?”

“I just don’t like him,” Martin says.

Sid wants to scowl at Martin but it’s like his nose is stuck pointing west; he can’t make himself turn his head back from the sea. Instead he says, “It’s a trick question, isn’t it? The torture thing?”

“Yes.”

“One side’s intention and the other’s an outcome.”

“That’s the math of it,” Martin agrees.

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

“What do you expect me to do?” Sid asks.

“Go west,” Martin says.

“And if I don’t?”

“Then you don’t.”

The grass is very green beneath the siggort and the boy. The wind makes waves upon it.

“Why?”

“Do you know what sucks?” Martin says. “What sucks is that Jane needs me. And that’s not because of people like the monster. It’s because of people like you.”

“Oh, yes, Mr. Thumbscrews, that makes so much sense.”

“You have these people,” Martin says, entirely ignoring Sid. “These perfectly useful people. And they have beating inside them like a heart their knowledge of themselves, of who they are. And then someone comes along from outside and proposes an alternative. Cripple them here. Clip the wings there. Mold them like Jell-O and make sure they fit. Take your vision of what they should be and use it to overwrite their own. And then just leave them out there—out in the world—flopping around on their wing-stubs, parroting back the twisted nonsense that you gave them, crawling in circles around their concrete-moored peglegs, and then what am I supposed to do?”

“I didn’t ask you to do anything.”

“No,” Martin says. “That’s the trouble with isn’ts.”

“What?”

“You can’t ask. Not once they’ve broken you. You say, ‘Give me more of that torture’, and maybe it’s you, and maybe it’s the twisting in you. You sit there silently, and maybe you’ve got nothing to say, or maybe they’ve drowned it. You say ‘Let me go’, and maybe that’s reason and maybe that’s panic. You say all kinds of things, and the fundamental crime that made you isn’ts is that sometime, once upon a time, somebody didn’t listen; and that somehow, as a result of that, I can’t listen to you now.”

“That’s bleak,” Sid says.

“The trouble with isn’ts,” Martin says, “is that they don’t want to be real, not really. They can’t, because they’re not. How can something that isn’t even there have desires? How can one dharma, forced into the mold of another, know what it means to express itself?”

“That seems like a dumb question to ask me,” Sid says.

“It’s not a question,” Martin says. “It’s an expression of regret.”

“Oh.”

“I can’t fix you, Sid. All I can do is make you anew.”

Dedicated to someone who is not at all like Sid or Martin, except in that you shouldn’t mess with her. Not even if you’re the Buddha—or a shark!

The Latter Days of the Law (2 of 2)

[The Island of the Centipede – Interlude]


Red Mary takes Max’s ears so that he cannot hear.

Red Mary takes Max’s voice so that he cannot speak.

Red Mary takes Max’s life.

Here is how it happened.

She came upon him in the waters outside the broken island, intruding on her sacred place like a hunter on Artemis’ nudity or a serpent into a lake. She struck at him in the certain knowledge that he was unworthy of his life.

We all are.

That is the creed of Red Mary.

We are drunkards and life is a drunkard’s walk. We do not do things for the reasons that we claim. We do not achieve the results that we desire. We cling like leeches to the things that hurt us and we kill the things we love.

We are cysts of flesh that keep the fire from the chaos.

We are a trouble to the world.

He taught her another way. He’d used the blackest of all magics to do it, that is to say, history and Confucianism, and he’d opened her heart to the idea that maybe even drunkards should try to be good.

It was fast.

That’s the problem with easy answers, whether they come from sloppy thinking or a magic knife immersed in chaos. It had been too fast.

Red Mary was of the mind that given a few hundred years to contemplate it she might be a very good Confucian indeed.

But as it was it was suspicious to her.

She’d breathed it in through the gills. She’d inhaled the certainty of Mr. Kong like a drug and when she looked back on the path that led her to its answers she couldn’t see where she had been.

She finds herself thinking of the owl—

That owl of a long line of owls, whom she’d brought down over the sea and drowned, but first had spoken with—

That owl whose grandfather had licked three times at a tootsie pop, and crunched, and said solemnly, “Three”;

Whose mother had licked twice, and crunched, and said in sorrow, “Two”;

Who had bitten down on the very first lick until the tootsie pop oozed caramel like Max is oozing red and said, just “One”;

And who had had no children because the limit of owls as the number of licks decreases is emptiness.

She had found the owl very foolish and sang a song to disperse it into the universe and now she suspects that karma has circled round to bite her in the tail.

To the west of her island there is Good.

To the west, where she does not go, where she has not gone in quite some time, but where she is certain it had not been before—

Good.

Heaven.

Happy endings.

The eye of God.

And looking at it she recognized that there is such a thing as an answer, even for someone like Red Mary. That if she walked straight and pure and on a sober path, she could get there, she would get there, she could have her happy ending.

Or even if she just swam west. One hundred miles, perhaps, two hundred miles at the most; no harder, really, than if it had been an inch.

She does not know what it would mean to do that.

She does not understand how her crooked life could lead to such an end, and so she knows she cannot take that path.

She had always thought that it would be impossible for such a creature as herself to know perfection, and now she knows that it is simply wrong.

To go there—

To live in a world where the difference between perfection and the Red Mary she is now is just a hundred-mile swim—

It is not impossible, but it is wrong, and she must not.

Max is dying.

It is strange and not strange to her that the divine fire of his life burns more brightly in his fragile state. That trapped in that imperfect form it does not dwindle but rather flares, suffuses, wraps in him—

That broken he is still Max;

That broken he is all the more himself because he does not give it up.

It is strange and not strange that the thing that is a person can be severed from its voice by nothing more than magic, severed from its senses and still remain, that so much can happen to him and still he is in the world;

That it is not simply the body that is so terribly fragile but the self within;

And that is the miracle of the fire, that it survives such missteps, that it burns in the broken body that is Max and the cold sea thoughts that are Red Mary’s.

If you asked her what the fire was, Red Mary would say that she does not know.

She does not know, save perhaps that the fire is that which sees the fire; or, that being wrong, that the fire is that which casts the light by which the fire may be seen.

She whispers to Max’s heart that it need not beat.

She whispers to Max’s lungs that he need not breathe.

She whispers to Max’s life that it need not burn.

His last thoughts drift from him like bubbles.

They rise through the chaos and she watches them as they rise.

The sea is full of the mumbling of the severance of Max.

The man she’s killing is mumbling and Red Mary’s too tired not to listen.

“Oh,” he is thinking.

She drags him down, down, down.

“Love is not a duty.”

She hears it reversed, performing that causal mirroring so convenient when gods must listen to the ramblings of men.

We make others’ choices on the theory that we love them, only to discover that we did not love them after all.

“Love is a transforming power.”

We discover a strength blossoming in the world, in us, in those we look upon, in everything, and then discover that we are looking upon a thing that we do love.

Red Mary draws in breath.

She sings to make the man dissolve, to crack the cyst of his existence and return his karma to the world.

“I’ll come back,” he mumbles.

The presupposition of this statement is his death, and so she hears it thus:

Even if I survive, you’ll still probably have killed me.

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

“Like Meredith did,” he mumbles. “I’ll come back.”

He is fraying, and she’ll be rid of him at last, but—

Like Meredith did.

This is the agony of taking the path instead of simply its ending. This is the unbearable horror she has brought upon herself by not simply swimming west.

Along the path one may discover the nature of one’s errors.

He should be dead, but the fire has not yet flown from him.

She has discovered a problematic contingency and she must make a choice.

“Live,” she says.

His life stutters into alertness.

“Breathe,” she says to his lungs, and “Beat,” to his heart.

She gives him back his ears, that he may hear things incorrectly. She gives him back a voice, that he may say the wrong things.

It seems to her perhaps that she has failed to rebuild him; that she has left out some fundamental error and made a thing more good than what she’d broken; but then again, that may be Max himself, or just the nature of the fire.

It is the miracle of the fire that we may grow better than we are.

She lets the mind return to him, that he may think the wrong thoughts, and take the wrong actions, and for the wrong reasons.

And “Oh,” she says, awkwardly, with the horrified politeness of a woman signing the warrant of her own destruction.

“Oh,” Red Mary says. “You know Meredith?”

The fire lives even in our crooked paths, and it redeems them.

Dedicated to someone not at all like Max, save in the brightness of her burning and the immediacy of hope.

The Aftermath of Heaven (1 of 2)

[The Island of the Centipede – Interlude]

He is like God.

That’s the funny thing. The more he hunts God down the more opportunities Max has to understand just how much like God he is.

Like, with Sid.

Max just had a simple little wish. He just wanted Sid never ever to torture somebody to death. So he stuck his nose in. And he found himself blunted, a thousand times frustrated, by Sid’s free will.

The siggort would just look at him. Like it was Max who didn’t get it.

Like the ichneumon who looked at the angel and said, “But don’t you understand that torment is better than hope?”

Like people explaining unto Heaven why what they want must certainly be right.

Like a child, young and certain of some perverse idea, defying a parent.

Not that Max was ever like a parent to Sid. Not to that ancient creature.

No. Max, with Sid, had always been like God. He’d loved him. He’d judged him. He’d tried to save him. He’d even sent Sid more or less to Hell, and damn bad he’d felt for doing it, too.

Out of love.

Somewhere that had been wrong. He got that. He lived with it every day. Somehow it had been wrong. Somehow he hadn’t had the right.

He didn’t know what he had been supposed to do, but from the ashes of that occasion he’d figured out that taking away Sid’s choices wasn’t it.

And maybe that made sense.

Sid hadn’t ever done it, that vivisection thing. Wasn’t doing it. Wasn’t killing people. Didn’t even know why he might.

So all Max had was the guess, the belief, the assumption, that someday Sid would think he had to—

And that he’d be wrong.

It made sense. Sid thought it would happen, and that it would be right, and the difference between these statements is that the one is a lot more probable than the other.

But it still left Max with nothing more than not trusting Sid.

Than not believing Sid.

Because he loves him. Because he loves him and he can’t let Sid go wrong. He can’t let Sid go all vivisecting people on public streets while nobody notices wrong.

And he can see why that’s maybe not the cleanest motivation in the world, why the intensity of his fear doesn’t make it right, but at the end he’s still got this, that there’s something wrong with a guy so sure he’s going to kill someone, and that it’s a Hell of a thing that Max just has to watch.

So here’s the weird thing.

The goodblow—God, Good, virtue, whatever it was—had looked at him. And loved him. Its love was powerful enough to kill. Its love was terrible enough to drive Red Mary right back to the point of murder,

Not that she’d been so very far away,

And to make him feel—

Like he’s safer, safer, being drowned, being dragged down, down, down, than he had been before that gaze.

But it had been okay with his being wrong.

He doesn’t get that.

He isn’t okay with his being wrong. His soul is full of rough and knobbly edges. He lives in them. They are the grain in the wood of his existence. But he wants them smooth.

The goodblow hadn’t . . .

He doesn’t understand, as he’s preparing himself to die, why such a rough unfinished creature as is Max could know the love of Heaven.

Why it hadn’t fixed him.

He’d fumbled it with Sid, but that was the way in which he wasn’t God. He’d fumbled it, and he’d owned his guilt, because Max just wasn’t good enough to do any better.

Why hadn’t it fixed him?

And that’s the only bad thing about dying here and now, of letting go of the pain and passing on, now that he knows how intensely valued he is. That he’s seen the brightest love in all the world and still can’t figure how to save Sid.

That it’s useless to him.

That the goodblow doesn’t understand anything at all about how love is supposed to work, that it didn’t fix him, and that that meant it hadn’t shown him how somebody could fix Sid.

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.

The Island of the Centipede

It is June 3, 2004.

The chaos is bluer than the bluest sea and wracked with love. It is full of air like a gel and dazzling with patterns of shifting light.

Oh, Max thinks.

Red Mary is beginning to sing. Her song is a paean to death. Her song transforms into iconic music the sea that devours, the sea that consumes, the sea that returns all things to the cauldron of life.

But:

Oh, Max thinks.

His thoughts flutter over and over again against the wall of things not being exactly as he’d expected, and one swoops back to him with the smallest of small answers.

Oh.

Love is not a duty.

Somewhere a part of him insists, it is.

But he lets go of that idea as the sea devours him. He lets the sea take that miscomprehension first—that worst and meanest part of Max.

A man’s got a right to choose in which order he gets eaten.

Love is not a duty.

He’s not chained to Sid’s outcomes.

Love is a transforming power.

And he wants—

So much, so much! he wants—

To use that, to use his last thought to make his eyes into flamethrowers and burn the world with his love for Sid, to take a trick from the goodblow and ignite the chaos with the power of that love so that whenever Sid would walk by, the sea would say,

“Max loved you, you know.”

Or just to love so fiercely that somehow Sid would feel it from afar.

But if people could do that it would happen more often, and not just in the fairy tales, because people love very hard indeed;

And Max is small and frail so instead he thinks, I’ll come back.

His mind is a wasteland made by the aftermath of Heaven and the siren’s song. He’s sailed to the end of the world for love of Sid and at the end, he can’t pull it to the forefront of his mind.

He thinks about survival instead.

Like Meredith did, he thinks.

I’ll come back.

Of course, if Sid had been there to ask, he’d have preferred that last thought anyway.

Next Tuesday will be an Audience post. The Island of the Centipede will continue on Thursday.

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.”

The Loneliness of the World (2 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

Once upon a time, if you can believe Red Mary, the Buddha walked the world.

Back then, everything was exactly as it was.

Things had their own natures. A cloud was a cloud. A person was a person. A tree was a tree.

And more than that, every last person had their own way of being.

The world chose some people to be Kings by birth, gave rise to them with a nature for rule, and they sat on thrones and this was right. To others the world assigned a destiny of merchanthood or prostitution. The world birthed witches, killers, and creatures with terrible talents. It also gave rise to people with no more magic to them than the right to have a name and a family and an origin and an age.

The Buddha took that away.

He looked around and he said, “Because Kings are Kings, there is suffering. Because prostitutes are prostitutes, there is suffering. Because one man is a witch and can cast terrible spells, people suffer, and because another man is not and cannot, people suffer. It is even occasionally problematic that clouds are clouds.”

“Sure, but what can you do about it?” his mother asked.

The Buddha, if you can believe Red Mary, was always arguing with his mother. Even when you might think he’d be taking care of his son or meditating under a bo tree or achieving enlightenment or something, if you listen to Red Mary, he was probably arguing with his mother instead.

“What can you do about it?” she asked. “Because it’s so very precious to people that they are as they are.”

“It’s precious,” he said. “But that won’t stop me! I’ll still take it all away.”

And he spoke the word anatman and from him issued a great breath of change that stripped the natures from the world and from that point it was no longer true that things were always themselves.

From that day forward, when somebody was King, it wasn’t because it was right or even wrong that they were King. It was because of a causal chain of events that had put them on the throne. And when somebody was a merchant or a prostitute, that wasn’t dharma either. It just was. Even if you could figure out what the world had made you to do, it wasn’t necessarily so that you could do it.

Trees weren’t always trees.

The sun wasn’t always the sun.

Sometimes clouds turned to vapor and just drifted apart.

And as for the gods, they weren’t there.

The gods, the magic, the power of the witches, it was just . . . gone.

And for five hundred years this made people happy even in the face of the torments of the world; and then for fifteen hundred years, no matter how unhappy people were, they still had access to salvation.

But all that’s over now.

Now it’s the latter days of the law. The power of the Buddha’s word is fading. Magic is creeping in around the edges. People sometimes act in accordance with their nature. Kings by birth sit on the thrones again. People find themselves pawns helpless before their dharma.

The old ways are coming back.

But we already know that magic doesn’t fix things. We already know that it’s not enough to save anyone.

And as for the Buddha’s answer?

The powerlessness of anatman?

It’s kind of surprising, in these the Latter Days of the Law, that it ever helped anybody at all.

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

“What was it like?” Max asks.

“Hm?”

“For the gods,” Max says. “I’ve always wondered.”

“And hadn’t I just said we were gone?”

“Not all of you,” Max says. “Not Rahu. Not Pelopia. Not even Santa, if Jane is to be believed.”

“Santa,” says Red Mary.

She laughs.

“Disbelief?”

“Disdain.”

“Ah.”

Red Mary sighs.

“We were severed from the world,” she says. “We lived but we could not touch you. We spoke but you could not hear. I sang my song to Halldis who suffered and whom I imagined needed the power to dissolve. For she who made me, I sang, and to open for her a gateway to the freedom from her pain. But she did not dissolve. I cried to the White Christ to give her surcease but He did not answer. I begged favors of the sun, of the moon, of the stars. And four years later Halldis died in childbed and I went on. I lived in a fountain with cracked stone lions and I sang to kill the lamps and the pigeons and when that failed me I crawled westwards to the sea, and none in all that place to remember my passing or that I had ever been.”

“Why?”

“‘Why?'”

“Why?”

“‘The problem with egolessness,'” Red Mary says—and the inflection is strange, so that Max thinks she is quoting—“‘is that it never happens to the right people.'”

The catamaran drifts left and Max can see the texture of the island, the wrinkles of the rock, the black stones embedded in it, the mussels at the chaos’ edge.

“We’d never had the power we thought we had,” Red Mary says.

Max looks blankly at her.

“I’d thought it was the dharma of a siren to dissolve others into the greatness of the world,” she says. “But better to say: it is the dharma of a siren to dissolve others for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time, and to the wrong outcome.”

“Ah,” Max says.

“And yet we must try to be good.”

There’s an edge of skepticism to her voice that worries Max, so he doesn’t answer her.

“We can’t,” says Red Mary. “But somehow, we must try.”

She laughs.

“Disdain?” Max asks.

“Disbelief.”

And the catamaran sails on in the channels of the broken island, in the sea of chaos to the west of Gibbelins’ Tower, in the loneliness of the world.

The Broken Island (1 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

Max hurts. He licks his lips. Everything is distant and throbbing in white.

“You must hurry on,” says Red Mary.

His eyes drift open. The ceiling is blue and it’s moving. Also his bed is rocking back and forth and someone’s poured water and blood on him and for some reason there’s sailcloth wrapped around his leg and shoulder.

“I’m not God?” he asks.

He’s not entirely sure where he’s been but he’s pretty sure it involved being infinite and spread out over everything in the universe.

“What is God?” Red Mary asks. “We barely understand people.”

“Heh,” says Max.

He laughs. He coughs up a tangled mix of pangolin scales, kelp, and foam. Then he curls in on himself.

After a bit, he laughs again.

He says, “I was looking for him. So it would have been funny if I was.”

Red Mary looks at him with her cold black eyes.

“God is not here,” she says. “Though once this place was paradise.”

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

In the sea to the west of Gibbelins’ Tower a hill rises from the chaos. It is split into pieces like flower petals opening, like a walnut smashed too strongly by a hammer, like a broken mirror, like a land sundered forcefully by lightning. Its edges are brown rock with purple veining and the moist darkness of mussels clinging at its base. Great seacourses run through it, around and about the chunks of land, rushing with great currents. Trees stand at the edge of the unnatural cliffs, the wind bowing them out over those cliffs’ edges that they may cast down rustling green shadows. Where the land is low and holds its belly in down near the waves red bushes grow. They are crisp and the afternoon light suffuses them.

The catamaran runs the seacourse, lean and low like a wolf.

“What smashed it?” Max asks.

“Its own inadequacies,” Red Mary says. “I have told you that no paradise sustains. Against the nature of things the force that held this land together could not hold; over a thousand years of observation it has pulled itself apart.”

He thinks that this has made her sad, so he says, “I’m sorry.”

“Mr. Kong would say,” Red Mary says, “that we must try to be good.”

The seacourse turns.

Red Mary tacks the boat. The boom swings, and she catches it with one hand before she ducks beneath it and lets the catamaran run.

“In the face of such emptiness,” she says, “and the cost of helping others; still, that we should try to be good.”

Max says, “I’m glad for your sudden conversion to Confucianism.”

Red Mary shrugs.

“Didn’t you try to kill me?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“You should have stayed at home,” says Red Mary. She is angry. She does not look at him. Her tail dips into the water and the skin of her face stretches tight against its bones.

“I was looking for God,” Max says.

“Most people do that in the silence of their soul.”

“I had a catamaran.”

“It’s not your business to come here.”

Max struggles up on one elbow. He says, “You’ve ripped off bits of me with your teeth so don’t tell me what’s my business and not my business.”

Rage boils in her. Her face darkens. But propriety, and scarcely, keeps it down.

“With twelve of us,” she says, “this place had a thousand years; of that, scarcely a week remains. Each hour you spend here eats sixty-five minutes of that time; more, since you are not accounted for in the balance of things. I regret my murderous frenzy has inconvenienced you but to sing sailors to their death is in the nature of a siren and I had ample motivation to see you drown.”

Max slumps back on the deck. He’s a little dizzy.

“Sid’s like that,” he says.

“Hm?”

“He’s always talking about how it’s his nature to vivisect people, like he’s sad that brutal murder inconveniences me. He’s never actually ripped off a chunk of my leg and shoulder, though.”

“Is the bandage all right?”

“You don’t really have to do it,” Max says. “You know.”

“Help you?”

“Kill people.”

“That’s none of your concern,” Red Mary says.

“The Hell it’s not.”

Red Mary says, softly, “How a man grows aggressive when his enemy displays propriety. He thinks: I will use this good behavior to enforce my advantage over her. Is it any wonder people hold good behavior in such disregard?”

Max remembers the charge of Red Mary against him. He remembers the pain of parting when she tore his flesh from flesh. He subsides.

More gently, he says, “But teeth aren’t righteousness.”

“No,” says Red Mary.

She looks up.

“I’m not saying you’re right,” she says, “and I’m not saying you’re wrong. But you’re making a moral argument about a factual thing.”

“Whatever,” says Max.

“I’ll tell you a story,” says Red Mary. “About the Buddha.”

The knife of the history of Mr. Kong is black against the whiteness of the deck.

“Okay,” Max says.

He hesitates for a moment.

“The ninja or the pirate?”

Red Mary stares at him a long, cold moment.

“Oh,” Max says, embarrassed. “The Indian.”