The False Enlightenment (II/III)

The problem with Meredith exploding is that she gets everywhere. She turns into water and foam and salt as she explodes. There is even a cute little octopus. These pieces are vigorously distributed all over, so that the monster’s shiny tie gleams with water and the red Persian rug is all salty and the octopus is over there being cute and drying out on the hard concrete floor.

Meredith evaporates slowly over time and gets into the ventilation and then the sky.

Meredith leaks out over time and gets into the ground.

The remnants of her run in rivulets down to the sea.

People say that when you die you return to the universe. The lie of independent existence cessates; the impulses that make the self do not dissolve but rather retreat to their primordial forms as part of the larger world.

So it is with Meredith.

She is not a god of the sky but there is Meredith in the sky.

She is not a god of the ground but she is there in the ground with the vegetables and the worms.

She spreads up into the fruits.

**

The monster is making a sandwich. The sandwich is on whole wheat bread. He puts tuna on one side, from the can. He spreads the other with mustard. He puts a leaf of lettuce on it. Then he is discontent.

“It needs tomato,” he says.

So he goes to the garden patch outside Tina’s house and he selects from among the fruits.

“Don’t eat me,” says the Meredith in the tomato.

The monster hesitates, wary, as he always is, of suddenly finding himself in a moral fable.

“Are you a magic tomato?” he asks.

“I am a magic tomato,” Meredith confirms. “I don’t want to be eaten.”

“Of course not,” says the monster.

He takes hold of the tomato. With a twist of his wrist he pulls it off the plant. He says, “But it’s your own fault, you see.”

“It isn’t!” protests Meredith as he carries the tomato into the house.

“It’s because you’re in denial regarding your own nature as a tomato,” says the monster, “that this upsets you. It is because you have chosen to conceive yourself in a fashion that denies the flavor of your meat. That’s the only reason we’re even having this discussion—because of the essential dishonesty in you that levies minimization against the flesh.”

He touches his hand to his forehead. He has been working on Jenna for some time and he is tired.

“Here,” he says.

And Meredith catches her reflection in the tie and she sees in it the nature of tomatoes: the ripeness, the redness, the moisture. That she is a thing that may be consumed.

It dissolves the boundaries of her world; and, following that, he cuts a slice from her.

There is no pain, because tomatoes have no nerves and also have no brain.

But there is an ambiguous sense of loss and dysfunction.

The monster tastes the slice.

He frowns.

His stomach makes an unhappy noise.

He goes still.

“What?” asks the tomato.

“You are salty and you taste unaccountably of octopus,” says the monster. “You are a salty octopusy tomato and you aren’t edible at all.”

“Oh,” says Meredith.

He tosses her into the garbage.

There in the dark the tomato thinks, “I have suffered a false enlightenment.”

“It’s funny,” Jane says, sometimes, “that we named the lens Necessity.

“Why?”

“Well, it shows the monster in it.”

“He’s not invisible to Necessity,” Martin says. “He’s just not part of it.”

“That Was Quick,” The Monster Said (I/III)

A history of a mean and ugly time.

Meredith is born. She explodes!

It is 1978. The sun is bright.

The monster looks surprised.

Not everyone explodes a few seconds after they’re born. Most people start out as babies. Babies are amazingly non-explosive. Even when you activate them using a nipple they remain inert, constraining their endless trillions of kilojoules within their adorable mass.

Even people who do not start as babies do not always explode. Gods tend to appear full-grown. Goats start out as kids, and Dick Cheney was actually born older than he is now. Some universal figures exist without beginning or end, such as God or Ouroborous. In addition there are suspicions regarding the people of Kansas who may in fact hatch out of great clutches of tornado eggs.

But Meredith has exploded; so, “That was quick,” the monster says.

Jenna giggles.

“She lasted longer in GMT,” Jenna says.

There’s a pause.

“What?”

“‘Cause it’s later there. In Greniggs!”

“No,” says the monster. “No, it’s not.”

He wipes off his face. He walks away. He leaves her there, and slowly Jenna’s head falls forward and her eyes flutter shut.

“PST sucks,” she says.

She dreams of Greenwich, where everything happens much later and in a stately fashion, where strange European people eat their midnight snacks at four, and where partings take eight hours at a time.

Martin and Thess (II/III)

On March 22, 1995, Jenna receives a certified letter. It has her full address on the front, including “The Firewood World” at the very bottom. It is delivered by postal jet. The letter reads as follows:

Jane,

I hope you are well.

I had never thought to let you go. You were close to my heart, and I thought that you would die or remain with me forever. Yet life takes funny turns.

Still, I have need of your services again. I hope that you’re available. I know that you’ve been confused and angry and acting, well, as one would expect Jane to act. But you should visit me soon.

You belong to me.

On the letter is drawn the crest of the monster’s house.

Three days pass, and most of another.

It is March 25.

Martin, stumbling through the mud of the underworld, meets Thess.

Thess is a young man, with clear blue eyes, angel’s wings, and a jacket.

“People loved me,” says Thess.

Thess is building. This is his punishment. He is building creatures, always, making new kinds of life.

Then they die, and turn to dust, and the dust blows away.

Thess is steeping in mud and failure and it has not improved him yet.

“I radiated it,” Thess says. “It was my answer. ‘You can escape your pain. Just love Thess!'”

“Oh,” Martin says.

“It was a clinging love, a reaching love, a scrambling love,” says Thess. “It was more real than the world. It was an awakening love. I was going to walk right into Central and they would have loved me. And I would have asked them to let her go. I would have told them that I was her brother. And she would have come and taken shelter with me, and them too, and she would have been safe.”

“What happened?”

“I died,” Thess says. “In a little town, by a little school. A faceless god bound me to the earth, cut my ribs out, and pulled my lungs out my back. Then love died and the world was hollow.”

“I’m sorry,” Martin says.

“Help me,” says Thess.

“I could leave you here to suffer, thus allowing you to transform into something better,” says Martin.

Thess looks at Martin. It’s a very sardonic look.

“Yes,” says Thess. “That plan is certain to be effective.”

Martin looks down.

“It’s what I know how to do,” Martin says.

“Nothing?”

Martin hesitates.

“If you leave me here,” says Thess, “I will suffer eternally and gain nothing from it. Then one day you will go and face the monster, and he’ll point his finger and laugh. And you’ll say, ‘watch out! I’m going to leave you alone so hard your head will spin!'”

“I’d planned to revise the speech a little,” Martin says, “First.”

“Give it a few drafts?”

“Yes.”

Thess looks at Martin, and suddenly Martin loves him so much his heart hurts.

“I made a glorious frog-thing,” Thess says, “I called it Alitheia. But it died. They all die. Each of my children. I grow hollower and hollower but there is no end to me. Help me.”

So Martin reaches out for Thess, and at his touch Thess turns to dust.

Iphigenia (II/IV)

“I would like the power to kill,” Tina tells the monster.

It is 1981. The sun is dim and has been growing dimmer.

“Then take it,” says the monster.

The sun is very big, but it is very far away. Four horses pull it around the sky. They belong to Mr. Sun and his daughter Iphigenia.

“These horses always get too hot and sweaty,” says Mr. Sun. “That’s why they have such a high mortality rate! But there aren’t enough left to sustain the breed. Soon we’ll run out!”

“That’s bad,” declares Iphigenia.

“She is available?” Tina asks.

“She is.”

“We could try ice horses,” says Iphigenia.

“Let’s!”

But the ice horses melt. Cold water splashes everywhere. The sun grows a little dimmer.

“I don’t think that worked,” opines Mr. Sun.

So Tina calls Jenna on the telephone. Jenna meets her by the road, with trees arching above. Tina takes her home.

“The sun is dying,” Tina says, in a businesslike fashion. “You have failed to keep it alive.”

It wouldn’t mean anything to Jenna if you called her Nephilim.

She barely remembers or understands that the monster has used her, more than once, to conjure gods. Not on that day, anyway; not on that occasion. The process blurs, sometimes, fades, shudders from your mind, if you can’t put it in a framework suited to your understanding.

Jenna does not know what she has done or what she isn’t for or why she answered Tina’s call;

But she can’t meet Tina’s eyes.

“We could try murderous horses,” says Iphigenia. “Their hearts would be cold as ice, but their bodies wouldn’t be!”

“Let’s!” declares Mr. Sun.

They lock the horses in a room. They kill one another. It’s a locked room mystery!

“It’s not really that mysterious,” says Iphigenia, after a while. “Just sad.”

Today’s pain is sharp and hideous and it lingers, like a burn.

Jenna is aware of screaming, sometimes. Mostly she is aware that she is going to die, that everything in the world is wrong, and that it is her fault. She has failed to keep the sun alive.

“We could try horses made of fire,” says Iphigenia.

“That’d make the sun even hotter,” says Mr. Sun. “We might burn up ourselves!”

“Let’s both do our best,” says Iphigenia.

So they hitch four horses of fire to the sun. They begin to sweat. The horses gallop. It is hard and it is painful and it is terrible. The heat washes back to them in waves, and the effort, and the straining of the horses against the reins. It is a wild and terrible ride, and Iphigenia can scarcely breathe during it.

She is laughing with exultation and victory when she realizes that

Somehow, it is over. Somehow, she has survived.

“That’s very well done,” says Mr. Sun. “I guess you should take over, now.”

The world is strangely cold on Iphigenia’s skin. She looks around. A girl is slumped against the wall. A woman in a white coat is looking at her with a distant air of satisfaction.

“Hello?” says Iphigenia.

There are walls on every side, and nowhere there is the sun.

“Can you kill?” says the woman. Her hair is blond and cut short.

“I am the sun,” says Iphigenia.

The woman walks to the window. She points at a passing car. “Them,” she says.

Iphigenia frowns. She is unsettled, unbalanced. But there is heat and the car is burning.

The woman stares at Iphigenia for a while.

“I understand you,” she says. Her words are flat.

Iphigenia blinks at her.

“I am Tina,” the woman says. “You are my daughter.”

The Wind is Changing

In the last chapter of Hitherby Dragons we learned about Jenna and Liril.

They’d both suffered at the monster’s hands.

And unlike most of the Nephilim that the monster’d found they’d each built something like an answer. They’d stumbled into an escape; a way out; a path to freedom. And it’s the nature of escapes and ways out that they are dead ends; and each of them was facing this truth in their own characteristic fashion.

Jenna had locked herself away from everything else, in a firewood world suspended in the sky. She was busily engaged in pretending this would work when Martin came and set her spirit on fire and turned her into Jane.

Liril hid in Santa Ynez and she was still and silent and her brother Micah kept her safe.

And each of them lived frozen—

Not aging, like fairy princesses oughtn’t, even though that’s not exactly what they were—

Until the changing of the wind.

That’s when Jane pinned her safety to the future of the world.

She’d done it before!

A long time ago!

But it was the wind’s changing that made it official.

“The monster won’t have me,” Jane decided, “if I can save everyone from sorrow.”

And now she lives in a tower beyond the world and she creates these phantasmagoria from the chaos and maybe, just maybe, she’ll make an answer to everybody’s suffering before this story ends. If she doesn’t, you see, that’s probably an unhappy ending for everyone concerned, including Jane.

Liril’s answer, on the other hand, was more personal.

Liril decided she would run.

Some of it was the changing wind, and some of it was a stone named Liril that Micah rolled out into the world, and some of it—maybe—was a duty pressing inwards from the suffering natures of the world.

Out of all of that, anyway, came her decision.

She decided she would run.

She decided she’d be safe if she could make her safety. So she took her old babysitter John and she made a ghoul of him, and she and John and Micah made plans to get away.

That’s when Tina captured Micah and tortured him.

That’s when her plan went very bad.

Liril’s rescued Micah from Tina’s basement, now. John’s slaughtered the demon Thysiazo, now, and Liril and Micah are away.

But it hurts that Micah hurt.

Not just for Liril.

It hurts for all of us, for us and you, forever and ever, because when any person suffers none of the rest of us are spared.

It’s not just philosophy!

It’s a fundamental law!

Why the Monster Laughs at God (1 of 1)

“My case is hopeless.”

I am full of guilt and shame.

It is funny. It is a funny way to live my life. I would think that it would be better to live some other way. To dance like a star.

But there is a small stain on the top I wore today. And Mom never loved me. And my thighs are too big. And I burp sometimes, even in public. And children are dying everywhere in the world.

I always imagine God up in Heaven, waggling his finger down, as if he’d like to love me but can’t possibly approve.

I got the weirdest spam today. Well, door-spam. You know. People, knocking. They were trying to sell me a “libellus,” and said it would make me good.

I laughed and told them to try next door. “My case is hopeless,” I said.
— from Linda Myers’ livejournal

Two men walk. Their destination is still half a mile ahead.

“Jenna thinks you laugh at God,” Sebastien says.

“Her name is Jane,” the monster says.

“I don’t understand it,” Sebastien says. “Why wouldn’t you claim God’s sanction? Do you really imagine that you’d be the first hypocrite He decides to smite?”

“It is every man’s choice whether to claim God’s approval,” the monster says, “whether their business is charity, industry, or pain.”

They walk on for a bit in silence.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Sebastien says.

The monster snorts. Then he looks sidelong at Sebastien. “You’re really curious? I mean, you actually think it matters?”

Sebastien shrugs. “I want to know what you fear,” he says.

“I don’t fear smiting,” the monster says. “I fear the trouble. I fear having to put on a big fake smile and tell everyone how Christian I am while children scream. The piousness and the constant references to God—it’s sickening.”

“That is why we need the Devil.”

The libellus is an odd thing. Strange and gnarled and horrid in its way. Yet it is soothing to me.

The pamphlet that comes with it says that it is the Devil.

Here, I’ll quote:

“The Devil is the one who tells you that you are beautiful. Because the world does not allow that you can be beautiful. The Devil is the one who tells you that you are good. Because the world does not allow you to be good. To be good and beautiful is reserved for other people. You can ask them, and they will tell you. To be good and beautiful is to be “arrogant and full of pride.” That is why we need the Devil.”

I do not think that I hang the Devil around my neck. I think it is an odd statue.

I find myself liking it.
— from Linda Myers’ livejournal

“Did you know,” says the monster, “that I am good, and right, and an instrument of virtue?”

“I did not know that,” says the hero, blandly.

“It is so,” says the monster. “The facts are barren. They are not pleasant. I have done things that transgress the borders of the self. But without interpretation these actions represent nothing more than a data stream—a flow of arbitrary data to the senses. It transforms topologically into ordinary zeroes and ones. Or into a Gödel number, empty and alone in the infinite set.”

“That is not virtue.”

“To survive,” says the monster, “each person must construct an interpretation for the data available that sums to something good. That is the call to God. Jane called for God’s help, once. In so doing, she placed herself in a world where there was a divine plan—where the immutable laws of God’s love and mercy made it necessary that she suffer. She chose a world where there was hope, and goodness, and salvation, and me.”

“So you laughed,” the hero says.

“I was afraid,” the monster says. “It horrified me. Of course I laughed.”

The condition of not being alone.

I received a letter asking me to speak against a man in court.

I did not want to do this. It took effort, and I value my honesty. But I did not want to lose the libellus.

It was at the court that I met the first of my sisters. She opened the top of her coat, as I passed, to show me the libellus round her neck. That is how I know. There are others who share my grace. I have arranged to have coffee with her on Thursday and she will tell me more.
— from Linda Myers’ livejournal, private entry

“Do you want to be good?” Sebastien asks.

The monster smiles. It is almost wistful. “When I was young,” he says, “I made a praising god. Do you know them? We call them libellatici.

“Succubi,” says the hero. “Incubi. The Devil’s voice.”

The monster tilts his head to one side. “Is there a Devil?” he asks.

Sebastien shrugs. “The existence of a Devil is neither made necessary nor contraindicated by the presence of his voice. Call them rakshasa, if you like.”

“It was pleasant,” says the monster, “to be good. But futile.”

“Futile?”

“The rakshasa are the enemies of the gods.”

And I have met him

I have met the creature to whom my libellus gives voice.

I do not think he is the Devil. It is disappointing, in a way.

He is not conventional. He is sovereign, but worm-like. He is yellow and black. This is not the Devil’s color scheme. He is not the Devil.

But I will serve him. That is what is right.

He has made me good.
— from Linda Myers’ livejournal

They have reached a square of perfect grass and concrete walks, and before them there is a door.

“We make them now,” says the monster. “We make them, here at Central, and we send them out.”

“That is regrettable,” Sebastien says.

“Why?” the monster asks. His voice is mocking. “Surely, it is to the benefit of people to know that they are good.”

Sebastien snorts.

“It helps them understand that everyone is good and beautiful,” the monster says.

“But you’re not,” Sebastien says.

The monster laughs.

Tunnel Rat (I/IV)

It is 1973.

Jenna lives in a cedar house. It’s very tall. Most of it is one room. She has a bed in the corner. It’s a mattress on the floor, with sheets and blankets, and it’s next to the mantelshelf. There are hangings on the walls. The floor is hardwood.

Her brother is named Sebastien. He could be a hero, if he dared. She thinks of him as one, anyway. Sometimes, when she’s troubled, he’ll sit behind her as she hugs her knees and lightly scratch her back through her blouse.

“We’re not really people,” he tells her, now and again. “I don’t even know if we have souls.”

“That’s silly,” she says.

He shrugs. “Mama says that everyone has a mortal body and an immortal spirit. But if we turn into our spirits, we just disappear. So we must not have any. That’s what happened to Grandpapa, you know. This life is all we get.”

“You’re mean,” she tells him. But she doesn’t ask her mother for the truth.

In January, 1974, she hears about the monster for the first time.

“He’s looking for us,” Tara says. That’s her mother. “I can hear him, hunting. I can feel him. Like a wolf in the woods.”

“We have to leave,” says her father, Ben.

Their voices are hushed, but Jenna can hear them. So can Sebastien, but he’s pretending not to notice. Tara’s looking at him, though; and eventually he turns, and stares at her with his sharp dark eyes.

“We’re going to have to make him ready,” Tara says, to Ben.

“Him?”

“I don’t want him to fight for her,” she says. “But he probably will, and if he does, we have to give him a chance.”

Jenna goes outside, and down to her beach, and sits on the shore, and there’s a voice in the waves, and it is speaking her name. So she calls to it, and an oceanid rises from the water, and sits beside her on the sand.

“What’s going on?” she asks it.

“They’re trying to decide how to keep you out of the monster’s hands.”

“Monsters aren’t real.”

“This one is,” the oceanid says.

“Oh.”

“He’ll take you away, and he’ll empty you out, and use you to make gods for him.” The oceanid sighs. “He’s very excited about it. The wind told me. The monsters have been hurting your line for generations, and it’s only recently that it’s started working at all. But he’s plum used up the source he has.”

“I don’t want to make gods for him,” Jenna says. “It’s personal.”

“I know.”

Jenna runs a finger in wavy lines through the sand.

“Sebastien will save me,” she says. “He’s a hero.”

“Maybe,” the oceanid says.

“Or you,” Jenna says.

“He’ll come,” the oceanid says, “and Tara will grow claws and try to rip out his heart; but he’ll put his gun to your head, and she’ll back away. And Sebastien, he’ll fight for you, and he’ll die. Heroes usually do. And the monster will take you away, and unless he drives very close to the shore, there’s nothing I can do.”

“I could live with you,” Jenna says. “Somewhere quiet, somewhere deep, under the waves. I could be a fish. I could be a mermaid. I could live all my life with the sound of the ocean and the dark of the deeps.”

“You’d grow very cold,” the oceanid says, “if you lived in the sea.”

“Oh.” Jenna frowns.

“I’m sorry.”

“Why does Sebastien have to be the one to fight?” she says. “He’s coming for me. Why can’t I fight him?”

The oceanid lifts a hand, and her fingers twitch, and the rhythm changes of the waves crashing against the shore.

“It’s hard,” the oceanid says. “You’re too young to fight him physically. You’re small and clumsy and you don’t have your power yet. And you’re not a hero. If you did kill him . . . I mean, if you picked up a gun and shot him, or a razor and razored him, and he died, then it wouldn’t be heroic. It’d just be blood and death and pain and you’d feel guilty about it for the rest of your life. It’d stain you.”

Jenna looks at her.

“And making gods to fight him . . .” The oceanid shrugs. “. . . I don’t know why that doesn’t work. But there must be a reason, because if it were that simple, there wouldn’t be any monsters. Just hanged corpses and bitter ashes on the tree of the world.”

“Oh.”

“So if you found an answer,” the oceanid says, “it’d have to be different.”

“What kind of things answer monsters?”

“I don’t know.”

“What would an answer look like?”

The oceanid raises her hand. The sea crashes down, hard. The water runs up and chills Jenna’s feet. The seagulls shriek. The air is full of noise.

“Don’t face him,” the oceanid says. “Find someplace dark and distant, on the other side of death. Never let him see your face. Run, and hide, and seal the walls of your home against him. Hide until the wind so changes that you can change the world.”

“Is that a good answer?”

“. . . it won’t last,” the oceanid says. “But maybe it’ll help.”

The family moves. The cedar house is left behind.

Ben trains Sebastien to fight.

“The more you become yourself,” Ben says, “the more you die. The more you disappear. The more you become something unreal.”

Sebastien fences. He has a sword. Ben only has his hands. Ben is winning, and more than once the calloused edges of his hands knock the sword aside without a cut.

“If you fight a monster,” Ben says, “your goal is to win as a normal person, with normal limits. You’ll feel the wind blowing in your soul, trying to change you into something better, more powerful, more absolute. You’ll look at your enemy and think, ‘This could be so easy.’ Don’t. Live in the world of fumbling and stumbling and failure and folly. Live in the world of screaming in hopeless panic and wounding yourself with your own sword. People can live. People can win. Heroes can’t.”

Ben strikes a blow, and the sword twists in Sebastien’s hands, and he falls, and as fast as that Ben’s knee is on his back and Sebastien cannot move.

“Good,” Ben says.

“And if he comes, and I fail,” Sebastien says, “I let him take her?”

Ben hesitates.

“Well?”

Ben rises, and walks over to the bench, and sits. “It’s your choice,” he says.

“Why?”

“If he takes her,” Ben says, “we can get her back. And that’s hard, and painful, and we might fail, but we can still win. If you transcend, we’ve lost you, and it might not even help her. I can’t make that choice for you. For one thing, you’ll be the one in the fight.”

“You could fight him.”

“When I married Tara,” Ben says, “she made me promise I wouldn’t fight for her. But then the years passed, and he never came. Now . . .” He hesitates. “I guess I’ll have a choice to make, too.”

Jenna is watching. She is listening. Her eyes are dark and still. After a while, Sebastien comes and sits with her, and Ben goes away.

“You’re going to die,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “We’re not people. Life and death are strange for us, and we have no souls.”

He shrugs.

“My life,” he says, and turns his palms upright. “It’s hardly real anyway. So there’s nothing to lose. I might as well fight, and maybe you won’t have to suffer. Don’t you get it?” he says. “It’s the only way I can save you.”

Jenna dies. There’s an awkward silence.

“I shouldn’t make my points so forcefully,” Sebastien admits.

(See also The Tunnels (I/IV))

Bob (III/IV)

It’s 1989. It’s cold. It’s almost winter. The grass is dying. The air is sharp and black. Bob is out on the balcony. He looks down at the city. He sees a wogly.

The wogly has the deepest, bluest skin and two winky eyes. It’s shaped like a torus. Inside the wogly it’s empty.

Bob’s never seen a wogly before. He hops up onto the balcony railing. He walks out across the sky. He stands, silhouetted against the stars. He cups his hand under the wogly and holds it up close to his eyes. He listens to it hiss.

“What are you?” he says.

It rotates. “I am a wogly,” it says. “I am devouring the integrity of the world.”

“Ah,” says Bob. He attempts to crush the wogly. It squishes but it does not crush. He grasps the wogly in both hands. His thumbs enter the emptiness inside. They turn cold, and begin to die. He attempts to snap the wogly. It does not snap. He retracts his hands and shakes them.

After a moment, Bob says, “I’d rather you didn’t.”

The wogly rotates again. “Blame the river for its flooding. Blame the thunder for resounding. Blame someone for being born. But you cannot blame a wogly.”

Bob frowns. He grasps the wogly close against his heart. He wraps his coat around it. He walks back through the sky to his home. He knocks on the window of his sister’s room. She answers, opening it wide.

“It’s almost time for dinner,” she says.

“Jane,” he says, “are you happy?”

He sees her smile.

“This world,” he says. “You like it?”

She chews on her lip. “So-so,” she says. “It’s kind of cold.”

Bob smiles. He finds direction. “Then I suppose that we must save it.”

The girl frowns a little. “It’s almost time for dinner,” she says, didactically. “We can’t be late for dinner. Mom won’t like it.”

“It’s a long time off,” he says. “Let’s build a world out of firewood.”

She makes a face. Then she ponders. “There is rather a lot of firewood,” she says.

He looks at her. His heart is growing chill. He sets that concern aside. He gives her his best smile. It catches on her face like a fire, and she smiles back. “That’d be fun.”

She invites him in; and they gather up the wood; and he takes her hand, and they walk into the sky. In the starlight, there’s a nimbus around her, like a flame. “This is your element,” he says. “This is where you should be. Here. You’re beautiful, here.”

She laughs. “Silly.”

In the sky, under the moon, they lay down the firewood. They build a world. It’s five hundred miles long and ten miles deep. It has lots of firewood animals and firewood cities and firewood people.

The girl starts. “Mom’s calling,” she says. “We have to go back.”

Bob hesitates. “Go without me,” he says.

“Nuh-uh!” She shakes her head vigorously. “It has to be both of us.”

“I’ll just be a minute?”

The girl hesitates, then nods. She skips down through the sky; and as she falls into the shadow of the world, the nimbus fades.

Bob takes out the wogly. He sets it down. “Eat this world,” he says.

The wogly considers. It rotates once, twice, thrice. “I’m a wogly,” it says. “I eat whatever world I happen to be next to. But when I’ve eaten all this world’s integrity, you’ll be sorry!”

Bob departs. He knocks on his sister’s window. She opens it.

“We shouldn’t have used all the firewood,” she says wryly. “Mom’s ticked. No dinner for us.”

Bob frowns. “That’s not fair,” he says.

The girl’s eyes meet his. A firelight flickers deep inside them. It wobbles. It moves like a drunk dog on a short leash. It’s sick.

“It’s just dinner,” she says.

Bob hesitates, a long moment, because it’s not. “We’re both her children,” he says. His voice is curiously tentative. “That’s okay, right?”

She sits down on the bed. Then she curls her arms around her legs. She shakes. He moves to touch her, to sit by her, to say something, but she gestures fiercely with her chin and he does not.

“No,” she says. “No. No. No. You’re not.”

A muscle in Bob’s cheek twitches. “I have to be,” he says. “I’m your brother. That’s how the world works.”

She looks up. “Are you real?” she says.

He checks. He is. There are ways and means of knowing such things.

“Yes,” he answers.

She takes his hand. She drags him out the window. She does not fall. They walk through the sky back to the firewood world.

“Here,” she says. “We’ll live here. And we’ll be terrible beasts, and they’ll all tremble before us. All the firewood people. We’ll have seven hundred teeth. We’ll have five hundred claws. We’ll have LAW rockets. And I’ll have the fire around me, and you’ll be my brother, and we’ll be safe.”

He doesn’t tell her about the wogly. He just builds. He creates. He gives integrity to the world. He works, very hard, for a very long time.

Then comes the axe: first for the wogly, and then for Bob.

The Castle (III/IV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenna swallows, and recites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenna recites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenna recites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Coyote asks.

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

The Forest (II/IV)

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

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

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

Jenna shouts, “Hey!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ninja Tathagata winks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s a Dukkha Call?”

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

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

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