Such a Strange and Funny Image

Sometimes the plague paralyzes instead of killing.

Leila’s mistake had been letting the child into her house. He had been coughing and shivering as he’d delivered her mail. But she had not thought it was the plague.

She’d looked for the feathered discolorations at his temples, of course.

She’d checked his skin, with a single practiced look, for the roughness that it is the wont of the plague to make.

In sum, Leila succumbed to medical arrogance and diagnosed the boy by eye as safe; and succumbed also to pity, and so she let him in, to shiver himself to sleep upon her couch; and in the morning, he was dead, and she hung a black tile and a white tile on her door, in case it so happened that she should die in turn.

But it was not death that found her.

It was a slow, creeping paralysis and, with it, panicky denial. Her body was slower. Her vision was greyer. And she worked late that night, exhausting herself reading and charting the latest data on the L-C serum, and went to bed thinking, “Well, I am sure it is not the plague, but if it is, at least I shall wake up dead.”

But instead when she wakes her body is stiff, cold, nearly unresponsive to her will, and she thinks of the horror of dying over days in frozen stillness and she fumbles her way out of bed to crawl along the floor, to crack open her door and let the mist in from the streets, to croak something incomprehensible, to drag herself in her gray nightgown along the cobblestones in hopes of finding help or, at least, execution. And when the last of her strength leaves her she is not even looking up, but rather laying there, still, face-down, cobblestones pressing above her eyes.

And she can hear them come.

It is only by the rustling of their clothing that she hears them. They do not walk upon the ground, so their footsteps make no noise. They do not speak as they approach, for the speech of humans hurts their throats. They are quiet in the mist, but not deliberately so, and so she hears their clothing shifting as they move.

One of them keens, softly. This is answered by the keening of the others.

A hand reaches down from above. It rolls her over. She looks up into the face of one of the floating people.

He is smiling. He is human, but also not—in a time when every face is seamed with lines of sorrow, he has the clean innocence of a child on an adult human’s face. He is wearing loose gray clothing. His hair is black. And he is squatting on the tendrils of the mist a foot above her chest.

He chirrs to her, a soft question in the floating people’s tongue.

She cannot answer.

The words rough in his throat, he says, “You are broken. I will heal you.”

She wants to laugh. She wants to laugh because it is her own work that has done this; her own labor that has brought this down upon her; but she is scarcely let to breathe, much less to laugh.

So he reaches down from above and he touches her face and his fingers push and pull and move something inside her—as if he were twisting her brain or her soul around from the outside of her head.

Her breath gasps in and out.

She becomes light.

It is like a madness surging through her. It is like the warmth of a summer’s day or a drowsy winter’s fire. It is like the joy of discovery, of solutions, of first love. And it is somewhat like she imagines opium or cocaine to be, a drug that cuts at the foundations of her reason even as it lifts her up.

“Leila,” she says. “I am Leila.”

It is with the greatest effort that she clings to that and does not let the giddy joy sweep it away.

“I am Leila,” she says, and the words hurt her throat.

The paralysis has receded and her body is incredibly light. She lifts herself to her feet with but a thought and makes a soft noise of dismay as she realizes that they no longer touch the ground.

Murmuring, keening, the floating people press themselves around her.

Welcome, they say, with soft inhuman noises. Welcome.

“No,” she says.

She pushes herself free; springs to the upper place, ten feet above them; crouches there on the mist, shivering.

“I am Kern,” says the one who had wakened her. You are upset, he keens. “It is all right. It is not so bad as foot people imagine.”

Foot people, she giggles. Then she shakes her head.

“I know what this is,” she says. “I helped to make your kind.”

Honorable mother, whisper a few voices. It is more light teasing than it is respect. And one, with a soft whistle, asks, But don’t you love us, mother?

The joy of existence beats upon her sense of self once more. The laughter that she, of all people, should find herself in this position, rises up again. She holds herself tightly to keep from dissolving in the good, clean mirth.

“I have to call my husband,” she says.

Sadness, whisper the voices of the floating people. And Kern is up before her and he gently touches her face, wondering, perhaps, if he has done a poor job on making her light; but then he shrugs, and says, “Then go.”

So she stumbles through the air back to her house. She lifts her hand to the open door and goes irrationally still for a moment, seeing the black tile hanging on it; and then she laughs at herself, because the floating people may enter even where there is plague.

She goes in.

She places an international call.

“Christopher,” she says.

Somewhere in the Americas he is rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He is holding up the phone. He is saying, “Hm?”

He does not complain at her waking him, this time, because of the pain within her voice.

“Christopher,” she says. “I am infected.”

And then, overcome by the unfairness of it, she says, “They made me light.”

And she realizes that she is sitting in the air above her desk, the phone cord stretching down, as if she were sitting in her most comfortable chair; and she drags herself awkwardly down to sit upon the desk’s hard wood edges.

The silence on the other end stretches.

Then Christopher says softly, “Oh, my love.”

“We can fix it,” she says.

“I remember,” he says, “that Derek was reluctant to build the sense of joy and purpose into the floating people.”

She can touch that joy and purpose, inside her, like a person with a broken tooth can touch it with their tongue.

“He said that it would be better to let them realize that they are dead; that the plague inexorable eliminates the chemical basis for their humanity; that they are a garbage collection scheme for us, to get the corpses from the streets.”

“Oh,” she says.

Despite the fierceness of her clinging to her sense of self, she had let herself forget the reasons she should do so.

“But we thought—I and my wife—that it was better that they had an illusion.”

He is crying. It is the choice, however deliberate, to divide the person speaking to him from his wife that has broken him down.

She interrupts: “We can fix it. We—I know we’ve had other priorities, but we can fix it. I’m not gone, Christopher.”

And he says, “I will believe you if you tell me again that that is true.”

She feels so incredibly light. She feels so much joy. It is as if the plague-ridden world is Heaven and all the things of it her toys.

She tells herself again how important it is to remain herself. To cling to herself. To remain human.

It is one of those distant senses of importance, like that of a child who likes the sinuous music of a pornography channel but knows that something about it is apparently forbidden; like that of an apathet who knows that they really should engage in social activism someday; like that of anyone who feels that they really shouldn’t be enjoying the crunchy fried grasshopper, sex, bad movie, or trashy book that they are currently enjoying.

“I—” she says.

She keens, I feel so light.

“If you need anything,” he says. “If you ever need anything. Even though you’re dead. You can call.”

It is ridiculous to imagine that she should need something.

“Thank you,” he says, “for saying goodbye.”

And he fumbles the phone onto its hook and she is listening to the deadness of the line as if it were his tears.

So she floats from the desk and walks the moping walk along the air and she looks down at the corpse of the boy, which has aged enough to smell most wonderfully of death. And there are insects in him but more than that she sees that there is something wrong.

He is broken, the boy.

He is in pain.

His life— perhaps, his life. Perhaps his death—

Something has broken him.

So she takes him outside. He is astonishingly heavy, dozens of times heavier than her clothing at least.

She lays him out on the ground.

The others are there. She knows why. She helped build their kind, and she knows there is a reflex to tend to new members of the flock. But she ignores them.

She whispers to the boy, whose name she doesn’t even know, “I will fix you.”

She moves her hands upon his face and cleans away the darkness in his soul. She soothes the wounds that life had brought to him and she makes him light.

The boy is dead.

He is dead still.

So when the lightness takes him, he does not join the floating people.

Instead he lifts, lifts, lifts, into the sky; and if the birds did not find him and devour him, then he is rising still.

She smiles.

It’s so good! she says.

The others smile with her.

There is a time of silence, and then—

Did you really help make us? Kern asks.

Life is too hard, Leila says. The plague has taken so much from us. We could not care for the bodies of our dead.

And he laughs, and she laughs, because it is such a strange and funny image—

The Earth under its veil of mist and scattered with the plague-dead.

Good and True and Noble (II/II)

The history continues;
and from the lens there suspires
a nimbus of great joy.

“We are here,” says Pentheus, for they are on the beach. He points out into the water. He says, “There: you can see the strut of mast and the jutting of broken timbers.”

“I do,” concurs Papakenos.

The melomid sets Pentheus down.

Papakenos walks out into the water. It hefts up the ship. It succeeds at lifting only half; the ship breaks as he pulls. Pentheus blanches, but the melomid seems undaunted. It carries first one half to shore and then the other.

“I am not sure,” it says, looking at the pieces. “I think my hands are too indelicate for the work of repairs.”

“It is a task I can perform,” Pentheus decides.

Three days pass, and a hungry Pentheus seeks Papakenos out.

“If you have food,” he says, “I would be grateful.”

Papakenos looks around. Its gaze settles on Pentheus.

“Lo,” says the melomid. “My larder contains only Pentheus.”

“Oh,” says Pentheus.

He frets.

“Surely there are other people on the island,” he says.

“Surely,” agrees Papakenos. “They live underground, like the clams, each in a tunnel that they have built. When they hear me coming, or other matters give them some alarm, they pull themselves in and slam the metal lids; thus if I am to pull one free I must make a crack in those lids and flood them.”

“Remarkable,” says Pentheus, but as he is not an explorer he does not record this for posterity. “Do you think they would help a hungry traveler if I were to knock upon their lids?”

“They are recalcitrant when I request a meal,” says Papakenos. “Your experience may differ.”

“I see,” says Pentheus.

Pentheus walks away. He searches through the jungled regions and comes at last on the habitat of men and women. As he approaches there is the hooting warning cry of a villager; most of the people duck beneath their lids, but one sentry remains up, peering warily at Pentheus.

“This is a cowardly life,” says Pentheus.

“I am Iason,” says the sentry. “I concur with your assessment; yet we are alive and you are not.”

Pentheus frowns.

“I am still alive,” he says.

This confuses Iason.

“Come now,” he says. “The giant will have eaten you by now. Accept your fate! Repair to the afterlife and begin your desolation and sorrow.”

“I am uneaten,” says Pentheus.

Iason blinks at him.

“Well, then,” he says.

And a sudden fear turns Pentheus’ blood cold, and Pentheus turns and looks about; but he does not see the direction from which a human of the village flips back the lid, rises, and impales Pentheus’ kidney with a spear.

“Cowardice,” Pentheus mutters, as his cold blood flows out onto the ground; and he passes in and out of consciousness.

“I am sorry,” says Iason. “But it is our practice, when we are beset by other men, to leave them out for the giant to eat and thus minimize the losses to ourselves.”

Papakenos encounters Pentheus on a hill. The man is staked out. He is bleeding and foul and nearly dead.

“This is what happens when you intend things,” lectures Papakenos.

Dread of this moment has haunted Pentheus’ dreams; so now as he hears the melomid’s voice he swims towards consciousness and cracks open his eyes.

“I will not finish repairs upon my ship,” he says.

“Nonsense,” says Papakenos. “You’re doing it again.”

Pentheus processes this. He fails.


“Intending,” says Papakenos.

The melomid heaves Pentheus from the ground, snapping free the ropes that bind him. It carries Pentheus towards the shore. It deposits him near his ship.

“See?” says Papakenos. “Your theory is mistaken.”

Pentheus looks at him dismally.

“I am dying very slowly,” he says. “I wonder if the kidney is really such an important organ as all the doctors advise.”

“That’s the spirit,” says Papakenos.

The giant turns away.

“Wait,” says Pentheus.


“If you tell them of me,” says Pentheus, “and how I met my end, then my family would welcome you as a guest.”

Papakenos looks angry.

“Stay alive,” it says.


And bitterly the giant says, “I do not know what a reason would look like.”

The breath goes from Pentheus.

Papakenos growls. It lifts Pentheus up again. It shakes him. Then it begins to stalk towards the door, and, setting Pentheus down, puts its hands upon the door.

“They can repair you there, in the land of all good practice,” says Papakenos.

It heaves.

“Surely this is intent,” the melomid says. “Surely it is not futile to say: I believe that this outcome is sad. My actions reflect a desire to avert that outcome. Surely this is intention: surely, this is will!”

The skin of the melomid cracks. Light shines out from within. His body shatters. There is everywhere incandescence.

One razored shard of melomid sits in Gibbelins’ Tower, on a work table with Martin on one side and Jane on the other.

“And that is why Papakenos is so happy,” Martin says.


Martin shrugs. “Enh.”

Jane makes a face at him. Then she leans in. She studies the shard.

“It’s the intent,” she says.

“Yeah,” Martin admits.

“It is a thing of great joy to want something good and true and noble,” Jane says, “and then, explode.”

“That,” Martin agrees, “is the moral lesson for today.”

(Not all the way better) The Passion of the Joy Thing

The joy thing is shaped like a fuzzy barrel: white, fluffy, and stout. A cowboy hat is canted on its head. A trenchcoat flutters about it. Its deelyboppers wobble.

“. . . it is an embarrassment to Washington,” seethes Cabinet Member Steve, “that such a thing should represent us. In the minds of the world, it is an American symbol, an American thing, because it chooses to fight for us. We are disgraced.”

“Perhaps,” says the President, folding his hands, “we can shoot it into the sun.”

“If we only could!” cries Cabinet Member Steve.

This is the hoary, dusty temple of the crocodile god. Susannah sprawls on its altar. Seventy worshippers in robes surround her, chanting profound and foul spells. The doors are great stone slabs, marred by weather. The walls are rimed with vines. The leader of the cultists lifts his knife and catches the light with it, his eyes growing sterner as he readies himself to bring it down.


The doors slam open wide. Beyond them is the evening sky, the forest ground, the fading sun. In them, wrapped in a numinous limning of gossamer light, the joy thing stands.

“It’s not nice to stab people without permission,” says the joy thing.

Its trenchcoat flutters in a strange and sudden wind.

The head cultist looks up. He snarls behind his hood. He says, “It is godly and sacred, however. If you happen to worship the crocodile god. Which I do.”

The joy thing unlimbers its hat. The head cultist’s hands clench around the knife. The joy thing hurls the hat. It spins through the air and raps the knife from the head cultist’s hand.

Then cries the joy thing, “Alasta pampilenen!”

The heat of joy and brightness fills the room, and the chaunts that were chaunted to the crocodile god are chaunted no more.

The Embassy for Things stands beside the Canadian Embassy. Reporters seethe outside its door. The necessity thing comes out.

“Ambassador,” cries one reporter, “do you have a statement on the joy thing affair?”

The necessity thing’s voice has the sound of scratching chalk. “We do not consider the allegations against the joy thing substantive, but we are cooperating fully with Washington’s investigation. We have taken America’s request for a withdrawal of the joy thing’s diplomatic immunity under consideration.”

The great Nazi airship drifts ponderously across the sky. Its sides are blazoned with the symbols of the Reich. Its belly is swollen great with bombs.

The pilots are kicked back in their seats. One is halfway through a joke. “The second says, ‘The queen, she is impenetrable!’ And the third shakes his head vigorously. ‘No, no! That’s not it! She is impregnable!'”

This is translated from the German for your benefit, as the pilots laugh.

There is a thump. The joy thing has fallen from a biplane onto the window in front of them. It is hanging on to its hat with one hand and to a hook imbedded firmly in the glass with another. It smiles to them.

“When people ask you to be a Nazi,” it says, “just say no!”

There is a long frozen moment. Then, suddenly, both pilots are on their feet.

“Emergency! Emergency!” they shout in translated German. “It’s the joy thing!”

Joy and brightness wash over them.

The explosion of the zeppelin can be seen for more than one hundred and fifty miles. The pilots and the passengers drift down on their parachutes like so much tiny soot.

“What will happen to it?” asks the necessity thing.

Agent Pullet shrugs. “Its adventuring will be . . . curtailed.”

One thuggee is strangling Mr. Jenkins. The other is strangling his omelette. Thuggees like strangling things.

“Please,” whispers Mr. Jenkins. “Please, I have a family.”

“Ha ha,” laughs the thuggee. “We will send them your head!”

“And these hashed browns,” says the other thuggee. “I don’t like Denny’s hashed browns at all.

“Please,” says Mr. Jenkins. Then his eyes close and he sags back.

A waitress approaches. She is carrying a silver tray. On the tray is the joy thing.

“Kali save us!” cry the thuggees, strangling cords falling from their hands.

“You shouldn’t play with your food,” declares the joy thing. “Alasta pampilenen!”

The food at that Denny’s is surprisingly good, even today.

“I don’t understand,” says the joy thing.

“You are requested,” the lawyer thing says, “to appear before the secret tribunal in seven days. If you don’t, you will be hunted down, locked in a box, and thrown in a volcano, in accordance with the terms of the Compassion and Conscience Legislation.”

“Helltrousers,” the joy thing slowly blasphemes.

The kitten is drowning. It is sinking beneath the quicksand and drowning.

“Take my hand!” shouts Angus. But the kitten can’t hear him, doesn’t understand, or possibly just doesn’t have the strength.

Angus lets out a little more line. He inches closer to the kitten. His line snaps. Angus and the kitten go down.

There is a silence.

Then they are rising, the three of them, Angus, kitten, and joy thing alike, rising through the quicksand and muck. The joy thing has puffed into a giant fuzzy ball, increasing its buoyancy. They cling to its fur.

“Sure is a good thing you were swimming around in that quicksand,” Angus says. “This kitten and I might have been goners!”

“Don’t play in quicksand,” the joy thing says.

Then it turns. It walks away.

“Hey!” says Angus. “Hey! Are you okay? You didn’t do that, um, that alasta thing.”

The joy thing is gone.

“I have done only good,” says the joy thing. “I have sought only justice. It is not my fault that my public image is not suitable for your cause.”

“In these days,” says Agent Pullet, gently and heavily, “a thing is not a thing, but what others see in it. You will be fired from a cannon into the heart of the sun, in accordance with provision 81 of the CCL.”

“Fudgeweasels,” swears the joy thing, unable to find the words to convey the immensity of its feelings, scatology and blasphemy alike deserting it in this moment of its greatest need.

They load the joy thing into the cannon.

They swivel the cannon to face the sun.

“The sun isn’t a toy,” says the joy thing. “Don’t shoot things into it!”

The cannon fires, and that is the end.

Sometimes, when the sun is shining, remember the joy thing. It is still up there. Its deelyboppers are aflame. Its fur is burning. It is not alive and so it cannot die, and it loves you.

It would wish you well.

The Birth of Persephone (I/III)

It is 1335 BCE. The sun is bright and virile in the sky.

Demeter is giving birth. She is at the very end of her labor. Atropos and Clotho are her midwives. There is a pushing and a slapping and a wailing. There’s a snip-snip-snip of scissors. There’s a placenta. Suddenly Demeter is very tired, gentle, and warm.

“It’s a girl!” Atropos says, cheerfully.

Demeter takes the child in her arms. She looks at Persephone’s nose. She looks at Persephone’s neck. She looks at Persephone’s belly button. “Will she be marvelous,” asks Demeter, “and beautiful, and live her life with joy?”

“Of course,” says Atropos.

“And she’ll live in Olympus in a house next to mine?”

“She’ll never be allowed in Olympus,” Atropos says. “She’s going to destroy the world one day, and Zeus disdains ground zero.”

“Oh,” says Demeter.

Baby Persephone kicks her feet and coos.

“But she has toes!” says Demeter.

“Yes,” says Clotho. “Yes, she does.”

It’s a very special moment, and through all the years of Persephone’s life, Demeter does not forget.

There are ten of them, ten little toes, and each of them is perfect.

Panda Dancing

This is a story about the purpose of the world.

It is 1991.

Sydney meets Michael in a coffee shop. Soon they are talking about their work. Michael is an accountant. Sydney breeds pandas.

“Pandas?” Michael says.

“It’s my family trade,” says Sydney.

“I see.”

“We used to be corrupt diamond merchants,” says Sydney. “But one day, Grandpa stood up at his desk and exclaimed, ‘Day in, day out, it’s always the same! Why are we murdering men to sate our greed when we could be some lonely panda’s angel of love?'”

“A man of vision,” Michael says.

“It was a midlife crisis,” says Sydney. “I assume. But he never looked back, and we’ve been breeding pandas ever since.”

“You too?”

“I’m in biotech,” says Sydney. “I use my laboratory to invent powerful new panda fertility drugs and then I bulk advertise them over the Internet. It takes about 10,000 messages to reach even one panda, but that’s enough to make it worthwhile.”

Michael holds his coffee cup. It’s warm. He approaches the subject delicately. “Some might not call this fulfilling.”

“Oh,” says Sydney. “But it is!”

“It is?”

“That’s why we’ve stayed with it,” Sydney says. She thinks. “Listen,” she says. “Do you know what it is to have a purpose?”

Michael thinks about it. “I have tasks at work,” he says.

“Not tasks.”

“I would like to consume this coffee,” Michael says. “And process it into energy and urine.”

“Not survival.”

“I might want to seduce you later,” Michael says. “Hypothetically.”

Sydney stares at Michael. “What do you want to be? What do you want to do with your life?”

“Well, that,” Michael says. He laughs a little. He holds a hand flat over the table. “I suppose I want—”

Sydney tilts her head to one side. Michael frowns.


“It’s strange,” Michael says. “But I think that what I want is to manage the books for a firm that breeds pandas.”

Sydney laughs. “Why that, good sir?”

“You just know,” Michael says. “Don’t you. I mean, it’s like when you’re playing a video game, and suddenly everything’s all in line; or when you’re dancing—”

“Yes,” says Sydney. Her eyes widen a bit. “Yes, it is, isn’t it?”

“And suddenly everything’s right, and it doesn’t matter how much you have to give up for it, because this, this is the purpose, and you’re flowing through your life like a river.”

Michael is staring off into the distance. Then he gulps down his coffee in a quick, convulsive motion. “I haven’t felt this way since sixth grade, when I decided I wanted to be a CPA.”

“You do understand,” Sydney says. “How marvelous!”

Michael starts working at Sydney’s company. It’s not even too surprising that they fall in love. Eventually, they have a daughter of their own, named Emily.

It is 2004.

“This one’s special,” Sydney says. She looks at a printout of her lab notes. “She’s a mutant.”

Michael rubs her shoulders. “Is that so?”

“It’s the new fertility drug,” Sydney says. “It caused something more than just ordinary breeding. It made a super-agile panda.”

“I told you not to use spider DNA.”

“I didn’t!” Sydney protests.

Michael waits.

“I only used a little,” Sydney hedges. “Spiders are very fertile. Their offspring are everywhere!”

“Use spider DNA in your panda viagra, get a super-agile panda.”

Sydney sighs. “Well, it’s not a bad thing,” she says. “We can teach her to dance.”

And so they do.

It is 2005.

“It’s time for the panda to dance,” Michael says.

“I’m nervous,” Sydney says.


“It’s just . . . this feeling,” Sydney says.

“What’s that?”

Sydney gestures towards the wall. “Do you know that there are hundreds of thousands of people gathered outside this building, waiting for the panda to dance?”

“Surely not that many,” Michael says.

“They’ve been showing up,” Sydney says. “For weeks now. Months. They’ve been camping outside. They’ve been bringing food and water and medical supplies into town. This dinky little town of ours has grown tenfold.”

Michael scratches at his forehead. “What we do here is important,” he says. “I guess people are starting to realize that.”

“It’s not real,” Sydney says. “People don’t show up like this just because there’s a panda gonna dance.”

“How do they know?” Michael says.

Sydney shrugs uncomfortably.

“I mean, this is just a recital you set up,” Michael says. “We didn’t tell everyone. Maybe they’re just here as some kind of subculture thing and it doesn’t have to do with the panda at all.”

“They know it’s important,” Sydney says.


“I asked one,” Sydney says. “Because he was sleeping in my parking space. And he said, ‘It just feels right. It doesn’t matter how much I have to give up for it. I needed to be here. For this. For the panda.’ And I said, ‘But I ran over your leg. You need a doctor.’ And he laughed, and said, ‘It don’t matter none. I’ll live long enough.'”

“Did you get a doctor?”

Sydney opens her mouth, hesitates a long moment, then shrugs.


“He’s right,” she says. “He’ll live long enough.”

Emily comes in. She is a young and demure girl. She is wearing a gingham dress.

“The panda’s ready,” she says. “I just helped her with her stretches.”

“Good girl,” says Sydney.

The three of them go to the panda room together.

“Dance,” Sydney says.

“Do you know,” says Michael, “I think this is what the Earth is for.”

There’s a moaning, a humming, a whispering, a chanting from outside. There are a hundred thousand voices raised in worship outside the building walls.

“You think so?”

“God made this whole Earth,” says Michael, “so that one day he could watch a panda dance. Not just any old dance, but like this.”

“I guess you’re right,” says Sydney.

The panda dances.

“And bless Him for it!” Sydney says, suddenly, fiercely.

The panda bobs in place.

“So do you think,” says Sydney, “that it’ll go on? I mean, the world? After the panda’s done?”

“I hope not,” says Michael fervently.

The panda shuffles from side to side, her paws an expressive counterpoint.

“But . . . I wouldn’t have guessed,” Sydney admits. “That this would be what we’re for.”

“Wouldn’t you?”


“Emily,” says Michael, “if I’d asked you last year what the purpose of the world was, would you have known it?”

Emily nods firmly. “Yes, father.”

“What would you have said?”

“I would have said, ‘I think it’s . . .’ And I wouldn’t have had the words. But it would have been a panda dancing.”

“I guess that’s true,” says Sydney.

The panda shuffles to a halt, flumps to the ground, and falls asleep.

Emily goes to the window and looks out.

“Look, mama!” she says.

The sky is falling, and Emily laughs with a sudden, bright, clean joy.