The Lion (V/VII)

It is May 13 in the year of our Lord 1981 and there is a Dominion that bends itself down upon the Earth. And where the Dominion goes there is a singing, and the world itself is moved to join the chorus, and there is a trembling in the houses of the unjust. And where it moves the eyes and faces and wings that are within it turn to see. Shimmering auroras move around its surface, like a cloak, like halos, like a glorious night sky.

Let us not imagine that it is a thing of safety or of sanity. It is a creature out of legend. It kills birds where it passes, for it does not share the skies. It withers trees as it passes them, leaches the world’s life from the soil, it makes good earth to fallow ground. These things it does not from malice but by its nature: it understands no life that is not its own.

I will nevertheless call it good.

If it is a blind and foolish god, if it is harmful, then still, I will say it is well-intentioned. If it has done harm, then still it is high-minded.

It is not its fault, at any rate, what happened at Elm Hill.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 13, 1981

Listen, and I will tell you the truth of the monster’s wings.

They are brilliant and they are reflective. When you look upon them you will see the inside of your own eyes. You will see the process by which you form yourself laid bare.

When he has spread his wings through the construction of the world, when he has become a parasite on creation and made the truth a captive to his will, the monster will not give you the luxury of seeing that it is so. Instead you will see yourself. And in that moment he will describe you. He will tell you who you are.

Reason will not help you. This is because the monster is aware of reason. He exists outside it, like the classical God outside of time and space. The tools of your mind are limited. They rely on receiving truthful feedback from the world — all save pure math, perhaps, and even that depends on truth for its relevance. In a position where the monster can reward error, frustrate correctness, and demonstrate as folly whatever might otherwise be wise, you cannot expect to win over him with reason. To imagine that you can do so is unreasonable. It is an idealistic attachment to the happy ending at the end of a fairy tale, where one reasonable person, refusing to give in, triumphs magically at the last.

If you had infinite time, of course, that would be so. Give yourself forever to fight the monster in and his lies, as they are lies, would fray one day and come apart. But we are mortal creatures, bound by time; to us the monster is simply truth.

Reason will not help you. Strength will not help you. Strength is as useless in the monster’s presence as is reason. Where you build walls of your strength he will dig out the ground. Where you hold a position he will encircle it, undermine it, turn the purpose of your holding it to sand. The more you fight him, the more you will lose. To expect any differently is to hew unto a fairy tale; and the fairies, well, they’re isn’ts yet.

Strength will not help you. Reason will not help you. Nor will it help you in the least to know that, theoretically, there is some real truth, somewhere, somewhere outside the monster’s steading.

Depending on what you imagine truth to be, that might not even be the case.

In his unfurled wings the monster is an absolute creature. He is not deniable. He is no longer a person. He is no longer a man, or a god, or whatever the hell monsters are, in a lab coat, with a name tag, with a tie. He is I AM THAT I AM, as much as any burning bush has ever been.

It is as if, to gain his power, he had slaughtered God, had ripped out the bones and organs of Him, and made from Him a coat. He usurps God as he does reason; to seek God in his presence is therefore to seek the monster out.

Look for love, if you’d rather. Look for hate. Look for hope. Look for anything you like.

You’ll be caught up in the maze of him. You’ll find it only where he wills.

The reason I’m explaining this is that I can’t really tell you what happened in places where the monster’s wings spread wide. It’s like I’ve said. He becomes truth. He becomes the authoritative source on the matter, and what he is saying is always — it’s never, “On thus and such time, at thus and such a date, this happened, and then this.”

It’s always just him.

All I can tell you is what someone told me later happened at Elm Hill. All I can tell you is a story. It’s pretty much made up, because if it were true, it would be the monster, just as the monster, at that time, was truth.

The Dominion bent down to meet him. He was standing on the roof.

You probably think you wouldn’t give in to him. Of course you wouldn’t. Of course you’d stand up to him. The man’s a filthy bit of work, isn’t he? Worse’n the Devil, some would say. There’s no way you’d look at those wings and think that what the monster does to children could be right.

Please do believe that. You should. It costs him something, every time he spreads those wings. There’s no point in giving in to him for free.

But I tell you that the Dominion bent down to meet him, and he was standing on the roof, and the monster spread his wings. And from that point forward, he was Axiom. He was Correctness. He was as righteous as the stars.

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

The monster said, “This world is no place for you. If you stay here you will die.”

That’s what I’ve heard. That’s what I’ve heard he said.

“If you stay here,” the monster said, “you’ll die.”

And the creature, its words were the fluttering of ten thousand wings. The creature, its words were ten thousand hands and eyes and wings opening and closing, all modulated into voice.

It said: I will exalt you. I will lift you up. I will make you as God, and no more to depend upon the suffering of your prey.

The monster spat onto the roof, and in that spittle seethed ten thousand tiny living things.

“I will make you death and suffering,” he said. “I will make you anguish and violation. You will be hideous, horrible, and despised. Or you may go.”

The creature rotated in its form. It turned, and the pieces of its turning came into alignment, and you who looked upon it would see: ah, here is its face. Then it would turn further, the previous face dissolving, a new one forming, and you would realize: no, that was not so: its face is this.

The creature said: Can you really say that you are happy with your life?

The monster laughed.

You will die, it told him. And before that death, you will sorrow. You will know the damnation of your line.

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

It’s May 13, 1981, and we can see again, and the monster is giving the Dominion this beautiful grin.

It’s like the sun.

It’s been telling him he’s damned, only —

For a moment, you might almost think: wait. That’s not bravado. He is actually having fun.

It’s pure and clear as the monster isn’t pure and clear. It’s bright and beautiful as the monster isn’t bright and beautiful. It’s the best thing in the world, that laugh, that grin, that enemy of damnation. Then, however, the monster is moving, and there is a thorn in his hand, and it pierces the Dominion, and it is suddenly clear that everything in the world is wrong.

The Dominion staggers. Its form becomes imprecise. Where there was glory there is now a great disruptive seething, as of slime.

It is shattered. It is raining down, upon Elm Hill.

It is twisted. There is within it a great and horrible soullessness of life.

It is wounded. It gapes at him, this thing that has never before been wounded, and which cannot really understand what its hurting means.

“I will kill you,” it cries, and its voice is a great storm. But it does not.

Children, sure, it kills, those that don’t get evacuated in time. There is a price to be paid for the defiling of Elm Hill. Children it kills, and workers, and the place itself: Elm Hill’s no good place for the monster’s work any longer.

But the monster it doesn’t kill.

The monster he just serves it as any other fiend is served, until it limps and staggers howling away beyond the boundaries of the world, a broken lion, and in its paw a thorn.

The Shepherdess (I/VII)

It is March 18, 1995. The light from the sun does not reach us.

In the dark there is a titan and it does not know its name.

The monster drags Micah down to the basements of Central. He binds him there with leather and metal shackles, under the glare of red and burning eyes. Then he leaves.

The titan moves in the darkness.

It is very weak. It is dying. That is the message Micah intuits from its vibrations in the floor.

“I will tell you of Lia,” says Micah. He is opening a conversation with the darkness.

“I will tell you not of her beginnings,” Micah continues, “but of how Lia was at the end. For while she was strong and wise in life, as she came near to dying, she became weak and confused — as you are now. She knew only that she was tired, frightened, and ashamed, and that she was loved by Amiel. For her children were gone from her, left for distant lands, and her grandchildren too, but her sister had never abandoned her, had never left her side.

“It had been different in their youth, I think. Then Amiel had been the weak one. She had the power to speak truth but not the power to speak lies — I think. And so every word she said tore and wriggled in her throat, scraped it raw and made her bleed from it. She was all but mute and she was eternally beautiful. So in their childhood I think it was Lia who was strong.

“But Lia was mortal, and mortal things grow old, and finally she couldn’t even remember her own name. She had to make Amiel tell her. She had to waste her sister’s power, just to find out little things like ‘you are Lia’ or ‘I am Amiel.’ ‘I love you.’ Or ‘You are my treasure. You are my precious jewel. Your children have gone away to distant lands, but I will protect them, I will guard them, I will guard your line and our families be entwined forever.’

“These things she said to reassure her sister, and the cost of them was blood.”

Micah does not have anything to drink. He does not have anything to eat. He cannot move freely and he is terribly afraid.

The first day passes, and the first night. He can feel the titan’s agony through the floor.

“I’m sure,” Micah says, “that the child who made you loved you. I’m sure she — he? — I’m sure that they won’t blame you for the way the monster is so strong.”

He’d like to think that he is being kind from a native kindness, but he knows better in his heart.

He is afraid that the titan can reach him. He is afraid that it will grow some sort of feeding-maw on a tentacle, or stretch its body like a string, and suck the marrow from his bones to keep from dying. He is afraid that it is free as he is not and that it will somehow hate him, perhaps because it is dying and he, at the moment, is not.

He is crying for the creature, but that does not mean that he is speaking out of kindness. Terror supersedes his sadness every time he thinks that it might not understand his words.

The second day passes, and the second night.

“The promise was twisted,” Micah says, on the third day. He is having trouble speaking. He has a terrible headache and his body feels like it’s being torn apart by knives. He beats his head against the floor to make his headache go away, but except in the moment of each contact, it doesn’t seem to work. “It was twisted, and the monsters came of the twisting of that oath. But Amiel never betrayed it. She loved Lia all her life.”

The third day passes, and the third night; and he can hear the titan, somewhere beneath Central, shudder out its life and die.

Maybe it wasn’t a titan, he supposes. It could have been a different god, or a broken child.

“When the monsters slip and become her children,” he says, “they are as loyal as ever she.”

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

On the fourth day the monster visits. Micah doesn’t bother looking up.

“You’re troubling me, Micah,” the monster says.

Micah frowns at this. He mumbles, “Nunh-uh.” It’s not really much of a denial. He can’t seem to find his defiance in the swimming of his head.

It is nevertheless very clear to him that if someone is troubling anyone, it is not Micah who is to blame.

“Liril hasn’t given me a single god since the day that you were born,” the monster says. “It’s like you burnt her out. Like you broke her, simply by existing. That’s why I say you’re a trouble to me. But I’m afraid that if you die here, she’ll be useless to me forever instead of simply hurt.”

Micah considers this. His world wobbles. Finally he grins.

“That won’t happen,” he says. “She’ll be fine.”

His utter powerlessness is freeing. He doesn’t have to cooperate. He doesn’t have to pretend that the monster has found a point of common interest, or deny it for that matter. He doesn’t have to bother lying to the monster, or telling the truth to the monster, or, really, saying anything in particular at all. The monster wins. The monster always wins. In the face of that victory, until the monster explains what it entails, Micah can do anything he wants.

“Micah,” the monster chides.

“Do you want me to say that I don’t want her to die?” Micah says. “I’ll say that. I’ll say that I don’t want her to die. Do you want me to beg? I’ll beg.”

He giggles. He swallows. He chokes. He gags.

For some inexplicable reason, he discovers, he’d had seawater in his mouth.

He vomits, or tries to vomit, on the monster’s floor, but all he can do is spit out a bit of rotten fish.

The monster rises to his feet.

“That’s awful,” he says. “That’s the worst magic power ever.”

It’s not true. It’s not not true. Micah can’t tell what the heck is in the monster’s voice.

Micah hiccups sadly in the dark.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 23, 1995
  
This is not survivable, Micah thinks. There is no way that it is survivable. He is going to die of thirst and possibly starvation. He is going to die of muscle cramps and of exposure. The malice and suffering in Central above him condenses and drifts downwards like the snow. It forms in the darkness into terrible and awful things.

It fills him with fear. It twists his hallucinations into evil and sadistic forms. It makes every sound a shock.

He dwells amidst the poisoned runoff of Central’s theological and emotional waste.

Something snuffles towards him in the darkness. Possibly it is his imagination. Possibly it is the titan come back to life, or risen most unholy. Possibly it is a herd, gaggle, or flotilla of half-starved rats. Micah thinks that it will eat him, whatever it is. He thinks that it will rip the flesh from his bones, and then the bones from one another, unless the monster wishes that it should not.

Oh that the monster should allow it.

He cannot see any longer. His eyes are crusted . . . shut. He thinks that they are shut. He can barely hear.

There.

Something is very definitely near him. It is not his imagination. It is a cold and bulky presence in the dark. It is tactile to him. Then it is against his mouth. It is pouring liquid into him. It is . . .

It is feeding him.

His body cannot resist it. He is gulping it down. He is swallowing. He is crying, he thinks, because it is good, because his body has wanted so much to drink.

It is thick and cold and almost tasteless. Inasmuch as it has a taste that taste is lime.

When he starts to choke it leaves him. When he can breathe again it comes back.

He thinks of how Kuras — his favorite of the Kings of the Ancient World — was exposed on a hilltop and suckled by a sheepdog, or perhaps a shepherdess. That happened a lot back then. Should this be a sheepdog he would be embarrassed, but he thinks that he could forgive such a small blow to his pride.

It is probably not a sheepdog. That is his conclusion. He tries to open his eyes. He tries to make sense of it. It will not be a sheepdog, but rather some sort of hallucination, or a broken sewer pipe, or even a freakish shepherdess of the deeps.

It is none of these things.

It is if anything a nameless horror. He cannot put words to it. It is round where it is straight and it is changing where it is still and where his eyes fall upon it they make blisters rise from its flesh that surge up, whiten, and pop. It has the front part of a lion and the rear portion of a gazelle, and a ring of questing tendrils about its face; and from the calf of its front leg it is bleeding, and it is the blood of it that he drinks.

He cannot read its emotions.

Perhaps it is profaning him. Perhaps it is violating him. Perhaps it is committing a generosity immeasurable by reason. He cannot tell, any more than he can tell what it is, or why. It is simply there.

He drinks until he can bear no more with drinking.

When he opens his eyes again the thing is gone.

short post on Friday, then Chibi-Ex on Monday, then part II on Wednesday.

Forsaken of their Gods (II/III)

Now it was always Billy’s conception that he should be as God to Melanie: that she should know him as a person knows their God, absolute, primal, preceding all other things in his authority, and at every moment witness to the secret movements of her heart. It was always Billy’s conception that Melanie should fear him and his red right hand, not as one fears a mortal tyrant or an older brother and his fists, but rather with the nakedness and openness that characterizes a fear of God: of that against which there is no recourse, and from which every punishment arises in the end from the workings-out of one’s own weaknesses and shames.

That she should fear him as that which is just by decree of the universe. That she should recognize the only alternative to that fear as having been better in the past, remaining though that past remains a bitterly unalterable country. That she should greet him only with the full humility and helplessness of one who has nothing not given her by the hands and whims of God.

In this conception Billy failed.

Like the seed of some black apple rotting in her stomach Melanie acquired freedom. She in some strange fashion learned unruly petulance, a quirk which he extinguished only with brute force, and never for all time. And finally he took that step which is every bit as much forbidden to the monsters as to God, which is to say, coming to accept as writ that which he could not change; coming to despise her for her weaknesses, rather than to cultivate them; and giving her a license, in that doing, to take that unsightliness that lived within her and grow it into strength.

He was, in the end, not so very terrible a monster, and he never grew his wings.

He’d gotten the idea, somehow, of what he was meant to be, understood that great awfulness of his nature, but nobody ever showed him how to get there, the unraveling of the riddles of it, the ways to open it up and live with it, so he lived in pettiness, instead.

His sister was afraid of his fists.

Nabonidus would have eaten Billy alive. 1968’s monster would have ground him down for jam. Mylitta would have cut him open. Even Prajapati could have beaten him, not even a hero or a monster, just a girl, but even she could have beaten him, brought out gods and the weapons of her good character to defeat him, triumphed, surpassed him, and broken him, left him gasping out his life like a fish might do on land.

It never even occurred to Billy to stake his sister out with the ropes of her own tendons and let the birds feed upon her flesh. It never even occurred to him as a threat, much less as an actual thing to do. It never occurred to him to winkle out every last bit of herself that she loved and take it from her, returning it if ever in bits and pieces imprinted with his name. It didn’t seem necessary to him. Not when she loved him. Not when she feared him. Not when he had his fists.

He even let her run.

He had Melanie for five years plus, the most vulnerable years that she would ever have, and he didn’t break her. At best he imprinted himself on her, just a little, made her like him, gave her a bit of that clumsiest monster’s nature and overlaid it on her own.

If you had any idea what running from a real monster is like, you’d know how utterly miserable a failure it makes him, that she’d gotten on a boat and run.

He was God to her; but such a God as to make her doubt — such a God as to make her think, as early as 1977, age 5, “is it so bad to be a Lucifer under him, and raise my hand against the Lord?”

And at that moment, when she first had that thought, she caught sight of something rippling, twisting, something strangely purple and terrible beyond the horizon of her life.

She couldn’t help herself.

She shook her head, once, twice. She tried to focus.

And she saw —

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

“There is a King.”

It is worse than she imagined. It’s not the worst words she’s ever heard. It can’t top never you not you. But it’s worse than that time when Billy showed her Papa’s head.

“There is a King of the old countries,” the woman is saying, “that came before the Round Man’s world. And he is bloated with a clotted mass of life. It moves damply and uncomfortably within him, as if a man had swallowed ten other men, or a fish had drunk the ocean.”

The woman’s voice is like the wind.

“These are the signs of his coming: dreams and portents. Death. Trouble between friends.”

Melanie is in a great and wild and empty space and there are words like silver wire cutting channels in her soul.

“He is wearing rotten vestments and they are indigo and green. He is heralded by helplessness, and memories, and principles that are left aside. There shall be corruption, fear, and hatred, and polluted water, and tainted colors, green and black.”

Melanie makes a sound.

“The Kings of the Unforgivable Dominions,” Liril’s mother says, “break the covenants of the world.”

There is silence for a while. Liril’s mother gets up. She walks around, tidying up the room.

Melanie’s eyes focus once again.

“What?” she asks.

I thought you said you didn’t hate me.

“You will drown in him forever,” Liril’s mother says. “You will never die. This is the fate I see for you, Melanie, whom my daughter has befriended.”

“No,” Melanie protests.

Not me.

Liril’s mother can’t help grinning. It’s ghoulish. It’s mean. It slips out onto her face until she bites her lip to hold it in.

“My,” she says.

She thinks.

Then, carefully, she releases the little happiness that she has in her, to see one of Amiel’s line disturbed so. The smile fades. There is only careful awareness of the world.

“There’s nothing I can do about it,” Liril’s mother says, “or I’d blackmail you, or help you, or something of the like. But I can only tell you: this is a thing that comes to pass. Will you leave us alone now, Melanie? Will you let me and my daughter be?”

Melanie twitches.

She wants to run.

She’s run before. It works. It works. But she’s caught in the web of a spider.

So she sighs, instead.

She shakes her head.

“So be it,” Liril’s mother says. “No stealing. No loud music. Her bedtime is ten o’clock exactly. No bringing trouble to this house.”

And Melanie goes up to Liril’s room to talk; and to these two children thus forsaken of their gods it is given to be childhood friends.

There is a King (Ia/III)

Q: What’s the difference between a firvuli and a King?
A: The King wears vestments of indigo and green.

Q: What did Tarzan say when he saw the firvuli?
A: “Me Tarzan. You firvuli.”

Q: What did Jane say when she saw the firvuli?
A: “It is a King of bloated life.” (Jane is color-blind.)

Q: Is Jane color-blind?
A: You have caught me. This series of jokes is inaccurate. I am so ashamed.

Q: Do you know who else tells inaccurate jokes?
A: It is the elephant.

— from Melanie’s journal, recovered after the siege of Elm Hill.

Stupid Words and their Stupid Power, Anyway (I/III)

“It is the elephant,” Melanie says.

Liril looks at her.

Melanie is laughing. She is looking upwards at the sky. She is hugging her hands to her own chest now and it is awful and Liril wants to cry but Melanie had asked that she stop crying, so she doesn’t.

“Melanie,” Liril says.

“’Why do we suffer?’” Melanie asks. “’Why do we have to suffer, and fear, and die?’”

“We don’t,” Liril says.

“No,” Melanie says. “Not ‘we don’t.’ It is ‘because of the elephant.’”

Liril looks blank.

“You go,” Melanie says.

“I can’t go,” Liril says.

“It’s easy,” Melanie says. “All the answers are elephants.”

It is beginning to seep in through Liril’s reserve. It’s too ridiculous.

“You go,” Melanie insists.

“What’s gray and awful,” Liril says, hesitantly, “and has a shiny tie?”

“Oh,” says Melanie. “That one could be a frog.”

Liril makes a squinchy face.

“Or an elephant,” Melanie says. “An awful elephant in a tie. Why did the elephant step on the grape?”

Liril shakes her head.

“He thought it was a pair of shoes.”

Liril closes her eyes.

Please, she thinks. Please go away.

It is too late. She is beginning to laugh. It is escaping her. Awful things will happen and it will be her fault, it will be her fault for laughing, it will be her fault for accepting this precious gift that is given to her life.

“You go.”

“What’s gray and wrinkly,” Liril asks, instead of laughing, “And antithetical to the covenants of the world?”

It’s almost like having a will, being able to ask a question like that.

Almost.

“What the hell kind of word is ‘antithetical?’” Melanie asks.

And the giggling takes Liril, and she is lost.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

They go to Liril’s house. Liril opens the door. She goes in and turns around and she is inviting Melanie inside —

“Get out,” says Liril’s mom.

She is standing there, frozen. It’s a whisper. It’s a strangled, horrified little whisper. It’s barely loud enough to hear.

Get out.

Melanie straightens. She braces her feet. She gives a tight grin to Liril’s mom.

“Fear’s showing, love,” she says.

It’s a weird thing to hear from a ten-year-old girl.

A moment passes.

Liril’s mom doesn’t move; so Melanie just shrugs, and nods, and pretends their words were greetings; and she walks past Liril’s mother, and takes up Liril’s hand, and goes up to Liril’s room.

That’s the first time the two of them meet.

The second time they meet, Liril’s mother doesn’t say anything at all.

The third meeting, though, a few weeks into their acquaintance, she’s found some kind of peace.

She stops Melanie at the door. She can stop her, this time. She’s not terrified, this time, and that means that Melanie has to pay her mind — a tall woman like her, with the ability to call the police and the like, maybe even overpower Melanie, physically, with her raw adulthood’s might.

“Go up to your room, honey,” Liril’s mom says, to Liril.

So Liril does.

Liril’s mom leads Melanie into the living room. She makes hot tea and little plates with tea sandwiches. She brings them in. She sits down, facing Melanie, to talk.

Melanie takes a sandwich.

“Thank you,” she says.

“She says you’re a good person,” Liril’s mother says.

“She does?”

“For now,” Liril’s mother agrees.

“Huh.”

Melanie thinks about this. She chews on the sandwich.

“Weird,” Melanie decides.

“So I’ve decided I can’t hate you. And so I am not going to tell the monster that you are here, and have him hale you away and raise you in the customs of the monster’s house; or, failing that, cast you back against the wall and pierce your eyes and heart with the Thorn that Does Not Kill, or hang you from a cross and put razor wire on your brow and let you bleed; or stake you out on some bleak hill for the carrion birds to feed. Because I would enjoy seeing him do those things to you, I would enjoy seeing you suffer, but I shouldn’t go that far for somebody I don’t hate.”

Melanie puts her sandwich down.

It has become unappetizing.

“I would be haled away,” she says, “and raised in a monster’s house?”

“He doesn’t have children,” says Liril’s mom.

Melanie thinks about this.

“It would be nice to have a house,” says Melanie, “and customs.”

“Would it?”

Melanie gives a little snort. Then she shakes her head.

“He won’t catch me,” Melanie says.

“Yes,” agrees Liril’s mother. “Children are so very good at avoiding being caught by monsters. It’s practically a trend.”

“Won’t,” Melanie underlines.

Not me.

“One day,” says Liril’s mother, “you will find him; or he will find you; and you will meet the monster. And then you can decide whether to tell him that I betrayed him. You can decide whether to tell him that I had you here, that I knew you were here, a girl of the monster’s line, and I didn’t even like you, and I kept it from him anyway. If you tell him that then you will have more than enough revenge for what I am going to do to you today, but you’ll also prove that Liril’s wrong.”

It’s hard for Melanie to believe she could stomach this woman’s sandwiches and tea at all.

“If I may ask,” says Liril’s mother, “how do you live?”

“What are you going to do to me today?”

“No,” says Liril’s mother. “It is my question now. It is your question later. How do you live?”

Melanie frowns.

“I don’t understand,” she says.

“I mean,” Liril’s mother says, “are you—fostered? Did you grow up here? How do you live?”

“Oh,” Melanie says.

She shakes her head.

“I steal,” she says. “I carry messages. I live with the fairies in their dells, sometimes.”

“You must be very cunning,” Liril’s mother says.

Melanie’s heart shouts a warning.

She is standing up.

“You won’t do this,” she says.

“What am I going to do?”

“You won’t.

Why am I afraid? she asks herself.

It is the expression on Liril’s mother’s face. It is subtle but familiar. She has seen it on her brother’s face. The last time she saw it Billy was holding up Papa’s head —

The words are not what she’s expecting. She doesn’t even understand how they can stop her; how they can catch her up; how they can freeze her; how, for that matter, it could mean anything to her at all, when Priyanka says:

“There is a King.”

Nthanda

Thema is born and all the animals sing.

Their voices swell from the jungle. The insects sing too. That’s how everybody knows that Thema is a magic child.

When Thema is three she picks out a guitar and a lei and a bit of surfboard from the objects the village shows her.

The crowd whispers.

“It’s him,” they say. “It’s him.”

They gather around. They touch Thema on the head, on the hands. They lift Thema up.

“She is Elvis,” they say.

“God is great!” someone cries out; and one of the young girls faints.

“She is Elvis. She has come to us from the land over the sea.”

They raise the child on rock and roll. They have an old record player. They play some of Elvis’ hits. They are scratchy. But they are Elvis’ hits.

They sing songs that they have heard of, that their record player cannot play.

When Thema is old enough to understand they tell her the reason for her birth.

“Elvis is ours,” Nthanda says. “We paid for him. Everyone in the world who did not live in riches, we paid for him. With our sweat and our pain and our backs we lifted up some few into prosperity. So that Elvis could be born.”

Thema knows about this payment.

Many of the people of the village have died in just the few years of her life. Many others are sick, or maimed. She can imagine it, a land of milk and honey buoyed on this sea of war and suffering and work.

A land of rock and roll.

“He was ours,” Nthanda says. “So we claimed him. We worked our spell. We said, ‘his next life should be here.‘”

“But what about the other people?” Thema says. “The other villages?”

She names a place not far from there, up the river.

“What about them?”

“We gave them Buddy Holly,” Nthanda says.

And Thema hums a tune.

After a while, Thema says, “Am I to learn hip thrusts and guitar? Am I to sing for the productivity of the mines?”

“No.”

“Am I to grow up and have some man take me and say, ‘Huh, Elvis.’ as he—“

Here she founders, looking for words.

“—as we do the jailhouse rock?”

“No.”

Nthanda shakes her head.

“This is the secret of the world,” Nthanda says.

Her words are like the brass of an orchestra, like the thunder, like the sea. Everywhere that is outside the reach of Nthanda’s words seems darker. Everything in the space where Nthanda speaks to Thema seems filled with light.

“In times of tragedy,” Nthanda says. “When all hope is lost; then she who is Elvis will play a chord on her guitar.

“And though there is no orchestra, an orchestra will rise around her.

“And though the hearts of men are hard, a joy will come to them.

“And though the world is dark and its colors are dim, a brightness will come to them.

“And all will sing together, and all will fade down to silence, and somehow—even if it seems to be impossible—everything will work out okay.”

And Thema closes her eyes and she falls asleep, her little hand closed around the neck of her guitar.

When she is ten, men come to the village.

They are angry ragged men. They are bandits. Their purpose has drained from them and the scars on them are deep.

They are cruel men and they have guns.

They are shouting their anger, their tiredness, and their anger is made of gunshots and their tiredness accentuated with knives.

Nthanda is dead.

Many people are dead. Others are suffering.

Something happens that she does not understand and there is blood on her face and something wrong with her hand and a man who is looking at her with a coarse hunger, a rough desire, a yearning to bleed off his pain into somebody whom he can imagine is not human.

He moves towards her.

“It is too much to ask,” Thema says.

Her eyes can see only horror. Her body feels like she is in a salt shaker. Her mouth is dry and her face is wet.

She pleads: “It is too much to ask!”

But she is a magic child. She is Elvis. She is a precious gift.

Before he touches her she pulls up her guitar before her like a shield and she wrenches out a chord.

She sings a faltering word, “Nthanda—“

And all around her rise the instruments of the band.

All around her rise the instruments of the band, and the sound of gunfire melts into it. And smiles light on the faces of these strange and angry men, and on the faces of the men and women huddling in fear, or crouched beside the dead and dying.

And the song of Elvis, who is King, and Thema, who is the King Reborn, rings out through the jungle; and unexpectedly, so very unexpectedly, everything works out all right.

“Thank you,” Thema mumbles. “Thank you verra much.”

(Parousia) To Light a Candle (5 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Now, some people, thinking on these events, might come to the conclusion that there’ll be some kind of reason Max’ll be able to come back.

Like:

Death’ll gallop through the sky on the last of days and Sid will reach up and seize him by the arm and pull him from the horse and down to shatter on the island below.

Crunch! Death will say, or at least emote, and Sid’ll steal Max’s life from him.

Or:

Somebody’ll find Max’s skin, just floating free on the chaos, and—because you shouldn’t waste a good skin—fill it up with booze. Then Max’ll show up, lookin’ all like Max, only he’s an ale-man now.

Or:

Spattle’s still got its hooks in everyone who’s ever been there.

Max can’t actually die.

He’s lived in Spattle.

Or maybe even:

Sid’ll buy some new luggage one day, you know, for traveling, and he’ll open it up, and there Max’ll be.

“Hey,” Max’ll say.

Hey, Sid says. Thought you were dead.

“It’s a special.”

And Max’ll indicate the display with his head, and it’ll turn out that it does in fact say, “Free resurrection with every suitcase; and luggage $179.99”

And maybe it’s just the kind of thing that happens, you know, eventually. People coming back.

The world’s really old, and it’s got a long future ahead of it.

We wouldn’t necessarily know.

So you could be reading this, you know, and come to the conclusion that there’ll be some reason, like a suitcase sale or a Spattling or a bit of a double thing, and Max’ll come back.

But that ain’t so.

Not exactly, anyway.

See, it’s an epiphany. It’s a mystery. It’s one of those things that’s like a seething well.

There ain’t no reason.

He just comes back.

It’s June 6, 2004, and he just comes back.

It’s like a candle lights, and suddenly where things were invisible, they are visible; and where things were inaudible, they’re audible; and the world fills out with the glistening blue and silver of the sea and the wind as it roars in the sky and the cold refreshing spray that generates when the waves strike against the brown-black rocks.

And the scattering of points and colors becomes the beach.

And swaying patterns become the sun, and the shadows, and the trees.

And there’s Max, right there, with a hangdog look, like he’s never been away.

Maybe someday it’ll be a little more explained.

You can get close to the truth, sometimes, even when there’s no truth to be had.

So maybe we’ll get a bit of explanation here, a bit of explanation there.

But not a reason, not whole and entire.

Some things in this world ain’t ever really explained.

Like:
People always fight the things they love.

I would hug you, says Sid.

A mirrored shape flicks out to show him his own form, and the terrible perplexities and sharpness of it, and why that isn’t necessarily a very good idea. And he can see the darkness that weaves through him, too: for siggorts, like most things that aren’t Max, are terribly, terribly easy to cut.

Max looks up.

“You’re real,” he says.

Like Sid’s the one who shouldn’t be there. Like Sid’s the one who, last we checked, wasn’t in the world.

And there’s a drop of chaos on Max’s face, under the shadow of his hair, and his eyes are brown and deep.

Hesitantly, he says, “Did you—“

Sid cuts him.

Not much. Just a tiny bit, to get the blood he needs, to get a flake of flesh. And he can tell that Max is yielding it, not suffering it, because just this once Max isn’t hard to cut.

He should probably have asked.

But he didn’t; and Max lets it be.

“Did you—“

Sid begins to make the body of him, from flesh and blood and clay, and he says, Did I?

Max gropes for words.

“I figure,” Max says, “That Ii Ma said something like, ‘How can you live with somebody else’s guilt?'”

There is the rushing withdrawing of water and then the roaring of a wave.

“And ‘walk in like you own the place’ doesn’t quite work on that one.”

No, Sid agrees.

He’s almost got the body put together. They’re fast workers, siggorts. It’s the hundred hands.

“So—did you—“

Of course, Sid says.

Then he opens up the body of him and he pours himself into its core and he closes the hollow of the entrance with a hook of him, all Sid-like, snap.

And Max stands there for a long time looking at him, while Sid dresses himself with pants and socks and shirts and stuff that drift in from the sea.

“How?”

He means: Can we . . . fix things? Is it okay now? Is it okay, even though I’m not still dead?

Because he’s a sharp one, Max, and he knows that must’ve been an answer Sid was using for a while.

Is it okay?

Can broken things be remade?

And Sid can hear these questions in his voice; and they’re not the only questions Sid can hear.

How can you forgive him? whispers the voice of Ii Ma, like it always does.

How can you forgive him? Ii Ma asks.

And Sid gives this great big smile like the morning of the world, and he kicks away a cardboard box drifting upwards from the sea, and he says, “Because I’d like to.”

Nothing more; nothing less.

“Because I’d rather,” he explains.

Because we make our own judgments, light and dark, and they are our servants—

Not the other way around.

The Island of the Centipede
Fin.

Should Siggorts? (I/I)

The doom of Spattle approaches.

It is like this.

Sid and Max are talking. It is 1989, and Max is an adult now, a breaker of horses, and he lives in Spattle. They are sitting on the balcony of Max’s one-room apartment, looking east towards the desert.

And Max is saying, “We are a corrupt people.”

The wind blows softly.

“I think that if God came down, like in the gospels; that if he sent his angels among us to collect all who cause others to sin and all evildoers, and to throw them into the fiery furnace, that we would rise against him in our hosts and our armies and we would be like the rebels of the angels, saying, ‘no, those are Americans; they are not for your furnaces.’ I think that we would turn our nuclear weapons against the Lord.”

Sid considers that. “Well,” he says, “why not?”

“Because it’d be God,” Max says.

“Ah.”

“Is it all right to fight God?”

“It’s not all right or not all right,” Sid says. “It depends on why.”

There is a breath of time.

“Why?” Sid asks.

“I have been dreaming of a judgment,” says Max.

And Sid frowns.

He rises to his feet. He looks around. He says, “Ah.”

“Ah?”

Sid points out east.

“Do you see that?”

And Max frowns, and he narrows his eyes, and he squints out into the desert. And he can see it.

There’s something rippling, twisting, strangely purple beyond the horizon.

He shakes his head, once, twice. He tries to focus.

He sees—

And that is when the sick hook of horror catches in his stomach and twists everything around.

It is 1989. The sun hides behind a caul of clouds. A cold wind blows.

Max blacks out.

We remember Spattle, though few do: In California, near Palm Springs, it was, touched once by chaos and then by death.

Its streets were littered with the corpses of the birds when its ending came.

When he wakes Max is unsteady on his feet and Sid is holding him upright.

Max says, “It is the coming of a King.”

The city is under a pall.

“A King?” Sid says.

“A King of an Unforgivable Dominion,” says Max.

He stares out east.

“There is a King,” says Max, “of the old countries that came before the world. He is bloated with a clotting of life. It moves damply and uncomfortably within him. As if a man had swallowed ten other men, or a fish the ocean.”

“Ah,” says Sid.

“He is coming to Spattle,” Max says. “He will drown this place. It will be forgotten, and the people here will suffer torment.”

The frogs croak, distant in the desert: ke-kax.

“Will you leave?” Sid asks.

Max shakes his head.

“No,” he says.

And the doom of Spattle nears.

These are the signs of the coming of a King: dreams and portents. Death. Trouble between friends.

The progress of the King is slow.

Max has time to think; to worry; to consider.

He buys fairy-traps. They are horrid things with clappers, teeth, and bells, designed to take the magic that lights upon them and swallow it up.

He takes them out east. He stands before the line of it: the great rim of the King. It is like a wall of a distortion across the world. Cars drive through it, unheeding. Birds fly across it, unknowing. But it infects them as they pass, and their lungs grow thick with mold.

Max has seen those birds in town, dead and fallen on the streets.

Max sets the fairy-traps down along the King’s great rim. He sets them on the sand and on the road.

A car drives past.

Its wheel strikes a fairy-trap. The fairy-trap skitters and jangles with the ringing of its bells. The people who pass over it, Max thinks, are insignificantly and indescribably less.

And Max watches.

The rim of the King shifts inwards, twisting, ever-so-slowly, ever-so-slightly. It passes onto the fairy-traps with a great jangling of bells. The clappers close. The traps bite into the lip of the King.

It might have helped. Then again, it might not have.

Max does not know.

The King in vestments of indigo and green is the King of bloated life. He is a tide that washes into the world. He pools. He gathers. Then he withdraws, and pulls a bit of our world with him, growing in himself more bloated yet.

“Sid,” Max says.

As suddenly as a dream the siggort is there.

“There’s a man in town,” Max says.

“A man?”

“He sells charms against the gods,” Max says. “The kind that are forbidden; the kind that are cruel.”

“I see,” Sid says.

“I need more than fairy-traps,” Max says, “to fight the King. But I can’t afford his rates.”

And suddenly Sid looks wry.

“You want me to threaten him,” he says.

“Yes.”

Tension flares up between them. Humor becomes outrage.

“You don’t like what I am,” Sid says. “You don’t like that I’m a siggort. Except when it’s useful. Then suddenly it’s good that I have a wheel of knives; that I have feathers in my hair; that I’m older than this mortal world.”

And Max flushes. Shame coils in him like a dragon around its nest. But he doesn’t flinch.

“A King in vestments of indigo and green,” he says. “A King of bloated life. He’s coming to Spattle. And I can’t get the tools I need to try to stop him.”

Sid hesitates.

“We should just leave,” he says. “Warn as many people as will listen, and leave.”

“This is my line, Sid.”

And by that Max means that he is standing at a place with only one recourse: that he is backed against the lines inside his soul and has only one direction in which to move, and that is against the coming tide.

And Sid looks at Max.

And Sid can see that it is so.

Sid sighs.

“Fine.”

These are the signs of the coming of a King: memories. Helplessness. Abandonment of principle.

Peter Sorgen lives in Spattle and deals in arms against the gods.

For a profit, he will sell them.

For a fee, he will employ them, using the tools and armaments of his trade to remove angels, fiends, fairies, devils, and other gods.

He survives in this trade because he is careful of his karma; because he asks gods honest questions and listens to the answers that they give; because he hates the things he hunts and shows appropriate fear when faced with those too great to kill.

That, and the lion’s share of gods he meets are figments of mortal imagination, which he may kill with a placebo, and the bulk of those remaining are born from weak and impure emptiness.

Peter Sorgen lives on the second floor of a rented house. He is thick and balding. He is a killer of gods.

Sid enters, pursuant to their appointment.

Peter looks up and smiles.

Then he frowns.

“Wait,” he says. “I know you.”

—“I know you,” says Grouchy Pete.

Sid stares at him, and matches up the facial features, and suddenly he laughs.

“You were that bully,” he says. “You’d chew gum and spit it out, ptui, like that!”

And now, as he faces the siggort in his home, Peter’s face contorts with fear and hatred.

He pulls a gun.

He fires, just like that.

Just like that! And he’s shot Sid, and the bullet sticks in him.

Sid looks down. He makes the horrible face that people make when someone makes them eat horrible icky vegetables or hot lead.

Pete fires again— again, and again, and again, until the gun is empty and eight bullets are lodged in the wall, and two in Sid.

Sid has his hand pressed against a bullet wound. His fingers are covered in blood.

“Geez, Pete,” he says.

He sways.

And he falls down.

The King has drowned Spattle; it is in the substance of him, in the distance of him, and it is no longer remembered in this world.

“I never found a formal technique to use for wheel-of-knives gods,” Pete says. “I never even found out what you’re called. I looked. But I never did.”

Sid has woken up.

“I can see,” Sid says, blearily, “that I should have backed a Presidential candidate who was stronger on gun control.”

“I figure,” Pete says, “that if I take you apart, though, that’ll work.”

Sid is handcuffed to a radiator. Pete doesn’t actually have much of a budget for this kind of thing. But he does have a knife.

“You’re going to cut me to pieces?” Sid asks.

“Yes.”

Sid begins to laugh again.

It’s funny to imagine Grouchy Pete, such an earnest kid, vivisecting the siggort. It’s funny, even if Grouchy Pete has grown.

Pete watches him laugh. He waits for Sid to wind down. Pete is a man with great experience with gods.

Finally, Sid recovers. His wounds are leaking badly, but he doesn’t seem that hurt.

“It won’t work,” Sid says.

“Why not?”

“A long time ago,” Sid says, “I was in a place of terrible durance, and moving in the fashion that one moves, and where there was light I was in darkness, and where there was substance I was in emptiness, and where there was heat I dwelled inside a terrible cold. And on occasion I would catch sight of myself against a place of reflection and I would recoil, thinking, ‘Hideous; hideous; unspeakable.'”

Pete studies Sid.

“You look okay,” he says.

Sid looks at him.

“I mean, if you like Sids,” Pete says.

“I am a terrible comprehension,” says Sid.

“Oh.”

“And one day,” says Sid, “An insight pierced me, like a javelin from the mind of God. And I said, in the language of my kind, ‘I am not alone.’

“Then, for thirteen hundred years, I waited for Max Lamner to be born.”

Pete is hesitant.

“Can you tell me,” he asks, “whether I should begin cutting you apart now, or wait until the completion of your story?”

Sid looks at him.

“What kind of a question is that?”

Pete shrugs.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sid says, shaking his head, looking appalled. “It’s just—

“This is a body I made of mud and clay and feathers and blood. If you cut it up, you’ll probably go mad.”

“Thank you,” Pete says.

He draws back slightly. He thinks.

“How can I kill you?” he asks.

Pete is, of course, a man well-versed in gods, and one who therefore expects a shocking honesty and openness of them. Sid, however, stares at him like he’s daft.

After a moment, Pete blushes.

And suddenly Sid has the power in the room. Suddenly, because of Peter’s repeated misestimations of him, it does not matter that Sid is bound and Pete is free.

The wheel of knives spins.

Sid straightens against the radiator.

Sid says, “I need everything you have. I don’t care if it’s for curing warts. There’s a King coming to Spattle in vestments of indigo and green, and if we don’t stop him, you’ll be drowning forever.”

Pete stares at Sid.

“Damn it!” Pete says. “Damn it. I should get to kill you.”

And because Sid is starting to understand the ways in which Peter Sorgen expects a Sid to act, he answers thus: “That would lead you to a horrid end.”

And Peter sighs.

And he lets Sid go.

These are the signs of the coming of a King: corrupt actions. Fear and hatred. The pollution of the groundwater, so that sinks run with green water and with black.

They stand out at the edge, before the rim of the King.

They lay out talismans of oak and rowan, curses, and nasty bits of iron.

With the chalks of amterise they work— Sid and Max, as Grouchy Pete has abandoned the town and fled—

With the chalks of amterise and the sigils of Rao they work to hold back the tide.

It is a horrid tangle that they build, a monstrous thing made to devour gods—

But when the rim of the King moves past, they cannot even tell if it is hurt.

“Is it hurt?” Max asks.

“I can’t tell,” Sid says.

And Max squints and stares into the body of the King, and the nature of it assaults his mind, and madness sweeps over him and he is retching and for a long time he knows nothing but loathing, hatred, and fear.

His reasons are not specific.

It is simply that in apprehending the King he feels a disconnection with the substance of the world and a futility of the striving of humankind, and this makes him sick, like an animal, with fear.

Is it right to kill a King?

We ask ourselves this because it is essentially our purpose. To change the world is to drive forth the shadows that dwelt upon it and change is always accompanied by blood. We look upon the King and he is a sickness upon our mind, but is it right?

If we could ask the people of Spattle, they would give us license, no doubt; they would say from the belly of that beast that we should strike. But their voices are not heard within the world. We may not use their witness.

That night Sid and Max camp out in the desert and watch the doom of Spattle come.

And some of the nature of the King is still twisting in Max’s mind, so he says, “Here’s a thing I’ve been thinking.”

“Hm?”

“Vivisecting people is wrong,” Max says. “Like, you walk up to someone and they’re happy, right? And then you vivisect them. And they’re all, ‘Hey, I liked those organs. Now I’m in hideous pain and dying!’”

“True,” Sid says.

“So . . . how can any moral person— god— THING, how can anyone, you know?”

Sid considers that.

“We were ugly,” Sid says.

“Hm?”

“When we were made,” Sid says. “We were so ugly that our father would not let us walk upon the Earth under the sun. Instead he cast us into deepnesses where we dwelt.”

Max studies Sid.

“You look okay,” he says.

Sid shrugs.

“It is like the tide, I think,” he says. “The reason that siggorts vivisect. One day there shall be a man, and inside him I shall see something like . . . a gleaming jewel. And I will take him apart and lay him out piece by piece to find it, but I will not find it. And this will be a good thing, an honest thing, a thing that will end something of my shame. It will put me back in harmony with the world, with what I am, with the nature of things. It will be right; and I, of course, will be a murderer, and foul.”

“Oh,” says Max.

“It won’t be a moral thing,” says Sid. “If it were, then I’d be all conflicted. I mean,” he adds, honestly, “more so than I am. It’s not a moral thing. It is simply a thing that happens. I am astonished, in truth, that it has not happened yet.”

He grins a little, sadly, like a Sid.

“My brothers say I am slacking, but I do not think that this is so. I think that I am selective and I simply have not found the person I will kill.”

And it is not to these words but to Sid’s eyes that Max says: “Jesus, Sid.”

Sid rises.

He says, “I will shed this body, I think, and fight the King. Do not call me again. If I am as I was . . . I will fear to answer such a call.”

The Kings of the Unforgivable Dominions break the covenant that holds together the pieces of the world.

And Max is on his feet.

Max is hugging Sid.

And Max says, fiercely, “Do not make yourself a thing I cannot love.”

There is a breath of time.

And suddenly Max blushes, and turns away, and flails, because Max does not want Sid to misunderstand.

And the thunder of Sid’s heart comes close to cracking the mud of him; the distance and silence in his head comes close to aerating the clay of him; and he doesn’t say anything, but rather is still.

“Tell me,” Max says.

“Hm?”

“It is all right to kill the King that comes to Spattle, in vestments of indigo and green?”

“Is it . . .”

“Yes.”

Sid can’t find words. He stares out at the King.

“No,” he says.

He lays his hand on the surface of the King. He feels its ichorous and corruptive membrane.

“It’s not all right or not all right,” he says. “It depends on why.”

“Then leave it be,” Max says.

And they leave it be, and go;

And doom comes to Spattle.

(Palm Sunday: I/IV) Sid and Max

Here’s how it happened, all those years ago.

It is 1968 and Max is the luckiest kid in the whole world.

He doesn’t have monsters in his closet any more. They left his house screaming.

Instead, Max has a magical friend named Sid.

Max shows his magical friend off to the bullies, one by one. Most of them are intimidated at once, but there’s one who holds out a little longer.

“His name’s Sid,” Max says to Grouchy Pete.

Grouchy Pete is the most terrifying bully on the playground. He’s not just big—he’s also grouchy!

Grouchy Pete chews on some gum. He spits it out to the side.

“Don’t look like much,” Grouchy Pete says.

Sid’s an older kid with a roly-poly stomach and feathers in his hair. A wheel of knives hangs in the air beside him.

The wheel of knives spins slowly.

“I could vivisect you,” Sid says, calmly, “and none of the teachers would even notice.”

This assertion does not seem to improve Pete’s mood.

“Ain’t never been vivisected,” says Grouchy Pete dismissively.

“Here’s a hint,” Sid says.

Sid’s head wobbles on his neck, just a little bit, with the raw terrible danger of him.

Sid drawls, “It’s not fun.”

And the knives drift closer to Grouchy Pete, and Grouchy Pete bursts into tears, right there on the playground, and from that day on Max is King of the Yard.