Max is Dead (2 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

The horizon divides the sea from the sky. In Sid’s tactical judgment, this is the world’s mistake. He skates a long chain-blade of him along its length and severs them, so that the sea and sky sag apart and show through them a great gap in the world.

He can feel the heat of the Good fluttering against the heart of him.

It is gummy; it is heavy; it slows the rotation of that one element of him, and speeds others, and binds that portion of him into the world.

It becomes hot where Sid is cold and cold where Sid is hot; actual where he is contemplative; metaphorical where he is real.

The gaze of the Good twists that part of him through the axis of accessibility of space.

He cuts it from himself.

He huddles in around the pain of it. It is a fragment, he tells himself: nothing more.

The way that the sea air tastes one way on one morning and a different way on another: a tactical weakness. A rusty, hooked, and sensitive knife of him cuts along it.

The eye of the Good turns to that gap.

It stares into the emptiness; and a portion of it is lost.

He sees something.

He is starting to see something. It flickers at the edge of his consciousness: the heart of the Good, tilted ninety degrees from the rest of it at the end of an infinite sequence of approximations to the real.

He cleans his flensing blades and lets rust drift down onto the surface of the sea.

It is capable of an error, he calculates: a tactical weakness.

There is room between the truth of the thing and its image in the eyes of the Good to insert the thinnest of his blades; and to cut in a great fractal arc along the length of that gap until he reaches its heart.

But first there’s a man.

There’s a man, standing on a boat, in the middle of the surging sea.

There’s a man staggering in the icy wind and waving a knife of melomid skin and shouting up at Sid, “You wanna go?”

He tastes like Max.

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

There is a darkness between the pieces of this man.

The Buddha put it thus: anatman.

A man is not the hand and a man is not the eye. A man is not the torso or the limbs. A man is none of these various parts. So when we say that we see a man, such as Max, in the world, we do not describe the physical existence of a thing. We describe instead a particular and contingent assemblage of parts.

What does this description mean?

It is, argues the Buddha, a filter created by our own mind and imposed upon the world, which we then confuse for real. It is an aggregate of misconceptions. It is not possible that in composing our idea of a man, such as Max, that we are accurate even in the moment.

It is not accurate even in the moment; and with the passage of time, its accuracy inevitably degrades.

That is why Sid sees not the man but his gaps. That is why it is practical to see not the man but his gaps.

For the most part that which one might think of as “Max” is not really there.

There is a darkness between the pieces of the man. There is an emptiness. There is no observer who can see more in Max than an aggregate of misconceptions paired with a function of surprisal that is in all practical respects computationally random.

For some time, Sid has refrained from chopping Max into little pieces, but that’s not because it’s difficult.

Red Mary’s proven it.

So has Ii Ma.

So, in the long run, has life itself.

Chopping Max into little pieces is actually pretty easy.

The miracle, really, is that it doesn’t happen more often.

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

Max is dead.

It is a fragile line of truth in a universe of confusion. It is the knowledge that keeps Sid sane.

How can you forgive him? Ii Ma had asked.

He is dead. He is dead. And for another thing, Sid says, flaring with the fire of his dharma, Max is dead.

Things end.

Hopes die.

Max is dead, torn apart, severed from the pieces of himself and scattered through the sea.

And with Head Island so near—

Head Island, teeming with angry skandhas, most terribly easily mistaken for a man—

He cannot rely on evidence to the contrary.

Max is shouting, but Max is dead, and the particular conglomeration of circumstances that produced him in this world will not recur.

And so Sid is angry, not happy, to hear the voice of the man. He is angry and he is hurt and he knows the most marvelous anodyne for that pain.

A black thorned wire of Sid comes down to cut through the darkness inside of Max.

The history of Mr. Kong shifts in Max’s hand; it turns the wire aside.

The knives of Sid burst forth from the sea like the tendrils of a beast; and the history cuts sideways and blocks two, three, four, but not the fifth.

He cuts through the man.

He hooks into the man.

He seizes up the man and stares into him and the world beats with the tempo of his angry breath.

Max’s left hand closes around the point of a curved and rusty knife. He shifts his right arm over a wire of Sid for leverage; and by chance or planning, he catches a leaf of Good between his shoulder and the wire, so that for a moment it does not cut.

He twists the knife sharply, as if it were Sid’s kneecap.

Shock unfolds.

The sound from Sid is like the shriek of startled birds.

Through the space occupied by Max’s torso, a sleeting of sharp edges flies.

The grip of Sid releases.

Max falls.

For a lingering moment, Sid is quite still.

Then he sunders the air, he cuts the sky, he makes a thunder with his wings, he falls on Max like vultures, like lightning, like the rain. A rumble builds in him, like a purr, like a roar, like the blast of an engine, to shudder the world apart.

A drop of blood floats free.

But it is as if Sid has cut the air between two lovers, or the space between two/words.

In that place, in that moment, under the eyes of Good and drawn together by Red Mary when once scattered far apart, the pieces that make up Max are holding together not by assertion but by choice.

He is not the blood and he is not the bone; not the hand and not the eye; not the flowering rain of red but the dharma: Max.

He holds himself together.

He seizes a bundle of wires of Sid.

Without looking at the hideous gap of the horizon or the burning eye of the Good, he vents a great-voiced shout and he twists the siggort in his grip and he drags the siggort down into the sea.

(Bonus) Waiting for Gödel

Cast of Characters

GÖDEL, a mathematician
ESCHER, an actor in favor of Gödel
ROSENCRANTZ, an actor not in favor of Gödel
FERDINAND, an actor not in this play
TOPPLE, the road taken
TIPPLE, the road not taken
CLAUDIUS, a KING

ACT I

ESCHER: Attend a tale of tragedy; a tale of plays; a tale of a character, torn by circumstance, determined to catch his actor in the act and unmask the creature playing himself before us all.
ROSENCRANTZ: Lo! Gödel presently arrives.

GÖDEL arrives.

GÖDEL: I sometimes suspect that I am but a character that Claudius plays. Also, that he killed my father.
ESCHER: Your father, then, being?
GÖDEL: An insubstantial conceit.
ROSENCRANTZ: A dread spirit!
GÖDEL: Nonsense! The writer hardly takes a tipple.
TIPPLE: Nobody here ever does; thus I am all the more desirable.
GÖDEL: So here is my theorem. We will construct a play within a play—let us call it Waiting for Gödel.
ESCHER: Within a play?
GÖDEL: The play is also named, Waiting for Gödel.
ROSENCRANTZ: Do I survive?
GÖDEL: If you make it to the end.
ROSENCRANTZ: Do I make it to the end?
ESCHER: If you survive.
ROSENCRANTZ: But what’s the point?
GÖDEL: To provoke the conscience of Claudius, causing him to declare himself.
ROSENCRANTZ: Do actors have consciences?
GÖDEL: Perhaps not; but if they do not, then in failing to act he will declare himself.
ESCHER: An actor cannot fail to act!
GÖDEL: Then they must have consciences.
ROSENCRANTZ: Still, will that provocation suffice?
GÖDEL: Perhaps it is a function of necessity. We will taunt him with the absence of Gödel from the play.
ROSENCRANTZ: Oh, then, let us begin!
GÖDEL: We will, as I said, taunt him with the absence of Gödel from the play; and when it becomes unbearable, you see, he will leap in and declare himself as Gödel.
ROSENCRANTZ: Thus demonstrating the quality of being an actor playing Gödel; I see!
GÖDEL: The play’s a factor determinant of the conscience of an actor.
ROSENCRANTZ: Oh, Claudius, for shame.
ESCHER: But what if he does not rush in?
ROSENCRANTZ: We enjoy sweet, Gödel-free existence, developing complete, consistent mathematics while we can.
ESCHER: Can we?
ROSENCRANTZ: Well, if the play-in-a-play goes on long enough.
ESCHER: Truly?
ROSENCRANTZ: The limit of a series of logical systems that progressively approach perfection is perfection; it is only Gödel slowing us down.
TOPPLE: That and Tipple.
ESCHER: And Rosencrantz.
GÖDEL: Not to mention Escher; but let us not name names.
ESCHER: Numbers, then?
GÖDEL: Your distinction is insubstantial.
ROSENCRANTZ: A dread spirit!
GÖDEL: Nonsense!
ESCHER: But still, I do not wish to wait indefinitely for Gödel.
GÖDEL: Well, and I cannot blame you.
ESCHER: It is the characteristic of a limit function that, however comfortable it might seem from the outside of the limit brackets, it is interminable from within.
GÖDEL: Indeed; it might take infinite time to resolve the play-within-a-play, even if the outer structure is, by the definition of the script, a finite thing.
ROSENCRANTZ: I am not sanguine.
GÖDEL: Oh?
ROSENCRANTZ: Well, if infinite time passes, I will be very old.
GÖDEL: Infinitely old.
ROSENCRANTZ: And then to be tormented by a young, fresh Gödel in my age—well, you understand.
GÖDEL: Perhaps there is a simple resolution.
ESCHER: Oh?
GÖDEL: Well, if you determine that it will be an infinite, or, worse, divergent time before Claudius rushes in, signal to me immediately.
ESCHER: How would we make this determination?
ROSENCRANTZ: It is my talent.
ESCHER: Truly?
GÖDEL: I have observed this. Rosencrantz is infallibly aware of whether I am to arrive. Lo:

GÖDEL departs.

ROSENCRANTZ: He shall arrive.

GÖDEL arrives.

ESCHER: A marvel; but perhaps he is simply reading the script?
GÖDEL: Well, yes.
ROSENCRANTZ: That is the nature of every character’s infallible talents.
GÖDEL: You cannot very well expect a character in the play to demonstrate talents unanticipated by the writer.
TIPPLE: Except guessing what the audience will have for dinner.
GÖDEL: Oh?
TIPPLE: In this case, squash sorbet.
ESCHER: It seems unlikely.
GÖDEL: Confine yourself to your other talents!
ESCHER: Orange beef is more likely.
TIPPLE: You say that now, but one day, someone reading this is going to have squash sorbet for dinner; and then you will be sorry.
GÖDEL: Do I look sorry?
TIPPLE: No.
GÖDEL: Does it say in the play that I am sorry?
TIPPLE: I defiantly assert postmodernism!

Silence FALLS.

ESCHER: Let us avoid that road.
GÖDEL: It is not the road that we should take.
ESCHER: So, let us implement this plan.
ROSENCRANTZ: For clarity, review?
ESCHER: We begin to perform Act II of the play, Waiting for Gödel.
GÖDEL: And then, within it, you establish a play-within-a-play, Waiting for Gödel.
ROSENCRANTZ: Act II or Act I?
GÖDEL: Don’t be inane. I am in Act I.
ROSENCRANTZ: I take offense! It is reasonable to suppose that Claudius would play you.
TOPPLE: And I will play Tipple!
TIPPLE: I take offense.
TOPPLE: You may, in turn, play Topple. In this fashion we both avoid being typecast!
TIPPLE: Agreed, then.
ROSENCRANTZ: So, Act II.
GÖDEL: Exactly. And then you look ahead—
ESCHER: Slyly, slyly–
GÖDEL: And determine whether Gödel enters.
ESCHER: And if he does—
GÖDEL: Why, then, I will spring!
ESCHER: Yes.

Pause.

GÖDEL: I mean, upon Claudius.
ESCHER: How so? Or, rather, in what fashion?
GÖDEL: Well, we shall resume Act I, allowing me to denounce him.
ROSENCRANTZ: So Act II takes place entirely within Act I?
GÖDEL: Of course. It is an insert.
ROSENCRANTZ: A wise use of space. I have often thought that the dividing of plays into sequential parts created an unnecessary redundancy.
GÖDEL: And if, looking ahead, you see that Gödel does not enter during the play-within-a-play in Act II—
ESCHER: We cease the play-within-a-play and immediately summon you for the beginning of Act I.
ROSENCRANTZ: Wait, Act I?
ESCHER: What is our alternative?

ROSENCRANTZ counts Acts.

ROSENCRANTZ: I see your point.
GÖDEL: The stage is set; the die is cast! Begin!

GÖDEL leaves.

[Insert Act II]

CLAUDIUS: *peevishly* I don’t see how that follows logically, at all.

**

ACT II

[Scene I: This Scene is optional, to be performed at the discretion of the actors]

TIPPLE: Consider the road not taken.
TOPPLE: A noble road.
TIPPLE: A mighty road; though somewhat inferior to the road that one does actually take.
TOPPLE: But is that just sour grapes? Is that just the fervent desire that we all possess, to live in the best of all possible worlds?
TIPPLE: No.
TOPPLE: I would think you would have to take the road not taken before you could declare that with such surety.
TIPPLE: I use the lens of pure unfettered reason. I evaluate the matter a priori. No; you must accept the compliment.
TOPPLE: That is how it would be, dear audience, if we had taken the other road.
ESCHER: Lo, I enter!

ESCHER enters.

ROSENCRANTZ enters.

ROSENCRANTZ: And now it begins.
ESCHER: Waiting for Gödel.
ROSENCRANTZ: We should enjoy the time, rather. This is, after all, the only Act in which we may construct a consistent, complete mathematics.
ESCHER: We can certainly combine expectant waiting with present enjoyment.
TIPPLE: If he will arrive, of course.
ESCHER: Yes, of course.
ROSENCRANTZ: Yes, of course.
ESCHER: Yes, he will arrive?
ROSENCRANTZ: I cannot see the benefit of my answering that question at this time.
ESCHER: It would reassure my tangled nerves.
ROSENCRANTZ: Yours, perhaps; but what would anyone else among us gain? Let us focus instead on beginning the development of our mathematics.

[End discretionary Scene]

[Insert Act II, here, as a play-within-a-play]

[Scene II]

ROSENCRANTZ: Having completed Act II and developed a mathematical theory, let us now polish it.
ESCHER: Clean up the edges, as it were.
ROSENCRANTZ: Generate a linearly superior improvement.
ESCHER: And in the meantime, we must consider: did Gödel arrive?
ROSENCRANTZ: Naturally.
ESCHER: Naturally?
ROSENCRANTZ: Well, probably not.
ESCHER: Probably NOT?
ROSENCRANTZ: The matter is of little consequence!
ESCHER: It is entirely of consequence! If Gödel has not yet arrived then we are still nested in multiple layers of Act II, with a secure buffer against the collapse of our lives; whereas if he has arrived, then Act II is in imminent danger of ending.
ROSENCRANTZ: Ending.
ESCHER: Yes, ending.
ROSENCRANTZ: What, ending?
ESCHER: I am unconvinced of the efficacy of infinite head-recursion.
ROSENCRANTZ: Do not you tease me, sir.
ESCHER: I repeat: unconvinced! We may stand on the very brink of oblivion, if Gödel has arrived.
ROSENCRANTZ: It would simplify the matter if he would speak.
ESCHER: He cannot speak until he is scripted to speak.
ROSENCRANTZ: A poor practice, that. The man should show more initiative.
ESCHER: He is already substantially livelier than one would expect, being dead.
ROSENCRANTZ: Bah. His mortality is of no consequence; I must tend to my own!
ESCHER: So tend to it!
ROSENCRANTZ: *peevishly* A man should speak up, if he has or hasn’t arrived.
CLAUDIUS: I could stand in. Not as Gödel, you understand. But as Claudius.
ESCHER: Don’t help.
CLAUDIUS: As you like.
ROSENCRANTZ: But what if that was Gödel, playing Claudius?
ESCHER: What if you’re Gödel, playing Rosencrantz?
ROSENCRANTZ: Augh! The man could be anywhere!

ROSENCRANTZ upturns chairs, which are not Gödel, and disturbs Ferdinand, who is also not Gödel.

ROSENCRANTZ: Focus, Rosencrantz. Focus. The simplest answer is to look forward in the script and determine if Gödel will impendingly arrive.
ESCHER: What relevance has that?
ROSENCRANTZ: Well, if he is going to arrive then he has not arrived already.
ESCHER: But he arrived back in Act I. Twice!
ROSENCRANTZ: With a departure in between. If he departs, then we may certainly know that he has arrived.
ESCHER: To determine a man’s arrival entirely by his departure seems perverse.
ROSENCRANTZ: Yet so human!
ESCHER: There is that.
ROSENCRANTZ: I would not like to be thought a ladybug, or a clock, instead of human.
ESCHER: I would not dream of thinking you a ladybug or a clock, instead of human.
ROSENCRANTZ: Do not do it; I don’t care if you dream of it.
ESCHER: But if I’m dreaming of it, then I’m doing it.
ROSENCRANTZ: Pardon?
ESCHER: It is not my constitution to dream of having a thought without also having that thought; this is a condition I term oneiroredundancy.
ROSENCRANTZ: It must be unpleasant to dream of perfect knowledge.
ESCHER: It is a great vexation to mathematicians.
ROSENCRANTZ: *irritably* When we return to Act I, you must play Gödel so that you also may depart.
ESCHER: It will not help.
ROSENCRANTZ: What’s done is done, I grant. So, in any case, if he arrives before he leaves, then he has not arrived; whereas if he is to leave before he arrives, then he is here.
ESCHER: So you will use your talent!
ROSENCRANTZ: Indeed! I will use my talent, and if I determine that he is going to arrive, then I shall immediately invoke Act I.
ESCHER: Fulfilling his plan to perfection!
ROSENCRANTZ: It is the very *opposite* of his plan; I was to invoke Act I if he was never going to arrive.
ESCHER: But he will always arrive.
ROSENCRANTZ: Pardon?
ESCHER: Well, regardless of how we implement the plan, it is certain that there will be Gödel. He is always arriving. The man is a fiend for it!
ROSENCRANTZ: Well, I will use my talent, and if he is going to arrive in this instance of Act II, then I will immediately invoke Act I.
ESCHER: You have that backwards.
ROSENCRANTZ: Should I go by odd-numbered instances?
ESCHER: Perhaps we could write some kind of tracking information into the play to determine which iteration we’re in.
ROSENCRANTZ: Self-modifying text. I like it. We could even remove Gödel entirely and replace him with myself.
ESCHER: That would hardly do; you’re not a jot alike.
ROSENCRANTZ: Here is what we will do. We will scratch out the acting credits that follow immediately after THE END and use the space to write [Insert Act I]. Then, if the play should happen to end, I will predict his imminent arrival.
ESCHER: And if it does not?
ROSENCRANTZ: Then Claudius plays Gödel after all.

THE END

[Insert Act I]

“The Test Defends Itself from Life”- From the Journals of Ink Catherly (IX/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Sarous: Once upon a time there was a young man named Sarous.

Evolved from a fish, I’d say, and maybe that’s the truth; but he’s been a doctor for so very long now that it’s hard to tell.

He was raised up in the kingdom of Snorn; wakened in the great birthing when Snorn—

Himself transfigured from a stone—

Spoke the gospel of King Snorn to the stickbugs, the fishes, the moles, the stones, and the rats. Sarous was one of thousands, tens of thousands, of citizens of that great grey kingdom born that day. And he had a vision.

His vision was an estimable one.

It began with the thought, “Imagine a lens that shows imperfection.”

It led, as inevitably as the rain, to the thought, “I can fix this broken world.”

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

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

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

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

The Island of the Centipede

“Imagine that we could see the animalcules of imperfection,” he said to Melissa, who would later be his wife.

“Imagine,” he said, “that we could track those elements of suffering— those things that make the world not as we like it— back to the contagion that was their source. What is it that you think that we would find?”

“Yeast?”

Sarous blinked. He blinked three times, and fell in love with her at once; but still he disagreed. “Not yeast,” he said. “Moral decay.”

She raised an eyebrow.

Is all imperfection of human origin?

He waved a hand to dismiss the thought. All imperfection that matters. “If all people were upright,” he said, “they would act in all regards to prevent suffering. When people act to exacerbate suffering, we may say that they are infected with the animalcules of imperfection.”

“I see.”

“It is a paradigm, of course, and not a theory,” says Sarous. “Such a lens could not exist. But oh! The possibilities! The diagnostic and purgative techniques that could pertain!”

“But to cure a man of moral decay,” Melissa objected. “Isn’t that like curing one man of another man’s disease?”

This was sticky.

Sarous drank two and a half cups of coffee before he found his answer.

“No one would prefer to cause suffering,” he said.

So he went to his lab and he labored there to become a doctor, and from there to learn the techniques necessary to discover, diagnose, and purge moral decay. He found the animalcules of senseless cruelty and the general systemic pathology of spinelessness. He dug out for the first time the organ of privilege— not the testicles, as Yaoharneth-Lalai had hypothesized, nor yet the ovaries (as bitterly avowed by Mung), but rather a small sexless nodule of dubious provenance crunched up between the bowels and the gall. He caught at last the monopole that makes a jackass bray and the thwarted man to pout; he made a vaccine against the brutal rage; and if he found no general solution, no lens to show imperfection nor purgatives to sweat it out, still he grew legendary in the art of detecting and treating moral degeneration and decay.

In the early days he tested his diagnoses often on Melissa; at first as experiments, and then as control, and finally with a strange urgency to find a flaw, as if the negative results he found were illegitimate to a one.

“I think, my love,” Melissa said, “that you will test me until I prove corrupt.”

Sarous smiled.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Yet still something moved in him— something strange and uneasy, that kept his hand hovering near the latest draw of Melissa’s blood.

“May I?” he said.

“Oh, you will,” she observed.

“You’ll make me blush.”

“It’s just,” she said, “if I had such grave doubts for your purity, then that would be a symptom, would it not?”

He laughed.

He thought about it. Then he laughed again.

“I suppose it would,” he said. “But it is because you have been steady for so long, you see.”

She had a qualm that day, but he qualmed it out; for all his strange obsessions the intentions of her husband were still good.

Medicine advanced. The technology of Sarous’ work improved. He demonstrated practical results of clear legitimacy: sinners redeemed, murderers unmasked, qualms uncoiled into repentance, certainty, or calm. Word of his skills spread throughout the kingdom.

It became very popular for the people to submit their enemies and their goads to him for testing. Occasionally this had the desired outcome; at other times, it had a null result, or rebounded upon the issuers of these claims of moral decay.

It was in that latter fashion that Dr. Sarous deposed King Snorn.

“I fear treachery in my advisors,” said Snorn. “Or mutiny among my people.”

And Sarous ran his tests.

“Milord, I am afraid that it is not your people that are treacherous, but you.”

Slowly the King’s head sank onto his chest. His beard crunched against his tabard; and he thought.

He said, in sepulchral tones, “This is a notion that has fluttered against the windows of my mind; I had suspected it, but I had not dared to let it in. Is there a purgative?”

“It is too deep,” Sarous said.

Despair condensed to ice in the King’s veins. He went still. His eyes fell closed. His white hair hung around his head. He slept and he did not wake again. His body went cold and then turned to stone upon his bench. The people acclaimed Dr. Sarous to his throne, and asked him to purge unrighteousness from their ranks.

They built the ziggurat to honor him.

Everywhere they lauded Sarous’ name.

And in quiet and alone in the deeps of night, Melissa had a thought.

Her thought began with, “Imagine a lens that shows imperfection.”

It continued, as inevitably as the rain, to, “He will kill me.”

He ran his seven hundred and thirty-first test of her the morning after. He frowned at the results. He ran the test again.

He looked at the palm of her hand and he saw the marks of it, the faint red flush of moral decay.

Leaning close he saw the touch of it on her throat, in the smallness of her backpack, in the blackness of her hair.

“Decay?” Melissa asked him.

She was strangely calm.

“It is not curable,” he said. A cold wind blew.

She smiled. She could not help it. “And terribly contagious, I would suggest.”

He blinked. He tilted his head. “Eh?”

“My love,” she said, “what will you do now, that will not cause suffering?”

“—I must try a cure,” he said.

“Imagine,” she said, “a lens that shows imperfection.”

His thoughts were far away, with the results of the test, with the structure of her disease. Could he get it out, he wondered, if he bled her soon enough? If he operated? Could he preserve some portion of her, perhaps, to be later grown again?

“It would always show,” she said. “It would never be clear. Of course it could never be clear. Even if it were to look upon the purest thing, even if it were to show the good itself: still, the lens would be imperfect; the holder would be imperfect; the eye that looked through it, imperfect; the very concepts made manifest in that lens— imperfect, and so the lens would show.”

“I can’t just let it be,” he said. Sarous’ voice was strained. “I can’t just have a corrupt wife. I am the King.”

“You’re not listening, love,” she said.

He blinked. He refocused. He looked at her face. Of course. I am not listening.

He said it again, trying harder to communicate to her his meaning, his implications, and his sorrow. “I can’t just let it be. For their sake. You understand.”

“It isn’t logically possible for your diagnostic techniques to be correct,” she said.

He made a face.

“You’d say that,” he agreed.

“It’s because I realized that,” she said, “and resolved that I would tell you, that I failed to the test.”

And she talked, she explained, on and on she talked, but he did not listen.

“It defends itself,” she said, “from the stringencies of life.”

And she still thought then, to judge her smile, that she would win this fight, and perhaps on equal grounds she ought; but it was all symptoms, you see; all symptoms, every word of it, and it was not sign.

  • Tune in NEXT WEEK for a cavalcade of mad excitement: Ink vs. Sarous! The birth of Zeus! The general of the stickbugs! And possibly even something like a letters column, although that might be too much to hope until after part XV—
    INK IMMORAL!
  • You won’t believe your nosebugs!

Red Mary (3 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

Currents rush through the purple sea.

Ahead of Max are the scattered remnants of an island. Some great power has struck and shattered what once was whole so that now it is a dozen, perhaps two dozen pieces of land with watercourses between them. The sunlight runs in white and golden streams along the chaos’ surface.

Max dangles from the edge of his catamaran by one arm and the strictures of his harness. Red Mary swims towards him.

Her movements are effortless and swift.

Max flounders and tries to drag himself up. The catamaran wobbles. His hand catches a wooden box. He closes his fingers around it, pulls it down and tries to catch Red Mary’s head with it.

It flails without efficacy and the claws of Red Mary open a gash on his side and the impact of her drives him and the boat back.

The box opens.

Inside, there is a knife of melomid skin, a shard of the lens Necessity, and it contains within it the history of Confucius; or, that is to say, of Mr. Kong.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue to make all things right.
The Island of the Centipede

It is June 3, 2004, in the latter years of the tyranny following the Fourth Kingdom of the world.

Max seizes the knife.

Red Mary draws back. She is ten yards away from him in the blinking of an eye. She curls her tail into a spiral and her hair drifts and she stares at him with cold black eyes.

He cannot imagine how it is that her shirt neither clings nor falls away.

“Wisdom tells us that we are not important as we are,” she says.

Max takes a tentative breath. The chaos is breathable but sickening, like the air in a slaughterhouse, so he kicks his feet to rise.

In that moment of blindness when he crests the surface she closes in; but he draws up his feet and he flails with the knife and honoring the wisdom of Mr. Kong Red Mary’s charge pulls short.

She circles, lazily. Max watches until she disappears around the catamaran; then, to track her, he must drop his head below the chaos once again.

“This is the argument for your death,” she says.

Max takes another lungful of chaos. He coughs. He bows inwards on himself. His mind’s eye blurs out with pain and stress. She flicks towards him.

Max extends the knife. Once again the point of the history keeps her at bay. She flicks back.

“The thrust of a mind’s attention distorts the chaos,” she says. “It agitates the substance of the world. From this we arise: rocks and trees and mortal men and gods. We serve as cysts for love and pain. And where we go we bestow these commodities, such that when we see the things that please us we distort them with the imprint of our suffering and when we see the things that hurt us we distort them with our love.”

The chaos picks up the rhythm of her words.

It is everywhere singing with them, and billowing with darkness like a God-squid’s ink.

“We carry forward the pains that gave us birth.”

Max goes to rise to the surface; but the coldness of her eyes stops him.

If I rise, he thinks, she will eat my leg.

He can hear that as a harmony in the chaos. The music tells him: You are entangled, and to struggle will hurt you more.

If I rise, he thinks, she will eat my leg. But here I cannot really breathe.

“We are imperfect and pitiable creatures,” she says. “Because where we go no paradise can sustain. Why did the Buddha fail to save the world? Why was the maiming of Uranus in vain? Why has every effort ever made to craft a Heaven of this world failed us? It is because of who we are. We are unfinished. We are imperfect. Our existence necessitates a condition of imperfection.”

Diamond patterns play across his vision.

“But there is an answer,” she tells him.

Oh?

“There is a perfect anodyne.”

This is the music that once Odysseus found beautiful; and it would have killed him were he not tied to his mast.

Max cannot think. The knife drifts from his hand.

“You’re soaking in it,” she says.

Max sags.

He drifts there in the water.

He can feel it, everywhere around him: the infinity of things.

He is small in it.

He is a speck.

He is a handful of organic molecules and thoughts whose insistence on material integrity have bound him to suffering and to fight that which he loves.

“There was a siggort,” says Max.

And perhaps that is why he does not dissolve and scatter into the foam of the sea; but it is not enough.

“You are part of this great infinity,” Red Mary tells him, and he feels himself the whole of the chaos and the land and he does not feel her teeth.

Max Sets Forth to Kill God (1 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

The hardest part of that whole night is the show.

One quarter of Gibbelins’ Tower is a jumbled ruin. Claire’s scalp won’t stop bleeding even though she’s used a Sesame Street bandaid. Broderick is coughing and coughing because he’s allergic to disaster.

Nobody’s seen Sid, Mr. Schiff, or Rahu.

Martin says that the imago’s fallen—that when the tower started shaking, she just canted over and fell into a giant hole in the floor.

Max’s room is a wreck and his nerves are a jangle.

And amidst all this they must put on a performance of Hamlet 2: The Arrows of Fate, to be broadcast from the tower to a hypothetical audience outside the boundaries of the world.

“Why?” says Max.

Martin looks at him blankly.

“Dude,” Martin says, “haven’t you ever watched that play and said, ‘How can anyone possibly make a sequel?'”

Martin’s got a crushed pinky, which makes him substantially better off than Max in the current wounds department.

“The machinery’s barely even working!” protests Max.

Martin twists his hands into various positions, thinking. “You’re worried about Sid,” he says.

“Yes.”

Martin’s hair is all over masonry dust.

“Then try not being all freaky about hypothetical vivisections,” Martin says. “Sometimes you’ve got to torture somebody to death. Just look at Hell, or Guantanamo, or that old riddle about whether you’d rather torture one guy to death or let everyone in the world die. It happens.”

Max stares at Martin.

Martin looks back at him.

“It’s an inevitable byproduct of adequate force,” Martin explains.

So Max goes backstage and he helps Iphigenia unclog the pipes.

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

The Island of the Centipede

They dig Mr. Schiff out of the rubble a few hours after the play. He makes protesting noises because they have woken him up.

Before they find Sid or Rahu or the imago, Martin finds Max. Max is dragging a large tumbled stone out of the way of a blocked-off room.

Martin pulls himself up on a chunk of rubble. He sits there, watching Max for a minute.

“Do you trust me?” Martin says.

“No.”

“Here’s the thing,” Martin says. “I kind of accidentally wiggled a tectonic plate by giving the wrong person a fig newton.”

Max stops pulling.

He rubs sweat off his forehead.

“I don’t believe you,” says Max.

“Eh?”

Max shrugs.

Martin thinks.

“To the west,” Martin says, “the shock’s opened up a hole in the crust of the world and there’s a fountain of good rising from it.”

“Okay.”

“I need someone to deal with it,” Martin says.

“You’d think that we could leave it be.”

“It’s difficult to improve things once they get too good,” Martin says. “An actual singularity of virtue would render fixing the world impossible.”

“Also, unnecessary.”

“Why—?” Martin says.

Then he stops himself and thinks.

“Your logic is ancillary to an inherently limited perspective,” Martin dismisses.

“So to the west there is a goodblow,” Max says, “Like God breaking forth into the world to save us all from suffering. And you want me to go stop it.”

“Yes,” Martin says. “With extreme prejudice.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It’s ridiculous,” says Max. “It’s fighting against what we want the most.”

“I can’t make you,” Martin admits.

Max goes back to work.

“You won’t find Sid,” Martin says.

Max stops.

“He is restless,” says Martin. “And despair is forbidden to him. He throws himself against the walls of his cage and sometimes they overcome him. He is absent from these moments in which it is too much to bear. He is scuttled from the world.”

“Oh,” says Max.

Martin drops down to his feet and strolls towards away.

“Wait,” says Max.

“Hm?”

“If I do it,” says Max, “you make Sid an is.”

“You ridiculous dolt,” says Martin.

He walks away.

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

It is June 2, 2004.

Max wakes up and he already knows what he has to do.

He goes down to the catamaran dock.

He looks off to the dark and brooding west.

And Jane is waiting on the grass to see him off. And she is looking at him with her brow furrowed in thought, and she says, “You’re here.”

Max nods.

“Is that okay?” he says.

Little girls tend to like emanations of absolute virtue, so you can see why he asked.

Jane laughs. “Noooo,” she says. “I don’t mean here, at the dock. I mean, here.”

She looks at him.

“You had bad things in your closet. Then Sid chased them away. Then you were King of the playground. Then you played basketball.”

She is being careful with these words. She is slow and deliberate, even with the easy words and simple things.

“Then you were brave and saved Mr. McGruder. Then you loved Sid. Then you saw another siggort and talked Sid into helping Ronald Reagan become President. Then you fought a King. Then you ran away. Then you read a book and afterwards you went to the place without recourse. Then you called Sid there. Then you got out but he didn’t. Then you came here to help him put on plays. Then you shot him and now you want to sail west.”

“Yes,” says Max.

He grins a little. “And what does that mean to you?” he asks.

“The world’s bright and spits up super beauty everywhere,” says Jane.

“Oh.”

“And so there are things that Max. That go Max. Like you. That is what it means.”

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

“Thanks,” he says.

Jane holds out a box. It’s like a cribbage box, but bigger, with a slide-open top.

“Here,” she says.

“What is it?” Max asks.

Jane begins giggling. Max watches in perplexity.

Finally, she stammers out, “Severance pay.”

There are more giggles.

“Ah,” he says.

He takes the box. He frowns at her. But he can’t keep frowning.

She’s smiling at him so brightly that he hugs her.

Then he sails to the west.

The Nest of Mirror Pieces (5 of 5)

Once upon a time, the monster pulled Mei Ming from the shadow’s womb.

She was born as thin as a caul— not in depth, but in spirit.

She was already shivering with cold.

She was already desperately hungry.

She was already an intimate of sorrow.

The monster said, “Good morning, child. Do you know what it is that you are?”

And Mei Ming shook her head.

Her eyes were sunken and her hair was gold.

“You are a misunderstanding,” said the monster. “A poorly-formed hypothesis, with some rudimentary justification, regarding the nature of the world. Your mother conceives of you as real. You represent that naivete. You are the blindness in her mind’s eye. You are the mistakes that devour her. That is all, I’m afraid, that you are—

“The instantiation of a destructive and terrible folly.”

“Oh,” whispered Mei Ming.

“I have made you because she needs you,” the monster said. “If you did not exist, then neither would she. Her being would fly apart to all the ten directions of the world. But—”

“. . . do I exist?” Mei Ming asked.

The monster scowled at her and her cheeks grew dark with shame. Then he grinned like a rogue.

“What a question,” he said, shaking his head. “Heh heh. What a question.”

In the tunnels Mei Ming keeps her home.

It is not a house or an apartment. Her home is not a permanent address at all.

It is the location of her stuff.

The walls near her stuff are stone and damp.

She’s hung her framed Matisse upon one wall. Next to it are old bookshelves made from teak and ivory and platters made of gold.

She lives in an unimaginable luxury of material wealth.

There is no electricity and she is always in shadows but there is treasure.

Her teacup is glass with phoenix feathers woven inside it.

Her clothes are hand-dyed silk.

Her coffee table is a solid jade block on four stubby little legs.

Here are some additional notes regarding the coffee table:

When the subway train comes by, rattling-rattling-rattling the walls, the table will dance.

Sometimes it will also dance even when the train isn’t coming by.

At those times it dances just for the joy of it: for the way that when it moves just right, it feels like it is flying.

That’s why Martin always makes sure that there’s a salt shaker on it when he’s visiting. A salt shaker on a table keeps it from dancing and it is also excellently convenient when you want to salt something.

Martin is, as it happens, visiting right now.

He has knocked.

He has entered.

“Hey, Martin,” Mei Ming says. Then she offers, “Milk?”

Martin shakes his head.

“I’m here to help you,” he says.

He sets his burden on the table. It’s a nest of mirror-shards in a cage of firewood. It’s strung together with glue and wires.

The mirror-shards are showing fragments of history—

Vaguely only, there’s only so much chaos in the tunnels, but showing fragments of history—

Surrounding the events of the past few days.

Mei Ming studies it.

She says, “I hope you don’t want me to drink it. It’d be glug glug horrible pain glug. Also I don’t think it fits in my mouth.”

“I also bring gifts that are not for drinking,” Martin says.

Mei Ming peers at it.

“I can’t hang it on the wall,” she says, tentatively.

Her home begins to shudder, rattling-rattling-rattling, as the subway passes by.

“If I did it might get broken.” She gestures at the wall. “Sometimes the subway plows right into my home. Like, I’ll be drinking tea or something. And then whoosh! Bam! There’s this subway. It always sends stuff tumbling every which way.”

“How undignified,” Martin says.

“It is why I live my itinerant lifestyle,” Mei Ming says. “Today, here. Tomorrow, perhaps, three tunnels to the left! Fortunately the table is mobile and Matisse takes exceptionally well to being hit by trains.”

“That’s his eccentric Fauvist genius,” Martin concurs.

There’s a pause.

“So,” Mei Ming says.

“I don’t fail very often,” Martin says. “But I wasn’t able to finish my studies of Persephone.”

Mei Ming traces a line on one of the mirror shards with her finger.

“If Persephone got angry at me,” Mei Ming observes, “she could turn me into Mei Mint. I would have all of the benefits of aromatic leafiness and I would only have to change one letter of my name.”

Martin grins.

“April showers would bring Mei flowers,” Martin agrees.

“So,” Mei Ming says, again.

“I brought this to you because it is the ruin of . . . a vital and true thing,” Martin says. He gestures at the mirror pieces.

“. . . oh.”

“It’s what happens when a tool that is as ancient as the rain is shattered,” Martin says. He hesitates. “And then parts of it stuck back together with glue and wire. But that’s not the important part. The important part is what broke it, which is to say, a mystery and a contradiction. You’re supposed to look at it and say, ‘Wow. That got broken by a conceit.'”

Mei Ming looks up at him sharply.

“What?”

“It wasn’t a physical thing,” Martin says. “It was a concept that shattered it; or, rather, not even a concept but the absence of a concept, which wound up having raw physical import in the world.”

Mei Ming looks a bit defensive.

“That’s not the world,” Mei Ming says. “That’s an artifact of scrying from your little bubble place, your tower bound only by a bridge to the world and sound. That’s a thing of magic, which is to say, something just one absence of an enlightened observation’s distance from not existing at all.”

Martin makes a dismissive noise: pblt!

“Hm?”

“It wasn’t magic that broke it,” Martin says. “It broke because of the impact of intention on a mind.”

“. . . oh,” says Mei Ming softly.

“It’s here to remind you,” Martin says. “That we are all concepts, even those of us with gross physical flesh. That we are minions of the material world, ideas born from the emptiness of matter, concepts without true referent— for who is there whose intentions exactly match to all their actions?— and yet that we can matter in the world.”

“I have gross physical flesh,” protests Mei Ming.

Pblt! Martin offers her again.

“It’s a refined substance,” he says. “If it were gross, then you’d be all splattery from being occasionally hit by a train.”

“I dodge!” Mei Ming protests.

In a small voice, she adds, “Usually.”

“Have you ever seen someone hit by a train?” Martin says. “It’s gross.”

Hard on the Heels of Ink’s Legend (I/I)

And in her last glance in the mirror, as he carries it away, she can see a great tower that is not her tower; and beyond it a sea of surging chaos; and an Ink who is not herself, but somehow possessed of that which is forbidden to her in Hell.

The mirror cracks.
— Ink in Emptiness

“Oops,” Martin says.

His fisted hand goes to his mouth and he stares, half in horror and half in involuntary amusement, as the lens Necessity cracks.

The crack becomes a webwork of cracks, spreading across its surface like marching ants.

The pressure in the chaos swells.

Then:

Martin can hear Andhaka screaming. The beast’s voice is audible even though Mrs. Schiff is quiet.

Martin thinks, Andhaka is unsettled and disjoined from her. I should go and offer her stabilizing advice, such as, “Do not throw good money after bad.”

Martin realizes that he is tumbling through the air. He does not like it when his goggles break so he curls in his neck. He does not bother protecting his cheek from a razor-edged shard of history.

The chaos has manifested a cocoon. It would be smart to deal with that but instead he finds himself thinking about how best to use it to tease Jane.

It’s really important to tease Jane in a crisis because she is so hard to freak out under normal conditions.

He hits the ground hard.

He is rolling. His cynicism goggles, darn it all, crack. They let in just the tiniest bit of the real world’s light. It is like a slice of horrible rose in amongst the construction-paper green.

His shoulders hurt.

His hand falls on squirming dust.

He looks up.

Jane has a knife. For a dizzying moment, he imagines her showing him the treatment he had shown Bob—

Such an incredibly funny concept! It’s almost impossible not to laugh, but because he knows that’s the crack in his cynicism at work he bites it down—

And then he realizes that it is a story more than it is a knife. It is a fragment of Necessity and it is tuned to something happening right now, right this moment, somewhere in the world.

He names it. He caresses it on his tongue.

Hard on the Heels of Ink’s Legend.

Time, which he hadn’t even realized quite had stopped, starts up again.

(Easter) That Morning (III/V)

Hanging alone on the skyway, the lens Necessity flickers quietly.

It is made of melomid skin— the kind that sees the past and shapes the chaos, as distinct from that melomid skin that sets fire to the heavens or makes a fine pair of boots.

It is generally inclined to self-preservation: to act in defense of its individual identity. Yet it is chained by its nature as an object in the world to participate in the lives of others.

How can anything survive, torn by such fierce opposing pressures?

The third of three histories regarding the cracking of the lens.

Tonight, if all goes according to plan, the lens will assist in telling the final legend of Ink Catherly.

They had all agreed, in somber gathering:

“Her legend ends here.”

Jane was crying. That can happen when you are in the business of telling legends. But she nodded.

Mrs. Schiff was taking the minutes.

“Hell is inescapable,” she wrote. “That is the condition of the world. The flesh cannot aspire to the spirit. Gross meat cannot give rise to the divine fire. Questions remain unanswerable—”

Here she held the pencil’s eraser against the corner of her mouth and paused. Humor outpaced sorrow. Grinning inappropriately, she wrote, “And suffering insufferable.”

Mr. Schiff gave her a look.

So they decided in their cabal the fate of Ink Catherly— that horror to which she would be left until the reforging of the world.

And then they left the lens Necessity alone to contemplate the problem of Persephone.

“Anyway,” said the lens, “it’s just, I think that Meredith needs to think about the fallacy of independent existence, not the proper application of world-destroying power.”

“. . . I worry,” Jane admits.

“Hypocrite,” the lens whispers to itself.

To the unfinished history of Boedromion it turns; to view Persephone in her Underworld it turns.

A hairline fracture is born.

(Low Saturday) The Harrowing of Hell (II/V)

The second of three histories regarding the cracking of the lens.

Jane sits on the skyway by the lens.

She kicks her feet in the air.

“I shouldn’t be here,” she says.

Dozens of colors flicker and swirl within the lens. There is green and there is gold and there is a spot of shifting red.

“I’ll get in trouble,” she says.

The mist of chaos in the room coheres, briefly, into the image of Jane dolefully standing beside a locked cookie jar; of Martin triumphantly copying names from the Nice List to the Naughty List; of thunder crashing and Martin laughing manically as spiders rain from the sky into Jane’s hair.

“Not the last!” Jane clarifies.

The mist subsides.

“But,” Jane says, “I’m worried about Meredith.”

“Why?” asks the lens.

“She is a surging, threshing power,” Jane says. “But she doesn’t know how to deal with that. I think she’s getting on towards running away again.”

The lens flickers for a moment.

There is amidst the chaos, Siddhartha Buddha, and he is saying this:

The second noble truth: anatman.
We are not what we appear to be.
Not singular entities driven by specific purpose
But shapes cast up by the chaos
Looking now like one thing,
Now like another.

“Blee!” says Jane.

She sticks out her tongue.

“What?” the lens asks.

“He was totally cheating.”

“Oh,” says the lens Necessity. It’s laughing at her with its voice.

“You can’t just make something happen and call it a truth,” says Jane. In a superior tone, she adds, “You don’t see me making stuff happen and then pretending it was true all along.”

The lens flickers for a moment.

There is amidst the chaos, Jane and Martin, and Jane is saying this:

Good morning, Martin!

And Martin says:

Good morning, Jane.

Have you considered the underlying corruption
Eating at the soul of man
And incorporated
A recognition of its presence
Into your grim and terrible agenda?

Jane says:

I have considered it!

Martin says:

And may I, then,
Take such dispensation as is appropriate
In eliminating the detritus
And in general resolving this fourth kingdom with efficiency?

Jane says:

To the limits of the appropriate.

Martin says:

I shall begin—

Jane says:

But it is the conclusion I have reached
That there is no individual
Entirely unworthy of our aid
Much less
Of our consideration.

Thus it is my recommendation
That the grinding wheels of history
Run over the open ocean, splashing it in all directions;
The fields of grain, grinding them to meal;
The open road, burning their rubber.

But that it is not appropriate
That any person be harmed:

That no one deserves to suffer at our hands.

Let no one be harmed.

Martin says:

A fundamental conflict of
operating methodologies.

The fog of chaos clears.

Jane is blushing beet red.

“I didn’t make everybody worthy,” she says.

“Hypocrite,” says the lens.

Jane sulks.

“Sulky hypocrite!”

Jane pokes the lens with her finger, getting the history of the world all smudgy.

“Anyway,” says the lens, “it’s just, I think that Meredith needs to think about the fallacy of independent existence, not the proper application of world-destroying power.”

“. . . I worry,” Jane admits.

The chaos swirls.

Then Jane brightens.

“Oh!” she says. “Could you do that Siddhartha thing as a romantic comedy?”

(Good Friday) The Problem of Persephone (I/V)

The first of three histories regarding the cracking of the lens.

Martin sits on the rope balcony beside the lens Necessity.

Idly he asks:

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all?”

The lens contemplates.

It offers: “Fox News—fair and balanced!”

Martin sighs.

“It’s unrealistic images of fairness like these,” he says, “that compromise a guy’s ability to act as messiah in the modern day.”

“I cannot speak to that,” the lens informs him.

“This is the problem,” Martin says. “I need data on Persephone; or, more generally, on the Eleusinian Mysteries. But it’s hard to find.”

“Yes.”

“I have not failed on the technical level,” he says. “The chaos: I pump it. The levers: I pull them. In general, I comport myself as expected of me according to the nature of this tower’s operation. Therefore the problem lies in the equipment.”

The images in the lens swirl thoughtfully.

“Perhaps,” it offers, “the nature of your request is ill-defined.”

“. . . to know more about Persephone?”

“Yes.”

Martin favors Necessity with a hard glare. “The pursuit of knowledge,” he says, “is definite.”

“Even with regard to a mystery?”

“Here is how I theorize,” says Martin. He gestures broadly. “For the purposes of gathering data and taking specific action, the point of utter mystery—that uncanny ungatherable data that produces only static at the moment of observation—is irrelevant. One may isolate it in the bubble of its unclarity, hand-waving around its edges, and leaving only the hard facts at hand. Perhaps there is right here in the tower some infinite force, unknowable, imperceptible, transcendent to the circumstances of my life, but I relate to the world only in context of verifiable data. Invoke the mystery as you like; I shine light in what I can and the remainder is of no matter.”

“Hm,” says the lens.

“So: what is it that you will not show me?”

Static flares.