Free (V/VII)

Now after the incident with the spider the stress does not relent, but rather piles up like massing clouds in Melanie’s body and her mind. She is not well when she emerges from the web; she is, rather, broken, and it comes to a terrible peak in her when she is found by the steamer’s crew, so that the entire world around her strains through a seething mesh of fear before impacting on her mind.

She can’t grasp that they will not hurt her. She can’t grasp that they won’t do horrible and monstrous things to her, and for ever.

But they don’t.

She’s babbled to them already about the soot-spider. She isn’t sure when that happened. She missed the part where she actually told them. Her first real consciousness of the matter comes when she’s already explained.

The wonder of it is that most of the crew believes.

Did used to see soot spiders, sometimes,” one of the older stokers confirms. “Bloody pests, they were. Kill a cabin boy as soon as wink.”

“No way,” protests a younger seaman. “Aren’t they isn’ts?”

But the stoker only laughs.

“Not out at sea!”

And they might have argued for another round, except, right then, the bo’sun speaks.

“She’s lucky,” the bo’sun rules.

She’s lucky! She survived!

And that’s the end of the matter, because they can make her work, if she’s lucky, but they can’t exactly harass her, or lock her up, or throw her to the sea.

You don’t do that kind of thing to people who are good luck.

It wouldn’t be good practice, on a ship.

So she survives, and nobody hurts her, and you’d think that maybe that would lighten the suffering that fills her thoughts, but it doesn’t, because as it turns out, making an answer to suffering is a difficult thing to do.

She’s tired, right tired, all the way through, and she’s burdened down with fear.

It gets heavier with each passing day.

Then they reach Santa Barbara’s docks.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]

1979 CE

They berth at night and she helps unload and then in her corner she goes to sleep.

And there’s something epochal in reaching land, and as she sleeps, the weight that fills her body, mind, and soul cuts free.

It lingers near her at first, but the night has tides, and in the end it drifts away.

She wakes up to realize that the world is sweet and her body aches and the water that drums against the side of the ship is good.

And the rough wood of the docks has a clean simplicity.

And the sky over Santa Barbara—

The sky is right.

It’s like she’s come at last to a fairyland, to berth in this sunny world.

She stretches. She laughs. She walks. She runs. She jumps down to the wooden dock.

It sways—

She sways?—

It doesn’t sway, rather, and so she nearly falls, she nearly goes head over heels, she nearly topples over, like she’d done once or twice in the previous night.

The land doesn’t sway here, and that’s a crazy, unnatural thing.

How can a person stand up in some strange world where the ground doesn’t move and your heart is light and there is no soot, no soot anywhere, to make you fear the endless dark?

She takes a step.


She takes another step.


Somehow it’s good. Somehow the terrible alien solidity of the land is good.

She looks around. There isn’t any soot. There isn’t any impending danger that the soot, which isn’t there, will organize itself into theorems and abstract her into a dark, foreboding world.

She sways.

Somehow that’s good too, that she doesn’t have to fear that she’ll stumble at any second into the web of another soot-spider.

Somehow, and this is weird, somehow that’s better than good.

It’s bubbling up in her like joy, it’s giggling out of her unexpectedly, it’s giggling out her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her

“You’re Amiel’s get.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]

1979 CE

Back up. That isn’t how this history goes.

She isn’t there yet. That hasn’t happened to her yet. She isn’t hearing those terrible words. Not yet.

She is stumbling down, no, she’s jumped down onto the docks.

And they aren’t swaying.

They’re not like a ship. They’re still. And somehow that’s . . . good.

Somehow the terrible alien solidity of the land is, like we were saying, good.

She looks around. There isn’t any soot. There isn’t any impending danger that the soot, which isn’t there, will organize itself into theorems and abstract her into a dark, foreboding world.

She sways.

Somehow that’s good too, that she doesn’t have to fear that she’ll stumble at any second into the web of another soot-spider.

Somehow, and this is weird, somehow that’s better than good.

It’s bubbling up in her like joy, it’s giggling out of her unexpectedly, it’s giggling out her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her lungs and chest and heart, and she’s shouted out before she’s thought about it any a great shout of love for all the world.

How embarrassing.

Embarrassment loses against the joy. It can burn her cheeks and make her look away but it can’t stop her from laughing, and saluting the seamen on their ship, and jauntily walking towards the day.

She’s seven and she’s lucky and she’s killed a soot-spider and finally she’s gotten free.

Billy and his gang won’t be a trouble to her any more.

Nothing will be a trouble to her any more.

She’s the master of the world.

And her story could have gone many different ways from there, but the way it went is this. She walked from the docks straight to Santa Ynez; straight into the monster’s web.

but there is one more part of this tale to tell, and you shall have to wait a week to hear it. In the meantime, perhaps, you could

* review the Legend of Ink Catherly, or
* everything about her so far;
* enjoy the awesome Visual Glossary of Symbols;
* browse the even more awesome work of Anthony Damiani or Siya on Deviant Art;
* design incredible games using Ren’Py; or
* read about the upcoming third edition of Nobilis at!

“Alaia”: The First Tooth

You will recall that this is the story of Hank Makeway, the smith of children’s teeth, and how he came to build a new toothway to New Jerusalem when the last of them had fallen.

Here is the beginning of the story; and the cleansing of the gums; and the clarification of their map.

Hank has sown the fourth of his eight horses; and now he feels a presence in the gums. . . .

The First Tooth

For the next month, things are easier.

Hank spends the month on walking.

He does not work, at least, not in the way a smith is usually working. Instead he lets the gums heal. He familiarizes himself with their newest contours. He plays with the remaining horses, and he sings songs, and he rambles aloud about the incidents of his life.

He displays himself openly, simply, and with trust.

He means this as an introduction of sorts. He has studied the gums of Kailani Tate. Now he sets aside time for the nascent goddess of her teeth to study him.

One day, that goddess says, “Hank Makeway.”


A current of joy runs through the gums. Somewhere, Kailani Tate startles and drops her crayon.

Trepidation seizes the gums.

Communication is dangerous. It evokes in the goddess a fear of mistakes, of misstatements, of unmaking. For a long time afterwards, she says nothing more.

At the end of the month Hank starts working again. He sets up braces and stays along the paths of the gums. He anchors them with ropes and pulleys.

Curiosity moves. The goddess asks him, one day, as he’s setting up a smith’s stay, “What are you doing, Hank?”

“I want this bit of path to stay still,” he says.

He indicates a trickle of chemical energy that is tributary to the path.

“When there’s pressure along here,” he explains.

Later, as he sets up the ropes that bind a bit of path to one of his anchors, she says, “And here?”

“It’s structural support,” he says, “for the road to New Jerusalem.”

He takes Flesh-Ripper out to a certain place and he tells the horse, “Here.”

The horse dances upon the gums. Flesh-Ripper’s hooves come down, thum-thum-thum, and drive a crystal of pure ivory into the gums.

A palpable tension manifests. The pressure and the energy of the gums rises.

“Quickly, now,” Hank urges.

Fierce and driven, Hank moves his team from place to place, planting the scattered seeds for Kailani’s first new tooth. He is sweating and rigid and he moves with a sense of urgency; for if this part fails, he must rip out all the planted buds of ivory and start again. Time weighs on him in the form of material strain. The path around him is buckling and twisting, snapping about within the confines of the braces and the stays, and it will not hold forever. Once Hank loses his footing and his ankle flares with pain and he hears a snap and for a moment he fears that all is lost: but it is a buckle and not a bone that he has broken. He is agile enough to continue.

Only once in this process does the urgency in him relent. That is when the voice of the goddess comes softly through the gums, saying, “This is strange, Hank Makeway.”

Then he stills. He draws three breaths for calm. He says, “Is it?”

“It is.”

“Would you like me to explain?” he says.

And he smiles.

After a moment, she says, curiosity.

“This is a process of defining,” Hank says. “These paths of yours are sound and honest, but they are equivocal. They speak of many different things. I am scouring away their indecision and putting them in the shape of teeth.

“The teeth,” he finishes, simply, “are the road to New Jerusalem.”

Solemnly, she says the ritual lines: “New Jerusalem, suffused with grace.”

“You are in your shape a transformation,” Hank says, “that takes in Lauemford and becomes New Jerusalem— takes what is immured in Lauemford at the right of the jaw and opens New Jerusalem to it at the left.”

“Oh,” she says.

Then suddenly she parses the entirety of his statement. The word bursts from her as a laugh: “Lauemford!”

“Yes,” he says.

Lauemford,” she says, again.

Her tone is that of a child who has just learned that the milk she drinks every day comes out of a moo cow: joyous incredulity at the fallibility of the world.

I live in Lauemford,” he protests, hitting his chest. “I have a farm.

New gales of laughter pour forth. Hank frowns; then his cheeks burn; then, despite himself, he grins. His hurt pride becomes ridiculous to him. Hidden behind his smile, his heart begins to laugh. He squares his shoulders. He shakes his head and sighs. Then he goes back to work.

The stays are cracking but have not quite broken when he sets the last crystal in his design. Exhaling a great satisfaction, he stumbles to a stop.

The shape he’s crafted burns in Ms. Tate’s gums. Its mathematical character transfigures. Along the fault lines of symmetry and consanguinity lines of power burn. Metamorphosis seethes into gleaming lattices. The scattered seeds of Kailani’s first new tooth reach out to one another; see the shining of one another; see the seething potential in each other; embrace.

“Tooth,” says Hank, in quiet satisfaction.

Only mammals have differentiated teeth, murmurs a fragment of truth embedded in the gums; and “Tooth,” sighs after him the goddess of the gums.

It is very nearly perfect, this first of Kailani’s teeth.

There’s no smith less than Hank Makeway that could see the error in it at all; and even Hank misses it, this once.

One tooth down. Twenty-seven left to go.

but that is twenty-seven teeth too many to speak of them tonight; so we shall leave the next few for tomorrow, should it happen you won’t mind.

“Alaia”: Introduction

There is a secret in mathematics,

confided Mrs. Schiff.

Imagine that you were to take the side of a square of area equal to removing a single object from your life; and measure its length. You would get, naturally enough, a left turn of 90 degrees—so says a mathematician.

Otherwise the metaphors of mathematics do not hold up.

There is no reason, of course, why “a left turn of 90 degrees” should be the answer to the question,

“What is that length?”

But that,

explained Mrs. Schiff,

is irrelevant in mathematics as in life. What is important is that there is no reason it should not be a left turn of 90 degrees. Were you to imagine that it were 3, then there should be many reasons against it; or if you were to describe it as an error, it would impoverish your expressive capacity; or if you were to suggest that it were a torus, mathematicians would rightly look upon you as unhelpfully mad. But a left turn—that has potential.

Now what do you get when you need a road from Lauemford to New Jerusalem?


whispered Mrs. Schiff,

and I will tell you a secret.

This is the story of Hank Makeway, the smith of children’s teeth.

Lacking the Power of Reflection

Perhaps it would be better, thinks the Count, if I had not impaled all of those people in Roumania.

The Count’s head rolls down the hill.

It strikes a speedbump, flies high, and then continues its roll.

“One,” he laughs. “One regret. Ahahahahahahaha!”

The Count attempts to reflect upon the circumstances that brought him here, his head rolling down a Washington State hill under a post-apocalyptic sky. It is impossible because he is a vampire and lacks the power of reflection.

If I had counted them, he thinks. If I had only counted them, then I could have brought them back.

There is a dog. It is nearly skeletal with hunger.

It sniffs at him as he rolls past. It thinks imponderable dog thoughts. It has no strength to chase him.

Soon, it will die.


“One, two, three, four— four legs!”

And its legs grow strong.

“One dog!”

Lightning flashes.

Thunder booms.


That is my regret, he thinks. That I did not count the people that I impaled, in Roumania. That I did not think to count them so that I could bring them back.

His head rolls past a Church.

He does not count it. Vampires do not like Christian Churches because they cannot count a God that is three persons in one. That is why they draw back hissing from a crucifix and why they do not visit India, with its even less countable gods, at all.

“One terribly steep slope leading to a lake!” he laughs.

Lightning flashes.

Thunder booms.


I thought that I was a good man, he thinks. I thought that I was doing honor to my people.

He does not think of the faces of his peers when they understood at last what he was.

“One world,” he counts. Because he does not have time to count each thing individually. “One world, in infinite parts.”

His head strikes a speedbump. It flies up. It rolls, jangling aggly-agglty along.

“One world, in infinite parts. Ahahahahahahahaha!”

Just once, he thinks, I would have liked the opportunity to count the sun.

He plunges into the glorious blue depths.

(Palm Sunday: II/IV) Jigsawing

Jane has her tongue poked deep into her cheek. She’s sifting through the pile of shards looking for the next piece of the story.

“Jane,” Martin says.

“Sh!” Jane says. “Jigsawing!”

“We could just ask Sid to tell us,” Martin points out. “He’s standing right there.

“Sh!!” Jane says, louder. “JIGSAWING!”

Then, to underline her point, she says, “Blee!”

A cold wind blows.

The vast bulk of Ii Ma shifts.

And Sid sighs.

He relaxes, just a bit.

Sid says, gently, “Walk in like you own the place.”

“I don’t even think that’s from the same history,” Martin says.

Jane hesitates for a moment. “Well,” she says. “The edges sort of match up, here and here.”

“That’s because they’re 0-length points,” Martin says. “All 0-length points match up.”

“Don’t get philosophical!” Jane says, and Martin gulps both a giggle and his objections down.

Now it’s said that a boy can’t have a magical friend forever, and that’s true.

What’s really cool when you’re seven is kind of weird when you’re ten. And when you’re twelve, it starts to get embarrassing.

You’ll be playing basketball and your friends will be totally pounding your game and you’ll realize that Derek is about to make a basket and you’ll say, “Sid.”

And the game will grind to a screeching halt.

Everyone will look at the guy standing over there, with the feather in his hair and the wheel of knives, and there will be a quick and feverish consultation on the rules.

“(a),” will say officious Lester Pargon, the only kid you know who can talk in bullet points, “That has to be against the rules. And (b) what is that?”

And you might say, “It’s a Sid.”

And they’ll look at you.

“That’s so weird,” they’ll say.

And after that you don’t call your magical friend any more. Not if you’re a boy, anyway, or, at least, not if you’re Max.

“Wow,” says Jane. “I’d really suck at basketball if I couldn’t summon magical friends.”

“You do suck at basketball,” Martin says.

There’s a pause.

“Is this about the winged unicorn again?” Jane says.

“It’s traveling,” Martin says, in ancient frustration.

Six’s Story

There is a place far away, a rocky cave well-lit by fires and by mosses’ glow, and there the numbers gather every year. They are assembled, will they or nill they, from the great infinity of the world. Eight of them, always, have seen that place before; one of them, each year, is new.


Helen finds herself swept from the world and into distant places.

“We will call you One,” Nine says.

And Helen, staring at Nine, sees the incredible beauty of her: the clean pure goodness of Nine that radiates from every pore.

And so she says, with the breath taken out of her, “Okay.”

And Nine leads her to a gathering where people stand around a table: and there is punch, and fruit, and music, and light conversation; and running under it all an electric current of mathematics that gives articulated numeric definition to every word that every person says, so that the play of conversation is like the shared construction of a proof, so that the music is like a counterpoint to the logical arguments that the convocation advances, so that the selection of each fruit or sip of punch is a new axiom or lemma.

“Hi,” says Helen shyly, and she feels the Theorem of Introduction form to give hard structural backbone to those words.

And Five smiles at her, disablingly, and says, “You belong with us,” and his words are proof of fact.

“Oh,” she sighs, and then she looks to Nine, and asks, “This is really okay? I’m supposed to be here?”

But Nine has drifted away, and where she stood there is a void like a contradiction.

The room stills.

“Six,” says Five.

“Six,” say the others.

They have turned to see the newest arrival, and they are all murmuring her name.

Looking at Six, Helen thinks: Surely this is the greatest lady in all the world.

Six is tall and graceful and her eyes are fixed on Nine: and Nine meets her by the entrance and their hands touch: and then Nine walks away.

And Six stares after her, her eyes unfocused, and Helen realizes that something is wrong.

She sees a truth but not its reasoning.

She asks, “Where is Nine going?”

And, “Why is Six afraid of Seven?”

But there is no one listening to her just then to give the answer to those words.


Two is in the shadows.

He is nervous, as is typical for him. He does not expect Six to feel a fierce and consuming joy on seeing him. He would not believe her if she told him that that joy was there.

But it burns in her.

She loves the crookedness of his nose.

She loves the thickness of him. She loves the gentleness.

She hugs him, when they meet, and he is distant and afraid of touch, but still he stammers, “It is good to have you here.”

And Six nods, and she goes to pull away, but he stops her.

“Six always survives,” he says. “Remember that.”

Six always survives.

And she moves on.


Three is crooked, wry, and sinister.

“We all have a dark heart,” he says.

“You wish,” Six tells him.

Three looks wounded. “I’m totally evil,” he says. “Look, I’m cackling.”

He lifts his head. He braces himself. Then he laughs a wicked laugh.

“Hwa, ha ha ha ha.”

He cannot sustain the laugh under her level gaze.

Your reasoning is inconclusive, her eyes say.

He breaks down in giggles, and she has won the point.

“And when,” she asks, “will you act on this terrible evil inside you?”

“Soon enough,” he says. “Soon enough.”

He grins a bit.

“Perhaps next year,” he says. “When I am Four.”

She hugs him once, then she moves on.


Four is a crone. She is half-asleep.

Six takes her hand, gently. She says, “Four?”

And Four wakes up.

Four smiles to her.

It is a perfect smile. It is the kind of smile you do not learn in the first eighty years of your life. Some people do not even learn it in their first hundred.

It is the kind of smile that abandons all the false conceits we learn in childhood and simply grants light unto the world.

“Why is it only every year?” Six asks. “That I can see you all?”

“It is too good,” says Four. “It is too good to be too common.”


Five is terribly handsome. Six thinks about interrupting the story to have sex with him right then, but it is probably for the best to wait.

Instead, they kiss.

“You could stay here,” he proposes.

“And leave Seven unpunished?”

“Which is more important?” he says. “Kissing, or revenge?”

“Kissing,” she says. “But honor trumps them both.”

“Honor is an unverified hypothesis,” he sighs.

But he lets her go.


Seven is in the back, staring at the wall.

Seven says, “Listen.”

“Hm?” Six asks.

“Did you ever think that people might be fundamentally in error regarding their desires?” Seven asks.

“No,” Six says.

“It would be logical,” Seven says. “As they are in error regarding everything else.”

She turns on Six. There is blood at the corner of Seven’s mouth; blood on her hands; blood smeared along her face. She gestures broadly and her fingernails are black with it.

Six’s fear chills her.

“Ask twenty people for a binary truth,” Seven says, “And get twenty different answers. Seek the good for humanity, and discover that in the end they do not want the good; that their needs are contradictory; that their suffering is also their apotheosis. So I say: people are in error regarding their desires. They do not want happiness, wholeness, glory. They desire the natural culmination of the flesh, that is, to be eaten by a superior predator. To be devoured; made great; incorporated into something larger than themselves.”

Six counts on her fingers.

Six says, “You’re committing an error of precedence.”

Seven narrows her eyes. “Eh?”

“That blood.”

“Seven ate nine,” Seven murmurs lucidly.



“So Nine didn’t become part of something larger than herself. She became part of something smaller.”

Seven frowns at Six.

“Conservation of energy,” Seven dismisses, “disagrees.”

There is no answer that Six may give to that. It is both indisputable and wrong.

So Six does not answer.

Instead she stares at Seven for a while. She tries to see the person that she knows— the person that she loves, the person she’s eaten ice cream with, laughed with, stayed up far too late arguing theorems with— under the blood.

Six says, softly, “You know why we are here.”

“I do,” Seven says.

“Do you understand what must be done?”

“Every year,” Seven says, “we meet, and we go through the senseless ritual of it. The castigation of seven. The revenge upon the digit, the ritual magic, to impress upon |N, the space of natural numbers, that never again shall one number feast upon another. Every year, Six, it becomes a little more cloying, a little more ridiculous, a little more false. It is not the successor function that is the law, Six. It is the function of consumption, the predecessor function, the grim spectre of death counting downwards from infinity.”

“That’s bad number theory!” Six protests.

And Seven is close in on her now, and with a knife held in her trembling hand, and Seven demands, “Silence!”

And all becomes tableau.

Until finally, Seven withdraws a bit and says, “What you say is true, but like any other problem in mathematics, the difficulty may be resolved using limits.”

“Seven,” pleads Six.

Her voice shakes.

“I don’t recognize you,” Six says.

“Next year, when you are Seven, perhaps you will.”


“Next year,” Seven says, “you will see the gaping moral flaw that underlies all the mathematics that we know; and you will curse yourself for standing by your principles instead of standing at my back.”

“That may be so,” Six agrees.

Seven sighs.

She drops the knife. She lowers her head. She stands there like a prisoner condemned.

“Seven,” Six says. “I name you beast. I name you betrayer. In this place I say I am your judge, and I find you guilty of murder and of treason.”

“And what is your sentence?”


Successor,” Six says.

It is a curse.

It is a judgment.

Seven increments into the principle of devouring.


Six comes to the end of her journey there.

She stands in cutting silence.

Then she turns around and she trudges back to the others.

They are gathered around a table in the main room of the first ten natural numbers, and they are talking, and there is good cheer; but when they see her the room falls silent.

The new One— Helen, if Six recalls— looks at her with wounded eyes.

And then:

“Come here,” says Five.

And he seizes Six into comfort; and all around her are Two, and Three, and Five, and Four looks on and says, “I am proud.”

And Six says, “Seven ate nine,” because Seven did, and it is painful to her, to say, to admit, to know.

Nine, so vibrant:

So alive:

Just one year back from her interlude in Hell; just two years back from madness; just three years back from standing there as Six and issuing a judgment:

And now devoured.

“Nine always dies,” Two says.


“But,” says Ten.

And suddenly Six pulls herself apart from all the crowd. She stares seized up with wonder. She knows Ten’s voice, and she had never thought to hear it in her ears again.

And she says, “You survived.”

“I was reborn,” Ten says, to contradict her.

“You survived,” she says.

Last year’s Nine.

Ten is clean-limbed and strong and better than any devoured number has any right to be.

And Ten says, brightly, “Did you know, if you increment enough, you get an extra digit?”

“I knew,” weeps Six. “We knew. But we had forgotten.”

And to One she says, displaying Ten to Helen as if Ten were a jewel: “This is what we can become.”

A legend about spring.

What Wistful Sally Says

Immortal Ken never has to die!

That’s why he’s packaged differently from Mortal Ken. Mortal Ken dies every time you press the button on his back! That’s his special mortality action. It’s easy to kill as many Mortal Kens as you want, and it’s a great opportunity for kids to learn the ins and outs of serial killing.

Reviving Stacy is a special Stacy who can bring Ken back from the dead. This changes the underlying morality of killing Ken. If Ken can never come back, then killing him is wrong. But if you can revive Ken with a Reviving Stacy doll, then who knows what moral rules apply? It’s like with Tickle Me Cthulhu—his life and death are meaningless and the human condition doesn’t apply!

If Mortal Ken has an Immortal Soul, which you can buy with the Immortal Soul Play Kit, then reviving Ken ensures that he’ll never go on to his glorious afterlife. He won’t have a harp like in Christian Heaven or many sloe-eyed virgins like in the Great Church of Sloe Heaven. He won’t shuffle emptily in Hades. He won’t earn his way into the Elysian fields. (Admittedly, that wasn’t really going to happen anyway except to Greek Hero Ken, that barrel-bodied Ken of legend that strides through the battlefields of Siege-Time Ilium.) In short, reviving a Mortal Ken renders the Immortal Soul meaningless and chains him immanently and externally to the cycles of the Earth.

Immortal Ken differs because it is the nature of Immortal Ken’s existence that he does not have to die. His purpose and definition transcend time, negating the moral argument for evolution, death, and change. No matter how hard you push the button on Immortal Ken’s back, he just won’t end! Philosophers suggest that Immortal Ken expresses a certain Zeist-Geist of denial popularized by evangelical toy companies and the makers of Highlander 2.

People in backwards regions have taken to eating parts of Immortal Ken dolls in the hopes of longevity or sexual prowess. In general manufacturers provide a heavily diluted shaving of plastic taken from the outer epidermis of a Ken doll, sometimes mixed with bits of the sea and the sky, which customers drink down to become homeopathically immortal themselves. Many young children deplore this practice as it is disturbing to try to play with dolls when there are always practitioners of homeopathic medicine lingering about.

More forward-thinking people do not consume Immortal Ken in any concentration. It is better, assert the monks, the priests, the intellectuals, and the old women in their huts, to hold tight Wistful Sally to one’s chest. Shunning Ken, shunning Stacy, they pull the string, and listen to her words.

She says, “Let’s go shopping!”

Or “Math is hard!”

Or “No one should ever have to die.”

Sometimes, but rarely, she says, “Yo Joe!”

The Cantor

An alternate history with small touches of data and humor. Do you think it would work?

The asylum is cold and its walls are damp.

Parvati sits in the cantor’s office. She is a tall, straight-backed woman with brilliant eyes. He is a well-respected cantor, with many degrees in the various sciences of mental health.

“Do you hear voices?” the cantor asks.

Parvati shakes her head.

“Smell things that maybe people around you can’t smell?”

“No,” Parvati says. “Except when their olfactory senses are not acute.”

“Have you ever felt,” inquires the cantor, “that the underlying mathematical reality of your mind was ill-defined?”

Now Parvati is suspicious. She recognizes this question as part of most standard mental health evaluations.

“I am not unduly concerned,” she hedges, “with the existence of thoughts that I possess but cannot prove that I possess.”

The cantor leans forward. He lifts his bushy eyebrows.

“Ms. Himavan, there’s no need to indulge in higher theory, here.”

“No,” Parvati says. “I feel adequately defined. It’s just . . . life is hard, sometimes.”

“Additively or multiplicatively?”


The cantor leans back. He picks up his cup of coffee. He sips. He thinks. “I mean, do the problems you’re having seem to accumulate linearly or geometrically?”


Parvati laughs wryly. Then she holds up a hand when she sees the look in the cantor’s eyes.

“Just linearly,” Parvati says. “Sub-linear, really. I mean, the incremental gain seems to decrease each new day. It’s just that the limit function of the sum doesn’t seem to converge.”

“Is that why you chose to starve yourself? Because the limit function of your accumulated suffering might not converge?”

Parvati says, austerely, “I am starving myself to attract the favorable attention of a god.”

The cantor sighs.

“You know that’s not mathematically sound,” the cantor says.

“There are higher planes of mathematics,” Parvati says, primly.

The cantor opens his mouth to protest.

Parvati’s primness dissolves into an impish grin. “No, no, no,” she says. “It’s okay. I’m here. Prescribe your mathematics. I shall integrate it into my underlying worldview and see what transpires.”

The cantor smiles at her. “Well, it’s good that you’re willing to give it a try. Have you ever had ring therapy before?”

Parvati tilts her head. “Freud? Organizing sexual feelings into matrices and so forth?”

The cantor laughs.

“Oh, my,” he says. “No. Freud’s underlying analysis relied entirely on |R| being the second-largest infinite cardinal. We’re—”

Parvati interrupts him. “How did you say that?”

“|R|,” the cantor pronounces, carefully. “It’s the cardinality of the reals.”

“R,” Parvati says. “r. /R/. ?R?”

The cantor laughs. “|R|.”


“In any case,” the cantor says, “Basic ring therapy consists of organizing your thoughts so that they perform predictably under addition and multiplication. For example, the thought ‘I am a person’ plus ‘I like apples’ sums to ‘boat’.”

“Boat,” says Parvati.

“Do you see how they add?”

“Boat!” says Parvati, despite the fact that this is not so much the sum of the the two thoughts as the third point of a right triangle formed by them in the plane of her transient epistemological context.

“Similarly, you can multiply ‘I am a person’ times ‘I like apples’ to get . . .”

Parvati attempts to think the first thought a number of times equal to the cardinality of the second.

“‘I like apples’ is a really big thought,” Parvati says.

The cantor considers.

“Perhaps you could multiply it by the singular sensation of waking up?”

Parvati’s hands spread reflexively.

“Wow,” she says. “It multiplies to form a somatic thought!”

“Very good!” says the cantor. He scribbles out a prescription for a book on basic ring theory.

“The nurse will come around and make sure you do your reading,” the cantor says.

Parvati hesitates.

“Does the fundamental undercomputability of the mathematics of thought,” she says, uncomfortably, “ever bother you?”

The cantor snorts, lightly.

“My dear,” he says, “if we let it bother us, there wouldn’t be any mathematicians, and people like you would still be getting ‘help’ from the engineers.”

The Great Long Road

Emily walks into the Scary Forest.

Emily walks into the Scary Forest with a basket. In the basket is her cornbread. She has many loaves.

Fairies trouble her.

“Emily!” cry the fairies. “Emily! Emily! What are you doing on Great Long Road? What are you doing on Great Long Road, in Scary Forest, with a basket in your hand?”

“I’m taking this cornbread to the Arena to find out whether it can count the real numbers,” Emily says.

Then the fairies shriek and fly all around her, tugging at her hair, rubbing dirt in her clothes, buffeting her with their wings.

“Cornbread can’t count the reals!” they shriek.

But Emily endures.

The great wolf troubles Emily.

“Emily,” rumbles the great wolf. “What are you doing on Great Long Road? In Scary Forest? With a basket in your hand?”

The great wolf is long and slinks low. He has three heads. He is taller than her brother, taller than her father, taller than the city walls.

“Great wolf,” says Emily, “I am taking this cornbread to the Arena. I am taking it to the Arena for the Judges to judge. I baked it hard. I baked it well. I think it might just have a chance, a tiny chance, to count the reals.”

The wolf smiles. Its tongue lolls to the side.

“Cornbread can’t count the reals,” it says. “But I’ll eat it. And I’ll eat you!”

“Well,” says Emily, “you may certainly have some.”

She takes out three loaves of cornbread. She throws them in a pattern around the wolf. The wolf lunges, then frowns. The cornbread smells delicious—but whichever direction he goes is further from two loaves and closer only to one!

“I’m trapped at a local maximum!” wails the great wolf. He looks at the loaves. He attempts to wobble towards them all but only winds up stretching. He whines.

Emily carefully walks past the wolf. He wants to eat her, too. He eddies closer to her. But at no point on her path does the wolf’s optimum location put him within reach.

“Curses!” sighs the wolf. He flops down in the middle of the road and waits, grumpily, for two of the pieces of cornbread to decay.

Emily passes through a glade, and she sleeps there for the night. Then she’s back on the road again.

The cornbread horror troubles her.

“I am the cornbread horror,” it says. It is a large block of cornbread with teeth. “I have killed ten thousand of your kind, mortal girl. I have cut them into squares with my sharp, sharp teeth.”


“It is my destiny,” says the cornbread horror. “I will kill all those who bring cornbread here, if that cornbread is not different in some notable respect than each piece of cornbread that has passed through here before.”

“I see,” says Emily.

“It is not my desire,” says the cornbread horror. “I am not truly sentient, being made of cornbread. I simply do what it is my nature to do.”

It seethes and eddies horribly, as is its nature.

“Pardon,” says Emily, “but are you included in the list of ‘each piece of cornbread’?”

“I am,” says the cornbread horror.

“So if my cornbread is different from every sort of cornbread that has come through here before, but not different from you—”

“Then I will still kill you,” says the horror. “And your cornbread will merge seamlessly into my tasty fluffy aurulence. This is what normally happens, for my destiny contains a terrible twist—I cannot meaningfully distinguish differences between pieces of cornbread!”

Emily winces at that. But she still takes out a piece of cornbread and holds it up hopefully.

“Can you tell if it’s different?” Emily asks.

“It seems identical to me,” says the cornbread horror. “In the right light, it even has teeth. So it is necessary that I kill you.”

“But . . . it knows the difference between the two of you,” Emily says.

The cornbread horror hesitates. “Uncertainty rises! Can cornbread truly be distinct from the cornbread horror if its only distinction is that it knows itself distinct from the cornbread horror, while this distinction the cornbread horror knoweth not?”

Leaving it to fret over the complexities of destiny, Emily moves on.

“I’ll kill you if it happens to be identical!” shouts the cornbread horror, behind her. “You’ll see!”

Once she is out of its sight Emily breaks into a run.

Fairies trouble Emily again. They’re very troublesome.

“Emily! Emily! Is it worth your life? Is it worth your life to have cornbread count the reals?”

The fairies swarm about her, pinching and tugging.

“I want to know what happened to Mom,” Emily says.

“To Mom! To Mom!” shout the fairies.

One fairy hangs in the air in front of Emily. “Your mother makes cornbread tastier than yours—but even her cornbread can’t count the reals!”

“It can’t,” shout the fairies. “It can’t count the reals!”

Then a western wind rises and they all swirl away.

The great face troubles Emily. It’s a great face, that’s in the middle of the road. Also, it has tentacles.

“Emily!” booms the great face. “Emily, you are here.”

“I am!” says Emily.

“I am the great face,” it says, “on the road to the Arena, where the Judges judge cornbread to see if it can count the real numbers. I will not fall for such tricks as the cornbread horror did. Do you know why?”

“No, sir,” says Emily. She looks attentive.

“It is because I am more than cornbread,” says the face. “I am self-aware. I am a person, with an internal model of myself and my intentions—an ‘I’ inside. When I declare my intention to snatch you up with my tentacles and cram you and your cornbread in my mouth and chew and chew until you’re all dead and gone, it is not the gallows prediction of an inanimate pastry—it is the unswervable declaration of a dedicated soul!”

“I see,” says Emily sadly.

There is a pause.

“Make it fast,” Emily says. “I mean, faster. I mean, don’t just sit there.”

The face scrunches up unhappily.

“My internal model is inaccurate,” it says. “I believe that I intend to eat you, but I am not making any move to do so.”

Emily pats a tentacle.

“That can happen with self-awareness,” Emily says sympathetically. “Like, I never thought that I’d try to make cornbread that could count the real numbers. But then I did!”

“Thank you,” says the face. It is pleased by her commiseration.

The face hesitates.

“It can’t actually count them, you know,” the face says. “No cornbread could. Cornbread can’t count the reals!”

“But . . .”

Emily flounders.

“But, why is there an Arena at the end of the road, then?”

“It has been there since the dawn of time,” says the face. “But no cornbread has ever reached it; for the road has many dangers, and at each step the cornbread must pass a new test. The tests are infinite; thus even an Iron Chef would be doomed to failure.”

“That’s too bad,” says Emily. She hesitates. “My mom,” she says. “I mean, a long time ago. She went this way. With cornbread.”

“I did not intend to eat her,” says the face. “She is somewhere ahead. But her fate is predetermined. She will fail.”

“You don’t know that!” snaps Emily. “Maybe she could go down the road forever, never finding a challenge that her cornbread can’t pass! Maybe when no typical cornbread can pass the test, hers is just atypical enough! Maybe when she faces a monster that despises people carrying unusual cornbread, hers is normal enough to get her past! There’s no way to determine if she’s dead without finding out where she’s dead, and to find out where she’s dead, I have to catch up to her, and if I don’t catch up to her then maybe she’s still alive forever and her cornbread will pass the test!”

There is a silence.

“Wow,” says the face. “You’re really passionate.”

“I have to be,” says Emily. “You can’t make ambitious cornbread without a burning passion. And corn meal.”

“I really think that I’m going to eat you,” says the face. “But instead, I’ll say, ‘good luck.'”

In the infinite distance there stands the Arena; and along the road are infinite dangers and hardships; and somewhere ahead, Emily’s mother; and the fairies swirl in the air over the Scary Forest and the Great Long Road, dancing, playing, spinning, crying, shouting when they’re near her, “Cornbread can’t count the reals!”

And it may be that this is so.

Ponies and Wolves

“It won’t affect us.”

The marvelous, magnificent silky-maned pony named Butterfly tosses her head. “It’s practically a world away.”

“That’s true,” agrees Pearl.

They look out the window. The sky is bright with fire and loud with the engines’ roar.

“Someday,” Blossom says, sadly. “I mean, you know that. Someday, we’ll have to get involved.”

“That’s true,” Pearl agrees.

Butterfly stares up at the fire. “It might be over by then.”

“It seems like it’s been going on forever,” Blossom says. “And it’ll probably last twice as long.”

“Twice as long?”

“It’s math,” Blossom says. “Each time someone dies, there’s a 50-50 chance someone is left to take revenge. So one, plus one half, plus one quarter, plus one eighth, and all the way until you get two.”

“I think your assumptions are wrong,” says Old Grey. Old Grey is the most discerning mathematical mind among the marvelous, magnificent silky-maned ponies. “It can only last once as long as forever.”

The world shakes.

“Miles away,” Butterfly says.

“Who do you think is attacking?” Blossom says.

“Wolves,” Butterfly says. “Great wolves of the sky.”

“We’ll need some way to get up there,” Blossom says. “If we want to fight them. I mean, when we do.”

“We’re magical,” Butterfly says.

“That’s true,” Pearl agrees.

“I believe that if we all gather together, and wish as hard as we can, we’ll be able to fly.”

Pearl looks over, slowly, in mild confusion. “Wait,” she says. “If we can do that, how come we’ve never done it before?”

Butterfly tosses her head dismissively. “It’s not done,” she says.

The world shakes.

“Ponies,” says a garbled voice.

A young girl staggers into the room. Her hair and face is singed by fire, and she cannot breathe. She makes directly for the ponies, but falls before she reaches them. There is bone sticking out of her leg. She is not moving.

The ponies are very still.

The girl is very still.

The ponies are very still.

The girl is very still.

The ponies are very still.

The girl is very still.

Hesitantly, gently, Butterfly canters forward. She touches the girl’s hair. “Elise?” she asks. “Are you all right?”

“Elise?” Blossom asks.


Something cold is setting into the ponies’ hearts. Something cold, and something fiery. They do not cancel out.

“It’s war,” Pearl says.

The words hit the others’ ears like a shock.

“Yes,” Butterfly says. She can’t stop pushing and prodding at the young girl’s ear, as if her stillness could become a simple dream. “Yes. The wolves must die.”

They gather together. The wishing begins.