Newton’s First Law (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

The baited hook falls, falls, falls.

There is a pause.

There is a great crunching and munching of teeth.

“Perfect,” says Martin smugly. He glances slyly at the Roomba. “See, if you had a better set of lexemes, you’d be able to admire that cast.”

The Roomba’s “I don’t want to get eaten” LED lights up.

There is a swallowing sound like the receding of the tide.

“I’ve got her,” Martin says.

Here is how it came to pass.

The morning of June 1, 2004, had gone well for Martin. Sukaynah was placid, made happy by the falling of apples. Mei Ming, insofar as he could guess, was giving serious contemplation to his ideas. Jane, overwhelmed by the task of piecing together histories in the broken lens, was uncharacteristically quiet. And there, shining amidst the aisles of Costco, he’d found a flat of delicious Fig Newtons: 125 packages of 24 cookies each, bundled together, 5x5x5.

The flat shone like the stars.

He took it home to the tower and set his purchases on the counter. Jane descended like a vulture, but—

“No,” said Martin, flush with the power that was in him.

“No,” he said. He held out his hand. “Not the cookies,” he said.

Jane pouted, but Martin did not bend. She tried to sneak around him to the cookies. Martin stood firm, like the sentryman of Heaven.

“You can’t eat 3000 cookies by yourself!” Jane protested, driven at the last to the employment of reason. “You’d turn into a cookie. And explode!”

Martin said, dramatically, “I’m willing to take that risk.”

But Jane’s star was in ascendance. She made her very best face at him. He trembled under the power of that face. Her eyes bored into his. “You have to share them with everyone in the tower,” she said.

“I have to?”

“Yes.”

And sometimes Martin wonders why he made her, why he shaped her from the ruin that he’d found, why he’d bothered to bring an ending to the firewood and to Bob: but not today.

On June 1, 2004, he loves her; and with gloatful satisfaction says, “That’s more than 2800 for me.”

And against the glow of that brilliance Jane can offer no protest.

Martin leans back. He prepares to reel Sukaynah up. He spins the wheel on his fishing pole. It turns easily at first but then it slows down. It gets harder and harder.

“Will you keep your promise?” Martin says.

He’s sweating as he struggles with the line.

“Glugnuh?” Sukaynah says, meaning: Promise?

“Because I gave you a cookie,” Martin says.

“Ah,” says Sukaynah.

“You said that if anyone fed you cookies, that you’d be able to break free, but that you’d have to eat the tower and the sea and the sun.”

“‘orry,” Sukaynah says. “‘ut, ieyah.”

Martin is sweating. He’s trying to reel Sukaynah in but he’s making very little progress.

“Because I have to admit,” he says, “I don’t actually want you to do that. And also, this isn’t working very well.”

“‘y ‘ot?” Sukaynah asks, meaning Why not?

The Roomba’s “Newton’s First Law?” LED lights up.

Martin glances at it. He shakes his head irritably.

“Hush,” he says.

The line goes still and trembling.

There is a momentary hush.

Then there is anger from below. There is a thrashing in the sea. The hook tears loose and Martin falls back and Sukaynah shrieks, “But this isn’t a cookie!

“What?”

Newtons are fruit and cake!

The tower shifts, the tower shakes. The Roomba slips free from the newton on which it is impaled. The imago slumps to lean against the tree.

The crust of the world cracks.

In the distant west there is a sound: Whump!

“Oh,” Martin says.

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.”

Reinterpreting Bad Milk (I/I)

“This squishy bit,” says Mei Ming, “represents the human experience, cast adrift in the sour bitterness of modern society.”

“Um,” Martin says.

“It clings together,” Mei Ming says, “because people cling together; but in the end, it comes apart, as we all must do, facing our sorrows alone.”

“Mei Ming—”

Mei Ming takes another sip. “Its long stringiness, ever more intense, is like boating down a white river, under white stars, while the boat’s ripples make my stomach clench, ever so little. It is the little bubbles that tie this back to the broader picture of human experience—that help me realize that the boat is life, and the journey is like the journey of Ra’s boat, ephemeral and eternal in one.”

“Mei Ming,” Martin says, again.

Mei Ming blinks. She refocuses on Martin. “What?”

“There wasn’t an artist,” Martin says. “It’s just bad milk. I wanted you to taste it ’cause I did and thought, ‘wow, this milk is pretty bad.'”

“Oh, man!” says Mei Ming. “So life isn’t really like that?”

Martin sighs.

“Now I have to spit it out,” frets Mei Ming.

Mei Ming (I/I)

Mei Ming lives in the tunnels, in the shadows. She finds a small pet. It hisses and winks and is very cold.

“I’ll name you Steven, ” she says.

Steven rotates once to the left.

“We’ll get along famously,” she says. “Because you drain away the is, and I’m an isn’t.”

It’s the year 1997, and the tunnels aren’t used much any more, but there’s still some things that live there. Spiders. The subway. Mei Ming.

There’s a knock on the tunnel wall, by the shadows’ edge, and she looks up.

“Hey,” Martin says.

She smiles. She waves. She gestures towards a chair. Martin leans against the wall instead.

Martin is wearing black pants and a seawater shirt. The patterns of it shift in endless tumult, and every now and again, freeze still. There’s a ribbon on his finger and dirt on his nails. “You have a wogly,” he says.

“I’ve named it Steven.”

Martin’s mouth twitches. “Have you.”

“They’re not as dangerous as people think,” Mei Ming says. “It doesn’t even have teeth.”

“I suppose not.”

She pokes at it some. “It keeps trying to eat me,” she says. “It’s like one of those vicious cheerio maulings you hear about. But I’m an isn’t.”

Martin makes a face.

“What?”

“Why do you call yourself that? You’re a god.”

“You hear these terms,” Mei Ming says. “The shadows whisper them, and the spiders, and the wind, and even the subway. And I liked that one.

The rising heat of Coretta’s fire
isn’t yet, it isn’t yet;
The bone and blue and tearing sound
isn’t yet, that isn’t yet;
The fairies, fiends, and titans they
are isn’ts yet, isn’ts yet;
And the angels, and Mei Ming.

“That’s what it said.”

“A long time ago,” Martin says, “a fairy was on TV, and someone said to her, ‘people die. People die in droves. There’s horror and cruelty and hunger and disease. Little children laying in piles with hands twitching. Dogs locked up in basements until they starve. Well, here you are. You’re a fairy. You’re magic. Why don’t you fix it? Why don’t you do anything? You complain that there’s discrimination against fairies, but as far as I can tell, all you do is fly around glittering. Why should people respect you?’

“And she said, ‘once, there weren’t any fairies at all. One day, there will be. Right now, we’re still a bit much towards the isn’t.'”

Martin shrugs. “It’s a victim’s word. It’s a measure of powerlessness. You don’t need it.”

“Oh.” Mei Ming looks down. “I thought it meant . . . not being here.” She pokes her hand through the wogly, up to the wrist. It doesn’t emerge from the other side, but, after a moment, she pulls her hand back out. “Like that. Existence in the void.”

“You don’t have to live that way,” he says. “You don’t have to stay here.”

“Where would I go?”

“Up,” he says. “Over. Around. Out. Somewhere else.”

“Can’t,” she says.

He makes a face.

She giggles at him. “Poor Martin,” she says. “All these girls who won’t do what you say.”

“I’m a creature of the is,” he says. “You want to be real? You want to laugh at that fairy and anyone else who doubts Mei Ming? I can give you that.”

“I am real,” she says. “Look. I can touch you.”

She pokes at Martin, but he’s sneaky. He’s sliding back along the wall, and pretty soon he’s standing just outside the shadow, and her finger can’t quite touch him.

“You are a snot,” she says.

Martin grins.

“It doesn’t prove anything.”

“No,” he admits.

“Listen,” she says, “The monster says I’m the shadow’s child. He pulled me from her. That’s why I don’t have a name or a self or anything like that. I’m just the sum of their lies and contradictions and inconsistencies. But I’ve learned to live there, in the isn’t. To exist in the void. If I tried to live in the world, I’d . . . I’d fall apart. I’d turn to dust.”

She steps out into the light, with only her foot in darkness. He sees that she is wounded, with four great gashes in her forehead, chest, and sides leaking the shadows of blood.

“So leave me here,” she says. “In the quiet, in the dark, still and small and not. If you brought me out of the shadows, I would die.”

He touches each wound, and she winces at the touch, and then he leans back, and she slips into shadow again.

“Later,” he says. It’s a farewell and a promise.

“I’ll be here.”

She threads herself through the wogly and is gone.

The Castle (III/IV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenna swallows, and recites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenna recites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenna recites:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Coyote asks.

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