The warhead strikes Central. It explodes! The explosion freezes. The scarab beetle catches it. It begins to roll up the explosion into a clever little ball.
The picture freezes.
“This,” the monster says, “is a scarab of explosions. It’s an infallible defensive measure in event of bombings, since it uses explosions both as its food and as the containers for its eggs.”
It is 2002 the year of our Lord. The monster is speaking to a Prince of men; a Prince in white, with a small black beard.
The Prince is not entirely convinced.
“Why?” he asks.
“Why?” the monster repeats.
“Why should there be a beetle that contains explosions? The Star Wars missile defense has been called fanciful, fairy-tale, fantastic; this defense, then, cannot even qualify for those names.”
“Ah,” says the monster. He closes his eyes. “Why should there be a beetle that rolls the sun across the sky? That dies at the end of each day, and is reborn from its own semen, shot into a clod of dung? Why should there be beetles that carry the souls of the dead away, to be judged in unhallowed courts? Why should there be beetles at all?”
“Sir,” says the Prince. He is angry.
“People don’t want to explode,” says the monster.
He opens his eyes. His voice is a little sad. “They look for something they can do. There isn’t anything, though. God won’t save them, Highness. Science gives them nothing. So they turn to coleoptera.”
The monster starts the video up again.
“How does it live?” the Prince asks. Perhaps, demands.
“Shamelessly,” says the monster.
The video shows little scarabs scrambling out of bursts of flame. It shows the battles and power struggles of the children. It shows Melanie, laughing, with three tiny little bomb-bursts crawling along her skin.
“They die, constantly,” the monster admits. “But they come back. They’re like roaches. Or that—”
He doesn’t know whether saying ‘that Jesus dude’ will offend a Prince of Saud.
“Or Cary Grant. They’re beetles.”
The screen goes black.
“It’s what they do.”
[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]
May 28, 2004
Melanie has no time to react. It is all instinct. She is horribly exposed: she can tell that much. She is standing in the middle of a battlefield without an aegis. She’s face-to-face with Micah, who is very dangerous, and she has a scarab of explosions at her side.
Threnody is hurling the lightning.
Melanie slams down the walls around her heart. She sets everything aside. She bites the head off of every question in her being, like a mantis with its mate, and she is open, she is empty, she is floating and groundless and without origin or endpoint as the lightning strikes.
That is how it has to be.
She knows the rule of lightning: that it begins with that which is struck.
So she asks not the question to which lightning makes its wild answer. She does not lower the lens of her perceptions or preconceptions down to see the world. For a long moment, as the lightning falls, she floats there, rootless.
It slams into Micah, and she is safe.
It crucifies him, blasts him head to groin and flows down into the ground, spreads his hands apart and agonizes him—and she, demanding nothing, is safe—
What the Hell, Micah, she thinks.
The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die.
He is screaming. Oh, so terribly he is screaming. But she is not safe at all. She is, instead, astonished, for he has caught the lightning.
He is burning. Oh, so terribly he is burning. But he is not letting go.
He is not letting it dissolve. He is not letting it ground through him to the earth. He is holding it.
She whistles, long and low.
It is possibly a mistake, she realizes, suddenly, to let Tina go around torturing gods with electricity; working it into them, branding them to their bones with the lightning-pain, making them know it as they know their eyes, their hands, their hearts, their thoughts, their fate. It is possibly a mistake to let that become a part of somebody, a core of their life experience, if you might ever need to blast them with lightning later—
It strikes her as a subject worthy of a monograph, at the least. On the wearing thin of the judgment of Heaven when used without discrimination, perhaps, or Recidivistic considerations related to the galvanic treatment of captive gods . . .
The lightning is burning him. It is melting him like a candle, but he is not letting the liquid flesh drip from him, he is holding it on the surface of his hands by will alone.
He is holding the lightning and he does not let it go.
He is turning towards her, oh, so slowly, and his teeth are white and his eyes are white and the screams have stopped and his face holds such enormous pain—
Oh! she whispers, in her mind. Such pain!
—and he whispers, “Shall you know not justice?”
” ‘Should,'” she corrects him, absently. SHOULD you know not justice?
It would have derailed any other god. It should have derailed him, should have made him fumble, made him lose his grip, but Micah just smiles whiter. His teeth are sweating in the heat.
“Should you know not justice?” Micah asks, “You who hate good and love evil? Who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones? Who eat my people’s flesh, strip off their skin, and break their bones in pieces? Who chop them up like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot?”
She wants to laugh. It’s brilliant.
“You can’t be serious,” she says. “That’s from a verse about the sun setting for the prophets, and the day going dark for them. That’s about God’s vengeance on people like your sister, Micah, and her fastness becoming a heap of rubble, and this hill a mound overgrown with thickets—”
He isn’t listening.
He isn’t listening to her at all. She stares.
“Should you know not justice?” he asks again. “Because the thing is, Melanie, the thing is? What you do?”
She owes him this much. She maps the terrain around her, quickly, with her eyes, and then she meets his burning gaze and she says, “Yeah?”
It fountains from him then. It overflows. He does not hurl the lightning, but rather bursts with it, loses it, runs over with it like a clogged sink struck by a sudden flow. It shatters from him like the waves from a missile that falls into a lake. It cries out thunder. Lightning arcs from him to the scarabs, to the crayon creatures, to the footsoldiers and the dog. It dances in frustration around Melanie like a braided rope, like a hoop from a crinoline skirt, like a halo forbidden and restless to lay itself upon and brand an angel’s brow.
It is hungry for her. It grinds its teeth around her but it cannot bite.
She sees what is coming. It unfolds in her mind, and there are two paths for her, two roads that she may walk.
There is a flying god that is swooping past. She can take its tail and be away; may float past as it floats; she has timed it, she can do it, she can leave him there to wail, and be safe—
There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me.
The scarab of explosions bursts. It becomes a string of fireworks. It becomes a bang, and then another bang, and then another. It cannot contain itself. It cannot bind its own explosion. If it could then scarabs would be immortal, rather than always dying and always rising up again.
It is just a beetle. Beetles don’t know not to think the kind of question that the lightning answers. Beetles don’t know to let themselves loose from expectations and from preconceptions when people are throwing lightning here and there. Nobody hires beetles as meteorologists, and that’s half the reason for it; the other being, now and then, if there’s an errant spark or whatever, a beetle will explode.
And life is sweet and it loves the sun
But we’re born to die when our hour comes.
He is howling. The howls and sobs are ripping themselves from him, heavier than the whole of his chest and body, and he is scrabbling at the ground, and his eyes are burning and the world is throbbing and shivering with great bursts of light.
Cool hands touch his face.
They burn his melted skin all over again. He whimpers.
Melanie pulls his head up to face her.
“Look what you have done,” she tells him.
He cannot comprehend. Not killed you, he thinks, in absolute frustration.
“You’ve killed fourteen,” she says. “And that’s not even counting Vincent. That’s awfully good, dear.”
It’s like she’s heard him. “Not me never me,” she agrees, sadly.
His vision swims. She picks him up.
“It was my very own dear beetle,” she says. “I raised it from the egg. And so I thought, ‘It will not kill me.'”
The doors of the facility are shattered.
“The fire will burn all around me, and shards of stone and shell fly past, but it will not touch me.’ That’s what I thought.”
The wall is shattered. The ground around them is broken.
Melanie stands in the great brooding gap where the doors should be, at the entrance to Elm Hill.
She tilts her head.
“Sometimes you have to trust,” she says, “you see, in those you love.”