Ink Ascending (XVI/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Sometimes when things seem darkest a flying carpet will come and swoop you off and carry you to the answer to all your pains.

In the lands of Romance you will battle ogres and dragons.

You will find bottles containing the secret hearts of djinn.

Dashing princes will bend their head to look at you, their eyes gleaming with that ancient light of Romance.

They will say: “I see you have come here.”

. . . but no.

That is not right.

The carpet—that seems right.

But not the rest.

The girl is surfacing to consciousness and something is not right. The Prince is not standing over her. That is someone else. He is not saying, “I see you have come here.”

He is saying something else.

The girl focuses her eyes.

It is Minister Jof.

It is Minister Jof, and not the Prince.

He has said, if anything, “I consider you to blame.”

She shakes her head, just a little. She turns her head. It hurts to do this, but she turns her head.

Is that the Prince?

It is Riffle. He is washing his hands.

And there:

Dr. Sarous, glum and sour. Not even speaking.

And there:

The general of the stickbugs. He is approaching. He is lowering his mouth towards the foot of the girl. Dr. Sarous bats at him and he skulks away.

It is distinctly not the lands of Romance.

If anything, it is the murky land of Dismal.

Still, the girl sits up. She makes a game try of it. “How marvelous,” she says. “You, Dr. Sarous; have you been treating our wounds?”

Dr. Sarous’ mouth remains a line.

“Minister Jof, Riffle, you followed me?”

They look away.

The girl makes a face. “Really,” she says, “when one rides a flying carpet to the answer to one’s pains, one is supposed to smile.”

“This?” says Riffle.

His voice cracks.

Something is wrong. No, she knew that. Something is wronger.

She turns.

Behind her there is a chasm, and from that chasm rises a great stone pillar, and bound to that pillar there is a man—

No, a creature like a man—

He is sealed against the stone with molten brass and molten iron. They bubble with great heat. He is sealed into the stone, and the nerves and veins of him run uninterrupted into the rock. Marked in a great circle around him are the symbols of the seasons, and the zodiac, and of time. His flesh in places gaps to show bones and organs beneath.

He is Cronos.

His eyes are open.

They can see the specks of his left iris and the light on his left pupil. They can see the agony in it.

His right eye is burnt ruin.

He is the crust of the world. He is the mechanism of time.

He is aware of them.

He winks.

“Oh, don’t,” says the girl.

His face crinkles, just a bit, around his pain.

“Oh, no,” she says.

It is not words. It is simply an implication in his expression. But it is there all the same.

I see you have come here.

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.

“This is what I experienced in delirium,” says Minister Jof. “A shadow came. It flicked by. It caught me up. Then I was here, with Dr. Sarous extracting the splinter from my eye.”

“For me,” says Dr. Sarous, “it is essentially the same. There was a confusion of stickbugs; I caught the general’s lapel and fell.”

“I am done with this,” says Riffle.

He looks dissatisfied.

“Enough with the business of saviors and killing God. I propose we push the girl over the edge, thus putting the throne of the world in our debt; we then retire to Sarous’ kingdom, where he shall appoint me his high executor and allow you minor appointments in his administration. In exchange, I will advise Sarous as to how to live with the knowledge of his corruption; all of us see profit.”

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, although everybody calls her the imago. It’s short for imagoro, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

She’s staring at the face of the titan in the pillar.

“Is this how it begins?” she asks.

Riffle looks at her.

“Is this the first moment of our history?” she asks.

“Hardly,” says Riffle.

But Ink turns on him and she is burning with the power of the interpretation of ended things and her voice cuts across all his thoughts and she says, “Cronos was laying on the sand.”

June, Thursday 3, 2004 – Cronos: Cronos was laying on the sand.

To what end, time?

The stickbug general is a mean and dirty creature. His heart is small and rotten. Time is the vehicle for his resentment: a field in which he may experience things that are not gorging on child flesh, not stickbug sex, not hiding against a tree.

Time is a vehicle for pain and for hunger and for fear without satiety.

There is a heat that washes off the girl as she says these words and it drives the stickbug general flinching back. But this does not quench the stickbug’s determination. If anything it affirms it. Things are too uncomfortable. The girl must die.

Cronos was young. He was young. He was so very young. He was tired. He did not know who he was.

He was a castaway on the shore of the world.

He lay there and he did not move.

The sun was very hot.

It began to burn him.

When his skin turned red he made a strangled sound and rose to his feet and he staggered off to find a cave.

To what end, time?

Time is a vast reach filled with disorder. Time is the vehicle for Riffle’s discontent: again and again it slews him from his purpose. It drives him to the end of narrow aims and imbues his broader projects with a sense of dim futility. It is littered with elements he cannot incorporate into his closed designs.

As the girl speaks Riffle becomes aware of a deep and timeless agony. It is not hers, nor his, nor Cronos’, but the agony of Ge.

He cannot solve it.

He cannot even begin to solve it.

He cannot ignore it, either; and so, in that moment, imagoro, he hates Ink Catherly with a burning passion.

All around him rose the deep voice of the earth.

“My child,” said the earth. “Gotten of a sinful father.”

Cronos put his hands upon the rock.

It was wet. It was hard. It was rough.

“I have a mother,” he said.

Joy rose from his stomach to burn through him. “I have a mother, I have a father, I am a child of the heavens and the earth.”

To what end, time?

For Dr. Sarous time was once a playground: an opportunity to make all things well. But the more deeply he studied the world the more things he found that were not well. The more he bent his fallible eye to scrutiny, the more it seemed that the world was a fractal made out of errors built on errors, noise stacking on noise, with virtue nothing more than an emergent pattern on the whole. In the end, his dream unraveled; time seized his prize from him, and his pride.

It hurts him, to hear the joy in Cronos’ voice.

The world is sick, he thinks. Where is its shame?

“Be not proud to be Uri’s son,” said the earth. “For he first thought of shameful things, and cut away the wrongness from the world.”

A question lies hard on Cronos’ mind, but it is not a question that the earth can answer.

“What is the proper manner of my shape?” Cronos asks. “Ought I be tall or short? Have I three legs or two?”

“Hide yourself,” said the earth, “between the sea, the sky, and the land, and wait for darkness, and I will show you how your father has injured me.”

Though confused, still Cronos obeyed.

He shaped himself into a thing that could make webs and he spun a web between the sea, the land, and the sky. He hung there, waiting, trying to decide how many legs a titan has.

The sun left the sky.

The world grew dark.

The web trembled and shrank. The vault of the stars came down and pressed close upon the world. Cronos shivered in the dark.

To what end, time?

Time is a vehicle for evolution. That is why Minister Jof fears it.

He loves evolution. It is his work. But he fears it. To change— to grow—

He is Minister Jof.

Where could he go?

He does not allow himself to imagine that he is fallible; that he is imperfect; that there is an upwards arc. And those times when he does—when it slips through into his heart that we are unfinished, mean, imperfect creatures, and Minister Jof no different—are exactly the times when he cannot imagine any means of becoming better.

He can feel change coming. It echoes in the words of the history of the girl.

He shutters his heart. He focuses on his judgments and his spite.

He turns away.

The clouds lit with pink and scarlet fires. The earth ground open and in it were pools of darkness and green and coldest indigo. The sky rubbed against the earth and fires slipped from it into the depths and danced upon the waters there. The wind blew. It came down off the hills and it roared across the plains. It chilled the peaks of the mountains and bent the trees of the forest. Stars fell and lost their fire. The chasms under the world ignited. The world and sky strained against one another and the sky grew damper and the air began to taste of rain.

As the sky coupled with the earth, the earth said, “For whom have you made this world, o my love?”

And the sky said, “For Oceanus; and Tethys; and Hyperion; and Theia; and Coeus; and Phoebe; and Cronos; and Rhea; and the birds; and the trees; and the insects; and the flowers; and the naiads; and the oceanids; and the teeth gnomes; and the antelope; and the burrowing things; and the climbing things;” and he went on in just this vein for quite some time.

And as he said these things the earth sighed, “Ah,” for these things were precious to her.

But in the later hours of the night it grew halting and slow, that recitation of the sky. “And for the platypus;” he said, and he thought, and he sought for words, “and the sandpipers; and the dogs—“

And there he had run out.

And fire blazes everywhere throughout the world and Cronos said, “. . . but what of Ophion?”

And the earth trembled and Cronos understood a thing, and he said, “. . . but what of Ophion? But what of siggorts? But what of woglies? But what of all the exiled things? But what of these?”

And his question made no impact on the sky, which only spun, and gave him a ruffling about the head, and said, “Do not love ye evil, child.”

And then the sky withdrew behind the curtains of the dawn.

And Cronos thought of Ophion, and the siggorts, and the woglies: o my loves.

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

In the end they are too small.

In the end they are hopeless and dismal, all of them.

But dharma moves.

Ink is stepping back. She can tell what moves in the wicked hearts that face her: one to three murderers, and one to three who will not help. She is stepping back towards the chasm. She has no idea how she will survive a screaming plummet into unknown depths but she has fallen from high places a fair amount recently and is starting to trust her ability to improvise. She suspects that it is less of a danger than her four companions, but:

“You know what the coolest thing ever is?” she asks.

The general of the stickbugs shakes his head.

It’s not actually negation.

He’s just breaking the spell of her words.

“People,” Ink says.

And she grins at them, flush with an echo of Cronos’ joy, as Minister Jof looks away; as Dr. Sarous and Riffle exchange dark glances; as the general of the stickbugs scuttles towards her with murderous intent.

Freaks, the lot of you, thinks Ink Catherly; o my loves.

And then there is the miracle.

She steps back.

Behind her, dharma moves. The titan’s hands stretch forth. He catches her. And in that motion they see it. They see it in the motion, all four of them. They see the motivation for time.

They see the purpose for the crust of the world.

He holds at bay the price of our imperfections, and behind them our happy endings; he bears the immeasurable weight of all these things.

Time is Cronos, standing there in the crust of the world, bearing his impossible burden, so that before our histories and our stories end in bright perfection, we that are imperfect have the opportunity to grow.

Though people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

It is the terrible truth of Heaven and Earth that the Elysian Fields await us all—

Well, except for the woglies, and the siggorts, I suppose—

That the Elysian Fields await us all. That we are accepted as we are by the actual and the ideal, and bent by destiny towards an inexorable fate of bliss for ever. And that it is only by the sleight of Cronos and his work that we may have a chance, before the end, to make ourselves worthy of that ending.

That he does it for them no less than any other: for Riffle, and the stickbug general, and Dr. Sarous, and Minister Jof.

Thus we say, however rare that it might be that purpose changes, or life evolves: dharma moves.

For just a moment, as he lifts Ink from that place, four of the five who remain behind recognize those great and horrible truths.

As for the fifth, it is over already.

Jacob’s carpet releases its hold upon its fate and falls: flutter, flutter, flutter, down through the storm below.

As performed in the Gibbelins’ Tower on October 20, 2005, in remembrance of Ink.

  • But we’re not quite done. Tune in TOMORROW for the unbelievable epilogue:
    THE BEGINNING.
    Then the letters column! Then back to Sid and Max—and let’s see if we can’t finish up The Island of the Centipede this November!

That Even the Least of These May Know Joy (XV/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

It is two minutes to midnight on June 2, 2004.

The ziggurat of Dr. Sarous has fallen. The dust is clearing. The crowd, that has been full of screaming and disparate urges, settles.

There is limited time.

Riffle scrambles up the ruins of the ziggurat.

He cries, in a great voice, “They have ascended!”

He must unify these people now, he thinks. He must turn their focus to him.

“The imago and the doctor have ascended,” he shouts, “to hunt down God and purge from him his moral decay—“

It is sickening, the sudden realization that he has miscalculated. Not the people. Not the situation. Not the ziggurat beneath his feet.

The paramedics—

The hounds of Sarous’ kingdom, the hunters who brought the degenerate in, the body for whom Sarous’ campaign against immorality was a game of power and not a holy quest—

He had not even considered that they might have guns.

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

June, Thursday 3, 2004 – Cronos: Earlier, earlier, earlier.

So Cronos came down. He looked at a pool of water in the deeps that swelled with the fire given by the sky. And in that pool the earth strained to make a nymph, so that the water rippled and splashed; but between the pulses of that labor, the water stilled, and for the first time Cronos saw his own face.

“I am rugged in the nose,” he said, “and wild in the eyes, and angry at the fate of the unworthy things that are bound below.”

“It is so,” said the earth.

“I am their avenger,” Cronos said. “I am Cronos.”

“Then come deeper,” said the earth.

The earth called a gathering of titans. Cronos walked deep into the world. And the hollowness of Ge called out to them through all the chambers of her, “If you will obey me, we will answer this vile outrage of your father, and return the siggorts and the woglies to the land.”

The room grew chill with fear.

“But to strike at our father,” Rhea said, “is not correct.”

The attention of the earth turned to Rhea. It looked into her. It said: “Have you fallen, Rhea, into your father’s sin?”

“We may not oppose him,” said Rhea. “He would jerk the chains that bind us and we would dance away into great pain. We have no voice in the world of our father. We have no mechanism for defiance. And if we should crack the sky— oh, mother, if we should crack the sky—“

And here her voice was near to breaking.

“What then?”

“Castrate him,” said the earth, with calm brutality. “Sever from him that quality that I need to engender life. Then what will it matter if the sky has broken or Heaven knows no sway?”

Rhea, horrified, shook her head.

“It is not correct,” said Oceanos.

He was a man of water. His shape washed about. At times he would fill the cavern with water and with salt and then recede into his form. The words of him were water too.

“You fear this too?” asked Ge.

“If it is not correct,” said Oceanos, in his washing voice, “then it will not happen. How may I implement an action that will not happen? The concept is a nonpareil of futility.”

“We are all bound by Necessity,” said Coeus. “In all this world only our father the heavens is free.”

“He will cast us out as unworthy,” said Hyperion.

“There is no hope,” Oceanos confirmed.

The cave was very dark.

“Mother,” Cronos said, “do you ask us this in vain? Do you ask for the impossible and the incorrect?”

But the words fell in emptiness into the chasms of the world.

They left no ripples and the silence pulled at Cronos’ heart.

It tugged forth words from him: “I will do this deed.”

Joy rose in the earth. The earth rejoiced. The chasms of her resounded with song, such that all across the world there rose an alleluia. And the deer turned their heads to listen and the hummingbirds paused in flight and the worms that ground inevitably through the soil shivered with that song and even the sky took note and joy in it for that the world was pleased.

And to the woglies and the siggorts in their hell Ge said:

“My children!

My children, o my loves!”

But they did not hear.

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 two minutes after midnight on June 3, 2004.

A piece of stone has stuck itself through Minister Jof’s eye.

He is shivering.

He is sweating.

He does not know whether to try to attract the attention of a nurse or orderly or paramedic or surgeon. He wants to, but a sense of foreboding fills him. It occurs to him that the combination in one discipline of medicine and moral governance threatens the integrity of them both.

He is terrified but he is not in as much pain as he would have expected.

Perhaps that is the shock. Perhaps it is the peculiarly airy composition of the stone. He does not know.

He arches his back in a great shudder and goes still.

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

It is three hours after midnight on June 3, 2004.

A confusion of stickbugs swarms down.

They stand at the edge of the path.

They are tall. They are thin. They are horrible, marvelous, and strange.

They look down over the edge at where the girl has fallen.

They are not even paying attention to Dr. Sarous. They would let him pass in peace; save for momentum, which is not so kind.

“Hey,” says Dr. Sarous.

He is slipping.

There is a confusion of stickbugs and he is slipping.

“Hey,” he says.

Then he is grasping the general of the stickbugs in what would be the most marvelous act of courage if it were intentional; he is grasping the general, and he is swinging him out over the edge, and they fall.

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

June, Thursday 3, 2004 – Cronos: The earth took Cronos away from his brothers and his sisters to a secret place.

There the rock swelled with the fire of the sky and birthed grey flint in the shape of a sickle, and the sickle’s head spanned the space between two mountains, and it whispered, “I will cut. Take me to your hand and I will cut. Take me to your hand, o my love.”

And Cronos stared up at it and said, “So vast.”

“Then be vaster,” said the earth.

So Cronos made himself into a giant and he stood at the boundary of the whole world and the sea and he looked down and he saw that it was good. The surf crashed against his feet and the sky brushed against his shoulders and the great mountain-spanning sickle fit neatly in his hand.

And the sky felt a tickle of foreboding.

“What do you there?” asked the voice. “For I had not thought you capable of planning evil, o my son.”

But Cronos lifted his right foot from the land and stood between the ocean and the sky, his weight outside the boundaries of the world, and he said, “I am not doing anything.”

There are no deeds beyond the boundaries of the world; so this was so.

And Cronos made himself a space between the worlds and crafted himself a guard of horn to be the sickle’s hilt and waited there for the sky to descend upon the earth.

That night the sky sank low upon the world and murmured words of love and fires sparked everywhere across the grass.

And the sickle whispered to Cronos the secret of its magic and Cronos understood.

He stepped into the world and sound.

That even the least of these may know joy: for even the woglies and the siggorts in their Hell, and for all the rest of a bad lot besides: for even the great evils, and the little horrors, and the twisted failed dreamers like Riffle, like Dr. Sarous, like Minister Jof: he stepped into the world.

In Uri’s Kingdom, nothing happened that was not appropriate. This was the law.

Cronos said, “To serve a corrupt regime is not correct.

And he

And people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

And he ripped the sky with the sickle; and the genitals of his father fell into the sea; and from this act, and in due season, rose the anakim, the erinyes, the incandoi, and the melomids.

Flood

The antelope race beside the Ark.

The waters are glassy, sometimes, when the rain slows down. They are rich in color. The hoofprints of the antelope are like the dents of great raindrops.

The antelope have wide feet and a powerful light foot technique. For seventeen days they keep their balance on the water. Yet slowly, as the days pass, they sink deeper and deeper into the shining waters until at last they drown.

“There’s no room for the hippos,” Ham says. “We’ll have to eat them.”

“No eating the hippos,” says Noah.

“But Dad!”

Noah considers. “There are those birds,” he says, “that fly into your urethra when you’re peeing and nest inside your crotch. We could eat them.”

Ham considers that.

“Okay,” he says.

The seven-limbed howlers struggle upwards from the cities below. They flail. They howl. They reach the surface and fill their great and terrible lungs with air. Then they sink, again, slowly, pathetically, and hoard their energy for the next long breath.

The eagles circle tiredly in the sky above.

Shem and Ham descend into the Ark.

The deeper they go into the Ark, the more tightly crowded the animals become. It is the nature of the construction of the Ark that any number of animals can be packed within it; near the bottom, Shem believes, the density of packed animals becomes asymptotically infinite. But they do not need to go that far.

“Good sheep,” says Shem, passing a sheep.

“Good cow,” says Ham, passing the cows.

“Good crocodi—BAD crocodile!” says Shem. Shem brandishes his broom at the crocodile. It reluctantly turns away and snaps its mouth closed. It slithers deeper, slithers down, its long green body vanishing under a cluster of chickens, wrens, doves, owls, game hens, and wildebeests, and it is gone.

“Good hippo,” says Ham, grudgingly, as they pass.

The urethra birds are not very far down. They are good at gaming the ecosystem for maximum advantage. But it does not save them now.

“Bawk!” proclaims one urethra bird, startled, as Ham grabs it around the neck.

“Ch-caa!” declares the other, in some distress, as Shem seizes it in turn.

The axe descends.

“It’s natural selection,” says Noah, as he chews on a leg. “Those that do not please me, die. Evolutionary pressure driven by the seething core of the Ark will inevitably create a new generation of animals better suited to the exigencies of my desires.”

Days and nights pass.

In the third and fourth weeks, great clusters of ostriches swim by.

The ostriches are not happy with the rain. United, they are strong. Solitary, they are weak. But the rain and flood tries their solidarity.

One by one, ostriches commit social errors.

One by one, the clusters drive them out.

The stragglers are easy prey for the sharks, the icthyocampi, and the cold.

“I wonder if Mr. Sills is still alive,” Shem says.

“He’s got to have drowned by now,” Noah argues.

“I know some of them were trying to build cities in the deep,” Shem says.

Ham walks out and stares down at the water.

“It’s weird,” says Ham. “To imagine all the people we knew, down there.”

“Freaky,” Japheth agrees.

“Cold and blue and drowning.”

“It’s because God didn’t like them,” says Shem. “I mean, as much as he liked us.”

The sheep goes, “Baa.”

“Animal on deck!” says Noah.

They quickly hurry the sheep back into the hold.

“Can we eat the sheep?” Ham asks.

“No,” says Noah. “Sheep are good animals. That’s why it made it all the way up.”

“The hippos?”

“No eating the hippos.”

“But Dad!”

Noah considers. “Isn’t there some kind of animal that lives mostly on the brains of dead people?”

“Worms?”

Noah shakes his head. “Besides those.”

“Cranium beavers?”

“Yeah,” says Noah. “Those. We can eat those.”

Ham and Japheth descend.

The deeper they go into the Ark, the more tightly crowded the animals become. It is the nature of the construction of the Ark that any number of animals can be packed within it; near the bottom, Japheth suspects, the animals are unable to survive in solid form but instead revert to their natural plasmic state.

“It’s hot as God’s spankings down here,” says Ham.

“Shh!”

“What?”

“No blasphemy. We’re on the Ark.

There is a creaking, clunking noise, as the sea serpents of God beat warningly upon the vessel’s side.

“Right,” says Ham, sweating. He looks sideways. “Good oryx.”

By the eighteenth sub-basement of the Ark, Ham and Japheth are forced to carve their way through the animals to make room for their passage. Thus dies the bulwark buffalo, the crowball, and the cave goat. Thus dies the ghoul, spoken of in legend, and the icy blue beast in whose image the Slurpee was made. Thus dies the elephant and the fungal turtle.

“Here,” says Japheth.

The cranium beaver skulks defensively behind its dam of skulls, but this primitive instinct cannot save it from the knives of Noah’s heirs.

“Good sheep,” says Japheth, on the way back up.

“Baa,” insists the sheep.

It’s so adorable that even Ham has to scruffle the sheep behind its ears.

The rhinoceri have gone feral, long, and lean. In the distance, as the sons of Noah eat, they watch the primal battle between rhinoceros herd and megalodon, under a sky full of storms. The waves of that battle rock the ship, and the sinuous shapes of the rhinoceri lash and shimmer and in the sea.

“They’re winning,” says Naamah, in some surprise.

“There’s just a chance,” says Noah, in satisfaction, “that the megalodons’ll be another casualty of this rain.”

“I’ll tell the others,” says Japheth.

So he goes to the speaking tubes and calls down into the depths of the ship, “Let the rhinoceros be informed that their kind still live, under the sea.”

And up comes the honking, and the bleating, and the wailing, and the howling, and the hissing, and the chirping, and the long pleased snore of the happy shipboard rhinoceri.

“That means we could eat them,” says Ham. “I mean, the ones we have here.”

“No eating the rhinos,” says Noah.

“Fine,” sulks Ham, crunching on a barbecued cranium beaver leg.

The last of the scissor-beaked night terrors drowns that day.

“Look!” cries Ham, one silvery morning.

“What?”

“Elephants! The elephants didn’t die out after all!”

Noah rubs his chin. “There’s no reason we can’t take another female on board to replace the one you carved through.”

“Right on!”

Shem and Ham operate the elephant crane to retrieve a backup elephant from atop Ayers Rock.

“Baa,” the sheep remarks, conversationally, as it watches.

“Animal on deck!” says Noah.

Naamah and Japheth hurry the sheep back into the hold.

Days and nights pass.

“I can see them far below,” says Japheth, later that night. “All the people I ever hated.”

“Are they trying to tame sea horses?”

“They’re dead, Dad. They’re moving in great drifts through the night.”

“Baa,” mourns the sheep.

“Animal on—”

Noah laughs a little and stops halfway through the sentence.

“Oh, let it be, I guess,” he says.

The sheep looks down into the water, at the hills and dales of Scotland-under-the-Waves.

Flick!

A fish-tailed sheep skims to the surface of the sea.

For a long moment, the land-sheep and the sea-sheep look into one another’s eyes.

Flick!

The moment is gone; and the two sheep go, in their respective elements, below.

In such manner as this: running, swimming, struggling, serving, seething, mourning, and loving does the world survive the rain.

Remus

The day is hot. The hills are covered in flowers. A peasant’s hut sits beside the grain fields.

Romulus is Emperor of Rome.

Romulus is wandering. Romulus is haunted. But Romulus is not haunted today.

Today is a good day. Today there is beauty and there is magic and everything is wonderful except that he is hot.

Romulus is sweating.

It is the Italian summer.

“If only I had some artificial fruit refreshment,” says Romulus. “Then my day would be complete!”

A creature bursts through the wall of the hut. It has three jackal heads and seven serpents growing from its back. Its legs are the legs of a wolf, and it has six of them. Its stinger is like a scorpion’s, but leathery and with a whip-like flexibility. It charges onto him like a storm, and he is flung backwards by its impact. His right arm tries to keep its snapping heads from his throat while his left hand fumbles for his sword. He is driven backwards into the hill, and rolls desperately to the side, and then his sword is up and the creature is gutted.

“You are a fool,” says Romulus, “to challenge thus the son of Mars.”

The creature bleeds. Brilliant red gouts onto the ground. “Oh, yeah,” it whispers, in a voice that is like the voice of men. Then it is dead.

Romulus cuts out its heart. He takes its heart to Rome. He cuts open a trench in the earth. He plants the heart in the earth. He grows a Granarium. This is where Rome will store its grain during the long winter months.

763 years before the common era, Mars impregnated Rhea Silvia.

Rhea Silvia birthed twin sons, Romulus and Remus. Mars claimed them, played with them for six hours, and then abandoned them on the banks of the Tiber.

2.8% of the infants exposed in this manner are suckled to maturity by a passing animal. The remaining 97.2% die.

Romulus and Remus were among the lucky few.

Romulus sleeps in Rome that night, among his concubines and his servants, but he does not rest.

In the morning he sets out again.

By the banks of the Tiber, Romulus sits down, and he weeps.

The nymph of the river sits beside him. She is a creature all of reeds and grass, and she is nourished by his tears. “Why do you cry?” she asks of him.

“You are beautiful,” says Romulus, “and I am sad. Must everything have reasons?”

“No,” says the nymph. And they sit there for a time.

“I would—I should—”

Then Romulus shakes his head. The nymph is sleeping, and she cannot hear what he might say.

“If only I had some artificial fruit refreshment,” Romulus says. “I would share it with you this day.”

In the first days of Rome, these are words to call forth horrors.

The river boils. The river seethes. A great hand of mud and silt rises from it; and then its arm; and then its body. The creature is tall and apelike, and in its muddy mass Romulus can see the eyes of old drowned men.

It roars; and in that roar, Romulus hears, “Oh, yeah.”

“Peace,” Romulus says, and lowers the nymph’s head onto the grass so that she is not jostled as he rises.

The silt-ape pounds the ground with one fist. The earth shakes. Distant from them, the Roman coliseum cracks.

“Oh, yeah!” screams the ape, in its brutal rage. It lunges at Romulus. A wave of water, filth, and the stench of death precedes it on its charge. But the sword of Romulus is in his hand, and it casts aside the wave, and the spray touches him not, the spray touches not the nymph, and as the silt-ape lopes towards Romulus the beast meets for the first time the sting of mortal steel.

“I am Romulus,” says the man, “Emperor of Rome; son of a god; and I will take your head to form my city’s walls.”

The silt-ape hesitates. It is fond of its head. But silt-apes are vicious and belligerent, and so it does not cease. It casts forth a terrible wave and lopes towards the man again; and Romulus surfs that wave, riding backwards towards Rome with his shield and on it, and at the city limits Romulus’ blade lunges out and pierces the silt-ape’s brain; and the ape falls, and its blood is brilliant and blue, and Romulus cuts off its head, and he carries it into Rome.

“This shall be our city walls,” Romulus says. He digs a trench in the ground. He sows the head in the trench. He covers it in dirt. He builds City Walls. They rise, stern and rocky, to surround the city of his name.

Romulus and Remus grew strong. Romulus and Remus grew powerful. They loved one another as brothers do. They learned the arts of the sword and became great heroes.

It was a golden time.

Romulus’ chief concubine pleads with the Emperor. “Sleep with us tonight,” she says. She would very much like to give birth to his heir.

Romulus goes pale. He shakes his head. He pushes her away.

“No.”

Romulus goes to a new-risen tower in the city walls. There on the barren stone he palely awaits the dawn.

At the darkest hour the shade of dead Remus stands at his side.

“This is a fine city wall,” Remus says.

Romulus does not respond.

“It will keep the city safe,” Remus says. “But it would be better if you upgraded it to a Spiked Wall.

“I was thinking of working on Imperial Tactics next,” Romulus says.

“What if someone attacks?”

“I just . . . I don’t want . . . I don’t have to kill something for Imperial Tactics. I just have to steal the fruit of the tree of ruthlessness.”

Remus sits down beside Romulus. His spectral hand touches his brother’s back. It is cold and warm together as Remus tries to rub some of Romulus’ tension out.

“I do not wish to see the city lost,” Remus says. “Is all.”

There is something unstated between them.

“You’ve worked so hard,” Remus says.

Spiked Walls,” Romulus agrees. He shrinks away from Remus.

“It doesn’t feel good?”

“I—”

“I’ll let you rest,” says Remus, awkwardly.

Romulus is silent.

Remus ghosts away.

Romulus and Remus decided to build a city. They dreamed of it together, but to Romulus the dream was dearer.

They planned the streets. They planned the buildings. They desired an empire as their legacy.

What they built was Rome.

It is the next day.

Romulus staggers from the tower stiff and haggard.

There is a gentle rain to lift his spirits, and the smell of white flowers on the wind. Romulus walks through valleys and through hills. He sleeps at night and wakes refreshed at dawn. Finally he comes to a place of honeysuckle and stone, where milk leaks from the calcium walls in that ancient geological process most like a cow’s.

“Ah,” says Romulus. He drinks deep. Then he shakes the milk from his beard and stands tall, with chest thrust out, in the fashion of the ancient kings.

Romulus cries, his voice stentorian, “This milk—I am not satisfied! Ah! Ah! If only I had some artificial fruit refreshment!”

The walls of stone around him shudder and shake. There is a charnel stench that seems to Romulus to leak straight upwards from the gates of Hell. The calcium splits and crumbles as a drake buried in the wall spreads its wings. This is no living dragon but an ancient drake dead since the dawning of the world. The mouth that comes down towards Romulus is foul and toothless and Romulus is gagging too hard to draw his blade. Into darkness the corpse-drake swallows him.

“I am Romulus,” gasps out the Emperor of Rome, twisting and writhing in the corpse-drake’s narrow throat. “I shall not turn to oil in the belly of a beast!”

Romulus’ battle aura flares. Romulus is strong, because he has been drinking milk. He slams his arms to the sides and the beast bursts into ten thousand thousand flakes. Its blood is a viscid translucent orange. Its pieces flutter down onto the earth like a gentle snow. Romulus seizes in his hands, for lack of a dragon’s fang to sow, a bit of corpse-drake palate.

Romulus takes the palate back to Rome.

Romulus affixes the palate to the City Walls. The walls become Spiked Walls. A plaque on the walls reads, “These walls have been spiked with the fermented essence of a long-dead drake. They are exceptionally good at repelling enemies.”

“It is well,” says Romulus, exhausted.

Then Romulus leans his head against the stone and cries.

In the early days of Rome, Romulus and Remus quarreled. Only one could be Emperor. Only one could found a nation. Only one could have eternal glory and endless fame.

Romulus slew Remus. He sowed Remus in the earth and the Roman forum grew.

Thus it is that Romulus was emperor, and not Remus.

Thus it is that Romulus could name the city “Rome.”

Night falls.

Remus’ shade stands beside Romulus. The ghost has an diffident look to him.

“You are pushing yourself hard,” Remus says.

Romulus sits down.

“I remember when we were young,” Remus says, “and we would drink the milk of the she-wolf, and then you would chase me and I would chase you all through these hills, and for days and days we would run with the wind in our face, laughing, and never did you get so tired as this.”

“I—”

Romulus swallows his words. He will not say them. He will not tell Remus how much harder it is, alone.

“It will be a grand city,” Remus says. He looks out across Rome. “It needs an Onyx Library, I think. That’ll show Alexandria what for.”

Romulus gasps out, “Forgive me.”

Remus looks blank.

Romulus shakes his head. Romulus gets to his feet. Romulus staggers out into the night.

“Great,” Romulus says. Romulus is sniffling. It’s not self-pity, it’s just that his nose is still congested from his tears. “Just great.”

Then Romulus laughs.

“All I need now is some artificial fruit refreshment. That’d make my night complete!”

There are screams in the night. There is the sound of wings. Romulus cannot see these noises’ source.

Then there is white in the darkness and Remus is there.

“What are you thinking?” Remus demands. “It’s night time.

“Brother?”

Remus looks around. “They are all around you,” Remus says, “not in this world but the next. Oh, brother, why have you risked yourself so?—but you must flee!”

“Brother? You cannot be away from Rome—”

The rake marks of claws appear down Romulus’ side. He did not feel the blow; he did not see the blow; he only sees and feels the pulsing of his blood. Romulus casts about him for his enemies.

“There,” cries Remus, pointing.

Romulus lunges, and his blade breaks through something’s heart, and the wine of a dead man’s libations bubbles up from the ground.

“There!” Remus shouts.

Romulus stabs. An ethereal white liquor, raspberry in flavor, drools now down his sword.

“There!”

The blade of Romulus, who is a son of a god, spins and dances in the night; but then the horrors turn aside from him and retreat to a place he cannot go. Romulus watches, Romulus can do nothing but watch, as the hands of dead horrors drag his brother’s ghost away.

“Remus,” Romulus pleads.

“Be well,” Remus says, and the gibbering of the horrors and the light of Remus fade away, save for one last scream in the night:

“Oh, yeah!”

For more on information on the invocation Romulus uses in this story, see Claire and KA

.

The Treasure Wheel (II/III)

It is 1320 BCE. The sun sneaks out from behind the clouds. The sun shines on the fields. It shines on the streams. It shines on fair Persephone, black-haired and clean-limbed, a girl who loves its light.

For a long moment, Persephone simply basks. She is beautiful. Her mother Demeter admires how the light plays on her hair; her neck; her stomach; her legs—

Then Demeter giggles.

“You have toes, you know,” says Demeter.

It’s true, so Persephone doesn’t deny it.

“They came out of my womb,” Demeter says, in satisfaction.

“Mom!”

“If it embarrasses you, you should wear boots! That’s what I do, when Rhea talks about my nose.”

Persephone sighs.

There’s a brief silence.

“Mom,” asks Persephone, “why am I going to destroy the world?”

Persephone is planting seeds. It’s something she likes to do with her friends. She digs a little hole. She puts the seed in it. Then Cyane or Agalope or Thelxiepia pours water on the seed. Soon a marvelous plant, such as a dandelion, olive tree, or rose springs up. Sometimes Persephone even gets plants that no one has ever heard of before, like ratweed or singing gardenia.

“It’s complicated,” Demeter says.

Persephone’s friends are not here today. Demeter is visiting. Persephone wants to talk to her Mom about things like birds and bees and her period and why she’s going to destroy the world. She expects it’ll all be pretty embarrassing, so she’s sent her friends home. They’re naiads, so they mostly respond to this by sitting in their various rivers bubbling sulkily.

“I mean,” Persephone says, “am I going to blow up like a volcano?”

“No,” Demeter says.

“Or turn into a horrible wind that blows over all the world sweeping it bare?”

“No,” Demeter says.

“Or eat the sun? Like a giant wolf?”

“No,” Demeter says. “It’s—”

“I could set everything on fire,” Persephone notes. “I mean, I don’t want to, but I could?”

“Look at the heart of the world,” Demeter instructs, cutting her off.

Persephone looks down.

“There’s the ground in the way,” Persephone explains.

So Demeter blows on Persephone’s eyes, and Persephone sees.

“It’s a wheel,” Persephone says. “It’s a wheel with one thousand spokes.”

“That is the nature of the world,” says Demeter.

“Bah,” says Persephone. “That old thing?”

“It’s a jeweled treasure wheel! With two winky eyes!”

“That’s all well and good,” says Persephone, “but I think— I think that you shouldn’t be able to just look at the nature of the world like that. It should be a mystery.”

Persephone reaches out a hand. Then she stops. Demeter has hold of her wrist.

“That’s how you’re going to destroy the world,” says Demeter.

“Oh,” says Persephone, in a small voice. “But I wouldn’t!”

“You almost did it just now.”

Demeter thinks.

“Really,” Demeter says, “I should ground you.”

Persephone thinks quickly. Demeter is the goddess of the grain. Her groundings often involve being transformed into barley.

“I have toes,” Persephone says, meekly.

Demeter looks at her for a moment. Then she laughs.

Demeter hugs her. “You do,” she says. “Ten perfect toes. That’s how a Mom knows her girl’s going to be okay.”

Normally, Persephone finds this particular speech embarrassing, but it’s a great way to get out of trouble for almost destroying the world.

“I can wiggle them!” Persephone says.

Nabonidus’ Gods (IV/IV)

It is 550 years before the common era.

“I wanted to cleanse you, ” Mylitta says. Her voice is soft, distracted, and dazed. “I wanted the power in our love to rise and consume us both. I wanted it to take away your pain and make you clean. It could be sacred. It could fix this. The world could still make sense, Elli.”

Nabonidus only shakes his head. His voice is sorrowful and certain. “We are hero and monster,” he says. “We dare not be that close.”

I dared,” she says.

**

572 years before the common era, Nabonidus creates his first god. He is six years old, very earnest, and attempting to escape from the governor’s palace at Harran.

No one’s eyes are on Nabonidus. A great field of barley is near the castle wall. Each passing second, it grows a little nearer. It spreads across the road. It reaches the wall. The wall dissolves at its touch. The field spreads inwards. The guards assigned to Nabonidus turn to look and give a shout, but it is too late. Instead of playing in his room, the boy is in a field of barley, wriggling away on his stomach and elbows, invisible in the grain. Soon he is outside, and beyond mortal capacity to discover. He rests for a moment, and sits up.

“Ninlil,” he says. His goddess appears. She is the first god of his emptiness, the first creature wrested from him: a goddess of the grain for the house of Harran. Her hair is the color of straw, and she is smiling.

“Nabonidus!” she says. She hugs him.

“We must run,” he says. “We must run far away.”

Ninlil makes a face. “You will be more powerful,” she says, “for staying.”

Nabonidus flops his head back and forth. He’s somatizing an internal conflict. “I know,” he says. “But it really hurts. So I want to run away.”

“If you stay,” she says, “your Mom will hollow you out. Then you’ll fill up with gods. You’ll have lots of company. And we can do stuff for you! It’ll be neat.”

“No,” he says.

So they run.

“Send Enlil,” says the monster. She is the monster of 572 BCE. Her name is Adad-guppi and she is Nabonidus’ mother. “Send Enlil, and he shall hunt them down.”

“How will he track them?” asks her servant, Nusku.

“Nabonidus is a young boy,” the monster says. “He will use his power. Where people were starving, there will be harvests. Where people laugh at him, grain shall grow from their ears and nostrils. Where he passes, he shall make the world more orderly with his god. By these things Enlil shall find them.”

Nabonidus travels. Where people are starving, Ninlil makes the harvest. Where people tease the young and ragged boy, grain grows from their ears and nostrils. Where Nabonidus passes, the world grows more orderly. At last he and Ninlil reach the sacred river.

“I wish to bathe,” Ninlil says.

The naiad of the river rises before them. “O Ninlil!” the naiad cries. “Do not bathe here.”

“But I wish to bathe,” Ninlil says.

“O Ninlil!” says the naiad. “Do not bathe here. Lord Enlil comes!”

“But I wish to bathe,” Ninlil explains. She strips off her garments and shakes out her hair. She bathes herself. The sky above thunders with Lord Enlil’s wings.

“Ah!” Lord Enlil says, landing. “You are beautiful.”

Enlil flops his head back and forth. He’s somatizing an internal conflict. He looks around for a moment. “I do not see the wayward boy,” he says, in an exaggeratedly loud and clear voice. “Perhaps, while I consider how I might best find him, this bathing maiden and I could make love.”

Nabonidus is pale and unhappy. He does not have good associations with these words. He whispers from the grain abutting the river’s banks: “Tell him no. It hurts. You are too small and do not know how to stretch. You are too young for kissing. Also, your mother would be upset.”

Ninlil looks down at herself. She is a fertility goddess and somewhat uncertain as to how she can best present this argument. She opts for a deadpan delivery. “My parts are little,” she says. “And you would be uncomfortable. Also, I am too young. My mother would slap my hand if she saw us making love. My father would shake my shoulders.”

She looks at the naiad, who has buried her face in her hands.

“Also,” Ninlil says, “think of the naiad! You have embarrassed her.”

“I will build a boat,” Enlil declares gallantly. “In the water, our making love might embarrass her. But not in a boat! Inside the boat is outside her proper jurisdiction!”

Nabonidus looks at the naiad, who shrugs.

“Just refuse,” Nabonidus says.

Enlil, busily, begins assembling a boat. Ninlil, noticing Enlil’s distraction, ghosts quickly over to the bank and dries off. She sits down next to Nabonidus.

“I don’t want to refuse,” she says. “He’s hot. Besides, if he gives me his seed, then I’ll have power over him. It’ll help us get away!”

Nabonidus looks down. “But I don’t want to do things that way,” he says.

Ninlil sighs. She pats his hand. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t get the answer we want when we’re hurt. I’d be an angel if I could, for you, but I’m not. I’m just Ninlil.”

“But it doesn’t work,” he says. “Helping them hurt you—it doesn’t give you power. Even though it should.”

“It’s not always about hurting,” she says.

Nabonidus frowns. Then he shakes his head. It is a gesture of negation, but his words are: “I won’t stop you.”

He crawls back to hide in the field. He watches. Beside him is a fiend in a blank brass mask.

“I think he’s done,” Nabonidus says, after a while.

“It’s horrible,” says the fiend. “We’ll seize him and throw him out of the city.”

“Yeah,” Nabonidus says. He smiles. The fiend divides itself and becomes legion. It grasps Enlil’s arms from every side.

“I will be certain to look you up later, fair maiden,” lies Enlil in a loud, clear voice as the fiend drags him away. “Or you can find me. My name is Elli.”

The fiend returns. Its hands grasp Nabonidus’ arms from every side.

“You are also horrible,” the fiend says to Nabonidus. It hurls him from the river’s banks and he finds himself at home.

570 years before the common era, he escapes again.

No one is watching him. The moon is bright in the sky. Moonbeams pour down into his window. Suddenly, Nabonidus jumps onto a moonbeam and runs up into the sky.

“After him!” shouts the captain of the guard. The other guards look at one another. One tests the moonbeam with his foot. It makes his foot highly visible, even though it is night time, but it does not support his weight. Nabonidus is beyond mortal capacity to catch.

“Sin!” Nabonidus says. His god appears. He is the third god of Nabonidus’ emptiness. He is the moon god, terrible and powerful, an old man whose beard is made of lapis lazuli and whose cap has bull’s horns. He takes Nabonidus’ hand and leads him into the palace of the moon.

“It is good that you are safe,” says Sin. He is grave, and seems disturbed.

“I will never go back,” Nabonidus promises.

Sin strokes his beard. It clanks. “Is that wise?” he says.

“I will stay in the palace of the moon, and no one will ever hurt me again.”

“And will you be happy?”

Nabonidus hesitates. He clenches and unclenches his hands.

“I am the gate of honesty,” the moon god says. “I am the guarantor of the word of kings. Do not lie to yourself here.”

“I don’t want to go back,” Nabonidus says. “When I am bad, I am hurt until I can’t stop screaming. And I don’t want it to happen again.”

“But it is cold on the moon,” Sin says, “and we have a limited food supply. And you do not think it is right to evade punishment by running away.”

Nabonidus curls up. “I don’t want to go back.”

Sin considers the matter. “Then one must ask, how is it right to evade punishment?”

There is a long quiet. Then Nabonidus looks up. “I am to become a monster,” he says. “If I am a monster, then other people can be hurt instead.”

“Will that make you happy?”

Nabonidus shakes his head. “No,” he says. “It’ll just mean that I can’t be bad any more. To be happy—”

He gestures. It’s a gesture of uncertainty. “There is no path from here that leads to happiness. I’m not supposed to be happy. All I can be is pure.”

“I will give you aid,” says Sin. He walks to his window. Nabonidus follows. He can see events that are very far away. Sin’s light shines down on the husk of Ella. The servants who tend her, fearful lest someday the hero awake, draw back in terror. They watch as Sin fills the hero’s womb. Her water breaks. Two children are born. “Go down before your mother kills them,” Sin says. “Claim the girlchild for your own.”

Nabonidus hesitates. “How does it work?” he says.

“I have named you her guardian,” says Sin. “Her protector. Her god. It is your destiny to care for her, and watch over her, and set an order to her life. There is no one but you who may judge her. There is no one but you who may do her harm. What you must achieve, you must achieve through her. If she chooses, she can kill you. When you accept this duty, you will become a man beyond the monster’s capacity for harm.”

Nabonidus looks down at her.

“I want her,” he decides.

**

It is 550 years before the common era. It is quiet, in the temple of Sin.

There is a fiend in the temple, wearing a blank brass mask. The fiend is weak and dare not act, but still it mutters to itself. “It is not possible that he has the right to do such things,” it says. “I look to the universe and its laws. They say: he may! But what of my personal morality? He tramples it so carelessly!”

Ninlil is gentle. She is smug. “Oh, my lord,” she says, in softest tones. “You have made the future of this land.”

The light of Sin shines full into the room. There is moonlight all around the ruin of Mylitta. It shows every bruise and every mark. The moon shines on Nabonidus as he clenches and unclenches his hands. He cannot decide between exultation and despair. Moonlight pools around the child-god Belshazzar, who has formed by the altar as the answer to an unanswerable circumstance.

“Belshazzar,” Nabonidus says.

The god looks uncertainly between Mylitta and Nabonidus. He smiles, and it is an unhappy smile.

“I shouldn’t exist,” Belshazzar says. “The world is in agony that I am alive.”

Nabonidus tilts his head to one side. “Can you stop Kuras and save Babylon?”

“Maybe,” Belshazzar says. “I don’t know. I’ll try.”

Mylitta looks up. She stares at Belshazzar.

“What are you?” she says.

“I am a god that devours,” Belshazzar says. “I am the answer to your emptiness.”

He rests his hand on her forehead.

“I will free you from your nature.”

The hero ends.

The Contemner (I/I)

It is February 22, 2004.

Dawn comes over the hills and wakes Aunt Fiona. She makes herself coffee. She moves around the house, adjusting this, adjusting that. When it’s time for Ellen to wake up, she goes into Ellen’s room and gently shakes Ellen’s shoulder.

Ellen is dead.

The light that comes into the room is muted. It passes through an open window and Venetian blinds. The blinds are grey. They clack gently in the breeze. Ellen’s body is covered in scratches and scrapes. She seems to have bled to death in her bed, soaking the sheets in her blood. There is no sign of struggle. Her dreaming face shows a distant unease.

“Huh,” says Aunt Fiona. “There’s a thing.”

She looks Ellen over. She sighs. Then she goes into the other room. She sits. She sips at her coffee. Finally, she finishes her coffee and looks uneasily down at the grounds.

“She’s always such trouble,” Fiona sighs.

Then she gets up, and goes into the other room, and calls Leila. They talk for a few minutes, pleasantries and such. Then, somewhat awkwardly, Aunt Fiona broaches the subject.

“Ellen’s dead, dear,” Fiona says.

There’s a silence on the other end of the line.

“I was wondering . . .” Fiona’s foot curls uncomfortably in her slipper. “I was wondering, dear, if you could come out here and help me sort through her things.”

“. . . dead?” Leila’s voice is faint. “Seriously?”

“I’m afraid so,” Fiona says. “I should be calling the police directly.”

“You haven’t . . . Fiona? What happened? Are you all right?”

Fiona makes a sad face at the phone. “Well, it’s a disruption,” she says. “But I’ll get by.”

A count of three passes. “What happened?”

“Death’s natural, dear,” Fiona says.

Leila doesn’t have the money for immediate plane tickets. Her airline offers discounts for family emergencies, but the number for that office has been disconnected. On her third call to the company headquarters, a helpful operator digs up the correct number. She calls it, and reaches the office’s voicemail system. Voicemail is full. She cannot leave a message.

Eight days later, she arrives at Aunt Fiona’s door.

“Can I see her?” Leila asks.

“Dead and buried,” Fiona says. “Dead and buried.”

“Oh.”

“She has so many things,” Fiona says. She’s using a helpless voice. “Books, pictures, clothing, and tapes. I don’t know what to make of it all.”

Leila hesitates. It’s indecision. She doesn’t understand Aunt Fiona’s behavior. Everyone grieves differently, she concludes. Then she hugs her aunt.

“We’ll get through this,” Leila says.

That afternoon, Leila finds the refrigerator almost empty. Even the Brita water tank is dry. The shelves are similarly barren. There’s no toilet paper in the holder, just a barren metal roll. Aunt Fiona has been using Kleenex.

“Do you need me to go shopping?” Leila asks. She sounds tired.

“Would you?” Aunt Fiona asks. “It’s hard for me to get out, you know. Ellen had been taking care of it but . . . not so much, not lately.”

So Leila goes out into Lompoc.

The sky is beautiful. Its colors are pink and blue. The streets are asphalt’s faded black. But people’s eyes are strange as they look at her.

Everything in the grocery store is marked down.

When she comes back home, she thinks, I don’t hear any dogs. You’d think there’d be more barking.

“What happened to her?” she says, as she unpacks day-old bread, wilted lettuce, and milk a bit closer to its deadline than she’d like.

Fiona wrinkles her nose. “I think,” she says, “that God thought it was her time to die.”

“She . . . just passed away?”

“In her sleep, dear,” Fiona says.

Leila sorts. She packs. She helps around the house. Fiona keeps things very clean and very neat, but she doesn’t like to leave the property, so Leila does most of the shopping.

The second night, she has a dream.

She is on a hill, looking up at a cross. Something is nailed to that cross. There’s a crown of thorns on its head. Its body is covered in welts and bruises. Blood leaks slowly from a wound in its side.

“Do you know how you have failed me, Leila?” it asks.

Her vision is blurry and indistinct. She cannot tell whether she looks upon a human or a god. But there is a deep, rich power to its voice. It fills her. It transcends her. So she asks, “Jesus?”

“Do you know,” the voice asks her again, “how you have failed me, Leila?”

Her throat is tight. She is deeply aware of her inadequacy; that she is nothing, and has always been nothing, before such judgments as the Lord’s. Yet she cannot find an answer to give. She can find no sin that stands above any other in all the ranks of mortal sins. In Calvary, before that nameless presence, she is silent.

She wakes.

“I loved her,” she says, to Aunt Fiona, over breakfast.

“Did you?” Aunt Fiona butters an English muffin. She takes one half to Leila on a plate. She keeps the other for herself.

“She was beautiful,” Leila says. “Even with everything. Even despite everything. I was glad when she finally decided to . . . move out here, and stay with you for a while. I thought she might find some peace.”

“What is,” Fiona says, “is.”

Leila is silent for a long time. I shouldn’t speak, she tells herself. But she does.

“Don’t you care about her? Didn’t you care about her?”

Fiona stands. She goes to the sink. She looks away.

“Blood is blood,” Fiona says. “Of course I cared. But she wasn’t a very good person, was she?”

“How can you say tha—”

“You’ve seen how people look at us,” Fiona says. “You’ve seen. How they look at you on the street. How they look at the house. That’s not because of you, dear. That’s not because of me. That’s because of her. I’ve been living in this town for thirty-two years, and I can’t walk down the street past my neighbors any more. Because she was a freak. She was a nice person. She wanted to be good. She didn’t want to be what she was. And I gave her charity. But if she were good, wouldn’t she be alive? Wouldn’t God have wanted her to stay?”

“Fiona,” Leila says.

“It’s best to just . . . be glad it’s over,” Fiona says. “It’s sad. Of course it’s sad. But it’s sad because people are just too sentimental. I keep crying over her, but I don’t want to. I’m glad that she’s gone.”

That night, Leila dreams, and her dreams are full of Calvary.

“This is Golgotha,” she says. “The Place of the Skull.”

She picks a skull up from the ground. She can see its history. Every layer of bone and every crusting of sediment tells her its story. This was the skull of a monster. His family had cut the tendons of his arms and legs and left him there for the birds and beasts to devour, more than seventy years before the death of Christ. His death, though slow and full of fear, was not so arduous as the cross.

“There are dozens,” she says. The ground is littered with the skulls of the dead. She drops the one she holds.

Her attention is commanded by the thing upon the cross.

“Do you know how you have failed me, Leila?” it asks.

She shakes her head, mutely.

There’s a harsh and biting disappointment in the air. She trembles before its radiance and falls back, casting her hand before her eyes.

“Lord!” she says, helplessly. The word is torn from her throat.

She wakes.

“Not much fresh food,” she tells the clerk, later that day, at the grocery store.

He gives her a nervous smile. “We’re having trouble getting rid of the back stock,” he says.

“Really?”

“It’s the dead,” he says. “So many dead. It’s good for the town but bad for the economy.”

She stares at him blankly. Then he looks down and blushes. “You knew one of them,” he says, “didn’t you?”

Leila nods, curtly.

“My Mom,” he says. “She wasn’t good enough either.”

“Oh,” she says, faintly.

“It’s too bad,” he admits.

Her dreams that night are troubled, but empty of the voice of God. She wakes with a bitter taste in her mouth and a strange feeling of abandonment. She showers. She goes into the kitchen. She slowly comes to the awareness that she cannot hear Aunt Fiona anywhere in the house.

It does not surprise her to find Aunt Fiona dead.

The policeman who comes to the house is brisk and businesslike. He gives his name as Officer Connor. He examines the body in a cursory fashion. Then he turns to Leila.

“Are you all right, ma’am?” he asks.

“. . . yes,” she says.

“Bereavement is hard, ma’am. If you need to talk to someone, we have a counselor on staff—”

She shakes her head. “I haven’t . . . she hasn’t . . . she wasn’t much of a person,” Leila says. “Not since I’ve been here.”

“I understand, ma’am,” he says.

“Do you?”

He looks her over. Then he says, “You’re in from out of town, aren’t you, ma’am?”

She nods.

“They say around here that Lompoc’s a test for the soul,” he says. “It’s easy to slip, here. It’s easy to fall into sin.”

“Doesn’t that happen everywhere?”

The policeman makes a face. “You’d think so,” he says. “Cities of vice and sin, all of them. But . . . it’s strange. I’ve been to Reno. I’ve been to Los Angeles. And, just for balance, I’ve been to little places in Vermont where Ol’ Scratch has never had much sway. And I’ve never seen . . .”

He gestures, vaguely.

“It doesn’t seem to get to them, quite so much, out there in the world. I’ve never seen a real sinner, there. Just sad people with sad stories and sick people with sick stories and a bunch of animals who don’t know any better.”

“What’s the difference?” she says.

“There are some people in Lompoc,” he says. “Like your Aunt. You look at them and you just know. They’ve gone too far into the darkness. They’ve lost the grace of God. He’s there for you, you know. He’s always calling, guiding, trying to keep people from the darkness. But people . . . just keep wandering into sin. I’d like to kill them all, but . . . that’s the way of sin, too, you know. So I just try to do my job and treat ’em the same as everybody else. I guess I figure that if they’re going to Hell, it’s all right to give ’em a little sympathy here on Earth.”

“Oh,” she says. Her voice is hollow.

“You sure you’re all right, ma’am?”

“Have you ever been afraid,” she says, “that you might be one of them? That you might have sinned like that?”

“All the time, ma’am,” he says. “All the time.”

Men come and take the body away. She’s alone in the house, surrounded by Fiona’s things and Fiona’s scent and the few paltry boxes she has left of Ellen. After a few hours, she starts doing laundry. Then, between loads, she finds herself screaming, pushing over furniture, and throwing papers around in a fury. She finds herself falling, beating on the floor with her fists, her knuckles bloody, and then she is asleep.

The air at Golgotha is rich with the stench of death and rotting meat.

“Do you know,” says the voice, “how you have failed me, Leila?”

“There are so many ways,” she says. “I can’t find words for them all.”

Her ears ring with the sounds of the dripping of its blood.

“Do you know,” it asks her, soft and deadly, “how you have failed me?”

The washing machine buzzes, loudly. It wakes her. She opens her eyes. In the first moment of bleary vision, she sees something, small and hairy and horrid, skittering away.

There are scratches on her arms and legs.

Leila thinks, dizzily, It was hungry.

She goes to the beach. She sits on the sand. She looks at the sign, which warns her of an undertow. She listens to the sea.

“It’s strange,” Leila says. “I never saw how horrid and inhuman and cruel it looked, in the dream.”

She stands up. There’s a curious indifference to her, like a puppet on strings.

“It shouldn’t matter,” she says. “It shouldn’t matter how it judges me.”

She looks down at her hands.

“But I’ve failed it,” she says. And she walks into the sea.

Contemners impose judgment to divide their prey from the pack.

It is March 17, 2004. Leila’s lungs are full of water.

There’s a crashing and a roaring and a tumult. There’s blue and violet and rose, and she finds herself rising, dredged to a rock by a mer-nymph in long and unconcealing silks.

“It’s not Jesus,” says the oceanid. Her voice is matter-of-fact and routine, as if Leila is the eighth person she’s had to explain this to this month.

“I know,” Leila says.

The oceanid blinks. “Oh. That’s good, then.”

“It’s something horrible,” Leila says. “But I can feel its judgment in me. I’m not even human any more.”

The oceanid shrugs. “It’s okay to dive back in,” she says. “Most people do. But I’ll only fish you out the once.”

In the distance, water pounds against the shore.

At the Temple (II/II)

Her name is Mylitta.

“Will you come for me?” she asks her boy. They are sprawled in the grass, under the stars. They’re dressed, though disheveled. Mylitta has chosen to remain a virgin today.

“I will,” he says.

“It’s a long way,” she says.

“I will come to the temple,” he says. “And I will be there first of all the men. And I shall bring you a coin of silver, and it shall shine like the moon, and I shall press it in your hand, and say, ‘The goddess prosper thee.'”

She rolls on her side. She props herself up on one elbow. She looks at his face.

“There are stars in your eyes,” she says, “Elli.”

“Are there?” he says.

“I think so.” She reaches out a finger towards his eye. He reflexively flinches away.

“Mylitta!”

She giggles, and rolls back. “It’s all right,” she says. “I can see them in the sky.”

“heroes can kill monsters.”

The hours of the night pass, and break into the borders of the dawn.

“I saw a god named White Lion,” Mylitta says.

The boy tenses. It’s almost unnoticeable.

“It talked to me about being a hero.”

“Oh?” says her boy.

“It gave me a sword,” Mylitta says, “made of starlight. And I struck at a pillar made of stone, and cleaved it through. And I could hear a roaring in my ears, like a crowd of thousands, all chanting my name.”

“A sword doesn’t make a hero,” the boy points out.

“No,” she says. “It doesn’t.”

“Killing monsters,” he says. “That’s what makes a hero.”

Mylitta moves like a flame, flickering to her feet, and the wind fans out her hair, and her eyes are bright, and her hand clenches at the air as if it wants a sword. “How,” she asks, “would you know that?”

He smiles. It’s a little languid. “Boys know,” he says.

She hesitates. She seems a bit uncertain.

“Do you think you can do it?” he asks.

Her posture slumps a little. She looks towards the city walls. “I can cut through armies,” she says. “I am a swathe of blood and death to them. I can shatter walls. Gods are dust to me, and even the stars will do me honor. Death is easy, Elli.”

“Ah,” he says, softly. “You are a wondrous and terrible thing, my love.”

She sits down with a thump, then flops back onto her back. “It’s not going to be hard,” she says. “Look.”

She holds up her hand, palm towards him. She spreads her fingers. She rests her hand gently on the ground. The earth shakes. The world trembles. In the distance, he hears a great shout of stone, that might have been her name. She lifts her hand. The earth calms.

“Huh,” he says.

He sits up. He spreads his fingers. He rests his hand on the ground. Nothing happens. He lifts his hand and looks at it again.

“You have the advantage of me,” he says. His eyes have a teasing light in them.

She grins. “Today,” she says. “But not tomorrow.”

“Will you remember me,” he says, “when you’ve killed the monster, and the world kneels at your feet?”

“and the monster shall rule over even the gods;
but he shall be as empty as his victims.”

“I will remember, Elli.”

“When great kings come from every corner of the world to pay you suit?”

She nods gravely.

“And even gods?”

“And even gods,” she says.

“Good.”

He hops to his feet. “I should go home,” he says. “And work at my letters. And make myself ready to camp tonight at the temple’s gate.”

“They will chase you away,” she says. She rises. “They will have brooms, you know.”

“I will look them in the eye and tell them, ‘Have you no pity for a young man’s love?'”

“They have no pity!” Mylitta assures him. “They’re priestesses!”

The boy laughs. “Then I’ll have to be sneaky,” he says. “And bear such brooms as I must bear, for love of you.”

They kiss, and he departs.

“the monster’s strength shall flourish,
and in Babylon make his home. . . .”

Mylitta goes to the river. She calls forth a naiad and asks its permission to bathe. When it nods, she strips, and bathes herself, and when she is clean, dresses again in simple clothes. She goes to the temple and watches.

There are hundreds of girls there. Some of them, like she herself, are watching. Most are sitting, in the holy enclosure, with wreaths of string about their hair. Men walk through, strangers, and they study the girls one by one. Each makes his choice. Each throws a coin of silver onto a woman’s lap. Then each takes her hand, and walks with her, beyond the holy sanctuary, and into the groves or chambers.

And in Babylon this thing is sacred.

After a time, Mylitta walks to her friend Ilma. She squats down beside her, careful not to sit. “How are you?” she asks.

Ilma gives her a small smile. “Not as desirable,” she says, “as I had hoped.”

“Is it scary?”

Ilma nibbles at the edge of her thumbnail, thinking. “Sometimes,” she says.

Mylitta makes a face, and nods.

“Some of the girls,” Ilma says. “They’re crying, as they’re led away. Or after they come back. But mostly . . . mostly, it’s just kind of hot, and my butt hurts, and I kind of want to shout at the guys who look at me and then walk by.”

Mylitta straightens, and touches Ilma’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay,” she says. “If it happens today, it’s over with. And if you’re still here tomorrow, we can sit together!”

Ilma giggles. “You won’t be here long,” she says.

Mylitta hesitates. “Long enough to hold your hand,” she says.

“That’s true,” Ilma says. She grins at Mylitta. It’s a happy grin, though there’s a crust of salt near her eyes. “You should get lost,” she says. “You’re scaring away the men.”

Mylitta nods, and drifts away.

Day turns to night. Night turns to morning. Mylitta dresses herself in temple garb. She puts a wreath of string into her hair.

“there is something even the monster fears.”

It is 556 years before the common era. It is summer, and the dawn is bright. Mylitta sits in the holy enclosure. Ilma is gone. Mylitta feels alone.

There are many women in the temple, but there are no men. It is a strange occasion. Mylitta can hear the others muttering among themselves, a sound rising and falling, like a river.

Her boy enters. He walks towards the enclosure. The priestesses and keepers of the temple fall to their knees before him. A chill climbs up Mylitta’s spine.

“Nabonidus,” they say. And, “King.”

He ignores them. He walks along the line. He looks at one woman, then the next, and finally he presses a coin of silver into Mylitta’s hand.

“The goddess prosper thee,” he says.

There are still stars in his eyes. She is confused, and her world is swimming, and the stars seem to dance.

And in Babylon, this thing is sacred.

“You told me,” she says, “that your name was Ellil.”

He takes her hand. He lifts her to her feet.

“It is not,” he says.

“And I am fairly certain,” she says, “that at no time did you mention that you were King of Babylon. For you see, that is the kind of tidbit that sticks in my memory.”

He leads her towards the chambers.

“And if you are Nabonidus,” she points out, “that would make you the monster. This is very awkward.”

“I promise,” Mylitta told White Lion, once.
I will kill him.”

He pulls her into the chamber. He closes the door. He sits down on the bed.

“Do you know what being the monster means?” he says.

“That I’m supposed to kill you?”

He snorts. “Besides that.”

“No,” she says.

“All my life,” he says, like he were talking about someone else entirely, “I have had nothing. Mother emptied me, to make her Harran gods. I have known every manner of horror. I have had to take notes on them, and record what brought me the most pain or disorientation. That was mother’s instruction, so that I could better apply her techniques, later, against your kind. I have also known, since childhood, that in time we would meet, and that you would most likely kill me.”

Mylitta studies him. “I am not that naive,” she says.

“Oh?”

“If you are a monster,” she says, “then it is not because you have suffered, but because you have chosen to inflict suffering on others.”

“That’s true,” he says.

Her voice is uncertain now, and small. “It is?”

“I want power,” he says, calmly. “I want to rule the world. And I want you at my side, as my warrior, my consort, and the mother of my gods. You are a symbol of fertility to me. And to achieve my aims, I must empty and break you.”

Her arm snaps straight. Though there is no starlight in the room, a sword flares into being in her hand.

“I can kill you,” she says. “It’s allowed.”

He smiles at her, sad and crooked. “You’ll be the death of me,” he says. “But not today.”

She hesitates. He pats the bed.

“Come on,” he says.

“we are as we define ourselves, whether fairy, fiend, or maid.”

“I don’t have to,” she says. Her head tilts to one side. Her eyes burn. “I’m strong, Nabonidus.”

“That’s why you have to,” he says.

She looks at her hands. The sword fades out.

“You’re right,” she says. She sounds sickened.

He nods.

And in Babylon, this thing is sacred.

“I won’t give you my heart,” she says. “I’ll do my duty. Like any girl here. Because it’s sacred. Because it’s for me. But I won’t give you my heart.”

“there are stars in your eyes, Elli.”

Her head is burning and sickening with the stories and the promises that have led her here.

The stars are in his eyes.

She sits.

Undines

There are hardly any undines in Hitherby Dragons. That’s because they come from a different metaphysical tradition!

If you’re reading about an undine, you’re reading about water that differentiates itself from earth, fire, and air, but is one (in a fashion) with all water—water pulling, conceptually, away from everything else in the world. But in Hitherby Dragons, most water spirits are mer-nymphs, participants in the world: creatures of the rivers and seas, who turn the hard edges of things into an endless wash. They are water that permeates, water that exists with, water that dissolves at its edge into other things.

Undines are spirits of elemental water.

Mer-nymphs open the world.

Tunnel Rat (I/IV)

It is 1973.

Jenna lives in a cedar house. It’s very tall. Most of it is one room. She has a bed in the corner. It’s a mattress on the floor, with sheets and blankets, and it’s next to the mantelshelf. There are hangings on the walls. The floor is hardwood.

Her brother is named Sebastien. He could be a hero, if he dared. She thinks of him as one, anyway. Sometimes, when she’s troubled, he’ll sit behind her as she hugs her knees and lightly scratch her back through her blouse.

“We’re not really people,” he tells her, now and again. “I don’t even know if we have souls.”

“That’s silly,” she says.

He shrugs. “Mama says that everyone has a mortal body and an immortal spirit. But if we turn into our spirits, we just disappear. So we must not have any. That’s what happened to Grandpapa, you know. This life is all we get.”

“You’re mean,” she tells him. But she doesn’t ask her mother for the truth.

In January, 1974, she hears about the monster for the first time.

“He’s looking for us,” Tara says. That’s her mother. “I can hear him, hunting. I can feel him. Like a wolf in the woods.”

“We have to leave,” says her father, Ben.

Their voices are hushed, but Jenna can hear them. So can Sebastien, but he’s pretending not to notice. Tara’s looking at him, though; and eventually he turns, and stares at her with his sharp dark eyes.

“We’re going to have to make him ready,” Tara says, to Ben.

“Him?”

“I don’t want him to fight for her,” she says. “But he probably will, and if he does, we have to give him a chance.”

Jenna goes outside, and down to her beach, and sits on the shore, and there’s a voice in the waves, and it is speaking her name. So she calls to it, and an oceanid rises from the water, and sits beside her on the sand.

“What’s going on?” she asks it.

“They’re trying to decide how to keep you out of the monster’s hands.”

“Monsters aren’t real.”

“This one is,” the oceanid says.

“Oh.”

“He’ll take you away, and he’ll empty you out, and use you to make gods for him.” The oceanid sighs. “He’s very excited about it. The wind told me. The monsters have been hurting your line for generations, and it’s only recently that it’s started working at all. But he’s plum used up the source he has.”

“I don’t want to make gods for him,” Jenna says. “It’s personal.”

“I know.”

Jenna runs a finger in wavy lines through the sand.

“Sebastien will save me,” she says. “He’s a hero.”

“Maybe,” the oceanid says.

“Or you,” Jenna says.

“He’ll come,” the oceanid says, “and Tara will grow claws and try to rip out his heart; but he’ll put his gun to your head, and she’ll back away. And Sebastien, he’ll fight for you, and he’ll die. Heroes usually do. And the monster will take you away, and unless he drives very close to the shore, there’s nothing I can do.”

“I could live with you,” Jenna says. “Somewhere quiet, somewhere deep, under the waves. I could be a fish. I could be a mermaid. I could live all my life with the sound of the ocean and the dark of the deeps.”

“You’d grow very cold,” the oceanid says, “if you lived in the sea.”

“Oh.” Jenna frowns.

“I’m sorry.”

“Why does Sebastien have to be the one to fight?” she says. “He’s coming for me. Why can’t I fight him?”

The oceanid lifts a hand, and her fingers twitch, and the rhythm changes of the waves crashing against the shore.

“It’s hard,” the oceanid says. “You’re too young to fight him physically. You’re small and clumsy and you don’t have your power yet. And you’re not a hero. If you did kill him . . . I mean, if you picked up a gun and shot him, or a razor and razored him, and he died, then it wouldn’t be heroic. It’d just be blood and death and pain and you’d feel guilty about it for the rest of your life. It’d stain you.”

Jenna looks at her.

“And making gods to fight him . . .” The oceanid shrugs. “. . . I don’t know why that doesn’t work. But there must be a reason, because if it were that simple, there wouldn’t be any monsters. Just hanged corpses and bitter ashes on the tree of the world.”

“Oh.”

“So if you found an answer,” the oceanid says, “it’d have to be different.”

“What kind of things answer monsters?”

“I don’t know.”

“What would an answer look like?”

The oceanid raises her hand. The sea crashes down, hard. The water runs up and chills Jenna’s feet. The seagulls shriek. The air is full of noise.

“Don’t face him,” the oceanid says. “Find someplace dark and distant, on the other side of death. Never let him see your face. Run, and hide, and seal the walls of your home against him. Hide until the wind so changes that you can change the world.”

“Is that a good answer?”

“. . . it won’t last,” the oceanid says. “But maybe it’ll help.”

The family moves. The cedar house is left behind.

Ben trains Sebastien to fight.

“The more you become yourself,” Ben says, “the more you die. The more you disappear. The more you become something unreal.”

Sebastien fences. He has a sword. Ben only has his hands. Ben is winning, and more than once the calloused edges of his hands knock the sword aside without a cut.

“If you fight a monster,” Ben says, “your goal is to win as a normal person, with normal limits. You’ll feel the wind blowing in your soul, trying to change you into something better, more powerful, more absolute. You’ll look at your enemy and think, ‘This could be so easy.’ Don’t. Live in the world of fumbling and stumbling and failure and folly. Live in the world of screaming in hopeless panic and wounding yourself with your own sword. People can live. People can win. Heroes can’t.”

Ben strikes a blow, and the sword twists in Sebastien’s hands, and he falls, and as fast as that Ben’s knee is on his back and Sebastien cannot move.

“Good,” Ben says.

“And if he comes, and I fail,” Sebastien says, “I let him take her?”

Ben hesitates.

“Well?”

Ben rises, and walks over to the bench, and sits. “It’s your choice,” he says.

“Why?”

“If he takes her,” Ben says, “we can get her back. And that’s hard, and painful, and we might fail, but we can still win. If you transcend, we’ve lost you, and it might not even help her. I can’t make that choice for you. For one thing, you’ll be the one in the fight.”

“You could fight him.”

“When I married Tara,” Ben says, “she made me promise I wouldn’t fight for her. But then the years passed, and he never came. Now . . .” He hesitates. “I guess I’ll have a choice to make, too.”

Jenna is watching. She is listening. Her eyes are dark and still. After a while, Sebastien comes and sits with her, and Ben goes away.

“You’re going to die,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “We’re not people. Life and death are strange for us, and we have no souls.”

He shrugs.

“My life,” he says, and turns his palms upright. “It’s hardly real anyway. So there’s nothing to lose. I might as well fight, and maybe you won’t have to suffer. Don’t you get it?” he says. “It’s the only way I can save you.”

Jenna dies. There’s an awkward silence.

“I shouldn’t make my points so forcefully,” Sebastien admits.

(See also The Tunnels (I/IV))