On The Nature of Judgment (4 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

See also this legend.

It would be difficult to explain what has changed.

That shouldn’t be surprising.

If Sid’s answer were easy—if it were the kind of thing that you could just say and have it be done—then Martin would have given it to him. Not for free, not easily, but certainly after all Sid’s service.

So it is necessarily difficult to explain.

Much of it, certainly, is simply having the power to change, after all these years.

That which we hide away in the place without recourse:

It does not grow.

So some of it, certainly, is having that power of growth and changing, and the motivation to use it: returned to him, after all those years.

And some of it is the exercise of force.

Forgiveness, we should understand, is a quality of the powerful. The powerless endure; the powerful forgive.

It is not possible to forgive without an unencumbered choice.

Without power, forgiveness is indistinguishable from compliance, or at best surrender; and thus it has no value.

It has always been a dark and tasteless joke, when the powerful ask the downtrodden to forgive.

So the exercise of unrestrained power, however undesirable it might have been—that contributed.

Certainly.

And if one may go further and say that forgiveness is between equals—

A broader statement, requiring more analysis, but a plausible one—

Then it matters that Max met blow for blow, standing against the siggort a surprising length of time in the oceans of the end.

And there was the uncritical all-forgiving all-embracing never-bending flare gaze of the Good.

And there was the dancing stabbing cutting preaching whispers of the history of Mr. Kong.

And there was Tara and there were the heaps and there was the crumbled tower to the east where earlier they fought—

Yet none of these things change the character of Max’s crime.

None of these things make it better or worse that Max has done what Max has done.

None of these things change the essential or actual qualities of his deed.

None of these things prove Sid in error, relative to some natural universal law, when he says that what Max has done cannot be okay.

Arguable, perhaps.

Too critical, perhaps.

But not in error.

So one cannot say that even all of these things together have resolved Sid’s underlying dilemma, or changed the nature of his prison; at best, they have cast light on the substance of his cage.

It would be difficult to explain what has changed; and in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

It doesn’t really matter how it came to pass that Sid should forgive Max and lift the weight of Ii Ma from his wings.

Max is dead.

The world is cold.

The siggort is alone.

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

Max had planned to do something really cool.

He wasn’t sure what, yet.

Maybe something like shouting, “Oh, yeah? Well, you can’t beat me at tiddlywinks!

Then suddenly he was winded and the world spun and just as he realized that he’d been hit in the stomach by something moving very very fast he mainlined THE END and Sid piled an island on top of him.

So now he’s drifting in the Good.

Now and again, an impulse will surface in him. He’ll surrender a bit of that ancient answer that holds him in the world faster or slower than the question that—however momentarily—had cut him out of it.

He’ll wobble, for a moment, on the border between those creatures whose stories have ended and those creatures that have no stories at all; and an impulse will arise.

Like:

“What the Hell happened when the Buddha reached enlightenment?”

And the Good does not explain.

Drifting against the beat of emptiness in the joyous, he imagines that the dharma of a Buddha is irreconcilable with the dharmas of the world—

Like Sid’s, in a way.

That the world is hollow of its gods because, in the face of the inevitability of suffering, it cannot understand how there can be a Buddha.

That the very idea of dharma—

In the face of the simple corrosive concept of enlightenment—

Has become a contradiction unto itself.

Russell’s paradox writ large; the definition of the world unravelled; the world unable to accept the concept of purpose if it does not lead to pain.

And a long time afterwards, Max grins in the burgeoning emptiness of joy, and he says, “Coward.” to the world.

That was one impulse.

Days later, another rises:

“How the Hell is this my happy ending?”

But for all the bafflement in those words, there isn’t any suffering.

By fiat?

By force?

By love?

There isn’t any suffering. This is his happy ending.

And maybe he’d like to be suffering, except that also he wouldn’t. He doesn’t really want to suffer just because he sort of thinks he should.

He’d like to think that he needs Sid to be happy, but the secret of the world is that it’s loving Sid that makes him happy, not Sid himself.

Lost in boundless happiness and joy, Max understands—and finally—that it’s an error to imagine that our happiness comes from anyone but ourselves.

It is not given unto us.

It is not forced upon us.

It is a thing we give outwards, unto the world.

People always fight
The things they love.

What is the nature of judgment?

Jane had imagined a perfect Good that came and cast away the 9/10 least worthy, straining only the brightest and the best through the holes in its net. She called this a disaster to the world.

What would it have meant, instead, to cull the half least worthy; or the whole?

The single worst of us, severed from the world; or all of us save the single best?

The idealist sees the dangers in this path and casts out judgment from the world; the pragmatist seeks a perfect middle ground; yet both of them, if they wish to live, must recognize that there is that which is desirable, and that which is correct, and that which, in turn, is not.

The hundred-handed horror that is Sid curls on the island he has made, and skitters on the surface of the sea, and dreams of the fight of centipede and tiger.

He is alone.

The Matter of Zheng’s Son (3 of 5)

Mr. Kong is steeping tea. He hears a rustle of silk.

He looks up.

It is a winter evening. His house is cold. He can see his snowy yard. No one is visible, but he can hear motion. No one has announced themselves, but he can hear the shifting of metal against leather and the soft hissing of someone’s breath.

His eyes narrow.

There is a stool inside the entryway, where there was none before, and a staff leaning against the wall. There is a dusting of snow.

He can hear, distantly, the jingling of a bell.

It is 501 years before the common era. The sun hides behind the clouds. An assassin has come.

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

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

“In these degenerate days,” says Mr. Kong politely, “it is good to have an assassin who is observant of the rites and practices. Will you take tea with an old man before you kill me?”

Mr. Kong breathes in the air of the room.

It is probable, he thinks, that the assassin has unwound a length of garrote. It gleams between the man’s fingers—behind Mr. Kong, no doubt, and to the left, and three steps back: the honorable place for an assassin, according to the Book of Rites.

But the man does not move.

He is like a statue, frozen by Mr. Kong’s question.

“It would make me happy,” says Mr. Kong.

The assassin reaches his decision. There is a snap as the garrote retracts. He walks seven quick paces and now he stands before Mr. Kong. He lowers himself, with great decorum, to sit opposite Mr. Kong, and Mr. Kong pours the tea.

“It is unusual for an assassin to attend diligently to the rites,” says Mr. Kong. “The requirements of attending to giving and repaying are the principal matter of contention.”

“Yes,” says the assassin.

Mr. Kong studies the assassin. The man is dressed in white; his hair is tied back; he has features of grave discernment and etched with terrible sorrow.

“If I may ask,” he says. “Whom?”

Whom are you mourning, that you would seek to kill a humble scholar in his home?

“My son.”

“Ah.”

“We sparred,” says the assassin. “With sticks of wood. I struck him. The mark was red on the paleness of his skin. He skipped back. He laughed. He blurred to the side, and came forward to attack. But I caught his stick and twisted it from his hand and I struck him again; and this time his eyes opened very wide and he cried out, ‘It is thus!'”

Mr. Kong sighs.

They sit there. They drink.

“In the days of the Zhou,” says Mr. Kong, “it did not matter how many times you hit a man with a stick; still, he would retain his false conceptions and his attachment to material existence. But the world has changed.”

The assassin’s voice is choked.

“You deny your responsibility?” he says.

Mr. Kong thinks on that.

“I do?” he asks.

“The men of old,” says the assassin— “they lived with unhesitating purpose and they loved virtue. The nature of them prevailed, and they could not hesitate to act. Is it not so?”

“I have said as much,” says Mr. Kong.

“Our ancestors exceeded us.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.

“Heaven is distant from the world; it acts through mortal men, who must struggle to hew to the spirit of goodness—is it not so?”

Mr. Kong says, “You are in mourning for the days of antiquity, when humans possessed the character of uprightness that allowed them to perform miracles, and we did not suffer the plague of spiritual enlightenment.”

“You speak of it,” says the assassin, “as if these days were centuries ago; but they were not.”

Mr. Kong smiles over his tea.

“It has been less than forty years,” he says, “since last I witnessed magic in the world—you mean? But I have told my disciples, I do not discuss magic.”

“So,” says the assassin.

“I am not dissembling,” says Mr. Kong, in tones of gentle protest. “It is not the matter of spirits, or ghosts, or devils that concerns me. When I look upon the past, it is not the flying brooms and wishing boys and Heaven-Defying Lightbringing Yama Kings that draw my eye, but the spirit of humaneness that pervaded the ancients even in the face of all these wonders.”

“You are a man,” says the assassin, “who spoke unto the world words that changed it. You told Heaven and Earth: we are not like the ancient men. And thus it was. You told Heaven and Earth: we are empty; we are in disorder; we are the only channel by which Heaven may affect the world—and thus it was. You teach a disregard for spirits, and they flee from us—or so I must conclude.”

He sets down his teacup.

He folds his hands in his lap. His face is very bleak.

“My name is Zheng,” he says.

He hesitates.

“Please tell me that when I have killed you, my son shall return; and magic; and purpose; and the will of Heaven manifest on Earth; and things will be as once they were.”

Outside the wind toys with flakes of snow.

It is not Mr. Kong’s way to deny an accusation when doing so will only heighten the wound in another man’s heart; so he searches in him for an answer that is courteous, honest, and humane.

A sadness rises.

“It is the character of humanity,” Mr. Kong says softly, “to be wrong.”

A sound comes from Zheng. It is like the peal of a bell, and it comes from his throat as if it were ripped from it.

“Once,” says Mr. Kong, “I imagined that I had the power in me to make all things correct. That I could right all the practices of the world. That I would do these things because I am Kong. And when I understood that it was not so, I cried out: Heaven, Heaven, why have you abandoned me?”

Zheng does not respond.

“But I’m glad,” says Mr. Kong.

Zheng looks up.

He sees that Mr. Kong is smiling.

“Do you understand? It is because we are not as the ancients were that we may look up to them. Were we as gods, we would spend our lives in the affairs of gods; but because we are human, we may practice humaneness.”

“Why?”

Mr. Kong tilts his head.

“Why,” says hoarse-voiced Zheng, “should we practice humaneness, when Heaven denies us righteousness? Why should we strive for good, when we are always wrong? What is this world we live in, where a man may burn out his own son’s soul?”

But Mr. Kong ignores the last of these questions, and answers only the second.

“Love.”

And Zheng let him to live, and went away, and in the mountains he taught his students that it was not so important to kill as to kill with good character as a righteous assassin; and Mr. Kong found himself a limited employment in government service; and the world went on for many years, severed from its gods.

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

In the darkness of the sea, Max slices through Sid. The knife glitters darkly in his hand.

A wire snaps.

Like all the wires of Sid, it is under high tension. It scissors through the world and cuts the sea and causes a great turbulence in the mechanisms of Sid. His thoughts become deranged, disordered, and unbalanced.

It is June 3, 2004.

Sid is furious and maddened, under the staring eye of Good.

Since cutting does not work, he slams Max down into the silt floor of the sea. He smashes Max against the shell of the world; but the human—

The heap he reminds himself; not Max, it cannot be Max—

slips aside and the blow only widens the crack at the base of the rising Good.

Max is thinking something wry about learning from the lessons of history. Sid can taste it; it amplifies in the jangling of his thoughts. The man is going to stab him again. The opening in the world through which Good rises is nearly critical mass: much larger, and the Good will transform the shell that holds it back and all the stories of the world shall end.

Sid conceives a plan.

His plan is mad, like the siggort himself.

He anchors himself. He hooks himself with shivering cutting lines into the sea. He insinuates himself into sea and sky and the shadow of the sun. He hopes for time—

Not so very much; just a little bit—

To finish cutting away the heart of the Good. But if he does not have it—well, very well.

Max cuts at a great bundle of the mind of Sid and Sid’s memory of 1955 and his knowledge of differential equations and his power to taste snow all snap and the tangling spinning power of it progresses inevitably through the system of him and a great spinning wire hits Max’s chest and, because Max will not cut, drives him into the Good; and a great heaving convulsion in the world slams together the elements of the crust and makes an island of stone and sky where once there was a crack beneath the sea.

In the aftermath, there is blindness to match the silence of his world.

He drifts there, free of attachment to things.

Max loved him, he thinks.

Certainly, so did the Good.

He wonders why.

The Latter Days of the Law (2 of 2)

[The Island of the Centipede – Interlude]


Red Mary takes Max’s ears so that he cannot hear.

Red Mary takes Max’s voice so that he cannot speak.

Red Mary takes Max’s life.

Here is how it happened.

She came upon him in the waters outside the broken island, intruding on her sacred place like a hunter on Artemis’ nudity or a serpent into a lake. She struck at him in the certain knowledge that he was unworthy of his life.

We all are.

That is the creed of Red Mary.

We are drunkards and life is a drunkard’s walk. We do not do things for the reasons that we claim. We do not achieve the results that we desire. We cling like leeches to the things that hurt us and we kill the things we love.

We are cysts of flesh that keep the fire from the chaos.

We are a trouble to the world.

He taught her another way. He’d used the blackest of all magics to do it, that is to say, history and Confucianism, and he’d opened her heart to the idea that maybe even drunkards should try to be good.

It was fast.

That’s the problem with easy answers, whether they come from sloppy thinking or a magic knife immersed in chaos. It had been too fast.

Red Mary was of the mind that given a few hundred years to contemplate it she might be a very good Confucian indeed.

But as it was it was suspicious to her.

She’d breathed it in through the gills. She’d inhaled the certainty of Mr. Kong like a drug and when she looked back on the path that led her to its answers she couldn’t see where she had been.

She finds herself thinking of the owl—

That owl of a long line of owls, whom she’d brought down over the sea and drowned, but first had spoken with—

That owl whose grandfather had licked three times at a tootsie pop, and crunched, and said solemnly, “Three”;

Whose mother had licked twice, and crunched, and said in sorrow, “Two”;

Who had bitten down on the very first lick until the tootsie pop oozed caramel like Max is oozing red and said, just “One”;

And who had had no children because the limit of owls as the number of licks decreases is emptiness.

She had found the owl very foolish and sang a song to disperse it into the universe and now she suspects that karma has circled round to bite her in the tail.

To the west of her island there is Good.

To the west, where she does not go, where she has not gone in quite some time, but where she is certain it had not been before—

Good.

Heaven.

Happy endings.

The eye of God.

And looking at it she recognized that there is such a thing as an answer, even for someone like Red Mary. That if she walked straight and pure and on a sober path, she could get there, she would get there, she could have her happy ending.

Or even if she just swam west. One hundred miles, perhaps, two hundred miles at the most; no harder, really, than if it had been an inch.

She does not know what it would mean to do that.

She does not understand how her crooked life could lead to such an end, and so she knows she cannot take that path.

She had always thought that it would be impossible for such a creature as herself to know perfection, and now she knows that it is simply wrong.

To go there—

To live in a world where the difference between perfection and the Red Mary she is now is just a hundred-mile swim—

It is not impossible, but it is wrong, and she must not.

Max is dying.

It is strange and not strange to her that the divine fire of his life burns more brightly in his fragile state. That trapped in that imperfect form it does not dwindle but rather flares, suffuses, wraps in him—

That broken he is still Max;

That broken he is all the more himself because he does not give it up.

It is strange and not strange that the thing that is a person can be severed from its voice by nothing more than magic, severed from its senses and still remain, that so much can happen to him and still he is in the world;

That it is not simply the body that is so terribly fragile but the self within;

And that is the miracle of the fire, that it survives such missteps, that it burns in the broken body that is Max and the cold sea thoughts that are Red Mary’s.

If you asked her what the fire was, Red Mary would say that she does not know.

She does not know, save perhaps that the fire is that which sees the fire; or, that being wrong, that the fire is that which casts the light by which the fire may be seen.

She whispers to Max’s heart that it need not beat.

She whispers to Max’s lungs that he need not breathe.

She whispers to Max’s life that it need not burn.

His last thoughts drift from him like bubbles.

They rise through the chaos and she watches them as they rise.

The sea is full of the mumbling of the severance of Max.

The man she’s killing is mumbling and Red Mary’s too tired not to listen.

“Oh,” he is thinking.

She drags him down, down, down.

“Love is not a duty.”

She hears it reversed, performing that causal mirroring so convenient when gods must listen to the ramblings of men.

We make others’ choices on the theory that we love them, only to discover that we did not love them after all.

“Love is a transforming power.”

We discover a strength blossoming in the world, in us, in those we look upon, in everything, and then discover that we are looking upon a thing that we do love.

Red Mary draws in breath.

She sings to make the man dissolve, to crack the cyst of his existence and return his karma to the world.

“I’ll come back,” he mumbles.

The presupposition of this statement is his death, and so she hears it thus:

Even if I survive, you’ll still probably have killed me.

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

“Like Meredith did,” he mumbles. “I’ll come back.”

He is fraying, and she’ll be rid of him at last, but—

Like Meredith did.

This is the agony of taking the path instead of simply its ending. This is the unbearable horror she has brought upon herself by not simply swimming west.

Along the path one may discover the nature of one’s errors.

He should be dead, but the fire has not yet flown from him.

She has discovered a problematic contingency and she must make a choice.

“Live,” she says.

His life stutters into alertness.

“Breathe,” she says to his lungs, and “Beat,” to his heart.

She gives him back his ears, that he may hear things incorrectly. She gives him back a voice, that he may say the wrong things.

It seems to her perhaps that she has failed to rebuild him; that she has left out some fundamental error and made a thing more good than what she’d broken; but then again, that may be Max himself, or just the nature of the fire.

It is the miracle of the fire that we may grow better than we are.

She lets the mind return to him, that he may think the wrong thoughts, and take the wrong actions, and for the wrong reasons.

And “Oh,” she says, awkwardly, with the horrified politeness of a woman signing the warrant of her own destruction.

“Oh,” Red Mary says. “You know Meredith?”

The fire lives even in our crooked paths, and it redeems them.

Dedicated to someone not at all like Max, save in the brightness of her burning and the immediacy of hope.

Happy Endings (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede — Chapter Three]

Max breathes shallowly. He can feel the pain. It is like static. In his leg it is large-grained static, woven through with long sinuous purple-brown strands of pain. In his hands and arms it is loud, fine, angry static. In his left hand it has a twisting interference pattern: the pain can’t bear itself, it drowns itself out, it wrestles with itself to impress great oscillations on his perceptions.

From the pain comes fear. The fear closes down the functions of his mind. It narrows his world to specks of thought.

The waves lapping against the boat and the sky and the clear purity of the rock and the sheer greenness of the grass—

He has these sensations too. They pass in and out of his consciousness.

He tries to notice them.

On some level he feels that it is important to notice them and the thinness of his presence in the world frees him to focus on what is important.

But when the pain dies down, even for a time, less meaningful things edge in, and he finds himself wondering,

Am I going to turn into a pumpkin?

Had the giraumon touched him? Was a touch enough?

The sheer purposelessness of that fate terrifies him, obsesses him, catches him up in it the moment the power of conscious thought returns to him.

He passes between these states—between pain-haunted awareness and near-maniacal obsession—for an hour and some change.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue 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.

The Island of the Centipede

“We fought,” Red Mary says.

Max is staring at his left hand.

He’s thinking: I don’t want to turn into a pumpkin. Is it going to turn into a pumpkin? God, I wish that white bit wouldn’t keep moving. Please don’t turn into a pumpkin. Or move into my wrist. Can I wiggle my finge—

Pain.

Damn it.

“Eric wanted to save us. So we fought. Because people always fight the things they love.”

Max looks up.

“Where are we going?”

“West.”

Max nods.

“We fought,” Red Mary says, “and we won, and we lost everything, and there wasn’t any hope any more.”

“Are you going to kill me?”

“The longer you are here,” Red Mary says. “In the vicinity of this island, the worse things will be.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“I don’t want to turn into a pumpkin,” Max says.

“Neither do I,” Red Mary says.

“Then I saved you.”

“The giraumon’s still alive,” Red Mary says.

“Oh.”

“The light in him gets a little dimmer every time he sets fire to the chaos and burns of himself to build. He is suffering. I cannot imagine how much he is suffering. But one extra splash won’t kill him.”

Max laughs a little.

“What?”

“You’re going to turn into a pumpkin too,” he says.

He even sings a little song:

I’m a pumpkin, you’re a pumpkin,
Wouldn’t you like to be a pumpkin too?

“I’ve been a siren for a long time,” says Red Mary. “But no one’s ever tried to sing me into despair before.”

“It’d be poetic,” Max says.

“No,” Red Mary says.

“What?”

“I was listening. It wasn’t poetic.”

“I meant the justice,” Max says.

Red Mary snorts.

“What?”

“Scansion before justice,” she says.

“But he’s going to.”

“Yes,” Red Mary says.

“Yes?”

“Unless I kill him first.”

“Ah.”

“We don’t have long,” she says. “Like I said. We only had a scant one thousand years. Then the fighting starts.”

Pain surges.

Time passes.

“It’s not rude,” Max says. He is squinting at the sky in the fashion that one might squint at a jigsaw puzzle.

“What?”

“He was talking about killing me anyway.”

“Yes.”

“So I had a right to be belligerent.”

“Are you making an appeal to me as a siren, or as a Confucian?”

Max hesitates.

“As a punching bag,” he says. “I’ll stop.”

“Okay.”

“But if you eat me,” he says, “you have to start with the hand.”

“What?”

“Man’s got a right to choose the order in which he gets eaten.”

“He could have infected you,” Red Mary says. “So you’re right. No eating.”

“Good.”

Then the island clears away down the seacourse to the west and for the first time Max sees the goodblow.

Miles and miles and miles away, but there:

A burning radiance with the shape of lightning, and it looks at him.

It looks at him.

It sees him.

The power of that gaze!

One hundred miles away if it’s an inch, and still it has the power to transform him, to catch him up, to drive into him and permeate the skin, the bones, the muscles, and the soul.

It loves him. In that moment he realizes that it loves him. That it names him and sees him in ways not even Sid has managed.

It is burning him.

It is destroying him.

It is knowing him too fast, and eating through the measures of his life. It is completing him.

It is the laying down of burdens. It is peace. It is all-enfolding joy.

It is ripping away his fragile sense of what is good and right and just and replacing it with adoration of the light.

He casts up a tarp. It flutters in the wind. It gives them some small shadow from that regard. Red Mary catches it before it flies away.

They huddle there.

In a small and feeble protest against Heaven, he says, “I’m not finished being Max.

The wind upon the tarp makes a sound like gunfire. The tarp bends in like the wind is pounding fists.

Then the goodblow fades and Max realizes through its absence that it has been staring at him through the tarp for all this time.

Red Mary lowers the tarp.

The sky is blue and purple and the clouds rush past above like cars.

Good is visible to the west but some sleight of weather or chaos or circumstance makes it temporarily more dim.

“Enough,” Red Mary says.

She seizes Max in the two arms of her and she leaves the knife of the history of Mr. Kong upon the deck and she kicks herself off the boat and they fall down into the sea.

“I should not,” she says, as the pressure builds, “have let you live.”

Her eyes are cold and black and murderous and like shade to him on the hottest summer day.

The Broken Island (1 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

Max hurts. He licks his lips. Everything is distant and throbbing in white.

“You must hurry on,” says Red Mary.

His eyes drift open. The ceiling is blue and it’s moving. Also his bed is rocking back and forth and someone’s poured water and blood on him and for some reason there’s sailcloth wrapped around his leg and shoulder.

“I’m not God?” he asks.

He’s not entirely sure where he’s been but he’s pretty sure it involved being infinite and spread out over everything in the universe.

“What is God?” Red Mary asks. “We barely understand people.”

“Heh,” says Max.

He laughs. He coughs up a tangled mix of pangolin scales, kelp, and foam. Then he curls in on himself.

After a bit, he laughs again.

He says, “I was looking for him. So it would have been funny if I was.”

Red Mary looks at him with her cold black eyes.

“God is not here,” she says. “Though once this place was paradise.”

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue 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.

The Island of the Centipede

In the sea to the west of Gibbelins’ Tower a hill rises from the chaos. It is split into pieces like flower petals opening, like a walnut smashed too strongly by a hammer, like a broken mirror, like a land sundered forcefully by lightning. Its edges are brown rock with purple veining and the moist darkness of mussels clinging at its base. Great seacourses run through it, around and about the chunks of land, rushing with great currents. Trees stand at the edge of the unnatural cliffs, the wind bowing them out over those cliffs’ edges that they may cast down rustling green shadows. Where the land is low and holds its belly in down near the waves red bushes grow. They are crisp and the afternoon light suffuses them.

The catamaran runs the seacourse, lean and low like a wolf.

“What smashed it?” Max asks.

“Its own inadequacies,” Red Mary says. “I have told you that no paradise sustains. Against the nature of things the force that held this land together could not hold; over a thousand years of observation it has pulled itself apart.”

He thinks that this has made her sad, so he says, “I’m sorry.”

“Mr. Kong would say,” Red Mary says, “that we must try to be good.”

The seacourse turns.

Red Mary tacks the boat. The boom swings, and she catches it with one hand before she ducks beneath it and lets the catamaran run.

“In the face of such emptiness,” she says, “and the cost of helping others; still, that we should try to be good.”

Max says, “I’m glad for your sudden conversion to Confucianism.”

Red Mary shrugs.

“Didn’t you try to kill me?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“You should have stayed at home,” says Red Mary. She is angry. She does not look at him. Her tail dips into the water and the skin of her face stretches tight against its bones.

“I was looking for God,” Max says.

“Most people do that in the silence of their soul.”

“I had a catamaran.”

“It’s not your business to come here.”

Max struggles up on one elbow. He says, “You’ve ripped off bits of me with your teeth so don’t tell me what’s my business and not my business.”

Rage boils in her. Her face darkens. But propriety, and scarcely, keeps it down.

“With twelve of us,” she says, “this place had a thousand years; of that, scarcely a week remains. Each hour you spend here eats sixty-five minutes of that time; more, since you are not accounted for in the balance of things. I regret my murderous frenzy has inconvenienced you but to sing sailors to their death is in the nature of a siren and I had ample motivation to see you drown.”

Max slumps back on the deck. He’s a little dizzy.

“Sid’s like that,” he says.

“Hm?”

“He’s always talking about how it’s his nature to vivisect people, like he’s sad that brutal murder inconveniences me. He’s never actually ripped off a chunk of my leg and shoulder, though.”

“Is the bandage all right?”

“You don’t really have to do it,” Max says. “You know.”

“Help you?”

“Kill people.”

“That’s none of your concern,” Red Mary says.

“The Hell it’s not.”

Red Mary says, softly, “How a man grows aggressive when his enemy displays propriety. He thinks: I will use this good behavior to enforce my advantage over her. Is it any wonder people hold good behavior in such disregard?”

Max remembers the charge of Red Mary against him. He remembers the pain of parting when she tore his flesh from flesh. He subsides.

More gently, he says, “But teeth aren’t righteousness.”

“No,” says Red Mary.

She looks up.

“I’m not saying you’re right,” she says, “and I’m not saying you’re wrong. But you’re making a moral argument about a factual thing.”

“Whatever,” says Max.

“I’ll tell you a story,” says Red Mary. “About the Buddha.”

The knife of the history of Mr. Kong is black against the whiteness of the deck.

“Okay,” Max says.

He hesitates for a moment.

“The ninja or the pirate?”

Red Mary stares at him a long, cold moment.

“Oh,” Max says, embarrassed. “The Indian.”

The Peculiar Case Of Miss Mu Lung (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

It is 532 years before the common era. Mr. Kong works in the state of Lu as a keeper of farm animals and parks.

He finds a scaled anteater—a pangolin—caught in an illegal trap.

Sluggishly, it licks its entangled paw.

Mr. Kong squats down. He distracts the anteater. He holds up a finger so that it tracks his finger with its eyes. He says, “It’s no shame that you can’t solve these knots; if you could, you’d be queer for a pangolin.”

The anteater attempts to process this information. It blinks its eyes lazily.

A woman’s footsteps approach.

“In this,” says Mr. Kong to the anteater, “we are alike. Diligently I study, but there are questions that I can’t answer, because I’m a man.”

The anteater shakes its head. Then, irritated that it cannot understand Mr. Kong with its tiny brain, it curls itself up in a ball.

It’s all right.

He’d held its attention long enough.

His free hand has already cunningly unraveled the knot that had trapped the anteater’s paw.

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

The Island of the Centipede

“It is very human,” says a woman’s voice, “how it waits to curl until once it has been rescued.”

Mr. Kong straightens. He looks towards the clearing’s edge.

Miss Mu Lung stands at the edge of the clearing. She wears the elaborate dress customary to the Lung family. Its fringe has blood and dirt and grass upon it.

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong. His voice is warm and his face shows pleasure. Her presence here is an impropriety, the blood on her hem a warning, and the texture of the woven trap reminds him of Miss Lung’s tapestries, but she is a fellow human being and as such receives his brightness. He gives her a courteous bow.

She looks upon him and her face is still.

“It is bold of me to say,” says Miss Lung. “But I have heard you called a great scholar and a man of discernment, Mr. Kong. So surely you tease the pangolin when you mention questions that you cannot answer.”

“I should not think to call myself a scholar,” says Mr. Kong. “If I were ten times more erudite, perhaps, and understood the Quinquennial Sacrifice, then I might be worthy of that name.”

“Ah,” says Miss Lung.

He holds up one finger so that Miss Lung tracks his finger with her eyes.

“I think that we are all trapped, in this life, like that unfortunate pangolin,” he says. “We do not measure to the standard of our ancestors, and so there are questions we cannot answer. There are questions we cannot answer, and so we do not execute our practices with precision. We find ourselves unable to comport ourselves with order and harmony; justice does not prevail; and emptiness flourishes throughout the world. One day, if the world does not explode, I hope to make myself a legendary minister and redeem these practices, but, of course, I can make no guarantees.”

Miss Lung thinks on these words.

Her eyes close, then open.

“Forgive me, Mr. Kong,” she says, “but I cannot see the emptiness of the world.”

“It affects to fullness,” says Mr. Kong, “but it is hollow, like the scar on the pangolin’s leg.”

Something in his words has freed her; the strength leaves her; she sits down.

She swallows and her eyes grow bright with tears.

“Miss Lung,” he asks, gently, “are you in some distress?”

Bleakly, she says, “More than some.”

“Come;” he says, “if there is need, you may impose upon me. But if there is not, I am afraid I must soon be on my way to catch the person who sows illegal traps upon this land.”

She looks miserably at the trap.

“No one can assist me,” says Miss Lung. She shakes her head. “I am in an ungodly state; someone has murdered the spirits of my ancestors and circumstances compel me to torment small animals to survive.”

To his credit, Mr. Kong blinks only once.

He straightens his clothing. He says, “Naturally I am at your service.”

Miss Lung says, “I cannot refuse so gentle an offer, but I fear your good character will bring me misery.”

Mr. Kong lowers his head in acceptance of this rebuke.

Miss Lung rises. She takes him to her house. As he walks its halls he frowns.

“Ah,” he says. “There is a hollow sound.”

“It is the absence of men, where once they would be talking. It is the absence of women, where once they would be working. It is the absence of the laughter and whimpering of children,” answers Miss Mu Lung.

She leads him to the shrine of her ancestors.

Its doors are heavy black wood. They are sealed with many sacred marks. They are scarred with hollow rings, white rings, like the marks of a lamprey’s jaws.

“I cannot go within,” says Miss Lung. “In my youth, we would say, ‘brik, brik, brak, open a crack!’ and the doors would open. Inside the spirits of our ancestors would dispense wisdom and benevolence.

“Then seven years back, as I walked this hall, I heard the great brassy voice of ancestor Zedong declare, ‘The more I look up at It, the higher It rises. The more I probe It, the more impenetrable It becomes. I catch a glimpse of It in front and It is instantly behind.’

“Then I heard an ungodly wind and I felt a sudden fear and I banged my fist upon the door, but since that day, they have not answered.

“Two years ago, I climbed atop the roof and looked down through a small round gap. Inside, the shrine was empty, save for some vague notion that took me of ethereal blood.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.

“Was it improper?” asks Miss Lung. “To bang upon the door?”

“What is impropriety?” says Mr. Kong. “I can’t criticize the selfless concern for your ancestors.”

He stares at the doors, deep in thought.

“Pardon,” says Mr. Kong. “But if I may, your family? The Lung family?”

“One by one they succumbed to kindness,” says Miss Lung.

“Hm?”

“It is like this,” says Miss Lung. “The Lung family has traditionally held some virtue of position in the celestial hierarchy. Assiduously we would seek to develop our personal merit to facilitate our ascension into the ranks of Heaven. Since our ancestors fell silent, the matter has become problematic; upon refining our spirit to a full measure of virtue, we explode. Now I and my obdurate brother remain; myself because I am a woman and dedicate myself to the methodical torment of animals, and he because, constantly insensible with wine, he is awake too rarely for the acquisition of virtue.”

For a long moment Mr. Kong stands there.

“Then,” he says, “if I may, I have solved the mystery.”

“Please,” she says.

“It is the emptiness of the world,” says Mr. Kong.

“If only you were the Grand Secretary of Justice,” says Miss Lung, with grave courtesy, “you could arrest it at once.”

Mr. Kong smiles at her.

“You are skeptical,” he says.

“Only, dulled with grief and fear,” she says.

“These are the scars of emptiness,” says Mr. Kong. He rests his hand on one of the circles in the door. “The methodology, I take to be as follows. The emptiness proposed to Lung Zedong, ‘In what fashion should a man conduct himself to bring harmony and order to all things?’ He could not answer this question without compromising the affairs of Heaven, and thus allowed the emptiness to devour him. The hollowness of your home represents a marker of its passage.”

“If that’s so—“

She struggles to hold back her emotions.

“If that’s so,” she says, “what can I do?”

“Open the doors,” he says. “Sacrifice to your ancestors. Set aside this animal torture and lawless skulking; cultivate the quality of kindness that you have denied yourself.”

Bitterness drives her to unworthy words: “Even to the destruction of my soul?”

“It often seems that virtue operates against our interests,” says Mr. Kong. “But if we do not cultivate the habits of virtue, then what value are our interests?”

She lowers her head.

“As you say,” she says, tonelessly.

“Here is my recommendation,” says Mr. Kong. “When you commit an act of kindness, do not seek to cultivate yourself but rather to build harmonious relationships with others. Then you need not fear unless you are so kind as to elevate all the world.”

“And if I am?”

“If the world explodes because of my advice,” says Mr. Kong, “then I fear I shall never find government employment, nor become a legendary practice-righting minister.”

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 )

The chaos has completed its adaptation to the knife.

Red Mary swims in a sea of Confucianism and blood.

Drawn by the blood the sharks have come. They are monstrously large. They dwarf her as they dwarf Max.

One of them bumps Max gently with its nose. He curls around the pain as a pillbug might.

“Red Mary,” the shark says, with scrupulous precision, “I cannot say your actions have been correct.”

“Yes, thank you,” Red Mary says irritably.

“If the sirens are not humane,” presses the shark, “then how may they expect the oceans to remain in order?”

Red Mary bares her teeth and the shark subsides.

“I have acted in error, but you may not correct me,” she says.

“The blood frenzy overcame my judgment, and I forgot my place,” the shark concedes.

“Hmf,” Red Mary says.

Then with one hand Red Mary lifts Max and with the other the knife and she draws them both up from the sea.

Red Mary (3 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

Currents rush through the purple sea.

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

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

Her movements are effortless and swift.

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

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

The box opens.

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

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

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

Max seizes the knife.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The chaos picks up the rhythm of her words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diamond patterns play across his vision.

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

Oh?

“There is a perfect anodyne.”

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

Max cannot think. The knife drifts from his hand.

“You’re soaking in it,” she says.

Max sags.

He drifts there in the water.

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

He is small in it.

He is a speck.

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

“There was a siggort,” says Max.

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

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

Max Sets Forth to Kill God (1 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

The hardest part of that whole night is the show.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” says Max.

Martin looks at him blankly.

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

Martin’s hair is all over masonry dust.

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

Max stares at Martin.

Martin looks back at him.

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

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

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

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

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

“Do you trust me?” Martin says.

“No.”

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

Max stops pulling.

He rubs sweat off his forehead.

“I don’t believe you,” says Max.

“Eh?”

Max shrugs.

Martin thinks.

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

“Also, unnecessary.”

“Why—?” Martin says.

Then he stops himself and thinks.

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

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

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

“No.”

“Why not?”

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

“I can’t make you,” Martin admits.

Max goes back to work.

“You won’t find Sid,” Martin says.

Max stops.

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

“Oh,” says Max.

Martin drops down to his feet and strolls towards away.

“Wait,” says Max.

“Hm?”

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

“You ridiculous dolt,” says Martin.

He walks away.

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

It is June 2, 2004.

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

He goes down to the catamaran dock.

He looks off to the dark and brooding west.

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

Max nods.

“Is that okay?” he says.

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

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

She looks at him.

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

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

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

“Yes,” says Max.

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

“Thanks,” he says.

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

“Here,” she says.

“What is it?” Max asks.

Jane begins giggling. Max watches in perplexity.

Finally, she stammers out, “Severance pay.”

There are more giggles.

“Ah,” he says.

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

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

Then he sails to the west.

(Palm Sunday: III/IV) Mr. McGruder’s Question

Jane’s arm is bloody.

“This is what happens when you stay up too late playing with sharp objects,” Martin points out.

Jane frowns at her arm.

“It wasn’t a sharp object,” she says. “It was a sharp history. I think it was about Mr. Kong. And it was an accident.”

“Bed,” Martin says.

But Jane has already gone back into the pile of Necessity fragments, drawn by a crimson glimmer, and she’s triumphantly holding up a piece.

“Ha,” she says.

“You’re getting blood on the 80s,” Martin whimpers.

It is 1979.

Mr. McGruder is walking home. He is not paying attention to the road. He is not paying attention to the sunset. He is not paying attention to the labored sound of monstrous breathing or the distant heavy footsteps. Instead he is preoccupied with his own thoughts. He walks right into the ragged thing.

“Oh!” he says.

He adjusts his glasses. He looks at the ragged thing.

He frowns.

He takes off his glasses. He cleans them. He puts them back on his nose. He looks again.

The ragged thing breathes.

Then it hooks him with its claws and Mr. McGruder releases a shout.

“Ow!” he bleeds.

Begs Mr. McGruder: “This isn’t where I’m supposed to be. I’m supposed to be at home.”

And he hears the breathy whisper of Ii Ma, How—

That is when Max slams into Mr. McGruder and knocks him free.

“Cool!” Jane says.

Sid looks at her. He practices his guilt-inducing stare.

Jane is immune. “Kapow!” she declares, in honor of Max.

It is 1979 and the sun is at the horizon and Max is an angsty teenager in jeans and a shirt. His instincts, honed by years of sullen teen apathy, had told him,

Look away. Don’t mind the guy and the ragged thing.

But Mr. McGruder is his homeroom teacher and he is always giving Max detention and people are loyal in the oddest ways.

Max knocks him away.

And there are claws and there is blood and Max hears the insidious whisper of Ii Ma, How could you betray your wife?

It is very easy for Max to answer this question. It is not normally possible to avoid exile in the land without recourse with a single syllable—not even Mu!—but Max manages it with, “Huh?”

And then the ragged thing is gone and Mr. McGruder is sprawled out on the ground in a dead faint and Max is bleeding.

Max pants.

Run away, his instincts tell him. But he ignores them.

He hefts Mr. McGruder against his shoulder. He can’t get his teacher over his shoulder, but he can sort of support the man.

He begins walking.

He staggers once. His vision blurs. He starts to fall. He whispers, “Sid.”

And Sid is there; and Sid catches them; and Sid stands there looking at Max and Mr. McGruder with an alien and strange expression in his eyes.

“You know,” says Max. “I’d decided that I’d made you up.”

“Six years is a really long time to be mad about a technical foul,” Sid points out.

The Water (4 of 4)

The rising heat of Coretta’s fire
isn’t yet, it isn’t yet;
The hope against the rising wind
isn’t yet, that isn’t yet;
The aegises and dragons they
are isn’ts yet, isn’ts yet;
And the angels, and Ginette.

It is May 24, 2004, and Iphigenia wakes up screaming.

Between the Dominican Republic and Haiti runs a river. It is the Soleil, bound to the sun, and the rains have filled it.

It is 2:28 ante meridiem and the waters are rising.

It is 2:33 and the river bursts its banks.

It is 2:34 in the morning, on May 24, 2004, and Ginette’s family is about to die.

Ginette, like Iphigenia, woke up screaming that day. A warning god bit her, right there on the thumb where it hurts the most to have a god unexpectedly bite you in your sleep. She is staggering out of the house and trying to shake it off but it won’t let go because that’s the kind of bitter little warning god she has, like a shiny black snake that lets you know when things are about to go wrong. And she’s glad of it a few seconds later when she sees the water rising.

Ginette is standing straight but her arm is crooked. She broke it a while ago, back before she had a warning god, and it never quite healed straight. She’s wearing a white nightdress. Her red-orange hair is astonishingly clean and neat, considering that she’s just woken up in the middle of the night. And she’s staring at the water coming at her like she really wishes she had one of those warning gods that tells you about these things a little earlier than a black snake can.

“Oh God,” she says.

Her mother, maybe, she can get out. Her father, maybe. He’s kind of old and creaky but he’s got a chance. Their house isn’t very sturdy, it’s mostly wood and sheet metal but some of the bits are cardboard and none of it’s held together that well, so it probably won’t trap him. But Celeste’s too sick. Even if she gets carried out, Celeste won’t make it in this kind of flood.

So Ginette knows what she has to do.

She calls up her aegis. It’s a golden glow that rises all about her, sheeting up from the earth. She calls up her killing god, and she hopes for all she’s worth that he’s up to killing a bloated river-man. She kicks over the stone that gives her wings and she flies out into the flood.

And the water washes over her like a symphony, the deep shifting currents like the bass, the surging foam and twisting water like the violin, and it hits her like the conductor’s hand swatting aside mosquitoes and Ginette thinks this as it washes her away:

“I am worthless.

“Pointless.

“I have failed.”

And she would have laughed and laughed if she had been there 2543 years ago when Mr. Kong asked the question, “Are we responsible for the miracles we cannot work?”

‘Cause everybody, but everybody, knows the answer to that.