Higher Jam

Emily can’t reach the jar on the top shelf.

“Unh!”

Emily jumps. Emily reaches. But it’s too far out of the way.

“Sid!” commands Emily.

Sid comes in from outside.

“Yes?” Sid says.

“Jump!”

Sid jumps.

“No,” Emily says. “Jump! To get the jar!”

Sid jumps towards the jar. He fails. It’s out of his reach.

“Hm,” says Sid.

“Hm?”

“Well,” says Sid, “we live alone in this creaky run-down mansion.”

“Yes?”

“Which you purchased, as I recall, before any other person inhabited it.”

“That’s so,” Emily agrees.

“So it seems to me,” Sid says, “that there shouldn’t be any jars on shelves we can’t reach.”

“Huh!” says Emily.

“Indeed.”

“Do you think it really exists?” Emily asks, peering at the jar.

“Well, we see it,” Sid says.

“That much is true.”

“So it has the visual skandha. That’s an important attribute of existence.”

“I concur,” says Emily.

“What’s in it?”

“In what?”

“The jar.”

“Preserves,” Emily says. She indicates the counter. “As you can see, I have lain out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But it has no jelly.”

“Aren’t there other jars in the house?”

“Alas, no,” says Emily.

“Well, there’s the store,” Sid points out.

“By no means!” says Emily. “I cannot very well leave my sandwich to moulder while I go to the store.”

“I could eat it,” says Sid.

“What?”

“Then,” explains Sid triumphantly, “when you return from the store, you could make another!”

Emily squints at Sid.

“You seek falsely to profit from my peanut butter spreading activities.”

“I could spread the peanut butter on your sandwich,” says Sid, “when you returned. Then all would be equitable.”

“No, no,” sighs Emily. “It must be the jar.”

“Then we must think backwards,” says Sid.

“Backwards.”

“Yes.”

“The opposite of jumping is squatting,” Emily says.

She squats. She feels around on the floor.

“If the mansion wrapped around,” Emily says, “so that the floor were the ceiling, I think this would be effective.”

“If the mansion wrapped around,” Sid points out, “we would be cited for numerous violations of the building code.”

“We could banish the inspector to the dungeon,” says Emily.

“Oh?”

“There he would labor endless hours to power my great machine!”

“Your great machine uses batteries,” says Sid. “And also, I believe you dismantled it as unsuitable for your ambitions.”

Emily puffs up her cheeks and then sighs. “Once again reality intercedes.”

“In any event,” says Sid, “by thinking backwards, I meant that we should consider how the jar reached the shelf. If we recollect this process, then we can reverse it to obtain the jar.”

“It was there yesterday,” Emily says.

“Was it?”

“Yes,” Emily confirms.

“And the day before?”

“Indeed.”

“Last Christmas?”

“No,” says Emily. She thinks. “Last Christmas, there was the ham.”

“How did we get the ham down?” Sid asks, momentarily diverted.

“I adapted the taser into an electric grapple,” Emily says.

“Ah, yes,” says Sid.

“That would not work with preserves,” Emily says.

“No.”

They stare at the jar.

“I am starting to recall,” says Emily. “There was a giant.”

“A giant?”

“The large, cloud-haired giant,” says Emily. “You remember. Ms. Brown.”

“Oh, yes,” says Sid.

“I said, ‘Ms. Brown, before you go, could you shelve these preserves?'”

“Clever thought! Giants have little trouble with shelves.”

“And she looked down at me with these gentle eyes and said, ‘Of course.'”

“So,” says Sid. “We need only find Ms. Brown and ask her to fetch down the jar.”

“Focus, Sid!” snaps Emily.

“Hm?”

“If my sandwich moulders while I search for Ms. Brown, the entirety of this effort would be in vain; even Ms. Brown would laugh at me, with great booming sounds.”

“Alas,” says Sid.

“We could poke the jar with a stick,” Emily says.

“This is a proposal with many possible outcomes,” Sid points out.

Emily considers. She glares up at the jar.

“If I had a proper assistant,” Emily says, “I’m sure this would be much easier.”

“Your life would be a glorious montage of roses and victories,” Sid agrees.

“I will stand on your shoulders,” Emily says.

“And if you fall?”

“Ha! Then I fall.”

“And if you die?”

“Then I die!”

“And I may have your sandwich?”

“Let us consider alternatives,” says Emily.

Sid saddens.

“We could make another giant,” Emily proposes.

“Really? Another giant?”

“I could make you into a giant.”

Sid looks down at himself. “I have always thought of myself as a sufficiently large man.”

“That is the corrosive effect of my company,” says Emily. “Observe! My head comes up to your stomach.”

“So it does.”

“And you are thicker and broader than I.”

“So I am!”

“This accounts for your inflated sense of your own dimensions.”

“Ah.”

“In truth, you are of that smaller category of men which I shall label ‘inadequate to reach the jar.'”

“If all men were shorter than I,” says Sid, “I would be no more able to reach the jar than I am now.”

“Meaningless semantics,” dismisses Emily. “There is no degeneration of the species in the offing.”

“There could be,” says Sid.

“No,” says Emily.

“No?”

“Well,” says Emily, “humanity is already degenerate, you see.”

“A sour perspective.”

“Rather, a blessing! There is nowhere to go but up!”

“I do not think humans are degenerate,” says Sid.

“Well, observe,” says Emily. “Humans are not giants.”

Sid waits, but Emily does not continue.

“That is not the normal definition of degeneracy,” Sid says.

“Everyone must form their own definitions,” Emily says. “Still, I stand by mine to the death!”

“To the death?”

“Indeed!”

“And if you die of it?”

“And if I die of it?”

“May I then have your sandwich?”

“Sid! Hardly! It will have already mouldered. You would get cancer of the stomach. No,” concludes Emily. “I will have to make you a giant.”

“Did you make Ms. Brown a giant?”

“Well, naturally,” says Emily.

“It was not natural to me,” says Sid. “I had not known you harbored giant-making proclivities.”

“You know that I have the great machine,” Emily points out.

“Well, yes, I know that.”

“And that I am disdainful towards humanity,” Emily says.

“True.”

“And that I live alone in a run-down mansion with my faithful servant,” Emily says.

“Granted.”

“So therefore I am a scientist of unusual caliber,” Emily says, “and a likely candidate for any giant-makings that have transpired!”

“There is that,” says Sid.

“Indeed.”

“But I am not truly your faithful servant,” says Sid. “I am indifferently faithful at best.”

“Sid!” accuses Emily.

“Well, I am hungry,” says Sid. “An assistant is ruled by his stomach; that is the cardinal law.”

“You may make yourself a peanut butter sandwich,” says Emily. “The bread and peanut butter lay yonder, practically inviting you into their arms.”

“I do not wish to waste,” Sid says primly.

“Such niceties!”

“Well,” says Sid, “to make and eat another peanut butter sandwich while a second is left to moulder—is that not the definition of wastefulness?”

“You are not wasteful, then?”

“I am not,” says Sid.

“I give you my assurances,” says Emily, “that I will find a way to obtain that jar and make my own sandwich, though the world itself might crack. Does this suffice to resolve your moral quandary?”

“To trust is folly in this dismal world,” philosophizes Sid. “Rather, a man watches and judges, keeping his mind open at all times. Then he may seize such opportunities as come along!”

“A sour perspective!”

“In hunger, I am a pessimist. When I am full, then I shall be the definition of optimism!”

A train of thought distracts Emily.

“So after you have eaten,” she says, “if you see half a cup of milk, you would call it ‘half-full?'”

“That is the definition,” Sid agrees.

“And if you were to drink it?”

Sid rubs at his nose. “Perplexing. It would become ‘not at all full’, while a more pessimistic man would call it ‘scarcely empty.'”

“Huh!” declares Emily.

She looks Sid up and down.

“In any event,” she says. “Soon your perspective will brighten.”

“Will it?”

“Indeed!” says Emily.

“By sandwich or by treachery?”

“Neither! I shall make you a giant, which shall have you jumping for joy; though not literally, you understand, lest you crack the ceiling.”

“What if I do not want to be a giant?”

“Are you my faithful servant?”

“Indifferently,” Sid qualifies.

“Then there is no choice in the matter. I must simply find your smalling string.”

“Moderate your gaze!” says Sid. “You study regions that can make me blush.”

“Don’t be silly,” says Emily. “I am looking rather to the left of that.”

“I am embarrassed of my left hip,” says Sid, to save face.

“There!” says Emily. She points.

“What?”

“The smalling string.”

“What?”

“The string,” says Emily, “that makes you small.”

Sid tugs on a string protruding from the left hip of his jeans. “What, this?”

“Yes, that.”

“It’s a string,” Sid says.

Emily takes out a knife. “Let me cut it.”

“Your hands are small and clumsy,” says Sid. “Perhaps I should—”

But it is too late. With dispatch and aggression, Emily has cut the string and Sid is no longer small.

“Oh,” says Sid.

“Ha ha ha!” laughs Emily, pumping one hand in the air. “Genius!”

Sid looks down at Emily. His eyes are gentle; there is a fierce intelligence in them; and the spirit of him is at one time fiery and soft.

“I am grown,” he says.

Emily’s laughter slowly fades. She sighs.

“Yes, yes,” she says. “You have grown.”

“Wow.”

“So?”

“So?”

“Fetch me my jam!”

Morality Fable

Refute is a city founded on firm principles of public morality.

There is a stone in the center of the city. It explains their beliefs.

“We are good people, ” the stone says.
“We are loving people.”
“We are a people who together dispute the strong Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.”

It is a Whorfian who first discovers the ooze. His name is Mr. Whitfield. He is scruffy. He is smelly. He is in an old tattered brown suit. He is sleeping in an alley, near the sewer. The ooze rises.

“Hello, ” he says, to the ooze. In addition to believing in the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Mr. Whitfield is drunk.

“Ssss,” hisses the ooze. There is a poodle nearby. The ooze eats the poodle.

“That was uncalled for,” says Mr. Whitfield.

“Ssss,” hisses the ooze.

Mr. Whitfield goes out to the mouth of the alley, where it intersects the street. “I say!” he cries. “Hello? There is a poodle-eating ooze here.”

People uncomfortably walk around him.

“Ooze,” Mr. Whitfield says. “It eats poodles. It probably eats people, too. I think it might be radioactive sewer waste or some form of ancient blasphemous god.”

Father Morgan looks at Mr. Whitfield sympathetically. He takes Mr. Whitfield’s hand in his. “I can see,” says Father Morgan, “that you’re a man who has lost your way.”

“Yes,” admits Mr. Whitfield.

“I can help,” says Father Morgan. “We can beat the demon of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis together.”

Mr. Whitfield shakes his head. “There’s another demon,” he says. “Closer. In the alley.”

Father Morgan looks distant. “Oh, my son. You haven’t been dealing in anecdotal evidence, have you? I know it feels good, but it’ll ruin your objectivity.”

The ooze strikes. Mr. Whitfield awkwardly rolls out of the way. The ooze eats Father Morgan.

People point. People scream.

“That Whorfian just killed somebody!” they cry. “With an ooze!”

Mr. Whitfield hangs his head. His shoulders slump. “This isn’t fair,” he says. Then he runs. But he can’t escape the police. Pretty soon, he’s under harsh lights, down at the station.

“Mr. Whitfield,” says Officer Samantha Brown. She taps the table with her nightstick. “Didn’t I tell you to stay out of trouble?”

“There’s substantial evidence for the strong Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis!” Mr. Whitfield blurts out. It’s a mistake. Samantha lunges across the table with both hands. She grips his collar. She shakes him.

“I don’t want to hear any of this filthy SSWisH talk,” she says. “A man is dead.”

Mr. Whitfield is terrified. He hangs limply from her grasp, and when she lets go, he sits down hard.

“Now, tell me,” she says. “Tell me what happened. Tell me how Father Morgan died.”

“He wasn’t actually my father,” Mr. Whitfield clarifies. “Or yours.”

Samantha blinks for a moment, then scowls. “I know,” she says.

“He was eaten by an ooze,” Mr. Whitfield says.

“An ‘ooze’,” Samantha says.

“Yes.”

“Can you describe this ooze?”

Mr. Whitfield thinks. “It’s . . .” He hesitates. “It was an atrocity against nature,” he says. “Blasphemous! Ungodly. Horrible.”

The cop looks down. She sighs. “Mr. Whitfield,” she says, “could you possibly give me a useful description?”

Mr. Whitfield thinks. “Are you familiar,” he says, “with the city of An-Meng, sad and broken An-Meng, An-Meng the Lost?”

Samantha shrugs.

“In 1998,” Mr. Whitfield says, “An-Meng learned that it was doomed, but it did not know why. It was the brightest city in this world, but death stalked it. Its lights dimmed. Its sounds faded. There was blood in the streets and pain in the shadows. It was a Utopia, but it did not endure, and they were never to know the shape of their ending.”

“I think I saw something about it on TV,” Samantha says. “It was in Canada or something, right?”

“Striving to understand the shape of their doom,” Mr. Whitfield says, “they came up with words like ‘etoplian’ and ‘scitterfisce’. This death was etoplian; the pall in the sky, scitterfisce; the rising tide of despair, midlipen. And their word for what I saw today was itserban. It was a very . . . itserbani ooze.”

Samantha’s nostrils flare. “‘Itserbani,'” she says.

“Yes.”

Samantha’s hands come palm-down on the table between them. The table shakes. “And you can’t,” she hisses out, “put that in terms I can understand?”

“It’s . . .” Mr. Whitfield founders. “It’s like an externalization of the inner demons and weaknesses of the soul. But it’s founded on a universal malignity—as if the god-demons of the universe were to express an ironic schadenfreude . . .”

“‘Schadenfraude?'”

“It’s German,” Mr. Whitfield says weakly.

“It’s beliefs like yours,” Samantha grinds out, “that destroy the fabric of society.” She rises to her feet. “I’ll come back when you’re ready to talk, and not to peddle your Whorfian filth.”

She leaves the room.

Mr. Whitfield rubs at his chin. “Really,” he says, “I can’t tell whether it was more of an itserbani ooze or a nameless cherklish god, its thousand-tined murkas cutting deep into the spingles of the world. It’s maddening!”

Samantha never comes back for him.

“I’d like some water,” Mr. Whitfield says. He pounds at the door. But no one comes to answer him.

He waits.

Then there is the ooze, pressed against the door.

“Are you the punishment for my sins?” Mr. Whitfield asks it.

The door hinges creak with the pressure of the ooze.

“It just seemed logical to me,” Mr. Whitfield says, “that language controls the human capacity for thought. I knew it was an unpopular version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. I knew it would ruin my life. But I thought that exploring its implications might be good for a lark. And then I was hooked.”

One of the door hinges pops.

“Do you . . . what do you believe, Mr. Ooze?”

Mr. Whitfield cringes in the corner of the room, as the door bursts down.

“Was I right?” he asks.

“I am not a conversational ooze,” says the itserbani beast.

Then it eats him.

The Stage (IV/IV)

The lady sits in her room. She weaves a tapestry. She looks out towards the sea.

“Ms. Brown, ” she says.

Ms. Brown attends her. “Yes, milady?”

“The sea, ” she says. “Does it seem altogether well?”

Ms. Brown looks out the window. “It’s a bit ragged at the edges. The horizon’s coming undone. I suppose the world’s ending.”

“There are angels who promised that this place would live forever,” the lady says.

“Angels forget.”

“And gods,” the lady says.

“Gods forget, too.”

“And all the others. Dragons and women and beasts and men and the spirits of the sea; they said they’d give this place their shelter.”

“It’s been a very long time, milady.”

“Ah,” she says.

“It’s not painful,” Ms. Brown says. “It’s very gentle. The world just comes apart, and then there’s nothingness. You and the sea and the land—you all fade away together.”

The lady looks up. “It’s happened before?”

Ms. Brown shrugs.

The lady smiles, lightly. “It shan’t again,” she says. She takes the tapestry and folds it under her arm; and she walks from her tower, and down to the land, and out across the sea. All around her, chaos eats at the edge of the world. She steps beyond it.