Colony Collapse

To bumblebee is to become a bumblebee; and the price of that becoming is your death.

The news is always full of stories.

Bumblebees are squished;
Licked up;
Yakked out;
and, lastly, wiped.

The Lady Devereaux—as all the ladies Devereaux had before—expresses bombastic disdain.

“We need them, yes,” she says.

One arm waves, broadly. A length of lace cuts the air.

“As we need all those sorts. The grouting ants, the toilet skinks, and the far-too-serious badgers of City Hall. But it is . . . hymenopteraic,” she says. “Segmenting your eyes; growing the antennae; carrying about the slops of flower sex—it is not done.”

“Hymenopteral,” says Emeline, behind her too-large glasses.

Grammar constrains the Lady Devereaux. She feels it binding her as her corset might—not literally, but still a certain coarse constraint.

“The adjective is hymenopteral,” Emeline concludes.

The Lady Devereaux sighs. She sinks down into her chair. She gestures Emeline to her lap, and gently she brushes Emeline’s hair.

“So it is,” she says.

“Mum Grayden,” Emeline says—here referring to Heloise Grayden, across the road—“is proud of Robert; so she says.”

There is a peculiar misery to Emeline’s expression now. Robert had been a funny child, in his too-tight suits and his niceties, but he was more to her than her brother Adric or the Skevinses down the road. And you can follow the story of a bumblebee in the papers—the government was always very proper in keeping towns up-to-date on the accomplishments of their bees—but you cannot play with a bumblebee. You cannot drink hot cocoa with a bumblebee, if you do not want it to drown or become sick of chocolate poisoning or burn up after coming too close to the chocolate and forgetting how to fly. And you certainly cannot play Scrabble, gin, or DS Pokemon while doing so. Even a fantasy tea party is somewhat stifled when it is only yourself and a bee; and Robert had flown on not long after his transformation in any case.

“Mum Grayden,” says the Lady Devereaux, “is putting her best face on.

There were five of them living in Emeline’s house, which is to say, the Lady Devereaux; her daughter Morgaine; her son-in-law Edward, of whom nothing further shall be said; and her grandchildren Emeline and Adric.

In the mornings Emeline would eat breakfast, always a toasted bagel with a cream cheese spread, a glass of orange juice, and occasionally an egg. She would shower and change from her pajamas into clothing suitable for school; then she would catch the bus. Later, after receiving an education, she would return home and while away her evenings on study, family time, and play; and on no occasion did she reveal herself as anything other than the kind of person who remains human all their life.

It takes a peculiar kind of dignity to live as a human all one’s life—given, of course, that one should have the means—

But the ladies Devereaux mostly did.

Now Heloise Grayden visits one afternoon for tea; and Emeline breaks her silence to say, “I think that they should let the bees come home.”

It is one of the opinions voiced in the local paper; and she is quoting Harvard Elling of that paper when she finishes, “It is a matter of simple justice.”

Mum Grayden makes a noise; it is a strange sort of noise, half-gasp, half-snort, indelicate and covered shortly after with a napkin to her lips.

“Naturally, no person ought to be—constrained,” says Lady Devereaux.

It is surprisingly kind of her to say; then she spoils it altogether by continuing, “Although I’m sure there are considerations— stinging and flying in people’s eyes and such. If there weren’t some regulation, wouldn’t bees just do as they like and make the ecosystem worse? I’m sure the government bees as compassionate as it can.”

“Mum,” murmurs Morgaine.

Morgaine looks away from Lady Devereaux and extends a hand towards Heloise. Heloise follows it with her eyes but does not take it. Instead she places her napkin down with great delicacy and offers Lady Devereaux a kind of wet-eyed grin.

“When the flowers bloom on the trees, and the orchards live—I think, we wouldn’t have anything to eat, would we? We wouldn’t have the means to live, not like this anyway, without our boys in yellow—there’s no way to say it—without our boys in yellow, busy in the hives, inseminating the queen. Isn’t it so? So I think, isn’t it good? I don’t know what I’d do if he came home.”

The Lady Devereaux fixes her expression in a porcelain smile.

“Yes,” she says. “God save them.”

Emeline frowns.

“Inseminating is Latin,” she says, deep in thought. “Inseminare: to sow, implant. Pray, if you could tell me—”

The Lady Devereaux stands abruptly.

“A wonderful tea,” she says, in sharp swift cadence. “Thank you for your visit, dear Heloise, and may you come again. Children ought, dear Emeline, be seen and not heard. Have you entirely completed your studies for the weekend? I feel I need a walk; adieu.”

Her bustle proves eponymous as she retreats from the room.

“Do not be a bumblebee, Emeline,” says Heloise.

Her hands come down on Emeline’s. They grip them tight.

“Not a bumblebee. Not even a queen. Not even some other kind of bee. Do not.”

Morgaine says, sharply, “Heloise!”

Heloise stares at her hands and Emeline’s for a moment. Then she shakes her head. She looks confused, as if she does not understand how she has come to this place, this time, and this position.

Slowly she pulls away.

I think,” Adric says, in what shall be his only line, “that she’ll become an owl.”

But this is the fallacy of Lamarck; and for his deviation from evolutionary orthodoxy Emeline punishes him with itching powder in his sheets.

At school the next week three boys are singing in the playground:

“I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee;
“Won’t my mother be so proud of me?”

Emeline, who is walking past them to the library, stops to hear them out.

“I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee.
“Ouch! He stung me!”

She frowns at them distantly.

The version of the song she’d always heard began with “I wish I were—”

A good devotional song, that one. This one—

This one was perverse.

“I’m squishing up my baby bumblebee,” the boys are singing, squishing their hands together.
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I’m squishing up my baby bumblebee,
“Eww! It’s all over me!”

Stop it,” she says.

Her body is rigid. Her arms are at her sides and trembling. The boys turn to stare at her.

Stop it,” she says. “They’re bees.

“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee,” one of the boys starts, in a soothing, pacifying, and entirely sarcastic tone. He scrubs off his hands. The others join in.
“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee,
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee—”

They sneer at her.

“Look! All clean!” they say and show her their hands; but she cannot see them through her furious tears.

Stiff-legged, she walks away.

Behind her, she hears,

“I’m licking up my baby bumblebee—”

That day she scores a 92 on her spelling test, mangling phylopraxy and palingenesis entirely and with two furious strokes of her pen.

It is not an error the Lady Devereaux accepts; Emeline goes without her evening meal that night.

Bumblebees—

It is not like it is with honey bees.

A bumblebee can sting and then survive; it can leave the hives, abandoning its peers, and make its way along the roads to home; it is fearsome-furred and powerful and strong—

It has a better life than a honey bee’s.

But to bumblebee is to become a bumblebee, and the price of that is death.

It may wait twelve months for you—fifteen, if you are lucky, young, and strong—but death, for a bumblebee, is as inevitable as the snow.

That winter, the papers tell Emeline of Robert Grayden’s death, and Mum Grayden hangs the yellow wreath upon her door.

“Sometimes I think that Adric ought become a llama,” Emeline says.

This suggestion is one students find quite clever—entirely deniable, if one knows certain details about Tibet, and while undignified not so harsh as to be cruel.

But at the table where she and Lady Devereaux are taking a late and solitary tea, the suggestion falls quite flat.

“A Devereaux does not become a beast,” the Lady Devereaux says.

Emeline swallows a bit of scone and many unwise remarks.

“I don’t know how Robert became a bee, and then he died,” she says, after a time. “And everyone says it was heroic, but they don’t— they don’t honor it.”

“It is very hard for poor Heloise,” says Lady Devereaux.

She tidies up the crumbs on her plate.

“Perhaps we should invite her by; speak about . . . a breath of air, you know, taking down the yellow, coming back into society again. It is not good to spend your time in melancholy; she still is healthy enough, I’m sure she and Mr. Grayden can fill their house again.”

“But—” says Emeline.

“Tut!” says Lady Devereaux. “Finish your scone, young lady, and then we shall draw your bath.”

In Church they sing,

“I wish I were a baby bumblebee;
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I wish I were a baby bumblebee;
“A male! Or a queen!”

“I wish I were a military boar;
“Tusks and hide and shouting a great roar;
“I wish I were a military boar;
“Charge!”

But even when they sing about service, the minister mostly talks about hellfire and money.

That is why when Emeline finds herself at the transmogrification office, staring down at the clipboards and wondering, she feels utterly and entirely alone.

“If you’re under 18,” the recruiter says, “Your Mum or Dad’ll have to sign.”

“I’m 18,” Emeline says.

The recruiter looks at her. If you didn’t have access to her sanitary cupboard, you’d be hard pressed to prove she’d hit puberty.

“12 at most,” he says.

“I just have to say I’m 18,” Emeline says. “You don’t have to believe me. And it just means I live longer, after, if I’m not.”

His eyes go carefully and formally blank.

“Can’t get your Mum or Dad to agree, then?”

“‘A Devereaux doesn’t become a beast,'” Emeline quotes. “‘A Devereaux is always gracious. A Devereaux always uses perfect grammar.’

“— even if she doesn’t!” Emeline adds, in mild outrage.

“It’s tough,” the recruiter says. “It’s not— you understand that it’s not a way to get away from too much homework? Or spite your parents for grounding you?”

“Everything is dying,” Emeline says, “because the bees are dying. The plants will die. The animals. The people. All the web of life come undone.

“If you ask me,” she says, and realizes as she says this that she has become everything that is not a Devereaux, “there ought to be a draft.”

The recruiter makes one of those faces adults sometimes make.

“18, huh?” he says.

“18.”

And that is how she took the change.

The walk home afterwards is the hardest thing she’s ever done. She tells herself it is because her body is changing, but this is not so, not yet. That takes a few days to start.

It is because she is still human, rather, and knows what will happen.

“Mother,” she says, “Grandmother. It is my intention; I mean, I want to—I mean, I will— bumblebee.”

And the Lady Devereaux goes white, which is exactly as expected, and her breath rattles in her corset-constrained chest like the ball of a pinball machine, thumping back and forth.

“I said,” Emeline adds, jutting her chin, “I was 18.”

But what Emeline did not expect was the reaction of Morgaine.

They do not strike Emeline’s mother down, these words—though they strike her, yes, wash through Morgaine like lightning; but there is motion and not stillness, the bending of sleeves and jacket and the crinkling of skirts; and her mother wraps bloused arms around Emeline like package paper around a treasure, and her hug is deep and warm and faintly crackling.

“Oh, Emeline,” she says.

And there is strange wonder here; strange pride and fear; there is something here that is more than sorrow.

It is everything, and more, for thirty seconds of her life.

After that, Emeline begins to understand what a corset must be like, and why the Lady Devereaux is with such great frequency so strange.

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.

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.

Originally Posted on Labor Day

The spotted owl flutters near.

“It’s not old-growth any more, ” argues the protester. “It’s just a garden.”

“The forest of liberty requires on occasion the blood of patriots and tyrants,” answers the logging foreman. “See? Little saplings. We’re watering them. With that very blood! That makes it old school and old growth both.”

“The can says ‘processed blood product.'”

“It’s just like real blood,” the foreman argues.

“Also, think of the ecosystem! The root weevils of justice. The spotted owls of old-fashioned American ingenuity. Even the magnificent cougars of decorum! They need a real forest of liberty!”

Nearby, a cougar coughs politely. It would like to leap down and attack, but cannot do so until someone acknowledges its presence.

“There’s plenty of room for these animals,” the foreman protests. “The crabs don’t like living in our discarded cans any more, so the landfill’s practically a brand-new habitat.”

It’s true, of course. For years, crabs lived in discarded imitation patriot and tyrant blood food product jars. Then a strange brain parasite taught them to transcend material needs and fly around the world in tiny zeppelin shells. Once the crabs moved out, the root weevils moved in. Nature abhors a habitat vacuum.

“It just seems gauche, is all,” the protester says. “To cut down a tree and then plant a replacement and send people cards saying it was done in their name.”

“I have to send out the cards,” the foreman says. “It’s what the spirit of labor day is all about!”

“You mean arbor day.”

“Do not trouble me with your petty chronology,” the foreman says. “There are principles that must be cut down, and others that must be grown!”

Ways of Avoiding Migraines

“Do you think that vampire Alice would be able to go through the looking glass?” asks Jane.

“Why would she want to?”

“Let’s say she’s afraid of getting a migraine,” Jane says, “and her medicine was accidentally made out of left-handed molecules.”

Martin thinks. “I don’t know,” he admits.

“It’d be really important,” Jane says, “because you need medicine when you might get a migraine. There aren’t many choices!”

“You can remove every tenth star,” Martin says. “If you remove every tenth star from a starlit sky, you won’t get a migraine.”

The stars twinkle in the sky above.

“That’s true,” Jane says. She nibbles on the end of a long lock of hair. “But what about stars with inhabited solar systems?”

“You prune first,” Martin says. “Delete a few extra stars, to smooth the transition later. You’re fine, as long as you don’t wind up with ten inhabited stars in a row.”

Jane sighs, looking up at the sky.

“Why is the universe so empty?” she asks.

“It’s not,” Martin says. He waves his hand at the sky. “After picking up old Star Trek and Dr. Who broadcasts, aliens are understandably wary of us. But they’re out there. They have special antennae that can turn things to gold.”

“I think you’re thinking of Midas,” Jane says.

Martin shrugs.

Jane plucks a flower. She begins counting its petals. She does not pull them off. She does not chant. After a moment, she says, “You could find the thousand secret names of Santa Claus, and recite them while standing on the tallest mountain in the world.”

“Won’t that summon him?”

“Well, yes,” she says, “but you won’t get a migraine, and summoning Santa isn’t that bad. It’s not like Mr. Hotep or Tsathoggua. He brings presents!”

“Bah,” Martin says.

Jane raises an eyebrow at him.

“I don’t like saints.”

Jane looks scandalized. “You have to like Santa.

Martin sits behind the fortress of his cynicism goggles. For a long moment, Jane sulks. Then she beams.

“If you can count every hair in a saint’s beard,” she says, “you won’t get a migraine. He has to actually have a beard. It doesn’t count if it’s zero. But it still proves they’re useful!”

“I didn’t say they weren’t useful,” Martin says. “I just don’t like them. But I have to admit that St. Dunstan’s useful in a pinch. And St. Lucia can see around corners!”

“Ew.”

Jane wrinkles her nose.

“On account,” Martin belabors, “of keeping her eyes on a plate.”

“Yes, thank you, Martin,” Jane says. She pokes him.

Martin grins.

“You can avoid a migraine by riding an owl’s back,” Martin says, “thrice around the world.”

“Ooh.”

“You need a special owl,” Martin says.

“Every owl is special!”

Martin sighs. He pulls up two strands of grass and begins to braid them together. “I don’t think you need to worry about it,” he says.

“True,” Jane says.

Martin adds a third strand to the weave.

“It’s just,” Jane says, “that if a vampire Alice could get into the looking glass, then at any moment, couldn’t some strange mirror vampire Alice come out?

Martin adds a fourth strand to the weave. His dexterity fails. Four pieces of grass flutter down to the ground. He sighs and begins trying again.

After a moment, Martin says, “Would the sudden appearance of looking glass world vampire Alice really be so bad?”

“She’d be all ‘eyes into my look’,” Jane says. “It’d be creepy!”

“Bah,” Martin says. “She’d just grab her left-handed migraine medicine and pop back into the mirror. The real world’s scary, you know, if you’re used to the looking glass.”

Sympathy for a Stranger

Ashen labors.

Ashen is a squirrel. He is white. His paws are almost as flexible as hands. He has a tiny hammer. He pounds metal into place. He has a tiny screwdriver. He twists tiny screws. He is building something. It is large. It is imposing. It has a shape much like a bear’s.

One ear twitches.

“Come in, ” Ashen says.

The door opens. It’s a walking dog. He has his hands in the pockets of his trenchcoat.

“Hi, Joe, ” Ashen says.

“Here’s a tough spot,” narrates the dog. “Ashen’s a top government scientist, but he’s using the knowledge he picked up through military research for a personal project.”

“I’m not using any government resources, Joe,” Ashen says. His tail twitches. He looks a bit nervous.

“Good, Ashen,” says the dog. “But what would you do if communists approached you and asked you to put your knowledge to their ends?”

“I’d bite them! Then I’d run away!”

The dog hesitates. His eyes narrow. “That’s not what you’re doing, then? You’re not working for them?”

Ashen shakes his head vigorously. “I’m a loyal American!”

The dog’s suspicion fades. “Well, that’s the right thing to do,” he admits. “If communists approach you for a project, bite them. Then run away! Then tell your local police.”

“Thank you, Joe.”

The dog leans against the wall. “That’s how you can take a bite out of communism!”

Ashen nods.

“But what are you working on?” the dog says. “I mean, if it’s not a secret communist project?”

“I’m building a mechanical bear,” Ashen says. “I call it Mecha-Smokey.”

The dog looks sad. “Oh, Ashen.”

“It’s legitimate!” Ashen says.

“How is that legitimate?”

“I’m going to send it to Germany,” Ashen says. “It’s going to challenge, and kill, the Black Forest Bear.”

The dog hesitates. “Ashen,” he says, “you know that I can’t give my official support to projects involving the assassination of foreign nationals.”

Ashen blinks. “I thought you did a commercial promoting it.”

“As a last resort,” Joe says. “If you’re caught in a foreign country and can’t get home and a duly authorized agent of the U.S. government says, ‘Hey, since you’re stuck here anyway, could you kill this guy?’ Then it’s okay, sure. Mindless loyalty helps you take a bite out of communism! But you can’t just sit in your lab and build anti-Smokey robots. That’s the kind of thing that might damage our diplomatic position.”

“You miss him,” Ashen says.

“He’s a [censored] Nazi!” storms McCarthy.

Ashen watches him for a moment.

McCarthy’s shoulders slump, under his trenchcoat. “Yah,” he says.

“I miss him too,” Ashen says. “That’s why I’m doing this.”

McCarthy raises an eyebrow. He doesn’t actually have eyebrows, being a dog, but the gesture is pretty much the same.

“Even the Germans don’t want him any more.” Ashen’s nose twitches. He’s not happy. “He was the one weapon that the Allies could never defeat, the one terror not even nuclear weapons could stop. But one weapon wasn’t enough. They lost the war. And now he’s just an unpleasant reminder of their temporary sojourn into cultural insanity. They don’t like Nazis over there, Joe. Not any more. But they can’t kill him either.”

“It’s his own fault,” Joe says stubbornly. “If he’s miserable, good!”

Ashen fondles a nut in his little squirrel hands. Then he screws it into the robot bear. “Joe,” he says, “he’s our friend. We have to give him peace.”

“Not any more,” Joe says. “He betrayed our country. He betrayed us!”

“He meant well.”

Joe sneers. “You believe that [censored]?”

“It was true,” Ashen says. “At the time. Only U-boats could prevent forest fires. And . . . say what you like about him, but the Black Forest Bear is dedicated to preventing forest fires.”

“And Auschwitz?”

Ashen hesitates. Then he shrugs. “It’s not about forgiving him, Joe. It’s not about him at all. It’s about doing what I think is right. And I’m not vengeful. I just want closure. I want to give him a grave somewhere with a headstone reading, ‘He Shall Put Out Hell.'”

“I’ll stop you,” Joe says.

Ashen laughs. “I’ve got a good lawyer, Joe. I’d like to see you try.”

“You haven’t seen legal pressure until you’ve seen the Communism-Fighting Dog at work!”

“I’ve signed on with the owl.”

McCarthy bares his teeth. He growls, softly. “The owl?”

“‘Give a hoot. Don’t prosecute!'”

“Damn it, Ashen!”

Ashen turns back to his work. “You know the way to the door.”

Joe turns. He strides away. He reaches for the doorknob. Then he hesitates. “Will it really,” he says, and then pauses. “You know. Be able to kill him? Not even Mothra could take down Smokey.”

“Mecha-Smokey will be invincible,” Ashen says.

“And he won’t run amok?”

“He’ll walk through the sea, all the way to Germany. Then he’ll emerge. He’ll be dripping water. He’ll roar. He’ll begin crushing towns. Not because I ordered him to. Simply because they’re there. And Smokey won’t be able to resist.

“He’ll wake.

“He’ll stretch.

“He’ll stand.

“He’ll march to face Mecha-Smokey. And they’ll take one another’s arms in a great bear hug, and they’ll wrestle.

“Then Mecha-Smokey will rip him, limb from limb. Its quantum hydraulics will be unstoppable.

“And blood will pour from the stumps of Smokey’s arms.

“And in the spring, where that blood fell, flowers will grow.

“They will be Mecha-Flowers. They will be the color of blood and steel. And they will remember him.”

Joe sighs.

“Go,” Ashen says.

“I still have to stop you,” Joe says. “But . . . if I don’t . . . have it tell him . . .”

Ashen nods. He turns back to the machine. He pounds. He screws. He twists. Then he buries his head against his hands.

Joe opens the door. Joe walks out. Joe begins to close the door.

“What could it possibly tell him?” Ashen asks.

The door slams closed.