The Nest of Mirror Pieces (5 of 5)

Once upon a time, the monster pulled Mei Ming from the shadow’s womb.

She was born as thin as a caul— not in depth, but in spirit.

She was already shivering with cold.

She was already desperately hungry.

She was already an intimate of sorrow.

The monster said, “Good morning, child. Do you know what it is that you are?”

And Mei Ming shook her head.

Her eyes were sunken and her hair was gold.

“You are a misunderstanding,” said the monster. “A poorly-formed hypothesis, with some rudimentary justification, regarding the nature of the world. Your mother conceives of you as real. You represent that naivete. You are the blindness in her mind’s eye. You are the mistakes that devour her. That is all, I’m afraid, that you are—

“The instantiation of a destructive and terrible folly.”

“Oh,” whispered Mei Ming.

“I have made you because she needs you,” the monster said. “If you did not exist, then neither would she. Her being would fly apart to all the ten directions of the world. But—”

“. . . do I exist?” Mei Ming asked.

The monster scowled at her and her cheeks grew dark with shame. Then he grinned like a rogue.

“What a question,” he said, shaking his head. “Heh heh. What a question.”

In the tunnels Mei Ming keeps her home.

It is not a house or an apartment. Her home is not a permanent address at all.

It is the location of her stuff.

The walls near her stuff are stone and damp.

She’s hung her framed Matisse upon one wall. Next to it are old bookshelves made from teak and ivory and platters made of gold.

She lives in an unimaginable luxury of material wealth.

There is no electricity and she is always in shadows but there is treasure.

Her teacup is glass with phoenix feathers woven inside it.

Her clothes are hand-dyed silk.

Her coffee table is a solid jade block on four stubby little legs.

Here are some additional notes regarding the coffee table:

When the subway train comes by, rattling-rattling-rattling the walls, the table will dance.

Sometimes it will also dance even when the train isn’t coming by.

At those times it dances just for the joy of it: for the way that when it moves just right, it feels like it is flying.

That’s why Martin always makes sure that there’s a salt shaker on it when he’s visiting. A salt shaker on a table keeps it from dancing and it is also excellently convenient when you want to salt something.

Martin is, as it happens, visiting right now.

He has knocked.

He has entered.

“Hey, Martin,” Mei Ming says. Then she offers, “Milk?”

Martin shakes his head.

“I’m here to help you,” he says.

He sets his burden on the table. It’s a nest of mirror-shards in a cage of firewood. It’s strung together with glue and wires.

The mirror-shards are showing fragments of history—

Vaguely only, there’s only so much chaos in the tunnels, but showing fragments of history—

Surrounding the events of the past few days.

Mei Ming studies it.

She says, “I hope you don’t want me to drink it. It’d be glug glug horrible pain glug. Also I don’t think it fits in my mouth.”

“I also bring gifts that are not for drinking,” Martin says.

Mei Ming peers at it.

“I can’t hang it on the wall,” she says, tentatively.

Her home begins to shudder, rattling-rattling-rattling, as the subway passes by.

“If I did it might get broken.” She gestures at the wall. “Sometimes the subway plows right into my home. Like, I’ll be drinking tea or something. And then whoosh! Bam! There’s this subway. It always sends stuff tumbling every which way.”

“How undignified,” Martin says.

“It is why I live my itinerant lifestyle,” Mei Ming says. “Today, here. Tomorrow, perhaps, three tunnels to the left! Fortunately the table is mobile and Matisse takes exceptionally well to being hit by trains.”

“That’s his eccentric Fauvist genius,” Martin concurs.

There’s a pause.

“So,” Mei Ming says.

“I don’t fail very often,” Martin says. “But I wasn’t able to finish my studies of Persephone.”

Mei Ming traces a line on one of the mirror shards with her finger.

“If Persephone got angry at me,” Mei Ming observes, “she could turn me into Mei Mint. I would have all of the benefits of aromatic leafiness and I would only have to change one letter of my name.”

Martin grins.

“April showers would bring Mei flowers,” Martin agrees.

“So,” Mei Ming says, again.

“I brought this to you because it is the ruin of . . . a vital and true thing,” Martin says. He gestures at the mirror pieces.

“. . . oh.”

“It’s what happens when a tool that is as ancient as the rain is shattered,” Martin says. He hesitates. “And then parts of it stuck back together with glue and wire. But that’s not the important part. The important part is what broke it, which is to say, a mystery and a contradiction. You’re supposed to look at it and say, ‘Wow. That got broken by a conceit.'”

Mei Ming looks up at him sharply.

“What?”

“It wasn’t a physical thing,” Martin says. “It was a concept that shattered it; or, rather, not even a concept but the absence of a concept, which wound up having raw physical import in the world.”

Mei Ming looks a bit defensive.

“That’s not the world,” Mei Ming says. “That’s an artifact of scrying from your little bubble place, your tower bound only by a bridge to the world and sound. That’s a thing of magic, which is to say, something just one absence of an enlightened observation’s distance from not existing at all.”

Martin makes a dismissive noise: pblt!

“Hm?”

“It wasn’t magic that broke it,” Martin says. “It broke because of the impact of intention on a mind.”

“. . . oh,” says Mei Ming softly.

“It’s here to remind you,” Martin says. “That we are all concepts, even those of us with gross physical flesh. That we are minions of the material world, ideas born from the emptiness of matter, concepts without true referent— for who is there whose intentions exactly match to all their actions?— and yet that we can matter in the world.”

“I have gross physical flesh,” protests Mei Ming.

Pblt! Martin offers her again.

“It’s a refined substance,” he says. “If it were gross, then you’d be all splattery from being occasionally hit by a train.”

“I dodge!” Mei Ming protests.

In a small voice, she adds, “Usually.”

“Have you ever seen someone hit by a train?” Martin says. “It’s gross.”

(Easter) That Morning (III/V)

Hanging alone on the skyway, the lens Necessity flickers quietly.

It is made of melomid skin— the kind that sees the past and shapes the chaos, as distinct from that melomid skin that sets fire to the heavens or makes a fine pair of boots.

It is generally inclined to self-preservation: to act in defense of its individual identity. Yet it is chained by its nature as an object in the world to participate in the lives of others.

How can anything survive, torn by such fierce opposing pressures?

The third of three histories regarding the cracking of the lens.

Tonight, if all goes according to plan, the lens will assist in telling the final legend of Ink Catherly.

They had all agreed, in somber gathering:

“Her legend ends here.”

Jane was crying. That can happen when you are in the business of telling legends. But she nodded.

Mrs. Schiff was taking the minutes.

“Hell is inescapable,” she wrote. “That is the condition of the world. The flesh cannot aspire to the spirit. Gross meat cannot give rise to the divine fire. Questions remain unanswerable—”

Here she held the pencil’s eraser against the corner of her mouth and paused. Humor outpaced sorrow. Grinning inappropriately, she wrote, “And suffering insufferable.”

Mr. Schiff gave her a look.

So they decided in their cabal the fate of Ink Catherly— that horror to which she would be left until the reforging of the world.

And then they left the lens Necessity alone to contemplate the problem of Persephone.

“Anyway,” said the lens, “it’s just, I think that Meredith needs to think about the fallacy of independent existence, not the proper application of world-destroying power.”

“. . . I worry,” Jane admits.

“Hypocrite,” the lens whispers to itself.

To the unfinished history of Boedromion it turns; to view Persephone in her Underworld it turns.

A hairline fracture is born.

(Good Friday) The Problem of Persephone (I/V)

The first of three histories regarding the cracking of the lens.

Martin sits on the rope balcony beside the lens Necessity.

Idly he asks:

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all?”

The lens contemplates.

It offers: “Fox News—fair and balanced!”

Martin sighs.

“It’s unrealistic images of fairness like these,” he says, “that compromise a guy’s ability to act as messiah in the modern day.”

“I cannot speak to that,” the lens informs him.

“This is the problem,” Martin says. “I need data on Persephone; or, more generally, on the Eleusinian Mysteries. But it’s hard to find.”

“Yes.”

“I have not failed on the technical level,” he says. “The chaos: I pump it. The levers: I pull them. In general, I comport myself as expected of me according to the nature of this tower’s operation. Therefore the problem lies in the equipment.”

The images in the lens swirl thoughtfully.

“Perhaps,” it offers, “the nature of your request is ill-defined.”

“. . . to know more about Persephone?”

“Yes.”

Martin favors Necessity with a hard glare. “The pursuit of knowledge,” he says, “is definite.”

“Even with regard to a mystery?”

“Here is how I theorize,” says Martin. He gestures broadly. “For the purposes of gathering data and taking specific action, the point of utter mystery—that uncanny ungatherable data that produces only static at the moment of observation—is irrelevant. One may isolate it in the bubble of its unclarity, hand-waving around its edges, and leaving only the hard facts at hand. Perhaps there is right here in the tower some infinite force, unknowable, imperceptible, transcendent to the circumstances of my life, but I relate to the world only in context of verifiable data. Invoke the mystery as you like; I shine light in what I can and the remainder is of no matter.”

“Hm,” says the lens.

“So: what is it that you will not show me?”

Static flares.

She Had Forgotten All the Red

The sky is brilliant. It’s crisp. It’s blue and purple and black and full of dot-like stars.“It didn’t used to look that beautiful,” says Sid.

He is in a glade. The guardian spirit of the glade is sitting beside him. She is a woman clad in the colors of the place: in the crisp green of the wet grass, the muddy brown of the dirt, the thick deep color of the trees.

The clothing of her blends into the world.

She says, “It’s been a long time.”

There’s a sadness to her as the spirit says, “In the days of my childhood it always looked like that.”

“What happened?” says Sid.

“It rotted,” she says. “The sky just rotted right away.”

When Sid gets home there’s a proclamation posted on the neighborhood kiosk. It’s got nice scrollwork and a fancy font.

“Be it known,” he reads, “that in pursuit of justice and democracy, the Drug Enforcement Administration hereby adopts the following zero-tolerance policy towards drug use and participation in the drug trade;

“That those alleged to commit such crimes should have their house taken from them;

“And their vehicles;

“And all their earthly goods;

“And as another matter, should it be deemed by the Agent on the scene that such a person has tainted their soul forever with the murk of drugs, so that redemption is impossible in this earthly frame, the Agent may take that soul, for sale or retention as befits the necessities of the time.

“Signed,” and then an illegible scrawl.

Behind Sid a lamp post sheds golden sparks into the night.

“Harsh,” says Sid.

He finishes going home and sleeps that night in peace.

Sid is sitting outside on his lawn chair on a Sunday afternoon. An ant crawls along the house’s outer wall behind him.

The ant encounters a break in the boards. It hesitates. It wibbles its antennae furiously.

“Little help?” it asks.

“Hm?” Sid says.

“I want to go up,” says the ant. “I can’t go up.

“Oh,” says Sid.

He holds out his finger against the wall. The ant uses it as a bridge. It climbs upwards and away.

“Sometimes, when I’m hungry,” Sid says, “I can see a palace in the sky, made of shining gold and suspended on four great lotus blossoms. It is east of the sunrise and north of the stars.”

“That’s a long way away,” says the ant.

“It’s very big,” says Sid.

“Bigger than the stars?”

“Bigger than galaxies.”

The ant pauses. It contemplates the grandiose scope of Sid’s vision.

“Dude,” it says.

“Why do I see these things?” asks Sid.

“It’s probably because you’re practicing austerities,” the ant says. “That often opens you up to spiritual visions. Like, this one time, I smelled funny and no one would disgorge food into my mouth? And then I fell into an ecstatic trance and saw a terrible vision of the Avici Hell!”

“Wow,” says Sid.

“My heart was moved to great compassion for the suffering of the sinners there,” says the ant. “But then I found a crumb and I was like, ‘hey, crumb!’ and I woke up.”

Sid turns away from the ant. He looks off into the sky.

“Radical,” Sid says.

Far above them, an unmarked black car pulls out of the driveway of the palace made of gold.

It drives down towards the earth.

Sid’s sitting in his living room staring at his lava lamp when there’s a knocking at his door. So he gets up. He answers. There’s a man from the DEA on the other side.

“Hey,” says the man.

The man is tall. He’s stunningly handsome: nut-brown skin and white white teeth, hair like black wood, and eyes an incredibly crisp blue. He’s wearing a black coat and black slacks and he’s got a gun at his side.

His name tag says, “Brad Summers.”

“Hey,” says Sid, charmed.

“I’m here to inform you,” says Agent Summers. “There’ve been allegations made against you. That you’ve fallen in with a bad sort. That you’re participating in the drug trade.”

“Come in,” says Sid.

He steps away from the door. He lets Agent Summers in. He gestures Agent Summers towards the table.

“Just allegations, right?” says Sid. “I mean, you don’t have any reason to suspect me?”

“I know you’re a good man, Sid,” says Agent Summers.

He walks in. He sits down. Sid sits down opposite.

“But I don’t know if you’ve fallen from the path of righteousness.”

Sid frowns a little.

“You look disturbed,” says Agent Summers.

“You’re acting weird,” says Sid.

“Ah.”

Agent Summers says:

When the world was made, it was full of endless beauty.
Joy and love cascaded down from Heaven and filled the things on earth.
They soaked into the world like water into a sponge.
They spread through the world like fire leaping from blade to blade of prairie grass.
The sunrise was this brilliant orange like a chemical reaction.
The night was as deep as silence.
And then as the years went by, bit by bit, all that was lost.

His eyes are bright. His words are like a river. He catches Sid in their spell like a preacher or a rock star catches their flock.

“That’s why the work we do is so important,” says Agent Summers. “That’s what the DEA is for. To halt that breaking of the beauty of the world. To pull back from it. To restore what has been lost.”

He holds out his hand. He pulls Sid’s soul from his chest. It’s a lump, like an egg, but it’s clear and crystal and blue. It’s glowing from within.

Sid stares for a long moment; then, in the midst of Agent Summers’ next words, he blinks and shakes himself, hard, and opens his mouth in protest.

“See,” says Agent Summers.

He rubs his hand along the soul. He holds up his fingers. They’re coated with a little bit of gunk—sticky grime, like one might find under a never-cleaned sink.

“This is the impact of the material world on your soul,” says Agent Summers. He stands up.

“Hey!” says Sid.

“I’m going to have to confiscate everything,” says Agent Summers.

“Hey!”

Sid is staring at Agent Summers and his face is horrified. He can’t quite form his protest into coherent words; the situation has turned into something Sid can’t grasp.

“Hey!”

“It’s the allegations of drug use,” says Agent Summers. “Can’t be helped. You can keep your clothes. They’re not druggy clothes. And—do you have a dog?”

“No.”

“Goldfish?”

“No.”

“Then I’ll take the rest.”

Agent Summers slips the soul into his breast pocket.

Sid is on his feet, still incoherent with protest. “But— how—”

“It’s necessary,” says Agent Summers. “We’ll let you know if you can have anything back.”

He puts his hands on Sid’s shoulders.

Agent Summers says, “Buck up. We’re not arresting you yet.”

Sid pulls his fist back to punch Agent Summers in the face; but Agent Summers has skated back three steps and his hand has fallen to the gun at his side.

Sid stops.

Agent Summers turns, as Sid stands there.

He walks away.

When the paralysis breaks in Sid and he charges to the door, Agent Summers is already pulling closed the door on his unmarked black car, starting the engine, and driving away.

Sid sits on the confiscated sofa in his confiscated house.

He’s been sitting there for sixteen hours, except when he uses his confiscated bathroom.

Sometime or other, he’s pretty sure, someone’s going to show up to kick him out and take his keys. Maybe they’ll rough him up. Sid is aware of this in a distant fashion.

He finds it hard to care, without his soul.

“What if I die?” Sid wonders.

Sid goes to the public library. He takes down all the books on souls. Five hours later, he’s come to the conclusion that a soul is inseparable from the broader metaphysical system in which it takes part; that the habit of speech that would identify “Sid’s soul” as a meaningful object in the world is imprecise and imprudent; and that in physically seizing Sid’s soul and carrying it off, Agent Summers of the DEA has committed a poorly-defined executive act. This does not answer Sid’s underlying question.

“It’s irresponsible, is what it is,” Sid says, to the librarian.

“Hm?”

The librarian’s a woman named Donna with a short blonde mop of hair.

“Stealing people’s souls without properly defining them,” Sid says.

“That’s the kind of thing that gets resolved in the courts,” the librarian says. “Scratch v. Stone, Hotep v. Stiggens, U.S. v. Persephone, and so forth.”

“Oh.”

Sid slumps.

Donna looks Sid over. He’s thin and getting thinner right before her eyes, and there’s a raging grief in him.

“I can help you find a lawyer,” she says.

But there’s something nagging at Sid’s mind.

He shakes his head. He says:

There is no court that could constrain him.
He is immutable:
Cold; certain; strong; and clad in black,
Like Death.
Winds will sweep across the world
And the air go chill
At the mention of his name.

“Whose?”

“Agent Summers’.”

The pages of the books then blow.

“Huh,” the librarian says.

“Hey,” says Sid.

He’s on the phone with the DEA Information Office.

“Hey,” says Sid. “I had my house taken by this guy. And my soul. And I was wondering—”

“I’m sorry, sir,” says the man at the other end. “But that’s just an urban legend. The DEA doesn’t confiscate people’s souls.”

That gives Sid pause for a moment.

“But you can sell them to raise money,” Sid points out. “I mean, traditionally, they’re worth a mint.”

“You can only exchange currency for fungible goods, sir.”

“Wait, what?”

“Well,” explains the DEA Information Office agent laboriously, “it’s impossible to separate a soul from the broader metaphysical system in which it takes part.”

Explaining this to Sid is part of the man’s job as a fully-empowered information agent of the United States government.

“What this means,” the DEA Information Office agent concludes, “is that while souls have concrete monetary value, one cannot meaningfully exchange them for that value. To sell a soul means to slight it; to diminish it; to sacrifice some portion of its value in the interest of other goods. This is not the official policy of the DEA or the United States government.”

“Oh.”

There’s a pause.

“Will there be anything else, sir?”

“Agent Summers—”

There’s a chill.

The information agent clears his throat. He interrupts Sid. He says, “We don’t know of any such person, sir.”

“You know that just from his name?”

“Yes, sir.”

The DEA Information Office agent recites:

He is immutable:
Cold; certain; strong; and clad in black,
Like Death.
Winds will sweep across the world
And the air go chill
At the mention of his name.

“Is it not so?”

“It’s so,” concedes Sid.

“There’s no one like that with any connection to this agency, sir.”

So Sid sighs.

He sits down in the pay phone booth.

“If there were—”

There’s a pause.

“If there were,’ says the agent, moved to a certain sympathy, “then he would live in a golden palace in the sky, supported by four lotus blossoms, east of the sunrise and north of the stars.”

Sid walks out of the phone booth and he’s thinking hard.

He goes to the glade. He sits there in the clothes that Agent Summers left him and he waits.

He gets hungrier and hungrier.

And the night sky is as beautiful as anyone can imagine. It’s crisp and clear and it makes his heart ache to look at it. It’s blue and black and purple and it’s pure. Set amidst it there’s a palace made of bone and wheat and ice and sorrow; and Sid blinks three times and sees it as the moon.

Then there’s the day, and the sun is a great and endless fire; and off to the northeast there is a golden palace that glimmers with its light.

And Sid says, “I shall not eat save sunlight, nor drink save the morning dew, until Heaven grants me a path into the sky.”

And many days pass, and Sid grows as thin as a stick, and he is sprawled on the grass and he shakes with the footsteps of the ants as a leaf might shake to the footsteps of a man.

And he eats only sunlight, and he drinks only the dew that forms, crisp and pure, on the blades of the grass.

And one day, in the musty late hours of the evening as the sun is descending towards the horizon, he looks up and Heaven has given him his answer.

The branches of the trees form a staircase of living wood. It rises endlessly into the sky and Sid goes up.

And he thinks as he walks the endless stairs:

I am lucky;
I am blessed;
for it is only the DEA whom I must fight,
and not Intelligence.

Sid knocks on the door of the golden palace. It opens. There’s a man from the DEA on the other side.

“Hey,” says the man.

The man is tall. He’s stunningly handsome: nut-brown with white white teeth, hair like black wood, eyes an incredibly crisp blue. He’s wearing a black coat and black slacks and he’s got a gun at his side.

His name tag says, “Brad Summers.”

“Hey,” says Sid. “I’ve come for my soul.”

Agent Summers’ eyes narrow a little, but he doesn’t blink.

“Come in,” he says.

And he leads Sid in; and Sid sees that the shadow of the man has eight arms, like a spider practicing to be a centipede.

“Take off your shoes,” says Agent Summers. “Stay a while.”

Sid does not take off his shoes. Instead, he stares. In the living room beyond the foyer there is a mosaic on the floor. It is full of stones that are blue and purple and black. They are the night sky, as crisp and perfect and beautiful as Sid had ever seen.

There is a long stillness, and then Agent Summers sighs.

“Go ahead,” he says.

Sid kicks off his shoes and walks out onto the mosaic; and it is past twilight, below, on earth, and Sid’s passage casts shadows over the night sky.

Sid kneels beside his soul and rests his fingertips against its shape.

“How did it happen?” Sid asks.

“A sickness,” says Agent Summers. “A long slow sickness. Bit by bit the sky rotted and its pieces fell into the world.”

“This bit is mine,” says Sid.

“Is that so?”

“I grew up with it inside me,” Sid says. “It’s my soul. It’s what defines me.”

And Agent Summers gives Sid a deep and solemn bow, because insofar as that is true Sid is a person who deserves his great respect; but then the Agent rises, and he is stern.

“It is for the people of this world that I have taken it; it is in defense of a public trust; and for this reason there is no one at the Agency or its oversight who will object.”

The man is cold; and certain; strong; and clad in black.

In the mosaic that is the sky resides Sid’s confiscated soul.

“Please,” says Sid.

Answers Agent Summers: “A man who clings to a portion of the sky and will not release it—isn’t that the height of presumption?”

“I need it,” Sid says.

“Or is it that the sky refuses to be the sky?” asks Agent Summers. “That it demands to walk around on earth with the feet and hands of a Sid?”

Sid rises.

“This thing is a wonder,” he admits, and his voice is unsteady.

Three hundred souls, perhaps, he thinks. The light in them and the color in them and the sweep of them—put together in the sky, they are infinitely larger and grander than souls had seemed when the man from the DEA had seized Sid’s from his chest.

Sid tries to move away, but he can’t.

“But that’s mine,” says Sid, a strangled noise. He seizes the stone that is his soul.

Agent Summers draws his gun.

He shoots Sid in the head.

The spirit of the glade is reclining on the grass, and casting her eyes upwards, and wondering what has become of Sid.

The sky is like it was when she was a child—blue and purple and black and full of dot-like stars. It is beautiful.

Yet there is something missing in it: something that fails in its evocation of the memories of her youth.

In the golden palace of Agent Summers, above the mosaic of the sky, there is gunfire.

“Oh,” says Sid.

And all through the world there are screams of horror.

All through the world there are children staring, and people pointing, and others covering their eyes.

“Ah,” breathes the spirit, understanding.

The sky is dark with blood and bits of bone and brain. There is a shadow on it as Sid falls, a heavy weighty shadow that remains until Agent Summers drags his corpse away.

“I had forgotten all the red.”

(History: Boedromion 21-22: Things and Choices)

Flagging this as something I’m totally going to let myself change later. I’m not at home and have a real time deadline. I’ll remove the flag if I’ve edited to taste. For example, I’m currently uncertain of the closing line, and might not actually edit. ^_^

Update, 5 years later: I’ve never been totally happy with this series, but I won’t be fixing it until the archives are working at least up to Island of the Centipede.

The Underworld is full of things.

There are the little roly-poly round things. They’re like pillbugs. If you poke them, they’ll curl up tight. Then they’ll curl you up with them.

“Help!” you might cry. “I’m stuck!”

But nobody will hear you except the bug-eating giants, and so that’s hardly a win for you.

If Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the roly-poly round things will be gone. Maybe they’ll blow up. Maybe they’ll scurry down. Maybe they’ll just vanish. But they’ll be gone.

No more stories of great heroes descending into the Underworld and getting rolled up by little bugs before they return.

Legends, maybe, but not stories, because those bugs will be lost.

There are shark-human hybrids in the Underworld. Everyone knows that. If there weren’t then who would swim up just when you thought you could relax and do horrible human things to you with their horrible human teeth?

Down in the Underworld they swim.

There are little fish that live near their teeth, little Crest-brand fish that live near the teeth of the shark-human hybrids and dart in between meals to gnaw the scraps from the horrors’ mouths. You can find them in the Underworld, and in Greece, and, really, everywhere where Crest’s ancient inhuman power isn’t bound by the sevenfold law of the FDA.

And if Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the fish will die.

And the shark-human hybrids will die.

And there will be a silence in the deep.

Perhaps they will go on in some form, of course. It’s hard to say. Where is a soul after a soul-eater’s eaten it? Where is a light after the candle is snuffed? Where will be the noble shark-human hybrids and their terrible blunt teeth?

But we can call it “dead.”

Also in the Underworld there are the streaks. They’re colored red, yellow, and green. They’re in the air, like a classical painter got really tired after painting the Underworld and went suddenly modernist in frustration. They jangle and twist when you look at them. The souls in the Elysian fields can’t see them. The souls in torment in Tartarus try to ignore them. One day Tantalus will eat one and find that it tastes just exactly like artificial pudding, which in turn tastes more or less like his son Pelops. That’s why he will always look so funny when he eats a delicious vanilla Jell-O pudding cup. It’s not the flavor. It’s the nostalgia!

And if Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the streaks will be gone, and any purpose they might have to their long and colorful deaths will pass. And perhaps there will be a few lingerers, one or two stragglers, a few bright streaks of red and chartreuse hanging on the surface of the void, but they will go away and the ones who stay will die.

There are the burrs in the Underworld. They live under things. That’s why you don’t want to poke too much at things under other things in the Underworld. There could be burrs. The Underworld is already under other things, so it makes sense that going too much further under would be spiky. But they’re not spiky because it makes sense. They’re spiky as a natural evolved defense mechanism. It protects them from predators!

There are echoes. They’re not actually Echo, who didn’t die precisely but who made the wrong promise and couldn’t be human any more.(1)

(1) For reference, if Zeus ever asks you to make a promise pursuant to one of his pursuits, consider carefully the consequences. They’re not always as nice as you might imagine, and sometimes they involve having pampered tourists at the Grand Canyon shouting at you all day.

The echoes in the Underworld are not actually Echo, but they are the echoes of distant footsteps, and you can hear them if you try.

If Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the burrs will be gone. The echoes will be gone. There will be nothing but the emptiness where once there stood the cathedrals of Hades and the legions of the dead.

No more will trails of blood call the unliving back.

No more the Elysian fields; no more Tartarus; no more Hades; no more Persephone.

She can do this. It’s in her history, if you read back far enough. That’s what a Persephone does. She ends everything. She takes it away.

So as she stands there, with Hades holding out the pomegranate, Persephone licks her lips nervously and then she bows her head.

“Whatever,” she says. “You can do what you want, I guess. I won’t kill all this stuff you made.”

This is a pretty common decision for someone in her position to make, even though everyone always criticizes them for it later.

And she finds firmness in it and a sense of strength, so she lifts her head.

“I’m letting you live.”

And Hades says, “But that’s not what I want.”

“Huh?”

“End it,” says Hades. “Reach down to the nature of this place and make it an undiscovered land.”

Persephone blinks.

“Let it be a mystery,” he says. His face is avid. “Let no one know what happens here. Let them hope or imagine that it is a place of joy. Let them dream with bloodlust of their enemies suffering here in torment. Ease this from the world. Make it not known. That is what I have brought you here to do. That is what I have chosen.”

And she looks at him. And he looks back.

And she says, “You can’t make that choice for me.”

“I can,” he says.

“You can’t!”

And they’re both right, of course. They think they’re disagreeing, but they’re not. They’re just in the grip of Semantics, that bleak god, cousin to Ananke, from whom alone of all the gods and men great Zeus is free.

(History: Boedromion 20: The Only Fruit That Tastes Like Dust)

“Nothing is growing,” says Persephone.

There is a note of pain in her voice that reaches Hades’ heart. So he knocks the seeds of his pomegranate into his hand. He lets them fall onto the earth.

He says, “Seeds.”

Persephone looks.

Persephone laughs, the sound like the sound that sunlight makes.

“Why, so they are.”

She steps down from his chariot, hesitating briefly to see if he will stop her. He makes no move to do so, so she descends to the seeds, and kneels beside them. She pokes them with a finger. They are lifeless and unresponsive, even for seeds.

“Poor things,” Persephone says. “Won’t you never learn to grow?”

“If I order it,” says Hades.

She looks at him.

“When I came to the Underworld,” he says, “there was nothing but the gates. Beyond them was tangled darkness. There was no air. There was no soil. There was no place. Simply the gates. And I have made this.”

She looks around.

“I have taken this place from the emptiness,” he says. “Seized it back and filled it with the substance of my will.”

He gestures with an opening hand and dead black shrubs sprout from the seeds. They dig their roots into the dust and bring forth shriveled yellow fruit.

Persephone startles back.

The plants are in the fullness of their living death in moments. They develop a thick and musty fragrance and somehow insects crawl among their leaves.

“That’s pretty good,” says Persephone. “I mean, I’d need to add water.”

“There is growth here,” says Hades. “And light. Even joy, if I wish it.”

“I see,” says Persephone, because she does.

Hades is looking at the plants. His eyes are full of them; he is pleased with what he has wrought. But after a moment, he shakes it off.

“They are dead, of course. I cannot change that. Their story is over before it has begun.”

“Oh.”

“That is why you are here,” Hades says. “In this place you will bring forth hope.”

And Persephone is crying now.

Her tears are stolen girl tears. They are asked-too-much tears. They’re the tears of someone expected to bear the moral burden of her own abduction.

They twist knives in Hades’ heart, but they do not weaken him. They bring him more strength. His eyes grow more distant. His face grows colder. Her tears hurt, but they affirm his power over her. Where there is power, there is authority. Where there is authority, there is righteousness. So in that moment, torn by her pain, he becomes more certain of his course.

Her tears are not a problem for him.

But her question is.

She asks him, in the voice of someone who thinks it’s possible, “So will you wrench this hope from me like you wrenched the plants to bloom?”

And because he can’t, but doesn’t want to answer ‘no’, his affect goes flat and he bites into a fruit and he says, with great forced savor, “You really should try one of these delicious pomegranates.”

(History: Boedromion 19: Delicious Pomegranate!)

Persephone is dead. She’s a graveyard girl. She’s down in the earth with the seeds of the grain.

“It’s very dark,” she says.

So Hades ignites the air. Billows of flame race through the Underworld, scorching large numbers of the residents.

“My hair!” cries Sisyphus.

He’s the guy damned to push a boulder eternally up and down steep cliff walls. Also, his hair is on fire! Fortunately, he knows what to do. He stops. He drops. He rolls! Then the boulder rolls on top of him.

“Curse you, emergency preparedness manual!” cries Sisyphus.

Cerberus’ nose gets singed.

“Wuf,” says Cerberus, unhappily.

Then his other nose gets singed.

“Rurf!” mourns Cerberus.

His third nose gets singed and he gets four hotfoots.

“Aroo!”

His howls sound through the Underworld.

“I am aflame!” laments the daimon Penthos, in full harmony with that howl.

Penthos is the daimon of lamentation and grief. He is always lamenting about this, that, and the other, such as being on fire.

Finally, there is a momentary delay in the assignment of fates to souls as Ananke takes the actions necessary to avoid burning. One may imagine all kinds of humorous effects but realistically, Ananke, who is Necessity, is extremely good at taking care of herself. If her skirts blow up in the flames or she has to huff and puff to keep her fingernails from catching on fire, it is because she is playing to an audience that loves her. If these things don’t happen, it’s because the viewers would think them undignified; and shame on you, if so, for judging Necessity!

Amidst all of this, Persephone is impressed by the flames, but extremely agitated.

“Too hot!”

She is frantically waving her arms around to keep her dress from catching on fire.

So Hades banks the fires of the Underworld.

It is 1317 years before the common era. Hades has stolen Persephone from the world above. While her mother searches for hope, Persephone looks around and struggles to come to terms with events.

And slowly, with the fire dimmed, Persephone’s heartbeat decelerates.

“It’s so bleak,” Persephone says.

The ghosts who move through Hades’ kingdom are shades. They have no memory and no attachment. They move through a world of grey and shadow and they are not alive.

The soil is dry.

The air is grey.

“It is bleak,” Hades concedes.

He takes two pomegranates from a silver tray that a trudging ghost carries. He hands one to her and bites into the other.

Persephone ignores the fruit.

“But,” says Hades, after chewing and swallowing, “it is your home.”

Persephone gives him a sideways look.

She says, “Can you make it home-like like you made it bright?”

Hades hesitates.

“So tasty,” says Hades. He bites deeper into his pomegranate.

“Mm,” enthuses Hades.

“There’s nothing like a delicious pomegranate!” Hades declares.

The Thistle (I/IV)

This is a history of Persephone.

It is 1328 years before the common era and Persephone still remembers the marvelous thing.

She doesn’t know exactly what it was. Not any more. It was wooden and round, and it had a handle. It shimmered like rainbows, like soap bubbles. It shone.

It made a noise.

It was the most marvelous, incredible noise. It was like the bubbling happiness of the sea. It was crazy, mad, incredible, majestic, that noise.

She remembers.

There’s sunshine all around her now. She’s got grubby hands and there’s a bit of the dirt in her mouth, a little bit, just enough to taste. It tastes like life and also like ick, dirt!

She’s planting seeds with her friend Cyane and her mother Demeter.

She digs a hole. Just a little hole. She drops a seed in it. She covers the seed over.

“Covering things over,” she says, in the flawless ancient Greek spoken by ancient Greeks of the time, “makes them all chaotic.”

She can see that too. It’s like a gray fuzz. It’s like the tides of chaos flowing in.

It’s really not as adult a statement as it sounds, given the time and the place and the language and her history. It’s not that philosophical, to her.

It’s just the kind of thing young Persephone tends to think.

She knows object permanence by now. She knows the seed’s still there. But it’s covered over and that makes doubt. That’s the gray. That’s doubt, that’s mystery, that’s the uncertainty that’s flooded in over the seed. It could be anything now. It could grow into anything now. That’s how Persephone gardens: with love and warmth and a bit of green chaos.

The sun beats down on the earth. Helios is busy today, he’s in top form, he’s shining like there’s no tomorrow, when in fact there are at least 1,216,180 tomorrows left. That’s just how much he loves his job.

Under the pressure of that sunlight the earth splits apart. The seed rushes up. Now it’s a plant.

It’s a THISTLE.

“Huh,” says Persephone.

She looks at it left. She looks at it right. She reaches forward.

“Unh uh,” says Demeter.

Demeter stops her.

“Don’t touch that,” Demeter says. “I think it’s got teeth.”

The thistle snarls and bites at her with its teeth. This totally confirms Demeter’s suspicions.

“Wow,” Persephone says, totally taken.

She can see the echoes of that marvelous thing in the thistle. It’s like the wooden sphere and it’s like the soap bubbles and it’s bright and shiny-colored in the sun and she remembers the noise. Mom always says it wasn’t a very important noise but Persephone remembers.

“I’m going to tame it,” Persephone says.

Her eyes are bright. There’s wonder on her face. Her dress hangs to her knees and her hands are grubby and her hair is black and it is amazing how much Demeter loves her right then.

“It’s going to be the best flower ever.

She feeds it a healthy diet of fruits and grains. She brushes its teeth twice a day. She even flosses when it lets her.

That thistle’s always going to love her.

Just like Demeter does.

It is 1317 years before the common era.

Demeter hears her daughter’s scream.

She hears it end.

She knows that Persephone is gone from the mortal realms.

She has gone below the earth and she is lost behind the gray.

And hope is dead.

Truth is Not Lost (1 of 1)

Truth is not lost.

Here is how we know that Truth is not lost. When we look in on him, on Truth Daniels, as he stands on the foredeck of the Anna Maria with the sea-spray on his face, with his silver hair flowing and his white eyes bright, with his body leaning forward and his hand clinging to the ropes, we can see a shadow behind him. That shadow is Deva, the hound of Truth, and he is tall and barrel-shaped and strong, and he is looking around with consternation and shouting forwards, “Are we lost?”

And Truth shakes his head, and there is laughter in his voice, and he calls back,

“I don’t know where we’re going!”

So he can’t be lost, you see.

In the hold there is a woman, white-limned, sleeping in a nest of silks. There is her god, its cloud of sickle-shaped limbs stirring in the wind like hanging paper cuttings strung together from a rod. There is a statue made of resin-coated wood; it does not live but sometimes it stirs itself to speak. Of these all and all the other things that dwell within the ship only the woman is worth considering as a member of the crew; and so, while she sleeps, Truth and Deva sail alone.

The Anna Maria is a long and narrow ship. Its sails are great swathes of crimson. Its bow is a spear cut from the fingerbone of the wind. We know from earlier visions of this ship that it is not established which wind contributed the bone:

“Sometimes,” Truth says, “it is from the north wind, and sometimes from the south.”

“How can two winds share a fingerbone?” Deva is prone to ask.

“It is perplexing enough,” says Truth, “that they should have even one fingerbone between them; is it truly worth fretting over the shifting of its provenance?”

If the woman is on deck, then she is likely to respond: “The two are different orders of illogic, Mr. Daniels. It is one thing to broaden and anthropomorphize the meaning of ‘the wind,’ and it is quite another to undermine the conceptual integrity of ‘from.'”

Then Truth is on the ropes, and there is little he can do but offer her an embarrassed and futile smile. But if Deva and Truth are alone, Truth’s words are more difficult to challenge. Deva is many things but a theorist of the impossible he is not ever.

The Anna Maria sails the chaos that lies beyond Santa Ynez, past its harbors and past its bridges, between the eastern and western edges of the world. As we watch, gentle viewer, it is passing through the dominion of Lachek Il’sephrain, that dread and horrid god; and this prompts Truth to look worriedly over his shoulder at the man who is his hound.

“You’d best blindfold yourself,” says Truth.

Deva gives Truth a long, slow look.

“Seriously,” says Truth. “I know these waters. At least a little. You’re best to.”

“Why?”

“This is the reach of Il’sephrain,” says Truth. “He kills by overstimulating the visual cortex and flooding the mind with vision. Sensible people are quickly lost to madness and the brain eventually hemorrhages rather than process the data it receives.”

“I am sensible,” concedes Deva. “I will find something to shield my eyes.”

There are few things more terrifying in all the world than to sail the chaos with one’s eyes sealed shut. One never knows when some great threat will emerge to trouble the ship, and so Deva’s unhindered senses are paranoiacally alert. Each creak of the ship warns him of untold dangers; each flapping of the sails is the wings of some great bird; at each shift of the deck he imagines that the ship will heave and he, Deva, blind, will clutch fruitlessly at rope and wood, will find no balance, no purchase, and no handhold, and he will fall into the chaos and be lost.

“It’s all right, Deva,” says Truth. “We’re doing fine.”

It is raining now, a harsh cold rain that to Deva might be blood.

Truth points. He laughs. “There are stormlamps out,” he says.

The stormlamps cut through the water with their dark grey fins, and their bodies are as big as ships, and their angler’s lights are like beacons on the sea. It is said that they use these lights to terrify their prey:

“Dolphins, squids, and whales,” Truth says. “It paralyzes them, like a rabbit staring into a serpent’s jaws.”

If the woman is on deck, she will ask him, “Dolphins?” and her voice will be appalled.

“The sea is cruel,” Truth says.

But Deva, who has eaten dolphin himself a time or two, does not complain.

The stormlamps do not trouble the Anna Maria. It is not their natural prey, and the stormlamps are much concerned with propriety; or, if not propriety, then instinct, which causes them to shy from the things of men and gods. But their passage sends forth waves, and these waves rock the ship, and so each stormlamp’s passing torments further Deva’s nerves.

Suddenly, Deva swears.

“I can see them,” he says. “Dimly.”

“Then we have caught the notice of the god,” says Truth. “Have a care.”

“Rockwind to the east,” says Deva.

Truth looks over.

“Skyreef,” he argues.

“Don’t be daft,” says Deva.

Truth rubs at his cheek, thoughtfully. “I guess it could be a rockwind. We’d better tack away.”

Deva’s stomach sinks. He looks a little ill. But he does what he must. He moves along the edge of the boat, helping Truth with the sails and the boom. His hands fumble at the knots and clamps. With the blindfold sealing his eyes, he can barely make out the shapes of them, even there, in the reach of Il’sephrain.

Deva can feel Truth’s eyes on him, and he flushes.

“Just a little slow today,” Deva says.

Truth grins.

The boom swings. The ship cuts west towards lighter waters.

“We’ll be on him soon,” says Truth.

Deva frowns and shakes his head. The play of light and motion through the blindfold that he wears has reached the point of full and normal vision; he can see Truth, he can see the ship, he can see the ropes and wood, and at the same time he knows in the depths of his brain that he cannot see these things at all.

And then he looks up, to the west and a little south, and there he sees the bulbous eye of Lachek Il’sephrain, struck upwards from the sea like the point of Neptune’s spear, and Deva cries out and shields his eyes with his forearm, and this action does no good. For all that day and many days besides his mind will swim with the pulsing azure afterimage of the eye of Il’sephrain.

“Hold the course,” cries Truth, into the wind.

And Deva holds the course.

The sea lashes the boat this way and that, and Deva sets and releases the ropes and he struggles with the wheel, and as the eye looms closer Deva begins to see things that he has never seen before. The pattern of the good ship’s maker is clear to him in the wood, and the ropes wear the marks of all three sailors’ souls; and suddenly, then, he can see in the wind and the sea and the creaking bones of the ship the course they all are driven on—

A course into the eye of Il’sephrain.

And Deva sees the futility of all his efforts, and that no seamanship can do him good; and laughing and crying with despair, he falls back and the ropes go loose and Deva stares upwards at the endless chambers of the sky, billowing and shifting above him, burning with the distant light of stars.

“Hold the course,” says Truth, and struggles with the ship; but his struggles serve him not; and the ship plunges forward and the spear of its bow goes full into the eye of Lachek Il’sephrain and the god gives forth a bubbling scream and blood stains blacken the sails of the ship and the whole lurches back and forth and the woman nearly wakes.

Later, Deva says to Truth, “It is a strange thing, isn’t it? That it would call us there only to its doom?”

Truth says, “It’s not for us to question Il’sephrain.”

“Perhaps it is its party game,” the woman says. “See how many ships it can kill before somebody loses an eye.”

Truth laughs.

“You know,” says Deva, “it’s also a strange thing, that we sailed so close, if we were not lost.”

And if the woman is on deck, then Truth will simply hang his head and blush; but if she is not, and Truth and Deva are alone, then Truth says, “I wanted to see you, Deva.”

The words hang in the air: “I wanted to see you, Deva.”

Then there is quiet for a time, as Truth stares forward with his blind white eyes and Deva works the ropes.

Hades (III/III)

It is 1317 BCE.

Hades and Iasion stroll through the Underworld. Hades is munching on a pomegranate. It’s his favorite fruit.

“I have had command of this place for some years now,” says Hades, “and still it does not satisfy.”

“It’s all the suffering,” Iasion says. “I recommend a simple palliative: replace it all with sex.”

Hades raises an eyebrow.

Iasion snags an hors d’oeuvre from a passing waiter of the damned. It’s a cracker with a bit of smelly cheese. He bites into it. “Tastes like dust,” he says.

“Yes?”

“It should taste like orgasms,” Iasion says.

Hades stops walking. He chews for a moment. He swallows, uncomfortably. He signals the waiter. The waiter approaches. Hades carefully puts the remainder of his pomegranate on the plate.

Iasion looks a little nervous. “Or like grain. Grain’s okay. Grain’s the sex of the earth. Its crunchy goodness is like nature’s fertility!”

Hades looks at Iasion with a half-frown. Then he shrugs. He starts walking again.

“It’s the same,” Hades says. “Dust, sex, even chocolate. That’s the point.”

“Give me some chocolate,” Iasion says boldly. “And some sex. And some dust. I will test your theory!”

Hades’ walk is somber.

“I’m not flirting with you,” Iasion clarifies.

“Good,” says Hades.

“It’s not that you’re not hot, or anything. It’s just that I don’t think about you that way. And I mostly like girls.”

“It’s true,” Hades says, firmly, “that everything tastes like dust. And that all the colors are gray. And that everywhere there is suffering. But I do not wish to become Hades the King of Sex.”

“It’s a good title,” Iasion says. “Sex and death? You’d be the most popular god ever. They’d be so busy pouring libations to you that people’d hardly have any time to drink.”

“I want there to be hope.”

Iasion sighs.

Hades looks around. “This is the land of what’s left. It’s the land of sorrow. It’s the land of nothing.”

“In that respect,” says Iaision, “you’ve done really well. I mean, look! Walls! Waiters! Residents! Look yonder: Ephialtes and Otus suffer in chains. There! In the Elysian fields, the maid Ananke portions out destinies to the blest. Compared to Zeus’ world, perhaps, this is no paradise; but for a world of nothing and grown of nothing, it is masterful in its decor. The air is full of music, though it does not satisfy—”

“‘Muzak,’ I call it,” says Hades.

“—and the sweet if sterile scent of empty air!”

“I wish there to be hope.”

Their footsteps echo for a while in the empty halls.

“Death is grim, my lord.” Iasion looks apologetic. “It’s because of the endings.”

“This is my plan,” Hades says. He looks at Iasion. “I will travel up to Earth in my chariot. There, I will seize Persephone.”

“Persephone?” Iasion asks. He looks uncomfortable.

“Does that bother you?”

Iasion hedges. “I heard she’s going to blow up one day, boom, just like a volcano.”

Hades runs his finger along the top of a picture frame. The picture shows a gray square. Its frame is clean. There is no dust.

“I will interrupt her destiny,” says Hades. “I will seize her and carry her down into the Underworld. She will make death, not life, into a mystery.”

“What if she turns me into a mint?” Iasion frets.

“Make ready my chariot,” says Hades.

The rest of the story is well-known. Hades finds Persephone in the field. He seizes her. He carries her off. It is 1317 BCE, so this is pretty typical as weddings go.

“Who are you?” Persephone asks, after a few minutes on the road.

“Hades.”

She thinks about this. He’s Zeus’ brother, and pretty important, but on the other hand, he lives in the Underworld.

“I don’t want to live without sunlight,” Persephone points out.

“None save Zeus may choose the circumstances of their lives.”

“That’s true,” Persephone admits. She bites her lip. She’s not even one tenth as strong as Hades, so her options are limited to marriage and destroying the world. “I guess.”

Right now, with shock setting in and the chariot bouncing along the road, Persephone is having a hard time even figuring out how upset she is.

Hades’ chariot charges towards the spring of the nymph Cyane.

Suddenly, in Persephone’s heart, there is a bit of hope.

Like a waterfall without a cliff, the naiad Cyane rises. She has not one hundredth of Hades’ strength, but still she rises.

She spreads her arms to bar Hades’ way.

“No!” Cyane says. It is a demand.

Persephone’s gratitude is as deep as the world, and she realizes in that moment that she is very upset with things indeed.

Hades’ voice is certain. It is unyielding. It is the wind from the mountains and the cruelty of the sea.

“It is necessary,” says Hades, “that there be hope.”

“No!” repeats Cyane. This time she is chiding him.

“So I have taken hope,” says Hades.

“Go no further!” Cyane says, and suddenly her voice is cracked and angry and full of fear and sorrow. “This maiden must be asked, not taken.”

Persephone takes strength from it.

“If I do not like you,” Persephone tells Hades, in a soft dark lucid voice, “I will unmake you, your world, and everything you have.”

Hades smites the spring. The world cracks open. Cyane falls back. The chariot gallops down into the Underworld and they are gone.

“Oh,” says Cyane. “Oh. Persephone.”

She is crying now.

Her tears are tears of futility, for she does not understand what good it is that she has done.