Rainbow Noir: the Mountains and the Sky

It has been a certain interval, dear reader, since I first had the opportunity to speak to you of the magical land of rainbows above the world and the shadowed city that succeeded it. Of how it came to pass that a certain girl, born in shadows and dwelling in shadows, became the rainbow; how she challenged the notorious Nihilism Bear; and, in the end, defeated him. Later, and after the receipt of certain despatches and messages, I was able to speak to you further: of how she sought out Mr. Dismal, whom she falsely suspected of responsibility for her various plights, and, in The Case of Mr. Dismal, made an end to him. But we still did not know the why of it all—whose will it had been that had set itself against the rainbow; that had brought Mr. Dismal to that land; that had dulled the kingdom of every brightness into Shadow City’s noir.

Lately, some of my friends have been struggling. They’re trying to do something good, something amazing, something cool, but they’re working for and with people who’d really much rather it came out a product. There is a corrupt religion of money over worth that has seeded itself in the modern business world; and people I care about, dear reader, are being ground down by the faithful of that religion; by the Mythos cultists of this modern era who would never have believed, who couldn’t have believed, that a place like Shadow City ever had color in it at all.

And I thought, maybe, for them, as a Christmas present; and for you, as a Christmas present—

Even though it wouldn’t help them any, and even though it wouldn’t mean that my dear readers would hear regular tales from me again—

that I would look into the matter a bit. That I would find out a bit more about the thing that turns rainbows into shadows, and ask what kind of answer rainbows make.

Without further ado, and with the hopes that all who read this will trust their hearts and live in brightness, the conclusion and the beginning of a story that started long ago.

Rainbow Noir: The Mountains and the Sky

The girl rides the horse through the sky. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing, and underneath them there are endless miles of cold air.

Beneath that are the mountains, which we shall name Gray Death.

Her name—the girl’s name, that is—is Wisp. She’s saved the universe once or twice. She’s the kind who you just have to point and shoot, basically, and the universe gets saved. That’s what she is, and why she is, and why there have to be girls like her.

As for the horse—

As for the horse’s name—

There’s an ice crystal bigger than the world. There’s an endless distance, and space. There’s a great and brooding thought that presides over it all,

Like God had forgotten color, hope, and light—

And we could call that “I Am,” or “the All,” or “The Lord that Dwells in Starlight.”

But the horse itself, it doesn’t really have a name.

It’s the most marvelous horse there ever was. A horse like that doesn’t really need its own name. Who could you confuse it with?

It’s just, you know, the horse.

People laugh, talking about magical sky horses and rainbows, sure, they laugh, but if you saw it there, its feet pounding against the nothingness, endless miles of cold air below and below that, Death—

You wouldn’t laugh.

You’d just think, in that moment, that it was the most marvelous and warm and most incredible thing you ever saw.

One day, one day, once upon a time, the girl fell off that horse. She screamed. She’s very brave, but even a brave person can scream when you’re falling and the sky is rushing up around you and there’s only Death below. She screamed, and the world around her burned with its blues and its purples and its brightness, and her life flashed before her eyes in a series of twenty-minute shorts that in the end didn’t add up to very much—

And that time, he saved her.

That time, as she spun and fell and rainbows curled and twisted through the vastness of the void around her, the horse came down and lunged and caught her with his teeth and snapped her away from the touch of great Gray Death, and pulled her up and she twisted and she flung her hands around his neck and she sank her face into his mane and laughed.

She did.

She really did! Even with the awkward angles of it all.

She could, and did, climb up onto his neck and back, because there really isn’t very much gravity when you’re falling, and at that particular moment in time they weren’t really quite done with the falling part of their precipitous descent and back to the flying that the two of them were about to do.

The second time, though, the second time, he didn’t save her when she fell.

She asked—

With her eyes, she asked!

But the second time, when she found herself falling, and the sky was everywhere around her in its blues and purples fading into the shadows of darkness, and grayness was reaching up from the ground as if to seize her up and drown her and shatter her like a teardrop on the stone, the horse, it just stood back.

The ice is bigger than the world, and twice as far as anything.

Her name was Wisp, back then as now, but nobody called her that. Everyone called her things like “the rainbow,” “the rainbow girl,” or “hope.”

She was the one charged with the preservation of love and hope and beauty and power and magic. She was the one responsible for providing all the things that people need to have within their lives, in a world that is sometimes very dark. And the mechanism of this charge was color.

She would find places that were dark and colorless, in the world, in people’s lives, in people’s hearts.

She would walk among the gray shadows and get the feel of them.

Then she would bring the rainbow.

There are a billion places in the worlds that are that needed her special touch. A billion, or even more; so it’s not too surprising that grayness still endures. It took her time to find each spot of darkness. It took her time to find it, and know it, and see its antidote, and make an end to it. It took her time, and there were so many different shadows that needed her to give to them that time.

It probably makes a billion look small, really, the number of those shadows, if you actually could count each of them, and give each one its name. It’s probably laughable to imagine that it’s just a billion, like saying, “well, millipedes have at least one leg”—

But a billion, at least.

So that’s why it took her a while to see what had happened down on Earth.

That’s why she missed the whole of World War I. She was in a flower garden, where the insects had corroded beauty. She was in the Crab Nebula, where monsters were threatening a noble Prince. She was in Kansas, helping a lost child, and in the oceans, healing a dolphin’s heart.

She was polishing one of the stars in the endless sky when the trenches cut the world.

She was in the kingdom of the cats.

She was fixing a broken mountain.

She was painting a butterfly when the Nazis came to power. She was painting a butterfly with vibrant colors, because the butterfly had gone gray.

And she might have missed it;

She might have missed it all;

Save that butterflies can only wear so much paint before their wings will cease to fly. There are only so many stars that lose their glitter. There are only so many monsters, though they spawn eccentrically and at random intervals throughout the cosmos and its worlds; so many broken mountains; so many cats that have never ever been fed.

Before the end of the war—before it had even really gotten started—she saw it. She saw what we were doing. She saw what we had done.

She saw it, and said:

“Here is a darkness. Here are gray shadows. I will walk among them and I will find their antidote, and I will bring the rainbow.”

And tears were falling from her face, great rivers of tears, and breaking on the ground.

“And not just here,” she said.

The war to end all wars, well, hadn’t. But she decided, there and then.

“I will heal this thing,” she said. “I will bring an end to wars.”

Underneath the girl and the horse are endless miles of ice-cold air.

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling. They are a comet. They are a meteor. They are a dying, broken, tumbling leaf, a teardrop, a rainbow chunk of ice and fire, and they are falling towards Gray Death below.

“It’s impossible,” said the horse. “Even for someone like you. Even for someone like me. It’s impossible, rainbow girl, that we could bring an end to war.”

“It’s my quest,” she said.

“It’s wrong,” said Terrence. He was her sprite. “It’s wrong. It’ll destroy us. They’ll find us, if we try to end their wars. They’ll hunt us down. They’ll take Rainbow Land away, make it theirs, make it a part of their earthly kingdom, where only shadows rule.”

“But it’s my quest,” the girl said. “I have to heal this thing. I have to guard the beauty that the people of the Earth deny. I have to make them stop killing each other,

and so cruelly!”

But, oh! The sky was fading.

It was twilight in the rainbow kingdom, the sun was falling to the west, and the horse looked up.

“It will have to wait for morning,” the marvelous horse said. “Dear. You can’t do it today. You can’t do it now. You can’t stop people from fighting wars, forever, if you haven’t gotten any sleep.”

“That’s so,” conceded the girl.

So she went to bed.

She went to bed, to let Earth wait just one last troubled night.

And slept.

And while she slept there were doings in the darkness, and gatherings, and quiet acts of diplomacy and treason; and when she woke, her people did not sing to her, as they had always done, when Rainbow Land was bright.

Rather than sing, instead, they gathered around her, and their voices, they were low.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence.

She looked at him.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence, “why it is that you cannot save the world.”

And they took her down into the depths of the palace, and through the hidden passages to the caves where her servants labored, cutting forth light and hope from the lifeless stone, and to the Great Machine that had made her.

And she said, “It’s made of ice.”

She touched it with her hand.

She said, as if in a trance, “There is a place, so very far from here! And a flake of ice, and oh, it is so very bigger than the world! And God—”

But the horse was brusque.

It bumped her in the back with its nose and made her turn away, and said, “This is where we made you, to save us, to be a girl from nothing and make brightness in our land. We cut you out of ice and dolor and we brought you here, from nothing, to nothing, and filled your heart with fanciful lies. Like, ‘you are charged to save us, wielding light.’ Like, ‘you were made to fill our land with beauty.’”

And she remembered—oh, she remembered, and of a sudden!—how she’d come into existence and out of nothingness as if formed off some great crystal made of ice, and curled about herself in some strange womb, and dreamt of foreign colors as shaved fragments sprinkled by.

She remembered how she’d dreamed, oh! such dreams! of something brighter than the endless hungry void. How she’d conceived a sudden brilliant conception, in that womb of ice, of what the murky and dismal land some call “the world” could be.

And how it had seemed to her that a lady made of light had spoken, had said, “Wisp, will you go forth from this place to my land, my dismal land, that dwells under the hand of shadows, and make it bright?”

The sprites looked down.

In the shadow of the Great Machine, the echo of the work of ice that lives beyond the world, they could not speak; save for Terrence, who cleared his throat, and said:

“You were our doll, lady Wisp. You were our toy. And we are grateful to you, for that you were bright and brilliant and rainbows. But you must not think you are a person. You must not think you are a living girl with breath and heart and hope and rainbows, who can stand against our purpose and our decision, and bring chaos to the land.”

The breath left her.

It was as if he had punched her in the stomach, and all she could breathe in was chunks of ice.

“We had to make you,” he said. “But not the rainbow girl. The rainbow girl was fantasy. You are just a flake of snow.”

She was falling.

She was falling.

The sky was rushing up around her, and she could not breathe, and there was gray and black and white jittering before her eyes, and she could not find the ground.

She clenched around the emptiness in her heart, fell gasping, Gray Death opening below, and cast a glance, a single glance, up at the horse.

He was marvelous, that horse.

He was a wonder.

He caught her, once, when she was falling from the sky, when she was plummeting and she thought that she would die. He caught her, and lifted her up, and brought her back to warmth and hope.

Once, but not again.

As she falls into herself, as she goes black and white, not even gray, within her heart and body, the horse, he does not save her. The horse, he looks away.

And it all spirals away from her, leaving her empty of the rainbow, leaving her cold—

Except that’s wrong.

That isn’t now.

She isn’t falling into herself, now. She isn’t on the floor of a cave under the rainbow kingdom, desperate with pain, broken by impossibilities.

That isn’t now.

That was a very long time ago.

Now, right now, she is in a very real sky, and hope and truth have found her once again, and she is falling.

She is falling because her horse has broken its leg.

Her marvelous flying horse has broken its leg against a stream of ice, and so of course it cannot fly.

As has been told before, the girl who fell became the rainbow once again. She’d been needed. It wasn’t OK, any more, to leave her in her cold sense of soullessness.

A soulless girl couldn’t have saved the world from the death that had been coming.

As has been told before, once she’d been made whole again, she’d refused to transform back.

She’d understood—

Somehow—

That just because people told her she wasn’t a person, just because they’d shown her the womb of ice from which she’d come, and said, “Look, this is how we made you, this is why we made you, can’t you see that’s not how a person’s born?”—

That such a thing can’t end the meanings that lived inside her heart.

She’d spent years and years amongst the grayness there, and had found an end to shadows.

And now she is falling.

She’d gone to the man she’d thought had been behind it all—

A murky, dismal man; a man who had always sought to purge the colors from the world—

And she’d thought that she could save him. That the goddess she’d become, that the endless seven-colored power she had birthed in herself, that the girl named Wisp and sometimes Rainbow would be able to save him from his misery and show him the wonder that was color, light, and hope.

She’d tried, anyway.

And maybe she’d succeeded, in a way.

But it hadn’t done him any good, or her, as has been told; because, in the end, he wasn’t the villain of the piece.

He wasn’t the villain.

He was a villain, but not the villain, just another murky, dismal little man gone lost in shadows. In the end, all the light could buy for him was a single moment of forgiveness.

The villain, if there was a villain, was a thing of ice and distance.

It was something cold and far and cruel.

It whispered this of others: that

“They are not real.”

It was God, perhaps, or a horse, perhaps, or a snowflake larger than the world; and it hung beyond all world and sound, and brooded, saying:

“What there is, there is of me: there is the light I cast, there is the world of my imagining, there are the dreams I dream and the shadows I have made; and nothing else is real.”

And if it thinks that it is the only reality, the only beauty, the only justice, the only right, then it has, perhaps, an excuse of sorts, for it is not merely cold, and it is not merely ice, this king of shadows and winter that dwells beyond the world.

It is beautiful.

It is beautiful, and it is endless, and it is marvelous, and it sheds forth every beauty; and the rainbow is refracted through that ice; and the world is made from the waters when it melts, and the dirt that it sheds, and the light and shadows it casts forth.

It is self-contained.

It is self-complete.

And yet, in some contingency of motion, it has sent forth its avatar, its child, its element to us within the world, and with a spirit of great mercy. It has sent a piece of itself, an image of itself, a mirror of its icy vastness, to be the most marvelous thing, to live in the dreary world of its creation, to redeem it through the presence of the horse.

It has sacrificed for us, the most terrible and deadly sacrifice; it has chosen to become involved.

It is the pinnacle, is it not, the horse?

Is it not the most marvelous thing in all the world?

And did it not already risk itself—risk its perfection-in-itself, daring unimaginably—to descend beneath the darkness of the world and find a part of itself that dreamt of rainbows, and make a girl of it, and shelter her, and raise her against the darkness like a spear, and teach her the power of the rainbow?

So if it thinks it is the only truth; if it thinks it is the only right; if it thinks there is no justice, that is not the justice of the horse; if it thinks there is no beauty, that is not the beauty of the ice; if it thinks that in the end there are nothing but its shadows and its dreams, then it has an excuse of sorts, for in a very real way it is the author of us all, or at the very least its agent and its representative, the mirror-horse of God—

Most marvelous thing in all the worlds that are, and the brightest, and the best.

And so she came, at the end of her journey, the rainbow girl, to the field of grass and flowers at the center of the city, to the last remaining place of color and brightness (before the rainbow had returned), where the horse still lived, and danced, and woke up in the morning to laugh and play and sing; and to turn its eyes on her as she walked up, it seemed, and say, “Oh, Wisp, you have become my rainbow once again.”

And she knew.

His voice was guileless, as it had always been, as if he knew nothing in the world save love for others and self-praise.

His voice was guileless, but still she knew.

In the center of the crumbled world, in that little piece of paradise, he frolicked, and he looked at her with eyes that made her melt, possessed her with a girlhood that overcame the goddess in her, loved her still, with brightness still they shone, and still she knew.

She touched his mouth.

She swung herself up on his back.

She said, “Oh, my love, you have not forgotten me.”

But she knew what he had done.

They rose into the sky, didn’t they? They flew; or ran, at least, on the rainbow once again. They galloped out over blue skies and high above Gray Death.

She knew he meant to throw her.

“It was your lie,” she told him. “Wasn’t it?”

Right into his ear; which flicked, of course, as if to cast a fly away.

And on they rode in silence, far above the world.

It made her breathless with joy and pain.

“It was your idea,” she said, “to show me the Machine that gave me birth; and to tell me, ‘you are just a doll we made from snow, oh Wisp. You are just a toy. Just a toy, and not a person after all.’”

“It was,” said the horse.

The horse’s shoulders rolled. It said: “You are.”

Its voice was distant ice and starlight and it was pale against the sky.

“What else could you be,” mused the horse, “than a reflection of Myself? What else is there to be, than light against the ice? So I realized, when you brought trouble to my heart. That you are the rainbow, or a girl, or a thing I made, or a thing I loved, but in the end, still, you are just a toy, and of my crafting, like all the shining world.”

She wept for him.

“And so,” said the horse, “I tore you down; and buried you in darkness; and then, for reasons elusive even to myself, I must have set you free.”

She wept for him.

She clung to him and wept for him, knowing that he meant to throw her, because he was the most marvelous horse in the world, and yet—

“You do not know,” she said.

And her voice was seven-toned, like the rainbow; and the tears that flowed from her were as a stream of ice; and he meant to throw her, he really did, but it went wrong, he went wrongfooted, and if you were to find a thing to blame for it, you might say, he slipped or struck his leg upon her tears.

And his perfection was distorted.

And his gait was broken.

And suddenly, because a horse can’t exactly fly if it has a broken leg, he fell.

It struck him as ironic that he would not have to throw her; that he was freed, in the end, of the need to cast her from his back to fall screaming to Gray Death. He would fall, and that would be an end to things. He would die, and the world would end, and nevermore a rainbow to trouble him or make turmoil of his heart.

Right now, dear reader.

Right now, they fall—

He falls—

It falls—

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling, spiraling down through endless sky, with Gray Death looming up below.

And because he is a horse of courage, after all, even maimed and broken, he opens one pure and perfect eye.

She is not falling.

It is terribly unfair.

She is not falling.

She is, instead, laying down with a hand outstretched—oh, moving downwards fast enough, and technically perhaps that counts as ‘she is falling,’ but she is descending as a skydiver descends, or a stooping bird, not as a mortal plummeting to her death—

Laying on the rainbow, outstretched beside him in the sky.

Unfairly, she is reaching for him, supported by the rainbow, calling out over and over again for him to live—

He squinches closed both eyes.

The world moves far away, then farther, then farther again, until even Wisp seems to him twice as distant as the sky.

Ice closes about him, and rainbows.

“I’ve broken my leg, you foolish girl,” he says, and casts aside her power, and lets the wind and shadows carry him downwards to his grave.

Flutter,
flutter,
Flutter,

Down to the world below.

And there is a moment where the ice shatters, as he strikes against Gray Death.

There is a moment where the shadows seem to boil and drain away, plunging down through the jagged edges of the mountains to drown some other land.

There is a pure and crystal darkness, and finally, a light.

The rainbow hits the mountains, dances about them for a moment amidst a rain of ice, strives as rainbows strive to lift the broken and the dead.

And then, it flies away.

unknown authorship; part of the “Rainbow Collection” of documents assembled during Congress’ 1954 investigation into various Un-American Activities on the part of Un-American Activities Bear.

“Alaia”: Craft

Now we have said that the last toothway to New Jerusalem had failed; and if you do not recall this matter, we will refresh you here.

And of course we have told how Hank Makeway came to the gums of Kailani Tate and cleansed them; here.

And the clarification, here, and the first tooth, here, and the error, here and here.

Now the goddess asks Hank a difficult question: how can he challenge her to assert her own great worth, when he knows—as her maker—that she hath not the strength for that assertion?

She asks him in bleakness; but his answer shall be craft. . . .

Craft

“These are Drink-Deep,” Hank says, “and Paneity.”

Under the weight of her attention, the horses shy.

“They are a transformation,” Hank says. “If you wish it. What is immured in worthlessness, in Paneity, is opened to freedom in Drink-Deep.”

The toothway goddess stares into the horses’ souls. She sees herself in wine-dark shades embedded in their fires. Their shape is internal to her own; to ride the horses’ path is to travel her own road, and enter New Jerusalem.

She gives the most tenuous murmur of consent.

Hank leads the horses to the left edge of Kailani’s mouth. He puts one hand on each of the horses’ backs.

“You may still refuse,” he tells the goddess.

She is silent.

So Hank nods. “Here,” he says.

In this process the smith takes part; horses are wise, but they have not the vision to bind a goddess to her self-conceit, nor do they have a smith’s invariance of purpose. Hank is integral to the transformation, as much a beginning and ending to the young goddess’ road as the horses or the gums.

The world twists in on itself. It rushes through him, until his skin and his teeth are alive with the waves of the horses and the goddess-mind. The knot pulls tight and the mortal consciousness of Hank Makeway dissolves to foam. Only a rootless remnant of attention remains, grasping desperately in the darkness for anything that shines.

There.

The knot pops from the thread.

Something grasps for its name, uncertain if it is horse, smith, or toothway. An intolerable pressure of ignorance builds up before at last its mind gasps, Henry.

“Henry,” he says. “Hank. Hank Makeway. I’m in the toothway. I’m . . . I just . . .”

He surges up to his feet.

“Are you all right?” he says.

“That is unfair,” says the goddess. “It is taking me rather longer to locate my name, considering.”

“I’d be widely praised,” Hank says, “by cartographers, if you’d settle for I-791.”

“I-791,” she says. “Intercity 791. Alaia.”

“Alaia Goodway,” he offers.

“Is this New Jerusalem?” she asks.

“What we usually say,” Hank says, “is that the experience shares a nomenclatural homology with New Jerusalem, but is topologically distinct; or, that is, not as such.”

Skeptically she defocuses her perception of him.

“This is knowing that you are a road to New Jerusalem,” Hank Makeway says. “This is the experience that encodes the same information as an experience that being there encodes as a place. This is being a toothway bounded by Drink-Deep and Paneity, who will remind you always that at a certain point and a certain time, we said together, ‘this toothway we have built is good.'”

“This toothway we have built,” she says. “Is good.”

For a long moment Hank simply contemplates his finished task; and there is love and joy burning in him like a fire.

Then he shakes himself free of the mood and takes up again the burdens of a smith.

The truth of the road has been defined, and the truth of its purpose; but there are three months, at least, of detailing work to go.

Hank walks up and down the ways. Flesh-Ripper plants the last teeth of the lower jaw, and Crust-Cruncher of the roof. Hank and the goddess clean and sort the threads of Kailani’s destiny and make a cavity-retardant shell for all her teeth.

Sometime near the end of this the yearning for completion becomes a wistfulness.

It is hard for a smith to let a toothway go; and harder for a toothway to surrender its smith.

But inevitably they reach the point where they can no longer find any little piece of work un-done; and with a last bittersweet polishing of the enamel, Hank Makeway declares his mission closed.

“You’re as right a road as ever made by smith,” he says.

Numinous in the mouth of Kailani Tate the goddess contemplates herself; and like the seraphim she finds it just.

“I wish we were not parting,” Alaia Goodway says. “And may Lauemford treat you well.”

There is the lightest tone of teasing in her voice, and Hank sticks out his tongue before returning to his camp.

“Want the horses?” he says.

“Crust-Cruncher,” she says, “perhaps.”

So he pats Flesh-Ripper on the neck and he sets Crust-Cruncher loose. He gathers up the material implements of his craft and he cooks his last meal in Kell’s gums.

It will be four years before the main teeth come in and the standards will call this toothway safe; but Alaia is an impatient god. The first pilgrims and daredevils are riding through before Hank’s even packed his bags.

“Alaia”: The Wild Wide Field

You’re just in time; we’ve been speaking of Hank Makeway, and if you hurry you can find the first parts of this story

here,
here,
here, and
here.

We’ve done the bit where the road to New Jerusalem had failed; and how Hank Makeway came to build a new; and how he made the first adult tooth in the mouth of Kailani Tate, of the twenty-eight he’ll build; how he was satisfied, and more than satisfied, with the work he’d done thus far; but of course, there was a flaw. . . .

The Wild Wide Field

Three weeks later, as he walks to the site of the fourth tooth, the goddess speaks.

“Why am I a road to New Jerusalem?”

“Why?”

She is quiet for a bit.

“I mean,” she says, “am I a self-defining creature, or am I unfree?”

Hank laughs.

He leans against a stay and he says, “There’s none of us chooses the circumstances of our birth.”

“No,” she says, dubiously.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” he says. “But you mustn’t tell anyone I told.”

Her interest sharpens. “Please!”

“You were always here,” Hank says. “You existed before me, before my horses, before even Kailani Tate. You were sleeping in the substrate of the world. You were here, but you were buried, and the truths you slept among occluded you. When I ground away everything that wasn’t a road to New Jerusalem, I un-differentiated it to leave only the substance of your body; and here you are.”

She is quiet for a while.

“Do you understand?” he says.

“I am free,” she says.

“More than free,” he says. “You are my partner in this, my student, my teacher. I am a builder of lattices, a grinder of gums, a master of horses, and a placer of stays. But I cannot make a toothway. That job is yours.”

“Maker of smiths,” she says.

His smile embarrasses him; he fights the urge to look down.

“Let me tell you of New Jerusalem,” he says.

And for a long time, as he works, he does. He tells her of the spires of New Jerusalem and of how it became holy to his people and his craft. Then he speaks of Kelly Whitecap and her labors; and of Mandate Wisdom before her; and Sephirot Gumsman, and Maker Ben, and Two-Tooth Jenny, and all the way back the line of smiths to that Razor Jenkins who’d first conceived of giving children teeth. He tells her of his own life and of how he came to study teeth and of the year he spent in New Jerusalem, suffused with grace. He shows her the marks of his studies there, two whitened bite scars still wrapped in angry red.

On the seventh tooth he becomes aware of the error in his crafting. He rips out the ivory of that tooth and tries again; after the third planting, he recognizes that the error is pervasive and not localized as he had thought.

Its nature is elusive.

He does not see it. He only feels it. There is something wrong. The toothway is correct thus far: it points nowhere save New Jerusalem. But it is his dim perception that that destination is lost in darkness: that a person who rode the toothway would certainly enact a movement from Lauemford to New Jerusalem, but could not actually arrive.

Grimmer now, he works as he plants new teeth to correct this flaw. He emphasizes the brightness of New Jerusalem as he goes. He spins fabulous webs of story around the factual accounts of that city’s affairs. He gropes for the substance of the error, trying to construct it in reverse in the hope of compensating.

“Something is wrong,” the goddess tells him.

Hank thinks about this for a moment. Then he confirms it.

“Yes.”

“I am failing,” she says.

Hank stares at a bleak and dismal place inside his soul for a time. Then he pulls his attention free and focuses on the gums.

“You can’t fail,” he says, “if you’re not being tested.”

“Oh.”

“Goddess,” he says, and rests his hand on the great pulse of her. “That is not how a smith thinks. Craft is not deciding how good we are. Craft is in the effort and the eyes.”

“The eyes?”

“Seeing the good,” Hank Makeway says. “The possibility. The hope. So that we may nurture it and bring it forth.”

There is a lightening of the overall self-doubt in the gums; but in compensation, a core shape and essence of the goddess’ uncertainty darkens, pulls in on itself, and begins to calcify its boundaries. He can feel its nascent protest; and he acts to poison it with hope.

“There is virtue,” Hank says, “in having some acceptance of failure, in the sense of lowering one’s expectations when we can no longer meet them. Of recognizing when we must change our dream. But before we can do that, before we can even consider changing the structure of our hopes, we must understand the nature of the difficulty; otherwise, it is simply speculation, self-doubt, tainted air.”

“But where is it?” she asks. “Where is our difficulty?”

“Somewhere in this wild wide field of beauty,” Hank says, gesturing around; and because he says it, she can see it thus.

and as for the error, we shall leave its story until Monday; such excitement better suits a Monday than a Saturday, after all.

“Alaia”: The First Tooth

You will recall that this is the story of Hank Makeway, the smith of children’s teeth, and how he came to build a new toothway to New Jerusalem when the last of them had fallen.

Here is the beginning of the story; and the cleansing of the gums; and the clarification of their map.

Hank has sown the fourth of his eight horses; and now he feels a presence in the gums. . . .

The First Tooth

For the next month, things are easier.

Hank spends the month on walking.

He does not work, at least, not in the way a smith is usually working. Instead he lets the gums heal. He familiarizes himself with their newest contours. He plays with the remaining horses, and he sings songs, and he rambles aloud about the incidents of his life.

He displays himself openly, simply, and with trust.

He means this as an introduction of sorts. He has studied the gums of Kailani Tate. Now he sets aside time for the nascent goddess of her teeth to study him.

One day, that goddess says, “Hank Makeway.”

“Yes.”

A current of joy runs through the gums. Somewhere, Kailani Tate startles and drops her crayon.

Trepidation seizes the gums.

Communication is dangerous. It evokes in the goddess a fear of mistakes, of misstatements, of unmaking. For a long time afterwards, she says nothing more.

At the end of the month Hank starts working again. He sets up braces and stays along the paths of the gums. He anchors them with ropes and pulleys.

Curiosity moves. The goddess asks him, one day, as he’s setting up a smith’s stay, “What are you doing, Hank?”

“I want this bit of path to stay still,” he says.

He indicates a trickle of chemical energy that is tributary to the path.

“When there’s pressure along here,” he explains.

Later, as he sets up the ropes that bind a bit of path to one of his anchors, she says, “And here?”

“It’s structural support,” he says, “for the road to New Jerusalem.”

He takes Flesh-Ripper out to a certain place and he tells the horse, “Here.”

The horse dances upon the gums. Flesh-Ripper’s hooves come down, thum-thum-thum, and drive a crystal of pure ivory into the gums.

A palpable tension manifests. The pressure and the energy of the gums rises.

“Quickly, now,” Hank urges.

Fierce and driven, Hank moves his team from place to place, planting the scattered seeds for Kailani’s first new tooth. He is sweating and rigid and he moves with a sense of urgency; for if this part fails, he must rip out all the planted buds of ivory and start again. Time weighs on him in the form of material strain. The path around him is buckling and twisting, snapping about within the confines of the braces and the stays, and it will not hold forever. Once Hank loses his footing and his ankle flares with pain and he hears a snap and for a moment he fears that all is lost: but it is a buckle and not a bone that he has broken. He is agile enough to continue.

Only once in this process does the urgency in him relent. That is when the voice of the goddess comes softly through the gums, saying, “This is strange, Hank Makeway.”

Then he stills. He draws three breaths for calm. He says, “Is it?”

“It is.”

“Would you like me to explain?” he says.

And he smiles.

After a moment, she says, curiosity.

“This is a process of defining,” Hank says. “These paths of yours are sound and honest, but they are equivocal. They speak of many different things. I am scouring away their indecision and putting them in the shape of teeth.

“The teeth,” he finishes, simply, “are the road to New Jerusalem.”

Solemnly, she says the ritual lines: “New Jerusalem, suffused with grace.”

“You are in your shape a transformation,” Hank says, “that takes in Lauemford and becomes New Jerusalem— takes what is immured in Lauemford at the right of the jaw and opens New Jerusalem to it at the left.”

“Oh,” she says.

Then suddenly she parses the entirety of his statement. The word bursts from her as a laugh: “Lauemford!”

“Yes,” he says.

Lauemford,” she says, again.

Her tone is that of a child who has just learned that the milk she drinks every day comes out of a moo cow: joyous incredulity at the fallibility of the world.

I live in Lauemford,” he protests, hitting his chest. “I have a farm.

New gales of laughter pour forth. Hank frowns; then his cheeks burn; then, despite himself, he grins. His hurt pride becomes ridiculous to him. Hidden behind his smile, his heart begins to laugh. He squares his shoulders. He shakes his head and sighs. Then he goes back to work.

The stays are cracking but have not quite broken when he sets the last crystal in his design. Exhaling a great satisfaction, he stumbles to a stop.

The shape he’s crafted burns in Ms. Tate’s gums. Its mathematical character transfigures. Along the fault lines of symmetry and consanguinity lines of power burn. Metamorphosis seethes into gleaming lattices. The scattered seeds of Kailani’s first new tooth reach out to one another; see the shining of one another; see the seething potential in each other; embrace.

“Tooth,” says Hank, in quiet satisfaction.

Only mammals have differentiated teeth, murmurs a fragment of truth embedded in the gums; and “Tooth,” sighs after him the goddess of the gums.

It is very nearly perfect, this first of Kailani’s teeth.

There’s no smith less than Hank Makeway that could see the error in it at all; and even Hank misses it, this once.

One tooth down. Twenty-seven left to go.

but that is twenty-seven teeth too many to speak of them tonight; so we shall leave the next few for tomorrow, should it happen you won’t mind.

“Alaia”: The Clarification

Now if you do not already know how the road to New Jerusalem failed, and how Hank Makeway took up the commission of a new one, then you may wish to travel here.

And if you do not recall how it came to pass that he brought the wilds of Ms. Tate’s gums to truth, then you may look here as well.

For some time Hank has laboured to excise impurities from Ms. Tate’s gums; but now at last the gingiva are clean. . . .

The Clarification

After this labor follows a grinding work of more precision—tailored, in ways that the firing of the gums is not, to the toothway that he hopes to build.

Hank walks along the paths, coring the gums as he goes. He draws forth molecule-thin needles of pink substance. He studies the data locked in the samples, considering whether the meaning of it is something true or false. In some places, the gums provide data that accurately fits into the map of Makeway’s world: they state a correct quality of some region accessible along a hypothetical toothway path or pose a geological tautology. In other cases his sample suggests a fallacy: interpreted via the smith’s art, it tells him that “Sivolia is sheepfoam-rich” or “Lauemford and New Jerusalem are the same.” In these cases he must either mark that path with the gray flag that means “unusable” or grind away the information lodged in the material until it is no longer distinguishable as truth or falsehood—no longer data, but rather storage space or noise.

Inch by inch he clarifies for Kailani’s gums the layout of the world.

Alive with the power of Milk-Guzzler and Stress-Grinder, and holding in themselves a map of the world more accurate and consistent with every passing day, the gingiva begin to experience a queer, primeval consciousness. They begin to resonate with a sense of expectation as Hank Makeway draws up a sample to regard, and then pleasure or disappointment when he confirms or denies its truth. The self-awareness of the gums begins to taint the data: Hank draws up samples that tell him, rather than pure geographic data, “Hank Makeway loves me” or “I am good” or “I am a road to Far Sivolia.”

One day he draws up three self-referential samples in a row, followed by, “Hank Makeway is a smite of children’s truth.” He laughs at this and shakes his head.

He says, “Enough of that.”

He leads his team to the right edge of Kailani’s mouth.

Wine-Drinker and Drought-Ender shy. They dance. They pull against the reins and rip their harness free from Makeway’s hands.

He sets himself in place and he gives them a stare.

Fearsome and wild, the horses glare back. Their white eyes meet his level gaze.

Hank says, “Here.”

They do not run. They do not move. They simply glare.

Hank’s world shivers. Echoes of the horses’ fear play through his mind, carried by the horses’ eyes.

He sets them aside.

“Here,” he says again, and then, gently, “or forsake your consecrated purpose on this earth.”

Drought-Ender’s terror rips through Hank’s mind like a piercing light and drives him to his knees, and following it comes the wave of Wine-Drinker’s madness. Incomplete and painful images pour through Hank’s thoughts until his ego buckles and his world spins. He can find no surcease or compass in the storm. He is lost. He is helpless. He thinks he has fallen. Later he is certain of it. In a moment of perception he realizes he is curled around his center, that the gums are wet with tears.

It is beyond Hank’s power to compel them. He is only a smith, only a man. They are the horses of the gums.

But Sandra of the Rise has made them well.

Hank feels a change in the world as the horses succumb to purpose and offer themselves at the altar of transformation. He feels the waves of heat as they drill down into the gums and become something different from what they’ve been. For a moment they are candles burning on the roof and road. Then they are shrinking, spinning fires. Finally they widen themselves, dissolve themselves, and transubstantiate themselves into the substance of the gums.

The madness recedes.

Dry and tired, Hank drags himself up.

He croaks, the words hurting his throat, “Well done.”

Drought-Ender and Wine-Drinker are become the beacons of the toothway and its cartographers. They will open the toothway when Kailani’s teeth come in and they will hold Kailani’s gums to the stringency of the true map of the world.

but we are not eternal; nor tireless; so we shall leave the matter of the first tooth, however reluctantly, until tomorrow.

“Alaia”: The Gums of Kailani Tate

So where were we, then?

We have said how the last toothway to New Jerusalem had died; and how Hank Makeway took up the commission of a new one. And if you do not remember this then the path to that story is here.

Having accepted the assignment, Hank Makeway traveled to the gums of a suitable child, there to make his path. . . .

The Gums of Kailani Tate

The first task of a smith is to assess the lay of the gums. For weeks this is all that occupies Hank. He wanders back and forth within the child’s pinks, feeling out the secret ephemeral structure of the gums, assaying their striations. Where the gums are strict and abrasive he builds the camp-spots that will later become his anchors and his grinding points. Where the gums are fruitful and rich in the substances of teeth, he sifts out a molecule or two and rolls them between his fingers, heats and chills them, and shows them to the horses of his team. He “learns the clay,” as the toothway makers call it, and his face and body grow pink with a smattering of the kid’s gums’ dust. He walks the paths, the natural magnetic and chemical ways, that wander in rife disorder through the child’s gums, twisting around in great coils, turning back on themselves, leading off in great long dead ends, shaped as nature’s answer to the labyrinther’s art. Eventually he knows them well enough to walk them blind.

From the coded substances of the worldgristle spires he learns the child’s name is Kailani Tate and that her parents call her Kell. Vegetables she despises and mathematics adores; she wears checkered blue when she can, and rolls inexplicably upon the carpet as a form of play. He walks among her baby nubs and feels the records of her life, the paths of providence and freedom that shift left-right-left around the unstable center. Sweets she is not fond of, and he takes note of that, but even so decides to lay down the foundations for a cavity-retardant shell. The toothway to New Jerusalem is too vital to allow it to succumb to the hazards that face ordinary teeth.

Wandering among the baby teeth in the upper ridge, he finds a corrupted flow of the child’s fortune. He sits before it and stares at it for a good long time before rising and taking his first definite action: hammering a toothway needle into the enamel near the flow and marking it with an orange flag. In the lexicon of his craft, this means, “Here we go against the grain,” or, “Here the toothway supercedes the child’s fate.”

Only when he is wholly comfortable with Ms. Tate’s gums—only when he could imagine living there, like some primeval savage, among its labyrinthine paths: drinking from the gingival pools; slaughtering bacteria for his meat; and moving swift and sure and silent in the wilderness of her gums—does he begin.

At a grinding point central to her lower jaw he establishes his refinery and begins to cleanse the raw materials of her gums. He kindles a smith’s fire, stokes it and feeds it, builds it up until the grinding point is entirely inflamed and the landscape cast harshly into light. Along the pathways through her gums the gingiva soften, almost resentfully, and begin to roil. A black and purple film seeps out, a scum of impure elements, and accumulates along the paths. For a season Hank travels up and down the ways of Kailani’s gums, peeling thin layers of filth from the roads, hauling them down to the grinding points, and lathing them with bitter effort down to dust.

He is sore, each night, all through, when he takes him to his bed.

Finally he is done.

“Here,” he says, and caps the flame with Milk-Guzzler, drives her down into the grinding point until she becomes one with the fire and the pink.

Strange and wild power surges through the gums.

All around him he can feel the pulsing of that power, in time to the surging of what had previously been his horse. It is a beat of equine magic embedded in the world. It is flowing and stomping, chomping and chewing, and it is rending down forever the impurities of Kell’s gums.

He sleeps and wakes and when he wakes he groans, for before he can go further he must do the same thing for the roof; which is to say, all the same labor, all the same effort, only vertiginously upside-down in the substance of her higher gums. There he will place Stress-Grinder, as he placed Milk-Guzzler below.

Slowly Hank grinds the wilds into truth. Laboriously he imposes a red and angry honesty on the upper gums in turn.

and to tell you how he placed the next two horses will take, we think, some time; so let us leave it for another day.

“Alaia”: The Commission

The Commission

Bertrand plunges from the ether into the conducting fluid of Old Man Jennings’ mouth and Jennings’ teeth spread before him like an ivory road.

From tooth to tooth he runs, soaring between the gaps, to the consternation of the bacteria.

The manifest form of the god of Jennings’ mouth, its tendrils streaming, races beside him. It matches daring to daring, life for life, skipping in and out around Jennings’ teeth and nearly cutting Bertrand off at the left canine.

Pulling marginally ahead, Bertrand releases a great shout, “Ha!”

Then the life that burns in Jennings unexpectedly goes out.

The road dissolves around Bertrand. Bertrand’s shape becomes disorder. His pattern turns static and fades out. The god seizes him, wraps him in its tendrils, and gives him one more moment of coherence in which to send a warning free:

Old Man Jennings is dead.

Together they tumble to the places dead things go.

It was Kelly Whitecap who’d made Jennings’ teeth all those years ago. She’d gone into the surging wilds of his gums and given them form. Her spirit had dwelt with that toothway while it lasted, had shone forth from its craftsmanship for all who rode the road to see.

“And now,” says Hank, her last surviving student, “it’s like a little more of her is gone.”

Sandra puts her hand upon his back.

They’re staring at the toothway nub, a protrusion of enameled solidity into the indifferent substance of their world, and thinking of the path where once it led. Jennings wasn’t the last of Kelly Whitecap’s brood, but he’d been her best: untroubled perfect teeth for all the long years of his life, a joyful god, and a road to New Jerusalem.

“In thirty years,” Hank says, “nobody’ll even know that work like hers was done.”

Sandra becomes angry when he says that. Red blooms on her face and a throbbing tension grows inside her limbs. But she doesn’t say anything in response, not until several minutes have passed.

“Some kid,” she says, “out there, some kid’s going to need teeth that go to New Jerusalem.”

“Some kid,” Hank says. He stares out at the void. Then he startles. “You don’t mean me? You don’t mean I’m to make them? Sandra, I’m retired.”

“Like I don’t know that,” Sandra says.

“Oh?”

“But you’re wasting yourself,” Sandra says. “Out in the suburbs with your sheepfoam and your fields. You’re bloody Hank Makeway, Hank, you’re the smith of children’s teeth, and you’re going to make a toothway to New Jerusalem now that the last of them’s been sealed. You’re going to make your master proud, Hank, and I’m going to give you the horses you’ll use to do it.”

A little smile crosses his face.

“Ah, there’s the truth of it,” he says.

He’s teasing her for having an ulterior motive, but it makes her, if anything, more stern.

“I made them,” Sandra says, “six years ago, Hank. A team of eight white horses, pure as the teeth of Heaven, and I knew they were for you. I didn’t know how and I didn’t know when and I sure didn’t plan it in the making of them. But there isn’t anyone else for them, Hank. And there isn’t anyone else for this.”

“The world is such a fragile thing,” Hank says.

He’s staring at the toothway nub. He’s thinking of all of us who make our work and put our lives into our work and know that it will one day pass.

That’s when she knows he’ll do it; and after a moment, he knows it too.

He puts on the decision like he’s shouldering a coat, and the old weary smile comes onto his face, and he says, “It’ll be beautiful, won’t it?”

“They all are,” Sandra says.

The horses that a smith rides out are standing waves. They are surging, elemental things, like white fires burning in the bleakness. Now one imagines the shape of an equine head; now the stomping, chomping movement becomes a hoof, and it leaves its imprint semicircle on the floor. Wine-Drinker shakes his hair and it seems there is a fall of leaves. Crust-Cruncher dances in her place and pulls against her reins. And beside them are Flesh-Ripper, Stress-Grinder, Milk-Guzzler, Drought-Ender, Drink-Deep, and Paneity. Such are the horses Sandra’s made for Hank Makeway, the smith of children’s teeth.

He stares at them in awe.

Hank holds his hand out to Drought-Ender. He feels a licking awareness of the horse’s presence against his open palm. He makes a caress; the horse shifts suddenly closer, stares with her wild eyes into his own, and he is transfixed as a man in the presence of a god. But reflex saves him; his hand tightens; he murmurs, “What there?” and the horse sees the smithcraft in him and goes quiet, gentle, even calm.

“Three for the road,” says Sandra. “Three for the roof.”

“And two to set the teeth in,” Hank answers.

She shines with quiet pride.

“Already,” he says, in gentle complaint, “I am to replace the work of Kelly Whitecap; and make a road to New Jerusalem, suffused with grace. And now you give me this to equal, Sandra of the Rise.”

“And now I give you this to equal,” she agrees.

So he takes up the ropes and picks and standards of his art and he says, “Do we know a ripening child?”

“Sleeping in Chicago’s spires,” Sandra says. “Between the towers and the gums.”

“Streets,” he corrects.

“Whatever.”

And Hank sets out.

but it is late and we are weary; so we shall wait until tomorrow to tell you how Hank ground the wilds into truth.

Stitch Doll Boxing

Emily and Jordan rummage around at the end of the alley.

She finds a candy cane. She reads its label.

“World peace candy cane,” it says. “Delicious peppermint on the outside—world peace on the inside! 90 calories.”

She wrinkles her nose.

“Too sweet!” she says. She tosses it aside. She rummages around some more.

She finds a newspaper that shows the future.

She flips through the headlines. She notes the lottery number. She tosses it aside.

“Ooh,” Jordan says.

“Ooh?”

“Pony!”

He’s found a magical pony with utensils for its mane.

“Oh, man, I wanted a pony.”

“Mneh,” he says, sticking out his tongue. “Magical fork pony.”

“Stupid pony,” Emily sulks. Then she brightens. “Here!”

She holds up a pair of x-ray dinners. They’re like microwave dinners, but you can see through them. “Salisbury steak,” she says. “And welsh rarebit!”

“Score!”

Jordan and Emily lead the pony out the chink in the back wall of the alley. They head around the block. When they get to the man with his Stitch Boxing booth, at the alley’s other mouth, they cross the street to their parents’ little white house. They get the key out from under the mat. They sneak quietly in.

Emily pads down the hall and around the corner.

The pony tromps up into the foyer.

Emily and Jordan both freeze at the clomp-clomp-clomp sound of the magical pony’s hooves on the foyer floor.

“Anyone?” Jordan hisses.

There’s a pause.

“Nope!” Emily says, cheerfully.

She strolls back. She turns on the lights. She pops the welsh rarebit into the microwave oven. The microwave whirs and the little table in it spins.

“Thank God,” Jordan says. “A night to ourselves.”

Emily grins at him.

“Want to go rummaging again after dinner?” he says.

“Nah,” she says. “The bullies were bad today.”

He looks her over clinically.

“You don’t seem too bruised,” he says. “Who was it?”

“The irons.”

Jordan whistles.

“Though I think,” Emily says, “that they should really call Steel Jaw Kay a steel, and not an iron.”

“Hard to call a bully what they don’t want to be called,” Jordan says.

His pony flops on the floor and Jordan flops, in turn, against its warm magical belly.

“You got off pretty easy,” he says.

“I’m tough,” she says.

“If you were tough,” he says, “you wouldn’t be beaten on by bullies.”

“I’m a pacifist!” she protests.

“Hmm,” he says dubiously.

“It’s just,” she says, grabbing the rarebit and tossing the steak in the microwave, “all the parts of them that aren’t iron. That I don’t want to hurt. And it’s not like I can do anything I like to Lindsey’s leg or Luke’s hand, neither; I mean, what if it got bent up and she couldn’t walk?”

“Why wouldn’t she be able to walk if Iron Fist Luke got bent?”

Emily parses that. She frowns.

“I don’t know,” she says. “That’s a very good question.”

I think,” he says, then pauses. “You the rarebit or the steak?”

She looks at the x-ray dinner. She hesitates. Then she says, firmly, “Steak,” and slides forward to give him the rarebit. He grabs a fork and munches.

I think,” he says, “that you’re just not up for a fight, and this whole pacifism thing is an excuse.”

“You would,” she says.

“Eh?”

“It’s your limited brain capacity,” she says.

He makes a face.

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, maybe I’ll just get an electronic brain coprocessor from the back of the alley,” he says.

“Maybe you should!”

He sighs. He reviews. He thinks he’s lost that one.

“Still think you’re chicken,” he says.

“No way!”

“Way.”

“No way!”

“Way.”

“I’ll box Stitch,” she says.

Words like a bomb.

Now he sits up. Now he looks serious. He says, “Really?”

“All fabric and stuffing,” she says. “So it’s not very well immoral.”

“But Mayor Cloon—“

“Mayor Cloon’s a ponce,” she says. “He couldn’t box his way out of a paper bag.”

“And Mrs. Persimmons?”

This gives Emily a reason to hesitate. Mrs. Persimmons is actually pretty scary, and the Stitch doll took her down fast. But finally she says, “Well, it’s not very well courage if it’s a guaranteed win, now is it?”

“You’re a better man than I,” he says, waving his fork and dripping a clear bit of cheese on his face.

He scrubs it off.

“When?”

She looks at the microwave. It’s having a hard time with the x-ray dinner due to the Salisbury nature of the steak aggravating the discrepancy in the wavelengths.

Her stomach rumbles but her chin comes up.

“Now,” she says.

And he gets awkwardly to his feet and leaves the fork pony there and he follows her out, right to the Stitch Boxing booth.

“Box Stitch?” the booth man asks. “5 cents.”

She looks between the man and the Stitch doll. The man’s got a salt and pepper beard. The Stitch doll’s got the seasoned look of a doll who’s been in a hundred fights and never lost not one.

“Box Stitch,” he says, his voice carnie-low, “and if you win, you can go down to the other end of the alley, and there, little girl, there—“

“There?”

“It’s like materialist Narnia,” he says. “Like do-anything-you-please Disneyland. You can get anything you might want there, if you can just get past Stitch.”

She looks at him.

She’s not entirely sure how to play this one.

“I find that hard to believe,” Jordan says. His voice is consciously flat. He holds up a nickel. “So I will certainly pay this young woman’s boxing fee and see what then transpires.”

The man grins.

“You really gonna do it, Emily?” Jordan says, in his normal voice.

“For the chance to win anything I could possibly want?” she asks. She stifles the laughter that seeks so desperately to rise. “How can I possibly resist?”

Jordan’s voice lowers.

“Seriously? This doll is badass. I mean, you’ve got weight on him, but he’s got four arms and I think he can talk.”

Emily looks Jordan straight in the eye.

“Do it,” she says.

And Jordan tosses the man the coin.

Bonus! Due to recent interest in the author’s intent, I’ve posted earlier versions of this story on merin.hitherby.com

(Palm Sunday: II/IV) Jigsawing

Jane has her tongue poked deep into her cheek. She’s sifting through the pile of shards looking for the next piece of the story.

“Jane,” Martin says.

“Sh!” Jane says. “Jigsawing!”

“We could just ask Sid to tell us,” Martin points out. “He’s standing right there.

“Sh!!” Jane says, louder. “JIGSAWING!”

Then, to underline her point, she says, “Blee!”

A cold wind blows.

The vast bulk of Ii Ma shifts.

And Sid sighs.

He relaxes, just a bit.

Sid says, gently, “Walk in like you own the place.”

“I don’t even think that’s from the same history,” Martin says.

Jane hesitates for a moment. “Well,” she says. “The edges sort of match up, here and here.”

“That’s because they’re 0-length points,” Martin says. “All 0-length points match up.”

“Don’t get philosophical!” Jane says, and Martin gulps both a giggle and his objections down.

Now it’s said that a boy can’t have a magical friend forever, and that’s true.

What’s really cool when you’re seven is kind of weird when you’re ten. And when you’re twelve, it starts to get embarrassing.

You’ll be playing basketball and your friends will be totally pounding your game and you’ll realize that Derek is about to make a basket and you’ll say, “Sid.”

And the game will grind to a screeching halt.

Everyone will look at the guy standing over there, with the feather in his hair and the wheel of knives, and there will be a quick and feverish consultation on the rules.

“(a),” will say officious Lester Pargon, the only kid you know who can talk in bullet points, “That has to be against the rules. And (b) what is that?”

And you might say, “It’s a Sid.”

And they’ll look at you.

“That’s so weird,” they’ll say.

And after that you don’t call your magical friend any more. Not if you’re a boy, anyway, or, at least, not if you’re Max.

“Wow,” says Jane. “I’d really suck at basketball if I couldn’t summon magical friends.”

“You do suck at basketball,” Martin says.

There’s a pause.

“Is this about the winged unicorn again?” Jane says.

“It’s traveling,” Martin says, in ancient frustration.

An Unclean Legacy: “Despair”

In the deepness of the night, Francescu opens a window in the air to look in on Manfred who is his brother.

Manfred is sitting, thinking, in the middle of the void.

The darkness of the onyx realm wherein Manfred dwells threatens to spill out in every direction and fill Francescu’s house.

Francescu frowns.

“I know that place,” Francescu says. “Don’t I?”

“It is the without-purpose,” says Francescu’s demon. “The sans-significance. It is the darkness that hangs around you always. It is the despair that is given unto men, to drown in the emptiness of things that have no meaning. It is the damnation that you have chosen for yourself, Francescu. It is the wet dark tendrils that crowd about your mind.”

“Oh? Is that so?” Francescu asks mildly.

Francescu’s demon sighs.

Francescu stares into the image. “What is he doing there?”

“Becoming one with it,” Francescu’s demon says.

There is a flare of terror in Francescu’s mind. The color of his fear is black and purple and he remembers the night when Manfred betrayed him and let Violet go to the shadow alone. He remembers the power and the victory in the Devil’s voice as it claimed her. Francescu finds it hard to breathe.

“His blood will turn black,” says Francescu’s demon clinically. “His eyes will darken. His skin will grow paler, and damp. He is strong, so he will return to the world, but he will not be human any longer. He will be an elder thing, corrupted eternally from his nature.”

“No,” Francescu says.

He is dizzy.

“You could save him,” says Francescu’s demon.

The angel looks speculatively across Francescu’s shoulders. Then, after a moment, it nods. “You could.”

Francescu licks his lips.

“I can’t,” he says.

“Why not?”

“It’s what he’s always been,” Francescu says. “He was not born to be my knight. He was born to be despair.”

But Francescu is not altogether weak. He carves into the air a spell to clarify his thoughts: *&2->^^

His mind calms. He struggles his way through fear towards reason.

“Francescu,” murmurs his angel, softly.

Francescu sketches an @ under those symbols and stares through it at Manfred.

“You’re right,” he says. “Of course. I should save him. I should try—”

Through his magic Francescu sees that there is nothing around Manfred but the creature of the void. And he sees more: that sluggish and cold black blood is drifting through Manfred’s veins, mixed with the natural blue; that Manfred’s eyes are darker than they were; that Manfred’s mind has ceased its turmoil and found a cold and terrible peace.

“Oh, God,” says Francescu.

He banishes the window. He hides his face against his hands.

“It is too late.”

And slowly his heart calms, and his mind grows easy, and there is the breath of the void on Francescu’s soul.

He closes his eyes.

In the cold wet darkness of his mind he knows the peace of nothing mattering at all.

This is how Manfred breaks his chains, in the place beyond the world, and learns to kill.

This is how, in ignorance and fear, Francescu decides that Manfred must be slain; how, in ignorance and rage, Manfred conceives the desire for Sophie’s death.

These are the stories of “Despair,” the twenty-fourth installment of An Unclean Legacy. They begin here, but here is not their ending. They will end in Castle Gargamel, when Sophie, Francescu, and Manfred meet; in blood and pain, at the base of Montechristien’s tower, beneath the threshing machine and the hundred gold eidolons of Montechristien Gargamel.

Manfred sits in the center of his island of dirt. He does not look at its edges, which are slowly falling away into the void.

He is calm. He is meditative. He is thinking.

“I’m not very good at thinking my way out of things,” Manfred admits.

The void is silent.

“It seems to me,” he says, “that I should take responsibility for my sin, even though I am still unsure why you should call Rachel Saraman my sister. But here is my reasoning.”

A cold wind blows.

“In all my life, Santrieste has shown me nothing but loyalty. He has borne me up when I would have fallen into darkness and he has counseled me—against, perhaps, his own best inclinations—towards the good. And it was my own need and desire that blinded me to his counsel in favor of the Devil’s. It is because I was desperate to take shelter in a mortal thing, a fallible person, a woman who was not a chain to my morality, that I listened to Sophie’s lies and Rachel’s blandishments. I have complained all my life that I am bound to my virtue and so cannot truly be good, but when I had the choice between clinging to those chains and burying myself in the filth of the material world, I chose the latter. So I cannot deny that the fault for this is mine.”

And the void laughs.

“Why do you laugh?”

“That Manfred Gargamel would call a Saraman filth.”

But Manfred, who had scarcely known Yseult and never knew Rachel, only squints and shakes his head.

“So here I am,” he says. “Exiled from mortal company. Tested by my God.”

The void is silent.

“I cannot be as you are,” Manfred says. Slowly, he rises to his feet. “I cannot be as she is. I will not let my sin consume me.”

He looks around him.

The air is not air. It is a screen of blankness over the shifting of endless tendrils of the creature’s flesh. The sand is not sand: it is the grit in the onyx creature’s maw. The seething purple aurora and the points of light above like stars are nothing more than striations in the living void.

It is in him. He is breathing it. He is respiring it through his pores, and suspiring from him is Manfred. He is one with it, the tendrils of its nerves in amongst his nerves, the onyx blood of the void mixing with his blood.

Slowly, he knows, if he remains, he will grow quiet and still and the nature that was Manfred’s will cease.

An Unclean Legacy


“Despair”

“What were you?” Manfred asks. “Before?”

The void speaks its name. And Manfred bows his head, humbled by that word.

“I’m sorry,” Manfred says.

Then along the nerves of the onyx void, entangled with his nerves, runs Manfred’s will. Then through the flesh and blood of the void, mixing with Manfred’s flesh and blood, runs Manfred’s strength.

With the body of the void Manfred seizes the void.

With the great ropey tendrils of the void Manfred grasps the creature that surrounds him. He seizes its eyes, its throats, its heart.

“Since I was young,” says Manfred, as he drags the void down into the void, twists the void about the void, throttles the void with its own substance, “people have feared my strength. But I have never used more than the tenth part of it, because my flesh is too frail and would tear.”

The void seizes him about the chest. It crushes him as he is crushing it. Manfred coughs out red-black blood and for a moment his eyes go lifeless, but then he recovers and shoves the void away.

“I will kill you here, son of Heaven,” Manfred says.

His oath burns on his arms. Manfred slides the slick onyx tendrils of the void under his brassards, his oath, his chains, and he rips them all away. There is an explosion, golden and white, that sears him and the void. All around him it is white and hot for a moment before wet chill returns. The great eye of the void below him is burnt; it is red and black and crisp and screaming.

Manfred crushes the void down to thinness and to hardness.

He can feel himself refracted, present in a hundred places simultaneously, as the world around the world bends down. The tension is too much for anything to bear, and Manfred screams.

Then it is gone.

The void surrenders, with one long echoing exhalation.

There is no void. There is no onyx realm. There is only Manfred.

So he climbs from an ichorous well into the world, naked and coughing out black gunk, with a bent and crooked black stick in his right hand; and the tip of it is iron.

His arms hurt. They ache with fire. They are surrounded by the burning red absence of his oath.

He rubs them with the substance of the onyx realm. It cakes and hardens and turns scarlet, and slowly his arms grow cool.

Overhead, the sun is bright. The leaves of the trees wave gently in the wind. The world is beautiful.

“Come,” he says, and from the well rises his steed.

Manfred looks down at his hands, his arms, his body, at the monster of absence and despair that he holds in his right hand. Almost, he begins to sob.

But he does not, because first he must kill his half-sister Rachel Saraman and take a bath, which things he does.

But what of Sophie, who strove alone against the Devil and his plans?

Tomorrow, a special Unclean Legacy: “Red.”