Ink Ascending (XVI/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Sometimes when things seem darkest a flying carpet will come and swoop you off and carry you to the answer to all your pains.

In the lands of Romance you will battle ogres and dragons.

You will find bottles containing the secret hearts of djinn.

Dashing princes will bend their head to look at you, their eyes gleaming with that ancient light of Romance.

They will say: “I see you have come here.”

. . . but no.

That is not right.

The carpet—that seems right.

But not the rest.

The girl is surfacing to consciousness and something is not right. The Prince is not standing over her. That is someone else. He is not saying, “I see you have come here.”

He is saying something else.

The girl focuses her eyes.

It is Minister Jof.

It is Minister Jof, and not the Prince.

He has said, if anything, “I consider you to blame.”

She shakes her head, just a little. She turns her head. It hurts to do this, but she turns her head.

Is that the Prince?

It is Riffle. He is washing his hands.

And there:

Dr. Sarous, glum and sour. Not even speaking.

And there:

The general of the stickbugs. He is approaching. He is lowering his mouth towards the foot of the girl. Dr. Sarous bats at him and he skulks away.

It is distinctly not the lands of Romance.

If anything, it is the murky land of Dismal.

Still, the girl sits up. She makes a game try of it. “How marvelous,” she says. “You, Dr. Sarous; have you been treating our wounds?”

Dr. Sarous’ mouth remains a line.

“Minister Jof, Riffle, you followed me?”

They look away.

The girl makes a face. “Really,” she says, “when one rides a flying carpet to the answer to one’s pains, one is supposed to smile.”

“This?” says Riffle.

His voice cracks.

Something is wrong. No, she knew that. Something is wronger.

She turns.

Behind her there is a chasm, and from that chasm rises a great stone pillar, and bound to that pillar there is a man—

No, a creature like a man—

He is sealed against the stone with molten brass and molten iron. They bubble with great heat. He is sealed into the stone, and the nerves and veins of him run uninterrupted into the rock. Marked in a great circle around him are the symbols of the seasons, and the zodiac, and of time. His flesh in places gaps to show bones and organs beneath.

He is Cronos.

His eyes are open.

They can see the specks of his left iris and the light on his left pupil. They can see the agony in it.

His right eye is burnt ruin.

He is the crust of the world. He is the mechanism of time.

He is aware of them.

He winks.

“Oh, don’t,” says the girl.

His face crinkles, just a bit, around his pain.

“Oh, no,” she says.

It is not words. It is simply an implication in his expression. But it is there all the same.

I see you have come here.

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

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

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

“This is what I experienced in delirium,” says Minister Jof. “A shadow came. It flicked by. It caught me up. Then I was here, with Dr. Sarous extracting the splinter from my eye.”

“For me,” says Dr. Sarous, “it is essentially the same. There was a confusion of stickbugs; I caught the general’s lapel and fell.”

“I am done with this,” says Riffle.

He looks dissatisfied.

“Enough with the business of saviors and killing God. I propose we push the girl over the edge, thus putting the throne of the world in our debt; we then retire to Sarous’ kingdom, where he shall appoint me his high executor and allow you minor appointments in his administration. In exchange, I will advise Sarous as to how to live with the knowledge of his corruption; all of us see profit.”

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, although everybody calls her the imago. It’s short for imagoro, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

She’s staring at the face of the titan in the pillar.

“Is this how it begins?” she asks.

Riffle looks at her.

“Is this the first moment of our history?” she asks.

“Hardly,” says Riffle.

But Ink turns on him and she is burning with the power of the interpretation of ended things and her voice cuts across all his thoughts and she says, “Cronos was laying on the sand.”

June, Thursday 3, 2004 – Cronos: Cronos was laying on the sand.

To what end, time?

The stickbug general is a mean and dirty creature. His heart is small and rotten. Time is the vehicle for his resentment: a field in which he may experience things that are not gorging on child flesh, not stickbug sex, not hiding against a tree.

Time is a vehicle for pain and for hunger and for fear without satiety.

There is a heat that washes off the girl as she says these words and it drives the stickbug general flinching back. But this does not quench the stickbug’s determination. If anything it affirms it. Things are too uncomfortable. The girl must die.

Cronos was young. He was young. He was so very young. He was tired. He did not know who he was.

He was a castaway on the shore of the world.

He lay there and he did not move.

The sun was very hot.

It began to burn him.

When his skin turned red he made a strangled sound and rose to his feet and he staggered off to find a cave.

To what end, time?

Time is a vast reach filled with disorder. Time is the vehicle for Riffle’s discontent: again and again it slews him from his purpose. It drives him to the end of narrow aims and imbues his broader projects with a sense of dim futility. It is littered with elements he cannot incorporate into his closed designs.

As the girl speaks Riffle becomes aware of a deep and timeless agony. It is not hers, nor his, nor Cronos’, but the agony of Ge.

He cannot solve it.

He cannot even begin to solve it.

He cannot ignore it, either; and so, in that moment, imagoro, he hates Ink Catherly with a burning passion.

All around him rose the deep voice of the earth.

“My child,” said the earth. “Gotten of a sinful father.”

Cronos put his hands upon the rock.

It was wet. It was hard. It was rough.

“I have a mother,” he said.

Joy rose from his stomach to burn through him. “I have a mother, I have a father, I am a child of the heavens and the earth.”

To what end, time?

For Dr. Sarous time was once a playground: an opportunity to make all things well. But the more deeply he studied the world the more things he found that were not well. The more he bent his fallible eye to scrutiny, the more it seemed that the world was a fractal made out of errors built on errors, noise stacking on noise, with virtue nothing more than an emergent pattern on the whole. In the end, his dream unraveled; time seized his prize from him, and his pride.

It hurts him, to hear the joy in Cronos’ voice.

The world is sick, he thinks. Where is its shame?

“Be not proud to be Uri’s son,” said the earth. “For he first thought of shameful things, and cut away the wrongness from the world.”

A question lies hard on Cronos’ mind, but it is not a question that the earth can answer.

“What is the proper manner of my shape?” Cronos asks. “Ought I be tall or short? Have I three legs or two?”

“Hide yourself,” said the earth, “between the sea, the sky, and the land, and wait for darkness, and I will show you how your father has injured me.”

Though confused, still Cronos obeyed.

He shaped himself into a thing that could make webs and he spun a web between the sea, the land, and the sky. He hung there, waiting, trying to decide how many legs a titan has.

The sun left the sky.

The world grew dark.

The web trembled and shrank. The vault of the stars came down and pressed close upon the world. Cronos shivered in the dark.

To what end, time?

Time is a vehicle for evolution. That is why Minister Jof fears it.

He loves evolution. It is his work. But he fears it. To change— to grow—

He is Minister Jof.

Where could he go?

He does not allow himself to imagine that he is fallible; that he is imperfect; that there is an upwards arc. And those times when he does—when it slips through into his heart that we are unfinished, mean, imperfect creatures, and Minister Jof no different—are exactly the times when he cannot imagine any means of becoming better.

He can feel change coming. It echoes in the words of the history of the girl.

He shutters his heart. He focuses on his judgments and his spite.

He turns away.

The clouds lit with pink and scarlet fires. The earth ground open and in it were pools of darkness and green and coldest indigo. The sky rubbed against the earth and fires slipped from it into the depths and danced upon the waters there. The wind blew. It came down off the hills and it roared across the plains. It chilled the peaks of the mountains and bent the trees of the forest. Stars fell and lost their fire. The chasms under the world ignited. The world and sky strained against one another and the sky grew damper and the air began to taste of rain.

As the sky coupled with the earth, the earth said, “For whom have you made this world, o my love?”

And the sky said, “For Oceanus; and Tethys; and Hyperion; and Theia; and Coeus; and Phoebe; and Cronos; and Rhea; and the birds; and the trees; and the insects; and the flowers; and the naiads; and the oceanids; and the teeth gnomes; and the antelope; and the burrowing things; and the climbing things;” and he went on in just this vein for quite some time.

And as he said these things the earth sighed, “Ah,” for these things were precious to her.

But in the later hours of the night it grew halting and slow, that recitation of the sky. “And for the platypus;” he said, and he thought, and he sought for words, “and the sandpipers; and the dogs—“

And there he had run out.

And fire blazes everywhere throughout the world and Cronos said, “. . . but what of Ophion?”

And the earth trembled and Cronos understood a thing, and he said, “. . . but what of Ophion? But what of siggorts? But what of woglies? But what of all the exiled things? But what of these?”

And his question made no impact on the sky, which only spun, and gave him a ruffling about the head, and said, “Do not love ye evil, child.”

And then the sky withdrew behind the curtains of the dawn.

And Cronos thought of Ophion, and the siggorts, and the woglies: o my loves.

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

In the end they are too small.

In the end they are hopeless and dismal, all of them.

But dharma moves.

Ink is stepping back. She can tell what moves in the wicked hearts that face her: one to three murderers, and one to three who will not help. She is stepping back towards the chasm. She has no idea how she will survive a screaming plummet into unknown depths but she has fallen from high places a fair amount recently and is starting to trust her ability to improvise. She suspects that it is less of a danger than her four companions, but:

“You know what the coolest thing ever is?” she asks.

The general of the stickbugs shakes his head.

It’s not actually negation.

He’s just breaking the spell of her words.

“People,” Ink says.

And she grins at them, flush with an echo of Cronos’ joy, as Minister Jof looks away; as Dr. Sarous and Riffle exchange dark glances; as the general of the stickbugs scuttles towards her with murderous intent.

Freaks, the lot of you, thinks Ink Catherly; o my loves.

And then there is the miracle.

She steps back.

Behind her, dharma moves. The titan’s hands stretch forth. He catches her. And in that motion they see it. They see it in the motion, all four of them. They see the motivation for time.

They see the purpose for the crust of the world.

He holds at bay the price of our imperfections, and behind them our happy endings; he bears the immeasurable weight of all these things.

Time is Cronos, standing there in the crust of the world, bearing his impossible burden, so that before our histories and our stories end in bright perfection, we that are imperfect have the opportunity to grow.

Though people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

It is the terrible truth of Heaven and Earth that the Elysian Fields await us all—

Well, except for the woglies, and the siggorts, I suppose—

That the Elysian Fields await us all. That we are accepted as we are by the actual and the ideal, and bent by destiny towards an inexorable fate of bliss for ever. And that it is only by the sleight of Cronos and his work that we may have a chance, before the end, to make ourselves worthy of that ending.

That he does it for them no less than any other: for Riffle, and the stickbug general, and Dr. Sarous, and Minister Jof.

Thus we say, however rare that it might be that purpose changes, or life evolves: dharma moves.

For just a moment, as he lifts Ink from that place, four of the five who remain behind recognize those great and horrible truths.

As for the fifth, it is over already.

Jacob’s carpet releases its hold upon its fate and falls: flutter, flutter, flutter, down through the storm below.

As performed in the Gibbelins’ Tower on October 20, 2005, in remembrance of Ink.

  • But we’re not quite done. Tune in TOMORROW for the unbelievable epilogue:
    THE BEGINNING.
    Then the letters column! Then back to Sid and Max—and let’s see if we can’t finish up The Island of the Centipede this November!

Ink Incurable (VIII/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

One by one the girl climbs the steps.

The orderlies behind her push her up. A crowd has gathered deep below.

That she is sick is clear. The crowd chants it: “Sick. Sick. Sick.”

They call her perverse. They call her degenerate. They chant of her sickness. But you do not need to trust the crowd.

The nurses have confirmed it. They were mercenary nurses, five to a drachma, and four of them hadn’t even bothered to look—

“All the signs of moral decay,” they’d said, and bobbed their heads—

But the fifth had taken her vitals, looked into her mouth, and listened to her heart, and she had agreed with the greatest vehemence of them all.

The girl is sick. That much is clear. The peak of Sarous’ ziggurat draws near.

“I wish I knew whether I were to offer a denial or a bribe,” says the girl.

Something small and black scuttles into the cracks of the stone of the steps and it is gone.

“It’s too late, innit?” says one orderly. “Now you’ve been properly diagnosed.”

“It can’t be too late! I haven’t done anything immoral!”

The orderlies behind her push her up.

Sulks the girl, “Yet.”

The leftmost orderly’s heard it all before. He’s heard it all, right down to that last “Yet.” He’s a ziggurat orderly. He knows his business, right down to the bloody nub. Yet somehow he’s kept a good heart through it all. Somehow he’s good enough to love her for being human even as he shoves her upwards towards her doom.

So he says, “You oughtn’t worry so much about what to say or what not to say, what you do or what you don’t do, you.”

“Eh?” says the girl.

“Well, what you say,” he says, “see, what you say? What you do? Those’d be symptoms, wouldn’t they? Just symptoms? Patient reporting? And a real doctor goes by signs.”

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Rhea: In the Golden Age that preceded the Titanomachy nothing happened that was not correct.

Such was the imprint of this time upon our world that even the richest, even the wisest, and even the greatest of us still look back with wistful sorrow and remember it. The world was in harmony. Morality dominated in every portion. And no man or woman could rightly say that the chains of Necessity upon them were a burden. The behaviors that those chains compelled were virtuous, honorable, and good; save from one.

In all the world only the titan Cronos was free.

He ruled nobly and justly, one must assume, except for that incident with Hestia, and one day Rhea approached him with Demeter in her arms.

She was tentative and hesitant.

“Lo,” said Rhea. “The Great Goddess.”

Cronos judged Demeter.

“She, like Hestia, is food,” Cronos said.

“Not every goddess is food,” Rhea said. “Demeter is a marvel of the world.”

“Is she?”

“She is the goddess of the harvest,” said Rhea. “Of the bounty of the earth. Of grain and green and growing things—“

Cronos had a wry look.

Rhea cleared her throat. “Observe her nose,” Rhea said.

“She has a nose,” allowed Cronos. He lifted Demeter from Rhea’s arms with great gentleness. He looked at her. “And she is the harvest. But she is also a princess.”

The Great Goddess wriggled, and offered, “Goo?”

“To put it another way,” Cronos said, “‘an asset to my throne.'”

He bit off Demeter’s nose. He swallowed it. Then he ate her head to stop her wailing. He bit the rest of her in half. He swallowed her. His stomach grew bloated on this flesh.

He ate Hera too. And Hades. And Poseidon. He ate them all when their presentation came.

Rhea’s life became a horror to her.

Once she had loved him. She no longer recognized in him the person that she’d loved. Once she had lain with him gladly, and found in the straining of their sex an emptiness to cultivate with child. Now she resented their union. She lay with him only because she was his wife. She resented his seed inside her womb.

The chains of Necessity bound her.

She could not do otherwise than serve him. She could rage against him. She could question him. She could hurt him in small, petty ways. But this was the Golden Age, the Age we wistfully speak of, when things were better, and she could not defy him.

To defy him would not have been correct.

In all the world only one creature was free, and it was not she.

Riffle watches from the crowd. From behind his left shoulder he hears a voice.

“Found you, sir,” the creature says.

Riffle glances sideways.

It’s Smith, this one. Looks like a webwork of cracks in the air. It had been a webwork of cracks in the air, once, before it evolved and joined his crew.

“The girl’s name is Ink Catherly,” Riffle says. “But everyone calls her the imago. Just another sign of moral degeneracy, the nurses’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.”

“Yes, sir.”

Pushed by the rightmost orderly, the girl takes another step upwards towards her doom.

Smith clears its— well, it clears its something, anyway. “Will you be coming back, sir?”

“I’m done with scaffolding,” Riffle says.

“Oh.”

“It just didn’t seem the same once she left,” Riffle says. “Seemed—off. Futile, somehow. If you follow.”

Smith scrapes one toe-like crack along the ground.

“It seemed to me like maybe she had something after all. Potential. She could save us all, Smith. She could be a legitimate God-damn savior, and me, me, pulling on her strings.”

Ink stumbles up another step.

“Looks like she’s going to get kilt, sir,” Smith reports.

“You always kill saviors,” Riffle says.

“Oh.”

“Wouldn’t be people, now, would we, if we didn’t kill our saviors? Just rats and cracks and worms and stuff, if we weren’t at least evolved enough for that.

“Will you be needing us labor, sir?”

“No,” Riffle says. “No, but thank you. You may tell the others. I don’t need you any more.”

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

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

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

Ink reaches the top step. She stumbles to a halt. In front of her there’s an altar with a blackened trench for blood. On the other side of it there’s Sarous, the doctor of the deeps.

Sarous looks to the orderlies. He says, “Condition?”

“Wounded hand,” says the rightmost orderly. “Bit of a bloody throat. Claims she’s going to kill whomever’s on the throne of the world and doesn’t quite get just how that’s morally depraved.”

“Hyperrachia,” says Sarous. “No doubt.”

Ink licks her lips. She looks up. She says, “What are you going to do to me?”

Sarous looks to her.

He says, “You understand, my dear, that to murder someone, much less God, cannot possibly be correct?”

This is a bit of a toughie.

Ink hesitates.

“That it is, perhaps, the definition of immorality?”

“Won’t make excuses,” says Ink.

She’s noticing just how dark the altar is.

She adds, “Will you?”

“You’re sick,” the doctor says.

  • Tune in TOMORROW for the next exciting history in this sixteen-part series:
    INK, UNLEECHED!

Ink and Annihilation (III/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

Flying carpets, once abandoned, often yearn for the annihilation of the universe.

They don’t fly very well after a while.

They get tears in them and sometimes bugs eat parts of them. The will that allows them to fly — that fades some, too, when they realize that they’ll never have the wild dream of their youth.

They’ll never get to find some worthy child and fly away with them forever.

Most children aren’t a good match for a flying carpet in the first place, and if the carpet’s used, the kid has to have just as many tears and bug-eaten bits as the carpet does. That’s the rule, and it’s a hard one.

And that’s not even the worst of it.

Even if the carpet does find the right kind of child, all bug-eaten and worthy, they still can’t fly away and away forever with them.

Children grow old.

Then they die.

Then their skeletons fall off the flying carpet into the devouring sands.

There’s nowhere to go in all the world where you can get away from that truth — that children grow old and die and turn into skeletons and get eaten by the desert.

There’s nowhere to go in all the world or outside it either.

A carpet can go to the lands of Romance alone but there is little point. The evil viziers and dashing princes will squint at it with their eyes. The noble kings will lecture it about the proper use of negative space. Even the shopkeepers will point at the empty carpet and they will laugh.

For the carpets themselves their power is no escape.

A flying carpet has a certain lifespan to its purpose and then it’s done.

Sometimes, after that purpose runs out, a boring tree will stick a screw-root through the carpet’s brain. It’s not very common, but it’s what’s happened to Jacob’s carpet. There’s a screw-root in its brain and a girl shouting at the tree.

“You’re a worthless rotter,” shouts the girl.

The tree does not give in.

“You’re a filthy degenerate larch-fucker with chlorophyll made of snot, and you’re personally responsible for the whole world going to Hell!”

It really hurts.

The screwing, that is. It really hurts. And it makes it very hard to think.

But if the tree really were the one responsible for the whole world going to Hell, the carpet feels, it’d probably be worth it.

After a while the girl tires of ranting.

She is quiet for a bit while the screw turns softly in Jacob’s carpet’s brain.

Then she asks the tree a question that she should have asked some time ago, to wit, “. . . why won’t you let go?”

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

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

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, but everyone calls her the imago. Stands for I’d Make A Great Optimist, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

She reaches out her hand.

She touches the root of the boring tree.

“Why won’t you let go?” she asks.

By implication, it explains that trees can’t talk.

But it doesn’t have to.

The imago is a creature of histories and she is reading the history of the tree through the rings of its root. She stares into the long annals of the boring tree’s life. She studies the chronicles of sun and wind and sky and roots and soil and the storm beneath the world.

She hunts for the cues in its nature that would explain this terrible thing; and

“Oh,” she says.

Understanding what she sees is an art, and Ink is new at it.

But she sees enough that she blushes at the things she’s said.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh. I’m so sorry.”

And she understands: “If you let go then it will fall.”

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Jacob’s Carpet: Years passed.

The carpet lived in the world. It lived in the edges of the world. It waited.

And Anatman came to it. He wore a hood. His voice was very kind. And he said, “I can give you peace.”

And the carpet struck him across the face with its tail and made a bruise and it flew away, because it did not want peace.

It wanted victory.

But one day Jacob ended. As simply as that, it was over.

The wind caught the carpet. The wind dragged it away. The carpet tumbled down through the great empty places of the world. It fell down and down and down and when it burst through and saw the storm it understood.

That was all. It could never save him. Jacob was over. The carpet had nothing left.

But a crosswise wind caught it and it tangled in the roots of the trees.

There it grew thin.

There the wind beneath the world battered at it.

It was already screaming when the first root sank in.

“If you let go,” says Ink, “it will fall. But if you hold on, you will kill it.”

If the tree could talk,

Which it can’t,

It would shrug.

Well, if it could talk and shrug, it would shrug. And then it might say something.

Like: It is a stranger to me.

Trees care very little for flying carpets. No carpet, even in its flush of youth, has ever served a tree. To the lands of Romance that lay beyond the world trees do not go.

It has saved the carpet because it was there.

It has given the fullest of effort that the world might ask of it to save this stranger’s life; and, having done so, it has no intention to do more.

“I understand,” says Ink.

She turns to the carpet.

She hunts for words to answer the cruelty of its fate.

She says, “When you fall—“

She does not know what will happen when it falls.

“I will cause it to be that there is a Heaven for you,” she says.

The carpet shrieks.

It struggles.

“Freak!” she says. She’s in some distress. “People like Heaven! You don’t want to suffer, do you?”

There is liquid oozing out around the carpet’s brain. It is dripping down the carpet’s sides. Its tail is fluttering at a rapid pace.

“Fuck,” she says.

The creature calms.

“I will prolong your torment,” she says, in calm clipped words. “But only for a finite time, do you understand? And if it hurts too much, I’ll make it stop.”

There is a certain irony in this statement that is lost on the imago.

The creature is still.

“I will give you a purpose,” she says. “Five lives that you must save; and you will save them, and carry them to the answer to their pain. And when you have done that you will accept your failings and fall into far Heaven.”

It makes a sound.

More.

Ink looks exasperated. She makes a comic face.

She does not understand how huge and meaningful it is that the carpet will bargain with her at all. She most likely never will.

More.

Let me sate myself on purpose before at last I go.

“Okay,” she says. “Two purposes.”

It is enough.

  • Tune in TOMORROW for the next exciting history:
    INK USES TAPE!

Ink Inappropriate (II/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

See also:
Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw and
On the Endings of Stories.

“I am a destroyer,” says the girl.

She is a teenager and she hangs amidst tangled roots on the other side of the crust of the world. She listens to the beat of a hummingbird’s wings. She clings to the sticky root of a gongluestuck tree. She strokes the head of a fabulous creature that she has found here, in this place, tangled in the trees with the dirt sky above it and a screw-root through its brain.

She is calming it. She is soothing it. She is speaking to it, as it seems to like, of terrible and horrid things.

“Where I go,” says the girl, “things come apart from other things. Things fall to ruin. Structures do not stand.”

The creature’s eyes find hers.

It stares at her.

“And you might ask, why would a destroyer rescue you, here in the roots beneath the world? And I would say, ‘because I am also a girl, and I can’t just leave a magical animal hanging here with a screw-root in its brain.'”

“That isn’t what I’d ask,” the hummingbird says.

It’s drunk on absinthe and that’s why it seems able to talk. Or, at least, why it’s willing to. It’s drunk on absinthe and it’s hovering next to her and it’s talking as she tries to soothe the creature in the roots.

Sometimes it will dart away and take another drink. The hummingbird metabolism burns its liquor fast. Each time it will return.

I’d ask,” the hummingbird says, “how can a destroyer rescue someone, here in the roots beneath the world. I mean, if you are, by nature, destructive?”

“How?”

“Yes. How?”

The girl makes a deliberately horrified face.

“So very, very badly,” she admits.

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

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

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, but everyone calls her the imago. It’s because all the good nicknames were taken already, she’d tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

It’s why nobody calls her Lord Vader, anyway, or the King.

They were taken.

“Here is my first plan,” Ink says. “Plan A:”

She braces herself.

“Insult a tree.”

She takes a deep breath.

She rests her hand gingerly on the spiral root screwed down into Jacob’s carpet’s brain.

She says, “Boring tree, you suck!”

There is no response.

“Boring tree!” she says louder. “You suck! Who said you could stick a root into Jacob’s carpet’s brain? No flying carpet’s going to take you off to the lands of fable and adventure!”

There is a wriggling in the soil. A clod falls on Ink’s head. She looks up nervously at the earth above her, wary of sudden screw-roots taking an interest in her brain.

“You just stick your screws in every girl’s dream pet,” she accuses.

This apparently refers to the creature — to Jacob’s carpet, a flying carpet made out of shadow by an abused boy djinn who later grew up to work for an evil company only to have his soul eaten by the maw. It is every girl’s dream pet and also every boy’s. It is basically what kids are wistfully thinking of these days when they get that weird look in their eyes;

Or so one must assume.

“You’re like those people who flew model airplanes into Barbie’s dream superblock,” Ink rants. “And then didn’t apologize! Trees that won’t let other people be happy are just shriveled up misers! Being mean is like blocking out your own light with special non-chlorophyll-having leaves!”

The boring tree is disturbed now. No one has ever talked to it like this before. No one has even considered talking to it like this before.

It wriggles but it does not take its root out of the carpet’s brain.

“God hates you!” cries Ink. “In the timeless time before the world, he planned your destiny and how he’d torment you with evil pants! With evil pants! You eat deer poop! Your father slept with squirrels!

There is a long silence.

“Normally,” says Ink, “this would have shamed the tree into backing down, or prompted it to send a second for a duel.”

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Jacob’s Carpet: For months after Jacob gave in his carpet fought.

It would sneak into the monster’s lab. It would find a beaker. It would carry the beaker off to distant lands of fable and adventure. Dashing princes and vivacious princesses would lean over the beaker, their eyes gleaming with that ancient light of Romance, and say, “I see you have come here.”

Clink, the beaker replied.

The carpet tugged bolts from the monster’s wall. It wriggled them loose. It carried them far away to do battle with great ogres and dragons in the lands beyond the world. The ogres and the dragons won, except in one case more notable in its absurdity than in its outcome.

In the end the carpet failed.

Jacob met it in the night.

It lay itself before his feet. It lashed its tail. It bellied up low to the ground. And Jacob poured acid upon it and the carpet screamed and writhed while a filthy little runt cried and said, “O, no, no, no, o my heart, do not.”

The carpet left when it could bear no more pain.

It did not return.

“You really are bad at rescuing things,” the hummingbird says.

And the imago is just a little bit flustered, which is the only way we can explain her answering, “Yeah? Well, you’re drunk!”

The wind blows beneath the world.

Finally, Ink blushes.

She looks down.

Her voice is wistful when she speaks.

“Why do you suppose,” she asks, “of all the kinds of gods there are, there isn’t one that rescues you?”

The hummingbird considers this.

“Absinthe severs you from a position of judgment,” it says.

And for quite some time Ink thinks that this is a demurral. It is not until the night of June 7, 2004 that Ink Catherly will wake from a sound sleep and realize that it was a suggestion; and at that night and in that hour she will shriek viciously at the sky, “That’s recusing!

  • Tune in TOMORROW for the next exciting history:
    INK IS EMBARRASSED!

Bang

There are twelve avatars, and the thirteenth which is Death.

It is normal for the royal family to produce fewer than twelve children in any generation. It is rare that there should be a thirteenth.

Thus there is no difficulty when an older child takes it upon themselves to walk down to the pit of the avatars and jump.

For example, one cannot consider Cedric selfish in any manner for taking the first of the twelve avatars.

When he made his choice he was fifteen and he had three siblings only. His condition was one of abundance. He walked down to the avatar pit. He stared down: the pit was deep and black and full of edged in sharp rocks. It resembled an ecstatic’s vision of the entryway to Hell. Cedric steeled himself against fear. Then he jumped.

As he fell he connected to an avatar. This proved his blood and confirmed him as a child of the throne. Great black wings surrounded him. Stars burned around his head. In this fashion he became one with Night.

Similarly Ernest claimed Fire, Samantha the Blade, and Mark the Sea.

When the Queen gave birth to Doreen, expectations changed. All eyes turned to Doreen and the other young children to see if they would live.

Doreen, you see, was the thirteenth.

There is no established protocol of precedence for distributing the avatars when the royal family has more than twelve children. It is generally presumed that the twelve oldest will claim them, unless one is disabled, disgraced, or in some fashion unwilling to take up the duties of their blood. However the actions of those who have claimed avatars are essentially superior to law and custom. Since society has no power to enforce its decisions on those who claim an avatar out of turn, and since the compact between royalty and the avatars does not specify a resolution, the matter remains a lacuna in the fabric of the law. Those who try and fail to break the line of succession bear a burden of shame. Those who succeed in doing so demonstrate their worth.

Doreen was a girl who dreamed of avatars.

She would run and imagine she ran with great wings on her back. She would cut at the air with a play-sword. She imagined herself bringing woeful defeat to the enemies of the realm. She listened with rapt admiration to the stories Cedric told and the lectures that Samantha gave. She climbed up to the chandeliers, dangled from them, and fell, dreaming as she did so of her future.

Of course, as her younger siblings assured her, she had none. There were only twelve avatars, save the thirteenth which is Death.

Her future was drab.

She would be a royal princess and no more.

Matthew put it to her plainly: “You probably won’t have an avatar,” he said.

And Bertram slyly: “Well, of course, you can have one, if, you know, there’s one left.”

Sarah played quietly with her dolls. She did not meet Doreen’s eyes.

Doreen made this contention every time the matter came to hand: “Surely it is an issue for rational decision. Perhaps someone is the least worthy, or the least injured by the avatar’s lack; or some of us will have measurable natural compatibility with certain avatars, which sum we can then maximize.”

And while she theorized Matthew, age 12, walked down to the avatar pit. Green with the nausea that looking down gave him, he could not jump; but he could lurch forward and, while scrambling to recover his purchase, fall. The rocks cut him terribly, but he bound himself to the avatar of Morning and rose in numinous bloody brilliance from the pit.

Cedric sat down beside Doreen one day and he told her this:

“You must not expect reason to apply.”

She frowned at him.

Cedric’s eyes gleamed in the darkness. He said, “Listen: if there were a unifying principle that guided you all, then reason should apply; then you might set in order those who receive the avatar and those who do not. But you cannot expect this to be so. Each of you has an individual bond to the pit; it is a mystic experience that transcends social expression. No one will bind themselves to a proposal that excludes them; the right they have to the pit is palpable to them. Thus the only matter at hand is this: when you are ready for the pit, will an avatar remain?”

“It is not fair,” she said.

“Scarcity is unfair,” Cedric agreed. “Murder one of your elder siblings; then the matter is in balance.”

Doreen considered. “I had rather be virtuous and good.”

It took her several days to understand that Cedric had meant to encourage her.

There was a niggling seed in Doreen’s heart. It writhed like a worm. It made her sick on some occasions.

One day, as she understood the world, this seed would mature into readiness for the pit. Then she would face the choice: to jump, or not?

But Sarah jumped. And Bertram jumped. All twelve of her siblings jumped.

Before the seed sent forth its shoots and flowered, her siblings claimed the twelve avatars of the pit.

On the day that Bertram jumped Doreen became unimportant to the politics of the realm. Because the royal family wielded great and reckless power, she had no immediate obligation to them; they did not need to sell off their princesses as families in other places do. The path remaining to her was hers to choose: she could live in luxury or find some way to serve the throne. She could become a scholar, a tactician, or a spy; a soldier, a theologian, a baker; a lady who reclines in gardens; or something else as yet unstated.

The seed in her heart flowered.

She went down to stand beside the pit.

“It is problematic,” she said. “If I should jump, it will cause no end of sorrow.”

As has been mentioned, there are only twelve avatars, save the thirteenth, which is Death.

Staring down, she decided that jumping would be selfish; though exactly so selfish, of course, as the decisions of those siblings who had jumped since she was born.

She teetered on the edge.

Then she leapt.

A chill breeze came among her siblings then. Cedric was the first to feel it: his head snapped up. His eyes took fire with rage.

“There is Death,” he said.

And his words were a low rumble that all in the castle heard. In a moment the twelve avatars of the realm took flight and spun in the air above the palace where they dwelt.

“She jumped?” asked Bertram.

His voice was rank with disbelief.

“She can’t have jumped.”

And Mark said, “She should be hung.”

“Torn apart by hounds.”

“Gutted, and left to die.”

“Starved, in wracking pain.”

And the night rang with the thunder of the royal family, and there were dark clouds throughout the realm, and trees grew stunted and black, and the sea boiled, and the morning came bloody and black, and as they waited for Doreen to rise from the pit their cursing grew more vehement and rich with fear; for while each generation of the royal family yields inevitably to the next, they may only truly perish in a time of Death.

The hands of Doreen’s twelve siblings trembled. They formed into claws eager to cut her down.

But Doreen did not return. Not that night, not the next, nor the one after.

In the winter there is snow, and their mother takes ill and dies.

In the summer a man of the island Crete shoots Cedric down with a gun of dragon’s bone.

Bang.

Death Unsacred

1. Ms. Dorothy Adams

It is December 10, 2012, and Ms. Dorothy Adams is lost in a magical land.

On the ground at her feet is the vegetable boy. He could be dying, she thinks. He could be dead.

There are at least ten and perhaps fifteen of the tiger-things closing in on her position. She does not recognize them. They are no earthly beast. Their claws and fangs testify regardless to a tangible and certain prowess.

She holds a makeshift club—a stripped-down fallen branch—in her hands.

“This is the measure of a life,” she thinks: “What you’ll risk it for.”

2. The Spry Old Man

Her story properly begins with the rendition. She was in the process of returning home from Europe to her parents’ Virginia estate when an irregularity in her documentation incited the agents on the scene to draw her aside. In security she languished, for a short period of time, before the Agency came to speak to her; and when they found her intransigent in her unwillingness to profess false crimes—as one could only expect from a woman, no, more, a Virginian! of the United States Armed Forces—they handcuffed her and placed her on an outgoing flight.

Her guard, an old man in the Agency’s dark uniform, was so spry he could barely sit still in his seat. He was alive with a fierce and radiant energy; he was smiling, he laughed when the pilot made intercom jokes, and when his partner came back into the cabin to bring them their meals, he came very close to cheering.

From time to time during the flight, he would pat her shoulder and smile to her—an intimacy that she, naturally, rebuffed.

“You’re so lucky,” he said.

She gave him a frosty look.

“You’ll see!” he assured her.

The plane shook a little in the wind and there was the soft pitter-pat of weather on the hull.

“They told me that in certain places in the world,” said Ms. Adams, “it was legitimate, no, standard practice to employ torture. So I expect that is my situation; and I would not call it lucky; but I will not break.”

“Oh, there’s torture,” said the spry old man. “There’s plenty of torture in the world. There’s all kinds of horror. But not where you’re going.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Then I don’t see the point,” she said.

The elimination of potential difficulties,” he said, and his smile was so brilliant that in any other circumstance Ms. Adams would have smiled back; but as things were, and expecting as she did rendition not to a magical land but to Syria or Guantanamo, his smile struck her as evidence of intense sociopathic bent.

She turned her eyes away towards the window. She frowned.

“It’s hailing fucking marshmallows,” she said.

“Language, young lady,” he said, “Language!”

She was forty-five.

3. Thrown

At a certain point in time and space, in response to an unknown signal, the spry old man seized her from her seat. She did not struggle, not at first, because he had a gun and the circumstances were poor; but when he began to force her towards the door, and with the plane still in flight, she fought for her very life.

“Quiet!” he said, and struck her on the head. Her vision went white. Her ears rang. Then she could hear the opening of the door; and while she desperately tried to remember how her arms and legs worked, he released her from her restraints and flung her from the plane.

“Cheerio!” he cried, and “Godspeed!”

She fell.

Ms. Dorothy Adams, Private First Class, passed through a layer of clouds, the soft springy substance of them parting only reluctantly as she hit. She disturbed a flock of stairstep birds in flight, her fall broken awkwardly and embarrassingly by first one then the other as she caromed through the sky. Then there was nothing beneath her but a spreading green land, and she said, “I shall, at least, have a story to tell in Heaven.”

Then, with a grace in tragedy and a grim resolve to—if at all possible—survive the impact that would follow, she closed her eyes, made her body limp, and thought of distant lands.

4. Waking

It was the sun that woke her: the rising sun, over the hills. She mumbled and she whined, for a moment not Ms. Dorothy Adams but the small child she had once been, tossing in her bed at the Virginia estate, resenting fiercely such early awakenings. Then the cold realization of her situation struck. She was at once on her feet and staring about.

“I am unbruised,” she thought, and a dizzying wave of confusion passed over her. “I am in a forest and I am still dressed in my clothes from three days ago and I am unbruised.”

In the distance she could hear bird calls, so many bird calls, and an occasional, terrible throaty roar.

To her credit, Ms. Dorothy Adams wasted no time on her confusion. She was a woman, no, more, a Virginian! of the United States Armed Forces. Her first priority was not to understand but to survive. She tuned her senses to their fullest and their most alert. She seized a fallen branch from the ground and stripped it of its twigs and bark. She placed her back against a tree.

Slowly, because of the low priority and reliability of this sensory data, she came to realize that from the branches of the trees around her hung not nuts or flowers but roast turkey; saving, of course, for those from which hung clumps of potatoes or bowls of stuffing, and where the birds had cracked them open, she saw that the potatoes were mashed and buttered inside their skin.

“Gracious me,” she swore, her gutter mouth forsaking her. “It’s a proper feast!”

5. The Vegetable Boy

This magical scene would no doubt have ended with a fine repast or a psychotic break, save that a certain other event intervened; that being that the vegetable boy, fleeing the pursuit of a pack of Kazimajars, burst at that very moment into the clearing.

He was handsome, for a vegetable boy: his hair was green, his skin a fine nut-color, and his eyes as warm as the spry old man’s were bright. He wore fine purple raiment with a white silk undershirt. He was tired, panting, his clothing torn and the leaves in his hair half-wilted; but nevertheless he had some energy left to him.

Ms. Adams had been, during her native country’s unfortunately prolonged excursion in Iraq, reckoned the second-best sword in all the Middle East; though, of course, her skill with the gun was far more relevant. Thus she did not hesitate in considering herself the vegetable boy’s superior in personal combat, and, reasoning that he should have information of value to her, she confronted him. With a lithe step and a fierce demeanor she stepped out and brought her makeshift club to his throat; or so, at least, she had intended.

“Foul!” cried the vegetable boy, stepping back; and from the back of his hand grew a great long thorn, which he brought across to parry her club. “Treachery!”

As she did not know how much time there was to waste, Ms. Adams wasted none; she disengaged her weapon and attempted to strike him on the head. In this she would have succeeded, save that the thorn was amazingly swift in motion. Each blow she attempted he parried or reversed, and as she fenced with her opponent she realized that here was a boy, albeit a boy apparently made principally of vegetable matter, who could easily have ranked as one of the top five swords in the Middle East. After three more exchanges, she found herself admiring him, not so much for his skill but for his style; and after a passata-sotto lunge had failed her, forcing her into an awkward, stumbling retreat while the thorn stabbed about her face, the innate courtesy of her birth overcame her dedication and she exclaimed, “Such a waste that you should be an enemy!”

“The same,” he said, and stepped back a moment to salute. “For I had scarcely expected to encounter a princess of such beauty and such skill in this Kazimajar-infested region, much less find myself wood-to-wood with her.”

“I am not a princess,” she said.

“Then what are you?” asked the vegetable boy.

“Ms. Dorothy Adams,” she said, “Private First Class of the United States Armed Forces.”

“Well,” he said. “It seems to me that a Private First Class is much the same as a princess, only perhaps a bit fiercer; so you must pardon my misunderstanding.”

“What are you?” she said. “What am I doing here? Where is this place?”

“I am the hope of the vegetable tribe,” he said. “When I am ready to plant myself, I will tame this region, and make it habitable for my kind. As for what you are doing here, I cannot say; and as for this place, well, it is the Peapod Forest of Gillikin, as its unusual green color should indicate.”

Then she is staggered; then she says, “I have taken rather a journey—”

But the vegetable boy’s hand goes to his side; he clutches at a tear in his clothing, where his flesh has started of a sudden to leak a dark purple ichor.

“Oh, dear,” he said. He smiled at her. “I guess those beasts back there were more accurate than I’d thought.”

“Beasts?”

“It’s all the activity,” he said. He stares at his hand, which is purple. “I’m sorry. I’m going to pass out now, and here I’ve hardly just met you.”

And she could hear the beasts that hunted him approach.

6. The Tiger-Things

They are everywhere: the hunting Kazimajars, great cats of a sort but with patches of serpent-scale and bear-fur and the voices of men.

“He is our prey,” whines one of them.

“Tasty, tasty vegetable boy.”

And Ms. Adams, with the stern strength accordant to a woman of the United States Armed Forces, denies them. She stands over his fallen body and says, “Find something else.”

Some of them are circling around behind her. She can hear them.

“A turkey. Or mashed potatoes,” Ms. Adams says.

“He’s tastier,” whispers one of the beasts.

She has no time; the position is rapidly becoming untenable. She steps forward and whirls her club and cracks that beast upon its face. It reels back, stunned and whimpering: “You hit me!” it declares.

“I’ll beat all of you to a pulp,” she says. “I’ll show you what it is to fight a woman of Virginia!”

She clubs another sideways. It staggers into a tree. Spinning to drive back another, she unleashes a war cry: an unearthly yell, terrifying, the cry of a goddess come down to make war among men. And there is fear in them, and the will of the pack is breaking, and the Kazimajars are scattering, but there is one, the largest of them, the savage beast named Groth, who does not succumb to fear. He remains where the others have fled. He leaps upon her; she is borne down to the ground under his weight; his teeth bite out her throat, his claws score her sides. Her arms are numb and she cannot feel the club in her hand and she is only thinking, “I must throw him off and drive him back before I die.”

And as a last act to give credit to her name, a moment of heroism to prove that even in these troubled lands the life of a woman—no, more, a Virginian!—was not without account, she woke her arm to life and placed the club under his neck and thrust it upwards; and gagging, wretching, in great misery, the Kazimajar staggered away.

She lay there, soft and quiet, waiting to die.

But in this magical land of childhood, there is no heroism; there is no accounting; there is no virtue to such deeds. Death is unsacred here, and she realizes, when the moon rises and the blood that flows from her and the vegetable boy fades to a trickle, that there is not even any pain.

A tide of hopeless rises in her.

She tastes a sick horror in the back of her throat: for these are the lands of childhood.

Then she sets the matter aside and sits up slowly and turns her thoughts to the south, where if there is an airport it most likely resides; for it is not meet for a woman—no, more, a Virginian!—of the United States Armed Forces to surrender easily to those who find death unsacred.

An Unclean Legacy: “The Saraman Destiny”

When Rachel was seven and living in a swamp the destiny of the Saraman attracted to her an evil frog.

“Ribbit,” the frog said.

Rachel went to pick up the frog. It spoke in a demon’s tongue, warty, old, and black:

Take me not unto your bosom,
Princess fair,
I am an evil creature in my way
And they are horrid boons I bear.

“You’re a frog!” declared Rachel.

She picked up the frog. She hugged it to her chest. It was not really a bosom, because Rachel was seven.

The frog croaked.

“How can a frog be evil?” Rachel said.

“Because I shall tell you to go to Castle Gargamel,” said the frog.

“Mom said that if I went to Castle Gargamel, Montechristien would kill me. That he’d take the skin off me, bit by bit, and use my ears as razors.”

Rachel holds the frog out. “Is that true?” she demanded.

“It is not,” said the frog. “Such a chin is Montechristien Gargamel’s that he scarcely needs to shave. And what good is the skin of a half-elder child to one who commands the hundred golden men?”

“I thought not,” said Rachel.

She sat down cross-legged on a lilypad, demonstrating her attainments. She reflected.

“But why should I go, when he’s such a fearsome man?”

“To claim your mother’s legacy,” said the evil frog.

“Ha!” said Rachel.

The frog looked startled.

“Too boring!” declared Rachel. She threw the evil frog back into the swamp.

Splish! splished the frog.

“Next time,” Rachel asserted, “I want an evil swamp-dwelling hermit!”

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the thirteenth installment of the story of that time.

“So tell me,” says Manfred. “Why do you speak so blackly of the Saraman?”

Rachel looks from Manfred to Sophie. She frowns at the blankness of their faces.

“You honestly don’t know?” she says.

They are sitting in Manfred’s cottage, sharing out bread and jam, and the conversation has turned to Rachel’s cursing of her line.

Sophie shakes her head.

“It’s strange that the Lady Yseult never told you,” Rachel says.

“She died while we were young,” says Manfred.

“And Montechristien is not the most talkative of fathers,” Sophie adds.

“Huh,” Rachel says.

She gestures broadly with her bread, causing a bit of jam to fall off onto Manfred’s bedspread.

“It is like this,” says Rachel. “Cedric Saraman, the founder of our line, was betrayed by his sons. So he cursed the black blood that runs in our veins and now we find ourselves possessed of evil opportunities.”

Sophie carefully spread orange peel and marmalade upon her bread.

“If I wanted to betray you,” says Rachel, “and seize your stock, Manfred, of fine jams and jellies, then I should only need to wait. The chance will come. Should I wish to sell my soul, or betray my country? These things are as trivial. The flies of the Pit are drawn to me as to uncertain priests; they buzz around me, and I will always feel their presence in the air.”

“But I have put great effort into my jams!” answers Manfred.

There is a burst of thunder from outside; the jams and jellies in Manfred’s pantry rattle, lids against glass, and then subside.

Rachel looks at Manfred, and her eyes are soft.

“I do not wish to betray you,” Rachel says.

An Unclean Legacy


The Saraman Destiny

Rachel has left for the night, to the gardener’s cottage wherein she stays.

Sophie stirs the embers of the fire.

“Am I evil?” Manfred asks. “For wanting her?”

“I think evil is more complex than that,” says Sophie. “It’s more like when shadows tell you things that hurt to hear, or frogs start rhyming.”

“Santrieste hates her,” Manfred says.

He goes to the wall that his cottage shares with Santrieste’s stable. He taps on the wall, ever so gently. There is an angry whuff in reply and a hoof thudding against the wall.

“You see,” Manfred says.

“That’s equine for ‘I was having a marvelous dream about an apple,'” Sophie opines.

“It means that he’s angry,” Manfred says.

“Ah,” Sophie says.

“I don’t need her,” Manfred says. “I have my brassards and my unicorn and my family. I won’t be alone.”

Sophie looks in the direction of the window. The red and black that walks the night shows right through the curtains. It is livid. It is horrible.

Sophie looks down.

“Manfred,” she says. “Are you happy?”

“I have hated this,” says Manfred. “And I have loved this. I do not know where I have landed.”

“I won’t be able to help you,” Sophie says.

“Eh?” Manfred says.

“I think that you should love her, if you can.”

Manfred takes Sophie’s hands. He hugs them gently.

“Thank you,” he says.

“It does not make you an evil thing,” Sophie says, “drawn to the destiny of the Saraman. It just makes you Manfred.”

“Ah,” says Manfred.

It is not a truth he often hears.

What kind of jam would you want to eat?

And who would you believe: your sister, or your unicorn?

Tune in tomorrow for an exciting Unclean Legacy exclusive: “Rachel’s Blood!”

Wishing Boy (II/IV)

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

541 years before the common era, Mr. Kong is still just a young boy. He lives in the city of Qufu. His father is dead. He lives in poverty with his mother. Sometimes he runs errands for her in the market.

That is what he has just finished doing when he hears gasps from everyone in the market.

“Hm?” he says. “Huh?”

He uses a very polite form for this question. Every adult around him would marvel at the precision of his language except that they are too busy marveling at something else. One of them points upwards and Mr. Kong sees what it is.

“Oh, my,” he says.

There is a maiden wrapped in winds, winds colored like fine silk, descending through the starkness of the sky into the Qufu market. Her eyes are closed. Her face is peaceful and aristocratic. She is surrounded in her flight by four great brooms, and before she lands the brooms sweep the dust away.

She lands.

Her eyes open. She looks around. For a long moment she assesses the situation. She says, in crisp clear speech, “I will need housing, food, pen, paper, and a temporary servant.”

The crowd is falling to its knees before her. They are offering her their worship. But young Mr. Kong has seen something that is even more urgent than worship.

The four brooms are rising slowly back into the air, and Mr. Kong has observed a clod of market filth clinging to the straw of the third.

It is difficult to know what precisely it is that passes through Mr. Kong’s mind at this juncture. He is, after all, a boy in the mold of the sages of old, and we all of us are not. However, it is reasonable to assume that it is something like this:

“Surely, those brooms are sent by a respected elder god, perhaps the August Personage in Jade! It is not appropriate that we of Qufu should send our filth to our elders; that’s like mailing one’s body water to the Emperor!”

So Mr. Kong moves through the crowd to the third broom. When he humbles himself before it, it hesitates in its rise and bobs a little lower. Taking this as an invitation, young Mr. Kong grasps the broom firmly by its handle and begins to scrape it clean against the ground.

“Young man,” says the woman. “Perhaps—”

Her comment, relevant or otherwise, comes slightly too late. The broom is thoroughly spooked by Mr. Kong’s treatment. It jerks off the ground, carrying Mr. Kong with it.

Mr. Kong has only a moment to contemplate the proprieties of this situation, and, as he is very young and does not yet understand the will of the heavens, this is not enough.

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong, still hanging on.

The broom races off into the sky.

One should not imagine that this is the kind of tale where Mr. Kong immediately throws one leg over the broomstick and affects a Quidditch-playing attitude. Nor is it the kind of story wherein he dangles helplessly for a time, falls off over the mist-shrouded mountains, and dies. In fact, it is the kind of history that specifically neglects to examine the manner of Mr. Kong’s travel, assuming that he found an approach to the situation both dignified and survivable, in accords with the broomstick-riding provisions of the lost eleventh volume of the Book of Rites.

When he lands at last, the brooms have traveled not, surprisingly, to Heaven but to a well deep in the quiet woods of Lu. On the edge of the well sits Wishing Boy.

“Oh,” says Wishing Boy.

He’s startled by Mr. Kong’s presence.

“Your pardon,” says Wishing Boy, “dear child. I did not expect the brooms to return with a passenger. Was there something unsatisfactory about their conduct?”

Mr. Kong blinks at Wishing Boy. Wishing Boy is a teenaged child with golden skin and a large opal set into his forehead. He is young but has an air of wisdom to him.

“There is no matter worth your concern,” says Mr. Kong.

“Good,” says Wishing Boy.

He closes his eyes. After a moment, he opens them. He says, “But wait. Then why are you here?”

“It was a regrettable incident,” summarizes Mr. Kong.

“I see.”

Wishing Boy smiles a little. “Youthful spirits, is it? You wished to taste the upper air?”

Mr. Kong closes his mouth firmly.

“Accident, then?”

“If you could kindly direct me to the city of Qufu,” says Mr. Kong, “then I can be on my way and I will not trouble you further.”

“The woods are full of tigers and giant snakes,” says Wishing Boy. “You would be torn to shreds and then get snakebite. Please, sit. Satisfy my curiosity; then I will send you back to Qufu on the wind.”

Mr. Kong takes a seat, after introductions and mild protestations..

“So,” says Wishing Boy. “I can see that you are a fine young man, full of humaneness. That is why I do not assume malicious intent on your part, and have not flung you into space to come down wherever fate directs you.”

“I wished to clap some of the filth off of the broom,” explains Mr. Kong.

Wishing Boy smiles.

“But,” says Mr. Kong, “I must admit that also I am curious how a broom should happen to fly.”

“It is no great matter,” says Wishing Boy. “When I was a younger child I fell into this well and became stuck. Worse, my head was partway under the water; to breathe, I needed to bend my neck painfully back. This was extremely distressing and forced me to develop what I call the alchemy of wishes: that is, the spiritual power to grant myself whatever I wish for. This freed me from the well but has other applications besides. For example, it is why the brooms fly: I wished to them, ‘you! Brooms! Fly!'”

“That is a great power,” says Mr. Kong, quite impressed.

“That is what I thought at first,” says Wishing Boy.

“At first?”

“Well,” says Wishing Boy, “at first, I thought that it was truly marvelous. I had been a poor child. I could barely afford to drink my own water and often I ate the dust from my clothing to survive. Now I could wish for gold and I would have gold. I became so wealthy that I could stick an opal in my head and still have leftovers for buying mansions and hiring servants.”

“Ah,” sighs Mr. Kong. He would have been wealthy, but his family had had to flee the state of Song.

“There was a girl, a princess. Her name was Qiguan. I had loved her from afar. Now I filled her heart with love for me, and abolished the societal conventions that separated us.”

Mr. Kong ponders that.

Wishing Boy raises an eyebrow.

“Your face shows some concern.”

“I mean no criticism,” says Mr. Kong. “But surely that was not correct.”

“No,” admits Wishing Boy. “It wasn’t.”

He looks up.

“I had thought these things would make me happy,” Wishing Boy says. “But they did not. Can you guess why?”

Mr. Kong thinks. He offers, carefully, “Is it a true love, if it is love born of wishes? Can you truly change your social place with magic? Is wealth truly wealth, if it is not earned?”

Now Wishing Boy laughs.

“I had not thought of that,” he says. “My. I suppose that would indeed make me unhappy, if my wishes were false. But no. It was subtler than that. You see, her love was true, real love. And that is how I understood that it is meaningless to search for love. All of my life I had seen the love of others as a prize to be won, but when that game became too easy I understood that it is their business, not mine, whether someone should love me. It was not worthless because it was false. It was worthless because being loved does not make me a lovable person, and that is what I had actually wanted.”

Mr. Kong considers that.

“And the wealth?” Mr. Kong asks.

“It was the same. To have wealth—that just means that I’d wished for it and nobody wished against it. It’s not a big deal! So why should I want wealth?”

“It is better than eating the dust from your clothing,” says Mr. Kong.

Wishing Boy smiles.

“That is true,” he says.

Mr. Kong hesitates. “Honorable Wishing Boy,” he says. “Please forgive me for asking. But it seems to me that you should wish an end to war.”

“Ah,” says Wishing Boy.

He shakes his head.

“I cannot do that, Mr. Kong,” Wishing Boy says. “To wish an end to war is to wish for humanity to change. I do not know how to wish for that. I like humanity.”

Mr. Kong gives Wishing Boy the first true smile he has shared thus far.

“I understand,” he says.

“So that is why I have sent the princess away,” says Wishing Boy. “That is why I do not live in my great mansions. I have decided to sit here at this well and practice austerities. I do this because I desire to be a better person, and also because wealth and privilege give me the luxury to practice austerities.”

Mr. Kong grins at Wishing Boy.

“That’s so,” Mr. Kong agrees. “A poor person goes hungry, and a rich person fasts.”

Wishing Boy laughs.

“But tell me,” says Mr. Kong. “If you do not wish for love, or wealth, or privilege, or an end to war—if you have no wants because you do not think that there is a purpose to having things—then what do you wish for?”

“I wish that everyone should be freed of suffering,” says Wishing Boy.

Mr. Kong frowns. He looks seriously at Wishing Boy.

“But that will not happen,” Mr. Kong says. “You are a very powerful wisher but not even the August Personage in Jade could accomplish that.”

“It is very difficult,” agrees Wishing Boy. “But I am not alone.”

That is the end of their conversation, for the purposes of this history, though there are further pleasantries that pass.

It is thirty years before Mr. Kong returns to that well, a teacher set on learning more about the world. When he does, he finds it desolate, and no Wishing Boy remains.

Theologians of Mars

It is December 3rd, 1999.

“Sometimes I think that clinging to the outside of the Mars Polar Lander was not the smartest idea,” says Emile.

“Oh?” says James.

“Well,” says Emile, “No matter how much I breathe, I can’t get enough oxygen. And no matter how much I shiver, I can’t get warm.”

“That’s just your bad karma at work!” says James. “You can’t blame space.”

Emile and James fly through space, clinging to the sides of the Mars Polar Lander.

“I guess,” says Emile.

Emile munches quietly on a tiny bit of space food. It’s a microorganism, that lived in space! But no matter how much of the microorganism he gnaws away Emile still feels hungry.

“It’s just a bit inhospitable,” Emile says.

“Rather,” admits James. He looks out at the vacuum. Then he smiles. “That’s why I calculated my sins for a rebirth as a hungry ghost, you know.”

“Oh?”

“I figured, if I’m born as a human, then all I get is another chance to hear the teaching, and I might achieve enlightenment, but it’s pretty unlikely in these Latter Days of the Law. And if I become a god, then I’ll be too happy and powerful to escape the wheel of karma. But a hungry ghost—a hungry ghost can go into space.

“That’s reasonable,” says Emile. “It is certainly prettier to starve and shiver and thirst in space than on Earth.”

Emile stares at the stars for a while.

“I didn’t plan to die yet,” Emile explains. “That’s why I wound up a hungry ghost! I thought that I would learn to control my desires and earn better karma later.”

“What happened?”

“It turns out that it’s a bad idea to attend an event labeled ‘Assassins! Live in Concert.'”

“Ouch,” says James.

“They lived in concert, but the audience did not.” Emile sighs. “You?”

“Strapped to a giant laser. It wasn’t pretty.”

“Ah!” says Emile. “I’d wondered about the burns.”

“It was like the torments visited upon souls in Hell,” says James. “Except shorter and more cinematic. There is this moment when you’re shot by a giant laser when, I don’t know. When you’re probably already dead, right, because lasers hit you faster than your perception of lasers, but still you can see this brilliant light dashing towards you, and everything’s crystal, and you’re one with the cosmos. Then it hurts.”

They look down.

“Then it hurts a lot.” James laughs self-deprecatingly. “That’s why giant laser safety is so important.”

They watch the Red Planet for a while.

“Are you nervous?” Emile asks.

“What, about Mars?”

“Yeah. I mean, no hungry ghost has ever been there before. What if it’s worse? What if there’s nothing edible anywhere, and no water, and no air? Not even any Buddhists to make our lives better with prayers?”

James laughs.

“What?” Emile asks.

James leans in. “This is Mars,” he says. “Life isn’t characterized by universal suffering, desire, and attachment on Mars. That’s an Earth thing, like original sin.”

Emile blinks.

“I thought you knew,” says James. “11 months in space, and you’ve just been clinging to the side of the ship for lack of anything better to do?”

“You looked like you knew what you were doing,” Emile says, “during the launch. And afterwards, well. You’re better company than the vacuum mites and space bats.”

“Don’t knock the space bats,” grins James.

“I’m not knocking them,” says Emile. “I’m grateful that they put us back on course after that NASA navigation error, and their princess was ravishing. But they kept looking at me like they hoped I’d turn into an insect.”

“Space bats live on a diet of insects,” James observes. “Not many insects in space.”

Emile grins wryly. “You’re right. I shouldn’t really blame them.”

James opens his mouth to say something. Instead, the Mars Polar Lander strikes atmosphere. It begins using the friction of the Martian atmosphere to decelerate rapidly from its initial velocity.

“Hot!” says Emile.

As the wind whips by them, James says, “We need . . . shelter . . .”

James points. Emile follows him around to the lee of the lander. Buffeted by wind and weakened by the twelve gees of acceleration, Emile loses half of his grip on the white-hot lander. He hangs on by one hand as the Mars Polar Lander races down through the Martian sky.

“Can’t . . . hang . . . on . . .” says Emile.

“You’re notional,” says James, in disgust. “Get over it.”

Emile hesitates. Then, sheepishly, he reasserts his grip on the lander and climbs over to shelter next to James.

Whoosh.

The parachute opens.

“It’s strange,” says Emile. “First I was very cold and couldn’t warm myself, and now I’m very hot and can’t cool myself. But something’s different.”

“It’s the loss of dukkha, the pervasive universal character of suffering,” James says. “The closer we get to Mars, the more we’ll be suffering because we’re clinging to a white-hot lander on an alien world and the less we’ll be suffering because it’s an inevitable consequence of ignorance and desire.”

“Huh,” says Emile. “Are we getting less ignorant?”

James points down. “Look! Mars!”

“Oh,” says Emile, softly.

They watch Mars loom. Each new detail they can make out dispels a bit more of the ignorance that breeds the desire that chains them to the wheel of karma and the pervasive universal character of suffering. The heat and gee-forces of the landing strip away their original sin. On the negative side, James slowly realizes that his advanced understanding of Tantric sex practices won’t do him any good on Mars, where sex is savage and primitive.

“Hey,” says Emile. “Is that a city?”

The lander legs deploy. The ship hits the Veil.

“Apes!” shouts Emile, in terror.

Inertial gyros and accelerometers orient the Mars Polar Lander. It is rapidly steering itself towards a nest of great white apes.

“There’s nothing for it,” says James. “We’re going to have to jump.”

The Martian atmosphere shivers with the primal cry of the largest of the great white apes. It beats upon its chest. Emile notices, in a state of distant detached fear, that the ape has four arms.

“Jump? Jump?

James reaches out. He touches Emile’s hand. He smiles.

“It’s okay,” James says. “I planned for this. Everything has been leading up to this moment. Kick off—now.”

They push away from the lander. They fall.

James holds his watch up near his face. He has worn it the entire time that Emile has known him, and not once has the watch been correct; for among the many things that hungry ghosts are starved for is time.

The watch is working now. James frantically adjusts the knobs and buttons, and the face of the watch is glowing green, and there is a countdown on it.

The lander strikes down amidst the apes. It has been four minutes and thirty-three seconds since the Mars Polar Lander struck atmosphere.

The timer on James’ watch hits zero.

The lander explodes.

Emile and James tumble across the red sand of Mars. The apes are a bloody ruin, all save the strongest of them. That one is still lurching towards them, though great chunks have been ripped out of its flesh, though one arm is missing, though its entire back is baked clean of fur. Emile looks over. James has not landed quite as well as Emile, and for a long moment James is stunned. So Emile does the only thing he can.

Emile pulls his holdout knife and hurls it at the creature’s face. It is a perfect strike; and the great beast topples to the bloody sands of Mars; and as it falls, James says to Emile, “Good man.”

(Bonus Content Between Chapters) Gnostella, Revised

Author’s Note—

Of all the stories on this site, Gnostella is the one I do not like. It makes sense, and is important, but it just doesn’t make me happy. It’s possible that it’s just the name—that the original story is not absurdist, and the name is. So maybe I could just change the story name and the character name to something like “Inverse Ella.” That might work. Or I can replace the whole thing—not on the site, but in the monthbooks and your hearts—with this.

Remnant Ella

Once upon a time, there was a wonderful girl named Danielle. She lived with her dear father, her wicked stepmother, and two wicked stepsisters. Her dear father held the Gnostic belief that the world and its Creator were inherently cruel. Faith and virtue were opposites in his sight. Dispirited and disgruntled by his gloomy philosophy, Danielle’s wicked stepmother set fire to the library, burning Danielle’s dear father to death and destroying all his wonderful Gnostic tomes. Because Danielle sat in the cinders and rubbed the ashes on her face to mourn, Danielle’s stepsisters called her “Remnant Ella.”

Danielle became a beautiful princess. She met her handsome prince. Together they overcame many hardships and sorrows. Down they cast the stepsisters, and the wicked stepmother, and other instrumentalities of their torment. They brought peace to the magical land in which they lived. Then they lived happily ever after.

One day, as Danielle moved through the corridors of her castle, she tripped over a cat, who hissed and said,

How long have you lived now?
Do you even remember?
Who are you to deserve to be happy forever?

“That is an imperfect rhyme,” Danielle said. “I expect better from a magical animal.”

The cat scurried away.

One day, Danielle leaned out a window and beckoned a bird down to her finger. It came, with a certain reluctance, and landed there, and sang:

At last you’ve found happiness,
And yet, all the same:
Your life is a horror;
Your father’d be shamed.

“What do you mean?” Danielle asked.

The bird only sang.

So Danielle went to a mirror in the castle, inherited from her evil stepmother, and asked it, “Why shouldn’t I live happily ever after?”

The mirror showed her the lives of two peasants, one beautiful and one handsome, who had lived in her kingdom for many years. They lived together and loved together and overcame many sorrows. They brought forth life from the earth. They strove. Then, inevitably, the swords of circumstance and pestilence struck them down.

At that very moment, Danielle saw, the dead peasants stood before the three thrones of a god of judgment; and one aspect of the god sat to the left, and one to the right, and one between them. The ex-peasants stood there to face the penalty faced by those who die, and the handsome ex-peasant said,

“What is it that the prince and princess have that we have not? We lived, and we died, in sorrow and in pain; while for more years than men can count, they have ruled in that castle, defying time, defying age, defying sorrow; they are like ghosts, eternal beyond the boundaries of death; they are like demons, mocking the pain of others’ lives.”

The left god and the right god looked off into the shadows. The god in the middle leaned forward.

“The world is not fair,” said the god in the middle, “but as you make it so. Dreams are not real, but as you craft them. Hope, and magic, and life are choices. It is not for a person to blame the gods if they do not live happily ever after; rather, I think, this is a flaw in the greater portion of humanity.”

Then the beautiful ex-peasant spoke, and said, “This is an excuse.”

Danielle, watching, felt her nostrils flare.

“To live,” said the beautiful ex-peasant, “is to choose hope, and magic, and life, and dreams. To live is to want the happy ending. And who is there who is not good? Who is there who does not deserve happiness forever? We are flawed, we have many flaws, but if we are not all magical princes and princesses with destinies of greatness, that is not our flaw but the world’s.”

The god in the middle shrugged, then, and grinned, and he was not concerned. He said, “You are bitter creatures. I make my judgment: your existence after death shall be as expressions of that bitterness. You shall be creatures of ashes and sorrow. Your touch shall bring an end to joy. Your happiness shall be schadenfreude.”

He sat back against his throne, and the mirror turned to black.

Danielle nodded to herself, and said, “It is true; my father would be shamed.”

She broke the mirror. She cut herself upon a length of silvered glass. As her life drained out, she spoke a spell:

Ah! That the world should know such gods no more.
May my blood be a poison unto their throne.

Such a poison as this covered Snow White’s apple; such a curse as this doomed Sleeping Beauty; it is the red of such blood as this that stained the dancing shoes. And in their halls the gods dared not face her judgment; and two of them, the left god and the right, left their thrones. Into the darkness behind their places, they walked, and what happened to them thereafter is not known.

The beautiful ex-peasant and the handsome one took their places on the thrones; and why this should have happened is a mystery. Only the old men and old women in their huts, their mouths gaping with missing teeth, know that answer; and what it means, they do not say.