Green (III/V)

It is September 27, 2002. The sun has gone down into the sea.

John dyes his hair green. He rinses it off. He rinses it again, and again, until the water comes out clean, and he looks into the sink.

He frowns.

Bad enough it should be stained with green; but the sink is discolored instead with streaks of green and black.

It’s a week of awful portents. He isn’t really superstitious, but you never can tell, these modern days, with fairies in the woods and the spider in the sky.

He sinks his fork into a chicken breast and it oozes something viscous and white; and his mom is all apologetic but he just thinks, it’s going to happen.

It’s going to happen. His Dad’s going to come by.

There’s nothing else as God would bother warning him of, he thinks. There’s nothing else worth the way he keeps smelling dead things, and stubbing his toe, and the way his business comes floating, rolling up after he’s done using the facilities, every time. And he reads the cards, one time, and the reading’s none too kind; so he wanders by Liril’s house, down the street, because.

“Is he coming?” he asks her.

She frowns at him.

“What?” he says.

“One day,” she says, “if you eat the wrong people, particularly, I think somebody might want you to be God.”

John squints at her. Micah, who was reorganizing the bookshelf, stops.

“God?” John asks.

Liril shrugs. “Yeah.”

“What does that even mean?” John asks.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last

It is Saturday, the 17th of April, 2004.

John turns. He lunges towards Liril. He is shouting something. He is going to—

He is going to—

Oh.

The Thorn That Does Not Kill has popped his heart. It’s put a hole straight through his chest and now he’s like the bubble that was broken, like the dream that was ended, like the rescuer that was not.

He has no center to him. He has no reality. He has no John.

It’s leaking out of him, a thick ectoplasm of his structure, from front and back alike. It’s running out of him, he’s dripping out of his center, like air from a balloon and despairing of the world.

Liril pushes him off of her. He staggers back. He sits down on the bed.

She pulls out the Thorn.

“Your heart is damaged,” Liril says. “I can leave you this way, or I can finish.”

I didn’t consent, he thinks dumbly. She’s supposed to change you when you ask, not when you move—

“I didn’t consent,” he says.

He’d done it to himself, really, with the way the Thorn was right there; but—

Liril looks away from him. She rubs her eyes.

“You want me to fix you?” she says. She sounds like she’s trying really hard to be cold and cruel and not managing it quite. “You want me to just put it back, so you can hurt me more?”

He puts his hand over the hole in his chest but he cannot hold in the substance that is John.

“Your moral standing,” he says, “is not clear.”

“That’s true,” Liril admits.

Her voice is weak and strained. He can understand it, now, as he’s never understood it before. It’s been lurking under everything she’s said, for a very long time, something empty, something broken, something like he’s feeling now. If he pushes her hard enough she will collapse. She will fix him. She does not have it in her to refuse him, if pushed hard enough, to stand up to what’s left of the boy named John.

He wants to shout at her to do it. To fix him. He doesn’t understand why he hasn’t done it yet. He keeps getting distracted by the ectoplasm on his hand.

A bit of him falls off his fingers and lands upon the quilt of Liril’s bed. It fades away.

He can’t make himself say it. He’s dying and he can’t make himself say it—

“So we compromise,” he says.

He is fading. He is falling. He is becoming nothing, not even John.

“One year,” she says.

“Done.”

The Thorn goes into his left eye. The Thorn goes into his right eye. The last thing he sees is the Thorn plunging, twice, deep into his brain; and it takes him a long time to realize that that wasn’t actually a thing he saw at all.

And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

He screams out his mortality. It flutters from him, rough-edged, like a departing flock of crows. He sways and he starts to fall.

The door of the room bursts open. Liril’s mother stands behind it. She stares at him for a long moment, and he has just enough time to notice how appallingly empty she is before she picks him up physically and throws him across the room. He coils, lands hands and feet upon the dresser, and braces to spring; her elbow comes down hard on the back of his neck just a moment before he realizes that he has no actual desire at this particular juncture to engage in a fight with Priyanka.

His face crunches through the dresser. His arm is twisted up behind his back. He howls. He can’t help thinking, all things considered, that this is rather a bit unfair.

“What the hell, Liril?” Priyanka says.

“I—”

Liril doesn’t appear to have an answer for ‘what the hell’ at this particular time. “I, um.”

Tainted John coughs the last spluttering syrup of his old self from his lungs. He dislocates his arm and twists himself around for leverage, trying to catch that fluid; Priyanka steps back and does something he can’t see but can feel in the motion of her legs and two floors of wooden floorboards recoil away, skittering from them like waves in a disrupted pool and leaving Priyanka, John, and the dresser to tumble into the basement down below.

John screeches in the dust and garments and the world revolves. He tries to grasp for Priyanka, but there is only emptiness.

“I—” Liril says again, above him.

Somehow he’s been shackled.

Priyanka has stepped back. His perceptions are clearing, he is limber, the shackle can’t hold him, he could—

Instinct reminds him once again that he has no particular desire to fight Liril’s mother at this juncture.

She snarls at him.

“Explain,” Priyanka says.

His voice isn’t working very well. “You were not home,” he rasps.

“So you come into my daughter’s bedroom,” Priyanka says.

He nods.

“And she puts out your eyes,” Priyanka says, “and turns you into— some sort of—”

He shrugs.

“Don’t lie to me,” Priyanka says, but her voice has already lost all of its strength.

She is sitting down, right there on the floor. She looks down at the ground under her knees for a long time, and then looks up at Liril.

Liril stares back. She has mastered herself. She looks brave.

“What am I going to do with you?” Priyanka whispers.

“Wicked children should be punished,” Liril says.

Priyanka laughs. It’s hollow. He cannot get over how empty they both are. He bets if he bit a chunk off of either of their fleshes he’d get brain freeze and maybe die.

“I won’t eat you,” John observes.

Priyanka gives him an alarmed glance. “You eat people?”

“Not you,” John clarifies.

Priyanka stands up. The last bits of life flow out of her expression.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

Liril slips away from the hole two floors above. He can feel her walking down the stairs. She opens the door. She comes in.

“I’m sorry,” Priyanka says, again.

Liril tries to touch Priyanka’s hand, but there is only emptiness.

“Is he safe?” Priyanka asks.

“He won’t eat me,” Liril says.

Priyanka nods. Liril sits down on the floor. The ceiling shudders and wavers closed. Priyanka leaves.

Behind her, she locks the door.

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me.

It’s dark, but that doesn’t matter much. He’s locked in, but that doesn’t really matter either. The only things that matter are Liril and the hunger.

“I’m hungry,” he says, softly.

“I’m sorry,” Liril says.

“I want to eat angels,” John says. “And demons. And fiends, and ragged things, and other gods.”

“Yes,” says Liril.

“I don’t mind not having eyes,” he says. “Or a great vacant hole where was my heart. But I wish that I weren’t so hungry.”

“I’m sorry,” she says.

He grins at her. The bloody holes where his eyes should be are very bright. “Corpses would be okay.”

She stares at him vacantly for a little while. He supposes that she can’t see him, not properly, not in the dark.

“Hey,” he says. “Hey, what am I?”

“One day,” she says, thoughtfully, “if you eat the wrong people, you might be God.”

He finds himself salivating, and fights it down. He adds himself to the list of things that he should not eat.

“What is God?” John asks.

This seems to stump her for a bit. He thinks that maybe she’s not quite so great an oracle as he’d always thought, given the way that her mouth keeps opening and closing and then opening again, and her forehead furrowing and then going straight.

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER TWO]


April 17, 2004

“God,” she says, eventually, “is that which shatters you.”

What Do You Do with a One-Winged Cherub? (VII/VII)

It is 1998 and Micah comes home and Melanie’s sitting on the couch.

She’s wearing a suit and she’s wearing shades and she’s got a nametag on.

It says, “Melanie.”

Just Melanie. It doesn’t say anything about being cunning or beloved of the gods.

She lowers her shades.

She looks at him.

Her eyes are evil, they make him flinch, but they’re otherwise identical to his own.

He puts a bag of groceries down by the door. He stands there numbly.

“Hi there,” she says to him. “What’s your name?”

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER ONE]


October 31, 1998

Liril hasn’t told him what to do.

Without Liril telling him what to do, he’s just a boy. He’s just a boy who wants to protect her from the evils of the world, but not one who necessarily can.

“I might accidentally flay your soul and stretch it on the birch trees,” Micah says. He tries to make it sound casual, like something Liril’s warned him not to do. “I mean, I don’t want to, I wouldn’t defy Central like that, it’s just, you know, something that could accidentally happen if I forget the alchemical equation I’m holding in my head.”

“That’s a fine trick,” Melanie concedes.

“Where is she?” Micah asks.

“You know,” says Melanie, “I could have sworn there was an order out to have you brought in and tortured. As opposed to standing there, all asking questions with your mouth, and things.”

“It was a terrible misunderstanding,” Micah says. “I showed the last visitor my correct report card and the matter resolved in its entirety. Also, you mean ‘re-oriented’ or something. Torture’s too explicit a word.”

He takes off his coat. He hangs it by the door.

“Can I get you anything?” he asks.

His eyes are scanning the house, looking for signs of Liril. But her frankness or her error—he’s not sure which—has reassured him.

“Like, if you really need a sandwich, or a penny, or a knife in your eye, or something,” he says, “I could totally oblige.”

“Really?” she says. She sounds delighted. “You’d do that for me?”

“See a penny, pick it up,” he assures her. “All that day you’ll have good luck. I’ve got . . . like a thousand. If I had a nickel for every penny I had, I’d convert them into pennies and win the economy forever. “

“Your name, then,” she says.

“Micah.”

She tilts her head. “From formica?”

“That’s two prepositions in a row,” Micah says. “I can’t understand your crazy monster language.”

“Melanie,” she says.

“Yes,” he agrees. “It would be.”

She looks down at her nametag. She blushes a little. “Yes.”

“I’m not going with you,” Micah says. “I’ve decided that you’re holding Liril and Priyanka hostage, but that she has a plan that requires me to pretend that you don’t, refuse to deal, and do everything I can think of to oppose you.”

“Bah,” Melanie says. “Your report card recorded an erroneously high decorum.”

“I had a lot of extra credit,” Micah says. “Field work and the like.”

“Does that really work?” Melanie says. Her tone is genuinely curious. “I mean, just deciding what you want to do and assuming that Liril must support it?”

“No,” he says. “It’s completely ridiculous.”

“Oh.”

“It’s just,” he says, “so is listening to anything you say. So it’s kind of a wash. You know?”

“I see!”

He sighs. He looks tired. He trudges over to a couch and he sits down. “What do you want?” he asks.

She smiles briefly.

“You should come work for us,” she says.

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope!”

She tosses him a nametag. It’s blank. He catches it. Then he flinches and throws it from him like it’s caught fire in his hands.

She frowns.

“I’m not interested,” Micah says.

“The monster’s weak,” she says. “He talks like he left you here on purpose. He talks like he’s still got a plan for that girl Jane. But I saw him when he came back from here. He was hurt. He was frayed. You got acid on his heart and soul, my boy, with whatever trick you pulled.”

“I renamed him,” Micah says.

Melanie closes her eyes for a moment. Her face is perfectly still. Then she opens them up again. “Snotgargler?” she suggests.

He shakes his head.

Doctor Snotgargler?”

He looks away.

“The important thing,” she says, “is that he’s weak. I could take him. If I had your help. I could beat him. If I had your help.”

“It’s amazing,” he says. “You’re not even trying to sound like you believe that.”

“What?”

Her voice is wounded.

“That’s ridiculous,” she says. “It’s an awesome plan.”

And as suddenly as that it crashes in on him that she is hollow; that she is broken; that she has a certain shelter in her heart, and cracks therein, that he remembers from years ago. He is looking at a crucible.

He doesn’t want the pity in his face to show. He turns away.

“Oh, don’t you dare,” she says. “Don’t you fucking dare. It was only twice. He’s been used more than that himself.”

He clenches his fist.

A jolt of humor washes through her. He can feel it in the tides of the emotions of the room. It’s slipped from her, whatever is wrong inside her, and she’s laughing at the world instead.

“Hey,” she says. “Hey. How do you separate a monster from his charges?”

He shakes his head.

He ought to tell her, he thinks. Anything that hurts the monster can redound only to his good. But he doesn’t trust any impulse or reason whatsoever that would tell this woman more than she already seems to know.

“Hey,” she repeats. “How do you separate a monster from his charges?”

“No,” he tells her. I won’t.

“You take away his credit card,” she beams.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea

It’s about an hour later. They’ve had tea. Liril’s almost home from trick-or-treating, so Melanie suspects, and so she rises to her feet.

“The offer is good,” she says, quietly.

He shakes his head.

“It’s just a nametag,” she says. “Pick it up. Put it on. Come with me. We can kill the bastard and live happily ever after without dying even once.”

“I’m not going to Central,” Micah says. “I’d just end up like you.”

“Ouch,” she says. She shakes her hand, pretending that it’s burnt. Then she goes out.

He cleans up the teacups.

He looks at the nametag.

I bet I could use this, he thinks. I bet it could give me some kind of strength.

And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me

Liril gets home and he is rocking, hissing, clutching tight at his inflamed and swollen hand.

[The Frog and the Thorn — END OF CHAPTER ONE]

Forsaken of their Gods (II/III)

Now it was always Billy’s conception that he should be as God to Melanie: that she should know him as a person knows their God, absolute, primal, preceding all other things in his authority, and at every moment witness to the secret movements of her heart. It was always Billy’s conception that Melanie should fear him and his red right hand, not as one fears a mortal tyrant or an older brother and his fists, but rather with the nakedness and openness that characterizes a fear of God: of that against which there is no recourse, and from which every punishment arises in the end from the workings-out of one’s own weaknesses and shames.

That she should fear him as that which is just by decree of the universe. That she should recognize the only alternative to that fear as having been better in the past, remaining though that past remains a bitterly unalterable country. That she should greet him only with the full humility and helplessness of one who has nothing not given her by the hands and whims of God.

In this conception Billy failed.

Like the seed of some black apple rotting in her stomach Melanie acquired freedom. She in some strange fashion learned unruly petulance, a quirk which he extinguished only with brute force, and never for all time. And finally he took that step which is every bit as much forbidden to the monsters as to God, which is to say, coming to accept as writ that which he could not change; coming to despise her for her weaknesses, rather than to cultivate them; and giving her a license, in that doing, to take that unsightliness that lived within her and grow it into strength.

He was, in the end, not so very terrible a monster, and he never grew his wings.

He’d gotten the idea, somehow, of what he was meant to be, understood that great awfulness of his nature, but nobody ever showed him how to get there, the unraveling of the riddles of it, the ways to open it up and live with it, so he lived in pettiness, instead.

His sister was afraid of his fists.

Nabonidus would have eaten Billy alive. 1968’s monster would have ground him down for jam. Mylitta would have cut him open. Even Prajapati could have beaten him, not even a hero or a monster, just a girl, but even she could have beaten him, brought out gods and the weapons of her good character to defeat him, triumphed, surpassed him, and broken him, left him gasping out his life like a fish might do on land.

It never even occurred to Billy to stake his sister out with the ropes of her own tendons and let the birds feed upon her flesh. It never even occurred to him as a threat, much less as an actual thing to do. It never occurred to him to winkle out every last bit of herself that she loved and take it from her, returning it if ever in bits and pieces imprinted with his name. It didn’t seem necessary to him. Not when she loved him. Not when she feared him. Not when he had his fists.

He even let her run.

He had Melanie for five years plus, the most vulnerable years that she would ever have, and he didn’t break her. At best he imprinted himself on her, just a little, made her like him, gave her a bit of that clumsiest monster’s nature and overlaid it on her own.

If you had any idea what running from a real monster is like, you’d know how utterly miserable a failure it makes him, that she’d gotten on a boat and run.

He was God to her; but such a God as to make her doubt — such a God as to make her think, as early as 1977, age 5, “is it so bad to be a Lucifer under him, and raise my hand against the Lord?”

And at that moment, when she first had that thought, she caught sight of something rippling, twisting, something strangely purple and terrible beyond the horizon of her life.

She couldn’t help herself.

She shook her head, once, twice. She tried to focus.

And she saw —

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

“There is a King.”

It is worse than she imagined. It’s not the worst words she’s ever heard. It can’t top never you not you. But it’s worse than that time when Billy showed her Papa’s head.

“There is a King of the old countries,” the woman is saying, “that came before the Round Man’s world. And he is bloated with a clotted mass of life. It moves damply and uncomfortably within him, as if a man had swallowed ten other men, or a fish had drunk the ocean.”

The woman’s voice is like the wind.

“These are the signs of his coming: dreams and portents. Death. Trouble between friends.”

Melanie is in a great and wild and empty space and there are words like silver wire cutting channels in her soul.

“He is wearing rotten vestments and they are indigo and green. He is heralded by helplessness, and memories, and principles that are left aside. There shall be corruption, fear, and hatred, and polluted water, and tainted colors, green and black.”

Melanie makes a sound.

“The Kings of the Unforgivable Dominions,” Liril’s mother says, “break the covenants of the world.”

There is silence for a while. Liril’s mother gets up. She walks around, tidying up the room.

Melanie’s eyes focus once again.

“What?” she asks.

I thought you said you didn’t hate me.

“You will drown in him forever,” Liril’s mother says. “You will never die. This is the fate I see for you, Melanie, whom my daughter has befriended.”

“No,” Melanie protests.

Not me.

Liril’s mother can’t help grinning. It’s ghoulish. It’s mean. It slips out onto her face until she bites her lip to hold it in.

“My,” she says.

She thinks.

Then, carefully, she releases the little happiness that she has in her, to see one of Amiel’s line disturbed so. The smile fades. There is only careful awareness of the world.

“There’s nothing I can do about it,” Liril’s mother says, “or I’d blackmail you, or help you, or something of the like. But I can only tell you: this is a thing that comes to pass. Will you leave us alone now, Melanie? Will you let me and my daughter be?”

Melanie twitches.

She wants to run.

She’s run before. It works. It works. But she’s caught in the web of a spider.

So she sighs, instead.

She shakes her head.

“So be it,” Liril’s mother says. “No stealing. No loud music. Her bedtime is ten o’clock exactly. No bringing trouble to this house.”

And Melanie goes up to Liril’s room to talk; and to these two children thus forsaken of their gods it is given to be childhood friends.

Stupid Words and their Stupid Power, Anyway (I/III)

“It is the elephant,” Melanie says.

Liril looks at her.

Melanie is laughing. She is looking upwards at the sky. She is hugging her hands to her own chest now and it is awful and Liril wants to cry but Melanie had asked that she stop crying, so she doesn’t.

“Melanie,” Liril says.

“’Why do we suffer?’” Melanie asks. “’Why do we have to suffer, and fear, and die?’”

“We don’t,” Liril says.

“No,” Melanie says. “Not ‘we don’t.’ It is ‘because of the elephant.’”

Liril looks blank.

“You go,” Melanie says.

“I can’t go,” Liril says.

“It’s easy,” Melanie says. “All the answers are elephants.”

It is beginning to seep in through Liril’s reserve. It’s too ridiculous.

“You go,” Melanie insists.

“What’s gray and awful,” Liril says, hesitantly, “and has a shiny tie?”

“Oh,” says Melanie. “That one could be a frog.”

Liril makes a squinchy face.

“Or an elephant,” Melanie says. “An awful elephant in a tie. Why did the elephant step on the grape?”

Liril shakes her head.

“He thought it was a pair of shoes.”

Liril closes her eyes.

Please, she thinks. Please go away.

It is too late. She is beginning to laugh. It is escaping her. Awful things will happen and it will be her fault, it will be her fault for laughing, it will be her fault for accepting this precious gift that is given to her life.

“You go.”

“What’s gray and wrinkly,” Liril asks, instead of laughing, “And antithetical to the covenants of the world?”

It’s almost like having a will, being able to ask a question like that.

Almost.

“What the hell kind of word is ‘antithetical?’” Melanie asks.

And the giggling takes Liril, and she is lost.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

They go to Liril’s house. Liril opens the door. She goes in and turns around and she is inviting Melanie inside —

“Get out,” says Liril’s mom.

She is standing there, frozen. It’s a whisper. It’s a strangled, horrified little whisper. It’s barely loud enough to hear.

Get out.

Melanie straightens. She braces her feet. She gives a tight grin to Liril’s mom.

“Fear’s showing, love,” she says.

It’s a weird thing to hear from a ten-year-old girl.

A moment passes.

Liril’s mom doesn’t move; so Melanie just shrugs, and nods, and pretends their words were greetings; and she walks past Liril’s mother, and takes up Liril’s hand, and goes up to Liril’s room.

That’s the first time the two of them meet.

The second time they meet, Liril’s mother doesn’t say anything at all.

The third meeting, though, a few weeks into their acquaintance, she’s found some kind of peace.

She stops Melanie at the door. She can stop her, this time. She’s not terrified, this time, and that means that Melanie has to pay her mind — a tall woman like her, with the ability to call the police and the like, maybe even overpower Melanie, physically, with her raw adulthood’s might.

“Go up to your room, honey,” Liril’s mom says, to Liril.

So Liril does.

Liril’s mom leads Melanie into the living room. She makes hot tea and little plates with tea sandwiches. She brings them in. She sits down, facing Melanie, to talk.

Melanie takes a sandwich.

“Thank you,” she says.

“She says you’re a good person,” Liril’s mother says.

“She does?”

“For now,” Liril’s mother agrees.

“Huh.”

Melanie thinks about this. She chews on the sandwich.

“Weird,” Melanie decides.

“So I’ve decided I can’t hate you. And so I am not going to tell the monster that you are here, and have him hale you away and raise you in the customs of the monster’s house; or, failing that, cast you back against the wall and pierce your eyes and heart with the Thorn that Does Not Kill, or hang you from a cross and put razor wire on your brow and let you bleed; or stake you out on some bleak hill for the carrion birds to feed. Because I would enjoy seeing him do those things to you, I would enjoy seeing you suffer, but I shouldn’t go that far for somebody I don’t hate.”

Melanie puts her sandwich down.

It has become unappetizing.

“I would be haled away,” she says, “and raised in a monster’s house?”

“He doesn’t have children,” says Liril’s mom.

Melanie thinks about this.

“It would be nice to have a house,” says Melanie, “and customs.”

“Would it?”

Melanie gives a little snort. Then she shakes her head.

“He won’t catch me,” Melanie says.

“Yes,” agrees Liril’s mother. “Children are so very good at avoiding being caught by monsters. It’s practically a trend.”

“Won’t,” Melanie underlines.

Not me.

“One day,” says Liril’s mother, “you will find him; or he will find you; and you will meet the monster. And then you can decide whether to tell him that I betrayed him. You can decide whether to tell him that I had you here, that I knew you were here, a girl of the monster’s line, and I didn’t even like you, and I kept it from him anyway. If you tell him that then you will have more than enough revenge for what I am going to do to you today, but you’ll also prove that Liril’s wrong.”

It’s hard for Melanie to believe she could stomach this woman’s sandwiches and tea at all.

“If I may ask,” says Liril’s mother, “how do you live?”

“What are you going to do to me today?”

“No,” says Liril’s mother. “It is my question now. It is your question later. How do you live?”

Melanie frowns.

“I don’t understand,” she says.

“I mean,” Liril’s mother says, “are you—fostered? Did you grow up here? How do you live?”

“Oh,” Melanie says.

She shakes her head.

“I steal,” she says. “I carry messages. I live with the fairies in their dells, sometimes.”

“You must be very cunning,” Liril’s mother says.

Melanie’s heart shouts a warning.

She is standing up.

“You won’t do this,” she says.

“What am I going to do?”

“You won’t.

Why am I afraid? she asks herself.

It is the expression on Liril’s mother’s face. It is subtle but familiar. She has seen it on her brother’s face. The last time she saw it Billy was holding up Papa’s head —

The words are not what she’s expecting. She doesn’t even understand how they can stop her; how they can catch her up; how they can freeze her; how, for that matter, it could mean anything to her at all, when Priyanka says:

“There is a King.”

Priyanka (I/II)

She fled him as a fish, as a duck, and as a goose, but she was caught in the arms and wings of Zeus. So the goddess Nemesis bore four children. And these had children, in their turn, and they more children of their own; and for all the years the world has known, this line—

Priyanka’s line—

is yet to die.

It is September 23, 1968.

It is the equinox: the moment when the spring and the summer give way to winter and the fall.

On this day, Priyanka is 16 years old. She is in a basement. It’s concrete and bare, with a couple of mattresses on the floor. It’s dark, and it has a door. She is tossing and turning and trying, without much success, to sleep.

The door opens. Priyanka does not sit up. She does not turn. But she opens one eye, stealthily. She looks. She wants, despite herself, to know what will happen.

A woman walks in. She closes the door. She is crying, fell and terrible tears. She is dressed after the latest Parisian fashion, her arms bare against the cold. She walks past Priyanka. She touches the basement wall. It opens. There is a stair.

She turns. She looks snifflingly at Priyanka. She says, “Come with me.”

Priyanka rises. Priyanka follows after the woman as she descends the stair. It is a long walk. It is a long stair.

After twenty minutes, Priyanka asks, quietly, “Why are you crying?”

“I do not mind the Underworld,” the woman says. “In all honesty, I do not. Yet it is always hard to leave the world of spring.”

“Oh.”

They walk a while longer. A man passes them on the stairs. He is very tall. He is very green. “Ho ho ho,” he says.

“The Titans lost a war against the gods,” the woman says. “So six months a year, yonder green Titan in Tartarus dwells. But Hades likes vegetables, so in summer the Titan may visit the Earth to record advertisements for vegetable products.”

“Ho ho ho,” the man concurs. He seems saddened, and perhaps somewhat dissatisfied with his lot in life. He descends deeper, and is gone.

“My name is Persephone,” the woman says. “I’m kidnapping you. But I don’t feel very guilty about this, because you were already a prisoner.”

“Are we going to Hell?”

“Sort of,” the woman agrees.

Priyanka thinks about this. “Then it’s not a favor,” she says, tentatively. “Hell is a bad place.”

The woman shrugs.

“We could go somewhere else!”

The woman laughs. “What, back up?”

Priyanka hesitates. “. . . No.” She shakes her head firmly.

“Then down,” the woman says. “It is a characteristic of stairways that they offer limited directions of travel.”

Priyanka looks sour. But she follows the woman downwards.

Something furry and warm shoulders past Priyanka. She draws back in terror as she sees a tiger, padding down the stairs on great soundless feet. She flattens herself against the wall.

“That’s Anthony,” the woman says. “He’s harmless.”

“He has fangs.”

“A long time ago,” Persephone says, “Hades brought him down these stairs. In the bowels of Tartarus, he fed the tiger a certain quantity of frosted cereal. ‘It’s great!’ the tiger exclaimed. But it didn’t seem so great once Anthony found out he could only live in the surface world six months of the year.”

“Oh.”

Persephone looks down. “My lord is cruel,” she says.

“And always after my lucky charms,” comments another passersby, trudging down the stairs.

“That one’s short,” Priyanka says, after a moment. “And green.”

“There was a nymph for him, too,” Persephone says. “She held up her arms before Hades, and cried, ‘This leprechaun and his cereal must be woo’d, not taken!’ But she is not so often remembered as my Cyane.”

“I’m sorry,” Priyanka calls down after the leprechaun.

“Come on,” Persephone says. “Let’s keep going.”

They walk for a while.

“Why are you kidnapping me?” Priyanka asks.

A line of people walks down the stairs. There are thousands of them. Persephone murmurs to Priyanka, “Move to the left.”

Priyanka moves to the left.

“You are almost empty,” Persephone says. “Soon you will be a vessel for the creation of gods. Most likely small ones at first—bees and the like. But eventually, gods of some substance. It will encourage the monster. He will drain you dry.”

“Oh.”

Persephone nods to the men as they pass. “Those are the Whigs,” she says. “They would like to be a major American political party. But they are only allowed to live on the surface world for six months of the year, and are at all other times forgotten; so they have a certain difficulty in the Presidential elections.”

“1972!” shouts a Whig. He adds their slogan: “We’ll figure out something!”

“I thought . . .” Priyanka hesitates. “I thought the six-month thing was special to your case.”

“Another failure of two-party America’s educational system!” a Whig concludes. He presses a button on Priyanka. “Vote Whig!”

Then the last of the men are gone.

“Have you ever been in love?” Persephone asks.

Priyanka shakes her head, mutely. There’s a silence. Then she makes an uncomfortable little motion with her head.

“Emotional entanglement doesn’t count,” the woman says. Priyanka looks at her blankly. After a moment, the woman says, “With the monster. It doesn’t count.”

Priyanka nods, then shakes her head. “No,” she says.

“There are many different kinds of love,” the woman says. “You can love with your heart, and that’s a fire. You can love with your spleen, and it’s . . . grounding, centering. You can love with your kidneys, and that’s the fast kind of love, the slippery, quick, and fading love. I’m afraid I’m in the liver kind of love. It grows from sorrow and pain.”

“I’m sorry,” Priyanka says. She looks down. “I can’t help,” she says. “I tried to help Jacob and he died.”

“It’s all right,” the woman says.

“How many . . . how many things?” Priyanka asks. “How many things does Hades call, on equinox day?”

“Much is lost to the world,” Persephone says. “Summer to winter, much is lost. And winter to summer, much the same. You do not see them rising to their freedom because they take the other stair.”

“Why?”

The stair ends. There is a dog. It has three heads. It growls at them.

“Um,” Priyanka says.

“It’s okay,” Persephone says. “We simply wait for someone to distract him with.”

An Italian chef wanders down the stairs. He has a puffed white chef hat.

“Hector Boiardi,” Persephone says.

Again?” the chef asks. “It’s my bad timing!”

“He founded Chef Boyardee,” Persephone says. “Hades loves it so.”

Persephone circles around behind the chef. He looks wary. He braces himself. But it is not enough.

PUSH! The chef falls into the dog’s clutches.

Cerberus begins to gnaw on the chef. The three-headed dog looks blissful and very distracted.

“Thank goodness!” Persephone says, and escorts Priyanka past.

After a long time, Priyanka asks, “But didn’t that hurt him?”

“Oh,” Persephone says. She hesitates. “I guess. You kind of get used to it. After a while.”

She leads Priyanka to a place of deep water. “Stay,” she says. “Good djinn.”

Then Persephone is gone.

After a while, Priyanka sits down. The water comes up to her neck. She lets the emptiness fill her.

There’s a man standing nearby. His name is Tantalus. Fruit is dangling from the trees all around him, but he is terribly thin. He is up to his waist in water. But he is parched.

A few hours pass. “Would you be so kind,” Tantalus says, “as to fetch me a fruit?”

Priyanka is quiet. She looks down.

“Please,” he says.

“It’s hard to move,” she says.

“I know,” he says. “It’s like there’s steel honey pouring down the inside of your arms. It’s like there’s a little brass monkey sitting on the back of your neck holding your head down. It’s like there’s a filter of blown glass between you and the world. But I’ve eaten twice this century and not at all for millennia before that. Please help me.”

So she rises, and she takes a fruit, and she hands it to him. It squirms in his hands, trying to avoid his lips, but it fails.

“You’re Tantalus,” she says. Because suddenly she knows.

“Yes.”

Still?

He shrugs. “Occasionally, I tap my soles together and say, ‘There’s no state like life, there’s no state like life, there’s no state like life.’ It has not been effective. Perhaps it requires a certain phase of the moon, or a certain stance, or a lucky draw on the lottery of life; I continue to hope. In the meantime, yes. The water still sinks when I reach for it. The fruit still rises.”

“I’m sorry.”

“There is no such thing as eternal torture,” Tantalus says. “One becomes used to what one has. The pains secede, one by one, into emptiness. In the end, it’s little pleasures like this fruit that hurt the most. Yet I am a fool, and so I ask for one, whenever someone visits.”

Priyanka sits back down. She stirs the water with one hand. It is cold.

“And now,” Tantalus says, “I remember that I am hungry.” He sighs at the fruit. “Might I have a mouthful of water?” he asks.

“I’m breaking,” she says.

He hesitates, then sighs. “I know.”

She looks up. “What can I do?”

“You can’t win,” he says. He kneels down to fill his hands with water. The water level sinks and drains into the ground, until his hands scrabble in dust. He makes a face. “So you choose what you want to hang on to.”

“Oh.”

“There are seasons,” he says. “Seasons of birth, and growth, and change, and death. In the metal season, we gather the grain that is fallen.”

He rises. A handful of dust falls from his hand. “This is a season of metal,” he says.

Priyanka is crying. The water rises. For a while, he does not speak.

“You can lift this punishment from me,” he says.

That makes her blink. She looks up.

“It’s why she brought you here.”

Priyanka’s vision is full of white. “No,” she says. “I can’t.”

“Please,” he says.

He is pinning her with his eyes. They are ablaze.

There’s a cutting, tugging feeling inside her. It’s rhythmic, like the beating of swan’s wings. It is that quality that would make her a god.

“I can’t,” she says. “You don’t understand. I’d die. I’d come apart. I’m—there’s salt—”

The temptation is burning her. She feels herself coming apart. There is light, and there is darkness, and there is silence.

Tantalus looks away.

She holds herself together.

Tantalus does not speak.

Only just, but she holds herself together, and remaining, in the water and the cold.

After a time, Persephone comes for Priyanka, and leads her to a stair. “Go back,” Persephone says. Her face is cold.

So Priyanka climbs.

There is a white-haired old man beside her. He smells of fried chicken. He spends the whole journey mumbling incoherently about the horrors of the war. When she reaches her basement again, he is gone.

The Unsubstantiated Assertions Fairy (II/II)

It is 1968.

“I’ve been dreaming of Tantalus.”

1968’s monster doesn’t look up. He’s like and unlike the monster of today: a spectacled man, with a striped suit and gray hair. He’s not paying attention to Priyanka, at least, not obviously. He’s playing, instead, with a spider in a box. It has its legs curled up tightly against its body. He tugs gently on one with his left hand. Slowly, the spider’s legs splay. He lets go. The legs quickly retract. “The Incans used to use this as divination,” he says. “Lock a spider in a box, and then look at what its legs are like when you open the box. I’m taking it one step further—by training the spider, I can control the future!”

Priyanka looks up. “Is it going well?” she asks.

“It isn’t biting me any more.”

“Progress is encouraging!”

Priyanka’s ankles are bound to the chair legs. Her wrists are tied to the wall. They have enough play that they can rest on her lap, but not enough to dangle at her sides. The chair is reasonably comfortable. The ropes are not, and her wrists and ankles are raw and red. She tests them occasionally, wincing, but it’s a formality. She has an interest in escape, but not the drive.

The monster looks up. “So,” he says. “Tantalus.”

“He is empty,” she says. “He stands in a land of plenty, but when he reaches for fruit, the wind whips the branches away. When he reaches for water, it drains into the parched earth.”

“Is that emptiness? I’d have called it despair.”

Priyanka considers this. “Despair is an action,” she says. “Emptiness is a state.”

“Ah.”

The monster puts down the box and the spider. He closes its lid. “Are you empty, Priyanka?”

“Sometimes I think so,” she says. “But still—I hang on to a little bit of myself. Because it’s important.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” she admits. “I have this theory, that it matters—to be who I am, to express who I’m supposed to be. But I don’t know why.”

The monster laughs. “No one’s important for themselves,” he says. “We’re important based on the roles we play in others’ lives.”

“Oh?”

“It’s arrogant,” he says, “to believe anything else.”

She giggles a little.

“What?” he asks.

“Snatch!” she says. “I stole your God!”

He looks vaguely perplexed.

“It’s something Mom taught me,” Priyanka says. “It’s a thing to say when people give too much importance to their own beliefs. If you don’t have God in your pocket, you can’t very well argue from authority. So.” She makes a snatching gesture, brought up short by the rope on her right wrist. It cuts into raw red skin, and she winces. “Snatch! I steal your God, and then you can’t make unsubstantiated assertions.”

“I laugh at God,” he says.

“True.”

“So it’s not very relevant.”

She bites her lip. She looks down. She thinks. “I think God is just a metaphor,” she says. “For whatever it is that makes people so sure that they know what’s right and what’s wrong.”

He smiles a little. “I have a fairy.”

“Pardon?”

“An unsubstantiated assertions fairy, or UAF. She lives in my pocket. When I ask her to, she declares something right.”

“Oh.”

“For example,” he says. He fishes out the fairy. It stands on the palm of his hand. Its name is Pomegranate. “Is it important that Priyanka be herself?” he asks.

“No,” Pomegranate says.

“See?” he says. “It’s not just my opinion. It’s also the fairy’s.”

“But what if the fairy is wrong?”

“The fairy is never wrong,” the monster says. “Are you, Pommy?”

“No!” Pomegranate states firmly.

“See, if you could steal my unsubstantiated assertion fairy,” 1968’s monster explains, “then you might have a case. As it is . . .”

“It’s the same thing!” Priyanka says. “The fairy is your God!”

“Nuh-uh,” Pomegranate informs her. “It’s magic. I wave my wand and make things righteous. It’s totally different.”

“Winning an argument takes power,” the monster says. “No matter what you’re arguing about, or what the logic might be.”

Priyanka sags. There’s a long silence.

After a while, the monster goes to the box, and opens it up again. The spider is busily eating a bee. There’s another long silence.

“. . . does that have a divinatory meaning?” Priyanka asks.

“Do you know,” says the monster, “I’m not sure?”

“If you eat a live bee, you’ll go to Heaven!” the UAF declares.