Harbinger

as narrated by Mrs. Schiff

People say that he’s a Harbinger of bad news — that where he goes misfortune follows.

“If you see him,” they say, “turn away. Don’t look. Go somewhere else, if you can.”

When I saw him I decided they were wrong.

It wasn’t a big philosophical thing. I mean, people have argued — people with real blogs and stuff — that you can’t change fate just by deciding. If he’s there for you, he’s already there for you, before you turn away or go somewhere else. If he’s not there for you, then turning away won’t change anything.

But even people like that, they agree, you don’t talk to him.

You don’t make a point of interacting with him.

That’s just making trouble for yourself.

He moved so gracefully.

It’s hard to explain if you’ve only seen him on television or in frozen pictures. It’s not like you’d expect.

Harbinger doesn’t fall into any uncanny valley. When you see him move, it’s like it frees up your own limbs — it’s like when the Wrights looked at birds (or maybe stiff-limbed trees with engines on them) and learned to fly. He’s beautiful.

So I said, “Hi.”

He gave this big delighted grin and moved to me and said, “You talked to me!”

There wasn’t any loneliness in his eyes. There weren’t any marks of it. He’s not like Emo or the Ice Guy. There was just this transformative joy of human contact.

But now that he was there and happy I was talking, I didn’t know any more of what to say.

“You’re Harbinger,” I told him, on the theory that perhaps he didn’t know.

“The very same,” he said. He looked away for a second, then smoothly back. “I was blessed by my godmother to be a hero — to have the speed to go where I am needed before it is too late, and to save the day once I am there.”

I set my purse down because I wanted my hands free, but then I didn’t have anything to do with them.

“Really?”

“Really,” he said. “But then I was cursed to get there before the trouble happened, and leave before it arrived. It’s all —”

He gestured like somebody trying to draw a Rube Goldberg schematic with club hands.

“It’s all in the order you get your blessings, with fairies. The right order and you’re a hero, the wrong order and it’s not so good.”

“Well, you could warn people,” I said.

“I don’t do that,” he said.

“No?”

“That’d be trouble,” he said. He spun around uncertainly like a top. “I mean, not the same kind of trouble that happens after I leave, I hope — oh, God, paradoxes would suck — but the thing is, it’d just mean that my warning came too soon and that people would forget it just in time to need it. I don’t want anyone kicking themselves on my account, and they always would. My name is Jason, by the way.”

“Eileen.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t warn people. I don’t do anything like that.”

“Oh.”

I hesitated.

“But I’ll be in trouble?” I said.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “You’ll need a really fast guy to save you — well, plus my other godmother gifts, like strength”

and beauty

“and laser vision,” he said. “But I’ll have already left, to get there before a big building fire or drowning puppy or something.”

“That’s too bad.”

“But listen,” he said. He took my hands. “Listen, it’s okay.”

I was blushing. I thought about yanking my hands away. I didn’t manage to decide to do it. It’s probably part of his supernatural powers.

“I wanted to quit,” he said. “I thought about it for a long time. But finally I realized that there was still something worth doing. I mean, when people don’t go all ‘run away, it’s Harbinger.’ on me. I figured out that everything I’m supposed to stop — that it can all be okay. Even though I can’t.”

I pulled my hands back.

“Not drowning puppies,” I pointed out.

“We make our lives really hard,” he said. “When bad stuff happens, we tell ourselves that we’re part of why; or we hurt ourselves extra, struggling against it or trying to hang on to what we had before. We don’t — people don’t — focus on the fact that part of being a person is that whatever is immediately in front of you, you can handle it. That’s what it means to be a consciousness in the world — that there are paths that you can take, and one of them is as right as you can get, and if you take that, it’s okay. And even if you don’t take that, as long as you have a good reason to take a different one, that’s okay too. Or if you learn better later. Whatever. There’s only the options we have in front of us, so it’s okay if we don’t have other ones.”

“That’s okay as far as it goes,” I said.

“I realized,” he said, “that maybe if I told people that, then they’d remember it when their suffering came. Because it’s not like there was any other way it could have been, not like the trouble is something they could get out of, not when they needed me and I’ll have already left.”

“You could tell them to blame you,” I told him.

He smiled and stopped smiling, smiled and stopped smiling, three or four times. “But it wouldn’t be true,” he said.

Then he looked up and away, sharply, like a dog that’s heard some hidden sound.

“They will need me,” he said.

Death and death and death; I could feel it. I could taste it, metallic in the air. It hadn’t even happened yet and it was calling him.

“Wait,” I said.

“Oh, my heart,” he said. “I wish I could.”

Then there was nothing left of him but my brain’s stubborn reluctance — for nearly half a second — to recognize that he was gone.

Pasta

You can make miracle pasta by stirring together flour, miracles, milk, salt, and butter. Then you cut the mix into long strands, air, and cook. The biggest difficulty is in finding the miracles. Once you have done that the stirring, cutting, airing, and cooking is easy.

Miracle pasta is good with a spicy red sauce and shrimp.

It is also good with despair as it is the function of miracles to alleviate despair.

A long time ago seven miracle pasta wheels fell to Earth, one of them landing on a frog.

It was like this:

Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Squish! Thump!

“We will guide these people, and guard them, and shepherd them,” say the miracle pasta wheels.

Then they roll around and make all kinds of havoc.

“Oh, look!” says a hungry child in Germany. She points at a pasta wheel. Then she eats it. This alleviates her hunger and her despair!

Six pasta wheels remain.

“The simplest way to rid our planet of the troublesome infinite-weight stone would be to launch it into space via rocket,” decide Atlantean alchemists.

Whoosh! Sploosh! It is a typical Atlantean disaster.

Two pasta wheels are on Atlantis when it sinks. They grow weak and soggy in water and eventually drown.

A mammoth in North America stumbles across a pasta wheel. “At last,” it says, “the power of miracles is mine!”

Three blind sages stumble across the pasta wheel at that same exact moment.

“No!” cries the first blind sage. “Pasta is a human treasure!”

“A tasty meal!” cries the second.

“An ineffable symbol of hope and endurance!” explains the third.

“I’ll show you my terrible tusks,” trumpets the mammoth. But only one of the blind sages is even aware of the mammoth’s tusks! He runs away and two sages remain.

“I’ll stomp you with my terrible feet!” the mammoth declares. But only one of the blind sages is even aware of the mammoth’s feet! He runs away, leaving one blind sage.

“I’ll defeat you with my mammoth philosophy of nonviolence!”

There’s a pause.

“Yoink!” says the last blind sage, grabbing half of the pasta wheel. The mammoth seizes the other half. They each run away, treating the pasta in ill manner.

Later, Arthur Pendragon falls.

He bleeds from many wounds.

“Oh, Arthur,” says a wheel of miraculous pasta. “You were the best of England.”

This is in fact not true. The best of England was probably the curry. But pasta does not know such things.

“So hungry,” murmurs the dying king.

“Partake of my flesh, my liege,” the pasta wheel says. “You will never die.”

Two pasta wheels remain.

They roll around the world causing all kinds of havoc.

One meets a man.

They fall in love.

It is the forbidden love. It is the love between man and pasta: that slippery, boiling love that slowly stiffens as it cools, eventually becoming dry and tasteless.

Heaven frowns upon this love.

The man is chastised.

The pasta is cast up into the sky, where it becomes a new constellation.

Thus in these days there is only one wheel of miracle pasta left upon the Earth.

There is only one miracle left to guide us, to guard us, to shepherd us, and to bring us hope.

Treasure it while ye may; the world progresses swift.

(Low Saturday) Accidental Properties

A legend about finding a noble truth just when you least expect it.

Siddhartha bursts into the room.

“Devadatta!” he exclaims. “You’ve got to disguise yourself as me— quickly!”

“I do not see,” grumbles Devadatta, “How this proves the fallacy of independent existence . . .”

Anatman. A comedy about Buddhism, noble truths, and love.

Coming soon to a theater near you.

(April 1) What if the Tower Had a Different Cast?

The slurry of words falls always from the sky.

They are grey.

They are bits of pulp-paper, smeared with ink, torn to shreds and pouring forever over the Buffalo region.

The monster trudges along the road. He shivers in his shiny winter coat. Little grey words accumulate on his shoulders.

All around him there are humans; and there are humans; and there are enemies.

A bus drives by. It splashes him with data.

He looks up.

His eyes gleam.

He hierarchically orders the bus in relationship to evil two-headed wolves that live outside the world.

“Graar!” roars the bus.

It is taking inspiration from the wolves. It is relaying the doctrine of those wolves into the world.

The bus stops at a red light.

It casts its head around. “Graar!” it roars.

If it had a mouth, it would totally eat somebody.

Ezra is a pedestrian. He looks up. His face is in a rapture. The words of the wolves are the words he has waited his whole life to hear.

“I understand,” he says. “At last.”

The bus snarls and snaps at him.

Cringing, Ezra scuttles back. He hulks low to the ground, like a two-headed beta wolf living beyond the world. He makes a low whimpering noise. But he does not go away.

The light turns green again.

Driven by the senseless imperatives of the wolves beyond the world, the bus starts moving again, lurches forward two blocks, and then pulls over against the curb.

Ezra follows, and there is something on his face of peace.

The monster trudges on.

And all around him there are humans; and there are humans; and there are enemies.

“I don’t understand,” Tina had said, on the phone. “It’s raining data from the sky. It’s practically begging for organization. Why don’t you set an order to it?”

“You can’t give things order when they’re asking for it,” the monster said. “That road leads to ruin.”

There’s the Rice Building to the monster’s left. Moira looks down from a window. She is dressed in an evening dress and holding a champagne glass in her hand.

She experiences contempt for the monster in the snow.

He looks up.

His eyes gleam.

He hierarchically orders the building in relationship to Santa Claus.

A cold northern wind blows through the Rice Building. The laughter of gnomes is loud in the elevator shaft. Soft lights twinkle.

And Moira finds herself thinking, “I should give away everything I have.”

The notion is simple and lucid. She has thought herself a good person, but in the grim Santalight she recognizes that in every aspect of her virtue there is also the taint of greed. Clinging to her possessions and her comfort, she has never known true clarity of spirit.

“I should empty my bank accounts,” she says, “and give presents to the poor. And then I should slip from my skin,” she says: “Leaving it behind me as a gift for humanity or for God, and like a moth fly free.”

Ho, ho, ho, Moira! That’s the illumination of the Santalight!

The monster trudges on.

And all around him there are humans; and there are humans; and there are enemies.

Tina hesitated.

“I know a disordered thing that craves not resolution,” she says.

The monster is going to the Vatican Satellite Archive in Buffalo, where the Vatican keeps all of the various secret archives and papers that for one reason or another it prefers to keep in Buffalo.

It is a big metal building, like a bunker.

It has a giant and somewhat tacky cross on the front, and it is protected by the Swiss Guard.

“Hello,” says the monster.

“We cannot let you pass,” the Swiss Guard clarify.

And the monster’s eyes gleam—but:

“It’s all right,” Tina says.

She is standing inside the building. She is wearing a lab coat. And at her words the Swiss Guard stand down and relax.

The monster goes in.

“Come see,” she had said. “It’s the God machine.”

“Take me to it,” he says.

And she leads him down into the bowels of the building, where the deepest and darkest of the secrets that the Vatican keeps in Buffalo reside; and there he sees it, great and bulky and flashing its lights and devouring punch cards and tape—the God Machine.

“It is sick,” she says.

The monster looks at it. He taps it with the edge of his hand. He tilts his head to one side and listens to its bleeps.

“It’s the conflict with the Allah Machine and the Godless Secularist Machine,” he says.

“That’s why it’s snowing words,” Tina says. “And why every third person on the street is an enemy.”

He attempts to hierarchically order the three machines. Tina stabs him with the knife Quicksilver.

He is distracted. He can scarcely tell that he’s bleeding, but there’re grey waves of shock inside his mind.

He blinks. He shakes his head. “Huh?”

“Huh?”

“You stabbed me,” he says.

“Oh.”

“Please don’t stab me,” he says, “while I’m trying to hierarchically order God.”

Tina’s lips are a thin line.

The monster looks up. His eyes gleam. He hierarchically orders—

“OW!” he says. “Fudge!”

“I can’t take responsibility for it,” Tina says, cleaning her knife. “It’s natural that you should experience pain when attempting to place these three machines in hierarchical order.”

“I see,” the monster says. “It’s just the inexorable development of a natural process.”

“Yes.”

He looks at her. She is trying very hard not to grin.

He’s got blood all over his shiny winter coat.

“Well,” he says, “thank you for showing me.”

He turns away.

He walks up towards the street.

“You’re not going to break it or anything?” she asks.

He shrugs.

“It’s just the God Machine.”

He walks out of the Vatican Satellite Archive in Buffalo. He walks past the Swiss Guard. They’re mildly concerned about his bleeding but they can’t do anything about it because he’s not the Pope.

He staggers out among the cold grey slurry of words.

And he stumbles.

He falls.

He lays there, on the sidewalk. The humans step over him. The humans walk around him. The enemies stare at him with their shining red eyes.

And suddenly he understands.

There on the ground he laughs; and he looks up; and his eyes gleam.

And he says, “This is a world that loves not order.”

The slurry falls.

And up above the seraphim sing into the chill void of Heaven, and their words precipitate down; and they had never asked that the people of Earth should understand what it is they’ve said.

He is free.

His eyes gleam.

He says, “Systima.”

And the order of things congeals about the words, and the slurry that falls from the sky begins to bind together as it falls; and paper forms books, and books form corpuses, and even the corpuses submerge into data, and there is a swirling serpent of form assembling from the falling gunk, a mad grey thrashing snake like an elemental of the storm; and where there was emptiness there is now an answer, looking out at him from the serpent’s burning eye.

But it is not an answer that he can understand.

Six’s Story

There is a place far away, a rocky cave well-lit by fires and by mosses’ glow, and there the numbers gather every year. They are assembled, will they or nill they, from the great infinity of the world. Eight of them, always, have seen that place before; one of them, each year, is new.

1.

Helen finds herself swept from the world and into distant places.

“We will call you One,” Nine says.

And Helen, staring at Nine, sees the incredible beauty of her: the clean pure goodness of Nine that radiates from every pore.

And so she says, with the breath taken out of her, “Okay.”

And Nine leads her to a gathering where people stand around a table: and there is punch, and fruit, and music, and light conversation; and running under it all an electric current of mathematics that gives articulated numeric definition to every word that every person says, so that the play of conversation is like the shared construction of a proof, so that the music is like a counterpoint to the logical arguments that the convocation advances, so that the selection of each fruit or sip of punch is a new axiom or lemma.

“Hi,” says Helen shyly, and she feels the Theorem of Introduction form to give hard structural backbone to those words.

And Five smiles at her, disablingly, and says, “You belong with us,” and his words are proof of fact.

“Oh,” she sighs, and then she looks to Nine, and asks, “This is really okay? I’m supposed to be here?”

But Nine has drifted away, and where she stood there is a void like a contradiction.

The room stills.

“Six,” says Five.

“Six,” say the others.

They have turned to see the newest arrival, and they are all murmuring her name.

Looking at Six, Helen thinks: Surely this is the greatest lady in all the world.

Six is tall and graceful and her eyes are fixed on Nine: and Nine meets her by the entrance and their hands touch: and then Nine walks away.

And Six stares after her, her eyes unfocused, and Helen realizes that something is wrong.

She sees a truth but not its reasoning.

She asks, “Where is Nine going?”

And, “Why is Six afraid of Seven?”

But there is no one listening to her just then to give the answer to those words.

2.

Two is in the shadows.

He is nervous, as is typical for him. He does not expect Six to feel a fierce and consuming joy on seeing him. He would not believe her if she told him that that joy was there.

But it burns in her.

She loves the crookedness of his nose.

She loves the thickness of him. She loves the gentleness.

She hugs him, when they meet, and he is distant and afraid of touch, but still he stammers, “It is good to have you here.”

And Six nods, and she goes to pull away, but he stops her.

“Six always survives,” he says. “Remember that.”

Six always survives.

And she moves on.

3.

Three is crooked, wry, and sinister.

“We all have a dark heart,” he says.

“You wish,” Six tells him.

Three looks wounded. “I’m totally evil,” he says. “Look, I’m cackling.”

He lifts his head. He braces himself. Then he laughs a wicked laugh.

“Hwa, ha ha ha ha.”

He cannot sustain the laugh under her level gaze.

Your reasoning is inconclusive, her eyes say.

He breaks down in giggles, and she has won the point.

“And when,” she asks, “will you act on this terrible evil inside you?”

“Soon enough,” he says. “Soon enough.”

He grins a bit.

“Perhaps next year,” he says. “When I am Four.”

She hugs him once, then she moves on.

4.

Four is a crone. She is half-asleep.

Six takes her hand, gently. She says, “Four?”

And Four wakes up.

Four smiles to her.

It is a perfect smile. It is the kind of smile you do not learn in the first eighty years of your life. Some people do not even learn it in their first hundred.

It is the kind of smile that abandons all the false conceits we learn in childhood and simply grants light unto the world.

“Why is it only every year?” Six asks. “That I can see you all?”

“It is too good,” says Four. “It is too good to be too common.”

5.

Five is terribly handsome. Six thinks about interrupting the story to have sex with him right then, but it is probably for the best to wait.

Instead, they kiss.

“You could stay here,” he proposes.

“And leave Seven unpunished?”

“Which is more important?” he says. “Kissing, or revenge?”

“Kissing,” she says. “But honor trumps them both.”

“Honor is an unverified hypothesis,” he sighs.

But he lets her go.

7.

Seven is in the back, staring at the wall.

Seven says, “Listen.”

“Hm?” Six asks.

“Did you ever think that people might be fundamentally in error regarding their desires?” Seven asks.

“No,” Six says.

“It would be logical,” Seven says. “As they are in error regarding everything else.”

She turns on Six. There is blood at the corner of Seven’s mouth; blood on her hands; blood smeared along her face. She gestures broadly and her fingernails are black with it.

Six’s fear chills her.

“Ask twenty people for a binary truth,” Seven says, “And get twenty different answers. Seek the good for humanity, and discover that in the end they do not want the good; that their needs are contradictory; that their suffering is also their apotheosis. So I say: people are in error regarding their desires. They do not want happiness, wholeness, glory. They desire the natural culmination of the flesh, that is, to be eaten by a superior predator. To be devoured; made great; incorporated into something larger than themselves.”

Six counts on her fingers.

Six says, “You’re committing an error of precedence.”

Seven narrows her eyes. “Eh?”

“That blood.”

“Seven ate nine,” Seven murmurs lucidly.

“Right.”

“And?”

“So Nine didn’t become part of something larger than herself. She became part of something smaller.”

Seven frowns at Six.

“Conservation of energy,” Seven dismisses, “disagrees.”

There is no answer that Six may give to that. It is both indisputable and wrong.

So Six does not answer.

Instead she stares at Seven for a while. She tries to see the person that she knows— the person that she loves, the person she’s eaten ice cream with, laughed with, stayed up far too late arguing theorems with— under the blood.

Six says, softly, “You know why we are here.”

“I do,” Seven says.

“Do you understand what must be done?”

“Every year,” Seven says, “we meet, and we go through the senseless ritual of it. The castigation of seven. The revenge upon the digit, the ritual magic, to impress upon |N, the space of natural numbers, that never again shall one number feast upon another. Every year, Six, it becomes a little more cloying, a little more ridiculous, a little more false. It is not the successor function that is the law, Six. It is the function of consumption, the predecessor function, the grim spectre of death counting downwards from infinity.”

“That’s bad number theory!” Six protests.

And Seven is close in on her now, and with a knife held in her trembling hand, and Seven demands, “Silence!”

And all becomes tableau.

Until finally, Seven withdraws a bit and says, “What you say is true, but like any other problem in mathematics, the difficulty may be resolved using limits.”

“Seven,” pleads Six.

Her voice shakes.

“I don’t recognize you,” Six says.

“Next year, when you are Seven, perhaps you will.”

“No.”

“Next year,” Seven says, “you will see the gaping moral flaw that underlies all the mathematics that we know; and you will curse yourself for standing by your principles instead of standing at my back.”

“That may be so,” Six agrees.

Seven sighs.

She drops the knife. She lowers her head. She stands there like a prisoner condemned.

“Seven,” Six says. “I name you beast. I name you betrayer. In this place I say I am your judge, and I find you guilty of murder and of treason.”

“And what is your sentence?”

8.

Successor,” Six says.

It is a curse.

It is a judgment.

Seven increments into the principle of devouring.

9.

Six comes to the end of her journey there.

She stands in cutting silence.

Then she turns around and she trudges back to the others.

They are gathered around a table in the main room of the first ten natural numbers, and they are talking, and there is good cheer; but when they see her the room falls silent.

The new One— Helen, if Six recalls— looks at her with wounded eyes.

And then:

“Come here,” says Five.

And he seizes Six into comfort; and all around her are Two, and Three, and Five, and Four looks on and says, “I am proud.”

And Six says, “Seven ate nine,” because Seven did, and it is painful to her, to say, to admit, to know.

Nine, so vibrant:

So alive:

Just one year back from her interlude in Hell; just two years back from madness; just three years back from standing there as Six and issuing a judgment:

And now devoured.

“Nine always dies,” Two says.

10.

“But,” says Ten.

And suddenly Six pulls herself apart from all the crowd. She stares seized up with wonder. She knows Ten’s voice, and she had never thought to hear it in her ears again.

And she says, “You survived.”

“I was reborn,” Ten says, to contradict her.

“You survived,” she says.

Last year’s Nine.

Ten is clean-limbed and strong and better than any devoured number has any right to be.

And Ten says, brightly, “Did you know, if you increment enough, you get an extra digit?”

“I knew,” weeps Six. “We knew. But we had forgotten.”

And to One she says, displaying Ten to Helen as if Ten were a jewel: “This is what we can become.”

A legend about spring.

No Legend Today

No legend today!
No legend today!
Hooray!
Hooray!
No legend today!

The tower is silent
Like Mortimer Stilent
Who only exists
To make that line rhyme.

The curtain has fallen
Like poor Flora Pallen
Who was pushed off a cliff
By Fiona the mime.

The chaos is stiller
Than Ms. Penelope Diller
Who dallies most still-ly
In loiterish crime.

And as for the chorus
We hope you adore us
For appearing just long enough
To utter this line.

The Top

A legend about small red things that live in boxes.

The top is red.

It spins.

It is covered in the blood of the knight who’d had it last.

It is in a cave and there are great long-limbed trolls with their claws and their teeth hunched around it.

When the top slows down they spin it again.

The top is hungry. It isn’t an ordinary top. It’s a virtue-eating top. It’s a top that takes the virtue in its spinner and eats it.

That’s where evil people come from.

They spin too many tops.

But this top is hungry. The trolls have no virtue to eat—not much, at least. Scraps. Bloody little scraps of virtue.

It could starve to death here. That’s something it never imagined. It never dreamed that it would spend time in the world, spinning but unfed. It never imagined that there’d be people anywhere devoid of virtue.

Yet here it is.

The top wishes that it could flee. It wishes that they’d stop spinning it at least, break the addicition that it imposes on its owners and abandon it, so that it could wait in the darkness for a virtuous person.

But they do not.

They should be able to. The addiction should be weak. They don’t have enough virtue to feed it, so the pull of the top should be minuscule at best.

But they have pride.

They are grunting to themselves, as they spin the top, about how virtuous and noble they are.

They know what the top is doing to them.

They must know, it realizes.

And still they spin.

They are as hungry to have virtue to feed it as the top is hungry to eat.

Ink in Emptiness: The Mirror Cracks

the legend of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8, 9, 10)

In Hell there is a city of poison and gold.

Ink Catherly lives there. She sits on its broken throne. She is fifteen years old and she is a savage jungle queen.

She has not thought of her father or her mother in some time.

Instead she thinks of Greystoke, the bull-ape raised by suburbanites, lord of suburbia and king of men. She thinks of the treasures of the jungle. She thinks of the mechanisms by which she might escape her Hell.

It is the unfortunate character of Ink’s circumstances that Hell is inescapable.

Here ends the legend of Ink Catherly: in the city of poison and gold, in Hell, where Greystoke has called up her father against her.

Hell, day 969: The veil-rending gun.

As always the ape opposed my search. I tell him: “You must let me work. I must find an answer so that I can escape from Hell.” But he is a beast and he does not understand.

I found it at last, kept in the claws of Usr-Acigh: the gun that can break the veil between worlds. I fired it. I opened a gap in the jungle. But I could not step through. In any other world I would be a corpse.

I watch my hand as I write this. It is like watching a hand pulled around by puppet strings. It is like a spider. It is like a headless chicken. It is like the flopping plastic bag that one at first mistakes for life. There is direction. There is intentionality. But it is emptiness and not purpose that drives it.

There is no escape from Hell because it is not a place but rather a condition, and a condition not of quality but of absence. I have lost the divine fire that gave me purpose. I have only the bleak insectile intentionality of flesh. I am an outsider to myself. If I were not in Hell I would be dead.

Mr. Catherly stands at the door.

“Greystoke,” Ink breathes. “You go too far.”

Mr. Catherly is gliding forward, his footsteps silent on the gold and marble floor. He says, “It is not your right, Ink, to claim the jungle’s treasures.”

Ink shakes her head.

Her face is darkening with anger.

“The Mirror of Flame will do you no good,” says Mr. Catherly. “This is Hell. There is no avenue by which you may obtain your desire.”

Ink turns. The threat of Greystoke is forgotten, and the ape himself is nearly so. Her world has narrowed down to the Mr. Catherly and the savage challenge that must come—in any species—when a child defies her parent and seeks to define the freedom of her course.

“You would say that,” she says.

There is a growl tickling at her throat. She is not letting it loose: for one thing, the human voice does not yield easily to it, and it replaces speech in use. For another, she does not wish to warn him of the seriousness of her intent. But as she shifts her stance to the lightly-bent crouch that humans use in battle her plans are transparent to the older man. He slows his advance. He is wary.

“Hold this,” Ink says, not taking her eyes from her father’s face.

She holds out the instrument of defiance to Greystoke; for unlike the men he summons, the ape-king of suburbia has such notions of honor as to make this safe.

The bull-ape takes it from her hands.

Incompatible Precepts Catherly takes two steps forward and then springs.

The contest of human and human is savage. Their teeth are blunt. Their claws are weak. Their muscles are poorly suited to murder.

But there are many ways by which they may give one another pain.

The howls of them rise through the jungle. They disturb the birds, that look up once and flee. They cause the frogs and salamanders to retreat into their holes. They shake the ancient city and its poisons and its gold.

And Ink takes her father down onto his back and beats at his chest and he is smiling hideously at her with his white fangs and he says, “See? Incompatible.”

Ink shrieks, a terrifying and an alien cry.

Her cunning talons close around his neck. His face darkens. His terrible words go still. His hands are twitching.

Ink says, “Tell me I’m a person.

But this is Hell.

Hell, day 1406: The mirror of flame.I have captured a mirror that reflects someone with a self—not the Ink who writes this but an Ink such as I was before. It hurts but I cannot stop looking at it.

She would, I think, find an answer to this place. She would explore it, transform it from this horrid absence into a phenomenon worth recording—not Hell but the witnessing of Hell, not emptiness but the recognition that she is not empty. She had wanted that. But I am not that Ink. I am her empty corpse.The ape, I think, will be here soon.

“Stupid fathers,” says Ink.

Mr. Catherly is unconscious.

“Stupid parents. Can you imagine?” she says. She is panting. She is struggling to recapture control over her emotions. “Naming somebody after what having the baby meant?

Greystoke is mute.

Ink rises. She stalks back to the throne. She sits down. Her posture slumps and her eyes go distant and she reassumes the demeanor of a brooding jungle queen.

“Take it,” she says. “Take the Mirror.”

So Greystoke steps forward. He pulls the Mirror of Flame down from the air.

“Leave the instrument of defiance. And go.”

The ape places the instrument of defiance down upon the floor and begins to walk away.

“Wait.”

Ink struggles for words.

“When I was young,” she says. “I accidentally cut off a fingertip. And the funny thing was that it just lay there, empty. It wasn’t a part of me. It was meat.”

“Yes,” says Greystoke.

“That is all we are,” she says. “Meat and bone.”

“Yes,” says Greystoke.

“I remember when I was fire,” Ink says. “I can look in the mirror and I can see that—an Ink Catherly, far away, who is fire and not just emptiness. Someone who is different from that twitching finger.” Her breathing is erratic. “I need it. I need it to remind me that I had something inside me once.”

“That is not need,” says Greystoke. “That is suffering.”

And in her last glance in the mirror, as he carries it away, she can see a great tower that is not her tower; and beyond it a sea of surging chaos; and an Ink who is not herself, but somehow possessed of that which is forbidden to her in Hell.

The mirror cracks.

Ink in Emptiness: the Lord of Suburbia

the legend of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8, 9)

Greystoke, the lord of suburbia, beats his chest and shouts out his human call.

“Come,” he shouts.

The word is bass and guttural. The bull-ape’s throat was never meant for human speech.

“Come! Come now!”

And the humans come.

Hell, day 242: The yawning door.

This is a door spoken of in the old books. It is supposed to show people the nature of their sins. I felt that if I understood the nature of my sins, I would remember what it was like to sin and it would fill the emptiness inside me. So I went to the door.

The door was guarded by a damnable ape named Greystoke. He spoke like a person and he told me not to open it. I deceived him and did so, and so I saw my sins.

I looked through the door and saw the poisoned fruit that gave sin to our kind. I saw the circumstances of my birth and how it forced my parents—two people of incompatible precepts and attitudes—to live together, bringing them much sorrow. I saw how as an infant I ravenously consumed and returned nothing. I saw my pride and how I dodged responsibility. I cried and the ape tried to comfort me so I hit him.

The jungle is brown and green and shadowed. It is full of scents. There is an abandoned city there, a place of gold and poison, and on its throne there is a girl.

She is dressed in savage finery, most of her skin showing, her clothing dripping with gold and great chunks of jade. She is malnourished. Her court is empty of human life, but thin bedraggled monkeys crawl above her on the rafters and a terrible white snake circles around her throne.

Before her there is a treasure beyond price: the Mirror of the Flame.

It hangs in the air. What it shows her we do not see, but she looks up.

“Greystoke is coming,” she says.

And then in the great arched doorways of the room there stands an ape: tall and powerful and covered in dark fur.

Behind him slink the humans.

A primal horror tickles the girl’s mind as she sees them. Such creatures as these are not known in savage lands.

First there is Mr. Brown. An articulated human neck supports his blocky head; below it, there is a body lean and strong and clad in fine-cut silk. The light of the mirror gleams in his slicked-back hair. The fingers on his hands twitch, each joint partially independent from the next, as he moves in.

Then there is Ms. Ward, thin-waisted like a wasp, her hair piled above her head, the skin of her leg flashing horribly with each step through the long slit of her skirt. She is one of the scientists of suburbia, a wickedly cunning master of that world-altering art, but the heat has shed her of her white winter coat and only the attitude of her reveals it.

Finally there is Mr. Smith, bulbous and slow. This is a spectacled man, hiding part of his face behind a shocking apparatus of copper wire and glass lenses. His tufted eyebrows are visible only as a thin line above the device; when he looks down, his eyes vanish behind perturbations in the glass.

The girl’s hand moves, ever so marginally. Two of the monkeys leap down from the rafters. They snatch up wickedly barbed spears. They move forward against the humans that Greystoke has called.

Mr. Brown roars and vents forth smoke. Blood spatters through the room. The girl jerks back in startlement.

She did not even see the blow the human struck with his smoking hand, but in an instant, one of the monkeys has become red ruin and the other has fled.

So her hand falls to her instrument of defiance: a device, formed of dark wood wrapping around three interlocking purple gems, that has against Greystoke’s humans previously served her well.

“Greystoke,” says the girl. “What do you here?”

“Ink,” he says.

That is his name for her. He calls her that because of the ink that stains her fingers.

He looks at the Mirror of Flame.

“That is not yours,” growls the ape.

Hell, day 703: The city.

I have not been honest. I read the books that these people left behind—abandoned in their city of gold and poison when they succumbed at last to their despair —and I realize this about myself.

My complaints have been ill-founded and my experience inevitable. The purpose of exploration is to transform horrible things into the strange and the beautiful. It is to deny the world its damned, corrupted nature and make it through the eyes that value truth into something better. That is why until I came to this place I lived in beauty.

The people of this city understood the nature of exploration. They labored fiercely to transform Hell. But they did not have those eyes that value truth. They could write of the glories of this world—and oh! it is glorious and it is terrible, in Hell—but at the end it was always empty to them.

As it is to me.

Ape-King Greystoke has set forth his claim.

There is a tension in the room.

“Do you challenge me, then?” Ink asks. “Oh lord of suburbia?”

She rises from her throne. There is a dangerous and musical sound as the gold hangings of her clothing beat against one another.

“To meddle with such things,” says Greystoke, “brings no happiness.”

“There is no alternative,” says Ink.

She triggers the instrument of defiance. There is a wind that rushes through the room. It is a terrible howling wind and there are devils on it.

It rebuffs the humans of Greystoke. Snarling does Ms. Ward fall back beyond the borders of the door. Flailing and issuing loud bursts of smoke, so too does Mr. Brown. Only Mr. Smith remains, bracing his great bulk against the wind; and the devils of that wind cut at the spectacled man leaving only his hidden eyes unharmed.

“It will not give you what you need,” says Greystoke.

“Damnable ape,” says Ink.

She walks forward.

Shrugging off the devil wind as if it were a simple breeze, so too does he.

Ink pokes him in the chest with a finger.

“Do you know how easy it would be to kill you?”

The panel of the floor on which Greystoke is standing lowers, ever-so-slightly, under his weight. He can see, with the flicking of his eyes to each side, poisoned darts gleaming in recesses within two walls. He does not know if they are rusted into place or held still by the will of Ink Catherly, and so he does not move.

“Do you know why I will not?” Ink asks.

And Greystoke rumbles, “You fear me. You are afraid that I am not empty. You are afraid that I am not in Hell.”

Ink’s face goes pale. She turns away.

“Don’t push me,” she says.

Greystoke tenses, because those words are like the rattling of a snake. I have no intent to kill you, they say to him. But if you step on me it is inevitable that I will bite.

But a personal challenge to the savage jungle queen was not the great ape’s only plan.

Someone clears his throat. Ink snaps her head to the left to see the noise’s source.

There are other entrances to the throne room, and in one of them stands a hunching figure whose very appearance fills Ink with primal dread: his hair is high and thinning, his eyes are pale, and his hands are thick, powerful, and large. This is the terror of suburbia, that human male named Mr. Catherly, who in his animal coupling with Mrs. Catherly had expelled into her womb approximately half of the genetic material that became Ink.

“Incompatible Precepts Catherly,” he says. “Do not you taunt Lord Greystoke, King of Men.”

She Had Forgotten All the Red

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

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

The clothing of her blends into the world.

She says, “It’s been a long time.”

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

“What happened?” says Sid.

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

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

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

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

“And their vehicles;

“And all their earthly goods;

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

“Signed,” and then an illegible scrawl.

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

“Harsh,” says Sid.

He finishes going home and sleeps that night in peace.

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

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

“Little help?” it asks.

“Hm?” Sid says.

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

“Oh,” says Sid.

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

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

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

“It’s very big,” says Sid.

“Bigger than the stars?”

“Bigger than galaxies.”

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

“Dude,” it says.

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

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

“Wow,” says Sid.

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

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

“Radical,” Sid says.

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

It drives down towards the earth.

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

“Hey,” says the man.

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

His name tag says, “Brad Summers.”

“Hey,” says Sid, charmed.

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

“Come in,” says Sid.

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

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

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

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

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

Sid frowns a little.

“You look disturbed,” says Agent Summers.

“You’re acting weird,” says Sid.

“Ah.”

Agent Summers says:

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

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

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

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

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

“See,” says Agent Summers.

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

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

“Hey!” says Sid.

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

“Hey!”

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

“Hey!”

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

“No.”

“Goldfish?”

“No.”

“Then I’ll take the rest.”

Agent Summers slips the soul into his breast pocket.

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

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

He puts his hands on Sid’s shoulders.

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

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

Sid stops.

Agent Summers turns, as Sid stands there.

He walks away.

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

Sid sits on the confiscated sofa in his confiscated house.

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

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

He finds it hard to care, without his soul.

“What if I die?” Sid wonders.

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

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

“Hm?”

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

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

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

“Oh.”

Sid slumps.

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

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

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

He shakes his head. He says:

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

“Whose?”

“Agent Summers’.”

The pages of the books then blow.

“Huh,” the librarian says.

“Hey,” says Sid.

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

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

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

That gives Sid pause for a moment.

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

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

“Wait, what?”

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

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

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

“Oh.”

There’s a pause.

“Will there be anything else, sir?”

“Agent Summers—”

There’s a chill.

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

“You know that just from his name?”

“Yes, sir.”

The DEA Information Office agent recites:

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

“Is it not so?”

“It’s so,” concedes Sid.

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

So Sid sighs.

He sits down in the pay phone booth.

“If there were—”

There’s a pause.

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

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

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

He gets hungrier and hungrier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he thinks as he walks the endless stairs:

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

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

“Hey,” says the man.

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

His name tag says, “Brad Summers.”

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

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

“Come in,” he says.

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

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

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

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

“Go ahead,” he says.

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

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

“How did it happen?” Sid asks.

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

“This bit is mine,” says Sid.

“Is that so?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Please,” says Sid.

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

“I need it,” Sid says.

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

Sid rises.

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

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

Sid tries to move away, but he can’t.

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

Agent Summers draws his gun.

He shoots Sid in the head.

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” says Sid.

And all through the world there are screams of horror.

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

“Ah,” breathes the spirit, understanding.

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

“I had forgotten all the red.”