“The Golden Age” – From the Journals of Ink Catherly (XI/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Cronos: Upon his ascension to the throne of the world, an endless time before great Hestia’s birth, Cronos went down to Tartarus and cast open the gates.

He said, “Come out, ye that may.”

Past him in a stream flowed the damned and terrible progeny of the couplings of Uri and the world. Some skulked low and chittered. Some shivered with cold slime. Some screamed foul prophecies as they flew above his head. Lastly there slunk forth the worst of them, a cutty angel, saying, “There is hope.”

They went out into the world and the world took the weight of them.

That was the beginning of Cronos’ reign—the day the horrors went free.

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

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

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

It is incumbent on a man, if he will lapse the leash on monsters, to bear the weight of their actions.

Cronos had unleashed great horrors on the world.

The world did not suffer from them.

Rather, from his place on the throne of the world, the titan held that suffering at bay. He made a plate of stone and set it behind him and upon it he bore the weight of imperfection. Thus when swarmed the namecatcher wasps, they did not cause harm. Thus the staggering crooked heartless men did not bleed out their life into the hollows of their chests. The titan reconciled in himself their dharmas, saying: “Swarm here, wasps, where their names are a burden to them.” Or “Stuff your chests with herbs, and palpate them with palpation bugs, and live and farm thereafter quietly and in peace.” He set the demons against the narcissists. He sent the angels to the bleak.

9512 pesserids before time began, a nymph wandering the roads encountered an ogre.

“Raar,” cried the ogre. “Raar! I am a hideous man-eating ogre.”

“Oh, thank Heaven!” the nymph replied.

“Eh?”

“There is a hideous man,” said the nymph. “There is a hideous man behind me, and I would much rather he were eaten.”

The ogre looked.

In fact there was: a telchine wizard practicing as a highwayman, whose intentions were in no way serene.

The ogre looked back and forth. He reached his decision.

“The telchine has more meat,” he said. “So I’ll eat him!”

“I don’t mind being eaten,” the telchine conceded. “If you’ll spit up my bones afterwards into your pile of gold, that I may be rich for ever.”

In such a fashion, again and again throughout the world, were all conflicts neatly and equitably solved. In such a fashion did the chains of Necessity make all people dance to a perfectly harmonious tune. The weight of effort for pulling all those shifting chains fell to the only creature who was not bound to them: Cronos, titan, lord of all the world.

“It is heavy,” he admitted to Rhea.

It fell to Cronos to reconcile the horrors and the lambs; the killers and the saints; the humans and the gods. He mediated between the perfect and the real.

“It is so very heavy,” Cronos said.

Rhea rubbed his shoulders, but it did not help. She tried to carry her share of it, but she could not: because the chains bound her, she participated in the system of them, and the efforts that she contributed solved out in the equations of it all.

“What would happen,” asked Cronos, “if I let this plate to fall?”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“In all the world,” said Cronos, “only I may stand aside, and shrug aside this weight, and let things happen as they will. And it is heavy. So I wonder: what would happen if I let this plate to fall, and the storm run riot across the world?”

“Then we should live in the Elysian Fields, I suppose, where there is no sorrow, and everything be well forever after for us all.”

I cannot describe the look on Cronos’ face.

It was the look of Santa when he discovered that presents kill; the look of the Gonz, when he dreamed for the first time of Abu Ghraib; the look of Dr. Sarous, at the recognition of his own corruption.

To work so hard—

So very hard—

And to think, for just a moment, that you have done no favors for the world.

  • Tune in FRIDAY for the next exciting history of Ink Catherly:
    THEORIES REGARDING THE BOX!

The Loneliness of the World (2 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

Once upon a time, if you can believe Red Mary, the Buddha walked the world.

Back then, everything was exactly as it was.

Things had their own natures. A cloud was a cloud. A person was a person. A tree was a tree.

And more than that, every last person had their own way of being.

The world chose some people to be Kings by birth, gave rise to them with a nature for rule, and they sat on thrones and this was right. To others the world assigned a destiny of merchanthood or prostitution. The world birthed witches, killers, and creatures with terrible talents. It also gave rise to people with no more magic to them than the right to have a name and a family and an origin and an age.

The Buddha took that away.

He looked around and he said, “Because Kings are Kings, there is suffering. Because prostitutes are prostitutes, there is suffering. Because one man is a witch and can cast terrible spells, people suffer, and because another man is not and cannot, people suffer. It is even occasionally problematic that clouds are clouds.”

“Sure, but what can you do about it?” his mother asked.

The Buddha, if you can believe Red Mary, was always arguing with his mother. Even when you might think he’d be taking care of his son or meditating under a bo tree or achieving enlightenment or something, if you listen to Red Mary, he was probably arguing with his mother instead.

“What can you do about it?” she asked. “Because it’s so very precious to people that they are as they are.”

“It’s precious,” he said. “But that won’t stop me! I’ll still take it all away.”

And he spoke the word anatman and from him issued a great breath of change that stripped the natures from the world and from that point it was no longer true that things were always themselves.

From that day forward, when somebody was King, it wasn’t because it was right or even wrong that they were King. It was because of a causal chain of events that had put them on the throne. And when somebody was a merchant or a prostitute, that wasn’t dharma either. It just was. Even if you could figure out what the world had made you to do, it wasn’t necessarily so that you could do it.

Trees weren’t always trees.

The sun wasn’t always the sun.

Sometimes clouds turned to vapor and just drifted apart.

And as for the gods, they weren’t there.

The gods, the magic, the power of the witches, it was just . . . gone.

And for five hundred years this made people happy even in the face of the torments of the world; and then for fifteen hundred years, no matter how unhappy people were, they still had access to salvation.

But all that’s over now.

Now it’s the latter days of the law. The power of the Buddha’s word is fading. Magic is creeping in around the edges. People sometimes act in accordance with their nature. Kings by birth sit on the thrones again. People find themselves pawns helpless before their dharma.

The old ways are coming back.

But we already know that magic doesn’t fix things. We already know that it’s not enough to save anyone.

And as for the Buddha’s answer?

The powerlessness of anatman?

It’s kind of surprising, in these the Latter Days of the Law, that it ever helped anybody at all.

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

“What was it like?” Max asks.

“Hm?”

“For the gods,” Max says. “I’ve always wondered.”

“And hadn’t I just said we were gone?”

“Not all of you,” Max says. “Not Rahu. Not Pelopia. Not even Santa, if Jane is to be believed.”

“Santa,” says Red Mary.

She laughs.

“Disbelief?”

“Disdain.”

“Ah.”

Red Mary sighs.

“We were severed from the world,” she says. “We lived but we could not touch you. We spoke but you could not hear. I sang my song to Halldis who suffered and whom I imagined needed the power to dissolve. For she who made me, I sang, and to open for her a gateway to the freedom from her pain. But she did not dissolve. I cried to the White Christ to give her surcease but He did not answer. I begged favors of the sun, of the moon, of the stars. And four years later Halldis died in childbed and I went on. I lived in a fountain with cracked stone lions and I sang to kill the lamps and the pigeons and when that failed me I crawled westwards to the sea, and none in all that place to remember my passing or that I had ever been.”

“Why?”

“‘Why?'”

“Why?”

“‘The problem with egolessness,'” Red Mary says—and the inflection is strange, so that Max thinks she is quoting—“‘is that it never happens to the right people.'”

The catamaran drifts left and Max can see the texture of the island, the wrinkles of the rock, the black stones embedded in it, the mussels at the chaos’ edge.

“We’d never had the power we thought we had,” Red Mary says.

Max looks blankly at her.

“I’d thought it was the dharma of a siren to dissolve others into the greatness of the world,” she says. “But better to say: it is the dharma of a siren to dissolve others for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time, and to the wrong outcome.”

“Ah,” Max says.

“And yet we must try to be good.”

There’s an edge of skepticism to her voice that worries Max, so he doesn’t answer her.

“We can’t,” says Red Mary. “But somehow, we must try.”

She laughs.

“Disdain?” Max asks.

“Disbelief.”

And the catamaran sails on in the channels of the broken island, in the sea of chaos to the west of Gibbelins’ Tower, in the loneliness of the world.

The Gingerbread Man

Emilia lives deep under the sea.

She lives in a metal dome.

It is round but not too round. It has a carpeted floor. It is warm. Inside and outside it has lights.

Every day Emilia looks out the porthole, through the clear strong superglass, at the heavy depths of water all around.

Sometimes she sees a shark.

Sometimes she sees a giant octopus. It will squeeze her house but it can’t do much compared to the pressure of the sea.

It is angry because Emilia is still alive.

“Bii,” Emilia says to the octopus. “I wanted to live alone.”

The octopus swishes its tentacles and flies away through the sea.

Emilia has a chimney. It is totally stopped up but Santa Claus still finds his way there every Christmas. He doesn’t bring her toys any more. He hasn’t since she was a little girl of seven. These past few years he’s brought her supplies instead.

Food.

Water.

Tools for repairing things when they break.

Books with instructions on the use of tools.

Every day Emilia looks out the porthole, through the clear strong superglass, at the heavy depths of water all around.

Sometimes Emilia makes gingerbread. Usually she just makes a loaf. But sometimes she makes gingerbread men.

She’ll give them raisin eyes and cherry noses.

She’ll trim them down to their fingers and their toes.

Today she checks in the oven on the gingerbread men. She’s supposed to just press the button that says “Light.” But instead she opens the oven up and lets the heat out. That’s her mistake!

It’s also the gingerbread men’s opportunity.

There’s only one gingerbread man who’s smart enough to act when his moment comes. He’s a wily old rogue of a gingerbread boy. His name’s Raisin Jack.

Raisin Jack, he shakes himself out.

Raisin Jack, he’s up and he runs.

The gingerbread man!

He’s out of the pan!

With a grin on his face like the devil’s only son’s!

Once he’s put some distance between himself and Emilia, Raisin Jack thinks about where to go next. He’s standing there thinking when the Roomba 2500 trundles in.

It bumps into Raisin Jack. Its suction engine vrums.

“Oh, no,” says Raisin Jack.

He runs, runs, runs, like the devil’s at his back.

“Run run run, as fast as you can! You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!”

Somewhat to his disappointment, the Roomba isn’t trying to catch him. It’s actually been kind of intimidated by the bumping and it’s now circling off to harrass the bookshelves.

So Raisin Jack stops and he thinks. He’s standing there thinking when Emilia comes along.

“Please,” she says.

Her face is as white as a sheet.

“Please, no.”

The gingerbread man, he’s out of the pan!

Raisin Jack runs, like the devil’s at his back!

“Run run run, as fast as you can! You can’t catch me! I’m the gingerbread man!”

And he runs runs runs and he’s at the door.

And Emilia’s not behind him any more.

She’s running for the bedroom.

She’s rooting through her trunk

She’s looking for a picture

Of the world before it sunk.

She’s looking for a picture

And she finds it just before

The gingerbread man

Raisin Jack

He

Opens up that door.

(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.

An Unclean Legacy: “How Elisabet Saved Christmas”

Once upon a time, Montechristien traveled to where his brother worked.

Montechristien leaned upon a heavy staff as he walked. Rain dripped through his thinning hair.

He pounded once, twice, thrice on the door of Baltasar’s tower.

And Baltasar answered.

“Brother,” said Montechristien. “I have come to beg.”

Baltasar sneered. “As you have always done.”

“I know what sorcery you plan to work,” said Montechristien. “I cannot let you do this thing. Please stop.”

Baltasar rose to his full height in anger. His teeth clenched. Lightning flashed.

“Gar-ga-mel?” he asked.

And Montechristien found himself fighting not to cringe, for all that years with Yseult have given him some strength.

“You plan to summon and bind the tripartite God,” Montechristien said. “It is madness.”

Baltasar turned aside, as if he did not object to Montechristien’s defiance. He gestured his brother inside.

“I told your woman,” said Baltasar, “that the two of us share a soul.”

Montechristien brushed the mud from his feet. He walked inside.

“I told her that it would do her no harm to sleep with me,” said Baltasar. “For when two men share a single soul, they share a single seed—and, in fact, that that seed is mine. So why refuse me? I asked. When you have borne me six children already?”

Montechristien held his face tight against anger.

“They are your children as well,” Montechristien agreed. “You should visit them.”

“She did not believe me,” said Baltasar. “She shouted, ‘I can’t have had your children! You’re weird old Baltasar!'”

Montechristien started to grin. But Baltasar’s eyes flashed and thunder boomed and the smile vanished from Montechristien’s face.

“Then she shouted, ‘Ack! Yagg! Igg! Ptui!’ and began to spit.”

“To . . . spit?”

“. . . I don’t understand why she thought it would help,” Baltasar confessed.

Montechristien nodded.

“So she hurt your pride.”

“She inspired me,” snapped Baltasar. “She showed me how low I have fallen—I, whom you once called your master! So I will redress this. You will have your pathetic golden eidolons. I will infuse myself with God!

“I could stop you,” said Montechristien.

“You won’t!” said Baltasar. Then he spun on Montechristien. He thrust out his palm. Montechristien, on ancient reflex, flung himself back into the corner and cowered.

From Baltasar’s outthrust hand a mandala of energy grew. Then seven more formed around it. Each touched the others; each orbited the others; each served as the center of the pattern. Among them were faces, wings, fires, jade, and gold.

“In truth,” laughed Baltasar, “I have waited only for your arrival. I have learned to manifest it, brother! The one pattern that can bind even God Himself—the Wheel of Enoch!

Montechristien feared his brother of old. But for Yseult’s sake, he marshaled his own powers.

He was too late.

Baltasar flung back his head. His eyes went white. There was a great wind before the throne in Heaven and the seraphim cried out. The sun and the stars and the planets froze in their procession. The whole world shook.

But Baltasar did not summon God.

From above him, below him, around him, from the center of the wheels, hands stretched for Baltasar, red and black and burning hands.

They seized him.

They clawed at him.

They carried him screaming away.

And three days later Montechristien returned to Castle Gargamel and said disconsolately to his wife, “Now I am damned.”

“Pookie—”

Yseult touched Montechristien’s hands, his arms, his face, but it took warmer measures to console him.

Thus did Montechristien and Yseult conceive the ninja, Elisabet.

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

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

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

A magical reindeer flies down from the sky and lands before an fifteen-year-old Elisabet.

Its nose shines red.

It says, “Elisabet Gargamel?”

Elisabet has been practicing with her shuriken. She ceases, now. She turns, and fades into human shape. She smiles at the reindeer, charmed.

“Yes,” she says.

“You are needed at the North Pole. Christmas is in danger!”

“I am a ninja,” says Elisabet.

“Yes?”

“Please forgive me,” Elisabet says, with an unusual formality. “But I must explain that I cannot box presents or make toys or cure a sick Santa or see through fog. The duty of a ninja is to kill those who must be killed.”

The reindeer tilts its head to one side. “That is not exactly the Oriental tradition….”

Elisabet shrugs.

“Well,” says Santa’s reindeer, “in any case, there’s killing to be done.”

“Yay!” says Elisabet. “I can save Christmas!”

She looks around.

“And you don’t want Manfred? Or Tomas? Or anything?”

“I was sent for you.”

So Elisabet gets a wide smile and says, smugly, “Cool.”

“Come on,” says the reindeer.

So Elisabet gets on its back and rides the reindeer up into the sky.

An Unclean Legacy


How Elisabet Saved Christmas

“Why do you want me?” Elisabet asks, as she rides.

“You’re nice,” summarizes the reindeer.

“Wow,” says Elisabet. She blushes a little.

“There aren’t many supernaturally-effective killing machines on Santa’s nice list,” the reindeer explains.

“It’s because of the life,” Elisabet says.

“The life?”

“Daddy says that Yseult gave me all her leftover life when she died. That I’m more like her than anyone else. And she was really cool, although she wasn’t a supernatural killing machine.”

“She was on the nice list too,” the reindeer agrees.

Elisabet giggles.

“But she always tried to shake down Santa for coal instead of presents,” the reindeer reminisces. “She’d set traps for him, you know. He was too nimble! She couldn’t catch him.”

“Hee hee,” laughs Elisabet.

The reindeer is arcing down now into a land of snow and tinsel. The air is cold and Elisabet’s breath puffs out black. The great candy-cane marker for Santa’s workshop is ahead. But the reindeer does not land there. Instead, it lands on a field of ice nearly a mile and a half from the north pole.

Elisabet gets down.

“I don’t get to see Santa?”

“There’s no time,” the reindeer says. “The centipede is almost here.”

Elisabet looks to the west. She sees it there: a great hundred-legged monster, shrouded in shadows and in fire, eight feet wide and two hundred feet long.

“That?” she says.

“It is the child of a centipede and the Devil,” says the reindeer. “So naturally it wants to destroy Christmas. Each day, it comes for Santa, and we lose more lives holding it back.”

Elisabet steps away from the reindeer. She stands there on the ice, desolate and alone.

Her bangs blow in the wind.

“Is this the destiny of Christmas?” Elisabet asks.

Snow falls gently around her.

“Does even the innocence of the holidays draw to itself the sorrow and the pain of all this troubled world? Will there ever be love and peace that is not transient? Tinsel that is not stained with blood?”

Elisabet bows her head. She squeezes her eyes shut.

“I don’t know what to say,” the reindeer admits.

Elisabet sets her jaw. She opens her eyes. She puts her hands on her swords. She dissolves her human shape and becomes a thing of shadowy protoplasm.

“I am ready,” Elisabet says.

Then the air is hot and smoky. The centipede’s great head comes down towards her. But Elisabet has already leapt into the sky. A dozen blades wing from her hands and burrow into its flesh.

“Rowr!” shrieks the centipede, and it flails for her. It catches her with one great limb but Elisabet dissolves around its touch and leaves behind only a poisoned needle that numbs it.

The ice grows hot with their battle and turns to water. The tinsel-coated trees fall down. There is thunder and heat all across the northern wastes.

Hours pass.

The centipede strikes at Elisabet in the air. Elisabet twists with the unnatural dexterity of her shadowy form and catches the end of its limb. She drags it after her using a force-redirection technique. The centipede falls onto its back. It lands amidst the melt of their battle, and she stands on its chest and stares at it with creepy ninja eyes.

It stops moving. It is chilled by what it sees in her eyes.

Slowly its head sinks back beneath the water.

Let me go, it pleads.

It cannot move. It is drowning.

I will spare Christmas. I will live in peace. I will serve you.

Elisabet does not relent.

The centipede thrashes once, twice, three times, and then it dies.

And that’s how Elisabet saved Christmas!

Wasn’t that a heartwarming holiday tale?

Check back on Monday for the conclusion of Elisabet’s story: “Way of the Ninja!”

The Ballad of Bushido Santa

One day, or so the story goes, Bushido Santa meets the God-Defying Lightbringing Yama King on the bridge up from Hell.

“Out of my way, kiddo,” says the Defier.

He’s kind of jovial, but his smile’s got teeth.

“Excuse me,” says Bushido Santa. “But I cannot allow you to pass. If you travel this route you will trouble the Earth and bring all measure of sorrows.”

“That’s true,” says the Yama King. “It’s my nature.”

“Please, sir,” says Bushido Santa. “You must stay below for now.”

The bridge is golden and there is a surf like white flowers. There are shining fish in the water and there are cherry blossom trees.

And Bushido Santa meets the Defier’s eyes and each of them, very slowly, puts his hand down to his sword.

(Except, of course, that Bushido Santa does not have a sword. He has a candy cane. But it is very large and, for a candy cane, surprisingly sharp.)

The Defier licks his lips.

Something passes between them, in their eyes.

“If you do this,” says the Defier, “you will die, and then the children of the world won’t have any Christmas presents.”

“That is as it must be,” says Bushido Santa.

So they move. They rush past one another, the sword and the candy cane moving too fast for the eye to see. Each of them stops at the end of their motion. Each of them waits, in stance.

Slowly, Bushido Santa falls.

“Heh,” snorts the God-Defying Lightbringing Yama King.

Bushido Santa hits the bridge with a thump. His mouth is slack, and from it trickles blood.

The God-Defying Lightbringing Yama King salutes.

Then he pauses.

He frowns.

He rubs at his chest, where his kimono is marked by a smear of candy-cane sugar. He sniffs at his fingers.

“I’m full of Christmas spirit,” says the Defier, in a tone of sick horror.

So that’s why, every year, presents still find their way to the children of the world, even though Bushido Santa is dead.

At least, that’s what most people say.

Some say it wasn’t the God-Defying Yama King on that bridge at all, but God.

Some say it was the monster.

And some say that that isn’t what really happened at all; but rather something far more strange and wonderful.

Naughty

It is always Christmas in the Neonorth Santarchy.

Reindeer dance in the sky. Snow falls gentle as a dream. There are lights and there is candy and Sam walks down the public street.

Santarchy: Government by the nice. Typified by the belief that everyone should be good every year. Most Santarchies devolve into benevolent dictatorships, with a neoSanta or Santarch operating as head of state “in Santa’s name.”

“Hey, kid,” says a beggar in the door. “Spare a chestnut?”

Sam searches his pockets. Then he shakes his head. “No chestnuts, no sugar plums, not even any cotton candy. But you can have some of my ration, mister.”

“That’s kind of you,” says the beggar. He holds up his Christmas bell. It scans Sam once, and a small red light turns green. “That’s very kind.”

“Merry Christmas,” says Sam.

“Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to everybody!” says the beggar.

The beggar takes a swig of his Christmas rum. He leans back in the door and he watches the snow fall.

Santa’s Eye gleams.

Santa’s Eyes: the tripod structures used by the Santarchy of the Neonorth to monitor residents. Each structure supports a mechanical eyeball. The eyeball sees when people are sleeping. It observes when they are awake. It recognizes actions as bad or good and informs the central bureaucracy accordingly.

Sam is almost home when his Christmas bell beeps.

“Please turn left,” grates the speaker in the bell.

Sam turns left. He realizes which way he’s going and his heart grows kind of cold. “It’s not my turn already,” he says, “is it?”

“Please continue forward,” grates the speaker.

“What am I going to have to do?”

“Termination necessary for the good of the state,” says Sam’s Christmas bell. “Merry Christmas!”

Sam gulps. But he walks forward. Soon he’s standing by the Old Christmas Gallows.

“Mr. Sanders,” Sam says, wretchedly.

“It’s okay, boy,” says Mr. Sanders. He’s an old man with a thatch of gray hair and a fire in his eyes. “I know what I done and I got no regrets.”

Mr. Sanders is standing on the gallows with the rope around his neck.

“But . . .”

There’s one of Santa’s Eyes behind the Old Christmas Gallows. Its voice is white static and sleighbells.

“Please read the charges,” says Santa’s Eye.

Jill is standing by the Gallows. She’s a young girl in a gingham dress. She’s holding the list of charges, and she looks frightened, just like Sam.

“Cosive—coris—corrosive infulence,” she says. “Seventeen counts. Leckery, two counts.”

“Only two?” says Mr. Sanders. He laughs. “Santa’s not watching me real good.”

Jill hesitates.

“Continue,” whispers the voice of Santa’s Eye.

“Murder—” Jill stops. “Murder?

Jill stares at Mr. Sanders in horror.

Mr. Sanders looks down.

Jill gulps. She looks back at the charges.

“Murder of a reppesenative of the state,” Jill reads. “One count. The defendant’s been judged and sentenced and his sentence will now be carried out.”

“Sam,” says Santa’s Eye. “It is necessary for you to pull the lever and execute Mr. Sanders.”

Sam walks forward. He reaches several times for the lever. He hesitates.

Mr. Sanders’ cheer fades away as he watches. There is despair growing in his face. “Don’t,” Mr. Sanders says. “Don’t, Sam.”

“Sam,” says Santa’s Eye. “It is necessary for you to pull the lever and execute Mr. Sanders. It is not suitable for the conduct of a society that dissidents and murderers should go free. It is not suitable that society should pay the cost of maintaining their lives. It is not suitable that Mr. Sanders, having been found guilty, should survive.”

“But it is nice,” protests Sam.

“If you do not pull the lever,” says Santa’s Eye, “then you will do harm.”

Sam closes his eyes.

“Sam, no!” says Mr. Sanders.

Sam pulls the lever.

Santa’s Eye burns a dim and flickery red.

“Naughtiness recorded,” it says.

Santa’s Duty: the burden of cruelty necessary to a functional society. The Neonorth Santarchy calls a boy or girl to perform “Santa’s Duty” when they have been so good that year that they can do so while remaining on the Nice List. Those insufficient in virtue or excessive in vice are disqualified from civic service.

Sam stumbles as he walks away.

“I killed him,” Sam says. “I killed him. I killed Mr. Sanders. He kicked his feet like a chicken.”

Peter watches.

“‘Oy, kid,” says Peter.

“Hm?”

Peter’s a rough-cut kind of man in a black leather coat. He’s got a sack on his shoulder and pockets full of coal.

Sam turns. He looks up. He looks in Peter’s eyes.

“Wow, mister,” Sam says. “Your eyes are like portals to the void.”

Peter’s mouth twitches, revealing a bit of his sharp pointed teeth.

“You shouldn’t be hanging people,” Peter says. “Good little boys don’t hang people.”

Sam shuffles his feet a little. “Technically, I’m still a good little boy,” he says. “I mean, Santa’s probably going to bring me a super-transformer and stuff this year. And a puppy. And maybe a sandwich-making set for my clockwork toaster. Because I’ve been nice the rest of the time. I even did my homework!”

“I see,” says Peter. “That’s very good, isn’t it?”

The things in Peter’s sack seethe.

“It’s very very good,” says Sam. “I got a B plus! And I gave some of my ration to the beggar. That’s why—that’s why—”

Suddenly Sam’s eyes are very hurt and he’s sitting down.

“Like a chicken,” he says.

“Suffer and twist, little boy,” says Peter. “Suffer and twist. But all your guilt won’t save you from me.”

Peter takes a lump of coal out of his pocket. He weighs it in his hand, then tosses it at Sam’s feet.

“Do you know what day it is, Sam?” Peter asks.

“Dunno,” says Sam. “Tuesday?”

“It’s Christmas, Sam,” Peter says. “And if you keep going on this path, then when next Christmas comes along, I’m going to come along, and I’m going to put you in this sack, with the rats. And if you’re lucky, you’ll wind up like me, with pointy ears and pointy teeth and pockets full of coal. And if you’re not—why, then, the rats will eat your fingers and they’ll eat your eyes and then they’ll scurry up your nose and eat your brain, just like they did to the last kid I took.”

“It’s always Christmas in the Neonorth Santarchy,” says Sam.

Peter hesitates.

“It’s December 25th, Sam,” Peter says.

“Oh!”

Sam processes this data for a moment. Then he picks up the lump of coal. “I never got a present from someone who wasn’t Santa before,” he says. He turns the lump over in his hands. “If I squeeze it really hard, it turns into a diamond, right?”

Peter doesn’t answer. He just snorts, and turns his back on Sam, and quietly he walks away.

After a while Sam begins to cry. He sits there, rocking, with the coal held to his chest, until hours later he is too much alone to stay.

Ration: the money of the Neonorth Santarchy is backed by naughtiness. The Santarchy treats people with a lot of ration as very naughty, and does not call on them for Santa’s Duty. As the civics teachers explain, to share your naughtiness ration is Nice; to hoard your naughtiness ration is Naughty; and in this respect, like a scant few others, the opinions of the Santarchy coincide with Santa’s own.

It is Christmas every day in Neonorth City, in the Neonorth Santarchy, under the great guiding candy cane of truth.

Sam does his homework and he does his chores. He helps out when people need help. He tries to keep enough ration that he won’t be called on for Santa’s Duty again.

And one day he looks in his four-paned window at the gentle snow, and he says, “I don’t like this any more. I want to be naughty today.”

He cries, because he is a good-hearted boy, and does not know how.

And then a marvelous, wicked thought occurs.

Sam blows on his window. He blows on it until it mists. With his finger, he writes, “Black Peter, Black Peter,” backwards in the pane.

Then he puts on his pajamas with booties, and takes his teddy bear down off the shelf, and he turns off all the lights, and he goes to bed.

There’s a rattling in the chimney that night, and a fierce wind shakes Sam’s house, and he wakes up to see a shape looming over his bed.

“What do you want, boy?” Peter asks.

Sam sits up. He looks defiant.

“I want to be naughty,” Sam says. “Tell me how to be naughty.”

“But Sam,” says Peter, mockingly. “You were doing so well. You ate all your lima beans tonight. You kissed your little sister’s scraped knee and made it better. You even got an A on your pop quiz!”

“Tell me how.”

Peter snorts.

“Come with me, then,” Peter says.

So Peter walks out into the yard. Sam runs after him in his pajamas with booties, carrying his teddy bear and looking as wicked as he can.

Peter walks through the snow. He looks at a neighbor’s snowman.

“Push off its head,” Peter says.

So Sam turns to the snowman and with a great shove pushes off its head.

Peter walks on.

“Throw a rock in that window,” Peter says.

“A rock?”

Peter sighs. He takes a lump of coal out of his pocket. He hands it to Sam. Sam hurls it through the window. Crash! Spun-sugar tinkles to the floor inside.

Peter walks along.

Peter reaches one of Santa’s Eyes.

“Tear it down,” Peter says.

So Sam leaps on it, like a wild thing, and the teddy bear is left behind him, and he claws at the stone surface, and he smashes at the orb that is its eye.

Santa’s Eye gleams. Its voice is snow and homefires, and it says, “What are you doing, Sam?”

“I want you to die!” Sam shrieks. “I want you to die like Mr. Sanders!”

And it feels to Sam like there is a sack around him, as he struggles with the Eye; and there are rats writhing all around him on the warm winter night; and the reindeer overhead are lost in darkness; and Sam’s eyes grow sharper, and his ears grow points, and his teeth are feral sharp things; and he is lean and strange and terrible when he at last rises from the ruins of the Eye with its blood on his hands; and he turns to Peter, then, and he says, “I am yours.”

Ways of Avoiding Migraines

“Do you think that vampire Alice would be able to go through the looking glass?” asks Jane.

“Why would she want to?”

“Let’s say she’s afraid of getting a migraine,” Jane says, “and her medicine was accidentally made out of left-handed molecules.”

Martin thinks. “I don’t know,” he admits.

“It’d be really important,” Jane says, “because you need medicine when you might get a migraine. There aren’t many choices!”

“You can remove every tenth star,” Martin says. “If you remove every tenth star from a starlit sky, you won’t get a migraine.”

The stars twinkle in the sky above.

“That’s true,” Jane says. She nibbles on the end of a long lock of hair. “But what about stars with inhabited solar systems?”

“You prune first,” Martin says. “Delete a few extra stars, to smooth the transition later. You’re fine, as long as you don’t wind up with ten inhabited stars in a row.”

Jane sighs, looking up at the sky.

“Why is the universe so empty?” she asks.

“It’s not,” Martin says. He waves his hand at the sky. “After picking up old Star Trek and Dr. Who broadcasts, aliens are understandably wary of us. But they’re out there. They have special antennae that can turn things to gold.”

“I think you’re thinking of Midas,” Jane says.

Martin shrugs.

Jane plucks a flower. She begins counting its petals. She does not pull them off. She does not chant. After a moment, she says, “You could find the thousand secret names of Santa Claus, and recite them while standing on the tallest mountain in the world.”

“Won’t that summon him?”

“Well, yes,” she says, “but you won’t get a migraine, and summoning Santa isn’t that bad. It’s not like Mr. Hotep or Tsathoggua. He brings presents!”

“Bah,” Martin says.

Jane raises an eyebrow at him.

“I don’t like saints.”

Jane looks scandalized. “You have to like Santa.

Martin sits behind the fortress of his cynicism goggles. For a long moment, Jane sulks. Then she beams.

“If you can count every hair in a saint’s beard,” she says, “you won’t get a migraine. He has to actually have a beard. It doesn’t count if it’s zero. But it still proves they’re useful!”

“I didn’t say they weren’t useful,” Martin says. “I just don’t like them. But I have to admit that St. Dunstan’s useful in a pinch. And St. Lucia can see around corners!”

“Ew.”

Jane wrinkles her nose.

“On account,” Martin belabors, “of keeping her eyes on a plate.”

“Yes, thank you, Martin,” Jane says. She pokes him.

Martin grins.

“You can avoid a migraine by riding an owl’s back,” Martin says, “thrice around the world.”

“Ooh.”

“You need a special owl,” Martin says.

“Every owl is special!”

Martin sighs. He pulls up two strands of grass and begins to braid them together. “I don’t think you need to worry about it,” he says.

“True,” Jane says.

Martin adds a third strand to the weave.

“It’s just,” Jane says, “that if a vampire Alice could get into the looking glass, then at any moment, couldn’t some strange mirror vampire Alice come out?

Martin adds a fourth strand to the weave. His dexterity fails. Four pieces of grass flutter down to the ground. He sighs and begins trying again.

After a moment, Martin says, “Would the sudden appearance of looking glass world vampire Alice really be so bad?”

“She’d be all ‘eyes into my look’,” Jane says. “It’d be creepy!”

“Bah,” Martin says. “She’d just grab her left-handed migraine medicine and pop back into the mirror. The real world’s scary, you know, if you’re used to the looking glass.”

Necessary Things1

1 a legend of Santa.

Santa Claus wakes up. It’s the Tuesday after Christmas, so he dresses in black. He goes to the shore of stars. He calls for his boat. He sails south.

Pirates come, but he runs up the Santa flag. They don’t attack him. Pirates don’t board Santa’s ship. It’s a law of the sea.

The terrible shark comes. Each fin is as long as a man is tall. The beast could swallow a horse in one bite. It hungers. Santa faces it down. He meets its cold black gaze. It shakes itself, twice, and dives deep. It still plans to eat him. It’s not a very nice shark. But not this year. This year, it leaves him be. It’ll come again in 2004.

There’s the sea of angels. There’s the ocean of fire. There’s a place of strange waters glistening like black abalone shells. The waves shine with soft green light.

Santa reaches his destination. It’s just an ordinary hill. It’s not important in itself. It’s just the place he’s chosen.

He sets three dolls on the ground. One boy, one girl, and one for just in case. He doesn’t look at them. He’s looking far away.

“There are so many of you,” he says, “that I couldn’t reach. This year or any other.”

He touches the dolls upon their hearts. “Strength,” he says.

He touches the dolls upon upon their heads. “Hope,” he says.

He touches them upon their hands. “A future.”

Santa rises and walks away. Behind him, the wind starts up, as it always does. It carries his gifts away.

The Monster (I/IV)

The monster is only comfortable in uncomfortable situations. The monster won’t have tea with the Queen. That’s too normal! So the monster has tea with the gingerbread-house witch. That’s not uncomfortable enough! So they also invite Santa Claus. That makes for some awkward silences!

Santa Claus doesn’t know it’s a monstrous tea party. The invitation says it’s a charity dinner. Santa plans to give a speech. He plans to talk about the endangered toys from the island of broken toys. He plans to deny all ties to Al-Qaida. He plans to read selections of his naughty/nice list as a party game. Santa is a very popular speaker. This isn’t a charity dinner. Surprise, Santa! Surprise!

“Soon, ” cackles the witch, “Hansel will be fat, and I’ll pop him in the oven.”

This makes Santa look uncomfortable. He’s not gotten as far as he has as a saintly figure sacred to children everywhere by endorsing child-eating witches! “He’s a good kid—” Santa says.

“Have a popover, Santa!” exclaims the witch, and shoves one in his mouth. This strongly discourages further speech. You can’t be a reputable saint when dribbling popover onto your beard! The witch cackles.

“Fattened children are tasty,” the monster agrees. He has no stomach to argue taste with the witch! “Still, there are healthier alternatives.”

Hansel’s face lights with hope. Surely, if Santa won’t save him, the monster can!

“After all,” the monster continues, “lean, well-exercised children are the medically preferable diet! If you baste them with molasses, you’ll lose weight and they’ll taste great!”

Hansel’s face falls.

The witch peers at the monster. She’s very near-sighted. She has to lean so close to see him that she’s almost bumping him with her nose. “That’s deranged and wrong,” she says. “Eating lean, healthy children is immoral! I won’t have it in my house.”

“I’d thought this was a charity dinner—” Santa says.

“Have a popover, Santa!”

Santa chews.

“It’s his own greed,” the witch says, airily, “that makes him eat the candy I push through the bars. So that’s why I can cook and eat him.”

Hansel looks plaintive. “I’d rather prefer some spinach.”

“See?” shouts the witch, full of glee. “Candy’s not even enough for him!”

Santa swallows. “How about a Tickle-Me Elmo?” he asks. He is desperately grasping at straws in a social situation spiraling out of his control. “Everybody likes Tickle-Me Elmo!”

The monster scowls at Santa terrifyingly. “You bastard! Shut up!” His eyes gleam. His shiny tie gleams. He’s the very picture of an abhorrent fiend!

Santa shrinks back in his seat. He can read those eyes. He can read that tie! No one gave the monster soft cuddly toys when he was a child. That’s what drives him! In a way, it’s all Santa’s fault. If he’d put the monster’s name on the Nice list, there wouldn’t be this horror. He gave him no dolls. He gave him no toys. He gave the monster a chunk of coal, and that’s made its blackened smear on the monster’s soul. That’s the whole problem.

It’s too awful! Santa decides on seppuku. He remembers just in time that he’s not sworn to the code of the samurai. Too bad, Santa! But it’s good for all the little children of the world. A bushido Santa would be dead—that’s how harsh honor is!

“The boy’s a glutton,” says the witch. “Just listen to him. All the candy in the world’s still not enough! But you can’t expect me to punish him. He’s thin as a bone!”

The witch is clearly very image-conscious. The media’s relentless portrayal of thin, fit children as nice has convinced her that they can’t be naughty! Santa knows better, but he’s wrestling with depression and futility. Fight it, Santa! You can be jolly again!

“Some tasty cauliflower!” exclaims Hansel. “Mm, cauliflower. It’s the only vegetable that tastes like chalk!”

“You could still punish him,” the monster says. He’s pinning Santa with his eyes. He wants Santa to commit seppuku, oh yes. “I mean, he’s staying thin. Isn’t that stubborn and obstreperous, when you want to eat him? You can always find some reason to punish a child.”

The witch looks disgusted. She wrinkles her nose—just like one leg in a pair of crumpled leggings! “You can’t do that,” she says. “You can’t make ‘fairy tales’ without ‘fair’! And stuff you find out by determining what words are inside other words is never wrong. Now drink more tea.”

“I’ve had ten cups!”

“. . . you have?” The witch looks very innocent. She wouldn’t eat a fellow monster! “Let me feel your finger.”

The monster is reassured by the witch’s innocent expression. He extends his finger towards the witch. She massages it and thinks. “You’re not jittering enough yet. You should drink more tea.”

Santa opens his mouth to interject.

“Have a popover, Santa!”

The witch looks smug. She’s not only being cruel to Santa, but she stole the popover trick from a rival witch! Recycled evil is the best kind.

“Actually,” explains the monster, “I’ve got to go. I’ve a show to catch!”

“You could let me out,” says Hansel. “I mean, while you’re here and all. I promise I’d be good.”

“Hush, dearie,” says the witch. There’s some sympathy in her eyes. “You’re better off with me.”

“Santa?” asks Hansel, plaintively.

Santa Claus shakes his head silently. He can’t give Hansel his freedom. It’s not Christmas! That would be wrong!

The monster leaps to his feet and adjusts his shiny tie. He’s got a show to catch, just like he said!

“Gretel?” asks the witch.

Gretel resignedly places her shovel under the monster’s feet and heaves him into the fire. Woosh! He flies up the chimney. That’s the preferred exit for monsters. It’s also the preferred exit for changelings, Santa Claus, and smoke elementals! The witch doesn’t use her front door very much.