The Skandhas of Head Island (IV/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

The ship is made of wood and stone.

Its name, blazed on the side, is Honest with Myself. Its prow is a granite Buddha. His posture offers compassion and benevolence to every living thing. The ship’s flag is the Jolly Roger. Its skull and crossbones promise death and mayhem. One could argue, though not every pirate would do so, that its presence dilutes the Buddha’s message.

Perhaps, a previous victim had thought, such dilution is a hazard of honesty.

Then the cannon of the ship had torn her from material existence and blasted her straight into Nirvana.

Around the ship, some years after that incident, fog billows. The fog is white and energetic. It’s curling in on itself like an orgy of snakes and dragons.

The dread pirate Tara stands on the deck. Sid stands beside her. All around them gaps in the fog arise, contort, and disappear.

In one such gap Sid sees himself.

He is, he thinks, reflected on the fog.

He’s standing there, a drawn-looking man with a bit of a slacker’s slouch, in a nice kind of suit. He’s got his hands in his pockets and there’s a wheel of knives at his side. A feather hangs limply from his hair.

He’s still bleeding. He reminds himself that he’ll have to deal with that.

His reflection sticks out his tongue at him.

Sid frowns.

“Don’t make trouble,” he says.

Tara shoots him a sharp pirate’s glance, full of mirth and dark knowledge and a willingness to assault random strangers at sea.

Sid’s reflection shoots him with an arrow.

“Gluh!” says Sid. He falls backwards.

Anatman, dukkha,” chant the monks.

“Are you okay?”

Tara is there in front of his face. She’s leaning over him. She’s remarkably concerned given that she intends to kill him anyway.

“Hey. You. Guy.”

She doesn’t actually know Sid’s name.

“You okay? You’ve got an arrow in your head.”

“It’s okay,” Sid says.


“Luckily I was carrying a skull.”

“How ironic!” Tara says, because normally a skull is a symbol of death, yet in this case it has blocked much of the force and length of the arrow and helped protect Sid’s brain.

Sid takes a moment to remember how to make the dizziness go away.

Then he says, “It was my reflection.”

“No,” Tara says.

“No?” Sid asks.

And Tara stands up. She shouts, “Hard to port! And put on speed!”

As the monks begin the work of moving the great Buddha-prowed ship, she asides to Sid, “Reflections don’t shoot people. People do.”

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 coracle 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 Island of the Centipede

Anicca, dukkha,” chant the monks. “Anicca, dukkha.

The chant has changed to incorporate a reference to the transience of all things, presumably because ships sail faster when reminded of transience.

Three acolytes with shaven heads and pirate eyepatches climb out onto the Buddha statue.

They manipulate a series of cunning levers and catches.

The Buddha’s stone arm swings.

Where the stone Buddha had been in the hand-extended mudra that offered compassion and benevolence to all living things, now it swings its arm left in the mudra that opens the minds of all sentient beings to new awarenesses. Such blessings! Surely it has become an iconic granite representation of your becoming more aware and opening your mind to the beauty and reality of the universe.

The balance changes.

Looking perfectly impassive, like a tipped yet meditative cow or Buddha, the statue falls over leftwards. Some might imagine a transient moment of panic in its eyes, a moment of reflection wherein the statue asks itself:

Do I stop meditating or do I stop my fall?

This represents a subtle error in the sculptor’s design.

Then the hand comes down to brace against the sea. It does not break the surface tension of the ocean. Creaking and leaning, the ship turns to port.

It rights itself.

There is noise. Tara is asking Sid about the arrow.

“Should I pull it out or are you too attached to it?”

Sid shakes his head in irritation, causing a wave of dizziness, and then he isolates the injured section of him and makes it no longer important to his functions. With a growl he pulls out the arrow and throws it to the deck.

“Why did it look like me?”

“They’re skandhas,” Tara says.

She gets to her feet. She stares out at the fog.

“One of them hung back to try to delay us.”

There is something hanging in the air in front of her. It does not move but because the ship is sailing swiftly it seems to loom upon her. It is a net, hung still and steady between four tufts of fog. It catches her, clotheslining her entire body and dragging her back along the deck.


Anicca!” shout the monks, whirling their prayer beads. “Anicca, Tara! Anicca, Tara!

All things are transient. One moment a person is caught in a net. Another they are on the deck. Who can say what causes one condition to arise or another to fall? In this case it is a young midshipmonk diving forward to chop open the fog and unravel the net. Tara lands with the lotus of her hand touching the deck and the net blows away from her and dissipates into its component strands.

Sid looks at her.

“Skandhas?” he asks.

Tara stares at him.

Then she blinks and shakes her head. “Sorry! Terminology!”

She’s blushing brightly.

“I forget that not everyone’s a bodhisattva yet. Skandhas are . . .”

She spreads her hands, looking for the right word. At that moment the lotus in her palm points directly at Shirley Havanaugh, a CPA in Detroit, who recognizes suddenly that many of her problems are self-inflicted and experiences a bubbling transcendent and transformative joy.

“Heaps,” Tara says. “Piles of stuff. Like bodies, which people often think are the same as themselves but are actually just stuff stuck together out of mud and feathers or whatever. Or perceptions. Thoughts. Sensations. Bandits. Mirrors. Certain flavors of M&Ms. Skandhas. Things that can look like yourself, to you, but aren’t.”

“Ah,” Sid says.

“That was one of their nets,” Tara says.

And suddenly the fog is clear enough that they may see the great island where the bandits dwell and whence they make their raids, and the great peak that hangs over it all and the shriveled head that hangs from that peak, ludicrously clear despite the distance and the scale, every crease in its leathery flesh visible from afar though the mountain is just a blur. And in that moment, from behind and around the ship there rises the great iron net that guards the harbor and from a blocky stone fortification on the beach there fires a great black ship-destroying spear. Suddenly Sid has a moment of clarity.

“I’ve been fighting so hard not to be honest with myself,” he says.

The spear crashes into the wooden deck.

“And now I’m bombarding that honesty with giant spears!”

“Actually,” Tara says, contemplative and uncertain, “I think that’s the skandhas.”

In the name of the infinite blessings that we all deserve, and in profound thanks that one particular head is still attached and one particular skull did a perfect job of protecting its brain, and in dedication to the wish that nothing in this world shall ever diminish or constrain the brightness or the beauty of those you or I or anyone know and love, but only make them grow.


The antelope race beside the Ark.

The waters are glassy, sometimes, when the rain slows down. They are rich in color. The hoofprints of the antelope are like the dents of great raindrops.

The antelope have wide feet and a powerful light foot technique. For seventeen days they keep their balance on the water. Yet slowly, as the days pass, they sink deeper and deeper into the shining waters until at last they drown.

“There’s no room for the hippos,” Ham says. “We’ll have to eat them.”

“No eating the hippos,” says Noah.

“But Dad!”

Noah considers. “There are those birds,” he says, “that fly into your urethra when you’re peeing and nest inside your crotch. We could eat them.”

Ham considers that.

“Okay,” he says.

The seven-limbed howlers struggle upwards from the cities below. They flail. They howl. They reach the surface and fill their great and terrible lungs with air. Then they sink, again, slowly, pathetically, and hoard their energy for the next long breath.

The eagles circle tiredly in the sky above.

Shem and Ham descend into the Ark.

The deeper they go into the Ark, the more tightly crowded the animals become. It is the nature of the construction of the Ark that any number of animals can be packed within it; near the bottom, Shem believes, the density of packed animals becomes asymptotically infinite. But they do not need to go that far.

“Good sheep,” says Shem, passing a sheep.

“Good cow,” says Ham, passing the cows.

“Good crocodi—BAD crocodile!” says Shem. Shem brandishes his broom at the crocodile. It reluctantly turns away and snaps its mouth closed. It slithers deeper, slithers down, its long green body vanishing under a cluster of chickens, wrens, doves, owls, game hens, and wildebeests, and it is gone.

“Good hippo,” says Ham, grudgingly, as they pass.

The urethra birds are not very far down. They are good at gaming the ecosystem for maximum advantage. But it does not save them now.

“Bawk!” proclaims one urethra bird, startled, as Ham grabs it around the neck.

“Ch-caa!” declares the other, in some distress, as Shem seizes it in turn.

The axe descends.

“It’s natural selection,” says Noah, as he chews on a leg. “Those that do not please me, die. Evolutionary pressure driven by the seething core of the Ark will inevitably create a new generation of animals better suited to the exigencies of my desires.”

Days and nights pass.

In the third and fourth weeks, great clusters of ostriches swim by.

The ostriches are not happy with the rain. United, they are strong. Solitary, they are weak. But the rain and flood tries their solidarity.

One by one, ostriches commit social errors.

One by one, the clusters drive them out.

The stragglers are easy prey for the sharks, the icthyocampi, and the cold.

“I wonder if Mr. Sills is still alive,” Shem says.

“He’s got to have drowned by now,” Noah argues.

“I know some of them were trying to build cities in the deep,” Shem says.

Ham walks out and stares down at the water.

“It’s weird,” says Ham. “To imagine all the people we knew, down there.”

“Freaky,” Japheth agrees.

“Cold and blue and drowning.”

“It’s because God didn’t like them,” says Shem. “I mean, as much as he liked us.”

The sheep goes, “Baa.”

“Animal on deck!” says Noah.

They quickly hurry the sheep back into the hold.

“Can we eat the sheep?” Ham asks.

“No,” says Noah. “Sheep are good animals. That’s why it made it all the way up.”

“The hippos?”

“No eating the hippos.”

“But Dad!”

Noah considers. “Isn’t there some kind of animal that lives mostly on the brains of dead people?”


Noah shakes his head. “Besides those.”

“Cranium beavers?”

“Yeah,” says Noah. “Those. We can eat those.”

Ham and Japheth descend.

The deeper they go into the Ark, the more tightly crowded the animals become. It is the nature of the construction of the Ark that any number of animals can be packed within it; near the bottom, Japheth suspects, the animals are unable to survive in solid form but instead revert to their natural plasmic state.

“It’s hot as God’s spankings down here,” says Ham.



“No blasphemy. We’re on the Ark.

There is a creaking, clunking noise, as the sea serpents of God beat warningly upon the vessel’s side.

“Right,” says Ham, sweating. He looks sideways. “Good oryx.”

By the eighteenth sub-basement of the Ark, Ham and Japheth are forced to carve their way through the animals to make room for their passage. Thus dies the bulwark buffalo, the crowball, and the cave goat. Thus dies the ghoul, spoken of in legend, and the icy blue beast in whose image the Slurpee was made. Thus dies the elephant and the fungal turtle.

“Here,” says Japheth.

The cranium beaver skulks defensively behind its dam of skulls, but this primitive instinct cannot save it from the knives of Noah’s heirs.

“Good sheep,” says Japheth, on the way back up.

“Baa,” insists the sheep.

It’s so adorable that even Ham has to scruffle the sheep behind its ears.

The rhinoceri have gone feral, long, and lean. In the distance, as the sons of Noah eat, they watch the primal battle between rhinoceros herd and megalodon, under a sky full of storms. The waves of that battle rock the ship, and the sinuous shapes of the rhinoceri lash and shimmer and in the sea.

“They’re winning,” says Naamah, in some surprise.

“There’s just a chance,” says Noah, in satisfaction, “that the megalodons’ll be another casualty of this rain.”

“I’ll tell the others,” says Japheth.

So he goes to the speaking tubes and calls down into the depths of the ship, “Let the rhinoceros be informed that their kind still live, under the sea.”

And up comes the honking, and the bleating, and the wailing, and the howling, and the hissing, and the chirping, and the long pleased snore of the happy shipboard rhinoceri.

“That means we could eat them,” says Ham. “I mean, the ones we have here.”

“No eating the rhinos,” says Noah.

“Fine,” sulks Ham, crunching on a barbecued cranium beaver leg.

The last of the scissor-beaked night terrors drowns that day.

“Look!” cries Ham, one silvery morning.


“Elephants! The elephants didn’t die out after all!”

Noah rubs his chin. “There’s no reason we can’t take another female on board to replace the one you carved through.”

“Right on!”

Shem and Ham operate the elephant crane to retrieve a backup elephant from atop Ayers Rock.

“Baa,” the sheep remarks, conversationally, as it watches.

“Animal on deck!” says Noah.

Naamah and Japheth hurry the sheep back into the hold.

Days and nights pass.

“I can see them far below,” says Japheth, later that night. “All the people I ever hated.”

“Are they trying to tame sea horses?”

“They’re dead, Dad. They’re moving in great drifts through the night.”

“Baa,” mourns the sheep.

“Animal on—”

Noah laughs a little and stops halfway through the sentence.

“Oh, let it be, I guess,” he says.

The sheep looks down into the water, at the hills and dales of Scotland-under-the-Waves.


A fish-tailed sheep skims to the surface of the sea.

For a long moment, the land-sheep and the sea-sheep look into one another’s eyes.


The moment is gone; and the two sheep go, in their respective elements, below.

In such manner as this: running, swimming, struggling, serving, seething, mourning, and loving does the world survive the rain.

A Castle That Ceases to Move Soon Dies

It is told that there is a girl, and her name is Claire, and she lives in one of the castles of the seventh tier—that is to say, above the umbral depths of the first tier, where great shapes move in shadow; and above the twisty purple smoke of the second tier; and above, too, the gentle yellow mist of the third; above the fourth and its clash of blades; above the fifth and its great fire; and even above the sixth tier’s ocean and all its gentle waves. There, on the floating islands and atolls there are the castles of the Mere, and in one of them, in the creaking crumbling vine-wrapped stone castle they call Seferi, lives Claire.

Now it is said of Claire that she is under a shadow, and the reason for it is this: that she has seen a vision in her dreams of a boy, and he is clean-limbed and strong, and his eyes are bright, and she loves him—but he is unsuitable, for he resides not in Seferi but in the castle Adeille. And it is well-known by all whose opinions are worth the counting that a love between the residents of two castles is forbidden and in poor taste besides; generally, that is to say, doomed to failure of the most socially awkward kind. King Porphyre often tells Claire this. He is a rotund man in a buttoned coat, and he stretches and clucks like a raven, but even such a King as he knows better of these things than Claire, and of this superior knowledge he regularly reassures her, adding, “You must forget this boy; have no thoughts of him! If he is your destined love then you have no destiny at all.”

Then Claire bows her head, and her eyes glitter, and she says, “Your will, of course, my liege.”

It is so obvious in the modern day as to pass without comment that a castle that ceases to move soon dies, and the means by which the castles move is this: the Master of Hooks, whom in the case of Seferi is Claire, selects from the castle armoury a line. This line is oft-times thickly woven silk, and sometimes rope, though on occasion other types are best. The Master of Ropes and Connections hooks this line to the various blocks and tackles and other apparatuses of the castle; this is a complex and difficult arrangement, involving many slaves and servants and a good deal of math, and we shall not dwell on it here. Once the rope is secured, the Master of Hooks chooses a hook to go with it, keeping in mind the circumstances of the time and the arrangement of the rope as the Rope’s Master chose it. This hook is then set to the line and cast deep into the depths, past the waves and past the fire, past the blades and past the mist, down through the twisty purple smoke into the ebon depths of blackness beneath. There—need it be said?—something seizes the hook, something great and terrible, and begins to pull; and if the Master of Ropes and the Master of Hooks have done their jobs well, the castle stirs and its island stirs and they both begins to move. Then for a long time all is speed and jollity, until at last the great beast snaps its line and the castle drifts free; and then momentum will sustain it for some time before it is once again occasioned that the Master of Hooks should choose another line.

There are more hooks in Seferi than a mind such as yours or mine can conceive of. There are hooks of simple plastic and hooks of rusty iron. There are hooks made of books and hooks of spun-sugar. There are hooks that should not exist, such as the tooth of the great dentist devil-God, Asphokain, who has never existed and will never exist but whose tooth nevertheless sits in Seferi’s armoury. There are hooks that are simply notional and hooks that are more real than the castle itself. There is the hook of last resort, the great stone hook that not ten men could move, that not a hundred men should move, that will spell the end of many things if it is lifted from its spot; and there is the hook of the mariner Israfel that the Master must move frequently lest its stability court disaster. There are hooks and hooks in all their endless billions and even these words and numbers do no more than scratch the surface, do no more than give a taste of the tiniest taste of what Seferi holds—for a castle that ceases to move soon dies.

And yet it is known that today, in the morning, under a red and rising sun and puffy clouds, the castle is slowing to a stop; and for all King Porphyre’s clucking, Claire can find no hook that suits the day. “Not metal,” she says. “Not with such winds. Not plastic. Not ice. Not any manner of fire, paste, or sweets. No puppy hook. No hateful hook. Not Asphokain’s tooth today.”

King Porphyre walks back and forth among the castle’s hooks. He pulls one from the pile. He holds it up. Claire shakes her head.

“Surely,” says Porphyre, to his ministers, “the girl deceives us. She is angry that we’ve denied her the opportunity for love. She is derelict in her duties as the Master of Hooks and must be removed and punished, and this hook that I have chosen used to bait the line.”

But Minister Vermin in his rich brocade, he shakes his head. He says, “I know but little of the art of Hooks, but she is right in every respect I know.”

“Then what shall we do?” begs Porphyre. “What shall we do? Is it time to use the hook of last resort?”

And Claire looks at him, then, and the King is shamed. He looks down and his face is red and bright. He shuffles his feet. He coughs. He laughs a nervous laugh. For what he has said is not a thing that it is ever meet to say, if one is just a King, nothing more than a King, and speaking to the Master of the Hooks.

Yet the castle must not die.

The castle must not die: this hangs unsaid. Then Minister Vermin clears his throat. “Give us an option,” the Minister says.

Claire tugs on the line, a thing of thick black silk, and she wanders amidst the blocks and tackles.

“Is it my fault?” asks the Master of Ropes and Connections. “Have I set it wrong?”

Claire shakes her head. She thinks for a time.

“It’s destiny,” Claire says.

Claire stands at the edge of the island and looks down into the sea; and then, firm and resolute, she nods.

“Here is your option,” she says. “If it fails, you shall use the other.”

And Porphyre with his silence agrees.

Claire ties the line around her feet. She spreads her arms like an albatross’ wings. She dives. The line reels out after her, mile after mile of it, falling into the endless deep.

There is no doubt that Claire expected to be dead, for the sixth tier sea is eight minutes deep; but she is lucky, more than lucky, and twice she passes through pockets of air. She falls out of the sea and the fire burns her, but for all her screams, this pain is brief; to fall through fire is not slow. The blades of the fourth tier cut her deep; they lacerate her arms and legs. They seek her eyes but she defends them, and in this manner her sight endures. At last she hits the third tier’s mist and the second tier’s smoke, the two great clouds of peace and happiness; they are soothing and gentle, anodynes for torment, and there is peace in her heart as she falls on.

Far above, the line snaps taut. The castle, that had nearly stopped, begins once more to move.

“At last,” says King Porphyre. “At last!”

The island swings about. It races across the sea. And there is something else, a blot upon the horizon, that Minister Vermin is the first to see.

“Another island?” the Minister asks.

“Another castle!” swears King Porphyre.

The island of Seferi and the island of Adeille collide.

There are some who say that this is a thing of hope, and that even as Claire was bait, so was her boy; that in the belly of some umbral beast they meet at last, and there beneath the sea find love, in this joining pulling the lines of two castles taut and dragging them together in fervent chase. If this is so, there is none who can vouch for it; it is not proper in Adeille to speak of bait, or hooks, or the man who sets them, and if he sacrificed himself like Claire—well, we shall never know his name.

All we know is this: that these things happened.

That Claire is gone.

That a castle that ceases to move soon dies.


Jinga the Sea Monster is wobbly and fierce. He is hideous and horrid. He sits in the Council beyond the Edge of the World and he judges.

“Woo-wobble-wobble,” he says, shaking himself. “Humanity is terrible and full of sin.”

His tendrils and his body shiver like jelly. If you could taste them, they’d taste more like offal than jelly, but there would be a bit of a sweet huckleberry sugary taste to them.

“Woo-wobble-wobble-wobble,” says Jinga the Sea Monster.

Then he gestures, with a slimy tentacle, at the Mirror of Sight!

The image in the mirror skims across the world of human life. It pauses briefly on Shelley, who is making brownies.

“DEE generate,” declares Jinga.

The mirror skims past Emily, who is in school, listening to her teacher and sometimes picking her nose.

“Sinful!” snaps Jinga.

The mirror finally settles in on Diane, who is sitting at a table, at a restaurant, out on her first date with John.

Lester the Adorable Earwig is a giant squiggly earwig. His nametag designates him adorable. He sits in the Council beyond the Edge of the World and he judges.

“How perfidious a creature is woman,” says Jinga.

“Ah-ah,” smiles Lester. “But is she more or less perfidious a creature than man?”

Jinga shivers. His body woo-wobble-wobbles softly. “That is a difficult one, Lester. Very difficult!”

Lester chitters smugly.

“I would say,” says Jinga, “that because a woman can become pregnant, she has more capacity for perfidy; and because humans in general exercise such capacities fully, that she is more perfidious—on the whole.”

Lester scowls. He had wanted to stump Jinga.

Pecuny is a silky ooze. There are bits of many colors in Pecuny. They are not admirably arranged.

Pecuny sits in the Council beyond the Edge of the World and he judges.

“These two,” Pecuny says. “Their minds are full of unworthy thoughts. Let us punish them.”

“Punish! Punish! Woo-wobble-wobble-wobble!” says Jinga.

“No!” says Lester. He is still sulking. “We have an arrangement. We cannot punish them until they are dead.”

“But look at how she is eating that breadstick,” says Pecuny. “And he! He is using the dinner fork for his salad!”

“Not until they are dead,” Lester says. He squiggles about in mild agitation. “We have rules. They may still redeem themselves while they’re alive, you know.”

“Pfah,” pfahs Pecuny.

“Lester is right,” says Jinga, sadly. “Look. She is muttering something. Can anyone read lips?”

Diane is leaning in towards John. She mutters, “Hey, I think we’re being watched by the Council beyond the Edge of the World.”

“Bugger,” says John.

“I think they’re talking about sex,” Lester says. He squints. His eyes are not very good, even though they’re faceted.

John eats another bite of salad. He uses the dinner fork again.

“Want to play a trick on them?” Diane says.

John suddenly grins. “Really? You have a radiator?”

“I do,” says Diane.

Lester leans back. “Well, that’s that. Judged and found unworthy. Let’s move on.”

Diane reaches into her purse. She subtly sets her radiator to evil.

“Wait,” says Jinga. He wobbles.

Diane picks up her salad fork, malevolently. She takes a bite of her salad. She chews. She chews her salad like each bite is a genocide.

“Woo-wobble-wobble!” says Jinga, in distress.

Diane licks her lips with filthy, horrid intent. She reaches for her water glass. She picks it up. She drinks it.

“Scum!” shouts Lester. “Scum! Scum! Scum!”

Lester does the earwig dance of absolute horror. It is not adorable at all.

Diane adjusts the radiator to encompass John.

“What’s it set to?” John asks. His voice is ripe with evil; there is good probability, Pecuny assesses, that he is even at that moment indwelt by the Devil.

“Evil,” Diane says. It is suddenly obvious to everyone who looks at her that she has never been baptized.

“Um, is that a good idea?” John frets, eyes bulging with selfish shortsightedness.

“Wait,” says Diane. She stretches out the torture. “Wait—”

“We must punish them now!” shrieks Pecuny. “Now! Now! N—erk.”

Diane has flipped the radiator to perfect good.

“Huh,” says Jinga.

There is a dead silence in the Council beyond the Edge of the World as Diane finishes her salad and pushes the plate back.

“Huh,” agrees Pecuny.

“Woo-wobble-wobble-wobble,” whispers Jinga, uncertainly.

“It is a miracle,” concludes Lester.

“Grace,” Jinga agrees.

“We are privileged to witness a miracle,” says Lester. “Because we ourselves are good.”



Diane grins. Her water glass in front of her lips, she says, “Now I’ll take the radiator out and dump it in the trash, and they’ll probably spend the rest of the day thinking about how wonderful trash is.”

“W00t,” says John, in the blessed fashion of the saints.

Diane walks out of the restaurant. She looks around. There is a public trash can on the other side of the street. She begins to cross.

“Woo-wobble-wobble!” cries Jinga. “That car! It will hit her!”

“It will end her perfect grace!” shouts Pecuny.

“This must not be!”

Jinga dives through the mirror and into the human world. The sound of the car as it strikes the sea monster is the sound of death come to huckleberry. There is Jinga splashed on the windshield and on Diane’s new suit and on Diane’s face.

Diane sprains her ankle as she falls.

The Old Man of the Sea (1 of 2)

It’s Tuesday, the 20th of April, 2004.

“We’ll go away from Santa Ynez,” says Liril.

So they do.

“And do we just run?”

“We’ll go to where I screamed,” Liril says. “To Elm Hill. We’ll take back every god they took and steal every tainted bill and coin and favor they bought. Then we’ll run away to the hills and live richly forever.”

“I didn’t know,” Micah says.

“It’s what people do,” Liril says. “They keep their own gods.”

Micah looks tired. He is still recovering from torture. He is not at his best. But he tells everyone where to find the supplies he stole from a grocery store on Saturday. They find the cache.

“I should have realized,” Micah says, “about the milk.”

“I like the peanut butter,” Liril says. She has opened some up and spread it on crackers.

She thinks.

“We can live off the milk of the land,” she adds.

“That’s a good idea,” Micah agrees. “Please make one for me?”

Liril looks at him. She’s a bit startled. But then she nods, and puts peanut butter on a cracker, and offers it to him. He takes it. He bites it.

“What’s up ahead?” he asks.

“There’s a river,” she says. “That’s where we probably all die, except Tainted John. He probably dies in a train wreck.”

Tainted John looks at her, or rather, doesn’t look at her, because his eyes are all blood and shimmer.

“Oh,” says Micah.

“If we can survive two years or so,” Liril says, “we’re okay.”

“So if I get eaten by a shark,” Micah says, “I should try to hang on for at least two years.”

“Sharks are sharp. But you should try. Or if you get burned. Or whatever.”

“If I’m dangling off a cliff?”

Liril looks at him. Her eyes are deep. “Pull yourself up,” she says. “Don’t just hang on for two years.”

Micah smiles at her.

Liril blushes.

“Don’t,” she says, in a small voice.

“What happens at the river?”

“There was a gate,” Liril says. “Once upon a time. And ministers in attendance upon it. I was screaming. But they wanted me to grow up and become something else.”

“You can grow up,” Micah says. He’s deliberately ignoring the fact that he’s been the same age ever since he was born. “It’s okay to.”

“I didn’t want to,” Liril says. “Not that way.”


“There were ministers I couldn’t touch because they were too strong,” says Liril. “And ministers I couldn’t touch because they were too gross. It was just the way it was. I couldn’t touch them. But there was one who was pure and bright and kind of cold. His nametag said, ‘Proteus’, and under that, ‘Cruelty.'”

“The monster is really bad at Greek,” Micah says.

“I could touch him,” Liril says, “because he was impartial to me. He didn’t have anything he was for. He was just there. So I gave him a purpose. I said, ‘Proteus, wait for me at the river, and I won’t pass through the gate until I see you there.'”

“And he did?”

“Yes,” Liril says. “And since that time there’s been no change, except when a wind blew off the chaos and brought him strength.”

“Also, I rolled a rock,” Micah says. “It changed things.”

Liril considers.

“It did,” Micah says.

Liril touches his mouth with a finger. “It was a cause,” she says. “Things have more than one reason. It’s okay. You’re a good Micah.”

He looks at her wryly.

“You’re delicate with me today,” he says.

“I looked at what she was doing to you,” Liril says. “I was crying the whole time but I couldn’t face her yet.”

“Things have reasons,” Micah says, and he shrugs. He sees her face, and his own face starts to get a little weird.

“No,” Liril says. “We won’t discuss it now. Later. Later, when it’s not—we can’t discuss it now.”


They walk towards the river, carrying their bags of groceries.

“We shouldn’t cross at a bridge,” Micah says. “We shouldn’t cross anywhere people are. But the river’s kind of hard to wade.”

“I know,” Liril says. “But there’s a river-man in the river. He’s part of why it’s so deep. Tainted John’s going to hold his face down in the mud and the river’ll sink. Then we can cross.”

“Kuras did that once,” Micah says. “To defeat Belshazzar.”


“He lowered the river that ran through Babylon, and marched his people in on the riverbed.”

“Oh,” says Liril. She looks pleased, because Micah seems a little less drained when he’s talking about this.

They reach the river. Micah looks at the river. It’s deep and wide.

“Is he . . . can John do stuff like that?”

Micah’s voice is a little resentful now. His greatest talent is surprisingly relevant historical trivia. It bothers him that Tainted John has actual magic powers.

“Can,” Liril confirms.

Tainted John looks at Micah. The boy reflected in those eyes is small and tired and dirty and smells of sweat and pain. Then John grins, and turns to the river, and flows in. The water level begins to fall.

“He’s a jerk,” Micah says.

“It’s okay.”

The water level falls further.

There’s a man standing by the river, rising from the river, falling from the trees, forming from the air. He’s old but in good shape for his age. He’s wearing a white shirt, and there’s a nametag attached that says, “Proteus,” and beneath that, “Cruelty.”

Micah looks at him.

“I think,” Micah says, “that you’re really happy that at last Liril can grow up, and so you’re going to join our rag-tag band, seal a promise of friendship with us by eating a cracker with peanut butter on it, and you’ll accompany us on our magical adventure to Elm Hill.”

“Your theory is flawed,” Proteus says.

Micah looks really tired. “Come on,” he says. “Please? I’m really tired. I don’t want to fight you.”

“I am an agent and a creature of change,” says Proteus. “They called me the Old Man of the Sea. And I have been held in stasis for more than twenty years because I chose to participate in a process otherwise marked only by horror. Now I am resentful and bitter and wish to kill you all.”

“You were there when they were breaking her,” Micah points out. “You could have helped.”

“The sea is cruel.”

“You can’t have the moral high ground at sea level,” Micah says, “unless you’re like a squid or something.”

“I buttress my moral standing with raw power,” Proteus says. He demonstrates, transforming into a tower of flame, a terrible lion, a serpent, a tiger, a silk shirt, a porcelain doll like Liril’s Latch, a dragon whose eyes are like the emptiness, an angel, a twig—

Micah steps forward, sharply, and snaps Proteus in half.

Then he sags.

“What?” Liril says.

“He was a twig,” Micah justifies. His eyes are blinking pretty quickly and there’s a horror at their back.

“Oh,” Liril says.

The river runs dry. But Micah does not stride boldly forward.

“It’s—I mean, I mean, you have to, you have to fight,” Micah says.

Liril tries to take his hand, but he wrenches away from her. He’s staring blankly at the twig.

“Oh my God,” he says. “Oh my God.”


Micah snaps out of it. “We have to go,” he mumbles.

“We can fix him.”

“We have to go. It’s just a twig. Twiggy face Proteus oh God.”

Liril takes his hand. This time he accepts.

“It’s okay,” Liril says. “We can fix him. It’s okay. I didn’t tell you to break him. I didn’t mean you to.”

“He was in the way,” Micah says. “He’s . . .”

Micah’s voice is rising towards a child’s howl.

There are distant sirens.

Liril’s hand tightens on Micah’s. Slowly, he calms.

“All right,” he says. His face is pale. “How?”

Liril looks at the broken twig.

“You can fix a broken twig with construction paper,” she says. “You cut it up into pieces and paste them on as a brace. Then the twig is whole, because paper and twigs are the same.”

“I didn’t know that,” Micah says.

“Most people just leave twigs broken,” says Liril. “Most twigs aren’t, aren’t, aren’t—um.”

“People,” Micah says.

He roots around in the groceries. There is construction paper, and scissors, and tape, and glue, and paste, and crayons, and pens, and paper, because Micah’s life has provided him with a startlingly complete exposure to the lessons of kindergarden. There is also a coloring book that describes the fall of Belshazzar. He had stolen it in hopes that Liril would find time for coloring on their journey.

“Use too much paste and you’ll stick to everything,” Liril warns.

Micah ignores her. He begins to work.

“Uh,” Micah says, as he works. “There’s handwriting on this paper.”


“‘Anger.’ ‘Blood.’ ‘Fury.’ ‘Resentment.'”

“Huh,” Liril says.


“It’s probably to make him hate us,” Liril says. “It’s too bad.”

“‘Mene,'” Micah says.


“‘Mene,'” Micah says. “It just got written on this paper twice.”

“Write ‘miney moe,'” Liril advises.

Micah complies.

There’s a long pause.

“It was probably going to say ‘tekel parsin’,” Liril says. “Mene mene tekel parsin. You have been measured and found wanting and will be divided among the Medes and the Persians.”

“I don’t want to be divided among the Medes and the Persians.”

“I know,” Liril says. “It probably won’t happen. I mean, nowadays.”

“Now there’s an illustration of a middle finger,” Micah says.

“Just fix,” Liril says.

So Micah fixes Proteus with paste and cut-up pieces of construction paper. Micah gets paste on his hands and arms. Proteus gets his life back, and transforms himself into a man.

“That was rude, boy,” Proteus says, referencing the fact that Micah stepped on him and broke him in half while he was in a vulnerable ‘twig’ form.

“I tried to fix it,” Micah protests.

“I should kill you now.”

Proteus lunges at Micah. Micah’s face grows paler, but he has not lost the will to fight. He wraps his arms around the man even as they fall over backwards. Proteus becomes a thrashing shark. He becomes acid. He becomes a pony with a mouth full of terrible teeth. Then he is a man again.

“You’re holding on well,” he admits. “It’s practically heroic.”

“I don’t want to,” Micah says.

“What’s that, boy?”

“I have paste on my hands,” Micah says. “I’m sticking to everything.”

Liril looks slightly away.

“Oh,” says Proteus.

“We’re attached to the things that hurt us,” rasps out Tainted John.

There is a long silence.

Tainted John looks down and away.

There is a further silence.

Then Proteus transforms into a hissing serpent, a many-limbed horror, a tree, and a cloud, wrestling against Micah and his paste.

“Are you actually going to hurt me, or just turn into things while I’m stuck?” Micah asks.

Proteus becomes a tiger. He bites deep into Micah’s arm. Micah’s arm runs with blood. His brain fills up with endorphins, which allows him to swallow back his scream. Then Proteus is a man again, spitting and cursing.

“Um?” Micah says. He sounds a bit upset. After all, Proteus bit him, and now he’s acting all like Micah’s done something wrong.

Proteus spits.


“You taste like paste.”

Micah stares at him.

“I don’t like eating paste,” says Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea.

“I’m a boy,” Micah says. “I’m supposed to taste funny.”

“You taste like paste and dirt and sweat and grass and mud.”

“Then don’t eat me,” Micah says. “I dunno. If you learn anything in kindergarden, it’s not to eat paste or boys. They taste bad and you don’t know where they’ve been!”

“Did you even go to kindergarden?”

“I . . . I’m like Kuras,” Micah says.


“His grandfather believed that Kuras would rule over all of Asia, so he ordered his servant Harpagus to set the infant Kuras down on a hillside and watch over him until he died. Instead, a miraculous sheepdog suckled him until Harpagus gave up and said, ‘Fine, he gets to live.’ It wasn’t like kindergarden, but it gave him a startlingly accurate simulation of kindergarden’s life lessons without actual attendance.”

“Ah,” says Proteus. “You mean Cyrus.

“I guess.” Micah grins a little. “He’s kind of my idol.”

“Your story differs from Herodotus’ account of the matter,” Proteus says skeptically. “In his History, he alleges that the miraculous dog-suckling was a rumor Cyrus spread purely for political gain.”

Micah handwaves, as best he can while pasted to a god.

“I think Herodotus is too cynical,” Micah says. “Kuras beat Belshazzar. He’s smart enough to have put forward a less embarrassing animal to suckle him. Like a shark. Or an eagle.”

Micah is actually sounding better, because he likes talking about Kuras.

“Probably not a shark,” Proteus says. “In the mountains.”

“A grizzled mountain shark,” Micah says.


“That’s what I’d say. A grizzled mountain shark, so tough he didn’t need water and could just swim on rocks, suckled me. Then everyone would know I was badassed. But since he didn’t say that, the whole sheepdog thing must be the truth.”

Proteus reaches a sudden resolution.

“Let us not debate the veracity of Herodotus,” he says. “Instead, I will wash you off!”

He begins to run towards the sea. Micah is dragged along with him, and cannot stop him, but he shouts, “Wait! Wait! I have scissors!”


Proteus slows.

“I have scissors,” Micah says. “You’re running with scissors. Somebody could lose an eye.”

Proteus stops cold, face going ashen.

“Your life did provide a startlingly accurate simulation of kindergarden’s lessons without actual attendance,” he says.

“I know,” Micah says.

Proteus looks towards the distant sea. He ponders how long it would take to walk to it while pasted to a boy.

“If we work together,” Proteus says, “we could probably get unstuck.”

“You’d eat Liril,” says Micah. “And then Tainted John. And me.”

“I’d eat Liril, boy. She doesn’t taste of paste. The rest of you, I dunno.”

Micah looks at the river. He looks at Tainted John. His nose curls.

“You could eat him,” Micah says.

“I don’t want to find out what he tastes like,” Proteus says. Micah is annoyed, but can’t help seeing Proteus’ point. “I just don’t.”

Tainted John smiles impassively. He is holding the river down. That’s why he can’t help!

“I can’t let you eat even Liril,” Micah says. “She’s important to me.”


“I’m a startingly accurate rendition of her volition,” Micah says. “I mean, I was. Before. Now maybe I’m just someone who fights for us.”

“Ah,” says Proteus.


“I could give her a head start,” Proteus says.

“Or let us go?”

“I’m not inclined to be forgiving,” says Proteus. “What with the words ‘anger’, ‘fury’, ‘blood,’ ‘resentment’, and ‘mene mene miney moe’ written into my very flesh.”

“Uh,” says Micah. “I only wrote the miney moe part. Who did the rest?”

“Some creepy handwriting girl,” Proteus says. He shrugs.


Micah would investigate further, but right now, he’s affixed to a man who can turn into a shark. It distracts him.

“I’ll help you get unstuck,” Micah says. “Then you’ll give her a head start.” He thinks. “But it has to be a good one. It can’t be like five seconds.”

“What about seven seconds?”

Micah looks at Liril.

Liril judges, “Seven seconds is like five seconds, even though it’s two seconds longer.”

“Five minutes?”

Liril looks unhappy.

“What?” Micah asks.

“Well, it’s not like five seconds,” Liril says, “but it’s awfully short.”

“Ten, then,” Proteus says.

Micah looks at Proteus. “Deal.”


They pull at one another. They wrestle. Eventually the paste succumbs to the transience of all things. Micah and Proteus stumble apart.

Proteus turns into a talking bear.

“Run,” Proteus growls.

Micah turns to run.

“Not you,” Proteus says. He slaps Micah with the paw of a bear and Micah falls senseless to the river bed. Proteus points to Liril. “You.”

Liril runs.

Tainted John looks up. He frowns.

Liril looks back.

“Stay,” Liril says to Tainted John, for Micah is in the river bed.

And then she runs.

Passing Odysseus

This is the story of Saul, and Meredith, their daughter Bethany, and their family ship. It starts like this.

The ship plies the sea.

“Daddy?” asks Bethany. “Have we tamed the oceans?”

Saul is at the helm. He’s wearing his captain’s hat, so he has to think carefully. He turns the matter over in his head. “I don’t rightly know,” he says.


“Every year,” says Meredith, “every year, people come up with new and better boats. New and better ways to sail.”

It’s a narrow sea. It’s not much more than a straits, really, with two marked lanes and an elbow. The ship sails on.

“That’s true,” Saul says.

They pass a sign. It says, CREW REFILLS 1.5nm. Saul begins to slow the ship and move it towards the shore.

“That’s true,” Saul says, again. “But there’s something untameable in the sea. Something that laughs at man.”

“Huh,” says Bethany, and goes back to her coloring book.

“That’s how it’s different from the land,” Saul says.

Saul pulls away from the sea and into a cove. It’s a small cove covered by a pavilion. There are lanes marked in the water. There are two rows of great tanks, each full of crew. Saul parks the ship beside one. He tosses a rope to the tank. The attendant grabs the rope. Saul uses it to pull his ship close. He opens the hatch to the deeper deck. He connects it to the tank. He begins to fill his ship with crew.

“Don’t spend too much, honey,” says Meredith.

“It’s a big sea,” Saul protests. “We won’t get where we’re going without crew.”

“Use the wind,” Meredith says. “We’ve got time.”

“Feh,” says Saul. He adjusts his captain’s hat sulkily. But he stops with the ship only half-full of crew. He closes the hatch. He pays the attendant. He starts up a drumbeat on the stereo. It pounds. Beneath him, the crew begins to row.

They pass a sailboat. It’s straining at the wind.

“I drew a picture!” declares Bethany.

“Let me see?” Meredith asks. So Bethany shows her.

“It’s sirens,” Bethany says. “They’re the daughters of the sea!”

“They’re very nice.”

They pass a sailboat. It’s straining at the wind.

The drumbeat sounds. The crew rows.

They pass a sea serpent. A man and a woman are riding it bareback, outside the riding pavilion. Their faces are covered with salt and spray. They are laughing.

“Tsk,” Meredith clucks.

“Hm?” asks Saul.

“The sea serpents,” Meredith says. “They’re such crew-guzzlers.”

“They have to eat, honey.”

“It’s wasteful,” Meredith says, primly. She goes to the back and gets out a basket. She takes one of three foil-wrapped sandwiches out of the basket. She offers it to Bethany, but Bethany shakes her head.

“Unh-unh!” says Bethany.

So Meredith unwraps the sandwich and begins to eat it. “It’s bursting with peanut butter and jelly,” she says.

“Not hungry!” says Bethany.


They pass a giant sea urchin. The sea urchin surges purply through the waves. Its riders are impaled on its spikes. It’s not that they like being impaled. It’s just the only way to stay on a giant sea urchin for any length of time.

“Some people,” mutters Saul.

They pass a sailboat. It’s straining against the wind.

Then they come to Odysseus.

He’s ahead of them in their lane.

“It’s Odysseus!” cries Bethany. She jumps to her feet. She goes to the front of the ship. She waves.

Odysseus is riding a giant tamago sushi. It putters and grumbles unhappy as it floats through the sea. The sign on its back says, “Wide load.”

Odysseus waves back. He looks somewhat resigned.

“Wasn’t he here the last time?” Saul asks.

“Nuh-unh!” declares Bethany. “He was back at exit 157. This is exit 169! Circe!”

She points at one of the sea signs.

“That’s very good, honey,” says Meredith.

“I’m hungry,” says Bethany.

“I wish he’d get a new ship,” says Saul. He points ahead. “That thing takes up two lanes.”

“Well, pass him, dear.”

Saul tries to look around Odysseus. It’s somewhat difficult. He sighs. He turns the drumbeat off. Slowly, the crew stops rowing and relaxes. Saul’s ship glides along gently, caressed by the wind, staying just a little bit behind Odysseus’ tamago.

“He looks like he’s having some crew trouble,” observes Meredith. She cups her hands to her mouth. “Hey! Are you all right?”

Odysseus makes a neutral gesture in the universal language of sailors. Then he bangs irritably on his tamago. The sea is getting harsher, the winds more stormy, and he’s low on crew. With a resigned look, Odysseus begins to pull over towards the exit.

“I’m hungry,” Bethany states again.

“Would you like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”

“No,” Bethany says.

“We don’t have anything else, honey.”

“I don’t want that.” Bethany sulks. “Can we stop at McDonalds?”

“Today is a sandwich day.”

“I don’t like sandwich day.”

Odysseus’ tamago bumps into a reef. There is a terrible shredding noise as its seaweed binding comes undone. The last they see of him is Odysseus, atop a large clump of rice, desperately dog paddling towards shore.

“Oh, dear,” says Saul.

“Oh, dear!” says Bethany.

“Serves him right for buying a Pinto,” says Meredith.

“I don’t know,” says Saul. Their ship begins to pull ahead, now that the tamago is scattered. “I think the sea was against him.”

“Maybe,” Meredith agrees. Bethany is leaning off the side of the boat, feet kicking for balance, and tugging at a tamago iceberg. “Honey!” Meredith says. “Get back in here!”

“It’s made of food,” Bethany explains as Meredith drags her back, a head-sized chunk of tamago clenched in her hands.

“Good little girls don’t scavenge,” Meredith says.

The drumbeat starts back up.

They sail on.

“The sea is cruel,” says Bethany, tragically, as Meredith returns the tamago to the waves.

The Spearman Stays His Hand

It is an ocean somewhere in the never, on the shores of dream.

The captain harries the serpent from east to west. Hard-pursued, she dives. She passes the layer of fire, where the phosphorescence of the worms turns the sea red, yellow, orange, and white. She passes the layer of darkness. She passes into the land of the Princes.

“Help me,” she says, to the spearfish, its nose as sharp as a razor and long as the day. But it gathers its raiment of gold and its chorus of anglers and swims away.

“Help me,” she says, to the great dark eye of the squid. For a long moment, it studies her. Then there is a flickering and a fading in the great eye’s depths. The squid’s attention has turned away.

She batters at the gate of the Sea King’s palace.

“Help me,” she says to the guardsman there.

“The Sea King sees no one,” says the guard. “Nor may I help a straggler by.”

“If I am slain,” says the serpent. “If I am slain, that day the world dies.”

“Aye,” says the guard. “But things are as they are.”

“That is the day the world will die,” says the serpent, as if she cannot comprehend.

“I’m sorry,” says the guard.

So the serpent flows upwards to break the surface of the sea, and there is the captain, who has gained much distance on her in this time. His ship is made of darkest wood, and its sails are tattered as from knives; and the sky behind it is splashed with blood, and the wheel is made of bone; and on the deck stands the spearman, braced to throw.

“Kill her,” says the captain.

She flees across the water, as hard and as fast as still she may.

“Kill her,” says the captain.

For just a moment, the spearman stays his hand.

Pelops (II/IV)

Persephone stands at Tantalus’ side. “What is the secret of the gods?” she asks him.

“They are born, ” he says, “to fill emptiness.”

“You are empty, ” she says cruelly. “You stand in a land of plenty, but when you reach for fruit, the wind whips the branches away. When you reach for water, it drains into the parched earth. Are you, then, a mother to gods?”

“I am dead,” he says. “Else I should craft such gods as to sunder the world.”

“I hate you,” she says.

It is 1308 years before the common era. Sunlight floods the surface world. Oenomaus of Pisa cannot appreciate it. His mortality worries him. He summons the oracle of his house.

“Oracle!” cries King Oenomaus. “Speak unto me of my death.”

“You shall have a daughter,” the oracle says. “Hippodamia by name, and of all the girls in mortal Greece, she shall be the most beautiful and the most empty. Many men shall vie for her.”

King Oenomaus wrinkles his nose. “Is this going to be a kissing destiny?”


“When a King asks about how he’s going to die, he wants a rip-roaring story. You know. Swordsmen. Cyclopes. Suicide. Horses and princesses with inconceivable names. Miracles. Pain beyond endurance. True love and cold callous betrayal in about a two-to-one mix. Not kissing.

“It has all these things,” the oracle says. “And kissing too.”

Oenomaus sighs. “Speak on, then.”

“The guy who marries her kills you,” the oracle says sulkily.

Oenomaus laughs. “Then she shall never marry,” he says.

Time passes.

Hippodamia grows older. She speaks to the oracle. “Will I know true love?” she asks.

The oracle stares at her for a long time. Then he shakes his head. “It would take a miracle.”

It is 1290 years before the common era. The hills are green. The sky is blue. Princess Hippodamia has many suitors, each a handsome Prince. She walks alone in the woods, thinking on their virtues.

“Marmax,” she says. “He has the quality of promptness. If I married him, he should never be late. Acrias has a true kingdom, and Eioneus might be Zeus’ grandson. Erythras has credentials that I do not entirely understand, but that seem to involve society connections; and Cronius is handsome quite.”

Hippodamia sighs. She holds up a hand. A bird flutters down to alight upon it. She rubs its head.

“None of them,” she tells the bird, “compare to Pelops, to whom my heart is given.”

The bird chirps.

“It’s a sad story,” she says. “We might have had true love. Then someone stole Pelops’ heart. His father boiled Pelops down for stew. Afterwards, Pelops was buried alive and finally drowned at sea before getting captured and killed by pirates.”

The birds sings for a moment.

“That’s true,” Hippodamia says. “If he had no heart, he couldn’t have given it to me. But he could have given me something else.”

The bird tilts its head to one side.

“I don’t know,” she says. “Whatever he had handy?”

Someone clears his throat. The bird startles and flies away. Hippodamia turns. She sees a cyclope, a charioteer, and a hero. Then she sees the cyclope’s fist and all goes black.

She awakens on a boat.

“What do you want?” she asks.

The cyclope speaks:

“Unwelcome in Poseidon’s palace,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf Olympus with my bootless cries,
And kidnap princesses, and curse my fate.”

The small man at the front of the boat turns and sneers. “He fancies himself a poet.”

The cyclope says, mournfully:

“Tell me, where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?”

“I am Myrtilus,” the small man says. “I am kidnapping you and taking you to the Cliffs of Insanity, where I will kill you. This is Phisixus, my cyclope, and Pelagon Montoya, my hero.”

“My father will save me!” she declares.

“Perhaps,” Myrtilus says enigmatically.

“We’re being followed,” Pelagon says laconically.

Myrtilus turns to look. Phisixus turns to look. Hippodamia dives into the water. There’s a shriek. An eel devours her.

Back in the palace, Oenomaus speaks to his oracle.

“My daughter has been kidnapped,” he says. “I hired a charioteer, a hero, and a cyclope to kidnap her, take her to the Cliffs of Insanity, and kill her.”

“My prediction stands,” the oracle says. “I suspect she will have a marvelous adventure and wind up married instead of or immediately before her execution.”

“I had not thought of that,” Oenomaus admits. “Perhaps I should fetch her back. Where is she now?”

“She has just been eaten by an eel.”

Oenomaus frowns. “Hey! I thought she was supposed to get married!”

“You sound upset,” the oracle says, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m not upset,” Oenomaus says. “I wanted her to die. I just, you know, an eel? That can’t be right. Read the portents again.”

The oracle shrugs. “Maybe it wasn’t fatal.”

Elsewhere, Myrtilus frowns. “All right,” he says. “We’ve lost the princess, and there’s a boat behind us with a man in black in it, and he’s gaining fast.”

“He’ll be on us before we reach the Cliffs of Insanity,” Pelagon says.



Myrtilus stands. He shouts. “Inconceivable!”

“I do not think—” the cyclope begins.

The water stirs. A chariot drawn by a white-crested horse of the tide charges up to the ship.

“It’s the name of my horse,” Myrtilus says, caressing the horse’s mane. “She’s from Poseidon’s own herd.” He climbs into the chariot. “Phisixus. Come with me. We shall scale the Cliffs of Insanity. Pelagon, turn your boat around and meet this man in black, and defeat him with your swordplay.”

Phisixus leaps and lands atop the chariot, which sways precariously. An eel screams. Myrtilus turns the chariot, cracks the whip, and gallops off across the waves.

“I’ll do it,” Pelagon says. He dances on the deck of the ship, waving his sword about. In short order, the two ships converge; and Pelagon goes still.

“Pelops,” he says, and sinks to one knee.

Myrtilus looks back. He leans down to touch the horse’s mane. “Inconceivable,” he whispers. “Run faster; he has tamed my hero.”

The horse breaks upon the cliffs of insanity, dissolving into the surf. The cyclope clings to the cliff with Myrtilus on his back. He climbs. They reach the top.

“Still he follows,” mutters the cyclope.

“Unacceptable!” cries Myrtilus. In the sky above him, the horses of the sun writhe within their harness, and the horse Unacceptable burns down from the sky to strike like a meteor at his feet. He speaks three words, and a burning chariot forms behind it.

“Phisixus,” Myrtilus says, “hold him back, I pray.”

The horse gallops away; and the man in black climbs; and Phisixus kneels before him. “Pelops,” he says.

“Where will he go?” Pelops asks, looking at the scorch-mark trail Myrtilus has left.

“To King Oenomaus,” Phisixus says. “There to report on the failure of his crimes.”

“I am a fool,” Pelops whispers.

King Oenomaus looks to the sea; and the sea rises like the anger of the gods; and a great wall of it crashes down upon his keep. His guards wash back into the walls. His fortifications creak. King Oenomaus tumbles back. Yet the sea is gentle, and does not kill, and the water recedes again. In the courtyard he sees a flopping eel; and when his men gut it, his daughter emerges.

“Hippodamia,” he says, and embraces her.

“Father,” she says. She holds back tears. “I was kidnapped. And then an eel ate me. And then I was here! It was awful!”

Oenomaus considers. “But did you get married to anyone?”

Hippodamia looks at him blankly. “. . . I think you have an overglamorous notion of what goes on inside an eel.”

“I had rather expected you’d be digested,” he says.

She looks down at her untarnished skin. “I suppose this is Poseidon’s work,” she says neutrally.

“Aha!” he says. “You’ve been dallying with Poseidon!”



“There wouldn’t’ve been room in the eel,” she says. “It wasn’t like getting eaten by the kraken, you know.”


Oenomaus looks up. He can see the galloping horse of the sun approaching. He turns to his daughter. “Go to your room and rest. You’ve had a busy day.”

“That’s true,” Hippodamia admits. “It’s naptime!”

She runs off.

A few minutes later, Myrtilus reaches the castle. He releases the horse, which begins a searing ascent into the sky. “I’m sorry,” he says. “An eel ate her. Then a man in black came after us and somehow subverted both hero and cyclope.”

“No doubt a suitor,” Oenomaus says. “He wanted to catch her and marry her while she was out of my sight; but he’ll come here next.”

Myrtilus considers. “If you tell him ‘no’, he’ll kill you. He’s that fierce.”

“Then what can I do?”

Myrtilus shrugs. “Hold a contest. If a suitor wants her, he has to race you to the Isthmus of Corinth. If he loses, you get to kill him. If he wins, he claims her hand. With our horses and my charioteering skill, there’s no way you can lose.”

“There are far too many suitors about,” Oenomaus admits. “Very well. Post the proclamations.”

The man in black reaches the castle. He eyes the gates. He sees the posted proclamation. He thinks for a time. Then he waits. He waits and watches as Oenomaus races and kills eleven suitors; and when the last one falls, he sneaks past the gate and into Myrtilus’ room.

“Pelops,” Myrtilus gasps, and falls to one knee. “But . . . you died!”

“So I did,” Pelops says evenly.

“Your father boiled you down for stew. He added an onion.”

“The gods grieved that Tantalus had slain me. They reconstituted my flesh and bones and returned me to life.”

“You were buried alive,” Myrtilus points out.

“My shoulder was,” Pelops says, “for it was eaten by Cybele, Demeter, the lady of the harvest; and it slept under the earth for full measure of winter before she crafted me a new shoulder of iron and ivory.”

“And drowned.”

“I was an ugly and resentful child,” Pelops says. “But these things were boiled away. I came out of the stewpot beautiful and confident; and Poseidon took me down into the sea, and filled my lungs with water, and I carried his cup and served at his side for many years. That is why when I spoke to the eel, it consumed Hippodamia but did not harm her, and delivered her here on the crest of the sea.”

“You were also captured and killed by pirates.”

“Come now, Myrtilus. You must not believe every rumor you hear.”

“Then what shall you do, my lord?”

“I shall race,” Pelops says. “And you shall rig Oenomaus’ chariot to kill him.”

“I will do this thing,” Myrtilus says, “if only you shall allow me to remain by your side.”

Morning dawns, and Pelops and Oenomaus enter their chariots side by side.

“You have no horses,” Pelops says.

“You will note,” Oenomaus says, “that the harness hangs upright in air; so I shall say, not that I have no horses, but that the horses of this chariot are the north and south wind, and they shall not fail me.”

“Don’t fall too far behind!” Pelops says, and cracks the reins, and his horses charge away.

Oenomaus smirks. “He’s so going to get it,” he says. He wraps the tethers to the wind, one around each arm. He cracks the reins. Behind him, the oracle shakes his head sadly. The tethers snap tight. One wind blows north. The other, south. In an instant, Oenomaus rips himself apart. Leisurely, Pelops turns his chariot around and parks it by the gate.

“I declare victory,” he languids.

From the crowd behind, he hears a scream. Hippodamia races through the press of people. “You’re Pelops,” she says. She takes his head in his hands. She kisses him, full on. “Oh, do. Do be Pelops. And not dead.”

“As you wish,” he says.

“But how?” she asks. “I’ve only been asleep for a few days!”

“I have come here to marry you,” he says, “and give you three things.”


He gestures. Myrtilus and Pelagon approach. Phisixus emerges from behind the castle walls.

“These,” he says. “A charioteer, a hero, and a cyclope.”

Hippodamia recoils. “Why?”

Myrtilus goes pale.

“When my father tossed me in the pot,” Pelops says, “he took my heart from me; and my mind; and this left me empty. Then my ugliness boiled away, and left me emptier. Taking pity on this emptiness, Poseidon inspired creatures to fill it: a woman beauteous and kind, to be my wife; a charioteer that could tame even the horses of the sun; a hero of surpassing prowess; and a cyclope out of legend. Some of my mind has returned to me. But I have no heart and cannot give you love. I can only give you the creatures of my emptiness.”

“I am called empty,” Hippodamia says. “I show limited concern when eaten by eels and nap for days at a time. Yet I manifest no such creatures.”

Pelops shrugs.

Myrtilus says, trembling, “My lord, I am yours. Not hers. I have killed for this, and now you toss me away.”

“Peace, Myrtilus,” Pelops says. “It is not so great a change as that.”

The castle goes quiet, and waits for the wedding. In the night, Myrtilus walks down to the sea.

“I am his heart,” Myrtilus says. “Part of his love. Yet is there no love that he shall retain for himself? Shall he thus casually toss me away? A curse on his house, and all of his descendants; I shall not live to see her service.”

The horse Inconceivable comes to his side, and he mounts the white creature, and he rides until he drowns.

In the watchtower of the castle, Hippodamia watches. She makes an unhappy face for a while, and then she smiles. “Well,” she says, “A two thirds true love isn’t so bad.”