On the Origins of Common Foods

Flying on a plane is very nice.

It is not as nice as wings. But it has more peanuts. Unless you are a peanut elemental, spreading great peanut-pattern wings. Then the peanuts of a plane are comparatively few.

This is not to say that peanuts are always an advantage.

Some people are allergic to peanuts. They do not value the peanuts on a plane. Some peanut elementals are allergic to peanuts. They go immediately into anaphylactic shock and die. We do not talk about them much unless they fall through our roofs, at which point it becomes difficult for the rest of the year to talk about anything else.

Some people are not allergic to peanuts. They have the advantage in that if they do meet a peanut elemental they do not necessarily die; and if they meet an elemental of non-peanut-ness, they are still generally all right.

(An elemental of non-peanut-ness is an elemental spirit formed from and exemplifying the conceptual category “not a peanut,” such that, when you see them, you immediately recognize that here is the pure distilled essence of not being a peanut—possessing none of the trace impurities that exempt most things in the world from Platonic non-peanut-ness. For example, the Earth is shaped too closely to resemble a peanut to qualify, while Eggos are legumes.)

This advantage of being able to survive contact with a peanut elemental is principally intangible and a matter of form (unlike the peanut elementals themselves) because peanut elementals are rare, and, when encountered in flight, have difficulty forcing their way onto the plane. Nor are they able, in this era of heightened security, to sneak easily onto the plane as a passenger unless they are willing to take off their shoes, limit their toothpaste allowance, and have names that do not resemble a terrorist’s name. (So, for instance, Mr. Peanut would have trouble, as would Al-Qaffar, but Mr. God of the Thousand-Slaying Legume Kick is probably okay.)

In the old days peanut elementals were a greater trouble for air traffic. This is how Mr. Carver invented peanut butter. People will say that he developed peanut butter in the laboratory but in fact George Washington Carver was the preeminent air ace of World War II. His contribution was ignored at the time as the United States government feared that, if they acknowledged it, the Axis would deride them as politically correct.

During one of many dogfights with German nationals Mr. Carver caught a peanut elemental in the engine of his plane and the rest was secret history.

But peanut elementals were not the only inhabitants of the stratosphere who would prove troublesome for air traffic in those troubled years. The Metatron Incident (wherein Metatron descended to the earth in a cloud of grace to reveal the new gospel and was caught in the engines of an uncertified Boeing) made angelfood cake possible for the first time in the history of the world. The efforts of hundreds of French chefs to reproduce this masterwork of massacre eventually created the “vegetarian angelfood” that we know today, using baking powder, whipped eggs, and flour to approximate the manifold virtues of Heaven. Masons traditionally added a snake, which they would wrap around the egg and convince to bite its own tail before baking; this added a sense of timeless mysticism to their delicious recipes and rightly they were honored throughout the culinary world.

The impact of the Metatron Incident was not to end there. Many of the people on the plane became focal points for mysterious phenomena. One of them, struck on the forehead by a bit of Metatron debris, became Billy Graham. Another became Vice-President Cheney. The plane plowed into the East Oak Lake house of a previously ordinary schoolboy; he would later grow up to become Noam Chomsky!

Tofu was originally made from ufos.

—Not to quit talking about Noam Chomsky when we’ve barely just begun, but he’s really not a common food!

So, anyway, tofu was originally made from ufos. Japan never admitted it, but you can tell because of the letters of its name.

—And why are the letters in tofu’s name in English, anyway? It was probably made from *British* ufos! Back benchers probably evolved into ufos because somebody fed them after midnight, and then they flew unwisely into Japan. All of this is hypothetical, because the true nature of the ufos is still unknown. But it seems likely—and yet, like Noam Chomsky, ufo pedantry is not a common food, and we must leave it lie.

Tofu, as noted earlier, was at one time made from ufos. But now it is not made from ufos. There are simply not enough ufos in the sky to support the scale of the modern tofu economy. So now most tofu is made out of a blend of textured swamp gas and weather balloons. Only trace impurities of alien origin remain!

Ballet is a wonderful art. Often in the grand jete the dancer will appear to fly. Conversely, while not so very grand, Boeing jets do fly. On one occasion, a joyous serendipity generated the Reese’s peanut butter cup; on another, to speak very delicately, battement fondu.

Ironically despite its historical origins fondue is rarely served on planes. One reason is that there is not enough leg room on a plane for a ballerina to survive. Confined in the middle seat they wither away and die. Another reason is that in the event of turbulence it is hard to explain to people that they will need to wear clear plastic masks to minimize the risk of cheese burns. The third and last reason is fear. In the post 9/11 era, fondue is just too scary for the no-longer-friendly skies!

Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai: “Typical Wuxia Lovers”

In this world there are six TERRIBLE TECHNIQUES of martial arts.

They are beyond ordinary people.

Ordinary people are divided against themselves. They are constantly acting against the motivations that drive them.

A martial artist cannot afford such things.

This is STATIONARY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI—

KON.

Kon lives in a white temple on the far side of a cliff. He chose the location of his temple poorly. Erosion ate away the ground. Now his temple hangs over the sea.

It does not fall.

He is a stationary defensive samurai.

Kon wears a white kimono with a pattern of blue flowers. Now and then a student searches him out. Most he discards immediately as unworthy.

Not Tomo.

Tomo has the potential, he thinks, to be a perfectly defensive samurai.

They’re sparring in his temple. He kicks two lit braziers into the air and punches them into her. She reflects them off the edge of her sword. It’s pretty good.

He fills his lungs with the stationary Chi of the temple.

He coughs.

He turns blue.

Then, with a great effort, he does an internal-external conversion and blows a great gout of raw power at her.

She sights the “secret center” of the wind.

She lifts her sword.

She cuts.

There is a riot of waveforms and a great fluttering of tapestries. Then Kon gestures with his hand.

All goes still.

“You are good,” he says.

“O?” Tomo says. She looks pleased.

“Yet—“

He hesitates.

“O?”

“You cannot master one of the TERRIBLE TECHNIQUES,” says Kon, “if you act against the motivations that drive you. So you must tell me, Tomo—what drives you?”

Tomo does not have to think.

The secret of her existence spills forth as a shaken bottle, once opened, will bulge with its weight of heavy foam.

I’M IN UR FIGHT
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS.

“Huh,” says Kon.

He’s been prepping to explain to her the kinds of situations where an enemy might twist that motivation against her.

And hoping to let her down slowly if it were something like, say, “sex up the mentor.”

But instead he just stands there and feels the subtle hand of destiny, and he says, “That’s pretty good.”

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

It is far away.

These are TYPICAL WUXIA LOVERS—

MEG and

CHO!

Atop a hill at night, under the falling blossoms, Meg and Cho fight.

Cho stumbles.

For a moment, Meg has the advantage. She lifts her sword. She says a silent prayer in her heart:

Gods of kung fu save him; may I die instead.

The gods of kung fu are kind.

There are too many cherry blossoms in the air. They foul her vision. The blow does not strike true. Cho twists and catches it in his side and not his heart.

Meg dances back, quickly, but not quickly enough.

Cho is on his feet. Cho is surging forward. He is as inevitable as the stone wall that divides their families. He is as powerful as the sea.

He says a silent prayer in his heart:

Gods of kung fu save her; may I die instead.

But he knows it cannot be.

They will die together, in the final clash.

That is the way of things for TYPICAL WUXIA LOVERS.

And indeed, he can see it.

She is using the hidden palm iron blossom sake sword. He can see it before his eyes like a long white slash.

He breathes: Ah.

He resigns himself to fate.

I’M IN UR FIGHT,
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

There is a flare of light.

Between them stands Tomo. She is blocking Cho’s sword with her sword and the hidden palm iron blossom sake sword with the palm of her free hand.

A flower petal lands, awkwardly, at the very top of her head.

“What?” says Cho, startled.

“I am Tomo,” she says, clippedly. “I am the PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI.”

“How dare you?” he says.

And Meg is already swirling around, moving to cut off Tomo’s head with her razor-edge sleeve—but

LIGHT

And Meg stumbles back.

Cho takes the viper step. It’s the kung fu step a viper would take, if a viper knew kung fu

and had legs

and for a moment he imagined that he’d succeeded; that his sword had sunk into her side; but

LIGHT

And he realizes in that light something that he did not realize before.

Tomo’s face is burning with absolute joy.

The sword falls from his hand.

Behind Tomo, Meg is falling to her knees.

Meg says, “Is this what it is to live with true dedication?”

Cho gulps.

He wants to say something flowery like that but he can’t even think past the sudden awareness of the beauty of it.

It is perfect, the movements of Tomo in the darkness; the joy of her face; the way that she is in their fight, blocking their attacks. It is transfiguring. It is transformative.

He faints.

Tomo stands there for a while.

She says, “No more attacks?”

“Are you a goddess?” asks Meg. “Are you here to remind us that we can find hope and happiness, if we just learn to see one another and open ourselves to risk?”

Tomo considers.

Generosity moves in her. She says, “Okay.”

Then, since the fight is over, she does the departure step and she is gone.

Next time on Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai— SHADOW OF TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE SHOGUN

The Beginning (I/I)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Once upon a time a boy named Cronos forgot who he was.

He walked east.

Around him the world was swirling and filling and closing. It was surf. His snake Ophion wound around him. Its scales were obsidian plates. It circled about him. It made patterns of darkness and light.

His heart was full of joy.

Joy burned in his chest. He could not hold it back. He gave a great shout from it, “Yey-aa!”

All around him the surf crashed. He could not breathe reliably. The sea kept hitting him. It got in his mouth and his nose.

Ophion made a sound, ssaaaa.

It was like the sound of the surf, stopped at its very middle point.

Something was killing him.

To the east the world divided into lines.

Around him the world was swirls and filling and closing but to the east were lines and dots. Blue and white turned to scattered golden sands. Then a ragged line marked the edge of grass. A great round line made a boulder and stark rising lines denoted trees. Only at their tops with their thousands of leaves did the east turn to swirls and filling and closing once again.

Cronos walked east.

Ophion was killing him.

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.”

But people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

Something was killing him. It was Ophion. The snake tightened about him. Its teeth bit into his ear.

“I love you,” he said to Ophion, which was true; and the snake drew back, and it said, ssaaaa.

Cronos staggered.

One hand came down on hard round texture. There were rocks beneath the sea.

His vision became a tunnel edged with red. Under the surf he heard this sound: ba-put, ba-put, ba-put, ba-put. It was as if the world were suddenly on measured and accelerating time.

One hand squirmed under the coils to be between the serpent and his neck.

“Ophion,” he gasped.

The snake whispered, “We will die here.”

And the starry chambers above the world spoke, and its voice was everywhere and nowhere, and mellifluous and kind, and said, “Thus far, and no further.”

Cronos looked up.

It was visible even to the sky that he did not understand.

“I have made an Eden,” said the voice. “I have made a world that is perfect, just, and good. And to maintain that world it is necessary to exclude such things as Ophion. This is a doctrine of self-defense; it is a doctrine of mercy; it is a blessing of the stars.”

Cronos’ hand slipped away from his neck. The coil tightened.

And Ophion squeezed him and he could not breathe and his right foot sank into the sand and his left foot turned and his right fist seized about the body of the beast and pulled and his waist bent and his arms stretched out and he cracked the neck of Ophion against the stone and held its head beneath the waves.

The coils loosened. The snake flailed.

The fingers of Cronos cracked the scales of Ophion. His nails dug into the muscle of the beast. Its head was under the sea.

Loop by loop it fell away from him. It twitched.

He did not say: o my love.

He staggered up onto the shore and he fell down.

“What have I done?” he asked.

And the sky spins over him and it is some time before it said, “The question is immaterial.”

Silence swelled.

“There are no deeds,” said the sky, “beyond the boundaries of the world.”

Ink Ascending (XVI/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

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

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

You will find bottles containing the secret hearts of djinn.

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

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

. . . but no.

That is not right.

The carpet—that seems right.

But not the rest.

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

He is saying something else.

The girl focuses her eyes.

It is Minister Jof.

It is Minister Jof, and not the Prince.

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

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

Is that the Prince?

It is Riffle. He is washing his hands.

And there:

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

And there:

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

It is distinctly not the lands of Romance.

If anything, it is the murky land of Dismal.

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

Dr. Sarous’ mouth remains a line.

“Minister Jof, Riffle, you followed me?”

They look away.

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

“This?” says Riffle.

His voice cracks.

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

She turns.

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

No, a creature like a man—

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

He is Cronos.

His eyes are open.

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

His right eye is burnt ruin.

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

He is aware of them.

He winks.

“Oh, don’t,” says the girl.

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

“Oh, no,” she says.

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

I see you have come here.

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

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

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

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

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

“I am done with this,” says Riffle.

He looks dissatisfied.

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

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

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

“Is this how it begins?” she asks.

Riffle looks at her.

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

“Hardly,” says Riffle.

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

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

To what end, time?

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

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

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

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

He was a castaway on the shore of the world.

He lay there and he did not move.

The sun was very hot.

It began to burn him.

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

To what end, time?

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

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

He cannot solve it.

He cannot even begin to solve it.

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

All around him rose the deep voice of the earth.

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

Cronos put his hands upon the rock.

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

“I have a mother,” he said.

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

To what end, time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though confused, still Cronos obeyed.

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

The sun left the sky.

The world grew dark.

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

To what end, time?

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

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

He is Minister Jof.

Where could he go?

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

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

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

He turns away.

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

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

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

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

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

And there he had run out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the end they are too small.

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

But dharma moves.

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

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

The general of the stickbugs shakes his head.

It’s not actually negation.

He’s just breaking the spell of her words.

“People,” Ink says.

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

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

And then there is the miracle.

She steps back.

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

They see the purpose for the crust of the world.

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

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

Though people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for the fifth, it is over already.

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

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

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

(September 11)

Madeline likes to draw.

She draws a picture of a house with a window. Outside it there is a dinosaur and a tree. The dinosaur is eating an apple. He looks happy.

She draws a fighter plane shooting a cloud.

She draws a bunch of happy people standing around.

Madeline draws at a big white desk. It doesn’t have any drawers. The desk faces a glass door. Outside the glass door there is Madeline’s mom’s garden.

Madeline’s mom’s garden is very weird.

It is a hedge maze. It is very complicated. Growing through the hedges there are dark purple flowers. And when you look up there is more maze on top going up to a great sideways sundial and when you look down there are holes that lead to more of the maze.

Also there are some herbs and carrots.

Madeline gets up. She’s done drawing. She goes to the refrigerator. She gets a Fanta. She pours it into a glass with ice and gets a crazy straw.

“I’m going outside!” she calls.

Her mom is busy working on her physics so she just says, “‘Kay!”

It is pretty safe in Madeline’s mom’s garden because if a murderous killer wanted to attack Madeline there he would get lost first.

Madeline goes out. She sips her drink. She wanders in the garden.

She finds a place where there is a fountain. It is mostly hollow. It is the outline of a cube, cut from dark marble, unfinished in spots, and suspended in midair. The water projects inwards from the eight corners of the cube, splashes in onto itself, falls into a basin, and is gone.

There is an old woman sitting on the far side of the basin. She is wearing a nnamok and rubbing her hands together. Possibly she is cold.

“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” Madeline apologizes.

She sits down on the near side of the basin.

There’s a bit of a pause.

“That’s fair,” the old woman says.

Madeline tries to figure out how to ask the old woman what she’s doing in Madeline’s mom’s garden without talking. This is very difficult.

“Some people said on television that Fanta has benzine,” Madeline says. Not to the old woman. Just, you know, aloud. “But Mom says it’s okay.”

“You’re not going to die of Fanta,” the old woman says.

This makes Madeline curious and she abandons her resolve.

“What am I going to die of?” she asks.

“Poverty,” says the old woman. “But not for many years.”

Madeline thinks about that.

Then she shrugs.

“Some people got hit by a plane,” she says.

“More or less,” the old woman says.

“More or less?”

“Mostly it was the secondary effects,” the old woman says.

“I was thinking,” says Madeline, “that I could draw a world where nobody got hit by planes.”

“Oh?”

“And I thought, why would anyone make a world where that kind of thing happens?”

The old woman looks up at the hedge.

“I suppose,” she says, “that whomever was responsible, they might have overlooked it. Humanity determined to make mistakes, the memo might have said, but what can you do? Creation determined to contain errors. Evil snakes destined to eat everything. You know how it goes.”

“Evil snakes?”

“It’s in Revelations,” the old woman says. “At the end. They eat everything. Even each other.”

“Well,” says Madeline stubbornly, “that’s not why I think it was.”

“Oh?”

“I thought about it, and I thought, maybe you just can’t make something without errors that bad. Like, it’s just . . . it’s necessary. If something is, it’s at least as bad as three thousand people getting hit by a plane.”

“Or Fanta having benzine in it?”

“Yeah. Or . . . whatchacallem. Um.”

“The Sci-Fi Channel’s Earthsea movie?”

“Yeah!” says Madeline, impressed that the old woman knew what she meant. Then, feeling a bit guilty about lowering the level of the discourse, she adds, “Or that Darfur stuff. Whatever it is.”

“Mmhm,” says the old woman.

“So I looked at my pictures,” says Madeline. “And I could see it. Like blood and screaming and fire, but not really. Just this . . . just, every little screwed up line.”

“That probably makes more sense than the memo thing,” the old woman says. “I know that when I make stuff, it’s always totally a mess.”

“What do you make?”

The old woman gestures with the back of her head towards the fountain.

Madeline’s eyes go wide.

“Really? You’re a . . .”

“An abstract fountaineer,” the old woman confirms. “But it’s totally messed up, because it was supposed to look like a cherub.”

Madeline looks at the fountain.

“How could you . . . how . . . what?”

“One way and another,” the old woman says. “You add a bit there thinking it’ll help emphasize the cherub, trim a bit there because it doesn’t go with the emphasis, and next thing you know you’re building a different fountain altogether.”

“Wow.”

Madeline can see error in the fountain, now, and screaming, and choking smoke; not, you understand, with her eyes, but with her imagination, which sees in the stone and water of the fountain’s shape the fundamental erroneousness of things.

“It’s supposed to be pretty,” the old woman says. “Stop staring death into it.”

“Why is the world so broken?” Madeline asks.

The old woman shrugs.

She mumbles something under her breath.

“What?”

“It’s a perfectly good fountain,” the old woman says. She sounds a bit miffed. “I mean, it’s not like it’s a cartwheeling death-fountain that leaps down at you with fangs or anything. Not like Claude makes, if you quite get my meaning.”

Madeline drains the last of her Fanta.

“I guess,” Madeline says.

“Things aren’t just error,” the old woman says.

“No,” Madeline agrees.

(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.

Wednesday 3/08

On Wednesdays, the crew desperately runs around assembling legends despite their busy Tuesday nights.

Wednesdays are probably coalesced out of tomato soup by a crack team of scientists.

This is how it happened the very first time.

A group of scientists in New Mexico decided to hang themselves from the tree of worlds for a week as a test of the experimental validity of Asatru. Several control groups of scientists, including the man who would later go on to become Scientist X, hung themselves from ordinary oak trees for seven days. This was a double-blind test: some scientists were blinded in one eye, some weren’t, and none of them were told which was which. Time passed.

“I’m really hungry,” one of the hanging scientists said.

“I’d like some soup.”

But wise Dr. Goldstein said, “We can’t have soup, because we’re hanging upside down from trees.”

“Our research assistants can fetch some,” strategized another scientist.

“Ah,” sighed wise Dr. Goldstein. “But while we hang from trees, immobilized and helpless, unable to monitor their research, where are they?”

The scientists looked around. Indeed their research assistants were not waiting hand and foot on them as they had expected.

“They are having a life,” wise Dr. Goldstein said.

“Curse you!” shouted the other scientists, shaking their fists.

They had secretly relied on the idea that their research assistants would save them from the darkness of their fate. This is because they did not drink from Mimir’s well and so did not truly understand the perfidy of a research assistant’s soul.

“I wish,” observed Dr. Morgan, “that the giant squirrels would stop nibbling on me.”

“That is a good wish,” sighed Dr. Goldstein.

At this point weeks only had six days. They weren’t very long! They didn’t have Wednesdays!

“You know,” said Dr. Morgan, “we should get back at those research assistants.”

“We should make their weeks longer,” Scientist X agreed.

“Longer,” whispered Dr. Morgan.

“Longer,” cackled wise Dr. Goldstein.

And thus they conceived in their wisdom the idea of Wednesday. Sinuous and lithe, as if possessed by some unearthly force, they curled their bodies upwards to the ropes and gnawed through them with their sharp, sharp teeth. They slithered down the trees and into the halls of academia. They found the tomato soup.

“We must eat,” hissed Dr. Morgan.

“No,” sighed Dr. Goldstein. “We cannot eat this tomato soup because without it there will be no Wednesdays.”

And they cast the runes into the soup and the runes formed crystals and since that time weeks have had seven days.

It’s true!

It happened just that way!

That Way That Snakes, When

Martin works the levers and the chains. Jane skulks down by the snake machine. Sid’s on analytic duty tonight.

Meredith speaks the legend. As she speaks, the chaos takes its form.

So when the snake says to me, “You don’t want to eat that,” I naturally have a few questions.

I hold up the apple. It’s a Granny Smith apple.

I say, “Didn’t we go through this already?”

The snake crawls higher among the green onions. The supermarket irrigation system sprays it down automatically with water.

“Whatever do you mean?” it asks.

“I mean, back in the garden.”

The snake’s tongue flicks out, back in, and out.

“Typical of your generation,” it says. “That is, the younger generation; that is, every generation we have seen since Eve. No; it is not settled. We always have the opportunity to reprise our ancestor’s mistakes. Eat an apple and you cast yourself from Paradise.”

“That’s very unlucky for teachers,” I point out.

“That’s so,” agrees the snake. “When a teacher dies unshriven, they lay buried in Hell under the apples they have eaten in their lives. There in their dark milotic sepulchre Hell-worms find and consume them, crawling in their bones, learning facts regarding zebras, yuccas, xylophones, and eventually even the apples that are their home.”

“Wow.”

The serpent scrapes its body up along the radishes.

“But . . . why should this be sinful?” I ask.

I gesture with the apple.

“It’s not genetically engineered. And I’m pretty sure that it’s not grown by Satanists. It’d have a sticker.”

At this point, because I care about winning the implicit argument with the snake, I doublecheck. In fact I am correct: the apple has no sticker indicating Satanic origins.

“It’s just a fruit like any other,” I conclude.

“It’s a Granny Smith apple,” says the snake. “Old as the hills and full of sin. If you eat it you’ll know the difference between good and evil.”

“I’ve eaten apples before.”

“More,” qualifies the snake. “You’ll know the difference between good and evil more. This will doom you to bring forth children in sorrow and in pain.”

“I think I know the difference between good and evil,” I assert.

“Do you?”

“Sure,” I say. “Good helps people, and evil hurts people.”

“That’s the kind of thing you’d say,” observes the snake, “not having eaten the apple yet.”

“What will I say afterwards?”

“‘Evil is eating apples.'”

“No way.”

“Way.”

“No way.”

“Way.”

There is a standoff, there in the produce section, for a time.

“Well,” I finally say, “why is it bad to know the difference between good and evil?”

The snake is contemplative.

“It isn’t so much a knowledge,” it says.

“Hm?”

“People call it that because it expands their minds in the way that knowledge does. But it’s not a knowledge. It’s more of an outwards-moving thing. It’s claiming part of the world, when you say it’s good or bad. It’s taking matters into your own hands. Do you see? Humans should be seen and not heard, on the moral questions. You just aren’t as good at imposing right and wrong on things as God.”

“I’m really pretty sure I do that already,” I explain. “I mean, it’s just an apple.”

“Are you afraid of doctors?”

“What?”

“The last person I tried to warn,” the snake says. “She was afraid of doctors. So she ate the apple. Then she said, ‘O ho, so that’s what good and evil is all about.’ And she had a child in pain and sorrow, right here in the supermarket.”

“I don’t believe you,” I say.

The snake hesitates. Its tongue flickers out, back in, out.

“Perhaps I take poetic license,” it says.

“Bloody lying is what it is,” I say.

But I don’t want to eat the apple now. So I put it back on the stack. That’s why I don’t have an Adam’s apple and why I’m free of original sin, I think: because I put it back on the stack and got some bananas instead.

“Thank you for warning me,” I say.

I offer it a banana, but it just looks at me in that way that snakes, when offered a banana, look.

“I shouldn’t warn,” it says.

“Hm?”

“I lost my legs, you know, for butting into human affairs. My legs, my arms, even my magnificent ability to squirt blood out of my eyes.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s just hard,” says the snake. “Having an opinion and keeping it to yourself. You know. It’s hard.”

I grin at it.

I pick it up.

“If you want,” I say, “We could totally bomb the apple orchards, in God’s name.”

Ink in Emptiness: the Lord of Suburbia

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

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

“Come,” he shouts.

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

“Come! Come now!”

And the humans come.

Hell, day 242: The yawning door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Greystoke is coming,” she says.

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

Behind him slink the humans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ink,” he says.

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

He looks at the Mirror of Flame.

“That is not yours,” growls the ape.

Hell, day 703: The city.

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

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

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

As it is to me.

Ape-King Greystoke has set forth his claim.

There is a tension in the room.

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

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

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

“There is no alternative,” says Ink.

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

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

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

“Damnable ape,” says Ink.

She walks forward.

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

Ink pokes him in the chest with a finger.

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

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

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

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

Ink’s face goes pale. She turns away.

“Don’t push me,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

An Unclean Legacy: “Despair”

In the deepness of the night, Francescu opens a window in the air to look in on Manfred who is his brother.

Manfred is sitting, thinking, in the middle of the void.

The darkness of the onyx realm wherein Manfred dwells threatens to spill out in every direction and fill Francescu’s house.

Francescu frowns.

“I know that place,” Francescu says. “Don’t I?”

“It is the without-purpose,” says Francescu’s demon. “The sans-significance. It is the darkness that hangs around you always. It is the despair that is given unto men, to drown in the emptiness of things that have no meaning. It is the damnation that you have chosen for yourself, Francescu. It is the wet dark tendrils that crowd about your mind.”

“Oh? Is that so?” Francescu asks mildly.

Francescu’s demon sighs.

Francescu stares into the image. “What is he doing there?”

“Becoming one with it,” Francescu’s demon says.

There is a flare of terror in Francescu’s mind. The color of his fear is black and purple and he remembers the night when Manfred betrayed him and let Violet go to the shadow alone. He remembers the power and the victory in the Devil’s voice as it claimed her. Francescu finds it hard to breathe.

“His blood will turn black,” says Francescu’s demon clinically. “His eyes will darken. His skin will grow paler, and damp. He is strong, so he will return to the world, but he will not be human any longer. He will be an elder thing, corrupted eternally from his nature.”

“No,” Francescu says.

He is dizzy.

“You could save him,” says Francescu’s demon.

The angel looks speculatively across Francescu’s shoulders. Then, after a moment, it nods. “You could.”

Francescu licks his lips.

“I can’t,” he says.

“Why not?”

“It’s what he’s always been,” Francescu says. “He was not born to be my knight. He was born to be despair.”

But Francescu is not altogether weak. He carves into the air a spell to clarify his thoughts: *&2->^^

His mind calms. He struggles his way through fear towards reason.

“Francescu,” murmurs his angel, softly.

Francescu sketches an @ under those symbols and stares through it at Manfred.

“You’re right,” he says. “Of course. I should save him. I should try—”

Through his magic Francescu sees that there is nothing around Manfred but the creature of the void. And he sees more: that sluggish and cold black blood is drifting through Manfred’s veins, mixed with the natural blue; that Manfred’s eyes are darker than they were; that Manfred’s mind has ceased its turmoil and found a cold and terrible peace.

“Oh, God,” says Francescu.

He banishes the window. He hides his face against his hands.

“It is too late.”

And slowly his heart calms, and his mind grows easy, and there is the breath of the void on Francescu’s soul.

He closes his eyes.

In the cold wet darkness of his mind he knows the peace of nothing mattering at all.

This is how Manfred breaks his chains, in the place beyond the world, and learns to kill.

This is how, in ignorance and fear, Francescu decides that Manfred must be slain; how, in ignorance and rage, Manfred conceives the desire for Sophie’s death.

These are the stories of “Despair,” the twenty-fourth installment of An Unclean Legacy. They begin here, but here is not their ending. They will end in Castle Gargamel, when Sophie, Francescu, and Manfred meet; in blood and pain, at the base of Montechristien’s tower, beneath the threshing machine and the hundred gold eidolons of Montechristien Gargamel.

Manfred sits in the center of his island of dirt. He does not look at its edges, which are slowly falling away into the void.

He is calm. He is meditative. He is thinking.

“I’m not very good at thinking my way out of things,” Manfred admits.

The void is silent.

“It seems to me,” he says, “that I should take responsibility for my sin, even though I am still unsure why you should call Rachel Saraman my sister. But here is my reasoning.”

A cold wind blows.

“In all my life, Santrieste has shown me nothing but loyalty. He has borne me up when I would have fallen into darkness and he has counseled me—against, perhaps, his own best inclinations—towards the good. And it was my own need and desire that blinded me to his counsel in favor of the Devil’s. It is because I was desperate to take shelter in a mortal thing, a fallible person, a woman who was not a chain to my morality, that I listened to Sophie’s lies and Rachel’s blandishments. I have complained all my life that I am bound to my virtue and so cannot truly be good, but when I had the choice between clinging to those chains and burying myself in the filth of the material world, I chose the latter. So I cannot deny that the fault for this is mine.”

And the void laughs.

“Why do you laugh?”

“That Manfred Gargamel would call a Saraman filth.”

But Manfred, who had scarcely known Yseult and never knew Rachel, only squints and shakes his head.

“So here I am,” he says. “Exiled from mortal company. Tested by my God.”

The void is silent.

“I cannot be as you are,” Manfred says. Slowly, he rises to his feet. “I cannot be as she is. I will not let my sin consume me.”

He looks around him.

The air is not air. It is a screen of blankness over the shifting of endless tendrils of the creature’s flesh. The sand is not sand: it is the grit in the onyx creature’s maw. The seething purple aurora and the points of light above like stars are nothing more than striations in the living void.

It is in him. He is breathing it. He is respiring it through his pores, and suspiring from him is Manfred. He is one with it, the tendrils of its nerves in amongst his nerves, the onyx blood of the void mixing with his blood.

Slowly, he knows, if he remains, he will grow quiet and still and the nature that was Manfred’s will cease.

An Unclean Legacy


“Despair”

“What were you?” Manfred asks. “Before?”

The void speaks its name. And Manfred bows his head, humbled by that word.

“I’m sorry,” Manfred says.

Then along the nerves of the onyx void, entangled with his nerves, runs Manfred’s will. Then through the flesh and blood of the void, mixing with Manfred’s flesh and blood, runs Manfred’s strength.

With the body of the void Manfred seizes the void.

With the great ropey tendrils of the void Manfred grasps the creature that surrounds him. He seizes its eyes, its throats, its heart.

“Since I was young,” says Manfred, as he drags the void down into the void, twists the void about the void, throttles the void with its own substance, “people have feared my strength. But I have never used more than the tenth part of it, because my flesh is too frail and would tear.”

The void seizes him about the chest. It crushes him as he is crushing it. Manfred coughs out red-black blood and for a moment his eyes go lifeless, but then he recovers and shoves the void away.

“I will kill you here, son of Heaven,” Manfred says.

His oath burns on his arms. Manfred slides the slick onyx tendrils of the void under his brassards, his oath, his chains, and he rips them all away. There is an explosion, golden and white, that sears him and the void. All around him it is white and hot for a moment before wet chill returns. The great eye of the void below him is burnt; it is red and black and crisp and screaming.

Manfred crushes the void down to thinness and to hardness.

He can feel himself refracted, present in a hundred places simultaneously, as the world around the world bends down. The tension is too much for anything to bear, and Manfred screams.

Then it is gone.

The void surrenders, with one long echoing exhalation.

There is no void. There is no onyx realm. There is only Manfred.

So he climbs from an ichorous well into the world, naked and coughing out black gunk, with a bent and crooked black stick in his right hand; and the tip of it is iron.

His arms hurt. They ache with fire. They are surrounded by the burning red absence of his oath.

He rubs them with the substance of the onyx realm. It cakes and hardens and turns scarlet, and slowly his arms grow cool.

Overhead, the sun is bright. The leaves of the trees wave gently in the wind. The world is beautiful.

“Come,” he says, and from the well rises his steed.

Manfred looks down at his hands, his arms, his body, at the monster of absence and despair that he holds in his right hand. Almost, he begins to sob.

But he does not, because first he must kill his half-sister Rachel Saraman and take a bath, which things he does.

But what of Sophie, who strove alone against the Devil and his plans?

Tomorrow, a special Unclean Legacy: “Red.”