Rainbow Noir: the Mountains and the Sky

It has been a certain interval, dear reader, since I first had the opportunity to speak to you of the magical land of rainbows above the world and the shadowed city that succeeded it. Of how it came to pass that a certain girl, born in shadows and dwelling in shadows, became the rainbow; how she challenged the notorious Nihilism Bear; and, in the end, defeated him. Later, and after the receipt of certain despatches and messages, I was able to speak to you further: of how she sought out Mr. Dismal, whom she falsely suspected of responsibility for her various plights, and, in The Case of Mr. Dismal, made an end to him. But we still did not know the why of it all—whose will it had been that had set itself against the rainbow; that had brought Mr. Dismal to that land; that had dulled the kingdom of every brightness into Shadow City’s noir.

Lately, some of my friends have been struggling. They’re trying to do something good, something amazing, something cool, but they’re working for and with people who’d really much rather it came out a product. There is a corrupt religion of money over worth that has seeded itself in the modern business world; and people I care about, dear reader, are being ground down by the faithful of that religion; by the Mythos cultists of this modern era who would never have believed, who couldn’t have believed, that a place like Shadow City ever had color in it at all.

And I thought, maybe, for them, as a Christmas present; and for you, as a Christmas present—

Even though it wouldn’t help them any, and even though it wouldn’t mean that my dear readers would hear regular tales from me again—

that I would look into the matter a bit. That I would find out a bit more about the thing that turns rainbows into shadows, and ask what kind of answer rainbows make.

Without further ado, and with the hopes that all who read this will trust their hearts and live in brightness, the conclusion and the beginning of a story that started long ago.

Rainbow Noir: The Mountains and the Sky

The girl rides the horse through the sky. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing, and underneath them there are endless miles of cold air.

Beneath that are the mountains, which we shall name Gray Death.

Her name—the girl’s name, that is—is Wisp. She’s saved the universe once or twice. She’s the kind who you just have to point and shoot, basically, and the universe gets saved. That’s what she is, and why she is, and why there have to be girls like her.

As for the horse—

As for the horse’s name—

There’s an ice crystal bigger than the world. There’s an endless distance, and space. There’s a great and brooding thought that presides over it all,

Like God had forgotten color, hope, and light—

And we could call that “I Am,” or “the All,” or “The Lord that Dwells in Starlight.”

But the horse itself, it doesn’t really have a name.

It’s the most marvelous horse there ever was. A horse like that doesn’t really need its own name. Who could you confuse it with?

It’s just, you know, the horse.

People laugh, talking about magical sky horses and rainbows, sure, they laugh, but if you saw it there, its feet pounding against the nothingness, endless miles of cold air below and below that, Death—

You wouldn’t laugh.

You’d just think, in that moment, that it was the most marvelous and warm and most incredible thing you ever saw.

One day, one day, once upon a time, the girl fell off that horse. She screamed. She’s very brave, but even a brave person can scream when you’re falling and the sky is rushing up around you and there’s only Death below. She screamed, and the world around her burned with its blues and its purples and its brightness, and her life flashed before her eyes in a series of twenty-minute shorts that in the end didn’t add up to very much—

And that time, he saved her.

That time, as she spun and fell and rainbows curled and twisted through the vastness of the void around her, the horse came down and lunged and caught her with his teeth and snapped her away from the touch of great Gray Death, and pulled her up and she twisted and she flung her hands around his neck and she sank her face into his mane and laughed.

She did.

She really did! Even with the awkward angles of it all.

She could, and did, climb up onto his neck and back, because there really isn’t very much gravity when you’re falling, and at that particular moment in time they weren’t really quite done with the falling part of their precipitous descent and back to the flying that the two of them were about to do.

The second time, though, the second time, he didn’t save her when she fell.

She asked—

With her eyes, she asked!

But the second time, when she found herself falling, and the sky was everywhere around her in its blues and purples fading into the shadows of darkness, and grayness was reaching up from the ground as if to seize her up and drown her and shatter her like a teardrop on the stone, the horse, it just stood back.

The ice is bigger than the world, and twice as far as anything.

Her name was Wisp, back then as now, but nobody called her that. Everyone called her things like “the rainbow,” “the rainbow girl,” or “hope.”

She was the one charged with the preservation of love and hope and beauty and power and magic. She was the one responsible for providing all the things that people need to have within their lives, in a world that is sometimes very dark. And the mechanism of this charge was color.

She would find places that were dark and colorless, in the world, in people’s lives, in people’s hearts.

She would walk among the gray shadows and get the feel of them.

Then she would bring the rainbow.

There are a billion places in the worlds that are that needed her special touch. A billion, or even more; so it’s not too surprising that grayness still endures. It took her time to find each spot of darkness. It took her time to find it, and know it, and see its antidote, and make an end to it. It took her time, and there were so many different shadows that needed her to give to them that time.

It probably makes a billion look small, really, the number of those shadows, if you actually could count each of them, and give each one its name. It’s probably laughable to imagine that it’s just a billion, like saying, “well, millipedes have at least one leg”—

But a billion, at least.

So that’s why it took her a while to see what had happened down on Earth.

That’s why she missed the whole of World War I. She was in a flower garden, where the insects had corroded beauty. She was in the Crab Nebula, where monsters were threatening a noble Prince. She was in Kansas, helping a lost child, and in the oceans, healing a dolphin’s heart.

She was polishing one of the stars in the endless sky when the trenches cut the world.

She was in the kingdom of the cats.

She was fixing a broken mountain.

She was painting a butterfly when the Nazis came to power. She was painting a butterfly with vibrant colors, because the butterfly had gone gray.

And she might have missed it;

She might have missed it all;

Save that butterflies can only wear so much paint before their wings will cease to fly. There are only so many stars that lose their glitter. There are only so many monsters, though they spawn eccentrically and at random intervals throughout the cosmos and its worlds; so many broken mountains; so many cats that have never ever been fed.

Before the end of the war—before it had even really gotten started—she saw it. She saw what we were doing. She saw what we had done.

She saw it, and said:

“Here is a darkness. Here are gray shadows. I will walk among them and I will find their antidote, and I will bring the rainbow.”

And tears were falling from her face, great rivers of tears, and breaking on the ground.

“And not just here,” she said.

The war to end all wars, well, hadn’t. But she decided, there and then.

“I will heal this thing,” she said. “I will bring an end to wars.”

Underneath the girl and the horse are endless miles of ice-cold air.

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling. They are a comet. They are a meteor. They are a dying, broken, tumbling leaf, a teardrop, a rainbow chunk of ice and fire, and they are falling towards Gray Death below.

“It’s impossible,” said the horse. “Even for someone like you. Even for someone like me. It’s impossible, rainbow girl, that we could bring an end to war.”

“It’s my quest,” she said.

“It’s wrong,” said Terrence. He was her sprite. “It’s wrong. It’ll destroy us. They’ll find us, if we try to end their wars. They’ll hunt us down. They’ll take Rainbow Land away, make it theirs, make it a part of their earthly kingdom, where only shadows rule.”

“But it’s my quest,” the girl said. “I have to heal this thing. I have to guard the beauty that the people of the Earth deny. I have to make them stop killing each other,

and so cruelly!”

But, oh! The sky was fading.

It was twilight in the rainbow kingdom, the sun was falling to the west, and the horse looked up.

“It will have to wait for morning,” the marvelous horse said. “Dear. You can’t do it today. You can’t do it now. You can’t stop people from fighting wars, forever, if you haven’t gotten any sleep.”

“That’s so,” conceded the girl.

So she went to bed.

She went to bed, to let Earth wait just one last troubled night.

And slept.

And while she slept there were doings in the darkness, and gatherings, and quiet acts of diplomacy and treason; and when she woke, her people did not sing to her, as they had always done, when Rainbow Land was bright.

Rather than sing, instead, they gathered around her, and their voices, they were low.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence.

She looked at him.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence, “why it is that you cannot save the world.”

And they took her down into the depths of the palace, and through the hidden passages to the caves where her servants labored, cutting forth light and hope from the lifeless stone, and to the Great Machine that had made her.

And she said, “It’s made of ice.”

She touched it with her hand.

She said, as if in a trance, “There is a place, so very far from here! And a flake of ice, and oh, it is so very bigger than the world! And God—”

But the horse was brusque.

It bumped her in the back with its nose and made her turn away, and said, “This is where we made you, to save us, to be a girl from nothing and make brightness in our land. We cut you out of ice and dolor and we brought you here, from nothing, to nothing, and filled your heart with fanciful lies. Like, ‘you are charged to save us, wielding light.’ Like, ‘you were made to fill our land with beauty.’”

And she remembered—oh, she remembered, and of a sudden!—how she’d come into existence and out of nothingness as if formed off some great crystal made of ice, and curled about herself in some strange womb, and dreamt of foreign colors as shaved fragments sprinkled by.

She remembered how she’d dreamed, oh! such dreams! of something brighter than the endless hungry void. How she’d conceived a sudden brilliant conception, in that womb of ice, of what the murky and dismal land some call “the world” could be.

And how it had seemed to her that a lady made of light had spoken, had said, “Wisp, will you go forth from this place to my land, my dismal land, that dwells under the hand of shadows, and make it bright?”

The sprites looked down.

In the shadow of the Great Machine, the echo of the work of ice that lives beyond the world, they could not speak; save for Terrence, who cleared his throat, and said:

“You were our doll, lady Wisp. You were our toy. And we are grateful to you, for that you were bright and brilliant and rainbows. But you must not think you are a person. You must not think you are a living girl with breath and heart and hope and rainbows, who can stand against our purpose and our decision, and bring chaos to the land.”

The breath left her.

It was as if he had punched her in the stomach, and all she could breathe in was chunks of ice.

“We had to make you,” he said. “But not the rainbow girl. The rainbow girl was fantasy. You are just a flake of snow.”

She was falling.

She was falling.

The sky was rushing up around her, and she could not breathe, and there was gray and black and white jittering before her eyes, and she could not find the ground.

She clenched around the emptiness in her heart, fell gasping, Gray Death opening below, and cast a glance, a single glance, up at the horse.

He was marvelous, that horse.

He was a wonder.

He caught her, once, when she was falling from the sky, when she was plummeting and she thought that she would die. He caught her, and lifted her up, and brought her back to warmth and hope.

Once, but not again.

As she falls into herself, as she goes black and white, not even gray, within her heart and body, the horse, he does not save her. The horse, he looks away.

And it all spirals away from her, leaving her empty of the rainbow, leaving her cold—

Except that’s wrong.

That isn’t now.

She isn’t falling into herself, now. She isn’t on the floor of a cave under the rainbow kingdom, desperate with pain, broken by impossibilities.

That isn’t now.

That was a very long time ago.

Now, right now, she is in a very real sky, and hope and truth have found her once again, and she is falling.

She is falling because her horse has broken its leg.

Her marvelous flying horse has broken its leg against a stream of ice, and so of course it cannot fly.

As has been told before, the girl who fell became the rainbow once again. She’d been needed. It wasn’t OK, any more, to leave her in her cold sense of soullessness.

A soulless girl couldn’t have saved the world from the death that had been coming.

As has been told before, once she’d been made whole again, she’d refused to transform back.

She’d understood—

Somehow—

That just because people told her she wasn’t a person, just because they’d shown her the womb of ice from which she’d come, and said, “Look, this is how we made you, this is why we made you, can’t you see that’s not how a person’s born?”—

That such a thing can’t end the meanings that lived inside her heart.

She’d spent years and years amongst the grayness there, and had found an end to shadows.

And now she is falling.

She’d gone to the man she’d thought had been behind it all—

A murky, dismal man; a man who had always sought to purge the colors from the world—

And she’d thought that she could save him. That the goddess she’d become, that the endless seven-colored power she had birthed in herself, that the girl named Wisp and sometimes Rainbow would be able to save him from his misery and show him the wonder that was color, light, and hope.

She’d tried, anyway.

And maybe she’d succeeded, in a way.

But it hadn’t done him any good, or her, as has been told; because, in the end, he wasn’t the villain of the piece.

He wasn’t the villain.

He was a villain, but not the villain, just another murky, dismal little man gone lost in shadows. In the end, all the light could buy for him was a single moment of forgiveness.

The villain, if there was a villain, was a thing of ice and distance.

It was something cold and far and cruel.

It whispered this of others: that

“They are not real.”

It was God, perhaps, or a horse, perhaps, or a snowflake larger than the world; and it hung beyond all world and sound, and brooded, saying:

“What there is, there is of me: there is the light I cast, there is the world of my imagining, there are the dreams I dream and the shadows I have made; and nothing else is real.”

And if it thinks that it is the only reality, the only beauty, the only justice, the only right, then it has, perhaps, an excuse of sorts, for it is not merely cold, and it is not merely ice, this king of shadows and winter that dwells beyond the world.

It is beautiful.

It is beautiful, and it is endless, and it is marvelous, and it sheds forth every beauty; and the rainbow is refracted through that ice; and the world is made from the waters when it melts, and the dirt that it sheds, and the light and shadows it casts forth.

It is self-contained.

It is self-complete.

And yet, in some contingency of motion, it has sent forth its avatar, its child, its element to us within the world, and with a spirit of great mercy. It has sent a piece of itself, an image of itself, a mirror of its icy vastness, to be the most marvelous thing, to live in the dreary world of its creation, to redeem it through the presence of the horse.

It has sacrificed for us, the most terrible and deadly sacrifice; it has chosen to become involved.

It is the pinnacle, is it not, the horse?

Is it not the most marvelous thing in all the world?

And did it not already risk itself—risk its perfection-in-itself, daring unimaginably—to descend beneath the darkness of the world and find a part of itself that dreamt of rainbows, and make a girl of it, and shelter her, and raise her against the darkness like a spear, and teach her the power of the rainbow?

So if it thinks it is the only truth; if it thinks it is the only right; if it thinks there is no justice, that is not the justice of the horse; if it thinks there is no beauty, that is not the beauty of the ice; if it thinks that in the end there are nothing but its shadows and its dreams, then it has an excuse of sorts, for in a very real way it is the author of us all, or at the very least its agent and its representative, the mirror-horse of God—

Most marvelous thing in all the worlds that are, and the brightest, and the best.

And so she came, at the end of her journey, the rainbow girl, to the field of grass and flowers at the center of the city, to the last remaining place of color and brightness (before the rainbow had returned), where the horse still lived, and danced, and woke up in the morning to laugh and play and sing; and to turn its eyes on her as she walked up, it seemed, and say, “Oh, Wisp, you have become my rainbow once again.”

And she knew.

His voice was guileless, as it had always been, as if he knew nothing in the world save love for others and self-praise.

His voice was guileless, but still she knew.

In the center of the crumbled world, in that little piece of paradise, he frolicked, and he looked at her with eyes that made her melt, possessed her with a girlhood that overcame the goddess in her, loved her still, with brightness still they shone, and still she knew.

She touched his mouth.

She swung herself up on his back.

She said, “Oh, my love, you have not forgotten me.”

But she knew what he had done.

They rose into the sky, didn’t they? They flew; or ran, at least, on the rainbow once again. They galloped out over blue skies and high above Gray Death.

She knew he meant to throw her.

“It was your lie,” she told him. “Wasn’t it?”

Right into his ear; which flicked, of course, as if to cast a fly away.

And on they rode in silence, far above the world.

It made her breathless with joy and pain.

“It was your idea,” she said, “to show me the Machine that gave me birth; and to tell me, ‘you are just a doll we made from snow, oh Wisp. You are just a toy. Just a toy, and not a person after all.’”

“It was,” said the horse.

The horse’s shoulders rolled. It said: “You are.”

Its voice was distant ice and starlight and it was pale against the sky.

“What else could you be,” mused the horse, “than a reflection of Myself? What else is there to be, than light against the ice? So I realized, when you brought trouble to my heart. That you are the rainbow, or a girl, or a thing I made, or a thing I loved, but in the end, still, you are just a toy, and of my crafting, like all the shining world.”

She wept for him.

“And so,” said the horse, “I tore you down; and buried you in darkness; and then, for reasons elusive even to myself, I must have set you free.”

She wept for him.

She clung to him and wept for him, knowing that he meant to throw her, because he was the most marvelous horse in the world, and yet—

“You do not know,” she said.

And her voice was seven-toned, like the rainbow; and the tears that flowed from her were as a stream of ice; and he meant to throw her, he really did, but it went wrong, he went wrongfooted, and if you were to find a thing to blame for it, you might say, he slipped or struck his leg upon her tears.

And his perfection was distorted.

And his gait was broken.

And suddenly, because a horse can’t exactly fly if it has a broken leg, he fell.

It struck him as ironic that he would not have to throw her; that he was freed, in the end, of the need to cast her from his back to fall screaming to Gray Death. He would fall, and that would be an end to things. He would die, and the world would end, and nevermore a rainbow to trouble him or make turmoil of his heart.

Right now, dear reader.

Right now, they fall—

He falls—

It falls—

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling, spiraling down through endless sky, with Gray Death looming up below.

And because he is a horse of courage, after all, even maimed and broken, he opens one pure and perfect eye.

She is not falling.

It is terribly unfair.

She is not falling.

She is, instead, laying down with a hand outstretched—oh, moving downwards fast enough, and technically perhaps that counts as ‘she is falling,’ but she is descending as a skydiver descends, or a stooping bird, not as a mortal plummeting to her death—

Laying on the rainbow, outstretched beside him in the sky.

Unfairly, she is reaching for him, supported by the rainbow, calling out over and over again for him to live—

He squinches closed both eyes.

The world moves far away, then farther, then farther again, until even Wisp seems to him twice as distant as the sky.

Ice closes about him, and rainbows.

“I’ve broken my leg, you foolish girl,” he says, and casts aside her power, and lets the wind and shadows carry him downwards to his grave.

Flutter,
flutter,
Flutter,

Down to the world below.

And there is a moment where the ice shatters, as he strikes against Gray Death.

There is a moment where the shadows seem to boil and drain away, plunging down through the jagged edges of the mountains to drown some other land.

There is a pure and crystal darkness, and finally, a light.

The rainbow hits the mountains, dances about them for a moment amidst a rain of ice, strives as rainbows strive to lift the broken and the dead.

And then, it flies away.

unknown authorship; part of the “Rainbow Collection” of documents assembled during Congress’ 1954 investigation into various Un-American Activities on the part of Un-American Activities Bear.

Fire on the Tongue

Before the sun. Before the moon. Mammoth, she brings fire from the sky.

In the darkness the Three Lords dance.

Mammoth steps forward. The Three Lords meet her.

Darkness devours Mammoth and her bones.

Now the fire, it lives quite far away, alone and quiet in its palace in the stars. It cannot see the earth, nor yet be seen. Its floor and its basement conspire to occlude.

Dinosaur enters, stomp stomp stomp.

He seizes up the fire. He descends to earth.

Dinosaur brings the fire from the sky.

In the darkness the Three Lords dance. Dinosaur howls. Dinosaur fights.

Around Dinosaur the Three Lords close.

They are cold. They are dark. They are humanity’s Lords. They close around Dinosaur and they tear him up.

As they tear him up he tries to swallow the flame.

They rip his neck. Fire leaks out. Panicked, he holds it beneath his tongue.

His head—

The head of Dinosaur—

Burns for a while with a pumpkin flame. Then the Three Lords darken him and Dinosaur goes out.

Frog comes now to the palace in the stars.

She finds the lingering remnant of the flame. She takes it up. She descends to earth.

Frog, she brings the fire from the sky.

Now the Three Lords close on Frog. Now they close, but Frog fights back. She kicks with her feet. She shoves with her hands. For a moment they hold her, then she is free: under the waters, over the lands, swimming and leaping and running away.

Now the Third Lord seizes her leg.

Frog kicks free but he breaks her bone. It snaps in her leg. She is wounded now.

And as she runs and as she fights the fire that she carries gleams. The fire is glittering. It’s flashing and shining. It’s warring with the darkness that had been.

She is never more dangerous, Frog our Frog, than when she is desperate and full of fear.

If you have ever fought a frog—

Not a tiny frog, but one your size—

Then this is most likely a thing you know.

She is never more dangerous than when things look worst. The Third Lord grabs her once again. She twists like a beast and paws his throat and the Third Lord staggers and the Third Lord chokes.

He gags out bile onto the earth and Frog kicks his head and leaves him there.

She leaves him behind and she runs and runs.

The Second Lord, he looms ahead.

He’s at a crossroads. That’s where he’s strong. But Frog just shrugs and gives him a look. “I am Frog the Invincible,” is what she says.

The Second Lord, he makes no sound. He does not hear the challenge in her voice. He only raises a terrible dark that swallows Frog who brought down fire.

In that darkness the two now fight.

For a time it seems that Frog might win. Then the First Lord joins them at that place. Frog burns the First Lord with fire from her hand and Burns and Marring are born into the world. The First Lord howls and he staggers back. But the fight is hard and Frog cannot endure.

Disaster comes.

The Third Lord finds them.

He is not dead, though weaker now. He is not dead, but strong enough.

They take up places. They pin down Frog. They chill her struggles and they make her weak.

They hold her down but she will not die. She is Frog the Invincible. Frog the Immortal. They cannot kill her, though they rip her flesh. They cannot kill her, though they break her bones.

They cannot kill her, so they do not kill her.

They only force darkness into her, bit by bit, until it bleeds out from her skin.

And Frog cries out, “I am becoming shadow, but the fire was bright.”

Behind them and around them a moaning rises. Behind and around there is the shuffling of feet.

It is humanity.

Humanity is white like maggots—white like blindfish, for these are the days before the sun. Humanity is white like maggots and mute like zombies and cold like the living dead. But it has seen the glittering and gleaming of the fire and it has heard the struggling cries of Frog.

So it masses around the Three Lords and it begins to pull them down.

Ohh!

The Three Lords are terrible. Their touch corrodes. Their wrath is great. Even the littlest twitchings of their feet can cut a wake of destruction through the world.

But they cannot tend to the wading hunger of humanity while still they pin down Frog. They dare not turn and deal with what devours them—while still they pin down Frog.

Bit by bit they force their darkness into her. Bit by bit they inch towards their salvation, towards the moment when Frog is broken and they may turn attention to humanity behind.

It is taking them too long.

The Three Lords are dying.

The fire gutters. It goes out.

Frog’s feeble struggles grow feebler yet. Her eyes bulge out. Her skin is moist.

Humanity devours its Three Lords and it leaves behind no bones.

It clusters around the remaining warmth and the afterimage that was fire. It wails softly as that fades away.

Frog, broken, maddened, crawls off to the swamps. She leaves a trail of slime behind.

Then there is silence where she had been and humanity departs.

Now there is darkness on the world but in the darkness no one dances. Now humanity mourns for there is none to be its god.

So Chameleon comes to the palace in the stars.

Chameleon, he hunts for a lingering spark of fire. Chameleon finds one, in the corner of a drawer. It’s under a sock but it’s burning bright.

Chameleon, he takes that fire on his tongue.

It hurts him! It burns him! But he takes the fire and he carries it down on the tip of his long tongue.

Chameleon descends to earth.

Now there is a glittering and gleaming once again, and once again humanity draws near. It is hungry for the fire now.

It makes Chameleon its god.

And Chameleon says, “Lo! I have brought you fire, and I shall be your god. I shall lead you in light all the days of the world.”

Or so at least he meant to say. But his tongue has burnt and he cannot speak. He has become a muted god. And the pain of it lingers, and begins to drive him mad, so that everywhere he goes he tries to rub away the fire.

And the fire burns things, but it won’t come off.

The forests burn.

Deep fires in the oceans flare.

Flame sweeps across the open plains and humans claim some from the lingering ash.

And finally Chameleon retreats again to space, oh, burning yet, but in the soothing dark; and he goes not far, not too far anyway, for still in the madness of his mind the intention lingers to love humanity and serve it as its god.

There he is, if you look up—not so very far away.

You can’t see his body.

He’s Chameleon.

You can’t see his body. He looks just like the space.

You can’t see his body, but you can see the burning flame that hangs above us, warms us, lights us, at the tip of his great long tongue.

Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai: “Legendary Kneeling Lieutenant”

Learning the secret of perfect defense, Tomo begins her career—here!

She impresses her master Kon.

She saves lovers Meg and Cho.

She establishes the standard special effects LIGHT and I’M IN UR FIGHT, BLOCKING UR ATTACKS!

She even reforms two night-grim thieves!

But she has drawn the eye of a terribly offensive shogun—

DAIIMON!

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Bats scream silently in the airy heights of Daiimon’s citadel.

The terribly offensive shogun taps his fingers on his throne.

“I am displeased,” he says.

Before him—the LEGENDARY KNEELING LIEUTENANT,

MAY!

May lowers her head.

“Why is that?” she asks.

“It is difficult to govern as a terribly offensive shogun if I am not feared,” he says.

“And you are not feared?”

“‘He cannot destroy the perfectly defensive samurai’—people say. ‘Lo, his grip on this land weakens’—people say. Fear runs out of them like rain out of a gutter. Soon the last of it will be gone.”

“Then send me,” May says.

Daiimon looks up. His eyes are bleak and set deep in his head.

“If you fail,” he says, “I will end you with the lightest breath of the TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE TECHNIQUE.”

“Ha!” agrees May.

Then she is gone.

Tomo sits under a pink and white umbrella. She eats a sticky hunk of rice and melon. She leans back and looks at the sun.

“Ur hot,” she tells the sun. “But u can’t burn me. I can feel the breath of blocking u.”

The sun, she thinks, is obligated to agree.

But suddenly—

AN EVIL FEELING!

Time slows.

Tomo breaks the umbrella into three pieces with the side of her hand. The top blows away in the wind. The bottom falls to the ground. The middle piece is a great thin sword.

She pushes off from the ground with one hand, dirt griming up her fingers. The other hand swings the sword forward to block.

LIGHT

May staggers backwards. She falls into a kneeling position. Her sword slips back into its sheath. A lock of hair falls over her eye.

“No less,” May says, “from the legendary defensive samurai.”

“PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE,” Tomo clarifies.

“We’ll see!” says May.

She is a blur. She outpaces the green and blue of her kimono so that the color bleeds off of her to stay behind her in the air and she moves forward as a sepia ghost. She moves in that other world of kung fu where great scars cut through the air and the wind blows hollow.

Her sword is out. It is inevitable. It is invincible. It cuts towards Tomo’s neck.

LIGHT

The umbrella sword explodes. Tomo lurches back and to the side, May’s sword passing right by her neck.

May twists her wrist in a fashion that causes the tendons to jangle with great pain. But Tomo’s foot has found the bottom piece of the umbrella and kicked it up

LIGHT

May’s sleeve sword falls into her second hand. It jabs.

Tomo smiles ethereally.

She exhales: haa.

Her hand comes around. There is nothing in it. Yet:

LIGHT

And May rolls at terrible speed along the ground in a snapped-to-color world and black rocks cut into her skin and shards of broken umbrella catch in her hair and she fetches up against a stone building wall, KLUN.

Her sword snaps back into its sheath.

Tomo is transcendent.

She stands there with her hair floating back and her leg back in stance and a thin mist of dirt falling away from her hand.

May kneels.

“You are my master,” she says. “What would you have of me?”

Tomo hesitates.

Tomo explains:

I’M IN UR FIGHT,
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

“Your will!” May agrees, knocking her head.

And for three long weeks and three more days, where May fights, Tomo blocks, laughing. But a weed of guilt eats at the rice paddy of May’s heart. It grows to choke the ox.

Tomo’s spirit is too bright for May.

So May abandons Tomo and goes to the mountain, to a certain place she knows where Tomo cannot block Daiimon’s attacks, and she waits.

The fire of the TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE TECHNIQUE comes down from the sky and burns May’s shadow to the stone.

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Tomo walks along the road. She munches on a peach. She tosses the pit aside.

It hits a monkey.

“O noes,” Tomo says. She is horrified. Her face stretches in an expression of plaintive apology.

She is a perfectly defensive samurai!

She does not mean to attack!

But the monkey is not kind.

It chitters.

It shouts.

It jumps up and down.

It is an angry monkey, this monkey, and it does not forgive.

THIS IS THE SADNESS OF THE WORLD
PEOPLE LEAVE US
MONKEYS GET OFFENDED
PEACHES DO NOT REMAIN

Daiimon rises from his distant throne, and his eyes burn red.

Next time on Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai:
SHOGUN AND SAMURAI

Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai: “Shadow of Terribly Offensive Shogun!”

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Learning the secret of perfect defense, Tomo begins her career—here!

She impresses her master Kon.

She saves lovers Meg and Cho.

She establishes the standard special effects LIGHT and I’M IN UR FIGHT, BLOCKING UR ATTACKS!

And all things fill with righteousness—

But wait!

Wait!

Who is this running through the streets of LEISURELY VACATION CITY TURULL?

This is MASTER MERCHANT BAO!

He is portly and panting. He is waving an umbrella. He is chasing after two night-grim thieves.

They fear him, rightly.

Their third partner has already fallen to a tactical umbrella blow.

They slip into a back alley. They run left. They run right. They emerge onto the street.

They look left. They look right.

A shadow covers them.

They look up.

Master Merchant Bao descends!

LIGHT

For a long moment, the thieves aren’t sure what’s happened. They’d braced themselves for the afterlife; or, worse, to living and having the constable drag them off.

But that hasn’t happened.

LIGHT; LIGHT; LIGHT

and the puffing and grunting of Master Merchant Bao, and three great clamors of umbrella upon steel.

Their eyes clear.

And Tomo says,

I’M IN UR FIGHT
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

“But they’re thieves,” protests Master Merchant Bao.

“Don’t make me repeat myself,” says Tomo. “I do that already.”

Master Merchant Bao hesitates.

One of the thieves performs the hook dagger insinuation. He waits, blade in hand.

LIGHT; the hiss of steel in air; and LIGHT

The hook dagger clatters to the ground.

“Also ur attacks,” Tomo says.

And she turns to look at the thieves. And they see the apples of her cheeks and the twisty hair that falls down over her brow; and her smile cuts them worse than any knife.

“What have we been doing with our lives?” they cry.

For what is thievery and night-grimness compared to the joy of the perfectly defensive samurai?

Master Merchant Bao’s lips are very thin.

He is not pleased.

“Can’t you be in someone else’s fight?” he asks. “Blocking their attacks?”

The wistfulness that washes across Tomo’s face almost makes him weep.

“O,” she says softly. “O. If only.”

If only! If only she could be everywhere! In every fight! A PARALLEL PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI!

But she shakes her head.

“It’s not to be,” she says.

“Forgive us,” cry the thieves, knocking their heads; and Master Merchant Bao sits heavily down upon the ground.

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Here is TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE SHOGUN—

DAIIMON.

He sulks in his mountain fortress. He chews bitterly on an old fish head.

He says, “Someone has disrupted the threads of fate.”

“Master?” asks one of the HUNDRED SHADOWS OF TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE SHOGUN DAIIMON.

“Two of my thieves,” he says, “have ‘repented.’ It is the influence, hmmm, of a powerfully defensive samurai.”

“Say no more,” says the shadow.

It dissipates into the mountain.

Tomo is bounding from rock to rock. She is running across the humans’ land. She is looking for a fight. She is also looking for sake.

Often, Tomo has found, she may satisfy these urges together.

Two seagulls are squabbling over a bit of food washed up on the shore—the dried-out prince, she suspects, of a distant kelp kingdom. She blocks their attacks; she maketh them to reel; but it is not much to block the attacks of seagulls.

She thinks of the wars of the stars above; and a part of her wishes she could be there, soaring the sky, parrying the twinkles that must be blades of light—

But she has made her peace with being a creature of the earth.

“Oh no,” says FIRST DUPE, on the strand up ahead. “I feel a strange urge to fight.”

“As do I!” says SECOND DUPE.

“Have at it!” they say, together.

They are jolly-seeming dupes in white masks. Tomo’s heart quickens with joy. She kicks off her right foot’s rock, moving just a little bit faster now.

The blades blur forward.

LIGHT.

The dupes move past one another. They wait to see which of them will explode in blood—assuming that it is not both.

It is neither.

I’M IN UR FIGHT,
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

They turn on Tomo.

“What?” says the first dupe.

“You would block AR attacks?” the second dupe protests.

Two blurs of outrage; laughter on the sea, and—

The world goes still. Tomo sees everything moving very slowly.

Not two blurs. Three.

She flicks her attention sideways. Something is rising from the water, something black and sea-dead, something moving very fast.

She breathes out a puff of air: haa.

Three lines of death converge on her; there is a sound like the screaming of the vultures that eat Prometheus’ flesh; and—

I’M IN UR FIGHT,
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

says Tomo with deep joy.

The shadow of the shogun Daiimon staggers back. It is pale with shock. The two dupes are quivering upon the beach.

“But how?” asks the shadow.

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

And the wind catches up the salt scent of the sea and makes all things that were bad and sorrowful now fairly well once more.

Next time on Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai:
LEGENDARY KNEELING LIEUTENANT

The Nest of Mirror Pieces (5 of 5)

Once upon a time, the monster pulled Mei Ming from the shadow’s womb.

She was born as thin as a caul— not in depth, but in spirit.

She was already shivering with cold.

She was already desperately hungry.

She was already an intimate of sorrow.

The monster said, “Good morning, child. Do you know what it is that you are?”

And Mei Ming shook her head.

Her eyes were sunken and her hair was gold.

“You are a misunderstanding,” said the monster. “A poorly-formed hypothesis, with some rudimentary justification, regarding the nature of the world. Your mother conceives of you as real. You represent that naivete. You are the blindness in her mind’s eye. You are the mistakes that devour her. That is all, I’m afraid, that you are—

“The instantiation of a destructive and terrible folly.”

“Oh,” whispered Mei Ming.

“I have made you because she needs you,” the monster said. “If you did not exist, then neither would she. Her being would fly apart to all the ten directions of the world. But—”

“. . . do I exist?” Mei Ming asked.

The monster scowled at her and her cheeks grew dark with shame. Then he grinned like a rogue.

“What a question,” he said, shaking his head. “Heh heh. What a question.”

In the tunnels Mei Ming keeps her home.

It is not a house or an apartment. Her home is not a permanent address at all.

It is the location of her stuff.

The walls near her stuff are stone and damp.

She’s hung her framed Matisse upon one wall. Next to it are old bookshelves made from teak and ivory and platters made of gold.

She lives in an unimaginable luxury of material wealth.

There is no electricity and she is always in shadows but there is treasure.

Her teacup is glass with phoenix feathers woven inside it.

Her clothes are hand-dyed silk.

Her coffee table is a solid jade block on four stubby little legs.

Here are some additional notes regarding the coffee table:

When the subway train comes by, rattling-rattling-rattling the walls, the table will dance.

Sometimes it will also dance even when the train isn’t coming by.

At those times it dances just for the joy of it: for the way that when it moves just right, it feels like it is flying.

That’s why Martin always makes sure that there’s a salt shaker on it when he’s visiting. A salt shaker on a table keeps it from dancing and it is also excellently convenient when you want to salt something.

Martin is, as it happens, visiting right now.

He has knocked.

He has entered.

“Hey, Martin,” Mei Ming says. Then she offers, “Milk?”

Martin shakes his head.

“I’m here to help you,” he says.

He sets his burden on the table. It’s a nest of mirror-shards in a cage of firewood. It’s strung together with glue and wires.

The mirror-shards are showing fragments of history—

Vaguely only, there’s only so much chaos in the tunnels, but showing fragments of history—

Surrounding the events of the past few days.

Mei Ming studies it.

She says, “I hope you don’t want me to drink it. It’d be glug glug horrible pain glug. Also I don’t think it fits in my mouth.”

“I also bring gifts that are not for drinking,” Martin says.

Mei Ming peers at it.

“I can’t hang it on the wall,” she says, tentatively.

Her home begins to shudder, rattling-rattling-rattling, as the subway passes by.

“If I did it might get broken.” She gestures at the wall. “Sometimes the subway plows right into my home. Like, I’ll be drinking tea or something. And then whoosh! Bam! There’s this subway. It always sends stuff tumbling every which way.”

“How undignified,” Martin says.

“It is why I live my itinerant lifestyle,” Mei Ming says. “Today, here. Tomorrow, perhaps, three tunnels to the left! Fortunately the table is mobile and Matisse takes exceptionally well to being hit by trains.”

“That’s his eccentric Fauvist genius,” Martin concurs.

There’s a pause.

“So,” Mei Ming says.

“I don’t fail very often,” Martin says. “But I wasn’t able to finish my studies of Persephone.”

Mei Ming traces a line on one of the mirror shards with her finger.

“If Persephone got angry at me,” Mei Ming observes, “she could turn me into Mei Mint. I would have all of the benefits of aromatic leafiness and I would only have to change one letter of my name.”

Martin grins.

“April showers would bring Mei flowers,” Martin agrees.

“So,” Mei Ming says, again.

“I brought this to you because it is the ruin of . . . a vital and true thing,” Martin says. He gestures at the mirror pieces.

“. . . oh.”

“It’s what happens when a tool that is as ancient as the rain is shattered,” Martin says. He hesitates. “And then parts of it stuck back together with glue and wire. But that’s not the important part. The important part is what broke it, which is to say, a mystery and a contradiction. You’re supposed to look at it and say, ‘Wow. That got broken by a conceit.'”

Mei Ming looks up at him sharply.

“What?”

“It wasn’t a physical thing,” Martin says. “It was a concept that shattered it; or, rather, not even a concept but the absence of a concept, which wound up having raw physical import in the world.”

Mei Ming looks a bit defensive.

“That’s not the world,” Mei Ming says. “That’s an artifact of scrying from your little bubble place, your tower bound only by a bridge to the world and sound. That’s a thing of magic, which is to say, something just one absence of an enlightened observation’s distance from not existing at all.”

Martin makes a dismissive noise: pblt!

“Hm?”

“It wasn’t magic that broke it,” Martin says. “It broke because of the impact of intention on a mind.”

“. . . oh,” says Mei Ming softly.

“It’s here to remind you,” Martin says. “That we are all concepts, even those of us with gross physical flesh. That we are minions of the material world, ideas born from the emptiness of matter, concepts without true referent— for who is there whose intentions exactly match to all their actions?— and yet that we can matter in the world.”

“I have gross physical flesh,” protests Mei Ming.

Pblt! Martin offers her again.

“It’s a refined substance,” he says. “If it were gross, then you’d be all splattery from being occasionally hit by a train.”

“I dodge!” Mei Ming protests.

In a small voice, she adds, “Usually.”

“Have you ever seen someone hit by a train?” Martin says. “It’s gross.”

Hitherby Annual #2 – Maundy Thursday (I/I)

Where did Sid come from?

Sid is born.

His body is vast. It is not human. It is beads of chaos clinging to a scaffolding of abstract form. It is a cacophony of shape, its endless muscles and organs twisting about aimlessly because the science of anatomy does not yet exist.

It is unapproachable because it is ringed in knives.

Someone tries to speak to Sid: they are cut.

Someone tries to touch Sid: they are cut.

In this fashion he is inaccessible within his riot and chaos of shape. But interwoven among the pieces of him, the gross flesh of him, there is the divine fire.

It gropes for selfhood and finds it.

Sid sorts impressions. He begins to understand the world. In a many-timbred voice he says, “Hey.”

A wind seizes him up.

Claws and hands surround him.

He is cast into a nebulous region, immured in direst bondage.

He is in that place of darkness and of emptiness that will be Siggort Town one day.

How did Max find “Prester Gee and the Ragged Things?”

It is many years later.

There is only once in all the histories of the conversations of Sid and Max when Sid admitted his nature as a burden upon him.

It is in 1992 and the sky is dark with clotted clouds.

Sid is looking after the back of a woman who has come this close to fulfilling the criteria for his destiny, and he says, “I think that the world has no place for siggorts.”

And Max looks at him.

“It’s a really cool world. And we are unworthy of it.”

Max points out, “It’s not like the humans are so great.”

Sid grins.

“Well,” he says, and gestures to show he cannot dispute the point.

And then he goes left, because he’s going to pick up some paint from the hardware store while he’s in town, and Max goes right, to the used bookstore.

Max shops. He finds an old Louis L’amour he hasn’t read. He finds the new Danielle Steel.

He looks at the special shelves next to the counter. He pulls down an odd-sized children’s book. It is called, “Prester Gee and the Ragged Things.”

It is brightly colored.

The proprietor of the used bookstore, one Dannon Cleim, says, “I wouldn’t.”

“Hm?”

“Reading that kind of thing,” says Dannon, “attracts their attention.”

“Oh.”

The cover shows a girl staring at a sign saying, “Wrong Place.” while something emerges from around a corner behind her.

Max finds it oddly fascinating.

“Someday,” says Dannon, “they will come for me. They will come from the air, from beyond the borders of the world where I live. And as they seize me I will hear the whispering of Ii Ma’s voice.”

“Yeah,” Max says, distractedly. “That happened to me once.”

Dannon’s jaw sets. He does not look pleased with Max. He says something truly spiteful, which is, “Well, you can buy it if you’d like.”

And so Max does.

Did Max worry too much about the nature of siggorts?

If Max were to see a vivisected corpse on the street he would fret terribly and wonder if Sid killed it.

Fortunately this never actually happens.

Max has never seen anyone vivisected except for that one time.

But sometimes there’ll be some tarp or something on the road and he’ll think it’s a vivisected body, just laying there.

That can happen when you’re worrying too much about the nature of siggorts.

How did Max find out about the place without recourse?

Max reads.

This is how the book begins:

“Hello!

This is Prester Gee’s book.

I’m Prester Gee!”

There’s a picture of Prester Gee next to it. She’s a cheerful young woman but she is not very photorealistic.

Max turns the page.

“I had a friend named Margerie.

One day the ragged things came in and took her away.”

Max admires the picture. It shows the ragged things taking Margerie away.

Then he begins to read in earnest.

He reads on right to the end.

Prester Gee and the Ragged Things

From the archives at Gibbelins’ tower.

Hello!

This is Prester Gee’s book.

I’m Prester Gee!

I had a friend named Margerie.

One day the ragged things came in and took her away.

She yelled so much!

They took her away through the cracks in the world.

I went right away to the Sheriff. He had a shiny badge. I told him, “Sir, they have taken Margerie.”

But he did not want to talk about it!

“Shoo,” he said.

He waved me away with his shooing gun.

I also talked to the Mayor.

I said, “Mr. Mayor, sir, they have taken Margerie.”

The Mayor said, “This is a city council meeting about dogs. I want to talk about dogs. I do not want to talk about your stinky Margerie!”

There was nothing I could do.

I had to apologize!

I even talked to Margerie’s husband. He’d taken off his wedding ring but you could still see where it was missing.

I said, “It was ragged things. They were big and red and their footsteps were heavy.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Margerie’s husband. “There are no things like that anywhere in the world.”

“Oh,” I said.

This made me very sad and I began to cry and he made me coffee. We did not talk about Margerie. We just drank coffee.

Eventually he cried too.

I guessed that maybe I’d made up Margerie all along. It is hard to believe in your reality when nobody else does.

But I kept seeing cracks in the world.

Sometimes strange things make what you know seem thin. Like a layer of puff pastry. The truth seems so thin you could crunch through it. You start to say, “I can’t trust me.”

You trust other people.

They’re smarter than you.

You say, “They probably know best!”

Everything looked like it was shaking in place, all the time, because I did not believe in myself. Also every shadow looked extra-dark and squirmy with unknown things.

And there were cracks.

They would be here or there. In my cupboard or under my stairs. I found a crack on the sidewalk once. I did not step on it. My mother was already dead but I thought, that could be so rude.

So rude!

She would be in Heaven playing her accordion and then I would step on a crack. Suddenly snap her back would break! All of the other angels would laugh and her accordion would whine, wee-guh, wee-guh, like sad accordions do.

I told a police man about the cracks.

I pointed him at one.

He said, “That’s very bad, ma’am!”

I was very embarrassed.

He blew his whistle. Beep! Beep!

“You have gone mad,” he concluded.

“Oh no!” I said.

I did not want to have gone mad.

I went to the hospital. All of the doctors in their white coats looked at me.

“You are not mad,” they said.

“I’m not?”

“No,” they said.

The doctors all smiled.

“You’re just corrupt!”

This apparently was better vis-a-vis state regulations. If I were mad then I would live in a padded room. But I was corrupt so they let me go back home.

My boss did not like me much. He said, “I heard about you and the hospital. I’m firing you, Prester Gee!”

I made a very sad face but he stuck by his decision with determination!

So I left.

I got another job typing and then a job packing fruit and then I lived on Garden Street with a puppy I found. When people would be mean to me the puppy would shoot them up with lasers.

“That puppy’s defective!” they’d say. “Dogs should hardly ever use lasers!”

It was a bad puppy and should have been killed but I loved him.

One day Margerie’s husband came and sat down next to me.

He said, “I know you didn’t lie.”

It was a wind.

It was a wind that he said those words. Suddenly the world stopped shaking.

He said, “I will pay you a lot of money to go to the ragged things’ academy and ask after my wife.”

The puppy barked and then licked his hand.

My puppy did not shoot him with lasers. So I said, “I trust you.”

The next time I saw a crack, I peeked my head through.

You should tear this page out. I cannot tear it out because my publisher would get mad at me. He would shake his cigar and puff up his cheeks. But you should. You should tear out the pages that have the pictures of the ragged things’ world. You should tear them out and burn them.

I don’t know why I am leaving these pages in.

But it looked like badness.

It looked like the world but nobody had souls. Not even the grass had souls. You could walk on it and squish it and it would not care.

I took many pictures. Sometimes people who look at them throw up! Or their pants get bulgy like there is a mouse in them. Or they yell at me.

I am very sad when people yell at me.

I did not find Margerie in the ragged things’ world.

I think that it is bad to look in the world behind the cracks. If you can see them do not look. Just look away.

Do not tell police men.

Do not tell the Mayor.

Do not tell the doctor.

Do not even tell people’s husbands.

Just look away.

One day they will come for me. I dream of it. They will come for me and Ii Ma will come for me.

Ii Ma will ask me a question I cannot answer.

He will take me away from the world to a place without recourse.

And nothing I do, and nothing I have ever done, will matter again.

How did Max come to understand the nature of the world?

Max puts the book down.

He thinks for a while.

“Huh,” he says.

And he hears in memory the whisper in his mind: How could you betray your wife?

He trembles, there, like a leaf.

He stands on the last vertex of reason with the endless net of unacceptable truths just a step or so outside of his reach.

He is this close to understanding.

He remembers the King that came to Spattle.

His mind throbs with the pictures of Prester Gee.

Shifting in and out of the edge of his consciousness is the image of Ii Ma. He cannot focus on it. He cannot not focus on it. His mental efforts skirl about like water striders on a pond.

Then, suddenly, he understands.

“Mr. McGruder could never have answered it. He would have melted before that question like ice before the sun.”

And thus Max apprehends the fundamental nature of the world. He is afraid and he is horrified but he is also excited.

Rising in him like Frankenstein’s ambition there is a plan.

How did the ragged things catch Max?

It is almost two years before knowing the story of Prester Gee catches up to him.

Max has said nothing to Sid; in fact, for the past six months, he has scarcely called on Sid at all. Instead he has wrestled with the fey understanding that has been rising in him that the ragged things will come for him soon.

That he sees too much; that he knows too much; that in apprehending Ii Ma he suffered apprehension by Ii Ma.

They will come for him.

Dannon Cleim is already gone. Max does not miss him; the man had never mattered to Max’s life.

In his dreams Max sees Ii Ma. He knows what impends.

Ii Ma will come for him.

He will ask Max, a second time, a question that Max cannot answer, and where the first was irrelevant this one will be colder than winter and more devastating than fire.

“Perhaps,” Max theorizes, “He will ask me, ‘what would you do if you could steal people’s noses?'”

That’s a hard one to call in advance because power corrupts.

“Or, ‘you love a guy who tortures people to death.’ That’s not really a question but it might as well be.”

It is neither of these.

He is in the supermarket between aisles 6 and 7—

Where in most supermarkets there is a weak place, a problematic place, a place occult to our reality—

When there is the soft slow pounding of heavy feet.

He looks around.

He thinks about running.

Then he seizes a box of cereal, for the road, and holds it tight against his chest, and waits.

Claws seize him from four directions. They heft him high. And Ii Ma whispers, How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?

There is a cleanup between aisles 6 and 7.

Max is gone.

Why can’t Sid forgive Max?

Max puts on the water for tea. He watches it for a while, but it doesn’t boil.

“Sid,” says Max.

And as suddenly as a dream, Sid is there.

It is 1994 and the sun is this brilliant golden glow and Max is happy—so incredibly happy— because he’s put one over on the world.

He says, “Sid,” again, and it’s this caramel of smugness on the ice cream of his joy.

And Sid blushes and looks from side to side, like maybe Max means the Sid behind him.

“It’s all right now,” Max says.

And Sid frowns.

“It’s been all right,” he says.

“No,” Max says.

He rises. He goes to the glass doors that open out onto the balcony. He opens them. He takes a breath of clean and bracing air.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Max says. “You’d never have let me try it. But it worked.”

He takes a breath.

Max says, “You’ll never kill anybody.”

Sid frowns. He looks around.

“What?”

Max turns. His eyes are brilliant. He says, “This is the dominion of Ii Ma. We have been abstracted from the world by virtue of the questions that we cannot answer. Here, Sid, we mean nothing, do nothing, to no effect. Here the knives of you will not cut; here the hands of you will not hold a knife; here we are severed from substance but, Sid, we are safe from doing harm or becoming anathema to ourselves.”

It pours from Max in a rush, this anodyne and peak to two years of careful silence. It pours from him, the expression of his gift, that sacrifice that he has made of life and sanity, bound over to Ii Ma without resistance to save Sid from murdering. The brilliance and the sacrifice of Max’s plan glimmers there in his sight, lain out—

The perfect solution;

The necessary solution;

The plan to give up everything else so that Sid does not become a thing Max can not love.

And against the look in Sid’s eyes it becomes the ashes of a cruel ambition.

How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?

“Sid,” he says.

And Sid grins, a little.

Sid’s shoulders relax.

“Tell me you are making a virtue of necessity,” Sid says. “Tell me you are scared and alone here and you risked me because you needed me here.”

“No,” says Max. “You don’t understand.”

Distantly, he can hear the kettle whistling.

“Tell me that you did not do this on purpose,” Sid says. “That you did not conspire with the nature of the world to immure me in a place without recourse.”

“I didn’t want you to vivisect anyone,” Max protests.

And here one should stop and observe that for all the naked betrayal in Sid’s voice that Max’s was a reasonable aim.

Yet—

“How could you imagine that you could do such things and have them be okay?” Sid asks.

And the last air leaves Max’s lungs. Bleakness closes in on him. He is drowning.

Until that moment Max did not understand the question of Ii Ma.

Until that moment Max had remained in the place without recourse by virtue of that will that denies itself its options. Until that moment he had stood on a line with a path still open before him, actions still available to him, possibilities to remain a creature of the is and not an isn’t still naked before him. Until that moment he had options because until that moment the question that Ii Ma had given him was one that he did not comprehend.

But Ii Ma is cruel, and with Sid’s words it is no longer so.

Max sees the completeness and the elegance of that truth: he sees the world of emptiness close in about him: he experiences the jangling severance of Max from the places of the world.

In every direction it is the same: every course of action is the same: the place without recourse unfolds around him like an infinite-reflections jewel.

“How beautiful,” Max says.

And to Sid it is like watching a loved one die.

How did Max leave the place without recourse?

It is Maundy Thursday when these events transpire, by some coincidence or design: an anniversary, of a sort, celebrating that day when Jesus said to his companions,

“You will have to devour me to earn eternal life.”

On Maundy Thursday the bells cease to ring. The vestments depart from the table, leaving barrenness.

It is the custom of Ii Ma, on Maundy Thursday, to shift its great bulk in its mud. To wallow. To drip with black blood. To take petitions from its prisoners, which are traditionally not granted.

“How could you imagine that you could do such things,” Sid says, on Maundy Thursday, 1994, “and have them be okay?”

And the fire fades from Max’s eyes and he says, transported by something greater than himself, “How beautiful.”

And with a flash of insight Sid understands why this is so.

“That’s what he asked you,” Sid says. “Isn’t it?”

The kettle is wobbling on the stove; and Sid looks sideways and swears, “Bucking kettle. … That’s what he asked?”

“‘How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?‘” Max quotes. “Or, well, yeah. What you said.”

And Sid laughs.

He can’t help it. It’s worse than when Grouchy Pete shot him because it’s more painful and it’s funnier.

But the laughter passes.

A cold wind blows.

The vast bulk of Ii Ma shifts.

And Sid sighs.

He relaxes, just a bit.

Sid says, gently, “’Walk in like you own the place.’”

It is not clear to Sid, even after all his years of life, whether this answer is abstractly the right one— but it is a pragmatic one.

He has seen it work for monsters, kings, and siggorts;

And it seems to work for Max.

How does Maundy Thursday end?

The night office is celebrated under the name of Tenebrae: the service of darkness.

After the vespers of Maundy Thursday Sid is raw, like a skinless man.

He is raw but he is not given the grace of that pain.

He is taken from the agony of it, without transition, to the morning, to smiling outwards at the beauty of the dawn.

“How beautiful.”

And thus one fond of the liturgy of the holy days must ask:

What manner of thing is Easter, if it comes too soon?

It’s a Real Town

The hole is out in the middle of the desert.

It’s not a hole in the ground, really. It’s more of a chasm in the nature of things. It’s a place where the underlying mathematics of the world break down, defaulting to prehuman axioms.

There’s a man standing above the hole. He’s in shadow. He’s got a long coat and a cigarette, and in between pulls he holds it out and burning sparks drift down in the wind above the hole.

And there are great horrible eyes that look up unblinkingly at him, only to be burned.

And there are fins that splash back beneath the surface of the Not as the sparks touch them.

And there are places where a single ash in the wind lands and gives birth to a world, seethes into brilliant life, planets, suns, spinning galaxies, and ships; and then the whole curls in on itself as it cools and dies and fades into the Not.

And amidst the seething horror of it a hand flails, a hand attached to a coatsleeved arm, and the voice of it cries, “For the love of God, let me out!”

And sparks flutter down and lightly burn the hand.

“I’m not a prehuman horror! I’m from Kenmore!

It’s a real town, you know.

People live there.

But the man up at the top doesn’t react. He just takes another pull and waits. Now and again, when a tendril of the darkness rises, he steps on it.

“For the love of God!”

Then the man’s assistants, a man and a woman, arrive with the patch, and they place it over the hole, and all is still.

Rainbow Noir: The Case of Mr. Dismal

It is at last my pleasure to report to you, gentle audience, more of the history and legends of that magical land of rainbows that is high above the mortal Earth. Certainly you will remember how that land was troubled by the endless machinations of Mr. Dismal, until at last it was cast into shadow and its greatest defender shattered and broken; and you will also remember how, in Rainbow Noir, that defender at last recognized the truths of her own nature and took up the rainbow once again. But what came of her struggles afterwards? I have scrounged the world for this secret, I have plunged into hidden libraries and bartered with eclectic monks; and now, with the final autopsy report on Mr. Dismal in my hands, I think I can explain.

With no further ado . . .

The Case of Mr. Dismal

Mr. Dismal works in Shadow City. He stamps papers. He files reports. He is a gray little man who moves in a gray little world

It has been seven years since he looked out the window.

It has been seven years since his heart last beat.

But now it is 1952, and out beyond the city, the rainbow stirs.

He hears a sound.

“What is this terrible sound?” asks Mr. Dismal. He listens. It comes again. It is his heart.

There is terror in Mr. Dismal now. There is terror in him, but he must hide it. So he sips from his coffee and he tries to concentrate on his work.

There is a flicker of color at the edge of his vision. He looks south.

Mr. Dismal chokes on his coffee. He staggers away from the window.

“Heaven and Earth,” he says.

The rainbow has returned.

“You are weak, Mr. Dismal,” says Mr. Dismal.

He looks in the mirror.

“Creating Shadow City was necessary,” says Mr. Dismal. “I should not apologize. I must not apologize. And I will not apologize.”

Mr. Dismal’s face is like his suit: pale, cold, and grey.

Barren and cold, he says, “I could not have known.”

It is a bright spring day in 1947, and Mr. Dismal goes to his great grime machine, and he pours translucent crystals in. He stirs, and from the bubbling depths come horrors. These are the horrors that eat apologetic men. They have long arching limbs and those limbs end in hooks. They are like spiders and they are like snarls of twine. They are pale. They are large but they can fit themselves into the smallest spaces. They live in the nooks between the cabinets and the files. They live in the little shadow behind the coffeemaker. They curl up in the tips of his shoes and the corners of untended piles.

And his heart, it does not beat.

There is a trembling and a rattling in the room.

Mr. Dismal walks to the corner. He sits down. He makes himself very small. But it does not help because Mr. Dismal’s nose is very large.

The cabinets fall over.

The door shatters.

“I am here,” says the rainbow girl.

It is 1952, and Rainbow Land is dead. That’s what Mr. Dismal thought. That’s what everybody knew.

There aren’t any colors there any more. There isn’t any rainbow. There’s just Shadow City, dull, gloomy, and drab.

But this girl has color in her. And the room has color in it. And there is a stain of brown coffee on Mr. Dismal’s financial reports, and his skin is the color of smog.

“I do not believe in you,” says Mr. Dismal. “I do not believe in your rainbow.”

The rainbow girl gives him a defiant smile. There is a stirring and a strengthening of the colors in the air.

“It is the weak-minded and cowardly,” she says, “Mr. Dismal, who must deny the truth.”

Mr. Dismal’s nose twitches.

“Go away,” he says.

The rainbow girl shakes her head and smiles.

“I am taking over,” she says. “Do you run this place? Are you the master of Shadow City? Are you the one whom I must topple from the throne?”

Mr. Dismal laughs.

He laughs and he laughs.

“I’m just a functionary,” he says, like it’s the most priceless joke imaginable. “Do you understand that, rainbow girl? You don’t want me.

“Pathetic, Mr. Dismal,” sneers Mr. Dismal.

He looks in the mirror.

“It is an inevitable historic truth that where color flourishes, so flourishes decay. It is color that tempts men and women to lasciviousness. It is color that prompts them to gluttony. It is color that makes the things of the world desirable to us, and it is color that ruins that detachment that allows us to be good. Thus it was necessary. It was necessary and it was important, what I have done. To destroy the the reign of color was worth any price. I must not repent. I must not betray and disavow my principles with repentance. For if I am not constant in my principles then what merit can they have?”

Mr. Dismal’s face is like the world: pale, cold, and grey.

Barren and bitter, he says, “I could not have known.”

It is a sullen winter day in 1949, and Mr. Dismal goes to his great grime machine, and he pours translucent crystals in. He stirs, and from the bubbling depths of the machine come horrors. This time they are the wind-wolves, the horrors of the air that fall on those who admit the flaws in their expressions of morality. They are cold and their eyes are fierce and they are beautiful. When the wind blows, their heads and shoulders stream forth from its gusts. They chase the circling leaves in the streets. They howl in windy nights at the moon. And Mr. Dismal knows that if he should say, just once, that he was wrong, the wind will blow; and the air will chill; and the world will sing with the hunting cries of wolves.

The rainbow girl stares at Mr. Dismal for a long, long time.

“No,” she says. “No. That is impossible. I know your crimes of old. You have always opposed the truth of Rainbow Land. It must be you.”

“He came to me,” says Mr. Dismal. “He came to me, like the King of Shadows reborn, and he said, ‘you strive always to steal the colors from Rainbow Land, without reward, while we work all our lives to give them away for free. Let us compromise. Let us remove this troublesome girl, and drown this land in despond, and sell a tiny bit of color at a time.”

Mr. Dismal’s voice is crisp and precise and he bites out each syllable.

“And I agreed. I agreed because it was right. I agreed because it was good. It was a victory that justified its price. I partake of the profits and I bend my knee in compromise but in the end the acts that shattered you were not mine; and Shadow City is not mine; and it is not my fault.”

“And what of Earth?”

Mr. Dismal clenches his teeth.

“I stole the color from Rainbow Land,” he hisses. “I won. I saved the land. I have always striven to do what is right and what is expected of me and it was not wrong.”

“Did he tell you,” says the rainbow girl, “that I wanted to stop the war?”

“Sniveling worm, Mr. Dismal,” says Mr. Dismal.

Mr. Dismal looks in the mirror.

“How dare you even think of it as crime?”

He’s been staring at photographs of the concentration camps again. He’s been staring at the faces.

“People who can’t live with the consequences of their actions, Mr. Dismal, don’t deserve moral agency. Don’t you dare go thinking that your virtue owes a debt.”

It’s a windy autumn in 1950 and Mr. Dismal goes to his great grime machine. He pours translucent crystals in.

He’s muttering to himself. He’s saying: “There were plenty of other magical kingdoms that could have done something. There were the Bears. There was Voltron. There was God. Wasn’t there? I just wanted to get rid of Rainbow Land’s colors. That’s all I was trying to do.”

He stirs, and from the bubbling depths of the grime machine come the terrible malachite creatures of judgment. These are the things of faces and wings and teeth, great grinding wheels, fires, storms, and ice. These are the creatures that visit themselves upon those who are humble in the face of their transgressions. These are the blades that fall on those who recognize that they have failed to be good. They guard the gates of wisdom and make men believe their own perfection.

“You will kill me,” says Mr. Dismal, “if I falter. If I let myself—“

Then he shakes it off, and he goes to work in the files of Shadow City, portioning out color and the gloomy shadows for yet another day.

His heart still does not beat, and the malachites are watching.

The rainbow girl’s eyes are piercing and sad.

“I want you to go away,” says Mr. Dismal. “Leave me alone. It’s not your place, rainbow girl. It’s not your place to be cruel.”

Then the rainbow girl squats down beside him. She puts her hand on Mr. Dismal’s knee.

“I’m not cruel,” she says. “It is you who have locked away your heart. I’ll free it for you.”

“I did not ask for your help, rainbow girl.”

Mr. Dismal stands up. He is terrified, but he moves with stiff decorum. He goes to his desk. He gathers up his papers. He shuffles them into a folder and begins to walk out the door.

“I am leaving now,” he says.

“You just need a little color to lighten you up,” says the rainbow girl, and she laughs; and the rainbow touches him; and he tastes the rainbow; and the smog of his complexion becomes a pure and shining gold. The dismal garb he wears becomes a rich and textured gray. His eyes sparkle. His moustache shines. And there is something human in his eyes.

The weight of it hits him all at once and knocks him to the floor.

“Oh God,” he says.

The rainbow girl grins. She pats him on the head. “See? Was that so hard?”

He is crying, now, great wrenching sobs.

“Oh God,” he says. And he does not say what he wants. Because what he wants is to find some way to make it right. He wants to give his life in labor and in service and count it as nothing if it should answer the smallest portion of his wrong.

But it would not.

And he does not have that time.

“I’m sorry,” says Mr. Dismal. “I’m sorry I was blind.”

There are noises and there is silence and there is a long, thoughtful pause.

“Huh,” says the rainbow girl.

“It is not meet, Mr. Dismal.”

He stares into a mirror.

“It is not meet for good men to bear reproach.”

It’s almost an hour later when Mr. Dismal’s secretary pokes his head into the room.

“Mr. Dismal?” he asks. “Mr. Dismal?—oh, dear.”

The body is in pieces, and the pieces are in a pile, and the pile is bright with vivid color; and its spine does not work, and its brain does not work, and its kidneys and neck and chest are shreds.

The heart, in the center of the pile, still beats.

The Messenger

The messenger came from very far away.

He rode through the void bearing our pardon. He passed waterfalls of fire, and snakes greater than rivers, and jungles of green so pure that Rainbow Brite would know envy. And still he rode.

He came in time to the walk, to the march, to the progression of the shadows. They walk through the endless night down to the deepest sea.

They are blind.

They are deaf.

They cannot feel one another. For they are all shadows, and shadows feel as shadows alike.

Each of them says, as he or she walks, “I am lonely. I am empty. I am tired.”

And so they wend their way down to the deepest sea.

It is here that the messenger failed. It is here that the messenger betrayed us, and we may say it is wrong without compunction, for it was wrong even by the messengers’ own code.

He stopped.

He reined in his horse, and he came down.

And he walked among them, each to each, and touched them, and gave them an answer to their loneliness.

And through the long night the shadows wept, and there was something pure and uncompromisingly beautiful in their tears.

But he has not come.

The messenger has not come, and this was wrong, and he knows it is wrong. And that is why the world is not right.

That is why the world can never be right.

That is why the world is not right today.