Free (V/VII)

Now after the incident with the spider the stress does not relent, but rather piles up like massing clouds in Melanie’s body and her mind. She is not well when she emerges from the web; she is, rather, broken, and it comes to a terrible peak in her when she is found by the steamer’s crew, so that the entire world around her strains through a seething mesh of fear before impacting on her mind.

She can’t grasp that they will not hurt her. She can’t grasp that they won’t do horrible and monstrous things to her, and for ever.

But they don’t.

She’s babbled to them already about the soot-spider. She isn’t sure when that happened. She missed the part where she actually told them. Her first real consciousness of the matter comes when she’s already explained.

The wonder of it is that most of the crew believes.

Did used to see soot spiders, sometimes,” one of the older stokers confirms. “Bloody pests, they were. Kill a cabin boy as soon as wink.”

“No way,” protests a younger seaman. “Aren’t they isn’ts?”

But the stoker only laughs.

“Not out at sea!”

And they might have argued for another round, except, right then, the bo’sun speaks.

“She’s lucky,” the bo’sun rules.

She’s lucky! She survived!

And that’s the end of the matter, because they can make her work, if she’s lucky, but they can’t exactly harass her, or lock her up, or throw her to the sea.

You don’t do that kind of thing to people who are good luck.

It wouldn’t be good practice, on a ship.

So she survives, and nobody hurts her, and you’d think that maybe that would lighten the suffering that fills her thoughts, but it doesn’t, because as it turns out, making an answer to suffering is a difficult thing to do.

She’s tired, right tired, all the way through, and she’s burdened down with fear.

It gets heavier with each passing day.

Then they reach Santa Barbara’s docks.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1979 CE

They berth at night and she helps unload and then in her corner she goes to sleep.

And there’s something epochal in reaching land, and as she sleeps, the weight that fills her body, mind, and soul cuts free.

It lingers near her at first, but the night has tides, and in the end it drifts away.

She wakes up to realize that the world is sweet and her body aches and the water that drums against the side of the ship is good.

And the rough wood of the docks has a clean simplicity.

And the sky over Santa Barbara—

The sky is right.

It’s like she’s come at last to a fairyland, to berth in this sunny world.

She stretches. She laughs. She walks. She runs. She jumps down to the wooden dock.

It sways—

She sways?—

It doesn’t sway, rather, and so she nearly falls, she nearly goes head over heels, she nearly topples over, like she’d done once or twice in the previous night.

The land doesn’t sway here, and that’s a crazy, unnatural thing.

How can a person stand up in some strange world where the ground doesn’t move and your heart is light and there is no soot, no soot anywhere, to make you fear the endless dark?

She takes a step.

Hm.

She takes another step.

Somehow—

Somehow it’s good. Somehow the terrible alien solidity of the land is good.

She looks around. There isn’t any soot. There isn’t any impending danger that the soot, which isn’t there, will organize itself into theorems and abstract her into a dark, foreboding world.

She sways.

Somehow that’s good too, that she doesn’t have to fear that she’ll stumble at any second into the web of another soot-spider.

Somehow, and this is weird, somehow that’s better than good.

It’s bubbling up in her like joy, it’s giggling out of her unexpectedly, it’s giggling out her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her

“You’re Amiel’s get.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1979 CE

Back up. That isn’t how this history goes.

She isn’t there yet. That hasn’t happened to her yet. She isn’t hearing those terrible words. Not yet.

She is stumbling down, no, she’s jumped down onto the docks.

And they aren’t swaying.

They’re not like a ship. They’re still. And somehow that’s . . . good.

Somehow the terrible alien solidity of the land is, like we were saying, good.

She looks around. There isn’t any soot. There isn’t any impending danger that the soot, which isn’t there, will organize itself into theorems and abstract her into a dark, foreboding world.

She sways.

Somehow that’s good too, that she doesn’t have to fear that she’ll stumble at any second into the web of another soot-spider.

Somehow, and this is weird, somehow that’s better than good.

It’s bubbling up in her like joy, it’s giggling out of her unexpectedly, it’s giggling out her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her lungs and chest and heart, and she’s shouted out before she’s thought about it any a great shout of love for all the world.

How embarrassing.

Embarrassment loses against the joy. It can burn her cheeks and make her look away but it can’t stop her from laughing, and saluting the seamen on their ship, and jauntily walking towards the day.

She’s seven and she’s lucky and she’s killed a soot-spider and finally she’s gotten free.

Billy and his gang won’t be a trouble to her any more.

Nothing will be a trouble to her any more.

She’s the master of the world.

And her story could have gone many different ways from there, but the way it went is this. She walked from the docks straight to Santa Ynez; straight into the monster’s web.

but there is one more part of this tale to tell, and you shall have to wait a week to hear it. In the meantime, perhaps, you could

* review the Legend of Ink Catherly, or
* everything about her so far;
* enjoy the awesome Visual Glossary of Symbols;
* browse the even more awesome work of Anthony Damiani or Siya on Deviant Art;
* design incredible games using Ren’Py; or
* read about the upcoming third edition of Nobilis at RPG.net!

The Soot-Web (II/VII)

Now this is the manner of a soot-web’s construction.

First one sees soot gusting through the air. Then the patterns of it become oddly persistent. They cling together through a logic of their own, lemma to lemma, corollary to corollary, each a piece of a puzzle whose logic is fundamentally different from the logic of the world.

The patterns thicken.

Soon there is nothing but darkness. Soon the mind is absorbed entirely in the web and cannot perceive the ordinary nature of the world. Soon experience is held together not by perception, maya, by the appearance of material existence, but rather by soot and a distant, bleak, and horrid song.

This is the song of the spider.

To stumble into a soot-web is to find that, no matter in which direction one turns oneself, one pulls oneself further and further away from world and sound. The very strength of reason and perception that you would normally use to drag yourself away only entangles you further, drowning your senses and your hypotheses in fear and the terrible dark.

Accept it and it deepens; reject it and it grows stronger.

The pressure of your awareness against the soot-web gives it strength, no matter which you choose.

It is 1979 and Melanie is 7 and she has stowed away upon a tramp steamship to get away from Billy and his gang. This seemed a fine idea at first, romantic, even; and then a painfully bad idea as the realities of it grew starker; and finally the most terrible of follies when she stumbled into the soot-web of the spider.

Her world grew dark.

Her world grew very dark, in the soot-web of the spider, and she found no walls as she walked through the deepening shadows; no walls, no portholes, no boilers, and no stairs, but only a slurry of soot and darkness that became more painful with every breath.

And now the spider sings.

The spider sings as she stumbles in the dark. It sings of joy. It sings of stowaways and children-food—and in its song, the last two concepts reveal themselves the same. Its song is distant, tinny, horrible, and fierce, but not entirely regrettable; for it has within it echoes and reifications of the great song that is the world.

Melanie cannot criticize. She only can object.

“I’m not a child!” she says. “I’m seven.

To this the spider laughs.

And Melanie howls, and she strikes fiercely at the dark, but to no end; and finally, defeated, she shrinks in on herself upon the web, and waits she there to die.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1979 CE

Time passes. Melanie does not move. The spider sidles close along the web.

Silently, softly, it touches her foot with one great reaching leg.

She screams.

She slashes out at it. It vents a cry. It discovers that Melanie has had a knife gripped in her hand.

It skitters back.

The flesh of the spider is serrated and awful. She has cut it, and it bleeds, but she herself is bleeding from its touch.

“Oh, vile,” says the spider. “Oh so very vile, to pretend to death to lure me in.”

Melanie’s eyes are sunken.

She is barely sane.

“Come back and fight,” she says.

But the spider simply sits, far away upon the web, and sings.

The darkness is great and poisonous and thick.

Melanie’s mind flails as her hand had flailed. The patterns of her thoughts become oddly persistent. They cling together through a logic of their own, lemma to lemma, corollary to corollary, each new thought suggesting another thought as truth. Something moves inside her spirit. Suddenly she needs to speak.

She interrupts the spider’s song.

“What’s gray,” Melanie says, “and wrinkly, and lives at the top of a tree.”

The song fades.

It doesn’t come out as a question. Her throat is too clotted up with fear. The words hurt too much when she tries to say them and she can’t manage the rising inflection on the final sounds that turns English sentences to questions.

The spider stops and thinks about the riddle anyway.

“I would say,” it finally says, “ ‘A dying bird, wrapped in the web of a treetop spider.’ ”

“No,” says Melanie.

“No?”

“It is an elephant.”

She can see the glints of spider-eyes within the soot.

“That is inaccurate,” says the spider.

“It is an elephant,” says Melanie, “that has chosen to live at the top of a tree. Now you go.”

The spider is nonplussed.

“I do not do riddles,” says the spider.

Melanie is feral and intense.

Her eyes, her face, her entire body has become a vehicle for her insistence: now you go. It burns as fierce as any light.

“But I suppose I would ask,” the spider says, “ ‘what stands on eight legs in the morning; and one leg in the evening; and on something that isn’t a leg at all, in day?’ ”

The pressure of Melanie’s will abates.

She frowns.

She is baffled by the last two parts, but the first part gives the game away. She says, “A spider.”

The soot-spider hisses in its breath. A spider! Born to walk on eight legs, and descending into the afterlife on a single silken thread, and standing on a soot-web in between—

It had not seriously expected that Melanie would guess.

“Yes?” Melanie asks.

“Yes,” the spider concedes.

“What’s gray and wrinkly and fights fires?” Melanie asks.

The spider is suddenly quite near. It is staring into her eyes. It is angry.

“Elephants do not fight fires,” says the spider. “Your theory is not correct.”

Her knife is out. She has stabbed its eye. It is screaming. It is staggering back. She has seized its fang, she is trying to snap it off, she is trying to snap the fang away and drive it back into the flesh of the soot-spider.

She is too weak. She is too slow.

The spider has evaded her. It is screaming, it is furious, it has struck her with one leg, it has knocked the knife away from her to fall somewhere in the dark, it has skittered off, and the spider has skittered off, and the fang that Melanie tugged at would not break off in her hand.

She lays there hopelessly in the dark, and bleeds.

“It is not correct,” protests the spider.

“I didn’t say it was an elephant,” Melanie decides.

The spider sulks. It has rarely been so wounded in its life. If there were a reputable doctor on the tramp ship that was willing to treat soot-spiders it would probably abandon the entire encounter and go to see them; but there is not.

The patterns thicken.

Melanie laughs. She cannot stop laughing.

“It’s a really old fireman,” Melanie says.

And it is beautiful, it is perfect, it delights her; and it is like lightning coursing through her, as the spider shifts its weight, the sudden realization that even when she’s laughing she can die.

Next Week: part 6, and someone you’ve probably been waiting for a good long while in hopes you’d see!

In the meantime, consider . . .

Between the Panels of the Day – Piracy (I/I)

Tara’s master didn’t approve.

He’d helped her build the ship.

He’d helped her crew it.

But every time she looked at him she could see through the grey beard of her master how amazingly he disapproved.

“You can’t enlighten people by committing corporal violence on a god,” he said. “Not even a heap.”

She looked at him. It was a serious, pensive look. “Don’t tell Amitabha?”

“If you can do it,” he says, “it won’t work; contrariwise, if it could work, you won’t be able to do it.”

“The point’s not to do it,” she said.

“Oh?”

“I just think, if people are always going to be mugged by bandits, that there should be a pirate somewhere, you know, fighting on their behalf.”

Transience (II/V)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

“Everything is transient,” says Tara.

She is sitting on the deck of her ship. She is meditating. She is holding the ship still while the world moves around her.

“We imagine that things are permanent, but this is not so: rather, ‘permanence’ is a quality of the mind, a sign without referent, that we strive in futility to apply to external things.”

She is crying, freely and without hesitation, because everything that is good and beautiful must pass away.

It is not a wonder that her ship should sink. It is, in fact, a wonder that it ever stayed afloat at all. The great stone statue of the Buddha that serves as its prow should, by rights, have dragged the ship down to the bottom of the sea. That it has not done so yet is a testament to the grace and beauty of the sculptor’s soul: but that grace cannot keep the ship upright much longer.

The bandits of the island have sent forth a ship-killing spear and it trembles in the wood of the good ship Honest with Myself; and the ship cannot take another.

It would be easier for Tara if she did not care about the passing of these things. It would be easier if she could simply laugh and let the illusions of the world fume and blow before her eyes—but Tara is not yet a Buddha.

She has taken a sabbatical from the bodhisattva’s journey.

She has hoisted the Jolly Roger in the name of the enlightenment of all living beings; has put aside the scripture for the sword; has sworn in the greatness of her heart the compassionate oath: “I shall become a Buddha. I shall save all living beings from suffering. But first I shall become a pirate!”

Her unbending determination shook the world and caused flower petals to rain from the highest peak of Heaven: but for every oath there is a price.

All things pass.

All things pass.

All things, even the beautiful things, even the good things, pass.

And there is nothing in piracy to save the heart from the brutality of this truth.

Third-fired, second-landed: a second ship-killing spear slams home. The ship screams—

No, she tells herself. It is the grinding of the wood. It is not a scream.

The ship screams. The ship shakes. The statue of the Buddha splits open. Inside it is not stone. Inside it is hollow, and full of the petals of the chrysanthemum.

The wind seizes them up and scatters them across the sea.

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

Tara stands.

Everything is exploding underneath her. She thinks: ah, it has struck the strategic sutra reserve.

The ship is becoming flinders.

Gusts of holy fire, the infallible material indicators of the perfect truth of the sutras, billow up. The chickens flutter desperately in their pen. The monkeys climb to the top of the rigging. Her personal parrot flies away.

She fixes her mind upon right pillaging.

Her hand moves sideways. Seeing the lotus in her palm, the chickens go still and resolute. Their minds focus on compassion and their spirits suspire peacefully into Avahārakalikāranirvāņa, the Pirate Chicken Paradise. Tara takes two steps into the air according to the double-jump enlightenment and lands upon a great length of wood blown skyward by the explosion of the Jewel-Thought Sutra. Her gaze turns towards the monkeys.

A terrible splinter of wood is flying towards her eye.

You cannot save yourself and monkeys both, murmurs a false conception. She dismisses it and looks upon the splinter with the all-embracing love of a mostly-enlightened pirate.

I trust you, she says, to the splinter as it comes tearing for her eye.

Caught off balance by Tara’s gaze, it catches fire; it gusts with holy light; it grows into flower, like the cherry wood of its birth, and the wind blows it aside.

Her arm stretches (a human distance) to the right. There is a shift in the equilibrium of the world; her arm becomes heavy with monkeys.

The wood on which she stands is spinning.

She blows a kiss backwards at the ship. “You were good,” she says, and suddenly time is moving at its normal rate again.

“May a thousand beautiful things flower from the karma that gave you birth.”

With horrible speed, the wood plank skips off the sea, wings an upright monk and opens a scar in the side of his scalp that he’ll be telling people about for the rest of his life, skips one last time, and tumbles the dread pirate Tara and a quarter barrel’s worth of monkeys to roll over and over and over again upon the shore.

The Skandhas of Head Island (IV/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

The ship is made of wood and stone.

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

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

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

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

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

In one such gap Sid sees himself.

He is, he thinks, reflected on the fog.

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

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

His reflection sticks out his tongue at him.

Sid frowns.

“Don’t make trouble,” he says.

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

Sid’s reflection shoots him with an arrow.

“Gluh!” says Sid. He falls backwards.

Anatman, dukkha,” chant the monks.

“Are you okay?”

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

“Hey. You. Guy.”

She doesn’t actually know Sid’s name.

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

“It’s okay,” Sid says.

“What?”

“Luckily I was carrying a skull.”

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

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

Then he says, “It was my reflection.”

“No,” Tara says.

“No?” Sid asks.

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

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

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

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

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

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

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

They manipulate a series of cunning levers and catches.

The Buddha’s stone arm swings.

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

The balance changes.

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

Do I stop meditating or do I stop my fall?

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

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

It rights itself.

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

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

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

“Why did it look like me?”

“They’re skandhas,” Tara says.

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

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

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

But:

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

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

Sid looks at her.

“Skandhas?” he asks.

Tara stares at him.

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

She’s blushing brightly.

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

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

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

“Ah,” Sid says.

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

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

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

The spear crashes into the wooden deck.

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

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

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

The Pirate (II/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

Sid stands on a grey reflective plain. White lines blow across it like the waves that wind makes upon the grass or upon the snow. The sky is corrugated, textured grey above him: grainy light grey touched with light; bulging rain-filled dark grey; wispy, dissipated whitish mist; and in the distance beyond that grey the sun.

He is walking.

He is walking on the sea of chaos and it is still beneath him, it is supporting him, because it does not love him and does not want him to break its surface and mingle with it.

Five bandits surround him. They have staves. They wear cloaks that billow. They are dampened with a mist of chaos and it causes peculiar alterations in their countenance.

Sid stops.

He says, “I am Sid.”

It is a naked threat. Knowing that they cannot know him, he still says it thus: flat words, like drops of mist that fall onto the surface of the sea.

But the bandits howl; and one casts forth a rope to wind around him, and two come forward with their spears; and two set arrows to their bows.

Sid has spent too long in a place dominated by the conventions of early 21st century media. He cannot quite encompass the fact that they’re all attacking him at once. An arrow hits him in the back of the head. Another pierces his lung. The rope wraps around him. The spears come in towards him. The knives that spin in their wheel beside him turn and cut and the rope frays to threads; he is up, standing on one of the spears, kicking at the bandit with his hands in the pockets of his coat, and the other spear hits him from behind.

He can feel bile in his throat. He can feel blood. But today he has no time for it.

The bandit he’s kicked falls down. The bandit’s cheek is dented and there’s blood at the corner of his mouth.

Knives cut away the haft of the spear that’s stuck in Sid so that it can’t pull out again.

Sid’s angry. His hand catches the next arrow. He hurls it on towards the other bowman and turns—

There are too many bandits. He’s quite sure there’d been five, and one knocked down, and one halfway disarmed, but there are five circling him still.

What am I standing on? he says, because the scene has come a little bit undone within his mind. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing he could fail to know, but he doesn’t.

Another spearthrust. He falls back. He lands on the sea and it splatters aside to make room for him, bowing down like a sheet of cellophane attached on every side and struck by a falling fruit. The bandits wobble up and down.

Through the mist of grey Sid sees a great granite hand.

“Hell,” says one of the bandits.

It’s the first thing any of them has said.

Sid can see the arm.

Sid can see the body. It is a Buddha. It is a great granite Buddha. It is the great granite Buddha prow of a ship that sails in these seas.

The bandits shout and flee and leave Sid there.

Monks walk on the head of the Buddha. They pace their meditation tracks. Their footsteps are a soft shuffling that rebounds off of the fog.

They click their meditation beads.

“Anatman, dukkha,” say the monks. “Anatman, dukkha.

Slowly, Sid straightens. He pulls himself to his feet. He stands there on the chaos, facing the approaching ship.

The monks seem puzzled.

“Anatman?” they say, as if expecting Sid to react. “Dukkha?”

Sid stabilizes his form and begins to walk west, but there’s an apologetic voice that stops him.

“If you won’t willingly abandon your attachment to material existence,” says the dread pirate Tara, “I’m afraid I’ll have to use the cannon.”

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

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

Sid looks back.

“I’m not attached to material existence,” he says. “I’m just kind of here.”

He lifts one foot, then the next. He gestures to his shoes. They’re loafers, the shoes of a man not terribly attached to material existence but who has to walk in it anyway.

Tara pulls herself up onto the arm of the Buddha. She walks out. She looks down at him. She’s a black-haired pirate with a sword in one hand and a lotus in the palm of the other.

She says, “You can’t just resist the enlightenment of the Buddha Pirates. It’s not done.”

“I’m my own first experience,” says Sid. “Why should I accept anatman?”

“Technically, that’s an error,” Tara says.

Sid looks at her.

“You’re not your own first experience. Information theory and the law of the sea insist that you can’t directly experience yourself. Instead, you experience things that you falsely associate with yourself, like perceptions and conditions. Do you need medical attention?”

“No.”

“Because you are rather bleeding.”

“Bandits.”

Tara’s eyes go wide. It’s an expression of shocked joy.

“This close?”

“Eh?”

“I have been hunting them,” Tara says, “For so long.”

She bites her lip. She’s thinking.

“Come on board, then,” Tara says. “Everyone knows that ships are faster than walking, on the ocean. We’ll hunt them down and then I’ll try and kill you again and then, if that doesn’t work, I’ll give you a ride to wherever you’re going.”

Sid thinks about this.

Finally, he shrugs.

So Tara gives a happy shout, “Kya!” and those few among the monks with eyepatches and peglegs and other pirate accessories decorating their orange robes leave their prayer tracks and throw down ropes.

Sid climbs.

Soon he stands on the deck of the ship.

“You’re not enlightened,” he points out. “You’re a pirate.”

“Yes,” Tara admits.

Sid looks at her.

Airily, Tara says, “I decided it’d be faster to bring enlightenment to all living beings if I skipped the last few million years of the process and just became a pirate. These are my monks.”

Sid looks down. The deck of the ship is marked with a great mandala. Around its edge it depicts the noble eightfold path.

“I didn’t know that was an option,” Sid says.

Tara brings her finger to her lips.

“Don’t tell Amitabha,” she hisses.

Then she is moving; then she is racing about the deck and he sees her only in moments. A flash of red from the inside of her cloak as she calls to the divine spirits that work the sails. A moment of half-profile as she stands, pointing out at the sea with her sword. Shouted orders involving words like jib and block that Sid—as a man with little need for ships—does not entirely understand.

“But isn’t it an error?” he says.

“What?”

Tara is looking at him again. The ship is turning, gently, in the direction in which the bandits disappeared.

“Becoming a pirate and forcing enlightenment on people with monks and cannons.”

“It’s a terrible error,” Tara says. “Mad, crazy wickedness. I’m committing so many mistakes it’ll be a few million years before I fix them all. But isn’t that the joy of it?”

“What?”

“Making mistakes and fixing them. Learning. Growing. The sharpness of regret and the brilliance of accomplishments you really shouldn’t have attempted.”

“No, I meant, of what?”

“Oh,” Tara says.

She thinks about that for a bit.

“Of being at sea,” Tara says.

In the name of hope and joy, and dedicated to someone whom I hope very much will be back with us by the time this post appears. Do it! Do it! Wake up! Ganbatte!

Happy Endings (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede — Chapter Three]

Max breathes shallowly. He can feel the pain. It is like static. In his leg it is large-grained static, woven through with long sinuous purple-brown strands of pain. In his hands and arms it is loud, fine, angry static. In his left hand it has a twisting interference pattern: the pain can’t bear itself, it drowns itself out, it wrestles with itself to impress great oscillations on his perceptions.

From the pain comes fear. The fear closes down the functions of his mind. It narrows his world to specks of thought.

The waves lapping against the boat and the sky and the clear purity of the rock and the sheer greenness of the grass—

He has these sensations too. They pass in and out of his consciousness.

He tries to notice them.

On some level he feels that it is important to notice them and the thinness of his presence in the world frees him to focus on what is important.

But when the pain dies down, even for a time, less meaningful things edge in, and he finds himself wondering,

Am I going to turn into a pumpkin?

Had the giraumon touched him? Was a touch enough?

The sheer purposelessness of that fate terrifies him, obsesses him, catches him up in it the moment the power of conscious thought returns to him.

He passes between these states—between pain-haunted awareness and near-maniacal obsession—for an hour and some change.

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

“We fought,” Red Mary says.

Max is staring at his left hand.

He’s thinking: I don’t want to turn into a pumpkin. Is it going to turn into a pumpkin? God, I wish that white bit wouldn’t keep moving. Please don’t turn into a pumpkin. Or move into my wrist. Can I wiggle my finge—

Pain.

Damn it.

“Eric wanted to save us. So we fought. Because people always fight the things they love.”

Max looks up.

“Where are we going?”

“West.”

Max nods.

“We fought,” Red Mary says, “and we won, and we lost everything, and there wasn’t any hope any more.”

“Are you going to kill me?”

“The longer you are here,” Red Mary says. “In the vicinity of this island, the worse things will be.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“I don’t want to turn into a pumpkin,” Max says.

“Neither do I,” Red Mary says.

“Then I saved you.”

“The giraumon’s still alive,” Red Mary says.

“Oh.”

“The light in him gets a little dimmer every time he sets fire to the chaos and burns of himself to build. He is suffering. I cannot imagine how much he is suffering. But one extra splash won’t kill him.”

Max laughs a little.

“What?”

“You’re going to turn into a pumpkin too,” he says.

He even sings a little song:

I’m a pumpkin, you’re a pumpkin,
Wouldn’t you like to be a pumpkin too?

“I’ve been a siren for a long time,” says Red Mary. “But no one’s ever tried to sing me into despair before.”

“It’d be poetic,” Max says.

“No,” Red Mary says.

“What?”

“I was listening. It wasn’t poetic.”

“I meant the justice,” Max says.

Red Mary snorts.

“What?”

“Scansion before justice,” she says.

“But he’s going to.”

“Yes,” Red Mary says.

“Yes?”

“Unless I kill him first.”

“Ah.”

“We don’t have long,” she says. “Like I said. We only had a scant one thousand years. Then the fighting starts.”

Pain surges.

Time passes.

“It’s not rude,” Max says. He is squinting at the sky in the fashion that one might squint at a jigsaw puzzle.

“What?”

“He was talking about killing me anyway.”

“Yes.”

“So I had a right to be belligerent.”

“Are you making an appeal to me as a siren, or as a Confucian?”

Max hesitates.

“As a punching bag,” he says. “I’ll stop.”

“Okay.”

“But if you eat me,” he says, “you have to start with the hand.”

“What?”

“Man’s got a right to choose the order in which he gets eaten.”

“He could have infected you,” Red Mary says. “So you’re right. No eating.”

“Good.”

Then the island clears away down the seacourse to the west and for the first time Max sees the goodblow.

Miles and miles and miles away, but there:

A burning radiance with the shape of lightning, and it looks at him.

It looks at him.

It sees him.

The power of that gaze!

One hundred miles away if it’s an inch, and still it has the power to transform him, to catch him up, to drive into him and permeate the skin, the bones, the muscles, and the soul.

It loves him. In that moment he realizes that it loves him. That it names him and sees him in ways not even Sid has managed.

It is burning him.

It is destroying him.

It is knowing him too fast, and eating through the measures of his life. It is completing him.

It is the laying down of burdens. It is peace. It is all-enfolding joy.

It is ripping away his fragile sense of what is good and right and just and replacing it with adoration of the light.

He casts up a tarp. It flutters in the wind. It gives them some small shadow from that regard. Red Mary catches it before it flies away.

They huddle there.

In a small and feeble protest against Heaven, he says, “I’m not finished being Max.

The wind upon the tarp makes a sound like gunfire. The tarp bends in like the wind is pounding fists.

Then the goodblow fades and Max realizes through its absence that it has been staring at him through the tarp for all this time.

Red Mary lowers the tarp.

The sky is blue and purple and the clouds rush past above like cars.

Good is visible to the west but some sleight of weather or chaos or circumstance makes it temporarily more dim.

“Enough,” Red Mary says.

She seizes Max in the two arms of her and she leaves the knife of the history of Mr. Kong upon the deck and she kicks herself off the boat and they fall down into the sea.

“I should not,” she says, as the pressure builds, “have let you live.”

Her eyes are cold and black and murderous and like shade to him on the hottest summer day.

Pumpkin Sickness (3 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

It is June 3, 2004.

The sky is blue and the wind is fresh and Max’s blood is thick and red.

It’s soaking through the sailcloth of his bandages.

Red Mary’s face is not human but it is beautiful. Her eyes are black. Her teeth are sharp. Her skin is smooth and rounded. On her neck flutter purplish gills.

The sun makes a shadow from one cheekbone and seems thereby to evoke old sorrows.

Suddenly, Max laughs.

Red Mary looks at him.

“Iphigenia’s all right,” he says.

“Your . . . telepathic girlfriend?” she guesses.

“The sun,” says Max. “I’d been worried about her. But, look, she’s right there, you can tell by the light.”

Red Mary looks at him.

“Your nose is sunburnt,” she observes.

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

Seacourses wind through the broken island. The catamaran glides past the island’s grassland, dry land, and trees.

Max catches the heavy smell of pumpkin, a flat sort of scent, just a little bit rotten.

The seacourse cuts into a hill — cuts clean through it, without a tunnel, so that the island rises on both sides of it but the only thing above it is the sky.

There is rind in the rock: orange corrugated rind.

Over the edge of the hill, and ambiguously presenting themselves to Max’s vision, he can see great round orange distant shapes.

Max looks down. He starts to say, “Why the pumpk—”

But Red Mary’s face is taut and she is shaking and he thinks it is with rage.

“It is the giraumon,” Red Mary says.

The catamaran approaches a long gentle curve in the seacourse’s path. Red Mary slows it as they turn.

“The giraumon?”

“He has been making.”

She stares ahead. The muscles of her jaw tense up. Then she says, “If he comes, do not speak to him. If he approaches, do not let him touch you. If he attacks, do not kill him, or I will feed you to the firvuli and humaneness be damned.”

“Oh,” Max says.

And the catamaran comes slowly around the great bend and there, standing on the water in their path, the giraumon waits.

He is reminiscent of a man, tall and bold, with windblown hair and skin the same sweet color as your own. His eyes are incredible, full of laughter and compassion and beloved secrets.

He has pumpkin sickness.

He has wings, these beautiful wings, flexible like rubber and strong like stone. He has wings and a sword and he is beautiful.

But he is sick.

Pumpkin is inching across the left side of him. Patches of its rind jut forth from the skin. The sickness makes a corrugated orangeness of his features. It has turned his left ear into a hole. It mars and makes lumpy the smooth flawlessness of his arm.

It has not quite yet reached that marvelous left eye.

Red Mary slows the catamaran. She takes down the sails. She lets it glide to a halt.

The giraumon walks forward on the waves.

“Hello,” he says. He smiles. “I’d hoped you’d come by. I made a road for you.”

Red Mary glances down at her fishtail.

“I thought, ‘what if I made a path by which Red Mary could reach perfection? Then she’d stop maundering on about the necessary impermanence of all solutions to our fate.'”

The giraumon gestures broadly. He indicates the island behind him. There is a path in the distance like a great bridge arching up from the rock towards Heaven. Most of it has fallen down. The rest has gone orange and saggy and rotten.

“Better you were dead,” Red Mary says. “Than wasting your fire thus.”

The giraumon grins. His teeth are more suggestions than discrete. “It was better before it turned all pumpkin.”

“I’ve asked you not to make things for me,” Red Mary says.

“Yes,” the giraumon agrees.

His grin fades so that he can lick his lips. He looks at Max.

“This is Max,” Red Mary says.

Pumpkin shudders across the giraumon’s face and brushes against the edging of his eye. The creature blinks in irritation.

Max’s hand inches towards the knife.

“He’s trying to find God,” Red Mary says.

“Men can’t find God,” the giraumon says. “They do well for a while but then they turn into pumpkins and, as often as not, fall into the sea.”

“I think, in this case, it’s shorthand for virtue.”

The giraumon spreads a hand, as if to say: But what does that change?

“I’m helping him,” Red Mary says.

Her body language poses this as a challenge.

The giraumon’s eyes flick over Max’s wounds. His grin returns. “Max must taste awfully.”

Red Mary makes a little face. It involves poking out her tongue and adopting an expression of disgust.

“Let us do this instead,” says the giraumon. “I will kill Max and transfer my consciousness to the corpse. Then I will have a handsome new body to wear for formal occasions.”

Max lunges for the knife. The sailcloth bandage tangles his arm. He kicks his legs to help with balance. The bandage on his leg catches against one of the blocks. Max rolls over. For a terrible moment he supports himself on his maimed left hand while his right hand claws at the knife. Then he screams an ungodly scream and twists to take the weight from his hand, loses his balance entirely, rolls over the knife, sinks it smoothly into the muscle of his arm, and falls halfway out of the boat with his head lolling into the sea.

The giraumon blinks.

“Or he can kill Max,” the giraumon says. “If he insists.”

Red Mary leans forward and catches Max’s collar and drags him back onto the ship. Max sputters, coughs, and collapses against the deck.

“How can you call yourself my friend,” Red Mary says, “giraumon, if you kill somebody I’m trying to help?”

Pumpkin spreads over the giraumon’s eye and makes of it an empty gash with candlelight behind.

The candlelight flickers.

“Don’t presume,” the giraumon says.

“No?”

“A thousand years ago,” the giraumon says, “I thought I saw something in you. A thing to make it worth my while to leave you in existence. But I have spent a thousand years in contemplation of the matter and every way I find to leave you lot alive just turns into a pumpkin and rots and falls into the sea. So do not mind me if I think that perhaps it is too much trouble to call Red Mary my friend.”

Sluggishly, Max pulls himself back into a sitting position. He tries to tug the knife out of his right arm using his right hand but he can’t get a grip. His face is pale.

“Come here and fight me,” he says.

“Whisht!” snaps Red Mary.

The candle behind the pumpkin gleams.

“I don’t want to listen to this,” Max says. “Fight when I’m gone.”

“Leave him alone,” Red Mary hisses.

Max slumps. His maimed left hand drops into the sea.

The pumpkin sickness edges rightwards and the giraumon loses his nose. Then he is moving, he is close, his orange knobbly finger is lunging in towards Max.

Max’s hand comes up to meet it.

He splashes chaos straight from the sea into the candle of the giraumon’s brain.

The giraumon shrieks. He recoils. He recedes along the seacourse, steam bursting forth from the top of his head. It rises in great clouds which form into circling bats, a piano, forgiveness, a white sword longer than a ship, and a sheet of paper on which is written the answer to all pain.

The giraumon bounds up to the shore and he is gone.

Slowly, Red Mary extends her hand to catch the paper. It drifts into her hand. Its surface is thickening, growing orange; she squints to make out the first word, and by the time she reads the second the writing on it is gone.

“Will he live?” Max asks, by way of asking, Will I live?

“If it were not bats and a piano,” Red Mary says, “he would have used it up on something else.”

They are surrounded by orange and the catamaran gently sways. The sea beneath them stinks of pulp.

Max isn’t sure whether she’s answered him or not, or whether that answer would be positive or negative.

Red Mary starts the catamaran to moving again.

Something large and gray and terrible rises from the center of the island and catches three of the bats in its great flat teeth.

Max slumps.

“We souls within this world,” Red Mary says.

The sea licks blood from the catamaran’s side.

“I think we do not need to find God,” Red Mary says, “so much as a way to live with what we love.”

The Broken Island (1 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

Max hurts. He licks his lips. Everything is distant and throbbing in white.

“You must hurry on,” says Red Mary.

His eyes drift open. The ceiling is blue and it’s moving. Also his bed is rocking back and forth and someone’s poured water and blood on him and for some reason there’s sailcloth wrapped around his leg and shoulder.

“I’m not God?” he asks.

He’s not entirely sure where he’s been but he’s pretty sure it involved being infinite and spread out over everything in the universe.

“What is God?” Red Mary asks. “We barely understand people.”

“Heh,” says Max.

He laughs. He coughs up a tangled mix of pangolin scales, kelp, and foam. Then he curls in on himself.

After a bit, he laughs again.

He says, “I was looking for him. So it would have been funny if I was.”

Red Mary looks at him with her cold black eyes.

“God is not here,” she says. “Though once this place was paradise.”

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

In the sea to the west of Gibbelins’ Tower a hill rises from the chaos. It is split into pieces like flower petals opening, like a walnut smashed too strongly by a hammer, like a broken mirror, like a land sundered forcefully by lightning. Its edges are brown rock with purple veining and the moist darkness of mussels clinging at its base. Great seacourses run through it, around and about the chunks of land, rushing with great currents. Trees stand at the edge of the unnatural cliffs, the wind bowing them out over those cliffs’ edges that they may cast down rustling green shadows. Where the land is low and holds its belly in down near the waves red bushes grow. They are crisp and the afternoon light suffuses them.

The catamaran runs the seacourse, lean and low like a wolf.

“What smashed it?” Max asks.

“Its own inadequacies,” Red Mary says. “I have told you that no paradise sustains. Against the nature of things the force that held this land together could not hold; over a thousand years of observation it has pulled itself apart.”

He thinks that this has made her sad, so he says, “I’m sorry.”

“Mr. Kong would say,” Red Mary says, “that we must try to be good.”

The seacourse turns.

Red Mary tacks the boat. The boom swings, and she catches it with one hand before she ducks beneath it and lets the catamaran run.

“In the face of such emptiness,” she says, “and the cost of helping others; still, that we should try to be good.”

Max says, “I’m glad for your sudden conversion to Confucianism.”

Red Mary shrugs.

“Didn’t you try to kill me?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“You should have stayed at home,” says Red Mary. She is angry. She does not look at him. Her tail dips into the water and the skin of her face stretches tight against its bones.

“I was looking for God,” Max says.

“Most people do that in the silence of their soul.”

“I had a catamaran.”

“It’s not your business to come here.”

Max struggles up on one elbow. He says, “You’ve ripped off bits of me with your teeth so don’t tell me what’s my business and not my business.”

Rage boils in her. Her face darkens. But propriety, and scarcely, keeps it down.

“With twelve of us,” she says, “this place had a thousand years; of that, scarcely a week remains. Each hour you spend here eats sixty-five minutes of that time; more, since you are not accounted for in the balance of things. I regret my murderous frenzy has inconvenienced you but to sing sailors to their death is in the nature of a siren and I had ample motivation to see you drown.”

Max slumps back on the deck. He’s a little dizzy.

“Sid’s like that,” he says.

“Hm?”

“He’s always talking about how it’s his nature to vivisect people, like he’s sad that brutal murder inconveniences me. He’s never actually ripped off a chunk of my leg and shoulder, though.”

“Is the bandage all right?”

“You don’t really have to do it,” Max says. “You know.”

“Help you?”

“Kill people.”

“That’s none of your concern,” Red Mary says.

“The Hell it’s not.”

Red Mary says, softly, “How a man grows aggressive when his enemy displays propriety. He thinks: I will use this good behavior to enforce my advantage over her. Is it any wonder people hold good behavior in such disregard?”

Max remembers the charge of Red Mary against him. He remembers the pain of parting when she tore his flesh from flesh. He subsides.

More gently, he says, “But teeth aren’t righteousness.”

“No,” says Red Mary.

She looks up.

“I’m not saying you’re right,” she says, “and I’m not saying you’re wrong. But you’re making a moral argument about a factual thing.”

“Whatever,” says Max.

“I’ll tell you a story,” says Red Mary. “About the Buddha.”

The knife of the history of Mr. Kong is black against the whiteness of the deck.

“Okay,” Max says.

He hesitates for a moment.

“The ninja or the pirate?”

Red Mary stares at him a long, cold moment.

“Oh,” Max says, embarrassed. “The Indian.”

The Peculiar Case Of Miss Mu Lung (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

It is 532 years before the common era. Mr. Kong works in the state of Lu as a keeper of farm animals and parks.

He finds a scaled anteater—a pangolin—caught in an illegal trap.

Sluggishly, it licks its entangled paw.

Mr. Kong squats down. He distracts the anteater. He holds up a finger so that it tracks his finger with its eyes. He says, “It’s no shame that you can’t solve these knots; if you could, you’d be queer for a pangolin.”

The anteater attempts to process this information. It blinks its eyes lazily.

A woman’s footsteps approach.

“In this,” says Mr. Kong to the anteater, “we are alike. Diligently I study, but there are questions that I can’t answer, because I’m a man.”

The anteater shakes its head. Then, irritated that it cannot understand Mr. Kong with its tiny brain, it curls itself up in a ball.

It’s all right.

He’d held its attention long enough.

His free hand has already cunningly unraveled the knot that had trapped the anteater’s paw.

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

The Island of the Centipede

“It is very human,” says a woman’s voice, “how it waits to curl until once it has been rescued.”

Mr. Kong straightens. He looks towards the clearing’s edge.

Miss Mu Lung stands at the edge of the clearing. She wears the elaborate dress customary to the Lung family. Its fringe has blood and dirt and grass upon it.

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong. His voice is warm and his face shows pleasure. Her presence here is an impropriety, the blood on her hem a warning, and the texture of the woven trap reminds him of Miss Lung’s tapestries, but she is a fellow human being and as such receives his brightness. He gives her a courteous bow.

She looks upon him and her face is still.

“It is bold of me to say,” says Miss Lung. “But I have heard you called a great scholar and a man of discernment, Mr. Kong. So surely you tease the pangolin when you mention questions that you cannot answer.”

“I should not think to call myself a scholar,” says Mr. Kong. “If I were ten times more erudite, perhaps, and understood the Quinquennial Sacrifice, then I might be worthy of that name.”

“Ah,” says Miss Lung.

He holds up one finger so that Miss Lung tracks his finger with her eyes.

“I think that we are all trapped, in this life, like that unfortunate pangolin,” he says. “We do not measure to the standard of our ancestors, and so there are questions we cannot answer. There are questions we cannot answer, and so we do not execute our practices with precision. We find ourselves unable to comport ourselves with order and harmony; justice does not prevail; and emptiness flourishes throughout the world. One day, if the world does not explode, I hope to make myself a legendary minister and redeem these practices, but, of course, I can make no guarantees.”

Miss Lung thinks on these words.

Her eyes close, then open.

“Forgive me, Mr. Kong,” she says, “but I cannot see the emptiness of the world.”

“It affects to fullness,” says Mr. Kong, “but it is hollow, like the scar on the pangolin’s leg.”

Something in his words has freed her; the strength leaves her; she sits down.

She swallows and her eyes grow bright with tears.

“Miss Lung,” he asks, gently, “are you in some distress?”

Bleakly, she says, “More than some.”

“Come;” he says, “if there is need, you may impose upon me. But if there is not, I am afraid I must soon be on my way to catch the person who sows illegal traps upon this land.”

She looks miserably at the trap.

“No one can assist me,” says Miss Lung. She shakes her head. “I am in an ungodly state; someone has murdered the spirits of my ancestors and circumstances compel me to torment small animals to survive.”

To his credit, Mr. Kong blinks only once.

He straightens his clothing. He says, “Naturally I am at your service.”

Miss Lung says, “I cannot refuse so gentle an offer, but I fear your good character will bring me misery.”

Mr. Kong lowers his head in acceptance of this rebuke.

Miss Lung rises. She takes him to her house. As he walks its halls he frowns.

“Ah,” he says. “There is a hollow sound.”

“It is the absence of men, where once they would be talking. It is the absence of women, where once they would be working. It is the absence of the laughter and whimpering of children,” answers Miss Mu Lung.

She leads him to the shrine of her ancestors.

Its doors are heavy black wood. They are sealed with many sacred marks. They are scarred with hollow rings, white rings, like the marks of a lamprey’s jaws.

“I cannot go within,” says Miss Lung. “In my youth, we would say, ‘brik, brik, brak, open a crack!’ and the doors would open. Inside the spirits of our ancestors would dispense wisdom and benevolence.

“Then seven years back, as I walked this hall, I heard the great brassy voice of ancestor Zedong declare, ‘The more I look up at It, the higher It rises. The more I probe It, the more impenetrable It becomes. I catch a glimpse of It in front and It is instantly behind.’

“Then I heard an ungodly wind and I felt a sudden fear and I banged my fist upon the door, but since that day, they have not answered.

“Two years ago, I climbed atop the roof and looked down through a small round gap. Inside, the shrine was empty, save for some vague notion that took me of ethereal blood.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.

“Was it improper?” asks Miss Lung. “To bang upon the door?”

“What is impropriety?” says Mr. Kong. “I can’t criticize the selfless concern for your ancestors.”

He stares at the doors, deep in thought.

“Pardon,” says Mr. Kong. “But if I may, your family? The Lung family?”

“One by one they succumbed to kindness,” says Miss Lung.

“Hm?”

“It is like this,” says Miss Lung. “The Lung family has traditionally held some virtue of position in the celestial hierarchy. Assiduously we would seek to develop our personal merit to facilitate our ascension into the ranks of Heaven. Since our ancestors fell silent, the matter has become problematic; upon refining our spirit to a full measure of virtue, we explode. Now I and my obdurate brother remain; myself because I am a woman and dedicate myself to the methodical torment of animals, and he because, constantly insensible with wine, he is awake too rarely for the acquisition of virtue.”

For a long moment Mr. Kong stands there.

“Then,” he says, “if I may, I have solved the mystery.”

“Please,” she says.

“It is the emptiness of the world,” says Mr. Kong.

“If only you were the Grand Secretary of Justice,” says Miss Lung, with grave courtesy, “you could arrest it at once.”

Mr. Kong smiles at her.

“You are skeptical,” he says.

“Only, dulled with grief and fear,” she says.

“These are the scars of emptiness,” says Mr. Kong. He rests his hand on one of the circles in the door. “The methodology, I take to be as follows. The emptiness proposed to Lung Zedong, ‘In what fashion should a man conduct himself to bring harmony and order to all things?’ He could not answer this question without compromising the affairs of Heaven, and thus allowed the emptiness to devour him. The hollowness of your home represents a marker of its passage.”

“If that’s so—“

She struggles to hold back her emotions.

“If that’s so,” she says, “what can I do?”

“Open the doors,” he says. “Sacrifice to your ancestors. Set aside this animal torture and lawless skulking; cultivate the quality of kindness that you have denied yourself.”

Bitterness drives her to unworthy words: “Even to the destruction of my soul?”

“It often seems that virtue operates against our interests,” says Mr. Kong. “But if we do not cultivate the habits of virtue, then what value are our interests?”

She lowers her head.

“As you say,” she says, tonelessly.

“Here is my recommendation,” says Mr. Kong. “When you commit an act of kindness, do not seek to cultivate yourself but rather to build harmonious relationships with others. Then you need not fear unless you are so kind as to elevate all the world.”

“And if I am?”

“If the world explodes because of my advice,” says Mr. Kong, “then I fear I shall never find government employment, nor become a legendary practice-righting minister.”

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 )

The chaos has completed its adaptation to the knife.

Red Mary swims in a sea of Confucianism and blood.

Drawn by the blood the sharks have come. They are monstrously large. They dwarf her as they dwarf Max.

One of them bumps Max gently with its nose. He curls around the pain as a pillbug might.

“Red Mary,” the shark says, with scrupulous precision, “I cannot say your actions have been correct.”

“Yes, thank you,” Red Mary says irritably.

“If the sirens are not humane,” presses the shark, “then how may they expect the oceans to remain in order?”

Red Mary bares her teeth and the shark subsides.

“I have acted in error, but you may not correct me,” she says.

“The blood frenzy overcame my judgment, and I forgot my place,” the shark concedes.

“Hmf,” Red Mary says.

Then with one hand Red Mary lifts Max and with the other the knife and she draws them both up from the sea.