(Parousia) To Light a Candle (5 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Now, some people, thinking on these events, might come to the conclusion that there’ll be some kind of reason Max’ll be able to come back.

Like:

Death’ll gallop through the sky on the last of days and Sid will reach up and seize him by the arm and pull him from the horse and down to shatter on the island below.

Crunch! Death will say, or at least emote, and Sid’ll steal Max’s life from him.

Or:

Somebody’ll find Max’s skin, just floating free on the chaos, and—because you shouldn’t waste a good skin—fill it up with booze. Then Max’ll show up, lookin’ all like Max, only he’s an ale-man now.

Or:

Spattle’s still got its hooks in everyone who’s ever been there.

Max can’t actually die.

He’s lived in Spattle.

Or maybe even:

Sid’ll buy some new luggage one day, you know, for traveling, and he’ll open it up, and there Max’ll be.

“Hey,” Max’ll say.

Hey, Sid says. Thought you were dead.

“It’s a special.”

And Max’ll indicate the display with his head, and it’ll turn out that it does in fact say, “Free resurrection with every suitcase; and luggage $179.99”

And maybe it’s just the kind of thing that happens, you know, eventually. People coming back.

The world’s really old, and it’s got a long future ahead of it.

We wouldn’t necessarily know.

So you could be reading this, you know, and come to the conclusion that there’ll be some reason, like a suitcase sale or a Spattling or a bit of a double thing, and Max’ll come back.

But that ain’t so.

Not exactly, anyway.

See, it’s an epiphany. It’s a mystery. It’s one of those things that’s like a seething well.

There ain’t no reason.

He just comes back.

It’s June 6, 2004, and he just comes back.

It’s like a candle lights, and suddenly where things were invisible, they are visible; and where things were inaudible, they’re audible; and the world fills out with the glistening blue and silver of the sea and the wind as it roars in the sky and the cold refreshing spray that generates when the waves strike against the brown-black rocks.

And the scattering of points and colors becomes the beach.

And swaying patterns become the sun, and the shadows, and the trees.

And there’s Max, right there, with a hangdog look, like he’s never been away.

Maybe someday it’ll be a little more explained.

You can get close to the truth, sometimes, even when there’s no truth to be had.

So maybe we’ll get a bit of explanation here, a bit of explanation there.

But not a reason, not whole and entire.

Some things in this world ain’t ever really explained.

Like:
People always fight the things they love.

I would hug you, says Sid.

A mirrored shape flicks out to show him his own form, and the terrible perplexities and sharpness of it, and why that isn’t necessarily a very good idea. And he can see the darkness that weaves through him, too: for siggorts, like most things that aren’t Max, are terribly, terribly easy to cut.

Max looks up.

“You’re real,” he says.

Like Sid’s the one who shouldn’t be there. Like Sid’s the one who, last we checked, wasn’t in the world.

And there’s a drop of chaos on Max’s face, under the shadow of his hair, and his eyes are brown and deep.

Hesitantly, he says, “Did you—“

Sid cuts him.

Not much. Just a tiny bit, to get the blood he needs, to get a flake of flesh. And he can tell that Max is yielding it, not suffering it, because just this once Max isn’t hard to cut.

He should probably have asked.

But he didn’t; and Max lets it be.

“Did you—“

Sid begins to make the body of him, from flesh and blood and clay, and he says, Did I?

Max gropes for words.

“I figure,” Max says, “That Ii Ma said something like, ‘How can you live with somebody else’s guilt?'”

There is the rushing withdrawing of water and then the roaring of a wave.

“And ‘walk in like you own the place’ doesn’t quite work on that one.”

No, Sid agrees.

He’s almost got the body put together. They’re fast workers, siggorts. It’s the hundred hands.

“So—did you—“

Of course, Sid says.

Then he opens up the body of him and he pours himself into its core and he closes the hollow of the entrance with a hook of him, all Sid-like, snap.

And Max stands there for a long time looking at him, while Sid dresses himself with pants and socks and shirts and stuff that drift in from the sea.

“How?”

He means: Can we . . . fix things? Is it okay now? Is it okay, even though I’m not still dead?

Because he’s a sharp one, Max, and he knows that must’ve been an answer Sid was using for a while.

Is it okay?

Can broken things be remade?

And Sid can hear these questions in his voice; and they’re not the only questions Sid can hear.

How can you forgive him? whispers the voice of Ii Ma, like it always does.

How can you forgive him? Ii Ma asks.

And Sid gives this great big smile like the morning of the world, and he kicks away a cardboard box drifting upwards from the sea, and he says, “Because I’d like to.”

Nothing more; nothing less.

“Because I’d rather,” he explains.

Because we make our own judgments, light and dark, and they are our servants—

Not the other way around.

The Island of the Centipede
Fin.

Should Siggorts? (I/I)

The doom of Spattle approaches.

It is like this.

Sid and Max are talking. It is 1989, and Max is an adult now, a breaker of horses, and he lives in Spattle. They are sitting on the balcony of Max’s one-room apartment, looking east towards the desert.

And Max is saying, “We are a corrupt people.”

The wind blows softly.

“I think that if God came down, like in the gospels; that if he sent his angels among us to collect all who cause others to sin and all evildoers, and to throw them into the fiery furnace, that we would rise against him in our hosts and our armies and we would be like the rebels of the angels, saying, ‘no, those are Americans; they are not for your furnaces.’ I think that we would turn our nuclear weapons against the Lord.”

Sid considers that. “Well,” he says, “why not?”

“Because it’d be God,” Max says.

“Ah.”

“Is it all right to fight God?”

“It’s not all right or not all right,” Sid says. “It depends on why.”

There is a breath of time.

“Why?” Sid asks.

“I have been dreaming of a judgment,” says Max.

And Sid frowns.

He rises to his feet. He looks around. He says, “Ah.”

“Ah?”

Sid points out east.

“Do you see that?”

And Max frowns, and he narrows his eyes, and he squints out into the desert. And he can see it.

There’s something rippling, twisting, strangely purple beyond the horizon.

He shakes his head, once, twice. He tries to focus.

He sees—

And that is when the sick hook of horror catches in his stomach and twists everything around.

It is 1989. The sun hides behind a caul of clouds. A cold wind blows.

Max blacks out.

We remember Spattle, though few do: In California, near Palm Springs, it was, touched once by chaos and then by death.

Its streets were littered with the corpses of the birds when its ending came.

When he wakes Max is unsteady on his feet and Sid is holding him upright.

Max says, “It is the coming of a King.”

The city is under a pall.

“A King?” Sid says.

“A King of an Unforgivable Dominion,” says Max.

He stares out east.

“There is a King,” says Max, “of the old countries that came before the world. He is bloated with a clotting of life. It moves damply and uncomfortably within him. As if a man had swallowed ten other men, or a fish the ocean.”

“Ah,” says Sid.

“He is coming to Spattle,” Max says. “He will drown this place. It will be forgotten, and the people here will suffer torment.”

The frogs croak, distant in the desert: ke-kax.

“Will you leave?” Sid asks.

Max shakes his head.

“No,” he says.

And the doom of Spattle nears.

These are the signs of the coming of a King: dreams and portents. Death. Trouble between friends.

The progress of the King is slow.

Max has time to think; to worry; to consider.

He buys fairy-traps. They are horrid things with clappers, teeth, and bells, designed to take the magic that lights upon them and swallow it up.

He takes them out east. He stands before the line of it: the great rim of the King. It is like a wall of a distortion across the world. Cars drive through it, unheeding. Birds fly across it, unknowing. But it infects them as they pass, and their lungs grow thick with mold.

Max has seen those birds in town, dead and fallen on the streets.

Max sets the fairy-traps down along the King’s great rim. He sets them on the sand and on the road.

A car drives past.

Its wheel strikes a fairy-trap. The fairy-trap skitters and jangles with the ringing of its bells. The people who pass over it, Max thinks, are insignificantly and indescribably less.

And Max watches.

The rim of the King shifts inwards, twisting, ever-so-slowly, ever-so-slightly. It passes onto the fairy-traps with a great jangling of bells. The clappers close. The traps bite into the lip of the King.

It might have helped. Then again, it might not have.

Max does not know.

The King in vestments of indigo and green is the King of bloated life. He is a tide that washes into the world. He pools. He gathers. Then he withdraws, and pulls a bit of our world with him, growing in himself more bloated yet.

“Sid,” Max says.

As suddenly as a dream the siggort is there.

“There’s a man in town,” Max says.

“A man?”

“He sells charms against the gods,” Max says. “The kind that are forbidden; the kind that are cruel.”

“I see,” Sid says.

“I need more than fairy-traps,” Max says, “to fight the King. But I can’t afford his rates.”

And suddenly Sid looks wry.

“You want me to threaten him,” he says.

“Yes.”

Tension flares up between them. Humor becomes outrage.

“You don’t like what I am,” Sid says. “You don’t like that I’m a siggort. Except when it’s useful. Then suddenly it’s good that I have a wheel of knives; that I have feathers in my hair; that I’m older than this mortal world.”

And Max flushes. Shame coils in him like a dragon around its nest. But he doesn’t flinch.

“A King in vestments of indigo and green,” he says. “A King of bloated life. He’s coming to Spattle. And I can’t get the tools I need to try to stop him.”

Sid hesitates.

“We should just leave,” he says. “Warn as many people as will listen, and leave.”

“This is my line, Sid.”

And by that Max means that he is standing at a place with only one recourse: that he is backed against the lines inside his soul and has only one direction in which to move, and that is against the coming tide.

And Sid looks at Max.

And Sid can see that it is so.

Sid sighs.

“Fine.”

These are the signs of the coming of a King: memories. Helplessness. Abandonment of principle.

Peter Sorgen lives in Spattle and deals in arms against the gods.

For a profit, he will sell them.

For a fee, he will employ them, using the tools and armaments of his trade to remove angels, fiends, fairies, devils, and other gods.

He survives in this trade because he is careful of his karma; because he asks gods honest questions and listens to the answers that they give; because he hates the things he hunts and shows appropriate fear when faced with those too great to kill.

That, and the lion’s share of gods he meets are figments of mortal imagination, which he may kill with a placebo, and the bulk of those remaining are born from weak and impure emptiness.

Peter Sorgen lives on the second floor of a rented house. He is thick and balding. He is a killer of gods.

Sid enters, pursuant to their appointment.

Peter looks up and smiles.

Then he frowns.

“Wait,” he says. “I know you.”

—“I know you,” says Grouchy Pete.

Sid stares at him, and matches up the facial features, and suddenly he laughs.

“You were that bully,” he says. “You’d chew gum and spit it out, ptui, like that!”

And now, as he faces the siggort in his home, Peter’s face contorts with fear and hatred.

He pulls a gun.

He fires, just like that.

Just like that! And he’s shot Sid, and the bullet sticks in him.

Sid looks down. He makes the horrible face that people make when someone makes them eat horrible icky vegetables or hot lead.

Pete fires again— again, and again, and again, until the gun is empty and eight bullets are lodged in the wall, and two in Sid.

Sid has his hand pressed against a bullet wound. His fingers are covered in blood.

“Geez, Pete,” he says.

He sways.

And he falls down.

The King has drowned Spattle; it is in the substance of him, in the distance of him, and it is no longer remembered in this world.

“I never found a formal technique to use for wheel-of-knives gods,” Pete says. “I never even found out what you’re called. I looked. But I never did.”

Sid has woken up.

“I can see,” Sid says, blearily, “that I should have backed a Presidential candidate who was stronger on gun control.”

“I figure,” Pete says, “that if I take you apart, though, that’ll work.”

Sid is handcuffed to a radiator. Pete doesn’t actually have much of a budget for this kind of thing. But he does have a knife.

“You’re going to cut me to pieces?” Sid asks.

“Yes.”

Sid begins to laugh again.

It’s funny to imagine Grouchy Pete, such an earnest kid, vivisecting the siggort. It’s funny, even if Grouchy Pete has grown.

Pete watches him laugh. He waits for Sid to wind down. Pete is a man with great experience with gods.

Finally, Sid recovers. His wounds are leaking badly, but he doesn’t seem that hurt.

“It won’t work,” Sid says.

“Why not?”

“A long time ago,” Sid says, “I was in a place of terrible durance, and moving in the fashion that one moves, and where there was light I was in darkness, and where there was substance I was in emptiness, and where there was heat I dwelled inside a terrible cold. And on occasion I would catch sight of myself against a place of reflection and I would recoil, thinking, ‘Hideous; hideous; unspeakable.'”

Pete studies Sid.

“You look okay,” he says.

Sid looks at him.

“I mean, if you like Sids,” Pete says.

“I am a terrible comprehension,” says Sid.

“Oh.”

“And one day,” says Sid, “An insight pierced me, like a javelin from the mind of God. And I said, in the language of my kind, ‘I am not alone.’

“Then, for thirteen hundred years, I waited for Max Lamner to be born.”

Pete is hesitant.

“Can you tell me,” he asks, “whether I should begin cutting you apart now, or wait until the completion of your story?”

Sid looks at him.

“What kind of a question is that?”

Pete shrugs.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sid says, shaking his head, looking appalled. “It’s just—

“This is a body I made of mud and clay and feathers and blood. If you cut it up, you’ll probably go mad.”

“Thank you,” Pete says.

He draws back slightly. He thinks.

“How can I kill you?” he asks.

Pete is, of course, a man well-versed in gods, and one who therefore expects a shocking honesty and openness of them. Sid, however, stares at him like he’s daft.

After a moment, Pete blushes.

And suddenly Sid has the power in the room. Suddenly, because of Peter’s repeated misestimations of him, it does not matter that Sid is bound and Pete is free.

The wheel of knives spins.

Sid straightens against the radiator.

Sid says, “I need everything you have. I don’t care if it’s for curing warts. There’s a King coming to Spattle in vestments of indigo and green, and if we don’t stop him, you’ll be drowning forever.”

Pete stares at Sid.

“Damn it!” Pete says. “Damn it. I should get to kill you.”

And because Sid is starting to understand the ways in which Peter Sorgen expects a Sid to act, he answers thus: “That would lead you to a horrid end.”

And Peter sighs.

And he lets Sid go.

These are the signs of the coming of a King: corrupt actions. Fear and hatred. The pollution of the groundwater, so that sinks run with green water and with black.

They stand out at the edge, before the rim of the King.

They lay out talismans of oak and rowan, curses, and nasty bits of iron.

With the chalks of amterise they work— Sid and Max, as Grouchy Pete has abandoned the town and fled—

With the chalks of amterise and the sigils of Rao they work to hold back the tide.

It is a horrid tangle that they build, a monstrous thing made to devour gods—

But when the rim of the King moves past, they cannot even tell if it is hurt.

“Is it hurt?” Max asks.

“I can’t tell,” Sid says.

And Max squints and stares into the body of the King, and the nature of it assaults his mind, and madness sweeps over him and he is retching and for a long time he knows nothing but loathing, hatred, and fear.

His reasons are not specific.

It is simply that in apprehending the King he feels a disconnection with the substance of the world and a futility of the striving of humankind, and this makes him sick, like an animal, with fear.

Is it right to kill a King?

We ask ourselves this because it is essentially our purpose. To change the world is to drive forth the shadows that dwelt upon it and change is always accompanied by blood. We look upon the King and he is a sickness upon our mind, but is it right?

If we could ask the people of Spattle, they would give us license, no doubt; they would say from the belly of that beast that we should strike. But their voices are not heard within the world. We may not use their witness.

That night Sid and Max camp out in the desert and watch the doom of Spattle come.

And some of the nature of the King is still twisting in Max’s mind, so he says, “Here’s a thing I’ve been thinking.”

“Hm?”

“Vivisecting people is wrong,” Max says. “Like, you walk up to someone and they’re happy, right? And then you vivisect them. And they’re all, ‘Hey, I liked those organs. Now I’m in hideous pain and dying!’”

“True,” Sid says.

“So . . . how can any moral person— god— THING, how can anyone, you know?”

Sid considers that.

“We were ugly,” Sid says.

“Hm?”

“When we were made,” Sid says. “We were so ugly that our father would not let us walk upon the Earth under the sun. Instead he cast us into deepnesses where we dwelt.”

Max studies Sid.

“You look okay,” he says.

Sid shrugs.

“It is like the tide, I think,” he says. “The reason that siggorts vivisect. One day there shall be a man, and inside him I shall see something like . . . a gleaming jewel. And I will take him apart and lay him out piece by piece to find it, but I will not find it. And this will be a good thing, an honest thing, a thing that will end something of my shame. It will put me back in harmony with the world, with what I am, with the nature of things. It will be right; and I, of course, will be a murderer, and foul.”

“Oh,” says Max.

“It won’t be a moral thing,” says Sid. “If it were, then I’d be all conflicted. I mean,” he adds, honestly, “more so than I am. It’s not a moral thing. It is simply a thing that happens. I am astonished, in truth, that it has not happened yet.”

He grins a little, sadly, like a Sid.

“My brothers say I am slacking, but I do not think that this is so. I think that I am selective and I simply have not found the person I will kill.”

And it is not to these words but to Sid’s eyes that Max says: “Jesus, Sid.”

Sid rises.

He says, “I will shed this body, I think, and fight the King. Do not call me again. If I am as I was . . . I will fear to answer such a call.”

The Kings of the Unforgivable Dominions break the covenant that holds together the pieces of the world.

And Max is on his feet.

Max is hugging Sid.

And Max says, fiercely, “Do not make yourself a thing I cannot love.”

There is a breath of time.

And suddenly Max blushes, and turns away, and flails, because Max does not want Sid to misunderstand.

And the thunder of Sid’s heart comes close to cracking the mud of him; the distance and silence in his head comes close to aerating the clay of him; and he doesn’t say anything, but rather is still.

“Tell me,” Max says.

“Hm?”

“It is all right to kill the King that comes to Spattle, in vestments of indigo and green?”

“Is it . . .”

“Yes.”

Sid can’t find words. He stares out at the King.

“No,” he says.

He lays his hand on the surface of the King. He feels its ichorous and corruptive membrane.

“It’s not all right or not all right,” he says. “It depends on why.”

“Then leave it be,” Max says.

And they leave it be, and go;

And doom comes to Spattle.

How Meredith Ran from the Chaos (II/II)

Meredith runs from the chaos.

She runs away on foot.

This proves peculiarly ineffectual. Everywhere she goes there is already chaos.

She breaks into Mrs. Scoggins’ kitchen. There is chaos there.

“I’d hoped for a peaceful life,” Meredith explains.

“Don’t break into my kitchen, then,” advises Mrs. Scoggins.

Meredith buys a car. She drives east. But everywhere she goes there is already chaos.

“What do you want on your burger?” crackles a speaker as she pulls into the drive-thru of a Socialist Burger Sovereign.

“I’d hoped to find a place where everything is pre-defined,” Meredith says.

“I’m sorry,” crackles the speaker apologetically. “We embrace the Marxist condiment dialectic.”

“That’s somewhat creepy,” Meredith says.

The severed head of the Socialist Burger Sovereign mascot waggles back and forth on its springs, as if to say it understands.

Meredith drives faster. She sets her foot to the pedal and races to the east and she does not look back at the following storm.

It is 1987.

The sun is lost behind the edge of the world.

Meredith arrives in Spattle.

“And you were in a funk!” Jane says, pleasedly.

This is her first insight into the reasoning behind the Frog and the Thorn.

Meredith looks at Jane sideways.

She is considering saying something like, “I almost died that night. Or worse.”

But Jane’s grin is too bright. So Meredith just shakes her head. “Yes,” Meredith says. “I came to Spattle, and I was in a funk.”

Another car has been chasing her for some hours now.

Its occupants are Luther and Desmond: one god, one man. For this reason an errant theologian might consider their vehicle analogous to the Christ, a single flesh holding within itself two natures— but as it is a Hyundai, we will not assert this analogy at this time.

Luther had been driving when a fey impulse came to him. He said: “Let us follow this woman ahead, and chase her down, and say to her, ‘You are a fool to believe in boundaries.'”

And Desmond was drunk enough and venal enough to make no dispute.

And there was the chaos in the car with them, its tendrils brushing against them, but they did not see it, and they did not know it, and they thought themselves rather instruments of order.

And they chase Meredith down.

She is afraid. What else should she be? She knows that this is the price of an individual nature: that in forsaking the limitlessness of her godhood and assuming simple flesh she has opened herself up to all manner of terror and sorrow.

There are many who would not even grant her the dignity of blamelessness, but say, “Ah, such is what she has earned, for choosing not to be a god.”

So Meredith watches them warily in the mirror as they approach, and she sweats in fear, and she says, in the cold blank tones of prophecy, “Someone is going to suffer.”

Because someone is.

The information is not useful to her, any more than prophecy is ever really useful to the gods. The words are an index of the future, as her headlights are an index of the present, caught out of the corner of her mental eye.

Someone will suffer.

And she feels the chaos closing in behind her, and she says, “Fine.”

She pulls over in front of a coffee shop. She leaves the lights on. She gets out. She stands there and she waits.

The frogs of the desert croak: ke-kax, ke-kax.

And the car pulls in: vroom, vroom.

And the door cracks open, and the door slams shut, and in between those moments Luther has gotten out.

And the other door cracks open, and the other door slams shut, and in between those moments Desmond follows him to the lot.

And Meredith looks at them and her mouth is dry.

She wants to tell them: “Do not make me tarry here, or the chaos will rise from the sea and pour across the state to get to me, and you will drown.”

She cannot make herself speak.

Softly, sinfully, Luther walks to her, and says, “Lady, you should not believe in boundaries.”

She is wearing a blouse, and a sweater, and jeans, and a pin depicting the principle Akosmia—

A minor hypocrisy in her ideals which she, being Meredith, does not consider—

And she shivers because he is too close.

“We can have no sympathy for boundaries,” Luther says, in that place and at that time, “because of the philosophical incompleteness of the notion. There is no firm line that one may draw between bodies, between minds, between souls. In this sense it is clear that the rights that each of us has to another are similar if not identical to the rights that each of us has towards ourselves; that the capacities of the individual must as a matter of basic morality be yielded towards the common good.”

“And in this respect,” Meredith asks, “the will of yourself and Desmond there must dominate?”

This checks Desmond’s approach, as if he had come up upon a leash. She knows his name, and she should not know his name.

“We are two,” says Luther.

He pushes back the sleeve of her blazer. He takes her arm. Something squirms at the point of contact between them.

“You are one. And forsaken of your dharma.”

His other hand turns her face upwards for a kiss, but she is laughing. It is insane, it is ridiculous, it is horrible, but she is laughing, she is unable to hold herself upright, she cannot stand and she is sagging supported by his hands and her car behind her, she is laughing because she has recognized the sensation upon her arm.

“Shut up,” Luther says, and stiffens his grip on her until she is not sagging, but Meredith gasps out:

“You’re a starfish man.”

And he goes still.

“What?” Luther asks.

“Five fingers,” she says. “Five limbs. Is it not so?”

And he stands there, still and trembling, because she has caught him out. Five fingers; five limbs; in fivefold symmetry: a starfish man, and not a person at all.

“I’m not—” he says.

“Five fingers; five limbs; in fivefold symmetry,” she laughs. “A starfish man, and not a person at all.”

He calms himself. He straightens. He looks away from her. He says, with stiff dignity, “My head does not in any fashion resemble my other limbs.”

“Oh?”

“It differs in both shape and function,” Luther says.

“Uh—” says Desmond, who is quite confused.

“Look,” Meredith says. She turns Luther’s hand over. She exposes to Desmond the ragged mouth that is within its palm.

“Dude,” says Desmond. “You have a mouth in your hand.”

“He’ll probably eat you with it,” Meredith laughs, merrily, and Luther hits her, hard. Her mind goes white and her ears sound with thunder and she falls, because she is not a resilient god, but it is too late.

Desmond is running.

And she lays there, bleeding a bit from her ankle where she scraped it in the fall, and Luther looks down and he says, in a pitch of sorrow, “You have lured me here to no purpose and cost me someone I called friend.”

“I have no sympathy,” Meredith gasps out.

And the chaos is all around them then. There are tendrils of it in the mist of night, soft and wet, and in the croak of the frogs: ke-kax; and the scream of the birds overhead: kea; and the skittering noises of small scorpions on the ground, where no scorpions should be: kittle-ik.

And in his face.

And in her own.

It is stifling, a humid thickness of chaos in which anything could happen.

And he asks, “Why was I drawn away? Why did I come here?”

And it is clear in his eyes that he will make her pay the price for his confusion.

So she says, “Did you know, I am a surging, threshing power, like the sea? I am vast. It is hard to be vast and to be without boundaries. In such a sea the ego is like a drop of water, a single concept of delusion scattered through the endlessness. And the sea batters always against that drop with all the force of it.”

His fists clench on her arms and the suckers of them seal against her skin.

“I’m sorry,” she says, not to him, but to herself, because she’d really intended to remain herself through these events, and now she’s realized that she can’t.

He shakes her.

Her boundaries collapse.

Suddenly he is storm-tossed, suddenly he is flailing, drowning, suddenly it is raining snails and bursts of fire down upon his back.

And Meredith is falling lost into the immensity that is her former nature, and she says, “I will ride it, I will ride the storm,” much as Luther tries to do.

This is the wrong answer, but not entirely so.

Her mind singing and seething with the chaos, she turns away from Luther.

Luther is somewhere distant and dark and trying very hard to regenerate, but all he can think of is how very incomprehensible the world can be.

She abandons him there, him and his fivefold symmetry.

She gets into her car.

She drives away.

“I will make a genre of self-referential fiction about this,” Meredith says. “Someday.”

This information is not useful to her. Prophecy is rarely useful to the gods. It is simply an index of the future, as Luther is an index of the present, a sign and signal of the times in which she lives, a drying-up horrid drowning starfish man.

“I will call it Spattlefunk,” Meredith says.

And there, finally, is a prophecy of which she is glad.

Meredith would have had no idea what to call stories inspired by this encounter, there in the desert, between chaos and constraint; between the fear of rape and the fear of her own power.

She would have fretted at this lack of definition, poked at it like a tongue against a rotting tooth.

It is a relief, however unfortunate the word “Spattlefunk” might be, to know.

“It’ll be just like this,” she says.

And, pushed by the waves of chaos at her back, she runs.

The Frog and the Thorn

She drives through the desert of frogs in the hot summer night.

The frogs are croaking: ke-kax, ke-kax. They do not like living in the desert but since it is named after them they feel a peculiar obligation.

The asphalt cuts a razor track through the long empty sands.

Her name is Claire and she is not fulfilled. She wears shoes but they do not make her happy. She also has clothing and a car and a pet hawk named Albert.

Albert soars high above, on his car leash. He screams: kea!

There are scrubs and little desert rats that hop just like in that movie about Sting. There is the giant tic-tac-toe board, standing on edge out in the middle of the desert, abandoned seven long years. The sticky felt noughts and crosses have fallen off. Some litter the desert of frogs. Others have been carried away by buzzards to line their nests.

There’s a little coffee shop at the outskirts of Spattle. It has bright neon lights and a sign noting, “NO SHIRT – NO SERVICE” and Claire pulls in out front.

“Yo,” says the waiter, a big burly man in slippers and rough clothes.

“Hey,” says Max.

Max is lean and he’s wearing black. He’s got a notebook and a cup of coffee. The coffee is cold. He sips: klurp, klurp.

“I’d like a cup of coffee,” says Claire.

The waiter sizes her up. His eyes linger on her shoes. Then he shrugs. “It’ll be $2.50,” he says. That’s the kind of place this is: it sells coffee that costs $2.50 a cup. And has little bits of grounds in it. Not much. Just some.

So Claire sits down.

“Nice shoes,” says Max.

“Thanks,” says Claire. She doesn’t really want to talk to Max but she finds herself talking anyway. “I bought them cheap from some exploited Filipino children who were loitering outside my house.”

Max’s voice is interested. “Really?”

“No,” Claire says. “They’re from Nordstrom’s.”

Max nods.

The waiter brings her her coffee. There is also a complementary day-old roll.

“Are you in a funk?” Max asks.

Claire blinks at him. “What?”

“There’s this whole self-referential literary genre,” Max says. “Spattlefunk. People come to Spattle and they’re in a funk. You kind of had the look like you’d read some, maybe, felt a little unfulfilled, thought you’d try it out.”

“No,” says Claire.

Max scribbles on his notepad. Claire sips her coffee, looking increasingly blank and confused.

“What, I mean, why?” Claire asks.

Max shrugs. “It doesn’t really work that way,” he says. “Spattle’s no better or worse than any other city for funks. But they’re good stories.”

“It’s not a theme,” Claire says. “Being in Spattle in a funk.”

“They’re mostly about subverting the dominant paradigm,” says Max. “They’re about people realizing they don’t have to do things the way everyone else does.”

Max pushes his foot forward so she can see it. He’s got fine little hairs on his toes and neatly-trimmed toenails. After a moment Claire realizes he’s barefoot.

“That’s my little funk,” he says. “Not much. But I got Louis sold on it.”

Louis turns away from the coffeemaker and raises his waiter pad in salute.

“Shoelessness,” says Max.

“I’m not really very interested,” says Claire.

Max grins. “Not many are. I mean, you go out there shoeless, you might step on a frog. Or a scorpion.”

There aren’t any scorpions in the desert of frogs. But you can still imagine them skittering on the shadowed ground: kittle-ik, kittle-ik.

“Oh, God,” says Claire, ignoring him. She just realized that she’s eaten maybe half of the roll without even really paying attention to how it tastes. “I shouldn’t eat this. I should save it for Albert.”

“Boyfriend?” asks Max.

“Pet hawk.”

“Is it serious?”

Claire laughs a little.

“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, it is.”

Claire drains her coffee. She puts $3.50 and her empty cup on the table and picks up the last half of the roll.

“See you,” she says.

Out in the parking lot, she thinks about it. Then she grins. It’s kind of a sad grin.

“What the hell,” she says.

She kicks off her shoes. She walks to the car. She holds up the roll for Albert.

Albert screams: kea.

He dives for the roll. He snatches it from her hand. He perches on the car and eats it greedily.

Claire walks around to the driver’s side. On her way there she steps on a frog. It croaks: ke-kax.

Then she steps on a long thorn. It drives deep into her foot.

“Gah!” Claire screams. She leans against the car and puts all her remaining weight on the other foot.

The frog croaks slimily: ke-kax.

The pain is terrible. But Claire is laughing.

It is the freest thing that she has felt in more than seven days.

The Arena, and What Happened There

It is after the apocalypse. Gasoline is hard to come by. People wear funny clothes. Everyone is dangerous. Shrieking bandits jump onto the windshield of Max’s truck.

“Wait!” cries Max as they pound at his windshield.

The bandits pause. They listen to what Max has to say. An armed society is a polite society.

Max holds up a frog. “This is the jumpingest frog that you ever saw. I bet he could outjump any frog you have.”

“Gyaa!” screams a bandit. He pounds on the windshield with the butt of a rifle. “Your frog cannot compete with the celebrated frogs of the Thunder Bandits!”

“Then maybe we should settle our differences with a little wager, ” says Max. He slows his truck. He stops his truck. The bandits hesitate. They’re suspicious, but eager to wager.

Max gets out. He sets his frog down on the ground.

“Just a little demonstration, ” says Max. “To whet your appetite.”

He points at the frog. “Jump!” he says.

The frog looks at him. It croaks inquisitively.

“Well,” says Max, “about six feet, for now.”

The frog looks out across the blasted desert wasteland. It tilts its head to one side, then the next. A dandelion, blown from a distant child’s grave, floats by. The frog jumps over the dandelion. It’s a long, low jump, six feet in length. It lands.

“Gyaa!” exclaim various Thunder Bandits. They draw back in consternation. “That frog is not natural!”

“It’s mutated,” says Max. “By the apocalypse. It happens to a lot of frogs.”

The frog hangs its head. Brrrrp, it croaks sadly.

“I’m sorry,” says the Thunder Bandit chieftain to the frog.

The bandits gather together. They whisper among themselves. Then they say, “We will take your challenge. We will pit our frog against yours, with your life and the gasoline in your truck as the stakes. Also, we will offer a decorative cup. But you shall not prevail!”

“Come,” snaps Max. The frog jumps into his arms and cuddles there. He turns his attention to the bandits. “Lead on.”

The Thunder Bandits take him to their home. It is a dome. Their children live there. Also, their elderly and their frogs.

“We will hold this contest in the morning,” says the chieftain. “Please leave your frog in the holding pen.”

“Of course,” says Max. He puts his frog in the frog pens. He goes and has a good night’s sleep. In the middle of the night, the Thunder Bandits sneak to the frog pen. They feed Max’s frog pellets of depleted uranium. Soon Max’s frog is large and bulgy. It attempts to hop. It is sluggish. Its stomach clanks. It sits down uncomfortably and begins a furious process of digestion.

Dawn rises over the blasted cliffs. A butterfly, born from its cocoon on the day of the apocalypse, flutters down to rest on a nearby leaf. Max’s frog eats it. Thwip!

“The rules are simple,” says the bandit chieftain. He gestures to an arena hastily assembled from chicken wire. “Two frogs enter. One frog leaves!”

The other Thunder Bandits chant. “TWO FROGS ENTER. ONE FROG LEAPS!”

“The frog that leaves,” clarifies the bandit chieftain, “shall be the one that jumps farthest.”

“That’s fair,” says Max.

“TWO FROGS ENTER! ONE FROG LEAPS!”

Max picks up his frog. It takes him several tries. He frowns. “Hey, have you been gaining weight?”

Brrrrp, the frog answers. Its tone is apologetic.

Max puts his frog in the arena. The Thunder Bandits do the same with theirs. They snicker behind their hands, then go back to chanting.

“TWO FROGS ENTER! ONE FROG LEAPS!”

The Thunder Bandit’s frog jumps. It’s a pretty good jump.

“Jump,” says Max. “About . . . eighteen feet.”

The frog’s stomach pulses. It’s thinking about it. It’s considering the matter. Then it jumps.

There’s a terrible silence, and a terrible light.

There’s a croak, and then a pause.

The Thunder Bandit chieftain throws his hat onto the ground. He stomps on it. “A pox,” he cries, “on all uranium-powered frogs!”

“The radiation never comes out of the carpet,” Max agrees.