Fire on the Tongue

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

In the darkness the Three Lords dance.

Mammoth steps forward. The Three Lords meet her.

Darkness devours Mammoth and her bones.

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

Dinosaur enters, stomp stomp stomp.

He seizes up the fire. He descends to earth.

Dinosaur brings the fire from the sky.

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

Around Dinosaur the Three Lords close.

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

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

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

His head—

The head of Dinosaur—

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

Frog comes now to the palace in the stars.

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

Frog, she brings the fire from the sky.

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

Now the Third Lord seizes her leg.

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

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

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

If you have ever fought a frog—

Not a tiny frog, but one your size—

Then this is most likely a thing you know.

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

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

She leaves him behind and she runs and runs.

The Second Lord, he looms ahead.

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

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

In that darkness the two now fight.

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

Disaster comes.

The Third Lord finds them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is humanity.

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

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

Ohh!

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

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

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

It is taking them too long.

The Three Lords are dying.

The fire gutters. It goes out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Chameleon comes to the palace in the stars.

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

Chameleon, he takes that fire on his tongue.

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

Chameleon descends to earth.

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

It makes Chameleon its god.

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

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

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

The forests burn.

Deep fires in the oceans flare.

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

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

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

You can’t see his body.

He’s Chameleon.

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

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

Dancer in the Night

There is a dancer in the night, a great tall dancer in the fog and when his feet come down on the earth they are like the feet of elephants, they are like the fall of hammers, they are like the blows rained down by the forging god upon unfinished Earth;

And when there is a person in that path, a small and fragile and tiny thing, who shouts, “Why?”

“Why do you do this thing, dancer?”

“Have a care, lest you should step on me!”

The dancer leans low and he replies,

“It is not that you are small, though you are small. It is not that I am great, though I am great. It is that you do not understand, my little person, how great and terrible and important it is,

“this dance.”

And then his breath is like the breaking of the seals,

And like the opening of gates,

And for a long mad moment the person sees it there, the vast immensity of purpose,

the certainty and the necessity

and how all that person’s life may have led to this:

that that person, and no other;
that that foot and no other;
Should come together in the dance.

There is no lack of love in that. There is no coldness. There is simply the way things must be: the dancer must dance, and the humans are so small.

And that is all.

Panda Dancing

This is a story about the purpose of the world.

It is 1991.

Sydney meets Michael in a coffee shop. Soon they are talking about their work. Michael is an accountant. Sydney breeds pandas.

“Pandas?” Michael says.

“It’s my family trade,” says Sydney.

“I see.”

“We used to be corrupt diamond merchants,” says Sydney. “But one day, Grandpa stood up at his desk and exclaimed, ‘Day in, day out, it’s always the same! Why are we murdering men to sate our greed when we could be some lonely panda’s angel of love?'”

“A man of vision,” Michael says.

“It was a midlife crisis,” says Sydney. “I assume. But he never looked back, and we’ve been breeding pandas ever since.”

“You too?”

“I’m in biotech,” says Sydney. “I use my laboratory to invent powerful new panda fertility drugs and then I bulk advertise them over the Internet. It takes about 10,000 messages to reach even one panda, but that’s enough to make it worthwhile.”

Michael holds his coffee cup. It’s warm. He approaches the subject delicately. “Some might not call this fulfilling.”

“Oh,” says Sydney. “But it is!”

“It is?”

“That’s why we’ve stayed with it,” Sydney says. She thinks. “Listen,” she says. “Do you know what it is to have a purpose?”

Michael thinks about it. “I have tasks at work,” he says.

“Not tasks.”

“I would like to consume this coffee,” Michael says. “And process it into energy and urine.”

“Not survival.”

“I might want to seduce you later,” Michael says. “Hypothetically.”

Sydney stares at Michael. “What do you want to be? What do you want to do with your life?”

“Well, that,” Michael says. He laughs a little. He holds a hand flat over the table. “I suppose I want—”

Sydney tilts her head to one side. Michael frowns.

“Yes?”

“It’s strange,” Michael says. “But I think that what I want is to manage the books for a firm that breeds pandas.”

Sydney laughs. “Why that, good sir?”

“You just know,” Michael says. “Don’t you. I mean, it’s like when you’re playing a video game, and suddenly everything’s all in line; or when you’re dancing—”

“Yes,” says Sydney. Her eyes widen a bit. “Yes, it is, isn’t it?”

“And suddenly everything’s right, and it doesn’t matter how much you have to give up for it, because this, this is the purpose, and you’re flowing through your life like a river.”

Michael is staring off into the distance. Then he gulps down his coffee in a quick, convulsive motion. “I haven’t felt this way since sixth grade, when I decided I wanted to be a CPA.”

“You do understand,” Sydney says. “How marvelous!”

Michael starts working at Sydney’s company. It’s not even too surprising that they fall in love. Eventually, they have a daughter of their own, named Emily.

It is 2004.

“This one’s special,” Sydney says. She looks at a printout of her lab notes. “She’s a mutant.”

Michael rubs her shoulders. “Is that so?”

“It’s the new fertility drug,” Sydney says. “It caused something more than just ordinary breeding. It made a super-agile panda.”

“I told you not to use spider DNA.”

“I didn’t!” Sydney protests.

Michael waits.

“I only used a little,” Sydney hedges. “Spiders are very fertile. Their offspring are everywhere!”

“Use spider DNA in your panda viagra, get a super-agile panda.”

Sydney sighs. “Well, it’s not a bad thing,” she says. “We can teach her to dance.”

And so they do.

It is 2005.

“It’s time for the panda to dance,” Michael says.

“I’m nervous,” Sydney says.

“Why?”

“It’s just . . . this feeling,” Sydney says.

“What’s that?”

Sydney gestures towards the wall. “Do you know that there are hundreds of thousands of people gathered outside this building, waiting for the panda to dance?”

“Surely not that many,” Michael says.

“They’ve been showing up,” Sydney says. “For weeks now. Months. They’ve been camping outside. They’ve been bringing food and water and medical supplies into town. This dinky little town of ours has grown tenfold.”

Michael scratches at his forehead. “What we do here is important,” he says. “I guess people are starting to realize that.”

“It’s not real,” Sydney says. “People don’t show up like this just because there’s a panda gonna dance.”

“How do they know?” Michael says.

Sydney shrugs uncomfortably.

“I mean, this is just a recital you set up,” Michael says. “We didn’t tell everyone. Maybe they’re just here as some kind of subculture thing and it doesn’t have to do with the panda at all.”

“They know it’s important,” Sydney says.

“Oh.”

“I asked one,” Sydney says. “Because he was sleeping in my parking space. And he said, ‘It just feels right. It doesn’t matter how much I have to give up for it. I needed to be here. For this. For the panda.’ And I said, ‘But I ran over your leg. You need a doctor.’ And he laughed, and said, ‘It don’t matter none. I’ll live long enough.'”

“Did you get a doctor?”

Sydney opens her mouth, hesitates a long moment, then shrugs.

“What?”

“He’s right,” she says. “He’ll live long enough.”

Emily comes in. She is a young and demure girl. She is wearing a gingham dress.

“The panda’s ready,” she says. “I just helped her with her stretches.”

“Good girl,” says Sydney.

The three of them go to the panda room together.

“Dance,” Sydney says.

“Do you know,” says Michael, “I think this is what the Earth is for.”

There’s a moaning, a humming, a whispering, a chanting from outside. There are a hundred thousand voices raised in worship outside the building walls.

“You think so?”

“God made this whole Earth,” says Michael, “so that one day he could watch a panda dance. Not just any old dance, but like this.”

“I guess you’re right,” says Sydney.

The panda dances.

“And bless Him for it!” Sydney says, suddenly, fiercely.

The panda bobs in place.

“So do you think,” says Sydney, “that it’ll go on? I mean, the world? After the panda’s done?”

“I hope not,” says Michael fervently.

The panda shuffles from side to side, her paws an expressive counterpoint.

“But . . . I wouldn’t have guessed,” Sydney admits. “That this would be what we’re for.”

“Wouldn’t you?”

“Hm?”

“Emily,” says Michael, “if I’d asked you last year what the purpose of the world was, would you have known it?”

Emily nods firmly. “Yes, father.”

“What would you have said?”

“I would have said, ‘I think it’s . . .’ And I wouldn’t have had the words. But it would have been a panda dancing.”

“I guess that’s true,” says Sydney.

The panda shuffles to a halt, flumps to the ground, and falls asleep.

Emily goes to the window and looks out.

“Look, mama!” she says.

The sky is falling, and Emily laughs with a sudden, bright, clean joy.

The Dancer

There is a dancer.

Her name is Virgo. She is roughly two hundred million light years tall. Most of her body is empty space, as with our own. The rest is stars, dust, worlds, dark matter, humors, and blood.

She is widely known, to connoisseurs of such things, as a sight worth seeing and a thing of beauty.

It is not because of her perfection or her clockwork rigor.

She stumbles a lot. Some people suspect that the dance is only a distant relative of what she might have intended. And there’s more gore than you’d expect.

But, fairly regularly, she smiles.

Two Short Pieces

Once upon a time, there was a piece of fluff that floated in the wind.

The fluff passes through a sunbeam, that lights it up like white fire.
It passes through a shadow, that turns it secretive and dark.
It lands on the head of a girl, next to her circlet of flowers.
She goes on to do many great things.

The fluff says, “In the sunlight, I am fire; in the darkness, a ninja; but crowning the human head, I am greatness.”

One day, the girl grew into an old woman, and lay down to sleep.
And the fluff called her forth, and they went up to Heaven,
And they were honored greatly there.

Once upon a time, there was a shadow of a dancer.

The shadow is part of a shadow play.
It dances with the other darknesses.
With the wolf shadow.
And the man shadow.
And the world shadow.
And the sun shadow, dark but limned with light.

The dancer learns to love the shadow of the sun.
She touches it, though it burns her.
She dances with it, though it frays her at the edges,
And takes many minutes of cooling darkness to recover from.

One day, the shadow of the sun sticks to her skin. As she pulls away, the shadow peels with it, and the true sun burns in the shadow play, like a spotlight.

“I cannot touch you,” she says, “but see—”

She gestures behind her, at the girl shadow cast from her by the burning sun.

“We have a child.”

The Dancing Popes

Pope Joan “dies” and nine months pass.

The first cardinal emerges.

Red! His clothes are red as blood. He has left the white of the Papacy behind.

It dwells with those he has abandoned, in the caves below the Vatican, where the endless Popes must dance.

There is a prophecy too.

Elvis spake it.

The Popes—the dancing army of them—they won’t attack. Not if they don’t have to.

Not unless the day comes when people lose sight of basic neighborly love and kindness.

But when they do, look out.

When they do, that dancing Pope army is going to boil out of its homeland and pour over the surface world. They’ll wash over the petty politicians and the stars, the preachers and the demagogues, and with their sequins and their Popetanks the tidal force of that army will can-can the old regime away.

You won’t really understand until you’ve seen it. No one could. You can’t really know what we’re facing unless you’ve gone down there yourself and seen the army dancing.

But there are a few things that you may know.

People who use condoms should be careful. The Pope army doesn’t approve of condoms. They’ll pass by like a white tide, and if they see someone using a condom, YOINK, they’ll just yank it right off.

And there’s some issue or other with homosexuals. Nobody knows what the Popes will do, not even Elvis, but the wise money says that the Popes won’t put up with it. If you’re having homosexual sex when the army sweeps past, they’ll seize your condom and your shoes. They will not stop to wonder whether what they do is right.

They will clean your floors, whirling and dancing and scuffing and then unscuffing as they pass. They are a floor polish as well as a dancing Pope army. They will be unstoppable because they will transcend our mereology.

They will distract us all with their glitz and their glamor. They will be the newest and strangest calamity of all.

But, scary as they are, we must not let them distract us—Elvis said.

“Look,”

he said, and then he licked his lips, and you could tell his heart was hurting. He’d been trying so hard to be alive when everybody thought that he was dead, and now he had to say bad news.

“Look, the real threat’s the mutant alligators.”

It’s bull, of course, the last bull of Pope Elvis.

“Isn’t it enough they have to live in the sewer? Do we have to irradiate them too?

And there was a splash and a slither and maybe we oughtta’ve listened but people were worried, even then, that they might have lost kindness;

That they’d be swept over, any moment, by the dancing army of Popes.