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.

The Latter Days of the Law (2 of 2)

[The Island of the Centipede – Interlude]


Red Mary takes Max’s ears so that he cannot hear.

Red Mary takes Max’s voice so that he cannot speak.

Red Mary takes Max’s life.

Here is how it happened.

She came upon him in the waters outside the broken island, intruding on her sacred place like a hunter on Artemis’ nudity or a serpent into a lake. She struck at him in the certain knowledge that he was unworthy of his life.

We all are.

That is the creed of Red Mary.

We are drunkards and life is a drunkard’s walk. We do not do things for the reasons that we claim. We do not achieve the results that we desire. We cling like leeches to the things that hurt us and we kill the things we love.

We are cysts of flesh that keep the fire from the chaos.

We are a trouble to the world.

He taught her another way. He’d used the blackest of all magics to do it, that is to say, history and Confucianism, and he’d opened her heart to the idea that maybe even drunkards should try to be good.

It was fast.

That’s the problem with easy answers, whether they come from sloppy thinking or a magic knife immersed in chaos. It had been too fast.

Red Mary was of the mind that given a few hundred years to contemplate it she might be a very good Confucian indeed.

But as it was it was suspicious to her.

She’d breathed it in through the gills. She’d inhaled the certainty of Mr. Kong like a drug and when she looked back on the path that led her to its answers she couldn’t see where she had been.

She finds herself thinking of the owl—

That owl of a long line of owls, whom she’d brought down over the sea and drowned, but first had spoken with—

That owl whose grandfather had licked three times at a tootsie pop, and crunched, and said solemnly, “Three”;

Whose mother had licked twice, and crunched, and said in sorrow, “Two”;

Who had bitten down on the very first lick until the tootsie pop oozed caramel like Max is oozing red and said, just “One”;

And who had had no children because the limit of owls as the number of licks decreases is emptiness.

She had found the owl very foolish and sang a song to disperse it into the universe and now she suspects that karma has circled round to bite her in the tail.

To the west of her island there is Good.

To the west, where she does not go, where she has not gone in quite some time, but where she is certain it had not been before—

Good.

Heaven.

Happy endings.

The eye of God.

And looking at it she recognized that there is such a thing as an answer, even for someone like Red Mary. That if she walked straight and pure and on a sober path, she could get there, she would get there, she could have her happy ending.

Or even if she just swam west. One hundred miles, perhaps, two hundred miles at the most; no harder, really, than if it had been an inch.

She does not know what it would mean to do that.

She does not understand how her crooked life could lead to such an end, and so she knows she cannot take that path.

She had always thought that it would be impossible for such a creature as herself to know perfection, and now she knows that it is simply wrong.

To go there—

To live in a world where the difference between perfection and the Red Mary she is now is just a hundred-mile swim—

It is not impossible, but it is wrong, and she must not.

Max is dying.

It is strange and not strange to her that the divine fire of his life burns more brightly in his fragile state. That trapped in that imperfect form it does not dwindle but rather flares, suffuses, wraps in him—

That broken he is still Max;

That broken he is all the more himself because he does not give it up.

It is strange and not strange that the thing that is a person can be severed from its voice by nothing more than magic, severed from its senses and still remain, that so much can happen to him and still he is in the world;

That it is not simply the body that is so terribly fragile but the self within;

And that is the miracle of the fire, that it survives such missteps, that it burns in the broken body that is Max and the cold sea thoughts that are Red Mary’s.

If you asked her what the fire was, Red Mary would say that she does not know.

She does not know, save perhaps that the fire is that which sees the fire; or, that being wrong, that the fire is that which casts the light by which the fire may be seen.

She whispers to Max’s heart that it need not beat.

She whispers to Max’s lungs that he need not breathe.

She whispers to Max’s life that it need not burn.

His last thoughts drift from him like bubbles.

They rise through the chaos and she watches them as they rise.

The sea is full of the mumbling of the severance of Max.

The man she’s killing is mumbling and Red Mary’s too tired not to listen.

“Oh,” he is thinking.

She drags him down, down, down.

“Love is not a duty.”

She hears it reversed, performing that causal mirroring so convenient when gods must listen to the ramblings of men.

We make others’ choices on the theory that we love them, only to discover that we did not love them after all.

“Love is a transforming power.”

We discover a strength blossoming in the world, in us, in those we look upon, in everything, and then discover that we are looking upon a thing that we do love.

Red Mary draws in breath.

She sings to make the man dissolve, to crack the cyst of his existence and return his karma to the world.

“I’ll come back,” he mumbles.

The presupposition of this statement is his death, and so she hears it thus:

Even if I survive, you’ll still probably have killed me.

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

“Like Meredith did,” he mumbles. “I’ll come back.”

He is fraying, and she’ll be rid of him at last, but—

Like Meredith did.

This is the agony of taking the path instead of simply its ending. This is the unbearable horror she has brought upon herself by not simply swimming west.

Along the path one may discover the nature of one’s errors.

He should be dead, but the fire has not yet flown from him.

She has discovered a problematic contingency and she must make a choice.

“Live,” she says.

His life stutters into alertness.

“Breathe,” she says to his lungs, and “Beat,” to his heart.

She gives him back his ears, that he may hear things incorrectly. She gives him back a voice, that he may say the wrong things.

It seems to her perhaps that she has failed to rebuild him; that she has left out some fundamental error and made a thing more good than what she’d broken; but then again, that may be Max himself, or just the nature of the fire.

It is the miracle of the fire that we may grow better than we are.

She lets the mind return to him, that he may think the wrong thoughts, and take the wrong actions, and for the wrong reasons.

And “Oh,” she says, awkwardly, with the horrified politeness of a woman signing the warrant of her own destruction.

“Oh,” Red Mary says. “You know Meredith?”

The fire lives even in our crooked paths, and it redeems them.

Dedicated to someone not at all like Max, save in the brightness of her burning and the immediacy of hope.

Myths and Heroes (II/IV)

It is 703 years before the common era.

Ella lives in the castle of King Sennacherib. Its upper levels are a thing of great majesty and glory, and the King and Ella’s sisters live there. Below that are the humbler quarters of the servants and Ella herself. In the warren beneath are cages, endless cages, full of fiends. And deeper yet, there is a dark and private place, full of a fetid, feline stench. When life is too much for her, Ella goes there, and finds the hidden rag doll she calls Tanit, and talks to it in the dark.

“Tanit,” she says, “I will tell you a story.”

“Story!” cheers Tanit. “Story!”

“There is something that even the monster fears,” she says.

“Ooh.”

Ella imagines that Tanit’s eyes are round.

“When Sodom fell,” she says, “there were two sisters who survived the scourge. Their names were Lia and Amiel.”

“Yes,” Tanit agrees, wisely.

“And Maya looked back on the city, and saw an oracle there that made her cry. It said: Amiel and Lia will love one another forever. But Lia will die, and her children will die, and all her line be mortal. And as Lia dies, Amiel will promise her, ‘I will guard your line, and our families be entwined forever.’

“And this she promised.

“And the oracle said: And these words will be false, for the guardians will prove false. Amiel shall have a daughter, and she a daughter, and she a son. And he will bear a line of men turned monsters, and they shall prey on Lia’s brood, and bring them every misery and sorrow.”

Tanit stomps her foot, or so Ella imagines. “But the monster is afraid!”

“Before she died,” Ella says, “Amiel returned to Sodom, and cracked the pillar of salt; and Maya came forth, and spoke her oracle; and Amiel set a curse on her own line. That as long as there were monsters, there could be heroes.”

Tanit considers this.

“Do you see?” Ella says. “Somewhere, there is a hero. Someone who can kill him. Someone who can fight him. He’ll come here. He’ll save me.”

She picks up the rag doll and hugs her.

“Like a prince,” she says.

Ella is prized among Sennacherib’s maidens. She is a treasure of his realm. But she takes no joy in it. He makes her do hard work from morning until night. She gets up before daybreak, carries water, lights fires, cooks and washes. She sleeps in the ashes of the fire, for she has no bed. Her sisters spill her meals there, or fill her drawers with spiders. Sennacherib cuts her, sometimes, with a thin silver blade. And one day, he names the duty: “You must clean the fiends’ cages.”

Where the fiends dwell, caged like animals, it is dark and cold and quiet. They have the faces of men or monsters, but they are not either. They are madness given form. And she lowers the grate that divides their cages, and scrubs out one half; then lets them back and scrubs out the other. She does this in silence, for she is terrified of fiends. Yet she cannot help naming them, for they are her only companions in this darkness. Razor, she calls one. Tsebanath, she names another. The worst she calls White Lion, for its great bulk is leonine in its way. Its face is the least human of them all, and its mouth larger than her sleeping hearth.

One day, as she cleans its cage, White Lion rumbles:

Ella, Ella, maiden raw.
Come and sleep between my jaws.

She turns and regards it, her heart rate rising. Only one word comes to her mind, so she speaks it: “No!”

White Lion’s eyes close, softly. “I will wait.”

Weeks pass, and months. Ella’s sister Aishah finds Tanit, Ella knows not how, and makes a show of disemboweling the doll before the court. Laughter beats against the boundaries of Ella’s mind. And, as she does every week, she goes down below to clean the cages of the fiends.

Ella, Ella, end your grief.
Let me taste you, root and leaf.
Maiden shining, maiden raw.
Rest your head between my jaws.

“No,” she insists, voice breaking with fear. And White Lion’s eyes close.

“I will wait.”

Weeks pass, and months. Ella dreams of a hero, but the dreams are cold and distant. It is harder to cling to such dreams in days like these.

Ella, Ella, fair of face.
I know a special, secret place.
Let your winter turn to thaw.
Come and sleep between my jaws.

She sits down, exhausted, on the floor.

“Please,” she says. “Do not do this.”

It regards her, silent.

“I don’t want to die.”

“Ah,” rumbles White Lion.

“So I don’t want you to eat me.”

White Lion hisses, and its fetid breath casts clouds of dust across the room. “Child,” it says, “I do not wish to devour you. I wish to know you.”

“Pardon?”

“You know how we are made,” it says.

“My sisters,” Ella says. “Aishah. Zenobia. He . . . emptied them, and broke them. Then he used their emptiness to make you.”

“There are angels in this castle,” White Lion says. “They are born to fill Zenobia’s emptiness with hope. And fiends, to answer Aishah’s hurt with madness. And demons, and ghosts, and dragons, besides. Yet we are not whole. He keeps us from them. In that separation is his strength.”

The fiends in their cages are still now. They are listening to White Lion.

“I wish to know you,” White Lion says. “To become yours. And then to know you further. Then I will not be weak. I will be complete. And I will be free.”

“I won’t,” she whispers. “I don’t want you.”

So she goes up to the hearth, and curls up in the ashes, and shivers herself to sleep.

“Good morning, Ella,” says a voice. It’s a girl’s voice, but still Ella starts awake, and thinks of heroes. It is with two sickening shocks in turn that she sees the truth: not a hero, nor a girl, but rather a tiny fairy maid, leaning against the hearth. In defiance of the dirt and ash, the fairy’s blue gown is as pristine as the sky.

“No,” Ella whispers.

“My name,” the fairy says, “is Tanit. And I have come to deliver you from this place.”

“Please don’t be real.”

The fairy looks dispassionately at her. “It’s not for you or I to decide such things. I exist; I am here; we must both learn to cope.”

Ella holds out her hand, and the fairy steps into it, and Ella holds her up. “He wants me to break,” she says. “He wants to drain away the pieces of myself, until my soul is a patchwork of gossamer. Then he will use the emptiness and use it to craft gods. If you are real, then it means that I am breaking. That I have begun to resemble the void. And that you are the first child of it.”

Tanit sighs and sits down, cross-legged in Ella’s palm.

“Do you know what fairies are?” she asks.

“No.”

So Tanit speaks:

Each person has a world.
It is just so long,
And just so wide,
And just so tall.
Yet there are things beyond its boundaries.
Wildness and magic.
Power.
A fire.
When emptiness looks on the beyond,
The fire casts reflections.

“That is a fairy,” Tanit says. “We are the reflections of that fire. The radiance of the beyond. And I can offer you freedom.”

“No,” Ella says, and her eyes fill with tears. “I’ve tried. I ran, once. I ran all the way to the castle gates. They were there. In sight. And I stopped. I could not make myself go further. I sat down. I waited for him to find me. To punish me. Because I was not strong enough.”

“Ah.”

“I could only choose two things,” Ella says quietly. “To hate myself, or to say, ‘There can be no freedom.'”

Tanit looks down at herself. Her wings shimmer. “Yet I reflect something,” she says. “For I am here.”

Ella tilts her head to one side. “You smell of cat,” she says. Then there’s a mad rage in her eyes, and she flings the fairy to one side, and Tanit flutters dazedly about and scarcely misses the wall.

“No!” Ella shouts.

“Ella?”

At the sound of that voice, Ella goes still. Tanit becomes the drifting of disturbed cinders in the air; and if this is voluntary or involuntary, Ella does not know. She does not care. The voice is Aishah’s, and Aishah is walking in.

“Ella,” Aishah says, “you must not shout so, early in the morning.” She smiles. It’s a crooked, bent smile. “It is not surprising from a filthy cinder girl, but it is still improper.”

“I’m sorry,” Ella says. She ducks her head.

Aishah’s eyes widen. “Dear Ella,” she says.

“No,” whispers Ella; but Aishah walks to her, and lifts her chin.

“Why,” Aishah says, “there’s a hollow in your voice, and in your eyes.”

“No.”

“You are becoming like us.” Some of the coldness fades from Aishah’s voice. It is layered, for a moment, with a bright, mad joy.

“No.”

“Sister,” Aishah says, “it is a thing to celebrate. If this is so, I can give aside my torment of you, and spilling your meals in the ashes, and filling your drawers with spiders. At long last! We may be siblings again. I can dress you in finest raiment, and we can braid one another’s hair, and we can talk of fine and precious things.”

“I am not like you yet.”

Aishah’s eyes shutter. “No,” she says. And she walks to the door. “Yet still I will hold to pleasure, in my heart. For I have longed for this. I have longed for him to raise you up, to join us at his side, and no more the fiends, and no more the knives. I have missed you; and you have been too stubborn in your self to care.”

Then she is gone. And as Tanit reforms, Ella snatches her from the air, and Ella flees like a beast down into the castle’s depths.

“White Lion, White Lion,” she says.

White lion, white lion,
Would you taste of my skin?
Rip the King open from torso to chin.
White lion, white lion,
Do you want to be mine?
Rip the King open from stomach to spine.
White lion, white lion,
This maiden is yours
If you’ll kill the King whom my sister adores.

White Lion studies her for a time.

“I will tell you a secret,” it rumbles.

“What secret is that?”

“In all the years since Lia and Amiel,” White Lion says, “there has not been a hero.”

It is a cold white shock.

“Why are you not a god, Ella?” White Lion asks. “Why are you flesh? Why can my teeth cut you? Why can my claws cleave your bones?”

Ella hesitates. The pressure of its gaze is on her, and a blinding headache rises.

“Because there is a price.”

It pads forward, and its cage cracks and breaks. It sets its paw on her chest and she sinks like paper to the ground.

“Listen,” it breathes, and its stink washes over her. “We are as we define ourselves, whether fairy, fiend, or maid. If you wish a hero, then become one.”

Its mouth comes down over her, and swallows her in darkness and pain.

“What price?” she asks the darkness.

But in the end, it does not matter.

“I want to kill him,” she says.

Wrong.

The stench makes her dizzy. She is on the verge of fainting. She thinks about what she has chosen; and then makes a small correction.

“I promise,” she says. “I will kill him.”