“I will make you cry” (VI/VII)

One by one the monster’s forces fail him.

The city that once he bound by his own will has become a stronghold for his enemy. It is mazed away, sympathetically estranged, in the keep of a labyrinthine god.

The men he sends for Micah cannot venture very far into that place. The gods he sends do not return.

“It’s a rather unfortunate incident,” Melanie informs him.

The monster looks at her speculatively.

“I don’t know how to say this,” Melanie says. “You’re terrifying, so I don’t want to upset you, but you’re also not impressing me with the successes of your organization. It makes me worry that you’ll think: what if she thinks I can’t handle this place and decides to take over? I’d better start hurting her immediately. But this very line of thought makes me potentially more disloyal! It’s like a vicious cycle operating entirely outside causality.”

“I see,” the monster says.

Melanie rubs at her nose. “It’s like, I get here, and you’re all ‘look upon my greatness, king of kings, and know despair.’ And I buy it, and I get myself a nice little lab, and I start doing some nice little research on some serious, important questions, like just how does this world work, anyway? and hey, can fairy gold be created in the lab? and then wham.”

The monster pulls himself up to sit on her desk. She rolls her chair a little ways away.

“You know,” says the monster, “how Amiel never really stopped talking?”

Her ancestress Amiel is inside her, wound through her, so long ago and so very far away and yet burning in her blood. I will guard your line, Amiel is promising, as she has always been promising. I will guard your line, and our families be entwined forever.

“Yes,” Melanie says.

“Resist the habit,” the monster says. He puts his hand on hers. He smiles.

She is quiet for a long time.

“And are there others who have expressed suchlike concerns?” the monster wonders.

Melanie shakes her head. When he doesn’t follow that up with another question, she says, “I don’t think most of the people who work here really get that it’s for real. Not the stuff we do. Not the stuff that happens. It’s all isn’ts to them.”

The monster straightens.

“It’s all right,” he says. It’s kind of soothing. He squints a bit at the wall, thinking. “Dad told me once, ‘the thing about this job, the terrible part of this job, is that you can’t just force it. You’ve got to live with the frustration of standing in a land of plenty and having nothing to eat or drink. With the world fighting you at every turn, with a terrible weight hanging every moment right above your head, no matter how much you turn yourself this way or that. And the better you do, the closer you come, the worse it gets. Just imagine how bad it’ll be, my child, if you ever make it to the throne.’”

“Why?”

Melanie looks blankly at him. She’s used to things that she can’t just force but not to the idea that it’d be the worst at the very end.

“People,” the monster summarizes, “are pretty weird.”

He hops down from the desk. He gives her a twisted smile. “I’m gonna go sort this out,” he says. “You can call anyone you have in there back.”

I will guard your line, whispers Amiel.

“You will,” she says, “bring him back?”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” he says. He grins. He leaves.

Melanie stares at the wall for a while. Her hand closes around her nametag. She thinks for a good long while.

“I wonder.”

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER ONE]


October 17, 1995

The monster drives up to Liril’s house. He gets out of the car. He walks up the way. He gives a glance to Priyanka and to Liril. He looks around the house.

Micah is toying with a pad of sticky notes. Judging by the notes on the television, bookcase, and couch, he’s been in a frenzy of labeling things with their proper names, to what end the monster cannot determine.

For a moment the monster considers interacting with the sticky notes. Then he discards the notion.

He focuses the fullness of his attention on Micah.

“I’m disappointed,” he says.

“So am I,” Micah concedes. “I’d hoped that you wouldn’t be able to get past a properly-labeled door.”

The monster glances at the door. It’s in fact labeled “Door. 100% effective against monsters.”

It arrests his attention for a long moment. It challenges his earlier decision.

“I could have wounded you terribly, then,” Micah says. “While you were looking at that. If I’d had a knife. That was three full seconds of distraction. But Liril said that afterwards you’d have done that thing you would do and I’d have hated my foolish actions for forever.”

“You’ll have to content yourself with hypothetical harm,” says the monster, “I suppose.”

“Yeah,” agrees Micah.

“Yeah?”

“You always win,” Micah says. It’s bleak. “That’s obvious. That’s waiting down every path that opens up in front of us. All I can do is decide among the little tiny things I can get from that victory, and know that one day you’ll figure out, or ask me, what those were, and take them away again, just to make sure that even with all of that, I didn’t get a thing.”

“That’s a healthy attitude,” the monster says. “Yet, I can’t help notice that you’ve missed an appointment, killed a number of my servants, and estranged Santa Ynez from the normal processes of space and time. What if I just asked you right now what you hoped to gain, and immediately took that thing away?”

“I thought about that,” Micah says. “I figure it’s probably best if I don’t know what I’m going to win, myself.”

The monster glances at Liril. It’s a question.

She shakes her head. She doesn’t know either.

“Come on, then,” the monster says.

“That’s it?”

“Just because you hand someone a riddle,” the monster says, “doesn’t mean that they have to answer it. I’m kind enough to permit you the hope that there is some sort of hope.”

Micah frowns. He works his mouth.

“You’re supposed to care,” he says. It’s stubborn.

“Come on,” says the monster. “Out to the car. I’ve been thinking about pulling out some kind of cure for cancer.”

Micah brushes past the monster. The monster frowns. Micah walks out the door. He touches the door.

“You know,” he says. “I could close this door, and then you’d be sealed in.”

The monster takes the post-it off the door. He holds it in his palm for a moment. Then he sticks it on Micah’s forehead.

Micah laughs.

“What?”

“That’s pretty gutsy,” Micah says, “but if you really didn’t think it could do anything, you’d have stuck it on Liril.”

He walks to the car. He’s just a little bit too confident. He’s peeling the top couple of entries off his pad of notes. It’s like he’s looking for something. It’s a matter of academic interest at best; sticks and stones can break the monster’s bones, but words on paper — well.

The monster steps outside. It would be best, he thinks, to settle this now; to break him here, rather than allow him to attempt something while I am driving.

Gently, he closes the house door.

He lets out a breath. He traces with his thoughts the power that is within him. He turns —

Micah is holding the Thorn That Does Not Kill at the monster’s throat.

Micah is turned to the side. He is trembling. He is horribly afraid. The fear is bone-deep, soul-deep, it’s making him cold and hot and cold again, and pale. He is standing as far as he could possibly stand away from the monster, his left arm in full extension with the weapon in it, and the hand that holds the Thorn’s thick end is slippery with sweat.

Whatever the monster was doing, though, he stops.

“You shouldn’t have that,” the monster says.

“I am not going with you,” Micah tells him. Sweat is pouring down his face, his arms, and his sides. “I swear to you on everything that is holy, on Jesus, Good, and Buddha, on my own bloody fucking name, I am not going to get in that car, and if you try, I will break you and I will leave you broken and I will walk back into Central like the new King of the fucking World.”

“Language,” cautions the monster. He moves very slowly and cautiously. He reaches for the wrist of the hand that holds the Thorn.

“Just try me,” Micah says. “Just try me. I will hurt you like you have never been hurt. I will make you cry.”

“No,” says the monster. “You won’t.”

And the monster spreads its wings.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

I have told you that in such moments he is inevitable. That he may become Truth; or Axiom; or Victory; that when his wings have spread he is not such a thing as you may deny.

He will make you say as much, if he wants to.

He will make you admit to it, while hating him; or to admit it while loving him; or to come through strenuous paths of reason or of faith to the conclusion that you should. And if you think that’s impossible, then you’re lucky, because you’ve never seen the monster’s wings.

Maybe you can keep one thing. One thought. One bit of choice.

If there’s two, he can make you choose between them. If you want to be a good person and to hate him, for instance. If you want to remember your name and who you are. If you want to fight him and not just become him.

Two things would be far too much. It’s not very many things to have, in your life, particularly when we’re talking about thoughts and feelings and bits of self. But it’s still far too much. Try to hang on to two things and your divided mind will shatter against the truth the monster brings to bear.

You get one.

And that’s at best.

So Micah, he doesn’t hang on to the Thorn. He doesn’t even try to hang on to the Thorn. To be utterly honest, he’s never even thought it possible that he could.

And he doesn’t hang on to himself.

He doesn’t even hang on to being Liril’s shield.

He just lets his right hand follow a little twitchy reflex that he’s practiced, when the monster’s coat looms in. It’s reaching forward. He’s practically forgotten what it’s for.

Just a bit of gummed paper for the monster’s nametag, and on it, written, “Amiel.”

As undeniable, in that moment, as any other monster’s truth.

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me

You can’t put too much stock in labels.

You have to understand that. Just because you stick a name on something that doesn’t make it true. Words aren’t like that. Even the monster is only like that under certain worldviews’ truth models.

Micah’s not a door. For instance. He’s like a door, but he isn’t actually a door.

And in the end, despite his label, he is 20-30% effective against the monster, at best.

On The Nature of Judgment (4 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

See also this legend.

It would be difficult to explain what has changed.

That shouldn’t be surprising.

If Sid’s answer were easy—if it were the kind of thing that you could just say and have it be done—then Martin would have given it to him. Not for free, not easily, but certainly after all Sid’s service.

So it is necessarily difficult to explain.

Much of it, certainly, is simply having the power to change, after all these years.

That which we hide away in the place without recourse:

It does not grow.

So some of it, certainly, is having that power of growth and changing, and the motivation to use it: returned to him, after all those years.

And some of it is the exercise of force.

Forgiveness, we should understand, is a quality of the powerful. The powerless endure; the powerful forgive.

It is not possible to forgive without an unencumbered choice.

Without power, forgiveness is indistinguishable from compliance, or at best surrender; and thus it has no value.

It has always been a dark and tasteless joke, when the powerful ask the downtrodden to forgive.

So the exercise of unrestrained power, however undesirable it might have been—that contributed.

Certainly.

And if one may go further and say that forgiveness is between equals—

A broader statement, requiring more analysis, but a plausible one—

Then it matters that Max met blow for blow, standing against the siggort a surprising length of time in the oceans of the end.

And there was the uncritical all-forgiving all-embracing never-bending flare gaze of the Good.

And there was the dancing stabbing cutting preaching whispers of the history of Mr. Kong.

And there was Tara and there were the heaps and there was the crumbled tower to the east where earlier they fought—

Yet none of these things change the character of Max’s crime.

None of these things make it better or worse that Max has done what Max has done.

None of these things change the essential or actual qualities of his deed.

None of these things prove Sid in error, relative to some natural universal law, when he says that what Max has done cannot be okay.

Arguable, perhaps.

Too critical, perhaps.

But not in error.

So one cannot say that even all of these things together have resolved Sid’s underlying dilemma, or changed the nature of his prison; at best, they have cast light on the substance of his cage.

It would be difficult to explain what has changed; and in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

It doesn’t really matter how it came to pass that Sid should forgive Max and lift the weight of Ii Ma from his wings.

Max is dead.

The world is cold.

The siggort is alone.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

Max had planned to do something really cool.

He wasn’t sure what, yet.

Maybe something like shouting, “Oh, yeah? Well, you can’t beat me at tiddlywinks!

Then suddenly he was winded and the world spun and just as he realized that he’d been hit in the stomach by something moving very very fast he mainlined THE END and Sid piled an island on top of him.

So now he’s drifting in the Good.

Now and again, an impulse will surface in him. He’ll surrender a bit of that ancient answer that holds him in the world faster or slower than the question that—however momentarily—had cut him out of it.

He’ll wobble, for a moment, on the border between those creatures whose stories have ended and those creatures that have no stories at all; and an impulse will arise.

Like:

“What the Hell happened when the Buddha reached enlightenment?”

And the Good does not explain.

Drifting against the beat of emptiness in the joyous, he imagines that the dharma of a Buddha is irreconcilable with the dharmas of the world—

Like Sid’s, in a way.

That the world is hollow of its gods because, in the face of the inevitability of suffering, it cannot understand how there can be a Buddha.

That the very idea of dharma—

In the face of the simple corrosive concept of enlightenment—

Has become a contradiction unto itself.

Russell’s paradox writ large; the definition of the world unravelled; the world unable to accept the concept of purpose if it does not lead to pain.

And a long time afterwards, Max grins in the burgeoning emptiness of joy, and he says, “Coward.” to the world.

That was one impulse.

Days later, another rises:

“How the Hell is this my happy ending?”

But for all the bafflement in those words, there isn’t any suffering.

By fiat?

By force?

By love?

There isn’t any suffering. This is his happy ending.

And maybe he’d like to be suffering, except that also he wouldn’t. He doesn’t really want to suffer just because he sort of thinks he should.

He’d like to think that he needs Sid to be happy, but the secret of the world is that it’s loving Sid that makes him happy, not Sid himself.

Lost in boundless happiness and joy, Max understands—and finally—that it’s an error to imagine that our happiness comes from anyone but ourselves.

It is not given unto us.

It is not forced upon us.

It is a thing we give outwards, unto the world.

People always fight
The things they love.

What is the nature of judgment?

Jane had imagined a perfect Good that came and cast away the 9/10 least worthy, straining only the brightest and the best through the holes in its net. She called this a disaster to the world.

What would it have meant, instead, to cull the half least worthy; or the whole?

The single worst of us, severed from the world; or all of us save the single best?

The idealist sees the dangers in this path and casts out judgment from the world; the pragmatist seeks a perfect middle ground; yet both of them, if they wish to live, must recognize that there is that which is desirable, and that which is correct, and that which, in turn, is not.

The hundred-handed horror that is Sid curls on the island he has made, and skitters on the surface of the sea, and dreams of the fight of centipede and tiger.

He is alone.

The Matter of Zheng’s Son (3 of 5)

Mr. Kong is steeping tea. He hears a rustle of silk.

He looks up.

It is a winter evening. His house is cold. He can see his snowy yard. No one is visible, but he can hear motion. No one has announced themselves, but he can hear the shifting of metal against leather and the soft hissing of someone’s breath.

His eyes narrow.

There is a stool inside the entryway, where there was none before, and a staff leaning against the wall. There is a dusting of snow.

He can hear, distantly, the jingling of a bell.

It is 501 years before the common era. The sun hides behind the clouds. An assassin has come.

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

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

“In these degenerate days,” says Mr. Kong politely, “it is good to have an assassin who is observant of the rites and practices. Will you take tea with an old man before you kill me?”

Mr. Kong breathes in the air of the room.

It is probable, he thinks, that the assassin has unwound a length of garrote. It gleams between the man’s fingers—behind Mr. Kong, no doubt, and to the left, and three steps back: the honorable place for an assassin, according to the Book of Rites.

But the man does not move.

He is like a statue, frozen by Mr. Kong’s question.

“It would make me happy,” says Mr. Kong.

The assassin reaches his decision. There is a snap as the garrote retracts. He walks seven quick paces and now he stands before Mr. Kong. He lowers himself, with great decorum, to sit opposite Mr. Kong, and Mr. Kong pours the tea.

“It is unusual for an assassin to attend diligently to the rites,” says Mr. Kong. “The requirements of attending to giving and repaying are the principal matter of contention.”

“Yes,” says the assassin.

Mr. Kong studies the assassin. The man is dressed in white; his hair is tied back; he has features of grave discernment and etched with terrible sorrow.

“If I may ask,” he says. “Whom?”

Whom are you mourning, that you would seek to kill a humble scholar in his home?

“My son.”

“Ah.”

“We sparred,” says the assassin. “With sticks of wood. I struck him. The mark was red on the paleness of his skin. He skipped back. He laughed. He blurred to the side, and came forward to attack. But I caught his stick and twisted it from his hand and I struck him again; and this time his eyes opened very wide and he cried out, ‘It is thus!'”

Mr. Kong sighs.

They sit there. They drink.

“In the days of the Zhou,” says Mr. Kong, “it did not matter how many times you hit a man with a stick; still, he would retain his false conceptions and his attachment to material existence. But the world has changed.”

The assassin’s voice is choked.

“You deny your responsibility?” he says.

Mr. Kong thinks on that.

“I do?” he asks.

“The men of old,” says the assassin— “they lived with unhesitating purpose and they loved virtue. The nature of them prevailed, and they could not hesitate to act. Is it not so?”

“I have said as much,” says Mr. Kong.

“Our ancestors exceeded us.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.

“Heaven is distant from the world; it acts through mortal men, who must struggle to hew to the spirit of goodness—is it not so?”

Mr. Kong says, “You are in mourning for the days of antiquity, when humans possessed the character of uprightness that allowed them to perform miracles, and we did not suffer the plague of spiritual enlightenment.”

“You speak of it,” says the assassin, “as if these days were centuries ago; but they were not.”

Mr. Kong smiles over his tea.

“It has been less than forty years,” he says, “since last I witnessed magic in the world—you mean? But I have told my disciples, I do not discuss magic.”

“So,” says the assassin.

“I am not dissembling,” says Mr. Kong, in tones of gentle protest. “It is not the matter of spirits, or ghosts, or devils that concerns me. When I look upon the past, it is not the flying brooms and wishing boys and Heaven-Defying Lightbringing Yama Kings that draw my eye, but the spirit of humaneness that pervaded the ancients even in the face of all these wonders.”

“You are a man,” says the assassin, “who spoke unto the world words that changed it. You told Heaven and Earth: we are not like the ancient men. And thus it was. You told Heaven and Earth: we are empty; we are in disorder; we are the only channel by which Heaven may affect the world—and thus it was. You teach a disregard for spirits, and they flee from us—or so I must conclude.”

He sets down his teacup.

He folds his hands in his lap. His face is very bleak.

“My name is Zheng,” he says.

He hesitates.

“Please tell me that when I have killed you, my son shall return; and magic; and purpose; and the will of Heaven manifest on Earth; and things will be as once they were.”

Outside the wind toys with flakes of snow.

It is not Mr. Kong’s way to deny an accusation when doing so will only heighten the wound in another man’s heart; so he searches in him for an answer that is courteous, honest, and humane.

A sadness rises.

“It is the character of humanity,” Mr. Kong says softly, “to be wrong.”

A sound comes from Zheng. It is like the peal of a bell, and it comes from his throat as if it were ripped from it.

“Once,” says Mr. Kong, “I imagined that I had the power in me to make all things correct. That I could right all the practices of the world. That I would do these things because I am Kong. And when I understood that it was not so, I cried out: Heaven, Heaven, why have you abandoned me?”

Zheng does not respond.

“But I’m glad,” says Mr. Kong.

Zheng looks up.

He sees that Mr. Kong is smiling.

“Do you understand? It is because we are not as the ancients were that we may look up to them. Were we as gods, we would spend our lives in the affairs of gods; but because we are human, we may practice humaneness.”

“Why?”

Mr. Kong tilts his head.

“Why,” says hoarse-voiced Zheng, “should we practice humaneness, when Heaven denies us righteousness? Why should we strive for good, when we are always wrong? What is this world we live in, where a man may burn out his own son’s soul?”

But Mr. Kong ignores the last of these questions, and answers only the second.

“Love.”

And Zheng let him to live, and went away, and in the mountains he taught his students that it was not so important to kill as to kill with good character as a righteous assassin; and Mr. Kong found himself a limited employment in government service; and the world went on for many years, severed from its gods.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

In the darkness of the sea, Max slices through Sid. The knife glitters darkly in his hand.

A wire snaps.

Like all the wires of Sid, it is under high tension. It scissors through the world and cuts the sea and causes a great turbulence in the mechanisms of Sid. His thoughts become deranged, disordered, and unbalanced.

It is June 3, 2004.

Sid is furious and maddened, under the staring eye of Good.

Since cutting does not work, he slams Max down into the silt floor of the sea. He smashes Max against the shell of the world; but the human—

The heap he reminds himself; not Max, it cannot be Max—

slips aside and the blow only widens the crack at the base of the rising Good.

Max is thinking something wry about learning from the lessons of history. Sid can taste it; it amplifies in the jangling of his thoughts. The man is going to stab him again. The opening in the world through which Good rises is nearly critical mass: much larger, and the Good will transform the shell that holds it back and all the stories of the world shall end.

Sid conceives a plan.

His plan is mad, like the siggort himself.

He anchors himself. He hooks himself with shivering cutting lines into the sea. He insinuates himself into sea and sky and the shadow of the sun. He hopes for time—

Not so very much; just a little bit—

To finish cutting away the heart of the Good. But if he does not have it—well, very well.

Max cuts at a great bundle of the mind of Sid and Sid’s memory of 1955 and his knowledge of differential equations and his power to taste snow all snap and the tangling spinning power of it progresses inevitably through the system of him and a great spinning wire hits Max’s chest and, because Max will not cut, drives him into the Good; and a great heaving convulsion in the world slams together the elements of the crust and makes an island of stone and sky where once there was a crack beneath the sea.

In the aftermath, there is blindness to match the silence of his world.

He drifts there, free of attachment to things.

Max loved him, he thinks.

Certainly, so did the Good.

He wonders why.

Max is Dead (2 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

The horizon divides the sea from the sky. In Sid’s tactical judgment, this is the world’s mistake. He skates a long chain-blade of him along its length and severs them, so that the sea and sky sag apart and show through them a great gap in the world.

He can feel the heat of the Good fluttering against the heart of him.

It is gummy; it is heavy; it slows the rotation of that one element of him, and speeds others, and binds that portion of him into the world.

It becomes hot where Sid is cold and cold where Sid is hot; actual where he is contemplative; metaphorical where he is real.

The gaze of the Good twists that part of him through the axis of accessibility of space.

He cuts it from himself.

He huddles in around the pain of it. It is a fragment, he tells himself: nothing more.

The way that the sea air tastes one way on one morning and a different way on another: a tactical weakness. A rusty, hooked, and sensitive knife of him cuts along it.

The eye of the Good turns to that gap.

It stares into the emptiness; and a portion of it is lost.

He sees something.

He is starting to see something. It flickers at the edge of his consciousness: the heart of the Good, tilted ninety degrees from the rest of it at the end of an infinite sequence of approximations to the real.

He cleans his flensing blades and lets rust drift down onto the surface of the sea.

It is capable of an error, he calculates: a tactical weakness.

There is room between the truth of the thing and its image in the eyes of the Good to insert the thinnest of his blades; and to cut in a great fractal arc along the length of that gap until he reaches its heart.

But first there’s a man.

There’s a man, standing on a boat, in the middle of the surging sea.

There’s a man staggering in the icy wind and waving a knife of melomid skin and shouting up at Sid, “You wanna go?”

He tastes like Max.

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.

There is a darkness between the pieces of this man.

The Buddha put it thus: anatman.

A man is not the hand and a man is not the eye. A man is not the torso or the limbs. A man is none of these various parts. So when we say that we see a man, such as Max, in the world, we do not describe the physical existence of a thing. We describe instead a particular and contingent assemblage of parts.

What does this description mean?

It is, argues the Buddha, a filter created by our own mind and imposed upon the world, which we then confuse for real. It is an aggregate of misconceptions. It is not possible that in composing our idea of a man, such as Max, that we are accurate even in the moment.

It is not accurate even in the moment; and with the passage of time, its accuracy inevitably degrades.

That is why Sid sees not the man but his gaps. That is why it is practical to see not the man but his gaps.

For the most part that which one might think of as “Max” is not really there.

There is a darkness between the pieces of the man. There is an emptiness. There is no observer who can see more in Max than an aggregate of misconceptions paired with a function of surprisal that is in all practical respects computationally random.

For some time, Sid has refrained from chopping Max into little pieces, but that’s not because it’s difficult.

Red Mary’s proven it.

So has Ii Ma.

So, in the long run, has life itself.

Chopping Max into little pieces is actually pretty easy.

The miracle, really, is that it doesn’t happen more often.

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

Max is dead.

It is a fragile line of truth in a universe of confusion. It is the knowledge that keeps Sid sane.

How can you forgive him? Ii Ma had asked.

He is dead. He is dead. And for another thing, Sid says, flaring with the fire of his dharma, Max is dead.

Things end.

Hopes die.

Max is dead, torn apart, severed from the pieces of himself and scattered through the sea.

And with Head Island so near—

Head Island, teeming with angry skandhas, most terribly easily mistaken for a man—

He cannot rely on evidence to the contrary.

Max is shouting, but Max is dead, and the particular conglomeration of circumstances that produced him in this world will not recur.

And so Sid is angry, not happy, to hear the voice of the man. He is angry and he is hurt and he knows the most marvelous anodyne for that pain.

A black thorned wire of Sid comes down to cut through the darkness inside of Max.

The history of Mr. Kong shifts in Max’s hand; it turns the wire aside.

The knives of Sid burst forth from the sea like the tendrils of a beast; and the history cuts sideways and blocks two, three, four, but not the fifth.

He cuts through the man.

He hooks into the man.

He seizes up the man and stares into him and the world beats with the tempo of his angry breath.

Max’s left hand closes around the point of a curved and rusty knife. He shifts his right arm over a wire of Sid for leverage; and by chance or planning, he catches a leaf of Good between his shoulder and the wire, so that for a moment it does not cut.

He twists the knife sharply, as if it were Sid’s kneecap.

Shock unfolds.

The sound from Sid is like the shriek of startled birds.

Through the space occupied by Max’s torso, a sleeting of sharp edges flies.

The grip of Sid releases.

Max falls.

For a lingering moment, Sid is quite still.

Then he sunders the air, he cuts the sky, he makes a thunder with his wings, he falls on Max like vultures, like lightning, like the rain. A rumble builds in him, like a purr, like a roar, like the blast of an engine, to shudder the world apart.

A drop of blood floats free.

But it is as if Sid has cut the air between two lovers, or the space between two/words.

In that place, in that moment, under the eyes of Good and drawn together by Red Mary when once scattered far apart, the pieces that make up Max are holding together not by assertion but by choice.

He is not the blood and he is not the bone; not the hand and not the eye; not the flowering rain of red but the dharma: Max.

He holds himself together.

He seizes a bundle of wires of Sid.

Without looking at the hideous gap of the horizon or the burning eye of the Good, he vents a great-voiced shout and he twists the siggort in his grip and he drags the siggort down into the sea.

(Thanksgiving) The Metal That Longs to Move (1 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Max is smiling.

He’s leaning back and looking at the horizon of the sea — for it is too deep to say he properly sees the sky.

He says, “Do you know, I have organs?”

Red Mary is looking at him.

“Yes.”

“I have almost all of them,” Max says proudly. He feels them with his mind. His lungs are breathing. They’re breathing chaos, but that’s okay. He’s getting pretty used to that. His heart is beating. His intestines are all there, thank God.

Have you ever thanked the world for intestines?

They’re actually surprisingly cool, and almost entirely organic.

“Yes,” says Red Mary. “I put them back.”

“That’s great.”

“I repeat,” she says. “Do you know Meredith? Because if you do not, you will die; and if you lie, you will die painfully.”

“Exploded girl? The chaos god?”

“Ah.”

Red Mary’s voice is clotted with grief and anger.

“I’m honestly a bit more surprised,” says Max, “that you know her.”

“She is anathema to me,” says Red Mary. “She is abhorrent. She, having surrendered her boundaries and scattered her spirit throughout the world, regrouped it; made a cyst of it; strives, still, to reconcile being everywhere and in one place. She is the antithesis of my song.”

“Love?” suggests Max.

“Sometimes in the deeps I breathe her,” says Red Mary. “Sometimes I comb my hair and I hear her song. I taste her in the particles of the sea.”

“Hunger?”

“Sight,” says Red Mary.

“Sight?”

“I have seen her,” says Red Mary. “And that is more and less of a thing than love. And because I have seen her, I will help you, Max, who knows her, though it cost my life.”

“Do you need a spleen for anything?” Max says.

“I’m not going to eat you, Max.”

“No,” says Max, hesitantly. “I mean, are they . . . are they important?”

“Why?”

“No reason,” says Max, his face burning, and he begins to swim back upwards towards the Good.

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

Click.

Click.

Click.

It is rusted. It is broken. But it is not defeated.

It scrapes its surface against its other surface. It does not give up.

It is a thing that moves.

It is a thing that longs to move.

It jitters.

Click.

It falls back to where it began.

There is something looking at it.

It trembles under the awareness of that gaze. It converts — shame? Uncertainty? Aversion? — into heat. Knowing itself seen it begins to burn.

The metal that longs to move begins to warp.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It falls back to where it began.

It is hot. It is broken. But that time was better than the last.

A wildness rises into motion.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It manages a full rotation and then another.

Motion breeds interpretation.

An impulse rises from the rotation of the thing.

I am suffering.

It means something terrible. It means something horrible. But the tiny pieces that grind together to make that meaning are terribly excited to have moved.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It is bobbing up and down now like a parrot about to receive a treat.

It is trembling with its excitement.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It is moving.

It is burning and it is moving and each rotation is just a tiny bit freer from the heat.

An impulse rises.

I am in Hell.

It is surrounded by slag and spikes and rings. They are in doldrums, caught in the absence of wind. They are crumpled in about that thing that has relearned to move and they are still.

But a wind is rising.

The ring that it scrapes against begins to move.

The ring catches the shivering hunger of that first turning spike.

It scrapes against an outer ring; and a balance shifts; and heavy things fall and light things rise and wings beat and everywhere there is a dazzling chaos of form and pain.

Blades cut against blades.

The machine spasms.

Spikes shift.

Hooks rise and fall.

A control system awakens to the knowledge that it can see. Sick and mad with longing it spins itself into motion.

It sees a shivering blur of storms.

It sees the inside of a heart.

It sees a shivering blur of storms.

It sees the inside of a heart.

It loops inside and outside and back and forth and cries out sight and carries the data of one thing to the awareness of the other.

A ring of knives on a wire cord untangles itself from the engine.

Inside out and upside down, it thinks: Max is dead.

It drags itself along an inner circuit. Bits of fire dance along its edges. It skitters off of the substance of a frictionless sphere.

Something is watching it.

With aching and terrible relief, it notices — for the first time in so very long — that it has been in Hell.

Can you imagine how good that must feel?

How incredible it must be?

The shock of that first agony after all those years of still?

And Sid turns his gaze to the light of Good that stares in at him in his place of imprisonment, and he smiles his siggort smile, and he says, “You will die, you know. You will die; you will die; the world will die; and I will not hold back.”

Once he would have held back.

Even with Max dead.

He would have held back. He is Sid. He’s a slacker. He’s the kind of vivisecting horror who’d sit in a box for a good ten years rather than put anybody out.

But not now.

Right now, he’s thinking that if there’s any hope in all this vale of tears, it’s that suffering might transform; and in the ashes and the ruin of his life, twisted and tangled up in the borderland of the place without recourse —

For he is not properly in that dread valley while there is something that sees him, even if it should be the Good —

He gives his trust to Martin.

He unlimbers a spike of siggort back into the world, before the night, before the dawn.

I’ll cut out your heart, he tells the Good.

He almost cannot think through the power of the elation of the Good, to see an isn’t returning to the world.

And it says: Come get some.

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.

Max’s head breaks water.

He gasps in air splattered with the foam of the sea.

He breathes.

Above him the sky is livid with long strands of siggort sharpness. Sid is unfolding like a labyrinth and he is cutting open the world and the sea.

The eye of the goodblow pierces Max. It sees Max. It knows him and its knowing burns up his life.

It is patterned like a tapestry. It is leaf’d like a tree. It is diffuse and strange because it is being cut and the leaves of Good conflict against the cutting wires of a dharma inexpressible in the world.

And perhaps what Max should be thinking is: how is it possible?

How is it possible that I knew him all this time, and I did not know?

But he is missing his spleen and his thoughts are off their temper and instead he can only look up at his friend, who has shed the better half of his imprisonment, and say, “Thank God.”

To say: Thank God.

To say: Thank God.

And: Welcome, o my love, into the world.

He thinks these two things first, and willingly puts off a plan to stop Sid from destroying everything until thought three; or possibly, in practice, thought four, as he is still rather concerned about his spleen.

Siggort (V/V)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

The darkness is great and cool and soothing.

It fills the spaces between things.

There is a great open space between each grain of sand; between the ocean and the shore; between the individuated elements of the sky.

Sid looks upon the world, and where his gaze falls, he cuts.

He has one hundred hands and the parts of him move like clockwork gears; and where he looks, he cuts.

He is in constant orbit about himself and subject to a chaos of form.

He is ringed with knives.

He is aware of the dust that was his flesh as it sifts down onto the beach. He sets the malignity of his consciousness upon the atoms of it and it flares most terribly away.

He can taste every particle of the beach.

He tongues the chaos of the sea.

He can feel without looking each little shift in the muscles of Tara as she swims away.

Everything is silent.

He cannot hear at all; and where he looks, he cuts.

He is beautiful. He shines like a fire. He is monstrous. He is terrible. The sandfleas fall still in homage to him and the sun winces and looks away.

Everything is silent, and he can feel the strange little twitches of Tara’s growing concern.

He considers killing her.

The thought draws blood. It cuts her along the arm and back. The blood hangs gleaming in little droplets along the cutting arm of Sid’s eighteenth ring.

One of the pirates has thrown his eyepatch down onto the ground. It is expanding, filling with spiritual radiance, becoming a great carpet to carry the pirates away.

Sid sees the darkness between the elements of the eyepatch. With the abstract fascination of a creature that loves patterns he follows the interlacing pattern of the chain stitch around its edge.

The wires of Sid criss-cross through the eyepatch.

Sid reflects, distantly: Flying carpets are born from our blindness.

The eyepatch turns to shreds of cloth and spirit.

Sid does not want to kill the pirates.

So he lets them leave.

Lightly the attention of his mind falls on the heaps. He begins to bleed. The great metal arcs of him drip with red.

He makes the blood to cease.

He can feel the vibration of ten million sounds. He sorts out pattern and meaning from the radiation that falls on him from the beginning of the world. He tastes the dissolution of the Buddha’s answer.

He cannot hear anything at all.

He cannot feel Max.

One groping hook seizes up a heap. The hook holds it up. It writhes but under the pressure of directed contemplation it fails at substitution. Balefully Sid instructs it: become a conception of the proximity of Max.

It squirms and bleeds away.

Sid spins faster.

He angers.

He cuts down the head of Harrison Morne that hangs from the mountain at the center of Head Island. He shreds it into a cloud of flesh and fluids. It has no time to scream.

It is petty to kill one creature for another creature’s sins. But this death does not trouble him. He can see in the particulate nature of the cloud that Harrison Morne has lived a very long time in torment, and without the generosity of flesh.

He tastes a metal tang.

He tastes Max.

He tastes Max’s blood.

He tastes so very much of Max’s blood, in the ocean, to the west.

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.

Max loved you,
you know,

murmurs the sea.

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.”

Sid shears through the fortifications of the beach and scythes across Head Island like a storm.

But people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

Strangely it is Tara’s voice that pierces the emptiness of sound.

“If I may ask—“

She has paused, beyond the range of reflex, a fair ways out to sea. She is on her back. She is looking up at Sid, and speaking, and he hears the words.

Sid says: It is a useless redundancy to pierce a siggort’s heart with love.

She flushes.

You thought I was a heap.

“They’re very tricky,” Tara says.

Sid becomes aware of a family of rabbits. He does not have time to save them from the murder of his thoughts. He chews on the meat of them as he moves west.

“But I meant to ask— are you okay?”

If Max is dead, says Sid, Then I shall tear asunder the fabric of this world. And if he is not, then I shall fight him and hurt him and hurt myself forever.

Tara blushes even brighter.

Sid tastes it. He seeks its meaning down in the molecules of her. She is embarrassed because normally she would criticize tearing asunder the fabric of the world; only, Siddhartha Buddha got there first, and that makes it a bit like a Christian saying, “Language!” when a neighbor curses a fig tree.

She recovers, though.

She lays on her back like an otter in the sea and she says, “People think that what the Buddha said is, escaping the torments of the skandhas is difficult. Every direction people travel, they find ignorance and desire. They mire themselves in the birth-suffering, the old-age-suffering, the sickness-and-death-suffering. Everything is finite and everything that people cling to as their answer falls apart. So people think that what the Buddha said is, it’s very difficult to find enlightenment and free yourself from the wheel of reincarnation. But it’s not. It’s very easy. Because ignorance and desire are finite too. They are transient too. Anicca. You experience them, you breathe them in, you breathe them out, and eventually they’re gone.”

Sid’s answer is disinterested and it cuts the air like the clamor of a bell.

Oh.

Sid rises over a ridge.

The Good sees him.

It rises from the sea to the west and its gaze transfixes him, burns him, soaks into him even as the blades of him cut and shred the ambience of its light.

He is loved.

He is loved. He is loved. He is loved.

To the north, and west, and deep below the sea, Max dissolves; and the pieces of him flow him from his form, and his heart ceases to beat.

Sid lurches forward as if by moving somehow he could save Max; but it is too much. It is impossible. He cannot sustain.

Consciousness frays away from Sid and turns inside out and wraps around itself and blossoms into light How beautiful.

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.

The Aftermath of Heaven (1 of 2)

[The Island of the Centipede – Interlude]

He is like God.

That’s the funny thing. The more he hunts God down the more opportunities Max has to understand just how much like God he is.

Like, with Sid.

Max just had a simple little wish. He just wanted Sid never ever to torture somebody to death. So he stuck his nose in. And he found himself blunted, a thousand times frustrated, by Sid’s free will.

The siggort would just look at him. Like it was Max who didn’t get it.

Like the ichneumon who looked at the angel and said, “But don’t you understand that torment is better than hope?”

Like people explaining unto Heaven why what they want must certainly be right.

Like a child, young and certain of some perverse idea, defying a parent.

Not that Max was ever like a parent to Sid. Not to that ancient creature.

No. Max, with Sid, had always been like God. He’d loved him. He’d judged him. He’d tried to save him. He’d even sent Sid more or less to Hell, and damn bad he’d felt for doing it, too.

Out of love.

Somewhere that had been wrong. He got that. He lived with it every day. Somehow it had been wrong. Somehow he hadn’t had the right.

He didn’t know what he had been supposed to do, but from the ashes of that occasion he’d figured out that taking away Sid’s choices wasn’t it.

And maybe that made sense.

Sid hadn’t ever done it, that vivisection thing. Wasn’t doing it. Wasn’t killing people. Didn’t even know why he might.

So all Max had was the guess, the belief, the assumption, that someday Sid would think he had to—

And that he’d be wrong.

It made sense. Sid thought it would happen, and that it would be right, and the difference between these statements is that the one is a lot more probable than the other.

But it still left Max with nothing more than not trusting Sid.

Than not believing Sid.

Because he loves him. Because he loves him and he can’t let Sid go wrong. He can’t let Sid go all vivisecting people on public streets while nobody notices wrong.

And he can see why that’s maybe not the cleanest motivation in the world, why the intensity of his fear doesn’t make it right, but at the end he’s still got this, that there’s something wrong with a guy so sure he’s going to kill someone, and that it’s a Hell of a thing that Max just has to watch.

So here’s the weird thing.

The goodblow—God, Good, virtue, whatever it was—had looked at him. And loved him. Its love was powerful enough to kill. Its love was terrible enough to drive Red Mary right back to the point of murder,

Not that she’d been so very far away,

And to make him feel—

Like he’s safer, safer, being drowned, being dragged down, down, down, than he had been before that gaze.

But it had been okay with his being wrong.

He doesn’t get that.

He isn’t okay with his being wrong. His soul is full of rough and knobbly edges. He lives in them. They are the grain in the wood of his existence. But he wants them smooth.

The goodblow hadn’t . . .

He doesn’t understand, as he’s preparing himself to die, why such a rough unfinished creature as is Max could know the love of Heaven.

Why it hadn’t fixed him.

He’d fumbled it with Sid, but that was the way in which he wasn’t God. He’d fumbled it, and he’d owned his guilt, because Max just wasn’t good enough to do any better.

Why hadn’t it fixed him?

And that’s the only bad thing about dying here and now, of letting go of the pain and passing on, now that he knows how intensely valued he is. That he’s seen the brightest love in all the world and still can’t figure how to save Sid.

That it’s useless to him.

That the goodblow doesn’t understand anything at all about how love is supposed to work, that it didn’t fix him, and that that meant it hadn’t shown him how somebody could fix Sid.

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.

The Island of the Centipede

It is June 3, 2004.

The chaos is bluer than the bluest sea and wracked with love. It is full of air like a gel and dazzling with patterns of shifting light.

Oh, Max thinks.

Red Mary is beginning to sing. Her song is a paean to death. Her song transforms into iconic music the sea that devours, the sea that consumes, the sea that returns all things to the cauldron of life.

But:

Oh, Max thinks.

His thoughts flutter over and over again against the wall of things not being exactly as he’d expected, and one swoops back to him with the smallest of small answers.

Oh.

Love is not a duty.

Somewhere a part of him insists, it is.

But he lets go of that idea as the sea devours him. He lets the sea take that miscomprehension first—that worst and meanest part of Max.

A man’s got a right to choose in which order he gets eaten.

Love is not a duty.

He’s not chained to Sid’s outcomes.

Love is a transforming power.

And he wants—

So much, so much! he wants—

To use that, to use his last thought to make his eyes into flamethrowers and burn the world with his love for Sid, to take a trick from the goodblow and ignite the chaos with the power of that love so that whenever Sid would walk by, the sea would say,

“Max loved you, you know.”

Or just to love so fiercely that somehow Sid would feel it from afar.

But if people could do that it would happen more often, and not just in the fairy tales, because people love very hard indeed;

And Max is small and frail so instead he thinks, I’ll come back.

His mind is a wasteland made by the aftermath of Heaven and the siren’s song. He’s sailed to the end of the world for love of Sid and at the end, he can’t pull it to the forefront of his mind.

He thinks about survival instead.

Like Meredith did, he thinks.

I’ll come back.

Of course, if Sid had been there to ask, he’d have preferred that last thought anyway.

Next Tuesday will be an Audience post. The Island of the Centipede will continue on Thursday.

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.

Max Sets Forth to Kill God (1 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

The hardest part of that whole night is the show.

One quarter of Gibbelins’ Tower is a jumbled ruin. Claire’s scalp won’t stop bleeding even though she’s used a Sesame Street bandaid. Broderick is coughing and coughing because he’s allergic to disaster.

Nobody’s seen Sid, Mr. Schiff, or Rahu.

Martin says that the imago’s fallen—that when the tower started shaking, she just canted over and fell into a giant hole in the floor.

Max’s room is a wreck and his nerves are a jangle.

And amidst all this they must put on a performance of Hamlet 2: The Arrows of Fate, to be broadcast from the tower to a hypothetical audience outside the boundaries of the world.

“Why?” says Max.

Martin looks at him blankly.

“Dude,” Martin says, “haven’t you ever watched that play and said, ‘How can anyone possibly make a sequel?'”

Martin’s got a crushed pinky, which makes him substantially better off than Max in the current wounds department.

“The machinery’s barely even working!” protests Max.

Martin twists his hands into various positions, thinking. “You’re worried about Sid,” he says.

“Yes.”

Martin’s hair is all over masonry dust.

“Then try not being all freaky about hypothetical vivisections,” Martin says. “Sometimes you’ve got to torture somebody to death. Just look at Hell, or Guantanamo, or that old riddle about whether you’d rather torture one guy to death or let everyone in the world die. It happens.”

Max stares at Martin.

Martin looks back at him.

“It’s an inevitable byproduct of adequate force,” Martin explains.

So Max goes backstage and he helps Iphigenia unclog the pipes.

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

The Island of the Centipede

They dig Mr. Schiff out of the rubble a few hours after the play. He makes protesting noises because they have woken him up.

Before they find Sid or Rahu or the imago, Martin finds Max. Max is dragging a large tumbled stone out of the way of a blocked-off room.

Martin pulls himself up on a chunk of rubble. He sits there, watching Max for a minute.

“Do you trust me?” Martin says.

“No.”

“Here’s the thing,” Martin says. “I kind of accidentally wiggled a tectonic plate by giving the wrong person a fig newton.”

Max stops pulling.

He rubs sweat off his forehead.

“I don’t believe you,” says Max.

“Eh?”

Max shrugs.

Martin thinks.

“To the west,” Martin says, “the shock’s opened up a hole in the crust of the world and there’s a fountain of good rising from it.”

“Okay.”

“I need someone to deal with it,” Martin says.

“You’d think that we could leave it be.”

“It’s difficult to improve things once they get too good,” Martin says. “An actual singularity of virtue would render fixing the world impossible.”

“Also, unnecessary.”

“Why—?” Martin says.

Then he stops himself and thinks.

“Your logic is ancillary to an inherently limited perspective,” Martin dismisses.

“So to the west there is a goodblow,” Max says, “Like God breaking forth into the world to save us all from suffering. And you want me to go stop it.”

“Yes,” Martin says. “With extreme prejudice.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It’s ridiculous,” says Max. “It’s fighting against what we want the most.”

“I can’t make you,” Martin admits.

Max goes back to work.

“You won’t find Sid,” Martin says.

Max stops.

“He is restless,” says Martin. “And despair is forbidden to him. He throws himself against the walls of his cage and sometimes they overcome him. He is absent from these moments in which it is too much to bear. He is scuttled from the world.”

“Oh,” says Max.

Martin drops down to his feet and strolls towards away.

“Wait,” says Max.

“Hm?”

“If I do it,” says Max, “you make Sid an is.”

“You ridiculous dolt,” says Martin.

He walks away.

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

It is June 2, 2004.

Max wakes up and he already knows what he has to do.

He goes down to the catamaran dock.

He looks off to the dark and brooding west.

And Jane is waiting on the grass to see him off. And she is looking at him with her brow furrowed in thought, and she says, “You’re here.”

Max nods.

“Is that okay?” he says.

Little girls tend to like emanations of absolute virtue, so you can see why he asked.

Jane laughs. “Noooo,” she says. “I don’t mean here, at the dock. I mean, here.”

She looks at him.

“You had bad things in your closet. Then Sid chased them away. Then you were King of the playground. Then you played basketball.”

She is being careful with these words. She is slow and deliberate, even with the easy words and simple things.

“Then you were brave and saved Mr. McGruder. Then you loved Sid. Then you saw another siggort and talked Sid into helping Ronald Reagan become President. Then you fought a King. Then you ran away. Then you read a book and afterwards you went to the place without recourse. Then you called Sid there. Then you got out but he didn’t. Then you came here to help him put on plays. Then you shot him and now you want to sail west.”

“Yes,” says Max.

He grins a little. “And what does that mean to you?” he asks.

“The world’s bright and spits up super beauty everywhere,” says Jane.

“Oh.”

“And so there are things that Max. That go Max. Like you. That is what it means.”

Max grins tiredly. It’s pretty shocking to himself, that he has what it takes to grin. But he does.

“Thanks,” he says.

Jane holds out a box. It’s like a cribbage box, but bigger, with a slide-open top.

“Here,” she says.

“What is it?” Max asks.

Jane begins giggling. Max watches in perplexity.

Finally, she stammers out, “Severance pay.”

There are more giggles.

“Ah,” he says.

He takes the box. He frowns at her. But he can’t keep frowning.

She’s smiling at him so brightly that he hugs her.

Then he sails to the west.