Green (III/V)

It is September 27, 2002. The sun has gone down into the sea.

John dyes his hair green. He rinses it off. He rinses it again, and again, until the water comes out clean, and he looks into the sink.

He frowns.

Bad enough it should be stained with green; but the sink is discolored instead with streaks of green and black.

It’s a week of awful portents. He isn’t really superstitious, but you never can tell, these modern days, with fairies in the woods and the spider in the sky.

He sinks his fork into a chicken breast and it oozes something viscous and white; and his mom is all apologetic but he just thinks, it’s going to happen.

It’s going to happen. His Dad’s going to come by.

There’s nothing else as God would bother warning him of, he thinks. There’s nothing else worth the way he keeps smelling dead things, and stubbing his toe, and the way his business comes floating, rolling up after he’s done using the facilities, every time. And he reads the cards, one time, and the reading’s none too kind; so he wanders by Liril’s house, down the street, because.

“Is he coming?” he asks her.

She frowns at him.

“What?” he says.

“One day,” she says, “if you eat the wrong people, particularly, I think somebody might want you to be God.”

John squints at her. Micah, who was reorganizing the bookshelf, stops.

“God?” John asks.

Liril shrugs. “Yeah.”

“What does that even mean?” John asks.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last

It is Saturday, the 17th of April, 2004.

John turns. He lunges towards Liril. He is shouting something. He is going to—

He is going to—

Oh.

The Thorn That Does Not Kill has popped his heart. It’s put a hole straight through his chest and now he’s like the bubble that was broken, like the dream that was ended, like the rescuer that was not.

He has no center to him. He has no reality. He has no John.

It’s leaking out of him, a thick ectoplasm of his structure, from front and back alike. It’s running out of him, he’s dripping out of his center, like air from a balloon and despairing of the world.

Liril pushes him off of her. He staggers back. He sits down on the bed.

She pulls out the Thorn.

“Your heart is damaged,” Liril says. “I can leave you this way, or I can finish.”

I didn’t consent, he thinks dumbly. She’s supposed to change you when you ask, not when you move—

“I didn’t consent,” he says.

He’d done it to himself, really, with the way the Thorn was right there; but—

Liril looks away from him. She rubs her eyes.

“You want me to fix you?” she says. She sounds like she’s trying really hard to be cold and cruel and not managing it quite. “You want me to just put it back, so you can hurt me more?”

He puts his hand over the hole in his chest but he cannot hold in the substance that is John.

“Your moral standing,” he says, “is not clear.”

“That’s true,” Liril admits.

Her voice is weak and strained. He can understand it, now, as he’s never understood it before. It’s been lurking under everything she’s said, for a very long time, something empty, something broken, something like he’s feeling now. If he pushes her hard enough she will collapse. She will fix him. She does not have it in her to refuse him, if pushed hard enough, to stand up to what’s left of the boy named John.

He wants to shout at her to do it. To fix him. He doesn’t understand why he hasn’t done it yet. He keeps getting distracted by the ectoplasm on his hand.

A bit of him falls off his fingers and lands upon the quilt of Liril’s bed. It fades away.

He can’t make himself say it. He’s dying and he can’t make himself say it—

“So we compromise,” he says.

He is fading. He is falling. He is becoming nothing, not even John.

“One year,” she says.

“Done.”

The Thorn goes into his left eye. The Thorn goes into his right eye. The last thing he sees is the Thorn plunging, twice, deep into his brain; and it takes him a long time to realize that that wasn’t actually a thing he saw at all.

And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

He screams out his mortality. It flutters from him, rough-edged, like a departing flock of crows. He sways and he starts to fall.

The door of the room bursts open. Liril’s mother stands behind it. She stares at him for a long moment, and he has just enough time to notice how appallingly empty she is before she picks him up physically and throws him across the room. He coils, lands hands and feet upon the dresser, and braces to spring; her elbow comes down hard on the back of his neck just a moment before he realizes that he has no actual desire at this particular juncture to engage in a fight with Priyanka.

His face crunches through the dresser. His arm is twisted up behind his back. He howls. He can’t help thinking, all things considered, that this is rather a bit unfair.

“What the hell, Liril?” Priyanka says.

“I—”

Liril doesn’t appear to have an answer for ‘what the hell’ at this particular time. “I, um.”

Tainted John coughs the last spluttering syrup of his old self from his lungs. He dislocates his arm and twists himself around for leverage, trying to catch that fluid; Priyanka steps back and does something he can’t see but can feel in the motion of her legs and two floors of wooden floorboards recoil away, skittering from them like waves in a disrupted pool and leaving Priyanka, John, and the dresser to tumble into the basement down below.

John screeches in the dust and garments and the world revolves. He tries to grasp for Priyanka, but there is only emptiness.

“I—” Liril says again, above him.

Somehow he’s been shackled.

Priyanka has stepped back. His perceptions are clearing, he is limber, the shackle can’t hold him, he could—

Instinct reminds him once again that he has no particular desire to fight Liril’s mother at this juncture.

She snarls at him.

“Explain,” Priyanka says.

His voice isn’t working very well. “You were not home,” he rasps.

“So you come into my daughter’s bedroom,” Priyanka says.

He nods.

“And she puts out your eyes,” Priyanka says, “and turns you into— some sort of—”

He shrugs.

“Don’t lie to me,” Priyanka says, but her voice has already lost all of its strength.

She is sitting down, right there on the floor. She looks down at the ground under her knees for a long time, and then looks up at Liril.

Liril stares back. She has mastered herself. She looks brave.

“What am I going to do with you?” Priyanka whispers.

“Wicked children should be punished,” Liril says.

Priyanka laughs. It’s hollow. He cannot get over how empty they both are. He bets if he bit a chunk off of either of their fleshes he’d get brain freeze and maybe die.

“I won’t eat you,” John observes.

Priyanka gives him an alarmed glance. “You eat people?”

“Not you,” John clarifies.

Priyanka stands up. The last bits of life flow out of her expression.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

Liril slips away from the hole two floors above. He can feel her walking down the stairs. She opens the door. She comes in.

“I’m sorry,” Priyanka says, again.

Liril tries to touch Priyanka’s hand, but there is only emptiness.

“Is he safe?” Priyanka asks.

“He won’t eat me,” Liril says.

Priyanka nods. Liril sits down on the floor. The ceiling shudders and wavers closed. Priyanka leaves.

Behind her, she locks the door.

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.

It’s dark, but that doesn’t matter much. He’s locked in, but that doesn’t really matter either. The only things that matter are Liril and the hunger.

“I’m hungry,” he says, softly.

“I’m sorry,” Liril says.

“I want to eat angels,” John says. “And demons. And fiends, and ragged things, and other gods.”

“Yes,” says Liril.

“I don’t mind not having eyes,” he says. “Or a great vacant hole where was my heart. But I wish that I weren’t so hungry.”

“I’m sorry,” she says.

He grins at her. The bloody holes where his eyes should be are very bright. “Corpses would be okay.”

She stares at him vacantly for a little while. He supposes that she can’t see him, not properly, not in the dark.

“Hey,” he says. “Hey, what am I?”

“One day,” she says, thoughtfully, “if you eat the wrong people, you might be God.”

He finds himself salivating, and fights it down. He adds himself to the list of things that he should not eat.

“What is God?” John asks.

This seems to stump her for a bit. He thinks that maybe she’s not quite so great an oracle as he’d always thought, given the way that her mouth keeps opening and closing and then opening again, and her forehead furrowing and then going straight.

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER TWO]


April 17, 2004

“God,” she says, eventually, “is that which shatters you.”

What Do You Do with a One-Winged Cherub? (VII/VII)

It is 1998 and Micah comes home and Melanie’s sitting on the couch.

She’s wearing a suit and she’s wearing shades and she’s got a nametag on.

It says, “Melanie.”

Just Melanie. It doesn’t say anything about being cunning or beloved of the gods.

She lowers her shades.

She looks at him.

Her eyes are evil, they make him flinch, but they’re otherwise identical to his own.

He puts a bag of groceries down by the door. He stands there numbly.

“Hi there,” she says to him. “What’s your name?”

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER ONE]


October 31, 1998

Liril hasn’t told him what to do.

Without Liril telling him what to do, he’s just a boy. He’s just a boy who wants to protect her from the evils of the world, but not one who necessarily can.

“I might accidentally flay your soul and stretch it on the birch trees,” Micah says. He tries to make it sound casual, like something Liril’s warned him not to do. “I mean, I don’t want to, I wouldn’t defy Central like that, it’s just, you know, something that could accidentally happen if I forget the alchemical equation I’m holding in my head.”

“That’s a fine trick,” Melanie concedes.

“Where is she?” Micah asks.

“You know,” says Melanie, “I could have sworn there was an order out to have you brought in and tortured. As opposed to standing there, all asking questions with your mouth, and things.”

“It was a terrible misunderstanding,” Micah says. “I showed the last visitor my correct report card and the matter resolved in its entirety. Also, you mean ‘re-oriented’ or something. Torture’s too explicit a word.”

He takes off his coat. He hangs it by the door.

“Can I get you anything?” he asks.

His eyes are scanning the house, looking for signs of Liril. But her frankness or her error—he’s not sure which—has reassured him.

“Like, if you really need a sandwich, or a penny, or a knife in your eye, or something,” he says, “I could totally oblige.”

“Really?” she says. She sounds delighted. “You’d do that for me?”

“See a penny, pick it up,” he assures her. “All that day you’ll have good luck. I’ve got . . . like a thousand. If I had a nickel for every penny I had, I’d convert them into pennies and win the economy forever. “

“Your name, then,” she says.

“Micah.”

She tilts her head. “From formica?”

“That’s two prepositions in a row,” Micah says. “I can’t understand your crazy monster language.”

“Melanie,” she says.

“Yes,” he agrees. “It would be.”

She looks down at her nametag. She blushes a little. “Yes.”

“I’m not going with you,” Micah says. “I’ve decided that you’re holding Liril and Priyanka hostage, but that she has a plan that requires me to pretend that you don’t, refuse to deal, and do everything I can think of to oppose you.”

“Bah,” Melanie says. “Your report card recorded an erroneously high decorum.”

“I had a lot of extra credit,” Micah says. “Field work and the like.”

“Does that really work?” Melanie says. Her tone is genuinely curious. “I mean, just deciding what you want to do and assuming that Liril must support it?”

“No,” he says. “It’s completely ridiculous.”

“Oh.”

“It’s just,” he says, “so is listening to anything you say. So it’s kind of a wash. You know?”

“I see!”

He sighs. He looks tired. He trudges over to a couch and he sits down. “What do you want?” he asks.

She smiles briefly.

“You should come work for us,” she says.

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope!”

She tosses him a nametag. It’s blank. He catches it. Then he flinches and throws it from him like it’s caught fire in his hands.

She frowns.

“I’m not interested,” Micah says.

“The monster’s weak,” she says. “He talks like he left you here on purpose. He talks like he’s still got a plan for that girl Jane. But I saw him when he came back from here. He was hurt. He was frayed. You got acid on his heart and soul, my boy, with whatever trick you pulled.”

“I renamed him,” Micah says.

Melanie closes her eyes for a moment. Her face is perfectly still. Then she opens them up again. “Snotgargler?” she suggests.

He shakes his head.

Doctor Snotgargler?”

He looks away.

“The important thing,” she says, “is that he’s weak. I could take him. If I had your help. I could beat him. If I had your help.”

“It’s amazing,” he says. “You’re not even trying to sound like you believe that.”

“What?”

Her voice is wounded.

“That’s ridiculous,” she says. “It’s an awesome plan.”

And as suddenly as that it crashes in on him that she is hollow; that she is broken; that she has a certain shelter in her heart, and cracks therein, that he remembers from years ago. He is looking at a crucible.

He doesn’t want the pity in his face to show. He turns away.

“Oh, don’t you dare,” she says. “Don’t you fucking dare. It was only twice. He’s been used more than that himself.”

He clenches his fist.

A jolt of humor washes through her. He can feel it in the tides of the emotions of the room. It’s slipped from her, whatever is wrong inside her, and she’s laughing at the world instead.

“Hey,” she says. “Hey. How do you separate a monster from his charges?”

He shakes his head.

He ought to tell her, he thinks. Anything that hurts the monster can redound only to his good. But he doesn’t trust any impulse or reason whatsoever that would tell this woman more than she already seems to know.

“Hey,” she repeats. “How do you separate a monster from his charges?”

“No,” he tells her. I won’t.

“You take away his credit card,” she beams.

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

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea

It’s about an hour later. They’ve had tea. Liril’s almost home from trick-or-treating, so Melanie suspects, and so she rises to her feet.

“The offer is good,” she says, quietly.

He shakes his head.

“It’s just a nametag,” she says. “Pick it up. Put it on. Come with me. We can kill the bastard and live happily ever after without dying even once.”

“I’m not going to Central,” Micah says. “I’d just end up like you.”

“Ouch,” she says. She shakes her hand, pretending that it’s burnt. Then she goes out.

He cleans up the teacups.

He looks at the nametag.

I bet I could use this, he thinks. I bet it could give me some kind of strength.

And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me

Liril gets home and he is rocking, hissing, clutching tight at his inflamed and swollen hand.

[The Frog and the Thorn — END OF CHAPTER ONE]

“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.

The Lion (V/VII)

It is May 13 in the year of our Lord 1981 and there is a Dominion that bends itself down upon the Earth. And where the Dominion goes there is a singing, and the world itself is moved to join the chorus, and there is a trembling in the houses of the unjust. And where it moves the eyes and faces and wings that are within it turn to see. Shimmering auroras move around its surface, like a cloak, like halos, like a glorious night sky.

Let us not imagine that it is a thing of safety or of sanity. It is a creature out of legend. It kills birds where it passes, for it does not share the skies. It withers trees as it passes them, leaches the world’s life from the soil, it makes good earth to fallow ground. These things it does not from malice but by its nature: it understands no life that is not its own.

I will nevertheless call it good.

If it is a blind and foolish god, if it is harmful, then still, I will say it is well-intentioned. If it has done harm, then still it is high-minded.

It is not its fault, at any rate, what happened at Elm Hill.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 13, 1981

Listen, and I will tell you the truth of the monster’s wings.

They are brilliant and they are reflective. When you look upon them you will see the inside of your own eyes. You will see the process by which you form yourself laid bare.

When he has spread his wings through the construction of the world, when he has become a parasite on creation and made the truth a captive to his will, the monster will not give you the luxury of seeing that it is so. Instead you will see yourself. And in that moment he will describe you. He will tell you who you are.

Reason will not help you. This is because the monster is aware of reason. He exists outside it, like the classical God outside of time and space. The tools of your mind are limited. They rely on receiving truthful feedback from the world — all save pure math, perhaps, and even that depends on truth for its relevance. In a position where the monster can reward error, frustrate correctness, and demonstrate as folly whatever might otherwise be wise, you cannot expect to win over him with reason. To imagine that you can do so is unreasonable. It is an idealistic attachment to the happy ending at the end of a fairy tale, where one reasonable person, refusing to give in, triumphs magically at the last.

If you had infinite time, of course, that would be so. Give yourself forever to fight the monster in and his lies, as they are lies, would fray one day and come apart. But we are mortal creatures, bound by time; to us the monster is simply truth.

Reason will not help you. Strength will not help you. Strength is as useless in the monster’s presence as is reason. Where you build walls of your strength he will dig out the ground. Where you hold a position he will encircle it, undermine it, turn the purpose of your holding it to sand. The more you fight him, the more you will lose. To expect any differently is to hew unto a fairy tale; and the fairies, well, they’re isn’ts yet.

Strength will not help you. Reason will not help you. Nor will it help you in the least to know that, theoretically, there is some real truth, somewhere, somewhere outside the monster’s steading.

Depending on what you imagine truth to be, that might not even be the case.

In his unfurled wings the monster is an absolute creature. He is not deniable. He is no longer a person. He is no longer a man, or a god, or whatever the hell monsters are, in a lab coat, with a name tag, with a tie. He is I AM THAT I AM, as much as any burning bush has ever been.

It is as if, to gain his power, he had slaughtered God, had ripped out the bones and organs of Him, and made from Him a coat. He usurps God as he does reason; to seek God in his presence is therefore to seek the monster out.

Look for love, if you’d rather. Look for hate. Look for hope. Look for anything you like.

You’ll be caught up in the maze of him. You’ll find it only where he wills.

The reason I’m explaining this is that I can’t really tell you what happened in places where the monster’s wings spread wide. It’s like I’ve said. He becomes truth. He becomes the authoritative source on the matter, and what he is saying is always — it’s never, “On thus and such time, at thus and such a date, this happened, and then this.”

It’s always just him.

All I can tell you is what someone told me later happened at Elm Hill. All I can tell you is a story. It’s pretty much made up, because if it were true, it would be the monster, just as the monster, at that time, was truth.

The Dominion bent down to meet him. He was standing on the roof.

You probably think you wouldn’t give in to him. Of course you wouldn’t. Of course you’d stand up to him. The man’s a filthy bit of work, isn’t he? Worse’n the Devil, some would say. There’s no way you’d look at those wings and think that what the monster does to children could be right.

Please do believe that. You should. It costs him something, every time he spreads those wings. There’s no point in giving in to him for free.

But I tell you that the Dominion bent down to meet him, and he was standing on the roof, and the monster spread his wings. And from that point forward, he was Axiom. He was Correctness. He was as righteous as the stars.

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

The monster said, “This world is no place for you. If you stay here you will die.”

That’s what I’ve heard. That’s what I’ve heard he said.

“If you stay here,” the monster said, “you’ll die.”

And the creature, its words were the fluttering of ten thousand wings. The creature, its words were ten thousand hands and eyes and wings opening and closing, all modulated into voice.

It said: I will exalt you. I will lift you up. I will make you as God, and no more to depend upon the suffering of your prey.

The monster spat onto the roof, and in that spittle seethed ten thousand tiny living things.

“I will make you death and suffering,” he said. “I will make you anguish and violation. You will be hideous, horrible, and despised. Or you may go.”

The creature rotated in its form. It turned, and the pieces of its turning came into alignment, and you who looked upon it would see: ah, here is its face. Then it would turn further, the previous face dissolving, a new one forming, and you would realize: no, that was not so: its face is this.

The creature said: Can you really say that you are happy with your life?

The monster laughed.

You will die, it told him. And before that death, you will sorrow. You will know the damnation of your line.

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

It’s May 13, 1981, and we can see again, and the monster is giving the Dominion this beautiful grin.

It’s like the sun.

It’s been telling him he’s damned, only —

For a moment, you might almost think: wait. That’s not bravado. He is actually having fun.

It’s pure and clear as the monster isn’t pure and clear. It’s bright and beautiful as the monster isn’t bright and beautiful. It’s the best thing in the world, that laugh, that grin, that enemy of damnation. Then, however, the monster is moving, and there is a thorn in his hand, and it pierces the Dominion, and it is suddenly clear that everything in the world is wrong.

The Dominion staggers. Its form becomes imprecise. Where there was glory there is now a great disruptive seething, as of slime.

It is shattered. It is raining down, upon Elm Hill.

It is twisted. There is within it a great and horrible soullessness of life.

It is wounded. It gapes at him, this thing that has never before been wounded, and which cannot really understand what its hurting means.

“I will kill you,” it cries, and its voice is a great storm. But it does not.

Children, sure, it kills, those that don’t get evacuated in time. There is a price to be paid for the defiling of Elm Hill. Children it kills, and workers, and the place itself: Elm Hill’s no good place for the monster’s work any longer.

But the monster it doesn’t kill.

The monster he just serves it as any other fiend is served, until it limps and staggers howling away beyond the boundaries of the world, a broken lion, and in its paw a thorn.

Ink and Abandonment (I/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

On the bottom of the world everything is topsy-turvy.

The trees stick their roots out of the ground instead of their branches. The dirt is on top of everything. Birds are very confused and can’t decide which way their belly should point when they fly around. Groundhogs burrow to the surface, look around, and fall screaming into an endless storm.

A sundae costs 29 cents, if you can find one for sale at all.

There’s a teenaged girl picking her way through the roots of the world. She’s using a metal ruler as a kind of crampon and a lunchbox as a kind of brace and she’s being very careful not to fall.

“Everything’s opposite here,” she says.

She thinks about that.

“On opposite day,” she says, “at my middle school, we abandoned our attachments to the skandhas and experienced the world without suffering. Also, everything was permanent and it was itself exactly.”

A hummingbird pauses in the air beside her.

Alone among all the birds, it does not seem confused about direction. Sipping on the nectar of the absinthe roots, it has grown wise.

It says, “I am permanent.”

“Well, there you go,” says the girl.

The hummingbird looks smug.

“Also,” the girl says, thinking, “light took almost ten years per meter, so everything was very dark, and people would do annoying things like steal my lunch and say, ‘It’s everybody else’s lunch!'”

The girl looks sour.

She looks so sour as she picks her way through the roots that the hummingbird prompts, “It is good that you had abandoned your attachments to the skandhas.”

“Stupid opposite day,” sulks the girl.

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

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

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, but everybody calls her the imago. It’s because she’s the Apple Corporation’s entry into the reified ideals market, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

In a thicket of roots she sees squirming black. She sees the tendrils of trees stretching and relaxing. She sees a creature tangled in the roots of the world.

“Oh!” she says.

The creature has a whisker. No: it has six, three on each side of its face.

Its head is flat like a manta ray’s body. Its tail is long and serrated. Its body is black but has white stripes like a skunk’s.

It is the size of a table and it is struggling to tear free.

“It’s adorable,” says the girl, eyes round.

She balances on the great long root of a Steel Rowan. The root’s metal surface has rubber tracks to help it cling to the crust of the world. These help the girl, in turn, to stand.

The girl reaches out.

She almost touches it—

An obsolete groundhog falls past them, screaming.

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Flying Carpets: Flying carpets take you from the confines of your world.

The girl jerks back her hand.

She hesitates a long moment.

She is thinking: Is that going to happen every time?

She looks down after the groundhog.

Was that something I should have cared about?

But in the end she decides that it will not, and it was not, and she reaches forth again.

She sets her hand to the creature.

Her skin runs with the colors of its history.

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Jacob’s Carpet: Jacob suffered in a little room. He could not leave its confines. It had no carpet that he could make to fly. All there was was a shadow.

He made a flying carpet of that shadow.

Its body was black but it had white stripes like a skunk’s where the light from the window in the door came down.

He stepped onto it. He said, “Away!”

It rammed the wall with Jacob on it. It made his nose to blood. It tried again, to Jacob’s sorrow, and again.

Then they fell down and it was shadow for a while.

They tried again later, to no better end.

This happened many times before the monster tore out Jacob’s heart and shoved a spear through Jacob’s brain and Jacob’s carpet flew away.

Tangled in the roots that dangle out the bottom of the world, Jacob’s carpet mewls.

“My name is Ink,” says the girl.

She rubs her hand on the carpet and shows it to the carpet’s face. It’s all smeared with black.

“See?”

The carpet freaks out. It flails in the roots. It keens. It bobs around.

Ink steps back.

Ink waits.

“Shh,” she says. “Shh. It’s okay. Everyone calls me the imago. —oh!”

She is not repeating the last syllable of imago.

She is making a horrified noise.

She is making a very specific horrified noise.

It is the horrified noise that a girl makes when she finds a magical animal and then realizes that it has a root of the world stuck right through its brain. It’s just there, speared through it, a screw-root from a boring tree, twisting in the lobes.

“No wonder you’re not talking,” the imago says.

The carpet whimpers.

“Poor thing,” she says. “You’re going to die and fall into the endless storm, aren’t you? And its winds are going to blow you around and you’ll fly this way and that and by the time you find out what’s on the other side you’ll be so dead and torn to shreds you won’t even have a coherent identity?”

It’s total speculation. Imagoes are one of the very few kinds of gods that suck at predicting things. But even so the carpet stills. It goes calm. It seems to like this particular tone of Ink’s voice.

Ink rubs at her chin. She looks grave and serious, like a rabbi with a beard, except in all the ways in which she looks nothing like that at all.

“I’ll tell you what,” she says. “I’ll try shaming the boring tree out and maybe you’ll still have some brain left.”

The carpet is growing restive. Ink’s eyes widen. She tries to think.

“I mean,” she says, “Everything’s awful and the world is going to end except for the worst bits which will go to Hell!”

The carpet relaxes.

It makes a little chirr noise.

“Sweet baby,” says Ink, rubbing its tail. “You like the inevitable annihilation of all things, don’t you? Don’t you?”

And there is peace for a moment, in the deeps beneath the world.

The histories of Ink Catherly: 1, 2, 3, 4
And most relevantly: Ink Indestructible

“On the top side of the world,” Ink says, “where there’s a pervasive character of suffering, girls find magical animals that aren’t dying and aren’t desperate for the annihilation of all things, you know.”

The creature hesitates.

“I’m just saying,” Ink says.

“Maybe it’s the difference,” the hummingbird suggests, “between the actual and the dream.”

  • Tune in tomorrow for the next exciting history:
    INK INSULTS A TREE!

Death Unsacred

1. Ms. Dorothy Adams

It is December 10, 2012, and Ms. Dorothy Adams is lost in a magical land.

On the ground at her feet is the vegetable boy. He could be dying, she thinks. He could be dead.

There are at least ten and perhaps fifteen of the tiger-things closing in on her position. She does not recognize them. They are no earthly beast. Their claws and fangs testify regardless to a tangible and certain prowess.

She holds a makeshift club—a stripped-down fallen branch—in her hands.

“This is the measure of a life,” she thinks: “What you’ll risk it for.”

2. The Spry Old Man

Her story properly begins with the rendition. She was in the process of returning home from Europe to her parents’ Virginia estate when an irregularity in her documentation incited the agents on the scene to draw her aside. In security she languished, for a short period of time, before the Agency came to speak to her; and when they found her intransigent in her unwillingness to profess false crimes—as one could only expect from a woman, no, more, a Virginian! of the United States Armed Forces—they handcuffed her and placed her on an outgoing flight.

Her guard, an old man in the Agency’s dark uniform, was so spry he could barely sit still in his seat. He was alive with a fierce and radiant energy; he was smiling, he laughed when the pilot made intercom jokes, and when his partner came back into the cabin to bring them their meals, he came very close to cheering.

From time to time during the flight, he would pat her shoulder and smile to her—an intimacy that she, naturally, rebuffed.

“You’re so lucky,” he said.

She gave him a frosty look.

“You’ll see!” he assured her.

The plane shook a little in the wind and there was the soft pitter-pat of weather on the hull.

“They told me that in certain places in the world,” said Ms. Adams, “it was legitimate, no, standard practice to employ torture. So I expect that is my situation; and I would not call it lucky; but I will not break.”

“Oh, there’s torture,” said the spry old man. “There’s plenty of torture in the world. There’s all kinds of horror. But not where you’re going.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Then I don’t see the point,” she said.

The elimination of potential difficulties,” he said, and his smile was so brilliant that in any other circumstance Ms. Adams would have smiled back; but as things were, and expecting as she did rendition not to a magical land but to Syria or Guantanamo, his smile struck her as evidence of intense sociopathic bent.

She turned her eyes away towards the window. She frowned.

“It’s hailing fucking marshmallows,” she said.

“Language, young lady,” he said, “Language!”

She was forty-five.

3. Thrown

At a certain point in time and space, in response to an unknown signal, the spry old man seized her from her seat. She did not struggle, not at first, because he had a gun and the circumstances were poor; but when he began to force her towards the door, and with the plane still in flight, she fought for her very life.

“Quiet!” he said, and struck her on the head. Her vision went white. Her ears rang. Then she could hear the opening of the door; and while she desperately tried to remember how her arms and legs worked, he released her from her restraints and flung her from the plane.

“Cheerio!” he cried, and “Godspeed!”

She fell.

Ms. Dorothy Adams, Private First Class, passed through a layer of clouds, the soft springy substance of them parting only reluctantly as she hit. She disturbed a flock of stairstep birds in flight, her fall broken awkwardly and embarrassingly by first one then the other as she caromed through the sky. Then there was nothing beneath her but a spreading green land, and she said, “I shall, at least, have a story to tell in Heaven.”

Then, with a grace in tragedy and a grim resolve to—if at all possible—survive the impact that would follow, she closed her eyes, made her body limp, and thought of distant lands.

4. Waking

It was the sun that woke her: the rising sun, over the hills. She mumbled and she whined, for a moment not Ms. Dorothy Adams but the small child she had once been, tossing in her bed at the Virginia estate, resenting fiercely such early awakenings. Then the cold realization of her situation struck. She was at once on her feet and staring about.

“I am unbruised,” she thought, and a dizzying wave of confusion passed over her. “I am in a forest and I am still dressed in my clothes from three days ago and I am unbruised.”

In the distance she could hear bird calls, so many bird calls, and an occasional, terrible throaty roar.

To her credit, Ms. Dorothy Adams wasted no time on her confusion. She was a woman, no, more, a Virginian! of the United States Armed Forces. Her first priority was not to understand but to survive. She tuned her senses to their fullest and their most alert. She seized a fallen branch from the ground and stripped it of its twigs and bark. She placed her back against a tree.

Slowly, because of the low priority and reliability of this sensory data, she came to realize that from the branches of the trees around her hung not nuts or flowers but roast turkey; saving, of course, for those from which hung clumps of potatoes or bowls of stuffing, and where the birds had cracked them open, she saw that the potatoes were mashed and buttered inside their skin.

“Gracious me,” she swore, her gutter mouth forsaking her. “It’s a proper feast!”

5. The Vegetable Boy

This magical scene would no doubt have ended with a fine repast or a psychotic break, save that a certain other event intervened; that being that the vegetable boy, fleeing the pursuit of a pack of Kazimajars, burst at that very moment into the clearing.

He was handsome, for a vegetable boy: his hair was green, his skin a fine nut-color, and his eyes as warm as the spry old man’s were bright. He wore fine purple raiment with a white silk undershirt. He was tired, panting, his clothing torn and the leaves in his hair half-wilted; but nevertheless he had some energy left to him.

Ms. Adams had been, during her native country’s unfortunately prolonged excursion in Iraq, reckoned the second-best sword in all the Middle East; though, of course, her skill with the gun was far more relevant. Thus she did not hesitate in considering herself the vegetable boy’s superior in personal combat, and, reasoning that he should have information of value to her, she confronted him. With a lithe step and a fierce demeanor she stepped out and brought her makeshift club to his throat; or so, at least, she had intended.

“Foul!” cried the vegetable boy, stepping back; and from the back of his hand grew a great long thorn, which he brought across to parry her club. “Treachery!”

As she did not know how much time there was to waste, Ms. Adams wasted none; she disengaged her weapon and attempted to strike him on the head. In this she would have succeeded, save that the thorn was amazingly swift in motion. Each blow she attempted he parried or reversed, and as she fenced with her opponent she realized that here was a boy, albeit a boy apparently made principally of vegetable matter, who could easily have ranked as one of the top five swords in the Middle East. After three more exchanges, she found herself admiring him, not so much for his skill but for his style; and after a passata-sotto lunge had failed her, forcing her into an awkward, stumbling retreat while the thorn stabbed about her face, the innate courtesy of her birth overcame her dedication and she exclaimed, “Such a waste that you should be an enemy!”

“The same,” he said, and stepped back a moment to salute. “For I had scarcely expected to encounter a princess of such beauty and such skill in this Kazimajar-infested region, much less find myself wood-to-wood with her.”

“I am not a princess,” she said.

“Then what are you?” asked the vegetable boy.

“Ms. Dorothy Adams,” she said, “Private First Class of the United States Armed Forces.”

“Well,” he said. “It seems to me that a Private First Class is much the same as a princess, only perhaps a bit fiercer; so you must pardon my misunderstanding.”

“What are you?” she said. “What am I doing here? Where is this place?”

“I am the hope of the vegetable tribe,” he said. “When I am ready to plant myself, I will tame this region, and make it habitable for my kind. As for what you are doing here, I cannot say; and as for this place, well, it is the Peapod Forest of Gillikin, as its unusual green color should indicate.”

Then she is staggered; then she says, “I have taken rather a journey—”

But the vegetable boy’s hand goes to his side; he clutches at a tear in his clothing, where his flesh has started of a sudden to leak a dark purple ichor.

“Oh, dear,” he said. He smiled at her. “I guess those beasts back there were more accurate than I’d thought.”

“Beasts?”

“It’s all the activity,” he said. He stares at his hand, which is purple. “I’m sorry. I’m going to pass out now, and here I’ve hardly just met you.”

And she could hear the beasts that hunted him approach.

6. The Tiger-Things

They are everywhere: the hunting Kazimajars, great cats of a sort but with patches of serpent-scale and bear-fur and the voices of men.

“He is our prey,” whines one of them.

“Tasty, tasty vegetable boy.”

And Ms. Adams, with the stern strength accordant to a woman of the United States Armed Forces, denies them. She stands over his fallen body and says, “Find something else.”

Some of them are circling around behind her. She can hear them.

“A turkey. Or mashed potatoes,” Ms. Adams says.

“He’s tastier,” whispers one of the beasts.

She has no time; the position is rapidly becoming untenable. She steps forward and whirls her club and cracks that beast upon its face. It reels back, stunned and whimpering: “You hit me!” it declares.

“I’ll beat all of you to a pulp,” she says. “I’ll show you what it is to fight a woman of Virginia!”

She clubs another sideways. It staggers into a tree. Spinning to drive back another, she unleashes a war cry: an unearthly yell, terrifying, the cry of a goddess come down to make war among men. And there is fear in them, and the will of the pack is breaking, and the Kazimajars are scattering, but there is one, the largest of them, the savage beast named Groth, who does not succumb to fear. He remains where the others have fled. He leaps upon her; she is borne down to the ground under his weight; his teeth bite out her throat, his claws score her sides. Her arms are numb and she cannot feel the club in her hand and she is only thinking, “I must throw him off and drive him back before I die.”

And as a last act to give credit to her name, a moment of heroism to prove that even in these troubled lands the life of a woman—no, more, a Virginian!—was not without account, she woke her arm to life and placed the club under his neck and thrust it upwards; and gagging, wretching, in great misery, the Kazimajar staggered away.

She lay there, soft and quiet, waiting to die.

But in this magical land of childhood, there is no heroism; there is no accounting; there is no virtue to such deeds. Death is unsacred here, and she realizes, when the moon rises and the blood that flows from her and the vegetable boy fades to a trickle, that there is not even any pain.

A tide of hopeless rises in her.

She tastes a sick horror in the back of her throat: for these are the lands of childhood.

Then she sets the matter aside and sits up slowly and turns her thoughts to the south, where if there is an airport it most likely resides; for it is not meet for a woman—no, more, a Virginian!—of the United States Armed Forces to surrender easily to those who find death unsacred.

House of Saints: Vladimir’s Dreams

It is very hard to sort people.

There are many common mistakes that are made.

For example, when Vladimir’s magic hat sorted people into the House of Hunger, it made them into beasts that yearn insatiably for human flesh. That’s why the Edmund-beast plans on eating Peter later. That’s why the Lucy-beast (no relation) is attacking Peter now. People are getting eaten all over the school by their former classmates and friends.

This is considered bad sorting as defined by the Standards Institute of the London Sorting Association (LSASI).

There’s also the whole kerfluffle involving the House of Dreams, which has a significantly increased incidence of brooding gothic insanity compared to the general population. Section 13 of the Sorting Code clearly specifies that a proper sorting must not cause madness.

There are other sorting mistakes, though, which can be made by the laity as well as by hats. For example, many people assume that the students at the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth are dangerous. In fact, this represents an error in processing capitalization—they are Lethal students, as branded by the Lethal corporation, but they are not invariably fatal. Many of them, such as Peter, Bethany, and Saul, are in fact saints.

Once your humble narrator accidentally sorted thirty-five thousand people into the dustbin of history before finding out that people still live in Rome. That was really pretty embarrassing, and we’re all glad it’s sorted out now.

The Lucy-beast attacks!

House of Saints


Vladimir’s Dreams

But Peter is watched over, at this if not all times, by a creature that is much less than an angel.

Swifter than the wind, the Edmund-beast is there.

The beast’s nostrils are flared wide and it has grasped the entire situation by smell. “Mine,” it snarls.

Lucy glances back; her eyes show just enough weakness and humanity.

The Edmund-beast tackles Lucy hard.

The rival beasts roll down the hall, hissing, biting, and scratching. The noise is terrible, and it shakes the school. Students in yellow hats are standing on every balcony above them, watching. There is blood that sprays and horrid gagging noises. But struggles within Hunger’s House do not last long. The two break apart. The Edmund-beast and the Lucy-beast gauge one another for a moment. Then Lucy walks off, limping, down the hall.

The students in yellow hats drift away.

The Edmund-beast looks back.

Mockingly, it asks Peter, “Is it time yet? Is it time to eat you? I won’t let anyone else have you, Peter, but you must tell me when it is time.”

And Peter frowns at him. He has a dim and distant vision of a cold and terrible sea. And he shakes his head.

“It is not yet time.”

The Edmund-beast nods. It lowers its head. It snarls, a loud, proprietary noise. Then it lopes away.

Time passes.

“We need to sort someone,” says Saul.

“What?”

That’s Bethany. She’s been chewing gum and fretting. Now she’s also asking Saul, “What?”

“We need to find someone who’s as concerned as we are about all this business and sort them,” says Saul. “Get them to wear the sorting hat and think unsaintly thoughts. So that they can tell us what it’s like in Hunger. Or in Dreams. Or the yellows.”

None of them knows which House the people in the yellow hats are in. Sometimes Peter suspects they are actually a gang and not actually related to the whole sorting business at all.

“A volunteer, of course?” Peter asks.

“Naturally,” says Saul.

“And how do we get the hat?”

“We find Vladimir, and we ask him.”

Bethany sighs. She shakes her head.

“What?”

“We can’t ask to sort someone,” says Bethany. “It’s too intrusive. People should be sorted by their hearts, not their hats!”

“Then they’d die,” says Peter, who has momentarily misplaced his facility with abstract thought. “Their heart would bleed all over their head and they would not have oxygen for their brain. Also, it wouldn’t be fashionable at all.”

Bethany holds up a finger, pauses, then shakes her head.

“Me,” says Saul. “I’ll go in for a second sorting. And I’ll think hungry thoughts.”

“. . . I suppose I can’t stop you from risking yourself,” Bethany agrees.

“Won’t you automatically sort out as a saint again?” Peter asks.

“Perhaps I fell into the margin of error on the first occasion,” says Saul. “I do not feel entirely confident as a saint, what with my drug habit and my Lethal rock and roll.”

“Hm,” Peter agrees.

Cheryl walks past. She performs an act of drive-by advising: “Whatever you’re discussing is a really bad idea.”

“Hey, wait!” says Peter.

Cheryl is already more than halfway down the hall. She turns. “What?”

“Where does Vladimir live?” Peter says.

“Miller Hall, 220a,” says Cheryl. Then she is gone.

Vladimir’s dorm room is in darkness. He has hung heavy black drapes. He is attended by a creature that does not look entirely human. It wears a gray and lumpy sombrero. It has great gloomy eyes.

“Yes?” Vladimir snaps, turning as they enter.

“Please, sir,” says Saul. “Can we borrow your hat?”

Vladimir narrows his eyes.

“If you had not wished to be a saint,” he says, “you ought not have been sorted as one. Consider this my after-the-fact advice. It is the House of Dreams that controls the power of the hat; you must settle for the fact that even your dander is a holy relic.”

Saul looks suddenly ill, realizing just how much holiness he is washing down the shower drain every day.

“I can’t imagine,” says Peter, “that anyone would be as good at sorting Saul into a new house as you would be, though, Vladimir. That’s why we’ve come to you. To blatantly play to your ego in hopes of receiving the scraps of your favor.”

Vladimir’s left lower eyelid twitches. He has always wanted people to blatantly play to his ego in hopes of receiving the scraps of his favor.

“I am a hatter of some skill,” Vladimir admits. “Did you know that the first crowning hat was mine? It was not as advanced as what we have now. It was not alive. It was not warm in my hands. It did not speak to me at night. But it was mine. I made it from the gravesoil of long-abandoned hats. It was soft and mushy and everyone laughed at me when I wore it on my head but it opened the path that led me to the House of Dreams. Now who is laughing? I am head boy and my enemies have been eaten.”

“I am not laughing,” says Peter.

Vladimir looks decisive.

“I will build a pin,” says Vladimir. “He will wear it. It will mute the power of the hat and allow a resorting that does not transform your friend into either a vegetable or a god.”

“A god would be okay,” Saul proposes.

“But a vegetable?” Vladimir asks.

“Not a vegetable,” Saul says. “I eat them. Carrots, cauliflower, spinach. I do not become them.”

Vladimir lolls his head to one side. “I can protect you from becoming like carrots or spinach. But cauliflower is the very vegetable whose mentation and philosophy you would most emulate. Its thoughts are deep and imperceptible and it tastes of chalk; this would be your doom.”

“Then I accept the pin,” says Saul. “Instead.”

Vladimir straightens.

“Come!” he snaps. “We will begin.”

He makes the pin from dead sorority and fraternity pins. He burns the pieces together with a soldering gun. He pins it to Saul’s chest, right through the shirt.

“Ow!” yelps Saul, because the pin is very hot and Saul is not a friend to pain.

“Now,” says Vladimir. “The hat!”

He holds up the crowning hat. His assistant opens its mouth. From its inhuman vocal cords the sound of thunder booms.

As Peter, Saul, and Bethany startle, Vladimir lowers the hat onto Saul’s head.

“This is a really bad idea,” says Peter, suddenly.

“Good,” says Vladimir, mad scientist, hatmaker, head boy of the House of Dreams.

“Good?” Peter asks.

“It is through exhaustive implementation of our most terrible ideas,” Vladimir says, “that we find the good ones that remain.”

Saul’s eyes snap open, dead and white.

Saul grins.

Fun Fact! Some people have extra wisdom teeth. But beetles and aquamarines don’t have any at all!

House of Saints will continue on Thursday or Friday with “Vidar’s Boot”

On the Endings of Stories (2 of 3)

“Where were they,” Martin asks, “when we left off, yesterday?”

“It was cold!” Jane says. “And dark! And ominous!”

“That’s a good word,” Martin agrees. “Ominous.”

On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are cold and dark.

“This is the last place in the world I want to be,” says Jacob.

Jacob walks beside the angel in the basements under Central. He carries the spear that killed him in his hand. In the dark, his foot bumps against his runt. He growls and curses and reaches for it with his free hand but it is not there for his hand to find.

“The last place,” Jacob emphasizes.

“It is generally true that success is best achieved by pursuing the least pleasant course,” the angel says.

“That seems implausible,” Jason notes.

“There is the most progress to be made,” the angel says, “in those directions where we have made the least; that is to say, along the paths we are most loath to travel.”

Jacob nearly stumbles again. “Filthy runt,” he mutters.

He can see the angel’s eyes on him, even in the dark.

“Pardon?” the angel asks.

“I keep tripping on my runt,” Jacob says.

The angel watches.

Jacob gestures indistinctly with one hand. It is the gesture of someone who cannot easily explain.

“It is something the director gave me,” Jacob says. “A . . . thing. A horrid thing. A vessel for my imperfections.”

“Ah,” the angel says.

“I was very young,” says Jacob. “I was very young and I loved it very much. Because it made mistakes for me so I wouldn’t have to. It learned how to do math wrong when I learned how to do it right. It stumbled and crouched and scurried and spilled and I ran like a gazelle. When he kept me awake it was the runt who grew tired and weak. And I forgave it its errors and I kept it close and one day it went mad and began to rot so that I would not have to.”

The angel walks for a time in silence.

“It is a difficult thing,” says the angel, “to be a man; but sometimes it is harder to stand outside humanity and know that you can only grant those wishes that are possible to grant.”

I do not want to be this, Jacob thinks.

“I do not want to be this,” says the runt.

“Did you know,” asks the angel, “that when you were young, I thought you’d be a hero?”

Jacob shakes his head.

“You still have that choice,” the angel says.

Jacob laughs.

“Everyone does,” the angel says. “Everyone has a path to grace. You are never so far fallen that you cannot find the dharma within you, the thing that you can be, the brightness, and give yourself to it in sacrifice and joy and be a thing of beauty in this world. That is why I answered your call, Jacob. That is what I want for you. That is what the door to the right was meant to bring.”

“Then show me,” says Jacob.

The angel holds up the thousand shards of palm and fingers that are her hand and in it is an image of a fire and a light.

“What is that?”

“Coretta’s fire,” says the angel. “Dharma. Dragon’s light. The beacon towards the road that you should walk.”

Down the corridor Jacob sees the maw.

It is a characteristic of angels that their words are most difficult to understand for those who need the most to hear them. Thus one may reasonably say that the message the angel gave him was gibberish; that her words were incomprehensible; that it was not his fault that he could not understand. Still, he sees something in the light she holds, and gropes towards it in his mind.

But Jacob does not have much time.

The maw is like a serpent’s mouth, corded and fanged, but it has no inside or outside. It is not a physical thing. It is a principle of devouring.

Inside the maw,

Of course,

It is empty.

And the maw drives towards Jacob like the hammer of a god.

“Heroes can kill monsters, can’t they?” Jacob asks.

It is a distant, distinct question. He knows that his runt is scrambling and squeaking away. It has probably wet itself; it is certainly ungracious in retreat. But Jacob is perfect by the virtue of its imperfection, and he is simply thinking and gliding back, smooth as silk, his spear rising.

“Yes,” says the angel.

It has been two and a half weeks since Sebastien came to Central. It has been thirty-eight years since Jacob died. But what he is thinking of now is something that came between.

It was only six months back.

Iris was one of the children that Central held. The case review for her was on his desk. Her keepers recommended her release:

“. . . even in severe duress, the child is disinclined to issue supernatural manifestations. It is recommended that she be released and monitored rather than continuing to spend Central resources on her care and training. . . .”

Jacob knew better.

It was obvious for anyone who knew these children, for anyone who’d been one of these children, that Iris was falsifying her duress; that she was presenting as a child broken to fend away the chance that she would break; that she was suitable and strong but clinging to the power to feign weakness. Such gambits cannot last forever.

Release approved, he wanted to write. That’s what his runt was muttering.

But to write that would be a lie. It would be unprofessional. It would be false. It would not be correct for a man in his position. If he wrote that he would be forced to take up arms against the things that Central stood for, against the men who paid him and who’d tortured him and who’d killed him nearly forty years before.

He could not do that. That would be more false. That would put meaning to a world that had none and assert the humanity of an empty, worthless girl.

Jacob watched himself write the letter that condemned her to further pain, and then he went back to the games of Tetris that helped relieve his stress.

The runt was sniffling and crying and mouthing at Jacob’s hand, so he slapped it away and it stuck onto the wall.

Six months passed.

Jacob’s spear, sharp as a thorn, comes down. It pierces the maw and pins it to the floor. Jacob reaches for the fire within him, the waking of his dharma, the path that leads him from that place.

It is with a still small terror that he sees that the runt is caught in maw and spear.

They are thrashing together like the synchronized shuddering of the dead.

“It is hungry for you,” says the angel, “because of your contradictions.”

“Is it?”

“To exalt the sense in which things have no meanings,” says the angel, “is to create a contradiction. It overwrites the rules of meaning with imported context from a world that has none. That contradiction is like a knot: pull and twist at it, and it grows tighter until it resolves down to a single flaring NO at the center of your world. Pragmatically, this leaves you with two choices: accept oblivion, or grant things meanings. My ability to save you is entirely contingent on your doing the latter, and choosing a life in which salvation is coherently defined.”

Jacob struggles to keep the maw pinned down. The floor is writhing and shaking.

I will shoulder this burden, he thinks. But he does not say it.

“Shoulder,” mumbles the runt.

Then it coughs up blood and dies.

Jacob’s vision of the fire blinks out.

The maw bucks him off, and Jacob falls against the wall, and it is with a clockwork grin that he smiles at the angel.

“I’m sorry,” Jacob says. “I wasted your time.”

The angel’s voice is strained but the word she chooses is almost insanely polite. “Pardon?”

“To be perfect is to be unredeemable,” says Jacob. “Eternal. Unchanging.”

Imps eat the soul that you cannot bear to keep.

“When I took my runt,” Jacob says, “I lost the power to be other than what I am.”

The maw rises.

“But thank you for telling me I will not end,” says Jacob.

The maw falls on him.

Jacob feels himself dissolving and

“And?” Jane asks.

“The end,” says Martin. “The justification for eternity has ceased for Jacob to apply.”


See also The Fable of the Lamb,
Tigers in their Cages
Coming Home (a legend about Iris)
Saturday
Priyanka
and Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw.

Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw (1 of 3)

“Once upon a time,” says Martin, “that is to say, right now, there was a man named Jacob who should have been a hero.”

“Why wasn’t he?” Jane asks.

“Because sometimes things that just should happen, don’t.”

“What I fear,” says Jacob, precisely, “is the emptiness that follows life.”

His runt is down on the floor. It is pushing its face against Jacob’s leg. Jacob kicks it, and it scurries off into the shadows.

“It is unacceptable,” Jacob says, “that my personal story should end.”

The angel is a cloud of wings and faces. He can see her only as pieces. It is like looking through a broken lens.

She is wearing a jacket.

“It doesn’t ever end,” the angel says. “That is a fallacy.”

“Why so?”

Jacob is gray. That is because he died. He must take great care at all times lest he rot. He brushes at his cheek, his fingers checking for flaws or damage. He brushes off the leg of his brown suit pants.

“You cannot have the experience of no-longer-having-experiences,” the angel says.

Jacob hesitates. “That is not reasonable,” he says.

“You impose beginnings and ends on things,” says the angel. “But in this world only the perfect things are finite. In this world there is always an imperfection that leads into the beginning of each story. There are always dangling threads leading out the end. There is no thought that you can have that is a final thought. There is no action you can take that is your final action. There is only the point where you choose to say ‘the end’ and that is not the end.”

There is a clank. Jacob looks over. His runt has upset the coffee mug. It squeaks in horror and scurries away.

“Why are you here?” Jacob asks the angel.

“For you.”

It has been two and a half weeks since death came to Central; since the avenging wind that was Sebastien came; since everyone working in that foul place was given a choice: to speak their words of repentance, or to die.

Jacob stood before the men and women of Central, and he said of his sins, “It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.”

Then he walked through the door of life, which lay to his right, and Sebastien stayed his hand.

The runt skulked through after him.

Others went left and died. Others repented and they lived.

But Jacob had not repented.

He simply spoke the words.

It is Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004.

“I know what will happen,” says Jacob.

“Do you?” the angel says.

“I have been dreaming every night of the maw. It is down there.”

Jacob taps the floor with his foot.

“The basement goes ten layers deep. Somewhere in it there is a maw, a devouring god, and it is loose. After Sebastien freed the children we keep here, he freed the gods. And one of them is the maw, and it will hunt us down one by one and devour us, each of us that spoke the words of repentance but did not repent.”

Jacob looks around his office. There is a desk of fake wood. There is a coffee mug, now spilt. There is a narrow window and his rolling chair. Against the doorframe the angel leans.

“I cannot afford to end,” he says. “So I wished with my all heart and then you came.”

The faces of the angel shift and tilt.

“I think,” says the angel, “that if you fear divine punishment for your hubris, that the first step should be curtailing your pride. You suffered in this place. You died because of this place. Is it unworthy of repentance, what you have done in its name?”

Jacob holds out his hands. They are gray.

“It has been almost forty years since the director tore out my heart and shoved a spear through my brain,” Jacob says. “Here is what I learned from the experience: that those who imagine that they are people are wrong. Those who think they are more than mere machines are wrong. We are all horrors. We are all machines. We are a joke. I did not want to die. I lay there with my heart beating in his hand and his face shining with vindication and the pointed end of the spear sticking out from my mouth and I did not want to die. But when I got up again afterwards I knew that I was dead and everything I imagined about my life was false.”

“And yet,” says the angel.

“I cannot repent,” says Jacob. “I do not believe that anything I have done was wrong, for there is no wrong. The world has no deeper purpose and our actions mean nothing and the universe does not care what you or I imagine is unjust. There is only the question of survival: what is the most effective path for staving off the end?”

His runt is amongst Jacob’s papers and reports now. It is evaluating one of the client studies. It is writing down its observations. They are false and wrong and with a growl Jacob seizes it by the neck and hurls it against the wall.

The angel does not seem to see.

“It is regrettable,” says the angel, “that you will be judged by a moral standard that you do not hold.”

“Yes,” agrees Jacob. “But the gods love poetry.”

“It will be elegant,” says the angel. “Elegant and inevitable; something brought on you by the manner of your rejection; an example made of you in fate and blood that realizes the worst of all your nightmares. There are no kind fates for those who refuse their chance at grace. There are few enough for those who choose acceptance.”

“So,” says Jacob. He looks at her and his eyes are open and calm. “Save me.”

I entrust myself to you, he wants to say.

But he does not say it.

The strategy of the game is better played this way, he knows. The weight of his struggle must fall on the angel, and he must not make himself vulnerable before its grace.

“Entrust,” mumbles the runt. “Entrust.”

“Then we must go down,” the angel says.

On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are very cold and very dark.

A Castle That Ceases to Move Soon Dies

It is told that there is a girl, and her name is Claire, and she lives in one of the castles of the seventh tier—that is to say, above the umbral depths of the first tier, where great shapes move in shadow; and above the twisty purple smoke of the second tier; and above, too, the gentle yellow mist of the third; above the fourth and its clash of blades; above the fifth and its great fire; and even above the sixth tier’s ocean and all its gentle waves. There, on the floating islands and atolls there are the castles of the Mere, and in one of them, in the creaking crumbling vine-wrapped stone castle they call Seferi, lives Claire.

Now it is said of Claire that she is under a shadow, and the reason for it is this: that she has seen a vision in her dreams of a boy, and he is clean-limbed and strong, and his eyes are bright, and she loves him—but he is unsuitable, for he resides not in Seferi but in the castle Adeille. And it is well-known by all whose opinions are worth the counting that a love between the residents of two castles is forbidden and in poor taste besides; generally, that is to say, doomed to failure of the most socially awkward kind. King Porphyre often tells Claire this. He is a rotund man in a buttoned coat, and he stretches and clucks like a raven, but even such a King as he knows better of these things than Claire, and of this superior knowledge he regularly reassures her, adding, “You must forget this boy; have no thoughts of him! If he is your destined love then you have no destiny at all.”

Then Claire bows her head, and her eyes glitter, and she says, “Your will, of course, my liege.”

It is so obvious in the modern day as to pass without comment that a castle that ceases to move soon dies, and the means by which the castles move is this: the Master of Hooks, whom in the case of Seferi is Claire, selects from the castle armoury a line. This line is oft-times thickly woven silk, and sometimes rope, though on occasion other types are best. The Master of Ropes and Connections hooks this line to the various blocks and tackles and other apparatuses of the castle; this is a complex and difficult arrangement, involving many slaves and servants and a good deal of math, and we shall not dwell on it here. Once the rope is secured, the Master of Hooks chooses a hook to go with it, keeping in mind the circumstances of the time and the arrangement of the rope as the Rope’s Master chose it. This hook is then set to the line and cast deep into the depths, past the waves and past the fire, past the blades and past the mist, down through the twisty purple smoke into the ebon depths of blackness beneath. There—need it be said?—something seizes the hook, something great and terrible, and begins to pull; and if the Master of Ropes and the Master of Hooks have done their jobs well, the castle stirs and its island stirs and they both begins to move. Then for a long time all is speed and jollity, until at last the great beast snaps its line and the castle drifts free; and then momentum will sustain it for some time before it is once again occasioned that the Master of Hooks should choose another line.

There are more hooks in Seferi than a mind such as yours or mine can conceive of. There are hooks of simple plastic and hooks of rusty iron. There are hooks made of books and hooks of spun-sugar. There are hooks that should not exist, such as the tooth of the great dentist devil-God, Asphokain, who has never existed and will never exist but whose tooth nevertheless sits in Seferi’s armoury. There are hooks that are simply notional and hooks that are more real than the castle itself. There is the hook of last resort, the great stone hook that not ten men could move, that not a hundred men should move, that will spell the end of many things if it is lifted from its spot; and there is the hook of the mariner Israfel that the Master must move frequently lest its stability court disaster. There are hooks and hooks in all their endless billions and even these words and numbers do no more than scratch the surface, do no more than give a taste of the tiniest taste of what Seferi holds—for a castle that ceases to move soon dies.

And yet it is known that today, in the morning, under a red and rising sun and puffy clouds, the castle is slowing to a stop; and for all King Porphyre’s clucking, Claire can find no hook that suits the day. “Not metal,” she says. “Not with such winds. Not plastic. Not ice. Not any manner of fire, paste, or sweets. No puppy hook. No hateful hook. Not Asphokain’s tooth today.”

King Porphyre walks back and forth among the castle’s hooks. He pulls one from the pile. He holds it up. Claire shakes her head.

“Surely,” says Porphyre, to his ministers, “the girl deceives us. She is angry that we’ve denied her the opportunity for love. She is derelict in her duties as the Master of Hooks and must be removed and punished, and this hook that I have chosen used to bait the line.”

But Minister Vermin in his rich brocade, he shakes his head. He says, “I know but little of the art of Hooks, but she is right in every respect I know.”

“Then what shall we do?” begs Porphyre. “What shall we do? Is it time to use the hook of last resort?”

And Claire looks at him, then, and the King is shamed. He looks down and his face is red and bright. He shuffles his feet. He coughs. He laughs a nervous laugh. For what he has said is not a thing that it is ever meet to say, if one is just a King, nothing more than a King, and speaking to the Master of the Hooks.

Yet the castle must not die.

The castle must not die: this hangs unsaid. Then Minister Vermin clears his throat. “Give us an option,” the Minister says.

Claire tugs on the line, a thing of thick black silk, and she wanders amidst the blocks and tackles.

“Is it my fault?” asks the Master of Ropes and Connections. “Have I set it wrong?”

Claire shakes her head. She thinks for a time.

“It’s destiny,” Claire says.

Claire stands at the edge of the island and looks down into the sea; and then, firm and resolute, she nods.

“Here is your option,” she says. “If it fails, you shall use the other.”

And Porphyre with his silence agrees.

Claire ties the line around her feet. She spreads her arms like an albatross’ wings. She dives. The line reels out after her, mile after mile of it, falling into the endless deep.

There is no doubt that Claire expected to be dead, for the sixth tier sea is eight minutes deep; but she is lucky, more than lucky, and twice she passes through pockets of air. She falls out of the sea and the fire burns her, but for all her screams, this pain is brief; to fall through fire is not slow. The blades of the fourth tier cut her deep; they lacerate her arms and legs. They seek her eyes but she defends them, and in this manner her sight endures. At last she hits the third tier’s mist and the second tier’s smoke, the two great clouds of peace and happiness; they are soothing and gentle, anodynes for torment, and there is peace in her heart as she falls on.

Far above, the line snaps taut. The castle, that had nearly stopped, begins once more to move.

“At last,” says King Porphyre. “At last!”

The island swings about. It races across the sea. And there is something else, a blot upon the horizon, that Minister Vermin is the first to see.

“Another island?” the Minister asks.

“Another castle!” swears King Porphyre.

The island of Seferi and the island of Adeille collide.

There are some who say that this is a thing of hope, and that even as Claire was bait, so was her boy; that in the belly of some umbral beast they meet at last, and there beneath the sea find love, in this joining pulling the lines of two castles taut and dragging them together in fervent chase. If this is so, there is none who can vouch for it; it is not proper in Adeille to speak of bait, or hooks, or the man who sets them, and if he sacrificed himself like Claire—well, we shall never know his name.

All we know is this: that these things happened.

That Claire is gone.

That a castle that ceases to move soon dies.