Scarab All-a-Fulminatin’, Explody & Oh Shi— (I/I)

Video:

The warhead strikes Central. It explodes! The explosion freezes. The scarab beetle catches it. It begins to roll up the explosion into a clever little ball.

The picture freezes.

“This,” the monster says, “is a scarab of explosions. It’s an infallible defensive measure in event of bombings, since it uses explosions both as its food and as the containers for its eggs.”

It is 2002 the year of our Lord. The monster is speaking to a Prince of men; a Prince in white, with a small black beard.

The Prince is not entirely convinced.

“Why?” he asks.

“Why?” the monster repeats.

“Why should there be a beetle that contains explosions? The Star Wars missile defense has been called fanciful, fairy-tale, fantastic; this defense, then, cannot even qualify for those names.”

“Ah,” says the monster. He closes his eyes. “Why should there be a beetle that rolls the sun across the sky? That dies at the end of each day, and is reborn from its own semen, shot into a clod of dung? Why should there be beetles that carry the souls of the dead away, to be judged in unhallowed courts? Why should there be beetles at all?”

Sir,” says the Prince. He is angry.

“People don’t want to explode,” says the monster.

He opens his eyes. His voice is a little sad. “They look for something they can do. There isn’t anything, though. God won’t save them, Highness. Science gives them nothing. So they turn to coleoptera.”

The monster starts the video up again.

“How does it live?” the Prince asks. Perhaps, demands.

“Shamelessly,” says the monster.

The video shows little scarabs scrambling out of bursts of flame. It shows the battles and power struggles of the children. It shows Melanie, laughing, with three tiny little bomb-bursts crawling along her skin.

“They die, constantly,” the monster admits. “But they come back. They’re like roaches. Or that—”

He doesn’t know whether saying ‘that Jesus dude’ will offend a Prince of Saud.

“Or Cary Grant. They’re beetles.”

The screen goes black.

“It’s what they do.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

Melanie has no time to react. It is all instinct. She is horribly exposed: she can tell that much. She is standing in the middle of a battlefield without an aegis. She’s face-to-face with Micah, who is very dangerous, and she has a scarab of explosions at her side.

Threnody is hurling the lightning.

Melanie slams down the walls around her heart. She sets everything aside. She bites the head off of every question in her being, like a mantis with its mate, and she is open, she is empty, she is floating and groundless and without origin or endpoint as the lightning strikes.

That is how it has to be.

She knows the rule of lightning: that it begins with that which is struck.

So she asks not the question to which lightning makes its wild answer. She does not lower the lens of her perceptions or preconceptions down to see the world. For a long moment, as the lightning falls, she floats there, rootless.

It slams into Micah, and she is safe.

It crucifies him, blasts him head to groin and flows down into the ground, spreads his hands apart and agonizes him—and she, demanding nothing, is safe—

Is—

Is—

What the Hell, Micah, she thinks.

She stares.

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.

He is screaming. Oh, so terribly he is screaming. But she is not safe at all. She is, instead, astonished, for he has caught the lightning.

He is burning. Oh, so terribly he is burning. But he is not letting go.

He is not letting it dissolve. He is not letting it ground through him to the earth. He is holding it.

She whistles, long and low.

It is possibly a mistake, she realizes, suddenly, to let Tina go around torturing gods with electricity; working it into them, branding them to their bones with the lightning-pain, making them know it as they know their eyes, their hands, their hearts, their thoughts, their fate. It is possibly a mistake to let that become a part of somebody, a core of their life experience, if you might ever need to blast them with lightning later—

It strikes her as a subject worthy of a monograph, at the least. On the wearing thin of the judgment of Heaven when used without discrimination, perhaps, or Recidivistic considerations related to the galvanic treatment of captive gods . . .

The lightning is burning him. It is melting him like a candle, but he is not letting the liquid flesh drip from him, he is holding it on the surface of his hands by will alone.

He is holding the lightning and he does not let it go.

He is turning towards her, oh, so slowly, and his teeth are white and his eyes are white and the screams have stopped and his face holds such enormous pain—

Oh! she whispers, in her mind. Such pain!

—and he whispers, “Shall you know not justice?”

” ‘Should,'” she corrects him, absently. SHOULD you know not justice?

It would have derailed any other god. It should have derailed him, should have made him fumble, made him lose his grip, but Micah just smiles whiter. His teeth are sweating in the heat.

“Should you know not justice?” Micah asks, “You who hate good and love evil? Who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones? Who eat my people’s flesh, strip off their skin, and break their bones in pieces? Who chop them up like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot?”

She wants to laugh. It’s brilliant.

“You can’t be serious,” she says. “That’s from a verse about the sun setting for the prophets, and the day going dark for them. That’s about God’s vengeance on people like your sister, Micah, and her fastness becoming a heap of rubble, and this hill a mound overgrown with thickets—”

He isn’t listening.

He isn’t listening to her at all. She stares.

“Should you know not justice?” he asks again. “Because the thing is, Melanie, the thing is? What you do?”

She owes him this much. She maps the terrain around her, quickly, with her eyes, and then she meets his burning gaze and she says, “Yeah?”

“It’s wrong.”

It fountains from him then. It overflows. He does not hurl the lightning, but rather bursts with it, loses it, runs over with it like a clogged sink struck by a sudden flow. It shatters from him like the waves from a missile that falls into a lake. It cries out thunder. Lightning arcs from him to the scarabs, to the crayon creatures, to the footsoldiers and the dog. It dances in frustration around Melanie like a braided rope, like a hoop from a crinoline skirt, like a halo forbidden and restless to lay itself upon and brand an angel’s brow.

It is hungry for her. It grinds its teeth around her but it cannot bite.

She sees what is coming. It unfolds in her mind, and there are two paths for her, two roads that she may walk.

There is a flying god that is swooping past. She can take its tail and be away; may float past as it floats; she has timed it, she can do it, she can leave him there to wail, and be safe

Or—

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.

The scarab of explosions bursts. It becomes a string of fireworks. It becomes a bang, and then another bang, and then another. It cannot contain itself. It cannot bind its own explosion. If it could then scarabs would be immortal, rather than always dying and always rising up again.

It is just a beetle. Beetles don’t know not to think the kind of question that the lightning answers. Beetles don’t know to let themselves loose from expectations and from preconceptions when people are throwing lightning here and there. Nobody hires beetles as meteorologists, and that’s half the reason for it; the other being, now and then, if there’s an errant spark or whatever, a beetle will explode.

And life is sweet and it loves the sun
But we’re born to die when our hour comes.

He is howling. The howls and sobs are ripping themselves from him, heavier than the whole of his chest and body, and he is scrabbling at the ground, and his eyes are burning and the world is throbbing and shivering with great bursts of light.

Cool hands touch his face.

They burn his melted skin all over again. He whimpers.

Melanie pulls his head up to face her.

“Look what you have done,” she tells him.

He cannot comprehend. Not killed you, he thinks, in absolute frustration.

“You’ve killed fourteen,” she says. “And that’s not even counting Vincent. That’s awfully good, dear.”

Not you.

It’s like she’s heard him. “Not me never me,” she agrees, sadly.

His vision swims. She picks him up.

“It was my very own dear beetle,” she says. “I raised it from the egg. And so I thought, ‘It will not kill me.'”

The doors of the facility are shattered.

“The fire will burn all around me, and shards of stone and shell fly past, but it will not touch me.’ That’s what I thought.”

The wall is shattered. The ground around them is broken.

Melanie stands in the great brooding gap where the doors should be, at the entrance to Elm Hill.

She grins.

She tilts her head.

“Sometimes you have to trust,” she says, “you see, in those you love.”

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

Oh, Harold Dear (I/I)

It is 1981 and Liril is in a terrible place.

She is in a room bulked out with shadows. She is in terror and the dark. She is scratching, desperately scratching, to get her name down on the wall.

In case she forgets.

In case she forgets, or everyone else forgets, and there’s never anything more to show that she exists, just a name written on the wall.

LIRIL.

Tomorrow they’ll move her to a different room, and she’ll stare at the place where she scratched her name, and the writing won’t be there.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 28, 2004

Now in the Latter Days of the Law the heart may not know the true doctrine; so rightly it may be said that this sunlit afternoon in May is the winter of the world.

Grey clouds shadow the brightness of the sky.

The clouds scuttle in clumps, this way and that, their movements driven by the wind.

It is May 28, 2004, and Liril is in a terrible place, and before it is Melanie’s army.

There are failing-gods and flying-gods. There are great stretchy gods drawn in crayon. There is a terrible black dog. There are twelve humans worth the fearing. There are twenty humans who are not—secretaries, psychologists, a system administrator, and the like, who had collaborated with the monster and survived but gained no measure of his power.

There is a ragged thing.

There are footsoldiers and two contemners. There is a long-legged beast and a scarab bomb. There are remembering gods, and an angel and a half, and fiends in a motley crew.

And then there are four more fearsome than this host: Threnody, whose nametag notes that she wields the lightning; Vincent, whose heart is pure; that crooked tyrant labeled “The Keeper of the Wheel;” and Melanie, cunning Melanie, most frightening of them all.

They are an ungainly force. They are escapees from a disaster and not an organized and deadly host. Still, they are an army, and the bulk of them are gods.

“In this place,” says Melanie to that host, “there is a girl more valuable than gold. She is enough to kill us all, I think, or to make us rich and powerful for all time.”

She is taking Vincent’s backpack off.

She is rummaging around inside.

He is surprised and disgusted to find the thoughtful things that she’s packed him for their journey.

A notebook. An apple. A few texts—Behavioral Psychology, and the like. Half of a ham sandwich. The other half she ate. And most disturbingly Harold’s head.

“If she is strong,” Melanie says, “we are in danger. If she learns strength, we are in danger. But she will not be strong.”

“Melanie,” Vincent says.

She hushes him.

“Hush,” she says.

“When—what—when did you even—“

She glances at him. She says, “When I was recovering my bike.”

Back before they’d been rousted out from Central, Melanie had biked to work every day. It’s normally a healthy and environmentally conscious habit, but in the end it had killed Harold and she’d nearly pulled a muscle leveraging his corpse off of her bike. Then she’d sawed off his head with her broken bike lock and left the rest of him there to rot, so in the end, it wasn’t a very healthy or environmentally conscious habit after all.

Also, she didn’t like to wear her helmet.

Vincent is still staring at her. It’s as if he hasn’t heard her explanation, or hasn’t parsed it.

“Two months ago,” Melanie says, “at the dinner party, he’d said that in an emergency, it was very important to keep his head. You were there.”

She opens the corpse’s mouth. She looks inside it clinically. She pushes on its nose. She rolls open one, and then the other eye, but they just close again.

She shrugs and looks back at the gathered host.

“Liril is broken,” Melanie says. “If she has recovered her will and spine at all, they’ll be no stronger than a twig.

“So we’ll shatter them. We’ll stomp her down. And then we shall rule this rotten world.”

“His head should be rotten,” Vincent protests.

What he wants to say is something about how shattering someone’s will is wrong. But he fails to do so. Harold’s head has distracted him completely.

Melanie shrugs.

She breathes into the corpse’s mouth and it jerks opens both its eyes.

“What—“

That’s Vincent’s voice. He’s terribly glad that it’s his voice. For a moment, he’d thought it would be the corpse’s.

Wasn’t it?

He’s suddenly not sure.

Melanie holds the head up high. She turns it to face the facility on Elm Hill. She says, “Oh, Harold, dear, you’re dead.”

And Harold screams.

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 scream of Harold’s head is like a bird, at first; and then it is a horn; but Melanie has grit her teeth and put behind this deviant act the fullness of her strength, and she sinks that long shout low. It becomes a rumbling. It becomes an organ sound. It becomes a shaking of the earth, a burgeoning and world-completing and a trembling cry, resounding off the world and sound and sky.

There is only so much sound that one ought to be able to make with a single breath. This beyond that by a hundredfold.

There is an additional, secondary limit on the sound one can make.

And so eventually this sound goes still.

She has announced herself, has Melanie, her and the army of her gods; and she does not have long to wait.

There is a balcony on the seventh floor.

Micah comes out to stand on it. He looks down at them. He is pale. He is afraid.

Her heart gives a thump, because Micah’s there, and Liril’s not alone; and then the joy bubbles up inside her, it’s giggling out of her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her lungs and chest and heart, and she’s shouted out before she’s thought about it any a great shout of all triumph and sweet success.

He is afraid.

He is afraid.

He isn’t the defiant boy that once she met. He’s gone all pale and all weak. He’s standing there and his mouth is moving and she thinks he must still know her name;

But from the look on his face, he’s the kind of boy right then who only barely remembers his own.

The No-Good Bird (I/I)

Sing, muse, of Melanie, beloved of the gods, and how she came at last, and with her army, to Elm Hill. Tell us how she led unto that place a tattered host of women and of men; of humans, and of gods; and among that host a black dog and a flying god and the Keeper of the Wheel; and Threnody, who held the thunderbolt in this degenerate and broken age; and, for now, and for the shortest time to come, the grangler. Tell us how the footfalls of her soldiers beat down on the asphalt way. Tell us how the wind blew all around them and grey the storm clouds came. Tell us of the laughing joy that filled her, despite the darkness of that day; and tell us of the grangler, that old ghost, and how it died.

At Elm Hill there is a building old and rank, and in its basement many cages, and it is abandoned now, but once—not so many years ago—it was a place of suffering for Liril and for Jane.

At Elm Hill is a facility.

As Cunning Melanie leads her army to that place, she sees an omen, and it comes upon her thus. From a copse of trees by the building’s gates there flies a bird, and the bird flies out over her host, and the number of its wings is four, and it is growing larger as it comes, and it holds the grangler in its claws, and the grangler holds it, and the bird—to all appearances—is dead.

She stares at it as it flies.

The omen is elaborate. It takes her a long moment’s stare to decide that she is seeing a real thing and not a vision sent her by the gods.

“Threnody,” she says.

Threnody looks up. Her eyes seethe with the whiteness of the storm. The bird is struck by lightning, from clear sky.

It shrieks.

It does not fall.

Threnody’s expression grows tight with anger. “Dead things ought not shriek,” she says.

She stands in a javelin-thrower’s stance. Her hand begins to burn with light. Then it is as if the sky has hurled the fire of the sun directly to her hand; the thunder roars across the hill; and the bird is shattering, splaying out and sundering into bits, falling like a gross and gobbet rain, and the metal chains with which Threnody weights down her hair do her no longer any good, for it has fluffed out like a cloud.

A chunk of bird hits the ground between them, rolls like the debris from an explosion, bounces from a rock, and jumps past Melanie’s right leg.

A drop of filth would have touched her cheek, but doesn’t.

Before the end of its trajectory it decides to swerve, instead. For she is Melanie, cunning Melanie, beloved of the gods.

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

They gather around the ruin.

The creature’s heart is beating. It’s stuttering in its fear. It will continue to beat—this is Melanie’s guess—for three more darknesses and three dawns.

Where the chunks of the bird have struck the ground the earth is bursting forth in life—grass and grains and trees are exploding upwards, and new elms are already building-height.

As for the grangler, he’s broken.

He oughtn’t really be able to be broken, since he’s a ghost and all, but the thunderbolt passed too close to him before he fell.

She squats down beside it.

“So,” she says.

It reaches for her leg. She shakes her head, and its hand falls back.

“Now it came to pass,” Melanie says, “after the death of Moses, that the Lord spake unto Joshua, the son of Nun, saying, ‘Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give them, even to the children of Israel.’”

“It’s so,” the grangler concedes.

“And to Jericho he sent two men to spy secretly, and determine the nature of its readiness; and they took shelter with the harlot Rahab; and when the King of Jericho learned of the spies’ presence and their purpose, she preserved them, kept them safe, if only they would promise that Israel would spare her family and their possessions when Jericho’s walls came tumbling down.”

And the story is a pleasantry amidst the grangler’s great pain, a coolth inside its fire, and it says, “It’s so.”

“And they said: tie a scarlet cord, a grangler, to the window when we come; and by that bond of blood shall we be held to you and yours, and you to we, and never to let go.”

It occurs to the grangler that it is dying.

It is impossible to imagine it—to die, and after so very many years.

“And it tangled you up in that red, red cord, and bound to a sacred trust; but—oh, grangler. Oh, grangler. Look upon you now.”

He is a very old ghost, is the grangler. He’s a god of hanging on. But the edges of the world are fraying for him, just like the untwisting of a rope, and her words have loosened a string wound round his heart.

She lets him touch her, then, though he cannot hold her.

He rests his claw upon her hand.

“It was a no-good bird,” the grangler says.

“Was it?”

It is struggling to rise, but it cannot rise. It is struggling to look at her, but her eyes are far too kind. It is desperate with a sudden need of justification, and it pulls its claw back to its chest and hugs it there and says, “It was a Liril-bird, milady, it was a bird-god made by Liril, oh, milady, she is there, she unleashed a growing god.”

Melanie blinks at the grangler.

Its words confound her. She cannot quite grasp them.

“Liril,” she says.

“She is encamped there, I could smell it, I could taste it on the bird.”

“Liril,” Melanie says again.

“She is.”

There is no reason for it that Melanie can possibly imagine. She knows where Liril is. Liril is in Santa Ynez, guarded by her brother Micah, protected by him from humans and gods alike.

Liril is not in the cages beneath Elm Hill.

That was before, Melanie thinks, clearly. That was back then. The facility is abandoned. The cages are empty. Liril cannot possibly be there.

She looks up.

She stares blankly at the facility at Elm Hill.

She is not here for Liril. She is here for a temporary base of operations. She is here because she has no other place to go, her and her ragged army, driven from their homes—

“More valuable than frankincense,” she says.

It’s from a song the monster sang to her, a long, long time ago.

“More valuable than gold.”

Children like Liril are the source of granglers and thunderbolts, of flying carpets, angels, fiends, and killing gods, after all.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 28, 2004

Does she know we’re here?” Melanie asks.

She is angry at herself.

The question is wasteful. She discards it. She asks the only question that has relevance.

Is she afraid?

But the grangler is dead.