Rainbow Noir: the Mountains and the Sky

It has been a certain interval, dear reader, since I first had the opportunity to speak to you of the magical land of rainbows above the world and the shadowed city that succeeded it. Of how it came to pass that a certain girl, born in shadows and dwelling in shadows, became the rainbow; how she challenged the notorious Nihilism Bear; and, in the end, defeated him. Later, and after the receipt of certain despatches and messages, I was able to speak to you further: of how she sought out Mr. Dismal, whom she falsely suspected of responsibility for her various plights, and, in The Case of Mr. Dismal, made an end to him. But we still did not know the why of it all—whose will it had been that had set itself against the rainbow; that had brought Mr. Dismal to that land; that had dulled the kingdom of every brightness into Shadow City’s noir.

Lately, some of my friends have been struggling. They’re trying to do something good, something amazing, something cool, but they’re working for and with people who’d really much rather it came out a product. There is a corrupt religion of money over worth that has seeded itself in the modern business world; and people I care about, dear reader, are being ground down by the faithful of that religion; by the Mythos cultists of this modern era who would never have believed, who couldn’t have believed, that a place like Shadow City ever had color in it at all.

And I thought, maybe, for them, as a Christmas present; and for you, as a Christmas present—

Even though it wouldn’t help them any, and even though it wouldn’t mean that my dear readers would hear regular tales from me again—

that I would look into the matter a bit. That I would find out a bit more about the thing that turns rainbows into shadows, and ask what kind of answer rainbows make.

Without further ado, and with the hopes that all who read this will trust their hearts and live in brightness, the conclusion and the beginning of a story that started long ago.

Rainbow Noir: The Mountains and the Sky

The girl rides the horse through the sky. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing, and underneath them there are endless miles of cold air.

Beneath that are the mountains, which we shall name Gray Death.

Her name—the girl’s name, that is—is Wisp. She’s saved the universe once or twice. She’s the kind who you just have to point and shoot, basically, and the universe gets saved. That’s what she is, and why she is, and why there have to be girls like her.

As for the horse—

As for the horse’s name—

There’s an ice crystal bigger than the world. There’s an endless distance, and space. There’s a great and brooding thought that presides over it all,

Like God had forgotten color, hope, and light—

And we could call that “I Am,” or “the All,” or “The Lord that Dwells in Starlight.”

But the horse itself, it doesn’t really have a name.

It’s the most marvelous horse there ever was. A horse like that doesn’t really need its own name. Who could you confuse it with?

It’s just, you know, the horse.

People laugh, talking about magical sky horses and rainbows, sure, they laugh, but if you saw it there, its feet pounding against the nothingness, endless miles of cold air below and below that, Death—

You wouldn’t laugh.

You’d just think, in that moment, that it was the most marvelous and warm and most incredible thing you ever saw.

One day, one day, once upon a time, the girl fell off that horse. She screamed. She’s very brave, but even a brave person can scream when you’re falling and the sky is rushing up around you and there’s only Death below. She screamed, and the world around her burned with its blues and its purples and its brightness, and her life flashed before her eyes in a series of twenty-minute shorts that in the end didn’t add up to very much—

And that time, he saved her.

That time, as she spun and fell and rainbows curled and twisted through the vastness of the void around her, the horse came down and lunged and caught her with his teeth and snapped her away from the touch of great Gray Death, and pulled her up and she twisted and she flung her hands around his neck and she sank her face into his mane and laughed.

She did.

She really did! Even with the awkward angles of it all.

She could, and did, climb up onto his neck and back, because there really isn’t very much gravity when you’re falling, and at that particular moment in time they weren’t really quite done with the falling part of their precipitous descent and back to the flying that the two of them were about to do.

The second time, though, the second time, he didn’t save her when she fell.

She asked—

With her eyes, she asked!

But the second time, when she found herself falling, and the sky was everywhere around her in its blues and purples fading into the shadows of darkness, and grayness was reaching up from the ground as if to seize her up and drown her and shatter her like a teardrop on the stone, the horse, it just stood back.

The ice is bigger than the world, and twice as far as anything.

Her name was Wisp, back then as now, but nobody called her that. Everyone called her things like “the rainbow,” “the rainbow girl,” or “hope.”

She was the one charged with the preservation of love and hope and beauty and power and magic. She was the one responsible for providing all the things that people need to have within their lives, in a world that is sometimes very dark. And the mechanism of this charge was color.

She would find places that were dark and colorless, in the world, in people’s lives, in people’s hearts.

She would walk among the gray shadows and get the feel of them.

Then she would bring the rainbow.

There are a billion places in the worlds that are that needed her special touch. A billion, or even more; so it’s not too surprising that grayness still endures. It took her time to find each spot of darkness. It took her time to find it, and know it, and see its antidote, and make an end to it. It took her time, and there were so many different shadows that needed her to give to them that time.

It probably makes a billion look small, really, the number of those shadows, if you actually could count each of them, and give each one its name. It’s probably laughable to imagine that it’s just a billion, like saying, “well, millipedes have at least one leg”—

But a billion, at least.

So that’s why it took her a while to see what had happened down on Earth.

That’s why she missed the whole of World War I. She was in a flower garden, where the insects had corroded beauty. She was in the Crab Nebula, where monsters were threatening a noble Prince. She was in Kansas, helping a lost child, and in the oceans, healing a dolphin’s heart.

She was polishing one of the stars in the endless sky when the trenches cut the world.

She was in the kingdom of the cats.

She was fixing a broken mountain.

She was painting a butterfly when the Nazis came to power. She was painting a butterfly with vibrant colors, because the butterfly had gone gray.

And she might have missed it;

She might have missed it all;

Save that butterflies can only wear so much paint before their wings will cease to fly. There are only so many stars that lose their glitter. There are only so many monsters, though they spawn eccentrically and at random intervals throughout the cosmos and its worlds; so many broken mountains; so many cats that have never ever been fed.

Before the end of the war—before it had even really gotten started—she saw it. She saw what we were doing. She saw what we had done.

She saw it, and said:

“Here is a darkness. Here are gray shadows. I will walk among them and I will find their antidote, and I will bring the rainbow.”

And tears were falling from her face, great rivers of tears, and breaking on the ground.

“And not just here,” she said.

The war to end all wars, well, hadn’t. But she decided, there and then.

“I will heal this thing,” she said. “I will bring an end to wars.”

Underneath the girl and the horse are endless miles of ice-cold air.

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling. They are a comet. They are a meteor. They are a dying, broken, tumbling leaf, a teardrop, a rainbow chunk of ice and fire, and they are falling towards Gray Death below.

“It’s impossible,” said the horse. “Even for someone like you. Even for someone like me. It’s impossible, rainbow girl, that we could bring an end to war.”

“It’s my quest,” she said.

“It’s wrong,” said Terrence. He was her sprite. “It’s wrong. It’ll destroy us. They’ll find us, if we try to end their wars. They’ll hunt us down. They’ll take Rainbow Land away, make it theirs, make it a part of their earthly kingdom, where only shadows rule.”

“But it’s my quest,” the girl said. “I have to heal this thing. I have to guard the beauty that the people of the Earth deny. I have to make them stop killing each other,

and so cruelly!”

But, oh! The sky was fading.

It was twilight in the rainbow kingdom, the sun was falling to the west, and the horse looked up.

“It will have to wait for morning,” the marvelous horse said. “Dear. You can’t do it today. You can’t do it now. You can’t stop people from fighting wars, forever, if you haven’t gotten any sleep.”

“That’s so,” conceded the girl.

So she went to bed.

She went to bed, to let Earth wait just one last troubled night.

And slept.

And while she slept there were doings in the darkness, and gatherings, and quiet acts of diplomacy and treason; and when she woke, her people did not sing to her, as they had always done, when Rainbow Land was bright.

Rather than sing, instead, they gathered around her, and their voices, they were low.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence.

She looked at him.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence, “why it is that you cannot save the world.”

And they took her down into the depths of the palace, and through the hidden passages to the caves where her servants labored, cutting forth light and hope from the lifeless stone, and to the Great Machine that had made her.

And she said, “It’s made of ice.”

She touched it with her hand.

She said, as if in a trance, “There is a place, so very far from here! And a flake of ice, and oh, it is so very bigger than the world! And God—”

But the horse was brusque.

It bumped her in the back with its nose and made her turn away, and said, “This is where we made you, to save us, to be a girl from nothing and make brightness in our land. We cut you out of ice and dolor and we brought you here, from nothing, to nothing, and filled your heart with fanciful lies. Like, ‘you are charged to save us, wielding light.’ Like, ‘you were made to fill our land with beauty.’”

And she remembered—oh, she remembered, and of a sudden!—how she’d come into existence and out of nothingness as if formed off some great crystal made of ice, and curled about herself in some strange womb, and dreamt of foreign colors as shaved fragments sprinkled by.

She remembered how she’d dreamed, oh! such dreams! of something brighter than the endless hungry void. How she’d conceived a sudden brilliant conception, in that womb of ice, of what the murky and dismal land some call “the world” could be.

And how it had seemed to her that a lady made of light had spoken, had said, “Wisp, will you go forth from this place to my land, my dismal land, that dwells under the hand of shadows, and make it bright?”

The sprites looked down.

In the shadow of the Great Machine, the echo of the work of ice that lives beyond the world, they could not speak; save for Terrence, who cleared his throat, and said:

“You were our doll, lady Wisp. You were our toy. And we are grateful to you, for that you were bright and brilliant and rainbows. But you must not think you are a person. You must not think you are a living girl with breath and heart and hope and rainbows, who can stand against our purpose and our decision, and bring chaos to the land.”

The breath left her.

It was as if he had punched her in the stomach, and all she could breathe in was chunks of ice.

“We had to make you,” he said. “But not the rainbow girl. The rainbow girl was fantasy. You are just a flake of snow.”

She was falling.

She was falling.

The sky was rushing up around her, and she could not breathe, and there was gray and black and white jittering before her eyes, and she could not find the ground.

She clenched around the emptiness in her heart, fell gasping, Gray Death opening below, and cast a glance, a single glance, up at the horse.

He was marvelous, that horse.

He was a wonder.

He caught her, once, when she was falling from the sky, when she was plummeting and she thought that she would die. He caught her, and lifted her up, and brought her back to warmth and hope.

Once, but not again.

As she falls into herself, as she goes black and white, not even gray, within her heart and body, the horse, he does not save her. The horse, he looks away.

And it all spirals away from her, leaving her empty of the rainbow, leaving her cold—

Except that’s wrong.

That isn’t now.

She isn’t falling into herself, now. She isn’t on the floor of a cave under the rainbow kingdom, desperate with pain, broken by impossibilities.

That isn’t now.

That was a very long time ago.

Now, right now, she is in a very real sky, and hope and truth have found her once again, and she is falling.

She is falling because her horse has broken its leg.

Her marvelous flying horse has broken its leg against a stream of ice, and so of course it cannot fly.

As has been told before, the girl who fell became the rainbow once again. She’d been needed. It wasn’t OK, any more, to leave her in her cold sense of soullessness.

A soulless girl couldn’t have saved the world from the death that had been coming.

As has been told before, once she’d been made whole again, she’d refused to transform back.

She’d understood—

Somehow—

That just because people told her she wasn’t a person, just because they’d shown her the womb of ice from which she’d come, and said, “Look, this is how we made you, this is why we made you, can’t you see that’s not how a person’s born?”—

That such a thing can’t end the meanings that lived inside her heart.

She’d spent years and years amongst the grayness there, and had found an end to shadows.

And now she is falling.

She’d gone to the man she’d thought had been behind it all—

A murky, dismal man; a man who had always sought to purge the colors from the world—

And she’d thought that she could save him. That the goddess she’d become, that the endless seven-colored power she had birthed in herself, that the girl named Wisp and sometimes Rainbow would be able to save him from his misery and show him the wonder that was color, light, and hope.

She’d tried, anyway.

And maybe she’d succeeded, in a way.

But it hadn’t done him any good, or her, as has been told; because, in the end, he wasn’t the villain of the piece.

He wasn’t the villain.

He was a villain, but not the villain, just another murky, dismal little man gone lost in shadows. In the end, all the light could buy for him was a single moment of forgiveness.

The villain, if there was a villain, was a thing of ice and distance.

It was something cold and far and cruel.

It whispered this of others: that

“They are not real.”

It was God, perhaps, or a horse, perhaps, or a snowflake larger than the world; and it hung beyond all world and sound, and brooded, saying:

“What there is, there is of me: there is the light I cast, there is the world of my imagining, there are the dreams I dream and the shadows I have made; and nothing else is real.”

And if it thinks that it is the only reality, the only beauty, the only justice, the only right, then it has, perhaps, an excuse of sorts, for it is not merely cold, and it is not merely ice, this king of shadows and winter that dwells beyond the world.

It is beautiful.

It is beautiful, and it is endless, and it is marvelous, and it sheds forth every beauty; and the rainbow is refracted through that ice; and the world is made from the waters when it melts, and the dirt that it sheds, and the light and shadows it casts forth.

It is self-contained.

It is self-complete.

And yet, in some contingency of motion, it has sent forth its avatar, its child, its element to us within the world, and with a spirit of great mercy. It has sent a piece of itself, an image of itself, a mirror of its icy vastness, to be the most marvelous thing, to live in the dreary world of its creation, to redeem it through the presence of the horse.

It has sacrificed for us, the most terrible and deadly sacrifice; it has chosen to become involved.

It is the pinnacle, is it not, the horse?

Is it not the most marvelous thing in all the world?

And did it not already risk itself—risk its perfection-in-itself, daring unimaginably—to descend beneath the darkness of the world and find a part of itself that dreamt of rainbows, and make a girl of it, and shelter her, and raise her against the darkness like a spear, and teach her the power of the rainbow?

So if it thinks it is the only truth; if it thinks it is the only right; if it thinks there is no justice, that is not the justice of the horse; if it thinks there is no beauty, that is not the beauty of the ice; if it thinks that in the end there are nothing but its shadows and its dreams, then it has an excuse of sorts, for in a very real way it is the author of us all, or at the very least its agent and its representative, the mirror-horse of God—

Most marvelous thing in all the worlds that are, and the brightest, and the best.

And so she came, at the end of her journey, the rainbow girl, to the field of grass and flowers at the center of the city, to the last remaining place of color and brightness (before the rainbow had returned), where the horse still lived, and danced, and woke up in the morning to laugh and play and sing; and to turn its eyes on her as she walked up, it seemed, and say, “Oh, Wisp, you have become my rainbow once again.”

And she knew.

His voice was guileless, as it had always been, as if he knew nothing in the world save love for others and self-praise.

His voice was guileless, but still she knew.

In the center of the crumbled world, in that little piece of paradise, he frolicked, and he looked at her with eyes that made her melt, possessed her with a girlhood that overcame the goddess in her, loved her still, with brightness still they shone, and still she knew.

She touched his mouth.

She swung herself up on his back.

She said, “Oh, my love, you have not forgotten me.”

But she knew what he had done.

They rose into the sky, didn’t they? They flew; or ran, at least, on the rainbow once again. They galloped out over blue skies and high above Gray Death.

She knew he meant to throw her.

“It was your lie,” she told him. “Wasn’t it?”

Right into his ear; which flicked, of course, as if to cast a fly away.

And on they rode in silence, far above the world.

It made her breathless with joy and pain.

“It was your idea,” she said, “to show me the Machine that gave me birth; and to tell me, ‘you are just a doll we made from snow, oh Wisp. You are just a toy. Just a toy, and not a person after all.’”

“It was,” said the horse.

The horse’s shoulders rolled. It said: “You are.”

Its voice was distant ice and starlight and it was pale against the sky.

“What else could you be,” mused the horse, “than a reflection of Myself? What else is there to be, than light against the ice? So I realized, when you brought trouble to my heart. That you are the rainbow, or a girl, or a thing I made, or a thing I loved, but in the end, still, you are just a toy, and of my crafting, like all the shining world.”

She wept for him.

“And so,” said the horse, “I tore you down; and buried you in darkness; and then, for reasons elusive even to myself, I must have set you free.”

She wept for him.

She clung to him and wept for him, knowing that he meant to throw her, because he was the most marvelous horse in the world, and yet—

“You do not know,” she said.

And her voice was seven-toned, like the rainbow; and the tears that flowed from her were as a stream of ice; and he meant to throw her, he really did, but it went wrong, he went wrongfooted, and if you were to find a thing to blame for it, you might say, he slipped or struck his leg upon her tears.

And his perfection was distorted.

And his gait was broken.

And suddenly, because a horse can’t exactly fly if it has a broken leg, he fell.

It struck him as ironic that he would not have to throw her; that he was freed, in the end, of the need to cast her from his back to fall screaming to Gray Death. He would fall, and that would be an end to things. He would die, and the world would end, and nevermore a rainbow to trouble him or make turmoil of his heart.

Right now, dear reader.

Right now, they fall—

He falls—

It falls—

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling, spiraling down through endless sky, with Gray Death looming up below.

And because he is a horse of courage, after all, even maimed and broken, he opens one pure and perfect eye.

She is not falling.

It is terribly unfair.

She is not falling.

She is, instead, laying down with a hand outstretched—oh, moving downwards fast enough, and technically perhaps that counts as ‘she is falling,’ but she is descending as a skydiver descends, or a stooping bird, not as a mortal plummeting to her death—

Laying on the rainbow, outstretched beside him in the sky.

Unfairly, she is reaching for him, supported by the rainbow, calling out over and over again for him to live—

He squinches closed both eyes.

The world moves far away, then farther, then farther again, until even Wisp seems to him twice as distant as the sky.

Ice closes about him, and rainbows.

“I’ve broken my leg, you foolish girl,” he says, and casts aside her power, and lets the wind and shadows carry him downwards to his grave.

Flutter,
flutter,
Flutter,

Down to the world below.

And there is a moment where the ice shatters, as he strikes against Gray Death.

There is a moment where the shadows seem to boil and drain away, plunging down through the jagged edges of the mountains to drown some other land.

There is a pure and crystal darkness, and finally, a light.

The rainbow hits the mountains, dances about them for a moment amidst a rain of ice, strives as rainbows strive to lift the broken and the dead.

And then, it flies away.

unknown authorship; part of the “Rainbow Collection” of documents assembled during Congress’ 1954 investigation into various Un-American Activities on the part of Un-American Activities Bear.

Siggort (V/V)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

The darkness is great and cool and soothing.

It fills the spaces between things.

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

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

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

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

He is ringed with knives.

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

He can taste every particle of the beach.

He tongues the chaos of the sea.

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

Everything is silent.

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

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

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

He considers killing her.

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

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

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

The wires of Sid criss-cross through the eyepatch.

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

The eyepatch turns to shreds of cloth and spirit.

Sid does not want to kill the pirates.

So he lets them leave.

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

He makes the blood to cease.

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

He cannot hear anything at all.

He cannot feel Max.

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

It squirms and bleeds away.

Sid spins faster.

He angers.

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

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

He tastes a metal tang.

He tastes Max.

He tastes Max’s blood.

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

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

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

Max loved you,
you know,

murmurs the sea.

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

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

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

But people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

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

“If I may ask—“

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

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

She flushes.

You thought I was a heap.

“They’re very tricky,” Tara says.

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

“But I meant to ask— are you okay?”

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

Tara blushes even brighter.

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

She recovers, though.

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

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

Oh.

Sid rises over a ridge.

The Good sees him.

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

He is loved.

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

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

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

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

Hans’ Farm

Hans’ farm is deep beneath the earth. It’s under the great gate. It’s under the giant centipede. It’s under the bridge where the dead soldiers march.

The rock over Hans’ farm is beautiful and dark. But the farm is doleful because Hans does bad things.

It’s bad to sharpen a goat.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

You can sharpen goat cheese but it’s bad to sharpen the actual goat.

Hans’ goat is sawing, sawing, sawing on the bars of its pen.

It tosses its head. It cuts the wooden boards of the ceiling with its great sharp head. Then it returns to its sawing, sawing, sawing on the steel bars of its pen.

It is not a good goat.

Nobody wants Hans’ goat to escape.

That would be bad.

It’s bad to plug in a cow.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

Electricity is good, but not too much electricity, and just about any amount is too much for a cow.

Hans’ cow is there, on his farm deep beneath the earth. It’s pretty shocked. It’s crackling. It’s dancing. It aurores. Soon it is on fire.

Hans’ cow burns.

Hans’ cow burns, deep beneath the world.

It’s bad to whisk a duck.

No, seriously. I know a lot of people think it’s hip.

But it’s not.

It’s bad to whisk a duck.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

Whisking is cool. You can whisk things and make them fluffy. You can whisk them to and fro. It’s good to whisk eggs and make them foam.

But it’s bad to whisk a duck.

When you whisk a duck, it quacks vigorously and flutters, and that part is good. But then it dies, and its spirit can never rest.

Hans’ duck is glowering.

It is hungry.

It is glowering.

It endures its whisked existence:

On Hans’ farm, deep beneath the earth.

Manchester-in-the-Gulch

In the vast caverns wreathed in sulfurous smoke, where the ground is a milky bog and the skies are full of wheeling imps; where the damned stumble and build and hold tight their memories of Earth; where there are great creatures walking in human form, their skin as hard as stone and their bodies taller than the hills; in that place that some call Hell, each person carries an egg.

There are rocks that fall. There are flames that rise. There are beasts in the night.

And there are eggs.

Annie wakes up there, sprawled in her daisy-print dress upon a viscous bog. She wakes up already sinking into the mud and in a panic, but there are hands grasping for her, the hands of men and women standing on the stable places in the bog. They are lifting her. They pull her up.

“Hello,” she says. “My name is Annie.”

“Annie,” murmur the people, in acknowledgment.

“Where am I?” Annie asks.

Then Minister Brown steps forward, and his hand is gentle on her arm, and he says, “Annie, you have been damned.”

“Oh,” Annie says. “Oh.”

Then Annie curls tightly around the egg so that none may take it from her.

“Peace,” says Minister Brown. “There is no one here who will hurt you. We are a sad lot, an unpleasant lot, but there is not the least of us here that would ever hurt your egg.”

There is an odd ring of truth to these words, and Annie peers at him.

“Oughtn’t you lot be horrid ruffians?” she says.

“Such was also my theory,” says Minister Brown. “But it does not seem the case. I thought on the matter, and here is my conclusion: if this is Hell, we are suffering immeasurable agonies and torment, which we tune out reflexively as the nature of our condition. In such light, the only greater harm that we could suffer is the shattering of our eggs. In all history there have been no humans, or at least few humans, so depraved as to exceed in their actions the torments offered by Hell. Thus, against the background evil of this place, all people stand out as good.”

“I see,” Annie says.

She takes a few steps away from them, feeling her way through the bog. “I don’t remember being terribly evil,” she says. She looks up at the sky. “I suppose I could have been a sociopath who just didn’t recognize the truth of all my deeds.”

Minister Brown sizes her up.

“More likely a contributor to the background ignorant malice of the world,” says Minister Brown. “But it is a question that others do not investigate, here. If you should like to know, you may ponder it in your egg. If you do not, we shall not inquire.”

“I understand,” says Annie.

They take her to their community, Manchester-of-the-Gulch, and there she spends some years. She learns, of her own accord, to plait yarn from the wispy, smoky matter that trails from the branches of the trees. She learns to knit clothing using needles made of the great bones, shed by long-forgotten beasts, which from time to time surface in the bog. She joins the people on their excursions to hunt the food, the water, and the sparkling foxfire-globes of electric power that help their town to live. And for years she holds her egg close, in her hand and later a pocket of her dress, but she does not look inside it.

Sometimes she sees the great stony creatures walk by, silent in the mist. The people call them the Demon Princes, for they are eidolons of fear and mystery to them.

They pass, great and terrible in the night, and they do not speak.

“I am minded to take up religion,” Annie says, one day, to Minister Brown. “But I am not sure how to proceed, this being Hell.”

“There is no proviso in the Good Book,” says Minister Brown, “that the damned cannot take up the faith. There is only the implication, apparent to certain learned theologians, that we cannot master it. Given that we are bound by our nature and unable to accept God, we cannot know the Word; the Word that we know is not the true Word; we cannot ever truly understand the majesty of the Lord. But we may come close.”

Annie is stricken. “To study, Minister, and aspire, always knowing that the truth by definition eludes us?”

“It is a burden,” Minister Brown agrees easily. “Some take up other faiths, of course. It is the Asian perspective that this Hell is a temporary place of torment, and that by apprehending the truth we lighten the burden of our karma. Some Christian sects would have it that even the damned are vulnerable to salvation, although the nature of the transition is not entirely clear—as we are dead, we cannot change our natures, but surely God’s light can breach that gap? And then there are the various rationalist faiths.”

“Why, then, Minister, are you a man of the Book?”

Minister Brown shrugs. “Because I cannot apprehend the truth does not mean I may not seek it.”

Annie scratches at the side of her face.

“I suppose,” Annie says, “that you might manage some epistemological sleight. Some manner of knowing-without-knowing, faith-without-faith, witness-by-implication.”

“I have time,” says Minister Brown.

So Annie studies with him, and they stare around the enigma of the belief they may not hold; but in her hour and in her day, it is Annie’s decision to part ways, saying, “Lo, I have found faith, in this simple place; and I cannot deny this flame I feel inside me on the doctrinal basis of its impossibility.”

“May you be wiser in this than I,” says Minister Brown.

And it is driven by that faith, supported by that tender reed of God, that, three months later, Annie finally finds it in herself to draw aside from the others, travel out beyond the borders of Manchester-of-the-Gulch, walk into the bog. There, she makes inquiry of her egg after the sin that damned her.

Now her egg is a filigree of gold that wraps around a pulsing core of red. And there are numbers in the egg and there are sounds and there is whiteness and there is fire. And there is an ancient wind and shouts of war and more of these things besides, and in its heart, she sees the sin that damned her.

Annie shrieks, as is typical of the damned, and casts the egg aside onto a tuft of grass; and she cowers there, in the bog, shaking and trembling, biting on her lip until there is blood, scratching at her arms.

“Leave her,” says Minister Brown, when a hunting party finds her there. “She will recover.”

He bends down and tries to touch her arm, but she rebuffs him with flailing blows, and he rises and nods.

But they have not gotten thirty paces thence when the rocks begin to fall.

There is something nagging at Annie’s mind. There is something twisting in it. And then she suddenly flounders to her feet, and begins to cast frantically about her, crying, “My egg!”

And all around her there are great stones falling from the sky, falling from the heights of stone that are the roof of Hell, and she does not know where the egg was cast, or whether it is vulnerable on the surface of the ground or deep and sheltered in the bog.

The others are hurrying back already as she sees it. She is grasping for it, a scream bubbling from her throat like nothing known on Earth. But she is too late; a stone is falling.

In the vast caverns wreathed in sulfurous smoke, where the ground is a milky bog and the skies are full of wheeling imps; where the damned stumble and build and hold tight their memories of Earth; where there are great creatures walking in human form, their skin as hard as stone and their bodies taller than the hills; in that place that some call Hell, each person carries an egg.

It is the hand of a Demon Prince that saves her; a great and steel-skinned hand. It passes over the bog like a shadow, and the stone shatters on that skin.

And there is a wonder in that, and an awe, but mostly the jagged residuals of fear.

Clutching her egg tightly to her chest, mumbling a mix of frantic blessings and terrible strangled sounds, Annie stumbles back to Manchester-in-the-Gulch.

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.

The Great Long Road

Emily walks into the Scary Forest.

Emily walks into the Scary Forest with a basket. In the basket is her cornbread. She has many loaves.

Fairies trouble her.

“Emily!” cry the fairies. “Emily! Emily! What are you doing on Great Long Road? What are you doing on Great Long Road, in Scary Forest, with a basket in your hand?”

“I’m taking this cornbread to the Arena to find out whether it can count the real numbers,” Emily says.

Then the fairies shriek and fly all around her, tugging at her hair, rubbing dirt in her clothes, buffeting her with their wings.

“Cornbread can’t count the reals!” they shriek.

But Emily endures.

The great wolf troubles Emily.

“Emily,” rumbles the great wolf. “What are you doing on Great Long Road? In Scary Forest? With a basket in your hand?”

The great wolf is long and slinks low. He has three heads. He is taller than her brother, taller than her father, taller than the city walls.

“Great wolf,” says Emily, “I am taking this cornbread to the Arena. I am taking it to the Arena for the Judges to judge. I baked it hard. I baked it well. I think it might just have a chance, a tiny chance, to count the reals.”

The wolf smiles. Its tongue lolls to the side.

“Cornbread can’t count the reals,” it says. “But I’ll eat it. And I’ll eat you!”

“Well,” says Emily, “you may certainly have some.”

She takes out three loaves of cornbread. She throws them in a pattern around the wolf. The wolf lunges, then frowns. The cornbread smells delicious—but whichever direction he goes is further from two loaves and closer only to one!

“I’m trapped at a local maximum!” wails the great wolf. He looks at the loaves. He attempts to wobble towards them all but only winds up stretching. He whines.

Emily carefully walks past the wolf. He wants to eat her, too. He eddies closer to her. But at no point on her path does the wolf’s optimum location put him within reach.

“Curses!” sighs the wolf. He flops down in the middle of the road and waits, grumpily, for two of the pieces of cornbread to decay.

Emily passes through a glade, and she sleeps there for the night. Then she’s back on the road again.

The cornbread horror troubles her.

“I am the cornbread horror,” it says. It is a large block of cornbread with teeth. “I have killed ten thousand of your kind, mortal girl. I have cut them into squares with my sharp, sharp teeth.”

“Why?”

“It is my destiny,” says the cornbread horror. “I will kill all those who bring cornbread here, if that cornbread is not different in some notable respect than each piece of cornbread that has passed through here before.”

“I see,” says Emily.

“It is not my desire,” says the cornbread horror. “I am not truly sentient, being made of cornbread. I simply do what it is my nature to do.”

It seethes and eddies horribly, as is its nature.

“Pardon,” says Emily, “but are you included in the list of ‘each piece of cornbread’?”

“I am,” says the cornbread horror.

“So if my cornbread is different from every sort of cornbread that has come through here before, but not different from you—”

“Then I will still kill you,” says the horror. “And your cornbread will merge seamlessly into my tasty fluffy aurulence. This is what normally happens, for my destiny contains a terrible twist—I cannot meaningfully distinguish differences between pieces of cornbread!”

Emily winces at that. But she still takes out a piece of cornbread and holds it up hopefully.

“Can you tell if it’s different?” Emily asks.

“It seems identical to me,” says the cornbread horror. “In the right light, it even has teeth. So it is necessary that I kill you.”

“But . . . it knows the difference between the two of you,” Emily says.

The cornbread horror hesitates. “Uncertainty rises! Can cornbread truly be distinct from the cornbread horror if its only distinction is that it knows itself distinct from the cornbread horror, while this distinction the cornbread horror knoweth not?”

Leaving it to fret over the complexities of destiny, Emily moves on.

“I’ll kill you if it happens to be identical!” shouts the cornbread horror, behind her. “You’ll see!”

Once she is out of its sight Emily breaks into a run.

Fairies trouble Emily again. They’re very troublesome.

“Emily! Emily! Is it worth your life? Is it worth your life to have cornbread count the reals?”

The fairies swarm about her, pinching and tugging.

“I want to know what happened to Mom,” Emily says.

“To Mom! To Mom!” shout the fairies.

One fairy hangs in the air in front of Emily. “Your mother makes cornbread tastier than yours—but even her cornbread can’t count the reals!”

“It can’t,” shout the fairies. “It can’t count the reals!”

Then a western wind rises and they all swirl away.

The great face troubles Emily. It’s a great face, that’s in the middle of the road. Also, it has tentacles.

“Emily!” booms the great face. “Emily, you are here.”

“I am!” says Emily.

“I am the great face,” it says, “on the road to the Arena, where the Judges judge cornbread to see if it can count the real numbers. I will not fall for such tricks as the cornbread horror did. Do you know why?”

“No, sir,” says Emily. She looks attentive.

“It is because I am more than cornbread,” says the face. “I am self-aware. I am a person, with an internal model of myself and my intentions—an ‘I’ inside. When I declare my intention to snatch you up with my tentacles and cram you and your cornbread in my mouth and chew and chew until you’re all dead and gone, it is not the gallows prediction of an inanimate pastry—it is the unswervable declaration of a dedicated soul!”

“I see,” says Emily sadly.

There is a pause.

“Make it fast,” Emily says. “I mean, faster. I mean, don’t just sit there.”

The face scrunches up unhappily.

“My internal model is inaccurate,” it says. “I believe that I intend to eat you, but I am not making any move to do so.”

Emily pats a tentacle.

“That can happen with self-awareness,” Emily says sympathetically. “Like, I never thought that I’d try to make cornbread that could count the real numbers. But then I did!”

“Thank you,” says the face. It is pleased by her commiseration.

The face hesitates.

“It can’t actually count them, you know,” the face says. “No cornbread could. Cornbread can’t count the reals!”

“But . . .”

Emily flounders.

“But, why is there an Arena at the end of the road, then?”

“It has been there since the dawn of time,” says the face. “But no cornbread has ever reached it; for the road has many dangers, and at each step the cornbread must pass a new test. The tests are infinite; thus even an Iron Chef would be doomed to failure.”

“That’s too bad,” says Emily. She hesitates. “My mom,” she says. “I mean, a long time ago. She went this way. With cornbread.”

“I did not intend to eat her,” says the face. “She is somewhere ahead. But her fate is predetermined. She will fail.”

“You don’t know that!” snaps Emily. “Maybe she could go down the road forever, never finding a challenge that her cornbread can’t pass! Maybe when no typical cornbread can pass the test, hers is just atypical enough! Maybe when she faces a monster that despises people carrying unusual cornbread, hers is normal enough to get her past! There’s no way to determine if she’s dead without finding out where she’s dead, and to find out where she’s dead, I have to catch up to her, and if I don’t catch up to her then maybe she’s still alive forever and her cornbread will pass the test!”

There is a silence.

“Wow,” says the face. “You’re really passionate.”

“I have to be,” says Emily. “You can’t make ambitious cornbread without a burning passion. And corn meal.”

“I really think that I’m going to eat you,” says the face. “But instead, I’ll say, ‘good luck.'”

In the infinite distance there stands the Arena; and along the road are infinite dangers and hardships; and somewhere ahead, Emily’s mother; and the fairies swirl in the air over the Scary Forest and the Great Long Road, dancing, playing, spinning, crying, shouting when they’re near her, “Cornbread can’t count the reals!”

And it may be that this is so.

Having Missed the Dragonflies Entirely

Mary had a little lamb. Its fleece was white as snow. Everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.

But Mary died.

A hive of hardy coleopteran intelligences had a little lamb. Its fleece was white as snow. Everywhere that the hive would crawl, the lamb was sure to go.

But the hive died.

The loper had a long neck. Its limbs were like great sticks. Its fur flowed like water as it ran. Sometimes the mammals would cast forth a new intelligent species, with warm eyes like the humans had. The loper would eat them.

The loper had a little lamb. Its fleece was white as snow.

Everywhere the loper went, the lamb was sure to go.

The lamb said, “Baa!”

It gamboled.

But the loper died.

Crystals jutted forth from the dead Earth. They hummed to themselves. They exchanged incomprehensible thoughts. The crystals had a lamb.

“What will we feed the lamb?” the crystals asked themselves, on a particular millisecond, in a particular minute, during a single cycle of the eighteenth aeon of the world.

“Milk.”

Several centuries passed.

“We have no milk. The earth is dead.”

“Is the lamb alive?”

“The lamb is alive. It is in good health.”

“It is good.”

The crystals’ thoughts were not in English. Your humble author has translated them via babelfish.

Wherever the crystals sat and brooded and thought their incomprehensible thoughts, the lamb was sure to go.

But the crystals died.

There are things that move through space. They are great vaporous things. They spread over light-years. And they know love. Their love is terrible and brilliant and bright. It is piercing. It is the defining characteristic of their existence.

The things in space have a little lamb. Its fleece is white as snow.

They love it.

They love it fiercely and well.

But the things die.

The lamb is alone. There is nothing left.

“When will I find something worthy of me?” asks the lamb.

The lamb abandons the universe to death.

The lamb moves on.

The Factory of Wonderful Things

On the first floor there is a room seething with pink cotton candy. It is alive. It has a great and terrible mind.

The room has a balcony overlooking it. Scientists come there and look down at the cotton candy. So it doesn’t grow lonely.

They say, “Hello!”

“Hello,” says the cotton candy. It swirls. “I have a great and terrible mind.”

“Is that so?” the scientists ask.

“Yes,” says the cotton candy. Then it will say something profound and useful. Like a unified field theory. Or a new cardinal number between one and ten that no one had ever heard of before. Or practical dating advice.

People who get tired of working in the factory sometimes come to the balcony. They dive in. They vanish under the swirling and the bubbling of the cotton candy. They drown there. And as they drown, the cotton candy shouts, “I’m bubbling with love and death!”

It is not wonderful that that happens, you understand. It’s just the cotton candy that is wonderful.

There is a room on the first floor packed tight with rotating gumballs. These are like ordinary gumballs. But they do not like to be eaten. Instead they like to rotate around people. If they ever got out then people would be constantly surrounded by rotating gumballs. It would be very socially awkward. It would produce the kinds of complications that nuclei have to deal with every day. It’s too bad that nuclei have to suffer that, but people shouldn’t have to!

The whole factory is full of things like that. Things that are wonderful, but can’t be let out.

On the second floor, there are tigers. Tigers are pretty cool. But they like to eat people sometimes. Eat them, gnaw on them, or sometimes just playfully maim them. That’s why tigers don’t make good wonderful things to have in your house. People would always be saying, “Spot! Stop eating the guests!” and “Spot! Bad tiger! That’s mommy’s arm.”

This would not just be bad for people. It would also make the tigers sad.

The second floor also has that guy. That guy. The one to whom freedom of speech applies. It’s not so that everyone can talk, you know, whatever activist judges say. It’s for him. Scientists visit him sometimes too.

“I think,” he will say, “that the moon is a giant marble, that escaped the factory.”

“It was actually an affiliate—” starts one scientist.

“You shouldn’t criticize me,” he’ll say. “I have a right to free speech!”

“You’re right!” admits the scientist. “I have to shut up now.”

He’s not very pleasant to be around. But he’s important! Free speech osmoses to everyone else. As long as he’s alive, everyone else gets some too.

On the third floor, there is the happiness machine. You push a button and you are guaranteed to be happy. Leonard Schnauzel, who, due to his name, had never previously been happy, was the first man to push the button.

“Oh my God,” he said, at the time. “I finally understand.”

That’s when a bunch of underdressed women and a hot car were delivered to his home. Also, there were sacks of cash. When you look at commercials that promise sex and money if you buy the product, it’s not just something they’re making up—they’re harkening back to the legendary experience of Leonard Schnauzel.

“What a wonderful machine!” he said. He hugged it. A lot. But then they locked the machine away on the third floor of the factory. It’s still there today!

On the fourth floor, they have the hall of inflatable gods. These work a lot like RealDolls, except for worship instead of sex. They are not as good as an actual god, and definitely not as good as God, but sometimes people get lonely.

“Zeus!” a woman might say, inflating a Zeus. “Transform yourself into a swan and let’s get it on!”

That is not something that this reporter can personally imagine happening. But it is the illustration on the Zeus box.

“Wolf god!” a mysterious wanderer might say. “Help me restore the balance of the world!”

Then he would inflate the wolf god. The wolf god would help him restore balance to the world. Studio Ghibli knows! They’ve toured the factory in a special bus.

There is also a giant lollipop. It is stuck on the fourth floor for three reasons. First it is sticky. Second, if it were let out, people would be licking it all the time and would never get anything done. Third, it is bigger than the room it is in, which makes it also bigger than every possible egress for the room it is in. It’s true! You can prove it mathematically!

On the fifth floor are the cubiclemaids and cubiclemen. These are like mermaids and mermen, except that the bottom half is not a fish but rather some sort of office supply, like paperclips or printer toner. They sing marvelously and try to call passing workers.

“We promise a marvelous life in the cubicle maze!” they sing. “It will be full of joy and wonder!”

Their song promises a look at hidden treasures sparkling in the cubicle maze. It promises a chance to see the dolphins and memos that dart and play in the cubicle reefs. But if someone heeds their call, usually, they wind up drowning in work. It’s best not to listen!

On the sixth floor are the people responsible for the factory of wonderful things. They think they’re allowed to leave. But they’re not. If they ever stopped to think about it rationally, that’d be pretty obvious. But they don’t. They just go on making stuff!

The factory isn’t far from here. Just head downtown and take a left. The building shines like ice.

You can’t miss it!

The Spearman Stays His Hand

It is an ocean somewhere in the never, on the shores of dream.

The captain harries the serpent from east to west. Hard-pursued, she dives. She passes the layer of fire, where the phosphorescence of the worms turns the sea red, yellow, orange, and white. She passes the layer of darkness. She passes into the land of the Princes.

“Help me,” she says, to the spearfish, its nose as sharp as a razor and long as the day. But it gathers its raiment of gold and its chorus of anglers and swims away.

“Help me,” she says, to the great dark eye of the squid. For a long moment, it studies her. Then there is a flickering and a fading in the great eye’s depths. The squid’s attention has turned away.

She batters at the gate of the Sea King’s palace.

“Help me,” she says to the guardsman there.

“The Sea King sees no one,” says the guard. “Nor may I help a straggler by.”

“If I am slain,” says the serpent. “If I am slain, that day the world dies.”

“Aye,” says the guard. “But things are as they are.”

“That is the day the world will die,” says the serpent, as if she cannot comprehend.

“I’m sorry,” says the guard.

So the serpent flows upwards to break the surface of the sea, and there is the captain, who has gained much distance on her in this time. His ship is made of darkest wood, and its sails are tattered as from knives; and the sky behind it is splashed with blood, and the wheel is made of bone; and on the deck stands the spearman, braced to throw.

“Kill her,” says the captain.

She flees across the water, as hard and as fast as still she may.

“Kill her,” says the captain.

For just a moment, the spearman stays his hand.

Red Sky at Night

Somewhere out there, there are pirates.
They’re probably too fierce for me.
They’re probably too fierce for anybody.
But that’s okay.
There are pirates in the north.
But this is dry land.

— Meredith’s diary

It is 9:41am, and Meredith awakens to hear the gentle lapping of waves against her window. She looks outside and sees that the ocean has stolen her neighborhood. Short fences, lawns, bushes, street, cars, and sidewalk—all have vanished beneath a tide of green and blue. The surface of the ocean is studded with rising telephone poles on which perch seagulls and the occasional sunning crab; with the second floors of houses, such as her own; and with the gently waving treetops.

“Somewhere out there,” she says, “are pirates.”

She sits down. She sulks. Then she sighs.

“I need a better blanket.”

Outside, she can hear the seagulls squabbling.

Meredith spreads her blanket out on the floor. Then she goes to her cupboard. She’s a bit of a packrat. She’s got a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of everything else squirreled away. So she starts by taking out a set of pontoons. She affixes them to her blanket. “After all,” she says, “a blanket without pontoons isn’t seaworthy.”

In the distance, she can hear the blowing of a great deep horn.

“It also needs a sail,” she says, and roots around in the cupboard. “I wonder if I want one mast, or three.”

After a moment, she sighs.

“One,” she says. “The third one’s all smashed. I really ought to have thrown it out after that English schooner shot it up with cannon.”

She fixes the mast to her blanket. She gets out a dehydrated crew and adds water. She uses the water right outside her window, so they end up kind of a salty lot.

“But no innuendo or obscenity,” she says firmly. “This is a family blanket.”

“Yarr,” sulks the first mate. “Things can fall off if you don’t obliquely allude to them sometimes.”

“That’s just superstition,” Meredith explains. After some thought, she fishes a selection of artillery and cannon out of her cupboard and attaches it to the blanket. This perks the first mate right up.

“We could also be using some low-end nuclear missiles,” he points out.

“Hm,” Meredith says, disapprovingly, but she installs them anyway. It’s important not to disappoint one’s crew.

“And a luxurious pleasure palace.”

Meredith checks. “I’ve only got one, and it’s cracked.”

The first mate makes a face. “Yarr,” he sighs. “And I thought you were prepared.”

“I’m not,” Meredith says. She looks out the window. “Somewhere out there, there are pirates.”

“We could have a giant clock,” the first mate says. “That tells time. And grants wishes.”

Meredith ignores him. She pulls out a sewing machine and considers it, then nods and sets it on the blanket. Then there’s chocolate milk, and a life-size inflatable Godzilla, and a peach, and most importantly of all, the figurehead, sitting proudly on the blanket’s prow.

“Let’s go,” she says.

The cannon fires. The wall falls down. The blanket sails out.

“North,” she says.

The blanket creaks as the wheel turns.