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]

Ink and Annihilation (III/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

Flying carpets, once abandoned, often yearn for the annihilation of the universe.

They don’t fly very well after a while.

They get tears in them and sometimes bugs eat parts of them. The will that allows them to fly — that fades some, too, when they realize that they’ll never have the wild dream of their youth.

They’ll never get to find some worthy child and fly away with them forever.

Most children aren’t a good match for a flying carpet in the first place, and if the carpet’s used, the kid has to have just as many tears and bug-eaten bits as the carpet does. That’s the rule, and it’s a hard one.

And that’s not even the worst of it.

Even if the carpet does find the right kind of child, all bug-eaten and worthy, they still can’t fly away and away forever with them.

Children grow old.

Then they die.

Then their skeletons fall off the flying carpet into the devouring sands.

There’s nowhere to go in all the world where you can get away from that truth — that children grow old and die and turn into skeletons and get eaten by the desert.

There’s nowhere to go in all the world or outside it either.

A carpet can go to the lands of Romance alone but there is little point. The evil viziers and dashing princes will squint at it with their eyes. The noble kings will lecture it about the proper use of negative space. Even the shopkeepers will point at the empty carpet and they will laugh.

For the carpets themselves their power is no escape.

A flying carpet has a certain lifespan to its purpose and then it’s done.

Sometimes, after that purpose runs out, a boring tree will stick a screw-root through the carpet’s brain. It’s not very common, but it’s what’s happened to Jacob’s carpet. There’s a screw-root in its brain and a girl shouting at the tree.

“You’re a worthless rotter,” shouts the girl.

The tree does not give in.

“You’re a filthy degenerate larch-fucker with chlorophyll made of snot, and you’re personally responsible for the whole world going to Hell!”

It really hurts.

The screwing, that is. It really hurts. And it makes it very hard to think.

But if the tree really were the one responsible for the whole world going to Hell, the carpet feels, it’d probably be worth it.

After a while the girl tires of ranting.

She is quiet for a bit while the screw turns softly in Jacob’s carpet’s brain.

Then she asks the tree a question that she should have asked some time ago, to wit, “. . . why won’t you let go?”

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 everyone calls her the imago. Stands for I’d Make A Great Optimist, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

She reaches out her hand.

She touches the root of the boring tree.

“Why won’t you let go?” she asks.

By implication, it explains that trees can’t talk.

But it doesn’t have to.

The imago is a creature of histories and she is reading the history of the tree through the rings of its root. She stares into the long annals of the boring tree’s life. She studies the chronicles of sun and wind and sky and roots and soil and the storm beneath the world.

She hunts for the cues in its nature that would explain this terrible thing; and

“Oh,” she says.

Understanding what she sees is an art, and Ink is new at it.

But she sees enough that she blushes at the things she’s said.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh. I’m so sorry.”

And she understands: “If you let go then it will fall.”

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Jacob’s Carpet: Years passed.

The carpet lived in the world. It lived in the edges of the world. It waited.

And Anatman came to it. He wore a hood. His voice was very kind. And he said, “I can give you peace.”

And the carpet struck him across the face with its tail and made a bruise and it flew away, because it did not want peace.

It wanted victory.

But one day Jacob ended. As simply as that, it was over.

The wind caught the carpet. The wind dragged it away. The carpet tumbled down through the great empty places of the world. It fell down and down and down and when it burst through and saw the storm it understood.

That was all. It could never save him. Jacob was over. The carpet had nothing left.

But a crosswise wind caught it and it tangled in the roots of the trees.

There it grew thin.

There the wind beneath the world battered at it.

It was already screaming when the first root sank in.

“If you let go,” says Ink, “it will fall. But if you hold on, you will kill it.”

If the tree could talk,

Which it can’t,

It would shrug.

Well, if it could talk and shrug, it would shrug. And then it might say something.

Like: It is a stranger to me.

Trees care very little for flying carpets. No carpet, even in its flush of youth, has ever served a tree. To the lands of Romance that lay beyond the world trees do not go.

It has saved the carpet because it was there.

It has given the fullest of effort that the world might ask of it to save this stranger’s life; and, having done so, it has no intention to do more.

“I understand,” says Ink.

She turns to the carpet.

She hunts for words to answer the cruelty of its fate.

She says, “When you fall—“

She does not know what will happen when it falls.

“I will cause it to be that there is a Heaven for you,” she says.

The carpet shrieks.

It struggles.

“Freak!” she says. She’s in some distress. “People like Heaven! You don’t want to suffer, do you?”

There is liquid oozing out around the carpet’s brain. It is dripping down the carpet’s sides. Its tail is fluttering at a rapid pace.

“Fuck,” she says.

The creature calms.

“I will prolong your torment,” she says, in calm clipped words. “But only for a finite time, do you understand? And if it hurts too much, I’ll make it stop.”

There is a certain irony in this statement that is lost on the imago.

The creature is still.

“I will give you a purpose,” she says. “Five lives that you must save; and you will save them, and carry them to the answer to their pain. And when you have done that you will accept your failings and fall into far Heaven.”

It makes a sound.

More.

Ink looks exasperated. She makes a comic face.

She does not understand how huge and meaningful it is that the carpet will bargain with her at all. She most likely never will.

More.

Let me sate myself on purpose before at last I go.

“Okay,” she says. “Two purposes.”

It is enough.

  • Tune in TOMORROW for the next exciting history:
    INK USES TAPE!

A Leopard that Eats Too Many Books

A leopard that eats too many books becomes bulky and literary.

Such leopards are of great value in the wild where there are not many literary things.

For example if the leopard eats a lot of Don Quixote it becomes a valuable source of inspiration regarding breaking free of prevailing cultural ideals and replacing them with romanticized ideas from an earlier time.

“Raar,” such a leopard typically says, thumping down to the ground next to a gazelle.

Suddenly the gazelle realizes the value of impossible dreams.

Further the gazelle understands that modern life on the veldt is not right for it. Instead it harkens back to primevalism and the ways of its ancient ancestors.

“Raar!” the leopard says and claws at the gazelle.

The gazelle doesn’t run away. Instead the gazelle splits in half!

It’s asexual reproduction to the rescue!

The gazelle bounds in two different directions. This confuses the leopard. It paws uncertainly at one of the gazelle halves’ semi-permeable membrane.

The gazelle quixotically attempts to absorb protein from the leopard.

“Raar!” says the leopard, quite confused now, and hobbles away.

Alternately the leopard might favor the reality-bending works of Philip Dick. Thus when it leaps out of the grass towards a zebra the zebra’s mind will be totally blown.

“How can I know,” the zebra says, “that I am really here, right now?”

“Rurr?”

“How can I know,” the zebra says, “that I am even a zebra?”

The leopard kills the zebra. However the zebra simply wakes up on a different veldt. Also now it has four arms but none of the other zebras admit that anything has changed.

“Is reality, reality?” wonders the zebra.

But enough about zebras. They don’t eat books.

Sometimes a leopard eats a crate of What’s Happening to My Body?

Many people don’t think this is an appropriate book for leopards, particularly in quantity. It talks about sex and God doesn’t want leopards to know about that. Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be if every time you had sex with somebody the leopards understood?

But no amount of moralizing will stop a hungry leopard in a library. If it can’t eat good and moral books, it’ll eat the banned ones!

So sometimes they eat What’s Happening to My Body?

And sometimes one leaps out at a tribe of ibexes!

“Raar,” says the leopard.

It’s kind of hungry now because all it’s been able to eat in months was a lot of books, including What’s Happening to my Body?, and a zebra. The zebra turned out to be illusory so the leopard’s hungrier than you might expect.

“Raar!”

One spotted ibex startles at the roar.

“Agh! Leopard!” it says. Then, looking at the leopard, it suddenly realizes, “Masturbation is a healthy and natural reflex!”

“Oh thank God,” says one of the other ibex in the tribe.

“It’s all explained by the literary value of this leopard,” the first ibex says.

That helped the tribe of ibexes a lot. It improved their self-esteem, making them healthier and more productive citizens of the veldt. But do you really want to turn to a leopard for help understanding the changes in your body as you blossom into adulthood? It might give good advice, or it might eat you!

Six’s Story

There is a place far away, a rocky cave well-lit by fires and by mosses’ glow, and there the numbers gather every year. They are assembled, will they or nill they, from the great infinity of the world. Eight of them, always, have seen that place before; one of them, each year, is new.

1.

Helen finds herself swept from the world and into distant places.

“We will call you One,” Nine says.

And Helen, staring at Nine, sees the incredible beauty of her: the clean pure goodness of Nine that radiates from every pore.

And so she says, with the breath taken out of her, “Okay.”

And Nine leads her to a gathering where people stand around a table: and there is punch, and fruit, and music, and light conversation; and running under it all an electric current of mathematics that gives articulated numeric definition to every word that every person says, so that the play of conversation is like the shared construction of a proof, so that the music is like a counterpoint to the logical arguments that the convocation advances, so that the selection of each fruit or sip of punch is a new axiom or lemma.

“Hi,” says Helen shyly, and she feels the Theorem of Introduction form to give hard structural backbone to those words.

And Five smiles at her, disablingly, and says, “You belong with us,” and his words are proof of fact.

“Oh,” she sighs, and then she looks to Nine, and asks, “This is really okay? I’m supposed to be here?”

But Nine has drifted away, and where she stood there is a void like a contradiction.

The room stills.

“Six,” says Five.

“Six,” say the others.

They have turned to see the newest arrival, and they are all murmuring her name.

Looking at Six, Helen thinks: Surely this is the greatest lady in all the world.

Six is tall and graceful and her eyes are fixed on Nine: and Nine meets her by the entrance and their hands touch: and then Nine walks away.

And Six stares after her, her eyes unfocused, and Helen realizes that something is wrong.

She sees a truth but not its reasoning.

She asks, “Where is Nine going?”

And, “Why is Six afraid of Seven?”

But there is no one listening to her just then to give the answer to those words.

2.

Two is in the shadows.

He is nervous, as is typical for him. He does not expect Six to feel a fierce and consuming joy on seeing him. He would not believe her if she told him that that joy was there.

But it burns in her.

She loves the crookedness of his nose.

She loves the thickness of him. She loves the gentleness.

She hugs him, when they meet, and he is distant and afraid of touch, but still he stammers, “It is good to have you here.”

And Six nods, and she goes to pull away, but he stops her.

“Six always survives,” he says. “Remember that.”

Six always survives.

And she moves on.

3.

Three is crooked, wry, and sinister.

“We all have a dark heart,” he says.

“You wish,” Six tells him.

Three looks wounded. “I’m totally evil,” he says. “Look, I’m cackling.”

He lifts his head. He braces himself. Then he laughs a wicked laugh.

“Hwa, ha ha ha ha.”

He cannot sustain the laugh under her level gaze.

Your reasoning is inconclusive, her eyes say.

He breaks down in giggles, and she has won the point.

“And when,” she asks, “will you act on this terrible evil inside you?”

“Soon enough,” he says. “Soon enough.”

He grins a bit.

“Perhaps next year,” he says. “When I am Four.”

She hugs him once, then she moves on.

4.

Four is a crone. She is half-asleep.

Six takes her hand, gently. She says, “Four?”

And Four wakes up.

Four smiles to her.

It is a perfect smile. It is the kind of smile you do not learn in the first eighty years of your life. Some people do not even learn it in their first hundred.

It is the kind of smile that abandons all the false conceits we learn in childhood and simply grants light unto the world.

“Why is it only every year?” Six asks. “That I can see you all?”

“It is too good,” says Four. “It is too good to be too common.”

5.

Five is terribly handsome. Six thinks about interrupting the story to have sex with him right then, but it is probably for the best to wait.

Instead, they kiss.

“You could stay here,” he proposes.

“And leave Seven unpunished?”

“Which is more important?” he says. “Kissing, or revenge?”

“Kissing,” she says. “But honor trumps them both.”

“Honor is an unverified hypothesis,” he sighs.

But he lets her go.

7.

Seven is in the back, staring at the wall.

Seven says, “Listen.”

“Hm?” Six asks.

“Did you ever think that people might be fundamentally in error regarding their desires?” Seven asks.

“No,” Six says.

“It would be logical,” Seven says. “As they are in error regarding everything else.”

She turns on Six. There is blood at the corner of Seven’s mouth; blood on her hands; blood smeared along her face. She gestures broadly and her fingernails are black with it.

Six’s fear chills her.

“Ask twenty people for a binary truth,” Seven says, “And get twenty different answers. Seek the good for humanity, and discover that in the end they do not want the good; that their needs are contradictory; that their suffering is also their apotheosis. So I say: people are in error regarding their desires. They do not want happiness, wholeness, glory. They desire the natural culmination of the flesh, that is, to be eaten by a superior predator. To be devoured; made great; incorporated into something larger than themselves.”

Six counts on her fingers.

Six says, “You’re committing an error of precedence.”

Seven narrows her eyes. “Eh?”

“That blood.”

“Seven ate nine,” Seven murmurs lucidly.

“Right.”

“And?”

“So Nine didn’t become part of something larger than herself. She became part of something smaller.”

Seven frowns at Six.

“Conservation of energy,” Seven dismisses, “disagrees.”

There is no answer that Six may give to that. It is both indisputable and wrong.

So Six does not answer.

Instead she stares at Seven for a while. She tries to see the person that she knows— the person that she loves, the person she’s eaten ice cream with, laughed with, stayed up far too late arguing theorems with— under the blood.

Six says, softly, “You know why we are here.”

“I do,” Seven says.

“Do you understand what must be done?”

“Every year,” Seven says, “we meet, and we go through the senseless ritual of it. The castigation of seven. The revenge upon the digit, the ritual magic, to impress upon |N, the space of natural numbers, that never again shall one number feast upon another. Every year, Six, it becomes a little more cloying, a little more ridiculous, a little more false. It is not the successor function that is the law, Six. It is the function of consumption, the predecessor function, the grim spectre of death counting downwards from infinity.”

“That’s bad number theory!” Six protests.

And Seven is close in on her now, and with a knife held in her trembling hand, and Seven demands, “Silence!”

And all becomes tableau.

Until finally, Seven withdraws a bit and says, “What you say is true, but like any other problem in mathematics, the difficulty may be resolved using limits.”

“Seven,” pleads Six.

Her voice shakes.

“I don’t recognize you,” Six says.

“Next year, when you are Seven, perhaps you will.”

“No.”

“Next year,” Seven says, “you will see the gaping moral flaw that underlies all the mathematics that we know; and you will curse yourself for standing by your principles instead of standing at my back.”

“That may be so,” Six agrees.

Seven sighs.

She drops the knife. She lowers her head. She stands there like a prisoner condemned.

“Seven,” Six says. “I name you beast. I name you betrayer. In this place I say I am your judge, and I find you guilty of murder and of treason.”

“And what is your sentence?”

8.

Successor,” Six says.

It is a curse.

It is a judgment.

Seven increments into the principle of devouring.

9.

Six comes to the end of her journey there.

She stands in cutting silence.

Then she turns around and she trudges back to the others.

They are gathered around a table in the main room of the first ten natural numbers, and they are talking, and there is good cheer; but when they see her the room falls silent.

The new One— Helen, if Six recalls— looks at her with wounded eyes.

And then:

“Come here,” says Five.

And he seizes Six into comfort; and all around her are Two, and Three, and Five, and Four looks on and says, “I am proud.”

And Six says, “Seven ate nine,” because Seven did, and it is painful to her, to say, to admit, to know.

Nine, so vibrant:

So alive:

Just one year back from her interlude in Hell; just two years back from madness; just three years back from standing there as Six and issuing a judgment:

And now devoured.

“Nine always dies,” Two says.

10.

“But,” says Ten.

And suddenly Six pulls herself apart from all the crowd. She stares seized up with wonder. She knows Ten’s voice, and she had never thought to hear it in her ears again.

And she says, “You survived.”

“I was reborn,” Ten says, to contradict her.

“You survived,” she says.

Last year’s Nine.

Ten is clean-limbed and strong and better than any devoured number has any right to be.

And Ten says, brightly, “Did you know, if you increment enough, you get an extra digit?”

“I knew,” weeps Six. “We knew. But we had forgotten.”

And to One she says, displaying Ten to Helen as if Ten were a jewel: “This is what we can become.”

A legend about spring.

Such a Strange and Funny Image

Sometimes the plague paralyzes instead of killing.

Leila’s mistake had been letting the child into her house. He had been coughing and shivering as he’d delivered her mail. But she had not thought it was the plague.

She’d looked for the feathered discolorations at his temples, of course.

She’d checked his skin, with a single practiced look, for the roughness that it is the wont of the plague to make.

In sum, Leila succumbed to medical arrogance and diagnosed the boy by eye as safe; and succumbed also to pity, and so she let him in, to shiver himself to sleep upon her couch; and in the morning, he was dead, and she hung a black tile and a white tile on her door, in case it so happened that she should die in turn.

But it was not death that found her.

It was a slow, creeping paralysis and, with it, panicky denial. Her body was slower. Her vision was greyer. And she worked late that night, exhausting herself reading and charting the latest data on the L-C serum, and went to bed thinking, “Well, I am sure it is not the plague, but if it is, at least I shall wake up dead.”

But instead when she wakes her body is stiff, cold, nearly unresponsive to her will, and she thinks of the horror of dying over days in frozen stillness and she fumbles her way out of bed to crawl along the floor, to crack open her door and let the mist in from the streets, to croak something incomprehensible, to drag herself in her gray nightgown along the cobblestones in hopes of finding help or, at least, execution. And when the last of her strength leaves her she is not even looking up, but rather laying there, still, face-down, cobblestones pressing above her eyes.

And she can hear them come.

It is only by the rustling of their clothing that she hears them. They do not walk upon the ground, so their footsteps make no noise. They do not speak as they approach, for the speech of humans hurts their throats. They are quiet in the mist, but not deliberately so, and so she hears their clothing shifting as they move.

One of them keens, softly. This is answered by the keening of the others.

A hand reaches down from above. It rolls her over. She looks up into the face of one of the floating people.

He is smiling. He is human, but also not—in a time when every face is seamed with lines of sorrow, he has the clean innocence of a child on an adult human’s face. He is wearing loose gray clothing. His hair is black. And he is squatting on the tendrils of the mist a foot above her chest.

He chirrs to her, a soft question in the floating people’s tongue.

She cannot answer.

The words rough in his throat, he says, “You are broken. I will heal you.”

She wants to laugh. She wants to laugh because it is her own work that has done this; her own labor that has brought this down upon her; but she is scarcely let to breathe, much less to laugh.

So he reaches down from above and he touches her face and his fingers push and pull and move something inside her—as if he were twisting her brain or her soul around from the outside of her head.

Her breath gasps in and out.

She becomes light.

It is like a madness surging through her. It is like the warmth of a summer’s day or a drowsy winter’s fire. It is like the joy of discovery, of solutions, of first love. And it is somewhat like she imagines opium or cocaine to be, a drug that cuts at the foundations of her reason even as it lifts her up.

“Leila,” she says. “I am Leila.”

It is with the greatest effort that she clings to that and does not let the giddy joy sweep it away.

“I am Leila,” she says, and the words hurt her throat.

The paralysis has receded and her body is incredibly light. She lifts herself to her feet with but a thought and makes a soft noise of dismay as she realizes that they no longer touch the ground.

Murmuring, keening, the floating people press themselves around her.

Welcome, they say, with soft inhuman noises. Welcome.

“No,” she says.

She pushes herself free; springs to the upper place, ten feet above them; crouches there on the mist, shivering.

“I am Kern,” says the one who had wakened her. You are upset, he keens. “It is all right. It is not so bad as foot people imagine.”

Foot people, she giggles. Then she shakes her head.

“I know what this is,” she says. “I helped to make your kind.”

Honorable mother, whisper a few voices. It is more light teasing than it is respect. And one, with a soft whistle, asks, But don’t you love us, mother?

The joy of existence beats upon her sense of self once more. The laughter that she, of all people, should find herself in this position, rises up again. She holds herself tightly to keep from dissolving in the good, clean mirth.

“I have to call my husband,” she says.

Sadness, whisper the voices of the floating people. And Kern is up before her and he gently touches her face, wondering, perhaps, if he has done a poor job on making her light; but then he shrugs, and says, “Then go.”

So she stumbles through the air back to her house. She lifts her hand to the open door and goes irrationally still for a moment, seeing the black tile hanging on it; and then she laughs at herself, because the floating people may enter even where there is plague.

She goes in.

She places an international call.

“Christopher,” she says.

Somewhere in the Americas he is rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He is holding up the phone. He is saying, “Hm?”

He does not complain at her waking him, this time, because of the pain within her voice.

“Christopher,” she says. “I am infected.”

And then, overcome by the unfairness of it, she says, “They made me light.”

And she realizes that she is sitting in the air above her desk, the phone cord stretching down, as if she were sitting in her most comfortable chair; and she drags herself awkwardly down to sit upon the desk’s hard wood edges.

The silence on the other end stretches.

Then Christopher says softly, “Oh, my love.”

“We can fix it,” she says.

“I remember,” he says, “that Derek was reluctant to build the sense of joy and purpose into the floating people.”

She can touch that joy and purpose, inside her, like a person with a broken tooth can touch it with their tongue.

“He said that it would be better to let them realize that they are dead; that the plague inexorable eliminates the chemical basis for their humanity; that they are a garbage collection scheme for us, to get the corpses from the streets.”

“Oh,” she says.

Despite the fierceness of her clinging to her sense of self, she had let herself forget the reasons she should do so.

“But we thought—I and my wife—that it was better that they had an illusion.”

He is crying. It is the choice, however deliberate, to divide the person speaking to him from his wife that has broken him down.

She interrupts: “We can fix it. We—I know we’ve had other priorities, but we can fix it. I’m not gone, Christopher.”

And he says, “I will believe you if you tell me again that that is true.”

She feels so incredibly light. She feels so much joy. It is as if the plague-ridden world is Heaven and all the things of it her toys.

She tells herself again how important it is to remain herself. To cling to herself. To remain human.

It is one of those distant senses of importance, like that of a child who likes the sinuous music of a pornography channel but knows that something about it is apparently forbidden; like that of an apathet who knows that they really should engage in social activism someday; like that of anyone who feels that they really shouldn’t be enjoying the crunchy fried grasshopper, sex, bad movie, or trashy book that they are currently enjoying.

“I—” she says.

She keens, I feel so light.

“If you need anything,” he says. “If you ever need anything. Even though you’re dead. You can call.”

It is ridiculous to imagine that she should need something.

“Thank you,” he says, “for saying goodbye.”

And he fumbles the phone onto its hook and she is listening to the deadness of the line as if it were his tears.

So she floats from the desk and walks the moping walk along the air and she looks down at the corpse of the boy, which has aged enough to smell most wonderfully of death. And there are insects in him but more than that she sees that there is something wrong.

He is broken, the boy.

He is in pain.

His life— perhaps, his life. Perhaps his death—

Something has broken him.

So she takes him outside. He is astonishingly heavy, dozens of times heavier than her clothing at least.

She lays him out on the ground.

The others are there. She knows why. She helped build their kind, and she knows there is a reflex to tend to new members of the flock. But she ignores them.

She whispers to the boy, whose name she doesn’t even know, “I will fix you.”

She moves her hands upon his face and cleans away the darkness in his soul. She soothes the wounds that life had brought to him and she makes him light.

The boy is dead.

He is dead still.

So when the lightness takes him, he does not join the floating people.

Instead he lifts, lifts, lifts, into the sky; and if the birds did not find him and devour him, then he is rising still.

She smiles.

It’s so good! she says.

The others smile with her.

There is a time of silence, and then—

Did you really help make us? Kern asks.

Life is too hard, Leila says. The plague has taken so much from us. We could not care for the bodies of our dead.

And he laughs, and she laughs, because it is such a strange and funny image—

The Earth under its veil of mist and scattered with the plague-dead.

Morgan-Thurible Laboratories: A Love Story

A legend about small red things that live in boxes, shown to you in the deepness of the night.

Steve and Ellen work at Morgan-Thurible Laboratories.

Every day, they drive in around 9. They park their cars. They go into the building and assist Drs. Morgan and Thurible with various scientific projects.

They would like to be in love.

ADVICE FROM A MENTOR

Ellen is chatting with Dr. Thurible as she and the doctor manipulate a tiny ball of superheated superdense plasma with waldoes.

“I think I should fall in love,” Ellen says.

“I’m taken,” Dr. Thurible observes.

Dr. Thurible is an old man with a strong frame and a shockingly white beard. He’s wearing a white coat and a gold ring and also clothing. He’s the genius behind miscellaneous balls of superheated superdense plasma, so if you’re excited about superdense plasmatics, it’s worth reading his papers.

“Not you,” Ellen says.

She manipulates the plasma, causing it to radiate at a different frequency.

“Actually,” she says, “I was thinking of Steve.”

“Hm,” says Dr. Thurible.

“Hm?”

“He’s got a good smile,” Dr. Thurible concedes. “But you need more than a good smile to justify falling in love.”

“He’s very enthusiastic about things,” Ellen says.

“Hmmmm.”

Dr. Thurible gives the noise some extra ms, coughs once, and then applies additional voltage to the plasma. The effects of this are, at best, incidental to the narrative.

“I was kind of hoping,” Ellen says, “that you’d encourage me. Using your ancient wisdom!”

Dr. Thurible puffs out his cheeks. He thinks about this.

“Love is a plasma,” he says.

Ellen beams at him, feeling suddenly optimistic, but later she realizes that the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution is peculiarly inapplicable to what she wants to do.

PATRIOTISM

Steve looks at Ellen’s car one day after work.

It has a “Support the Troops” magnetic sticker on it.

He thinks, “That’s pretty cool. She supports the troops. She’s a pretty cool person.”

So he walks to his own car, humming, and thinking about that.

The next day he parks and she’s parking too, so he walks up, and she’s getting out of her car, and she’s taking the magnetic sticker off.

He kind of blinks at that and says, “Huh?”

Ellen glances at him. She gives him a kind of embarrassed grin. “I support the troops in principle,” she says. “But I don’t actually do anything about it. So I figure I should only wear the sticker one day in ten.”

“That’s a lot of overhead for a sticker,” Steve says.

RELIGION

It happens that as Ellen is showering the next day the image of Jesus forms in the mist on her shower door. Naturally she screams and covers Jesus’ eyes with a small hand towel.

After a moment she feels silly and takes the towel down, because her body has no features that Jesus has not seen before, but the momentary gesture has entirely erased the holy image of her Lord.

“Huh,” she says.

She thinks about this.

“He was probably going to tell me I should fall in love with Steve,” she says. “Because he loves me and wants me to be happy.”

This is an enlightening message and a cheerful thought and she is happy for a little bit. But then she realizes that Jesus could appear at any time in anything—in a mirror, in a glass of water, in the painting of him in the lobby at the lab, or even in the perturbations of graininess on her lunch sandwich bread. She is nervous all day, always looking around to see if a sacred image has spontaneously formed to judge her assertion.

Standing in the lobby, beneath its great cavernous ceiling, she shouts, “What do you want from me?”

It echoes there and about and Dr. Morgan is staring at her from his office with his tufted eyebrows high and there is a swift and sudden touch of grace on her soul and she recognizes that most probably Jesus was just appearing to cure a cancer she hadn’t even realized that she had.

“Oh, gee, thanks, Jesus,” she says. It is sarcastic as she says it and then it becomes sincere with a horrified, after-the-fact embarrassment.

THEORIES OF SOCIAL ORDER

“So, I was reading the case against same-sex marriage,” Steve proposes, at the lunchroom table.

Ellen takes a bite of her sandwich.

“One idea that resonated with me,” Steve says, “is that there is an inherent tradeoff between sacredness and flexibility. That we do inherently value less what is less structured, less specific, less weighted with ceremony and tradition. That in a real way, there is a magic, special relationship that is—”

Here he pauses to gesture cyclically in the air, as he does when he is searching for the right word.

“—is threatened, perhaps—”

Ellen chews, swallows, and observes, “You do know Drs. Thurible and Morgan give each other the hot man-love, right?”

There’s a bit of a pause.

“I’m just talking theoretically,” Steve says.

GIANT BALLS OF FIRE

A red ball of superheated, superdense plasma rolls chaotically around the lobby of Morgan-Thurible Laboratories.

If the reader requires an explanation for this event, one need only turn to the motto of Morgan-Thurible Laboratories, etched on its wall in gilt:

“Accidents Happen.”

If no explanation is necessary, of course, then the narrative proceeds.

A red ball of superheated, superdense plasma rolls chaotically around the lobby of Morgan-Thurible Laboratories.

It is very hot and dangerous in the fashion that superheated plasma often is, particularly when rolling around unattended.

Ellen is in the elevator. She is frantically pushing the buttons. In case of fire you are technically supposed to use the stairs but this would necessitate getting out of the elevator, walking past the rolling ball of plasma, and opening the stairway door, the handle to which is currently bubbling. For this reason she has elected to disregard ordinary safety guidelines.

Steve walks out of Dr. Morgan’s office into the lobby. He stops and stares.

“Are we all going to die?” he asks.

“It’s flesh-averse,” Ellen says.

“It is?”

Steve’s voice is incredulous.

“That’s what I’m hoping,” Ellen says.

She pushes on the buttons some more but as she is in a light panic the elevator only wobbles its doors and they do not close.

“Focus, Ellen,” she tells herself.

She looks down at the panel of buttons. Very carefully she pushes the “Emergency Containment Annex” button so that it lights up. Then she releases the elevator lock.

The ball of fire jumps suddenly towards Steve.

“Hold the door,” Steve cries.

For a moment, Ellen holds the door.

Steve stumbles into the elevator.

He stumbles into her and somehow they wind up in a hug before they back away.

He’s looking at her. She’s looking at him. They are thinking, “Is this what the ball of superheated superdense plasma intended?”

The door closes.

The elevator dings.

And Steve gives her this marvelous grin, and Ellen pushes back her glasses, and they say, not even realizing at first that the other is talking, “I’ve been looking for a reason to fall in love with you.”

And they understand in that one moment that they are in love and that one of Steve’s shoes is on fire, and it is simple; burning; passionate; and sweet.

No Actual Bears Were Harmed

The chaos stirs into form.

Dentist 10 lives behind glass and steel.

In the morning when he wakes up he is out on the glacier. He has been sleeping inside the skin and fat of a polar bear he’d had to kill.

“Dangerous,” he says.

He shakes his head at himself. He must have passed out, he thinks—too tired to drag the body back to his tower, so he’d just cut it open and crawled inside.

“Dangerous and stupid.”

He pulls himself out. The corpse is still warm, but it’s colder than it was. He heaves one great paw over his shoulder. He drags the bear to his tower.

The tower is glass and steel.

Dentist 10 looks nervously up at the sun. It’s been shining for almost six months but it’s looking like it’s beginning to set. That’s why he had to go out onto the ice and get a stock of meat, but it also makes the danger more acute.

He enters his code into the tower doorway.

Perched atop an arch of ice, clad in an adorable white parka, Jane watches him. She is looking at him through special field glasses that make everything look red and provide scrolling data regarding various points of interest.

“Don’t forget to wear layers,” scrolls past on the left.

Stock data displays on a running marquee.

One scrolling reminder informs her, “Nine out of ten dentists endorse the continued existence of the world!”

Dentist 10 finishes entering the code. His fingers, slick with polar bear blood, leave smears on the numbered panel.

The door opens.

Dentist 10 drags the polar bear into the lobby of his tower. He deposits it into the autokitchen. He walks through the sterilizing shower, stripping as he goes, leaving his filthy blood-colored lab coat behind, passing through sprays of water, chemicals, and soap, and emerging on the other side dressed again and pulling on a fresh white coat.

He pushes a button behind him. It sets his shower to KILL.

Then he enters an elevator and begins to rise through the beanstalk of his home towards a cold space fortress suspended over the world.

Behind him, Jane is in the lobby. She’s staring at the shower from the other side. It’s got blinking red lights and looks about as malicious as a shower can.

She speaks into her lapel.

“Cut power to the first floor,” she says.

Elsewhere, Martin operates a fuse. The shower goes dark.

Dentist 10 looks down as he ascends. He frowns. There’s a spot of darkness below that should be red.

He grits his perfect teeth.

“Susan?” he says.

The computer that governs his home comes online. A simulation of Majel Roddenberry’s voice says, “Yes, Dentist?”

“We have an intruder,” he says. “Flood the lower floor with Fimbulwinter.”

“Yes, Dentist.”

Jane is standing at the base of the elevator. She is prying open the doors with a Fisher-Price Jaws of Life set. Then a radio-triggered explosive bursts open the lobby’s outer door and windows. Hydraulic pumps, their power subsystem pre-isolated, dredge up icy water from the sea, add a fine mix of chemicals to accelerate their icing, and spray them in a large-dropped mist throughout the bottom floor. The building ventilators pump away the heat. The air fills with shards of ice.

Jane squeaks. She wraps her scarf across her face. She pulls her hood over her head. She attempts to squeeze into the elevator through the partly-opened doors despite the bulging awkwardness of her layered clothing and the wash of ice. For a long moment she is stuck, as the air lashes her with winter. Then with a pop she falls through into the base of the elevator shaft.

She kicks out the jaws of life. The doors slam closed. She begins to climb.

Dentist 10 arrives at his space fortress. He walks out into the entrance bay. He considers. Then he decides that it is better to be safe than sorry.

He takes down his shotgun from the wall.

He sits down.

He waits to kill, just in case the intruder makes it up.

When Jane forces open the elevator doors, he fires.

There is a flurry of red-tipped parka down. The body falls backwards. The doors close.

Dentist 10 approaches.

He pushes the button. The elevator door opens. He walks in. He kneels by the body. He checks its teeth for signs of life. Then he frowns.

“It’s a Fisher-Price Body Double Playset,” says Jane from behind him. “Suitable for operatives and medical students ages five and up.”

“It’s very realistic,” says Dentist 10.

He doesn’t turn around.

“But nobody has teeth like these.”

“No,” Jane agrees. “And nobody ever will again.”

He spins. He fires. But he isn’t expecting Jane to be quite so short or quite so close, and he definitely isn’t expecting the sharkbone-tipped spear with which she knocks his shotgun away. She hooks out his leg with the haft and as he staggers, she goes PUSH!

Dentist 10 slumps, defeated.

“Pushing people is impolite,” he says.

“That’s pre-9/11 thinking,” says Jane.

“10 is pre-11,” Dentist 10 points out.

“But it’s not pre-9!”

There’s a pause.

Jane gives Dentist 10 a strained, apologetic smile.

Dentist 10 looks away.

“Listen,” says Jane. “Somebody shot Baldur with mistletoe.”

“I know,” says Dentist 10. “I saw. Winter is coming.”

“So I need 10 out of 10 dentists to approve of him, or Hel won’t let him live.”

Dentist 10 looks out through the glass elevator wall at the endless depths of space.

“I had a wife,” he says. “Her name was Nora. And I never approved of her while she lived. I thought that she was weak and she was trivial. And one day after she died, I realized that that wasn’t because she was weak or trivial or bad. It wasn’t anything to do with her. It was just that it was easier for me to live my life if I could judge people according to my preferences for their character.”

“That’s very tragic,” Jane concurs.

“So I promised myself,” says Dentist 10, “in her name, that I would never approve of anything ever again. Not Trident. Not Crest. Not even peace. And I won’t approve of Baldur, even if that ends the world. That is my resolution.”

“Oh,” says Jane.

“People were always troubling me for their approval,” says Dentist 10. “Because I am Dentist 10. So I moved to the arctic and built a beanstalk into space. Ever since then there have never been more than 9 out of 10 dentists approving of anything.”

“But Baldur fights tooth decay,” says Jane.

Dentist 10 shudders.

“And he’s a deadly enemy to plaque!”

Dentist 10 looks up. His eyes are haunted. “Don’t do this,” he says.

Jane hesitates.

“What kind of dentist lives in space and seals his heart in ice?” she asks.

“The tenth,” he says.

So Jane turns away. She follows his gaze into space.

“No,” she says.

“No?”

“To live in the sky and give your love to no one— to cover yourself in the blood of a bear and greet children with winter— to fire a shotgun at a glass elevator wall and do no harm— this is not dentistry. This is death.”

And he crawls out into his space station and he stares after her as he descends, stripped by her clarity from his role as Dentist 10.

She is right, he knows.

He isn’t a dentist at all.

He is Space Hermit 1, one out of one, and he does not approve.

Life, Through a Film of Palmolive

Rain pours down on the open-air garden, and on Sid.

There are trees all around, and grass, and flowers. Most won’t survive the rain. There’s a set of broken old stone walls surrounding the garden. Odds are, they’ll make it through. Usually they do.

They’re nice and all, but they’re not Sid.

“It’s stupid,” opines Iphigenia.

Emily takes the candy cane she’s sucking on out of her mouth.

“Stupid?” says Emily.

“Canonically so,” says Iphigenia. “c.f. ‘coming in out of the rain, too stupid to be.'”

“Hm,” agrees Emily.

They’re standing under convenient eaves that project out from the tower that is their home.

“It would be a shame,” Emily concedes, “if he caught his death of rain.”

“It would be a harsh, cruel world.”

Emily sucks for a moment on the curved end of the candy cane. Then she says, “Is that really contingent on Sid?”

Iphigenia stares at her for a moment, then shakes her head and ignores her.

“Sid!” shouts Iphigenia.

The rain is little drops of water at first, and a sprinkling of water can’t hurt anyone. But soon there’s a bit of glowing dust mixed in too.

Sid is walking around in the garden. He’s got his left arm out like his whole body is listening and his right hand is sheltering his eyes. He’s looking up at the sky.

Now there’s cherries falling. It’s good that there are cherries falling, because not all of them will burst on impact—some will be good for breakfast in the morning, unless an antelope or dowry chest or whatnot lands on them first.

Glowing coals drift down from the sky.

“He’s not paying attention to us,” concludes Emily.

Iphigenia is brave. She darts out into the rain of water, glitter, cherries, and coals. She grabs Sid’s sleeve. She tugs.

“Hey!” she says. “Doofus!”

Sid looks down at her.

“You’ll get hurt,” she says.

Sid thinks this over. Then he takes Iphigenia’s arm and, pulling her with him, steps out of the way of a sharp-pointed anchor that falls from the sky.

“Maybe,” he concedes.

He pulls her back under the shade of an orange tree. He looks up at the sky.

“You shouldn’t be out here,” he says.

“It would be a harsh, cruel world,” Iphigenia explains, “if you got hit by a meteor and fell down, splat.”

“I’m not out here to be hit by a meteor,” Sid avers.

“Events do not always happen as you intend!”

Sid peers out at the sky. He sighs.

“You’re right,” he says. “Anchors are a bad sign. Let’s make a dash for the eaves.”

They stall a few seconds, waiting for a moment in which relatively few large objects are falling from the sky.

“You shouldn’t need me to run out here after you,” says Iphigenia. “You should be able to worry about these things on your own.”

“I do worry,” says Sid.

“You worry?”

“Unreasonably and acutely,” says Sid. “A meteor strike could render me unable to fulfill my responsibilities and accomplish the long list of things that lay ahead of me.”

“Oh,” says Iphigenia, somewhat deflated, since Sid has just adequately summarized the appropriate reasons for worry.

“But sometimes when it rains, I look up and I see a chicken-snake in the sky,” Sid says. His voice is distant and reverent. “Huge and glorious, with a great long feathered tail. And—”

His voice peaks upwards violently into panic.

“PIANO!”

Sid and Iphigenia dive for cover. The piano tears through the branches of the orange tree and hits the earth where they’d stood with a great rattling of keys.

Sid is sprawled face-first in a mud puddle.

Cherries bounce off of Sid.

Iphigenia helps him up. Their previous shelter proven unsound, they stumble straight towards the eaves.

“It is raining harder than usual,” Sid admits, with a distant disappointment.

They reach the eaves. They slump against the wall next to Emily. They watch the storm.

“Hey, can you see your chicken-snake from here?” Iphigenia asks.

“Maybe,” says Sid. “If it flies low.”

Emily takes the candy cane out of her mouth. She watches the sky. After a long moment, she points with the candy cane’s end. “There,” she says.

They can just barely see it, in the distance. It is huge. It is grand. It is eddying through the sky above the storm.

A certain tension falls from Sid. He stares out at it, rapt.

“Hey,” says Emily.

“Hey?” Sid says.

“Why do you want to see a flying chicken-snake?” Emily says.

“It makes me feel small,” says Sid.

The shape is moving away into the distance. Sid, helplessly, takes a few steps out from the eaves to see it better. Rain and glitter drift into his hair.

“Sid,” says Iphigenia, warningly.

But the rain is fading. There are no more anchors. There are no more pianos.

“I guess it’s safe,” Iphigenia sighs.

Iphigenia has spoken too soon.

A meteor tears down from Heaven like some angry angel’s shotput. It strikes Sid in the forehead. It is a very small meteor: a dazing meteor and not a murderous one. Even so, Sid still staggers, stumbles, and falls sideways under the eaves. Water, glitter, and cherries drip in a slow and steady stream onto his face.

“Huh,” he says, after a moment.

Emily pokes at Sid with her foot. “Harsh, cruel world?” she asks.

“Where?” says Sid, confused.

Proposes Iphigenia, “You’re soaking in it!”

An Unclean Legacy: “Red”

Montechristien is dying.

In the halls of Castle Gargamel Violet and Tomas meet. Tomas is whistling tunelessly as he walks. He’s happy. But the happiness fades from his face when he sees Violet down the hall.

“Tomas,” Violet says.

“Violet.”

“Have you seen father?”

“In passing,” Tomas says. “He looked me over. He hugged me. It was disturbing and it made my skin crawl. Then I shivered, like this.”

Tomas shivers.

Violet laughs a little. “He is strange,” she concedes.

“I did not want to come back,” Tomas says. “But I am glad that I could see him again.”

“Are we so bad, then?”

“You saved me, Violet,” Tomas says. “You went out there when I would have broken and been damned. You fought for all of us. So I will not despise you. But I will still tell you that this is a house of sin and that father raised us for the Pit. He’s taught black sorceries—”

“And white,” Violet says.

Tomas looks pained. “You say that,” he says. “But there is no good sorcery. For listen: it is possible to use magic to heal, to nourish, to lead people to virtue, but simply to practice sorcery is to open oneself up to the insinuations of the beast.”

“Why?”

“Because it is a temptation,” Tomas says, “for any sorcerer, to start thinking of the Lord as one power among many—one purpose among many, each equivalent. You come intimately to know the desires of the fallen and the elder races, the spirits, the animals, and even the angels, who are inadequate in themselves, like men, to express truly the spirit of the Lord. And you say, ‘These things are not so bad. They are not enemies. They are simply other.’

“The day I quit our family’s ways,” Tomas says, “I summoned up an agapic lepidote; and she hung in the air and she was beautiful and around her rose the fragrance of every thing that is good; and she said, ‘Tomas, you are not whole.’ And she reached for me to fix that flaw, and if I had allowed it then, I would have forgotten Heaven.”

“I see,” Violet says.

She studies Tomas. He grows uncomfortable.

“How many bones are in a finger, anyway?” Tomas asks.

“Two,” Violet says. “In a stub.”

“And is the other one still whole?”

Violet frowns at him uneasily. There is distrust in her, but it is not on behalf of Francescu’s life. “You’re not talking like yourself,” she says.

“There is an inheritance to resolve,” Tomas says. “It is much on my mind—”

Violet’s face drains of blood.

Tomas,” she cries with sudden dread, “what have you done?

In a time of wizards and kings, one name stood above the rest. He was Montechristien Gargamel.

He seized from the mushroom village one hundred of the blue essentials and transformed them into gold. From that time on his power was limitless. He broke the world and repaired it again. He dispensed terrible destinies and powers as if they were the most ordinary of gifts. And as the time of his death approached his children came to his Castle to dispose of the matter of their legacy.

Violet, his eldest and most dear, who had betrayed him before she was even half-grown.
Francescu, the deathless sorcerer, who had turned his back on the affairs of the world.
Manfred, the fallen knight, whose strength was legend and whose spear was magic’s bane.
Tomas the cruel, who had looked in his tenth year upon the face of God.
Christine, the mad sorceress, who wandered the world in her living house.
Sophie the skinchanger, soulless and Devil-tainted, and once the one Montechristien loved best.
Elisabet, the Devil’s child, a creature as much of shadow as of life.

In the hour of the end, each turned their hands against each other, and the halls of Castle Gargamel ran with blood. This is the twenty-fifth installment of the story of that time.

It is, perhaps, ten years before Montechristien’s death.

Sophie is fighting the Devil.

She has seen the color of his power, and the color of his power is red. She has answered it in a fashion unique in the history of the world: she has manifested in herself that red power and used it against him. She has flung the Devil backwards through seven trees and deep into a hill; but the Devil is smiling, smiling still.

The red roars in her soul.

“I understand you,” Sophie says.

And she does.

The Devil drags himself to his feet. He walks over to her—one of his legs is broken, but he doesn’t seem to mind—and he squats down, with one fist under his chin. He says, “Oh?”

“A man suffers damnation,” Sophie says. “He says, ‘I am in eternal torment.’ But that is simply that man. What matters the perspective of a man? In the severance of humanity from happiness there is a beauty in the world.”

The Devil smiles.

“Children die,” Sophie says. Her eyes are white with horror. “They die in droves. And they say, ‘I did not want to die at this juncture.’ But what matters the perspective of a child? The world hungers for the deaths of children or it would not mount them up so readily.”

“That’s so,” the Devil agrees.

“We do not tell stories of paradise,” Sophie says.

“No.”

“Everywhere there is horrible suffering but a world without that suffering is the world of paintings, the world of grass, the world of those who cannot look up and bear witness to the truth.”

“Yes,” the Devil says. “And that is why Montechristien Gargamel must die.”

An Unclean Legacy


“Red”

Sophie peers at him. The red is a thunder in her ears. It is tinting the world she sees.

“When humans strive against God,” the Devil says, “and God strikes them down, it is the most perfect of all symmetries. But there, you see, there, still, Montechristien stands.”

Sophie looks around. She has loved the trees, but she does not love them now; they are hideous in the peace of them. There is a robin nesting in the branches thirty trees away. It’s horrible in the mindless service of its life. And all around in the forest and the lands beyond the forest are sleeping children who day by day forsake their grace; and adults pointlessly alive; and kings and bishops who callous, jest at scars.

And it is with a peculiarly sickening sensation that she realizes that nowhere in the world she sees is any sense of higher meaning, or of love; that she is staring on a world of not-yet corpses jerked about by the transient pulse of life; that there is no power to lift her up from utter despair save the Devil’s choice of prizing one’s own damnation.

“I hate him too,” she says meekly.

She does.

It is insane to her that with his soul in Hell Montechristien should still stagger through the castle halls and make the motions of life; that he should snore and wear his nightcap and try, however grumpily and falteringly, to raise the children of his blood. It is laughable and hateful because there is no hope for him. It is as appalling as children laughing and puppies barking on a field covered in wartime dead; as appalling as men and women, forced to cannibalism to survive, who sip their comrade soup and jest about its flavor; as horrid as everyone in the long years of the world who has stretched and smiled at the morning while the diseased cough up their blood in agony and the monsters rape children and the victims gasp for breath in the torture chambers of the rich.

Sophie can taste the hate. She can taste the red hate in her mouth for the damned and still walking Montechristien Gargamel.

“Good,” says the Devil. “Then our business is done.”

He turns away from her, and she sees the shadow of his back, and she thinks: how sad.

But somewhere Christine is smirking.

Somewhere—

If my sister knew what I had become, she would laugh with joy.

And that is not acceptable.

So Sophie lifts her chin. She stares out at the horrid meaningless world. She shoulders the crippling emptiness. And through the weave of red that clouds her sight, she says, “Don’t turn your back on me.”

She’s drawing a dead gold power into her now. It’s the only thing comparable to the red realm that she knows.

The Devil turns.

There are patterns of red and gold twining across Sophie now. The red is living, though full of hate. The gold is dead metal power.

It is the death of the blue essentials that moves in her now. It is the unforgivable crime of Montechristien Gargamel. It is, as the history of Montechristien Gargamel has shown, the stuff of miracles.

“Oh,” says the Devil.

Sophie’s claw tears through his chest and out the other side. There is a terrible gush of red.

The Devil reels.

“This isn’t smurfy,” the Devil says, at a loss for curses more fitting. “This isn’t smurfy at all.”

And Sophie wrenches out her hand, and steps forward to rend him further, and he steps back. First they take one step, then another, then he is turning and running, and she is loping after him. And as they run she is dying, because as she sheds the red power in her she replaces it with gold.

The Devil howls and raises fire and he is gone. The world is empty of him.

Sophie stumbles to a stop.

Then she falls stiff and painfully to the ground.

And that is where she would have died, and given up the world without regret, save that the Devil had made her a bargain; and the red in her twisted, and, so that she might live, showed her under the pattern of gold a single strand of blue.

It is power and life enough to save her.

Ten years later, Sophie stands in the tower of Montechristien Gargamel, pierced through by Manfred’s spear.

Four of seven children stand at risk of death, and Montechristien himself is dying. Driven away once by sorcery, once by bargain, and once by grit, the Devil comes again to Castle Gargamel. Who will live? Who will die? And how will the family Gargamel dispose of their unclean legacy?

Tune in tomorrow.

An Unclean Legacy: “Rachel’s Blood”

Once upon a time, young Lady Yseult strove against the Saraman Stone.

It lay in the yard behind Saraman Manor. It was long and black and heavy and wet and it had striations in it.

She set her feet in the grass and shoved against the stone.

Through two holes came the labored breathing of Cedric Saraman, founder of the house.

“I am the doom of those who would free me,” whispered Cedric’s damp voice. “I am the wickedness of the Saraman line. Know that you are giving yourself unto the darkest and most terrible of fates, and make no protest when it comes.”

“Shh!” said Yseult, furiously.

“I am the evil that lived before humanity,” whispered Cedric.

Yseult sat back. She licked two fingers. She stuffed them in the air holes of Cedric Saraman. This prompted a peculiar noise, then an ever-faster huffing.

“Shh,” confirmed Yseult.

Sir Jasper the Valiant strode casually into the yard.

“Ah,” he smiled, with his perfect teeth. “There you are, Lady.”

Then a look of dumb shock came onto his face, even as Cedric, below the stone, began to flop and flail. “You’re filthy,” he said.

Yseult leaned against the stone. She gave Jasper a tired smile. “Jasper,” she said.

“This won’t do at all,” said Jasper.

He walked up to her. Gently and kindly, he pulled her away from the stone.

“Your hair, lady,” he said.

“I like it tangled,” said Yseult.

Jasper ran his fingers through her hair. They got stuck. He tugged, while Yseult winced and made faces. Finally, he pulled them out.

“It’s less painful if it’s clean,” he said. In a voice of infinite sadness, he added, “And your dress.”

“I have thought,” said Yseult, “that when we are married, I would wear robes. And my teeth would be snaggled. And I would lure young men in from the road for savage prophecies, only to have you drive them out when they became importune. And I think that sometimes you would develop grand plans to better your lot in the world, and I would be at your side driving them with my dirty robes and my dirty mind.”

Jasper blinked at her. “No,” he said, in a helpless voice.

“Then I don’t want to marry you,” Yseult said.

She turned back to the Saraman Stone. She thrust her shoulder against it.

“That cannot be so,” said Jasper. “Have you not said that you love me, darling?”

“I observed in a neutral fashion,” Yseult said, “that you were valiant. Also, gallant, noble, and kind.”

Jasper smiled brilliantly. He embraced her. Yseult squeaked as the breath fled her lungs and her feet left the ground, causing Cedric, below, to reflect damply upon the ways of justice.

Then Jasper put Yseult down.

“We will find you a clean dress,” he said.

“And you are polite,” Yseult said. “And good of heart. And strong, certainly.”

Jasper beamed.

“Then we are a match,” he said. “For you are beautiful, gentle, and innocent.”

“How do you figure?” Yseult demanded, her face wrinkling up. “All my life, I have loved nothing but the ill!”

“These are the fantasies that swim in your black blood,” said Jasper. “But they are not you. Your heart is as clean as mine.”

“No!” protested Yseult. She shoved against the stone.

“If this stone must be moved,” said Sir Jasper. “Then surely, I should do it.”

“I would welcome your help,” said Yseult.

Sir Jasper picked up Yseult by the shoulders. He put her down to one side. He threw his strength against the Saraman Stone.

That is when it creaked and moved.

That is when Cedric, that black-blooded and pale elder thing that dwelt below the Saraman lands, was freed.

He rose, his clothing silver chain; his hair clotted black; his fingers webbed: taller than a man, and stronger, and more damp.

Jasper smiled. “I know you,” he said. He saluted. “You are the ancestor of my love.”

Cedric Saraman looked from one to the other. His forehead wrinkled in a remarkable fashion as he stared at Jasper. Then he turned his eyes to fix upon Yseult.

“It is a dark fate that you have chosen,” said the elder thing. “Daughter of my house.”

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the fourteenth installment of the story of that time.

Manfred brings Rachel to Castle Gargamel.

Montechristien is asleep, in his tasseled cap and his nightgown, with curtains closed against the night.

“I think I may marry her, father,” Manfred said. “I want your blessing.”

Montechristien Gargamel rolls over in his bed and snores.

Manfred hesitates. His face grows tight.

“You’re awake,” he accuses.

He pokes Montechristien with his finger, once, twice, three times.

“Maybe he’s asleep,” says Rachel Saraman.

“He does this,” swears Manfred. He sits in a heap on the floor, his brassards clattering against the stone. “He doesn’t want me to be happy.”

“Honk, kzhhh,” snores Montechristien Gargamel.

“Leave me with him a moment?” Rachel suggests.

Manfred shrugs. He rises to his feet. He pokes his father viciously a few more times, then stomps out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

“Honk, kzhhh!” declares Montechristien Gargamel, sitting upright with a start.

An Unclean Legacy


Rachel’s Blood

“Hello, Lord Gargamel,” says Rachel.

Montechristien looks at her. “Oh,” he says.

He smiles, kind of creakily.

“You look like your mother,” he says fondly. “But not as human.”

“I want to free your son Manfred from his chains,” Rachel says. “I will do this whether you consent or you oppose me. But I would like your help.”

Montechristien sighs.

“You of all people,” he says. “Should know better. And to marry him? Rachel. Rachel. Your mother would be ashamed.”

“I have sins that I must pay for,” Rachel says.

“You could hang upside down from a tree for seven years,” says Montechristien Gargamel. “With scabies. I could arrange it. It would be an excellent spiritual purgative. It would hurt no one but yourself.”

“Old fool,” Rachel says.

“Yes,” concedes Gargamel.

He looks down. He looks up.

“Do you at least love him?” he asks.

“He is valiant,” says Rachel. “Also gallant, noble, and kind.”

“But do you love him?”

“Do you?”

Montechristien glared at her down the length of his nose.

“Goodbye,” Rachel says. She opens the door. She walks out. She closes the door behind her.

“Bah,” says Montechristien Gargamel.

He is silent for a time.

“Bah,” he says again, in a voice of helplessness, and he pulls the covers up over his skinny legs and pulls his nightcap down over his eyes and sleeps.

What color is your nightcap?

Will Santrieste relent in his disapproval?

Tune in tomorrow for an Unclean Legacy you’ll remember forever: “Manfred on the Road!”