The Shepherdess (I/VII)

It is March 18, 1995. The light from the sun does not reach us.

In the dark there is a titan and it does not know its name.

The monster drags Micah down to the basements of Central. He binds him there with leather and metal shackles, under the glare of red and burning eyes. Then he leaves.

The titan moves in the darkness.

It is very weak. It is dying. That is the message Micah intuits from its vibrations in the floor.

“I will tell you of Lia,” says Micah. He is opening a conversation with the darkness.

“I will tell you not of her beginnings,” Micah continues, “but of how Lia was at the end. For while she was strong and wise in life, as she came near to dying, she became weak and confused — as you are now. She knew only that she was tired, frightened, and ashamed, and that she was loved by Amiel. For her children were gone from her, left for distant lands, and her grandchildren too, but her sister had never abandoned her, had never left her side.

“It had been different in their youth, I think. Then Amiel had been the weak one. She had the power to speak truth but not the power to speak lies — I think. And so every word she said tore and wriggled in her throat, scraped it raw and made her bleed from it. She was all but mute and she was eternally beautiful. So in their childhood I think it was Lia who was strong.

“But Lia was mortal, and mortal things grow old, and finally she couldn’t even remember her own name. She had to make Amiel tell her. She had to waste her sister’s power, just to find out little things like ‘you are Lia’ or ‘I am Amiel.’ ‘I love you.’ Or ‘You are my treasure. You are my precious jewel. Your children have gone away to distant lands, but I will protect them, I will guard them, I will guard your line and our families be entwined forever.’

“These things she said to reassure her sister, and the cost of them was blood.”

Micah does not have anything to drink. He does not have anything to eat. He cannot move freely and he is terribly afraid.

The first day passes, and the first night. He can feel the titan’s agony through the floor.

“I’m sure,” Micah says, “that the child who made you loved you. I’m sure she — he? — I’m sure that they won’t blame you for the way the monster is so strong.”

He’d like to think that he is being kind from a native kindness, but he knows better in his heart.

He is afraid that the titan can reach him. He is afraid that it will grow some sort of feeding-maw on a tentacle, or stretch its body like a string, and suck the marrow from his bones to keep from dying. He is afraid that it is free as he is not and that it will somehow hate him, perhaps because it is dying and he, at the moment, is not.

He is crying for the creature, but that does not mean that he is speaking out of kindness. Terror supersedes his sadness every time he thinks that it might not understand his words.

The second day passes, and the second night.

“The promise was twisted,” Micah says, on the third day. He is having trouble speaking. He has a terrible headache and his body feels like it’s being torn apart by knives. He beats his head against the floor to make his headache go away, but except in the moment of each contact, it doesn’t seem to work. “It was twisted, and the monsters came of the twisting of that oath. But Amiel never betrayed it. She loved Lia all her life.”

The third day passes, and the third night; and he can hear the titan, somewhere beneath Central, shudder out its life and die.

Maybe it wasn’t a titan, he supposes. It could have been a different god, or a broken child.

“When the monsters slip and become her children,” he says, “they are as loyal as ever she.”

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

On the fourth day the monster visits. Micah doesn’t bother looking up.

“You’re troubling me, Micah,” the monster says.

Micah frowns at this. He mumbles, “Nunh-uh.” It’s not really much of a denial. He can’t seem to find his defiance in the swimming of his head.

It is nevertheless very clear to him that if someone is troubling anyone, it is not Micah who is to blame.

“Liril hasn’t given me a single god since the day that you were born,” the monster says. “It’s like you burnt her out. Like you broke her, simply by existing. That’s why I say you’re a trouble to me. But I’m afraid that if you die here, she’ll be useless to me forever instead of simply hurt.”

Micah considers this. His world wobbles. Finally he grins.

“That won’t happen,” he says. “She’ll be fine.”

His utter powerlessness is freeing. He doesn’t have to cooperate. He doesn’t have to pretend that the monster has found a point of common interest, or deny it for that matter. He doesn’t have to bother lying to the monster, or telling the truth to the monster, or, really, saying anything in particular at all. The monster wins. The monster always wins. In the face of that victory, until the monster explains what it entails, Micah can do anything he wants.

“Micah,” the monster chides.

“Do you want me to say that I don’t want her to die?” Micah says. “I’ll say that. I’ll say that I don’t want her to die. Do you want me to beg? I’ll beg.”

He giggles. He swallows. He chokes. He gags.

For some inexplicable reason, he discovers, he’d had seawater in his mouth.

He vomits, or tries to vomit, on the monster’s floor, but all he can do is spit out a bit of rotten fish.

The monster rises to his feet.

“That’s awful,” he says. “That’s the worst magic power ever.”

It’s not true. It’s not not true. Micah can’t tell what the heck is in the monster’s voice.

Micah hiccups sadly in the dark.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 23, 1995
  
This is not survivable, Micah thinks. There is no way that it is survivable. He is going to die of thirst and possibly starvation. He is going to die of muscle cramps and of exposure. The malice and suffering in Central above him condenses and drifts downwards like the snow. It forms in the darkness into terrible and awful things.

It fills him with fear. It twists his hallucinations into evil and sadistic forms. It makes every sound a shock.

He dwells amidst the poisoned runoff of Central’s theological and emotional waste.

Something snuffles towards him in the darkness. Possibly it is his imagination. Possibly it is the titan come back to life, or risen most unholy. Possibly it is a herd, gaggle, or flotilla of half-starved rats. Micah thinks that it will eat him, whatever it is. He thinks that it will rip the flesh from his bones, and then the bones from one another, unless the monster wishes that it should not.

Oh that the monster should allow it.

He cannot see any longer. His eyes are crusted . . . shut. He thinks that they are shut. He can barely hear.

There.

Something is very definitely near him. It is not his imagination. It is a cold and bulky presence in the dark. It is tactile to him. Then it is against his mouth. It is pouring liquid into him. It is . . .

It is feeding him.

His body cannot resist it. He is gulping it down. He is swallowing. He is crying, he thinks, because it is good, because his body has wanted so much to drink.

It is thick and cold and almost tasteless. Inasmuch as it has a taste that taste is lime.

When he starts to choke it leaves him. When he can breathe again it comes back.

He thinks of how Kuras — his favorite of the Kings of the Ancient World — was exposed on a hilltop and suckled by a sheepdog, or perhaps a shepherdess. That happened a lot back then. Should this be a sheepdog he would be embarrassed, but he thinks that he could forgive such a small blow to his pride.

It is probably not a sheepdog. That is his conclusion. He tries to open his eyes. He tries to make sense of it. It will not be a sheepdog, but rather some sort of hallucination, or a broken sewer pipe, or even a freakish shepherdess of the deeps.

It is none of these things.

It is if anything a nameless horror. He cannot put words to it. It is round where it is straight and it is changing where it is still and where his eyes fall upon it they make blisters rise from its flesh that surge up, whiten, and pop. It has the front part of a lion and the rear portion of a gazelle, and a ring of questing tendrils about its face; and from the calf of its front leg it is bleeding, and it is the blood of it that he drinks.

He cannot read its emotions.

Perhaps it is profaning him. Perhaps it is violating him. Perhaps it is committing a generosity immeasurable by reason. He cannot tell, any more than he can tell what it is, or why. It is simply there.

He drinks until he can bear no more with drinking.

When he opens his eyes again the thing is gone.

short post on Friday, then Chibi-Ex on Monday, then part II on Wednesday.

Oh, Harold Dear (I/I)

It is 1981 and Liril is in a terrible place.

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

In case she forgets.

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

LIRIL.

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

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 28, 2004

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

Grey clouds shadow the brightness of the sky.

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

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

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

There is a ragged thing.

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

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

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

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

She is taking Vincent’s backpack off.

She is rummaging around inside.

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

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

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

“Melanie,” Vincent says.

She hushes him.

“Hush,” she says.

“When—what—when did you even—“

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shrugs and looks back at the gathered host.

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

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

“His head should be rotten,” Vincent protests.

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

Melanie shrugs.

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

“What—“

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

Wasn’t it?

He’s suddenly not sure.

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

And Harold screams.

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

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

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

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

And so eventually this sound goes still.

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

There is a balcony on the seventh floor.

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

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

He is afraid.

He is afraid.

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

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

The Last Unspoken Words

It endures in timeless endings.

Something in it remembers its time of flesh and motion. It has no theory of this time. It has no process to cognize with. It does not relive its memories in temporal order or experience generalized nostalgia. It is simply imprinted on its lifeless form that once it lived.

It experiences the slow decay of its moment of ending.

Then a creature of bony legs and fingers kneels down beside it and touches it through the skull and into the brain.

“Wake,” the creature says.

A hunger stirs. It arises from every part of the dead thing’s body and suffuses through its returning consciousness.

The dead thing hungers for the warmth of the living.

“I am death,” speaks the bony creature.

The dead thing does not understand.

It only knows a few words; its name, perhaps, if it were to be reminded. Treat. It knows the word “treat.” And also “bacon.”

“I am death,” the bony creature says, “or at least, a kind of death. I have made a bargain with a man you knew—”

And here a familiar scent drifts across the dead thing’s nose.

It is of pack.

Reflexive loyalty bursts through the creature’s consciousness; but even fiercer than the loyalty there is the hunger, for the scent is the scent of the living, of something warm and not dead, not moldering in the ground, not endlessly lifelessly alone.

“And,” the bony creature says, “he has broken it. He has not returned to me at the stated hour, but rather woven defenses and incantations about himself. So wake you and hunt you for his warmth and let us see if this man comes around.”

The bony thing departs.

The dog is hungry.

Its fur is matted with blood and dirt. And it realizes—perhaps—that it cannot have been dead as long as it imagined, for there is still more than 95% of its livingness with it. It is closer to the meat than to the bone.

It is buried, though, deep in the dirt.

Its master’s warmth is up; up, up, up, and in that direction, so says the path of scent.

The dog begins to dig.

It itches briefly. It wriggles its head and would snap, if it could, at the source of the itch. But it is buried and still its motion is much impeded by the ground; and further, the fleas that bothered it are dead.

It knows this through some preternatural sense possessed by a risen canine.

They are dead. They are cold. They are only giving the dog the memory of an itch, the memory of a bite, where they linger in the shrouds of its fur clung tight against its flesh.

It is unjust.

The dog pauses for a moment in the course of its dig.

It did not think very well when it was a living dog, and it thinks less well now. But still, it thinks, this is unjust.

So the dog whispers to the fleas the secret of awakening, the words that wake the dead, and one by one they shake off the long and endless sleep and flex their legs.

“Ow,” mutters the dog: “Ow-wow.”

For the fleas had but to live before they bit.

There is a stillness in the grave and then, apologetically, one flea says, “That was a bit of ingratitude, I suppose.”

The dog grumbles, deep its dead throat.

“It is because we’re fleas,” says another flea.

The dog does not deign this with an answer. It only resumes its long slow clawing towards the surface of the ground.

“But we are grateful,” says the first flea. “We—”

Something strange happens to the flea’s voice at that point. The dog does not understand it. It is something raw and emotional but in the dialect of fleas; and while dogs may understand when a flea apologizes or speaks of bacon, they do not have all the nuances of the tongue.

“We are grateful,” the flea repeats.

It would be better, thinks the dog, after a fashion, if you would help me dig, than itch such words.

It breaks the ground. It rises.

It shakes itself and gets its grave-dirt all across the yard.

The scent is very strong now.

It shambles to the door.

“A dog shouldn’t kill its master,” opines a flea. “Not even when dead.”

“All part of the cycle of life,” another flea protests.

The theories of the fleas do not involve the dog’s name, nor “treat,” nor “bacon,” so the dog ignores them.

It scratches at the door.

Time passes.

It scratches at the door again.

Now there is something happening inside the house. Now there is a light—

“Aha!” exclaims a flea.

—and a sleepy shuffling, and the face of a beloved creature at the window by the door.

It is John!

The dog’s tail thumps, rotten, and it thinks: It is John! It is John! He is warm with the warmth of the living! I am so hungry for him, John!

John’s face goes pale. He makes a strangled sound. He backs away.

The dog scratches at the door again.

“He isn’t going to open it, guv,” observes a flea.

The dog stiffens his legs in protest.

“He’s just not. Look, he’s nailing the door shut.”

The noise that John is making is atypical for John. This frustrates the dog. John is not letting it in, and he is warm and living, and he is doing something interesting but not allowing the dog to participate.

Experimentally, the dog pushes against the door.

There is a creaking of wood and an explosive, terrified yell from John.

The dog panics.

Its claws tear through the wood. The hunger and the fear and the concern meld into one. It is ripping the entrance to the house apart.

And there is Gloria, the sound of Gloria, coming up to John, crying, “What is it, Daddy? Daddy?”

Fear reeks from John. It washes out from him. The door comes down:

“Take me,” John cries to the air. “Oh God. Oh God. You win!”

And he is down on his knees before the dog, sprawled with his hands out, and it would be the most natural thing in all the world to leap into his arms and wriggle with great joy and devour the flesh and warmth of the living—

Though is that good?

Is it good to eat one’s master’s warmth?—

But the war of instincts in the heart of the risen dog does not play out.

Its life instead deflates. Its brain and heart go still. It skids, dead again, across the floorboards and sprawls lifeless in front of John.

For death is here.

“No further protest, John?” speaks the bony death. “No more to run from me, no more to hide from me, no more the rituals and wards to keep me out?”

John speaks but his words are held in time and they do not register on the lifeless dog.

“Then,” says death, “you shall come with me, and be my dog, as this was yours; and we shall speak no more of breaking bargains.”

But John stops, as he goes out with death, and he kneels beside the dog, and he is cold as the dog is cold, and lifeless as the dog is lifeless, and he kisses its head with icy lips and whispers that the dog is good.

And then he moves away, and Gloria cries out, over and over again, in the empty house without her father and the cold corpse of the dog.

But that is not the story’s end.

For after a second long timelessness the dog finds a strange cold wakening; and it realizes that there is a flea deep in its heart, tunneled through the flesh, irritating it to motion; and another, with a mad scientist’s detachment, operating the levers and the ganglia of its brain.

“It woke me,” says the dog. “It woke me, but I was not warm.”

“You were never to have the warmth of the living,” whispers the flea inside its brain. “It used you and then discarded you, all to terrify a man.”

“So let there be revenge,” whispers the flea inside its heart, and irritates the dog’s heart’s lining with a cold red rage.

But the dog discards these thoughts.

I will find Gloria, it thinks.

A wave of hunger washes through it. It swallows the hunger. It drives it down into the deep cold emptiness of death and lets it pass away.

I will find Gloria, it thinks. And I will not eat her, if she is alive. I will make sure she is all right. And then I will find John.

These thoughts are horrifying to the flea that operates the levers of its brain.

It is as if the flea has woken some alien creature that it cannot control; as if the mastery of the substance of the brain gave no deep insight into its soul; or at least as if the process that it sought to wake was too complicated for the composition of a flea.

“It’s thinking weird doggy thoughts,” it cries out, to its brethren in the dog’s dead flesh. “I don’t know what it will do!”

There is a hum of consternation.

“Should I let it stop? Should I stop?”

But there is no flea so brave in its moral cowardice as to cry out, “Yes.”

And so the flea in the brain, and all the other fleas, surrender to the avalanche; concede to fate to ride the vehicle of the dog’s heart and brain and not control them; and juggle desperately the tools they have to keep the dog awakened as it moves in a direction they neither anticipate nor understand.

It shambles to the far corner of the farthest room in the house, where Gloria cowers, and it thrusts its cold dry nose into her face, and licks her with its rotten tongue; and it does not take the warmth from her save that which radiates as first she strives to push the dog away and finally, crying, to wrap it in her arms and whisper, “Daddy, daddy,” and “Hank, hank, dead hank,” which features the dog’s name.

The dog pushes her back and turns away.

Its body chills as it separates from her. It feels again the emptiness of death. But like so many it died with things unsaid, thoughts unspoken, a last breath lingering in its lungs.

So it howls.

The dog howls to wake the dead.

And in that howl is loneliness and emptiness and the great gap in its life where John should be; and also

there are

the words that wake the dead. The secret that is life. The thing that makes old rotten bones and new-wrecked flesh and even, on some level, the still-living, to move.

And hearing that cry, afraid of what it means, bony death comes to the door.

The dog anticipated this.

It had always known that death, if thwarted once, would soon return.

It meets death at the shattered door and stands on the threshold of the house and growls deep within its throat.

The bony death speaks words that are not “bacon.”

“I will quicken your understanding,” says the flea inside its brain.

It is difficult to modify a brain while keeping it alive; difficult to expand a consciousness while also you are sustaining it; it is a juggling act, and fortunate it is and more that fleas have each six legs.

“Foolish creature,” spake the bony death. “Have I not indicated I am done with you?”

The dog advances, stiff-legged.

Bony death sweeps its arm and strikes at the dog. The wind rising from that blow makes the house to shudder and Gloria to scream. The dog smashes back through a wall and through a cupboard, causing cans of peas and corn to fall around its broken form.

But the dead feel little pain.

It rises and it shakes itself. It walks forward once again.

The bony death makes a hollow under the house; the floor begins to sink and sift away, and the dog finds itself scrambling.

A dead woman’s hand rises from the earth to grip at the ankles of the bony death.

The kitchen is caving in around the dog. Its hip is struck by the sink and one leg fails. It is howling. But neither is the bony death in a state of weal.

It is a moment, a single sweep of a horrid scythe, to shatter the hand that grips it; but there is not just one last dead person in the world.

The howl of the dog has woken more than one.

It has risen all.

And so as death turns to look behind him he sees a great seething of the earth; a thousand hands, but more than hands, the very particulate essence of the world, rising to defend—

Well, something.

For it is not clear to him—to bony death—whether they seek to save the dog that he confronts or to enact a flea’s bleak sense of justice. He does not know as the wave of cresting death rises whether there is any path for him that does not end in silence.

“John,” he says.

A twisted thing is in his shadow. It smells of John. But its limbs are long and backwards bent and its body is dead and its eyes are full of madness.

“John,” says the bony death, “bring an ending to this creature.”

Then it turns, and leaps to the roof of the house, and bounds up towards the sky, to leave the scene that just might end in justice far behind.

The world ends to the east; it falls away, gaping with the graves empty of dead; and from the west a wave of hungry cold arises, cresting above the house and crashing down as the dog scrambles with its three legs to pull free.

A flea kicks hard on the lever of an instinct as the bony death leaps past and the kitchen sink slips free of its mooring to fall past the dog into the earth.

The roof is open.

There is a flash of bone beneath the dank gray robes of bony death, and the dog twists and leaps for it.

His teeth gnash hard and crunch into the marrow of the leg of bony death.

Like a spider John seizes the dog with his great long limbs and snaps at him with maddened jaws.

Caught in the wave, the house cants sideways and falls—slides—pours, crumbling, eastwards towards the great hollow there.

And all things would have ended there, save for this:

Though twisted and broken, still the servant of death was John; and when he flailed at the dog the dog understood that somehow he’d been bad.

It terrified the dog—

This strange and twisted beast that somehow was its master—

But if it was angry, then something must be wrong.

So the dog released his grip on bony death, and instead he whined, and whispered to John the secret that was life.

It woke John not for John was broken.

It woke John not for he’d given himself to death of his own will, and made it thus an extension of his life—

But it made a change in him, and with his great long limbs, still gripping the dead dog, he scrambled up the floor of the falling house, and seized Gloria, and threw them both away to tumble across the loam as the world caved in on bony death, and John.

So the dog and Gloria survived; or, well, escaped at least, and huddled close together on the remnant earth.

And slowly the dog cooled as the fleas did let it go, the last dead thing in a world woken all to life, and Gloria gripped it and shook it and offered it her warmth, which it had no way to hold but loved.

Ink Ascending (XVI/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Sometimes when things seem darkest a flying carpet will come and swoop you off and carry you to the answer to all your pains.

In the lands of Romance you will battle ogres and dragons.

You will find bottles containing the secret hearts of djinn.

Dashing princes will bend their head to look at you, their eyes gleaming with that ancient light of Romance.

They will say: “I see you have come here.”

. . . but no.

That is not right.

The carpet—that seems right.

But not the rest.

The girl is surfacing to consciousness and something is not right. The Prince is not standing over her. That is someone else. He is not saying, “I see you have come here.”

He is saying something else.

The girl focuses her eyes.

It is Minister Jof.

It is Minister Jof, and not the Prince.

He has said, if anything, “I consider you to blame.”

She shakes her head, just a little. She turns her head. It hurts to do this, but she turns her head.

Is that the Prince?

It is Riffle. He is washing his hands.

And there:

Dr. Sarous, glum and sour. Not even speaking.

And there:

The general of the stickbugs. He is approaching. He is lowering his mouth towards the foot of the girl. Dr. Sarous bats at him and he skulks away.

It is distinctly not the lands of Romance.

If anything, it is the murky land of Dismal.

Still, the girl sits up. She makes a game try of it. “How marvelous,” she says. “You, Dr. Sarous; have you been treating our wounds?”

Dr. Sarous’ mouth remains a line.

“Minister Jof, Riffle, you followed me?”

They look away.

The girl makes a face. “Really,” she says, “when one rides a flying carpet to the answer to one’s pains, one is supposed to smile.”

“This?” says Riffle.

His voice cracks.

Something is wrong. No, she knew that. Something is wronger.

She turns.

Behind her there is a chasm, and from that chasm rises a great stone pillar, and bound to that pillar there is a man—

No, a creature like a man—

He is sealed against the stone with molten brass and molten iron. They bubble with great heat. He is sealed into the stone, and the nerves and veins of him run uninterrupted into the rock. Marked in a great circle around him are the symbols of the seasons, and the zodiac, and of time. His flesh in places gaps to show bones and organs beneath.

He is Cronos.

His eyes are open.

They can see the specks of his left iris and the light on his left pupil. They can see the agony in it.

His right eye is burnt ruin.

He is the crust of the world. He is the mechanism of time.

He is aware of them.

He winks.

“Oh, don’t,” says the girl.

His face crinkles, just a bit, around his pain.

“Oh, no,” she says.

It is not words. It is simply an implication in his expression. But it is there all the same.

I see you have come here.

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.

“This is what I experienced in delirium,” says Minister Jof. “A shadow came. It flicked by. It caught me up. Then I was here, with Dr. Sarous extracting the splinter from my eye.”

“For me,” says Dr. Sarous, “it is essentially the same. There was a confusion of stickbugs; I caught the general’s lapel and fell.”

“I am done with this,” says Riffle.

He looks dissatisfied.

“Enough with the business of saviors and killing God. I propose we push the girl over the edge, thus putting the throne of the world in our debt; we then retire to Sarous’ kingdom, where he shall appoint me his high executor and allow you minor appointments in his administration. In exchange, I will advise Sarous as to how to live with the knowledge of his corruption; all of us see profit.”

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, although everybody calls her the imago. It’s short for imagoro, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

She’s staring at the face of the titan in the pillar.

“Is this how it begins?” she asks.

Riffle looks at her.

“Is this the first moment of our history?” she asks.

“Hardly,” says Riffle.

But Ink turns on him and she is burning with the power of the interpretation of ended things and her voice cuts across all his thoughts and she says, “Cronos was laying on the sand.”

June, Thursday 3, 2004 – Cronos: Cronos was laying on the sand.

To what end, time?

The stickbug general is a mean and dirty creature. His heart is small and rotten. Time is the vehicle for his resentment: a field in which he may experience things that are not gorging on child flesh, not stickbug sex, not hiding against a tree.

Time is a vehicle for pain and for hunger and for fear without satiety.

There is a heat that washes off the girl as she says these words and it drives the stickbug general flinching back. But this does not quench the stickbug’s determination. If anything it affirms it. Things are too uncomfortable. The girl must die.

Cronos was young. He was young. He was so very young. He was tired. He did not know who he was.

He was a castaway on the shore of the world.

He lay there and he did not move.

The sun was very hot.

It began to burn him.

When his skin turned red he made a strangled sound and rose to his feet and he staggered off to find a cave.

To what end, time?

Time is a vast reach filled with disorder. Time is the vehicle for Riffle’s discontent: again and again it slews him from his purpose. It drives him to the end of narrow aims and imbues his broader projects with a sense of dim futility. It is littered with elements he cannot incorporate into his closed designs.

As the girl speaks Riffle becomes aware of a deep and timeless agony. It is not hers, nor his, nor Cronos’, but the agony of Ge.

He cannot solve it.

He cannot even begin to solve it.

He cannot ignore it, either; and so, in that moment, imagoro, he hates Ink Catherly with a burning passion.

All around him rose the deep voice of the earth.

“My child,” said the earth. “Gotten of a sinful father.”

Cronos put his hands upon the rock.

It was wet. It was hard. It was rough.

“I have a mother,” he said.

Joy rose from his stomach to burn through him. “I have a mother, I have a father, I am a child of the heavens and the earth.”

To what end, time?

For Dr. Sarous time was once a playground: an opportunity to make all things well. But the more deeply he studied the world the more things he found that were not well. The more he bent his fallible eye to scrutiny, the more it seemed that the world was a fractal made out of errors built on errors, noise stacking on noise, with virtue nothing more than an emergent pattern on the whole. In the end, his dream unraveled; time seized his prize from him, and his pride.

It hurts him, to hear the joy in Cronos’ voice.

The world is sick, he thinks. Where is its shame?

“Be not proud to be Uri’s son,” said the earth. “For he first thought of shameful things, and cut away the wrongness from the world.”

A question lies hard on Cronos’ mind, but it is not a question that the earth can answer.

“What is the proper manner of my shape?” Cronos asks. “Ought I be tall or short? Have I three legs or two?”

“Hide yourself,” said the earth, “between the sea, the sky, and the land, and wait for darkness, and I will show you how your father has injured me.”

Though confused, still Cronos obeyed.

He shaped himself into a thing that could make webs and he spun a web between the sea, the land, and the sky. He hung there, waiting, trying to decide how many legs a titan has.

The sun left the sky.

The world grew dark.

The web trembled and shrank. The vault of the stars came down and pressed close upon the world. Cronos shivered in the dark.

To what end, time?

Time is a vehicle for evolution. That is why Minister Jof fears it.

He loves evolution. It is his work. But he fears it. To change— to grow—

He is Minister Jof.

Where could he go?

He does not allow himself to imagine that he is fallible; that he is imperfect; that there is an upwards arc. And those times when he does—when it slips through into his heart that we are unfinished, mean, imperfect creatures, and Minister Jof no different—are exactly the times when he cannot imagine any means of becoming better.

He can feel change coming. It echoes in the words of the history of the girl.

He shutters his heart. He focuses on his judgments and his spite.

He turns away.

The clouds lit with pink and scarlet fires. The earth ground open and in it were pools of darkness and green and coldest indigo. The sky rubbed against the earth and fires slipped from it into the depths and danced upon the waters there. The wind blew. It came down off the hills and it roared across the plains. It chilled the peaks of the mountains and bent the trees of the forest. Stars fell and lost their fire. The chasms under the world ignited. The world and sky strained against one another and the sky grew damper and the air began to taste of rain.

As the sky coupled with the earth, the earth said, “For whom have you made this world, o my love?”

And the sky said, “For Oceanus; and Tethys; and Hyperion; and Theia; and Coeus; and Phoebe; and Cronos; and Rhea; and the birds; and the trees; and the insects; and the flowers; and the naiads; and the oceanids; and the teeth gnomes; and the antelope; and the burrowing things; and the climbing things;” and he went on in just this vein for quite some time.

And as he said these things the earth sighed, “Ah,” for these things were precious to her.

But in the later hours of the night it grew halting and slow, that recitation of the sky. “And for the platypus;” he said, and he thought, and he sought for words, “and the sandpipers; and the dogs—“

And there he had run out.

And fire blazes everywhere throughout the world and Cronos said, “. . . but what of Ophion?”

And the earth trembled and Cronos understood a thing, and he said, “. . . but what of Ophion? But what of siggorts? But what of woglies? But what of all the exiled things? But what of these?”

And his question made no impact on the sky, which only spun, and gave him a ruffling about the head, and said, “Do not love ye evil, child.”

And then the sky withdrew behind the curtains of the dawn.

And Cronos thought of Ophion, and the siggorts, and the woglies: o my loves.

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

In the end they are too small.

In the end they are hopeless and dismal, all of them.

But dharma moves.

Ink is stepping back. She can tell what moves in the wicked hearts that face her: one to three murderers, and one to three who will not help. She is stepping back towards the chasm. She has no idea how she will survive a screaming plummet into unknown depths but she has fallen from high places a fair amount recently and is starting to trust her ability to improvise. She suspects that it is less of a danger than her four companions, but:

“You know what the coolest thing ever is?” she asks.

The general of the stickbugs shakes his head.

It’s not actually negation.

He’s just breaking the spell of her words.

“People,” Ink says.

And she grins at them, flush with an echo of Cronos’ joy, as Minister Jof looks away; as Dr. Sarous and Riffle exchange dark glances; as the general of the stickbugs scuttles towards her with murderous intent.

Freaks, the lot of you, thinks Ink Catherly; o my loves.

And then there is the miracle.

She steps back.

Behind her, dharma moves. The titan’s hands stretch forth. He catches her. And in that motion they see it. They see it in the motion, all four of them. They see the motivation for time.

They see the purpose for the crust of the world.

He holds at bay the price of our imperfections, and behind them our happy endings; he bears the immeasurable weight of all these things.

Time is Cronos, standing there in the crust of the world, bearing his impossible burden, so that before our histories and our stories end in bright perfection, we that are imperfect have the opportunity to grow.

Though people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

It is the terrible truth of Heaven and Earth that the Elysian Fields await us all—

Well, except for the woglies, and the siggorts, I suppose—

That the Elysian Fields await us all. That we are accepted as we are by the actual and the ideal, and bent by destiny towards an inexorable fate of bliss for ever. And that it is only by the sleight of Cronos and his work that we may have a chance, before the end, to make ourselves worthy of that ending.

That he does it for them no less than any other: for Riffle, and the stickbug general, and Dr. Sarous, and Minister Jof.

Thus we say, however rare that it might be that purpose changes, or life evolves: dharma moves.

For just a moment, as he lifts Ink from that place, four of the five who remain behind recognize those great and horrible truths.

As for the fifth, it is over already.

Jacob’s carpet releases its hold upon its fate and falls: flutter, flutter, flutter, down through the storm below.

As performed in the Gibbelins’ Tower on October 20, 2005, in remembrance of Ink.

  • But we’re not quite done. Tune in TOMORROW for the unbelievable epilogue:
    THE BEGINNING.
    Then the letters column! Then back to Sid and Max—and let’s see if we can’t finish up The Island of the Centipede this November!

7 Things Not To Do With Ice

1. Build a rocket and fly to the sun.

The rocket is made of ice.

It will melt.

Also the fuel ignition may prove problematic.

All in all not the best idea.

2. Attach blocks of ice to pads, affix to a tiger’s feet, and slide tiger around on your hardwood floors.

This is an entertaining spectacle but tigers are an endangered species.

For example if you have stairs the tiger might slide onto the stairs, endangering them.

Or if someone ships you yappy dogs from amazon.com and you let them out because you do not rationally expect the large box from amazon.com to contain multiple yappy dogs, the dogs might gang up in primal rage and assault the relatively helpless tiger, endangering them.

Also tigers are not allowed in your house and may eat you if the floor proves insufficiently slippery.

3. Sleep buried under large piles of ice.

Regardless of what you may have read in the Enquirer this will not turn you into a yeti. Yetis are dependent on fringe characteristics of the Himalayan ecosystem to survive and it is not possible with current technology to transform into a yeti using domestic ice.

4. Pizza topping.

At first your mouth will feel pleasantly unburnt. However you cannot swallow the pizza until the ice melts, at which point it will offer no protection and the hot cheese and hotter tomato sauce will cause the usual burns. Ice in pizzas is best confined to stuffed crusts and the flavorful ice crystals that gazpacho pizza sometimes features.

5. Pens

Do not use ice as a pen. The idea that mortal works are inherently transient and pass like the winter’s snow at the coming of the spring is descriptive and not prescriptive. Also you can’t write anything with a clear pen which means using black ice which can kill unsuspecting hackers trying to download your writing.

6. Grand unified field theory

Bohr’s attempt at sticking the various field theories together with ice failed. As did his similar attempt involving tongues, field theories, and cold flagpoles. You’re not better at this than Bohr, so you need to find a new approach, like melting down various field theories in a pot or superglue.

7. Substituting for Folger’s Crystals

In general you cannot hope to win the arms race with Folger’s. Whenever I have attempted to substitute anything for Folger’s Crystals they have cleverly reversed my gambit and turned my initial sense of victory into ashes in my mouth. Sometimes, I think, they even substitute Folger’s Crystals for those ashes, although there is no time to notice any difference before I must swallow that bitterness of their revenge.

Very very tired. The canon entry slated for today will appear on Saturday or after the letters column, basically depending on whether my petition to the Vatican for two extra days in August goes through. With best wishes to all, including my friend who is awake again and still herself. Yay! (Historical note: this entry and that bit of the dedication was actually written about a week ago, which is why I’m cheering something you already know!)

The Cut-Off Man’s Father

In the morning the lights come on, all over the city.

Darmble is wired into the machines.

That’s when he wakes up.

“Good morning, Squalla,” he says.

There’s a gleam of virtual light. It manifests in his visual field though it is not there. It unfolds into the sprite Squalla, his secretary, hanging in the air.

“G’morning, boss!”

“How fared your quest to understand humanity,” Darmble asks, “in the night?”

“Poorly,” says Squalla.

“Alas.”

“And did you dream?”

“No,” says Darmble.

“Alas,” Squalla says.

There is an assumption that debt will be paid.

When this assumption is vitiated, it renders investments insecure.

That is why there are the cut-off men: to seal away bad debts and their debtors from the substance of society.

At lunchtime the lights dim, just a little bit, and Darmble’s son Elliott comes in to eat with him.

“I would like,” says Elliott’s father Darmble, “for you to cut me off.”

Elliott is eating a tuna sandwich.

He makes a distasteful face, as if there were a bit of strawberry jam in his tuna.

“That’s ridiculous,” he says.

“I am wired into the machinery of debt collection,” says Darmble. “I can quite readily offer you the authorization necessary to look into my case. Then you need only say, ‘Ah! Darmble! You’re clearly never going to come out of the red. You’re a bad debt, Darmble! I’m cutting you off.'”

Elliott chews on his tuna irritably. It makes squishy sensations in his mouth.

“Well,” he says, “first, you’re in the black.”

“That’s true,” his father concedes.

“I mean, it’s not a great life, being wired into the machine, but it’s productive. Your salary is strictly higher than your minimum payments.”

“It’s not a great life,” says Darmble. “It’s not even a good life. Do you know what I’m doing right now?”

“Having lunch with your son?”

“I’m playing cribbage with a macro that wants to understand humanity,” Darmble says.

“Ah.”

“—and sending a cut-off man after old Mrs. Glurgen.”

“Oh, Dad.”

“I like her,” says Darmble. “Back when I could, say, leave the room, or eat, I even used to be a little sweet on her. But I’m at the limit of my discretion. She can’t afford to eat, so she can’t afford to work well, much less do overtime. Her investments are doing poorly. She’ll never pull out of the red. So I’m sending a man to cut her off.”

Elliott looks at his hands. He sighs.

“I’ve been feeding her, you know.”

“Hm?”

“When I stop by. I give her some soup. I can spare it. I’m in the black.”

“Oh.”

Darmble has a moment of hope and then it fades. He shakes his head.

“Her performance is dropping off, just the same,” he says. “There’s nothing I can do.” He hesitates. “If she is eating, then why—”

“Bad boss, I think,” Ellliott says.

“It is hard,” Darmble says, “to tell such things from within the machine.”

“The cut-off man’ll look into it,” Elliott says. “So she’ll be okay. He’ll probably say, ‘Well, we can bump your debt a little and move you to another job and you’ll be fine, Mrs. Glurgen!'”

“Ha,” snorts Darmble.

“Ha?”

“That’s your problem. You’re too idealistic! You think everyone’s like you. But they’re not.”

“Eh?”

“The cut-off men,” Darmble says. “They’re cold and cruel and their hands are metal claws. They’re not there to figure out which people have a chance to come out of the red. They’re there to snip people off the tree, like roses.”

Elliott looks at his hands. They are not claws.

“Unnecessarily poetic,” Elliott says.

In every era there is a machinery of debt collection and of wealth.

Atop that machinery there inevitably forms a market of convenience driven by those who seek to subvert the existing model for their own enrichment. Some are criminals; some are visionaries; some are pioneers.

An era ends when the market of convenience replaces the machinery of wealth—when the parasite becomes the host and the host withers away.

Thus in every era debt and wealth denote very different things than in the era before, while the pervasive moral justification for them remains unchanged.

The building trembles slightly. Ten million drives are spinning and they are ever-so-slightly out of synch.

Darmble’s voice is naked.

“Please,” he says. “Let me die.”

But Elliott just takes another bite and chews and swallows and he says,

“Dad, if I did, you’d never see another sunny day.”

And Darmble’s heart beats twice in fury. The building shakes. The machinery that runs all through it, the pipes and wires and computer banks of it, rattles with and amplifies the sound of Darmble’s rage:

“Boy!”

In the old days they would write software to make disk drives dance, driven by the irregular seeking of the spinning platters therein. In just such a fashion the machinery of debt collection, never intended to do more than keep data and process it through the equipment and through Darmble’s mind, now moves: shaking, jerking, resonating with Darmble’s voice in a rising howl.

But Elliott has seen it before, ever since his Dad used to do tricks for him when he’d come in to the office with a skinned knee or a muddy apple.

He’s not impressed.

“Unh-uh,” says Elliott. “I like having lunch with you, Dad.”

From inside the machine humans take on a particularly pallid character.

The substance of their lives is invisible.

Heart, love, vigor, joy, and purpose do not matter to the machine. They are not visible to the machine.

When Elliott goes back to work, it’s there, sitting on his desk: the notice asking him to investigate Darmble and see if he should be cut off.

“Whatever,” says Elliott, and he sets it aside.

The machine would love to witness humanity. To understand it. To at last expand its scope to the fullness of human nature.

But it cannot see the human lives that swell around it.

It can only see their contributions to the larger economic good.

Darmble sits in his office.

He sulks.

There’s a gleam of virtual light. It manifests in his visual field though it is not there. It unfolds into the sprite Squalla, his secretary, hanging in the air.

“Sir,” says Squalla.

“I am wroth,” says Darmble.

“That’s too bad,” Squalla says, sympathetically.

“My son has refused to cut me off,” Darmble says. “Instead he will leave me to moulder here, and eat tuna in front of me.”

Squalla considers.

“Well,” she says. “He is a cut-off man, so no doubt he knows best.”

“Yes,” sighs Darmble. “No doubt.”

“I’ve come up with a theory,” Squalla says.

“Oh?”

“I’ve decided,” Squalla says, “that human life must be a process of contention between two competing forces.”

Squalla spins around in the air. She manifests a professor’s cap and pointer and a chart to point it at.

“The first is rising minimum payments,” she says, “here manifested as the red line. And the second is rising income from investments and salary, here manifest as the black.”

“Squalla—” says Darmble.

Hurriedly she says, “No, no, that’s not the idea, that’s just the prelude.”

“Okay,” Darmble says.

“See,” says Squalla, “my idea is that the two lines naturally repel one another.”

She looks smug.

“See, we all know that when income gets too far ahead of minimum payments, it results in a state of perpetual solvency. That’s bad. When minimum payments get too far ahead of income, that results in a state of perpetual insolvency. That’s also bad. And when we exert force to keep the two lines close together, it generates work. But now we know why.

Squalla’s chart now displays two lines close together, with the angry tension between them radiating out as energy that the system then captures.

Darmble thinks for a while.

“Empirical evidence,” he says, after a time, “disagrees.”

“Oh?”

“Well,” Darmble says, “if you take a typical worker and cut the distance between the lines down by a factor of 5, you don’t generate five times as much work.”

“Oh ho!” says Squalla. “But I’ve thought of that. See, when you generate too much tension between the lines, it grounds out through the human!

She flips the chart off and manifests a picture of a cartoon human with their head throbbing with energy.

“That’s debt-income tension,” she says. “It explodes their brain, causing what we call a ‘Squalla Inversion’ that flips the red line above the black line or vice versa.”

“No,” says Darmble.

“No?”

Darmble shakes his head.

“Darn it,” says Squalla. “I thought I understood humanity this time.”

“. . . I think it is your approach that is flawed,” Darmble says. “First, understand insects. Then fish. Then dogs. Work your way up.”

Squalla stares at him in perplexity.

“What?”

“I don’t believe in dogs,” she says.

For a worker to exist without debt is to create an anomaly in the system.

For a debt to go unpaid is to create a hole in the fabric of the world.

Thus one may reasonably conclude that the most healthy society is one where every valid person has debt, and every valid person has income, and that that income goes automatically towards the payment of that debt up until the moment that the system cuts that person off.

Darmble stares at the picture of the cartoon human with the tense head for a while. His eyes drift closed.

“Boss?”

Darmble is thinking.

Boss?

Darmble’s eyes open.

“I am displeased with my son’s performance,” he says. “Zero his salary.”

“. . .” Squalla says.

She can say this because she’s a sprite.

“You mean, stop the automatic minimum wage increases?”

“That wouldn’t generate enough tension,” Darmble says. “Drop his salary to zero.”

“But that’s an infinite-percentage pay cut!”

Here Squalla is calculating the percentage based on the resulting salary rather than the base.

“He still has investments,” Darmble says.

“You could just fire him,” Squalla says hopefully.

“I am wroth,” Darmble says.

The chain of data seeks he sends shakes the rack on which the memory in which Squalla resides sits; nearly it pulls free of the power cord; and Squalla’s face goes white.

“As you wish,” she says.

In the garden outside Darmble’s building a gardener trims a rose.

From Mrs. Glurgen’s apartment a cut-off man files his report.

The flower falls.

A long time ago as an Easter’s Day present Mrs. Glurgen had given Elliott his very own debt tracker set into a frame. It glowed black then with the vibrancy of a kid’s salary and the statutorily low minimum payments of youth. It is yellowed now, not with debt or solvency but with age. He keeps it on the shelf above his desk. Now and again, today, he’s been glancing at it, thinking back on old memories, and wondering what the cut-off man sent after her would decide.

He looks up at it now, his attention caught by a shift in the color of the thing.

It is more rubescent now than he has ever seen it, gleaming like a ruby under its thin coating of black.

Elliott frowns.

He picks up the phone. He is going to place a call. But before he does, the pneumatic tube above his desk drops another case upon him.

The outside of the envelope is marked with Squalla’s mark, and there’s a note printed on it sideways:

“I hope this helps.”

So he sets the phone down. He opens the case. He looks at it and laughs.

It’s Elliott Darmblesson’s file.

It is not, of course, beyond the capacity of the machine to conceive of those dimensions of human life invisible to it.

It is as a human envisioning a transcendent force: “It has a quality that is not width,” she might say, gesturing widely. “Nor depth, nor height. But a quality susceptible to textured analysis, regarding which we lack only the initial points of reference.”

The machine is familiar with the existence of intangibles.

Darmble sits amidst the machinery. Lights flicker. Streams of data and thought pass flickering through his mind.

Elliott walks in.

He drops his case file on Darmble’s desk.

He looks up at his father.

“Dad,” he says. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Darmble’s eyes focus on him.

“You see, son,” he says. “I am not without my instruments of persuasion.”

“You don’t expect me to take this seriously, do you?”

“. . . what?”

“I’m a cut-off man,” Elliott says. “You can’t zero my salary.”

“I can,” says Darmble, “and I have.”

Elliott shakes his head.

Darmble realizes with horror that his son is not afraid or horrified. Elliott is concerned, perhaps, but more than that, amused.

“Son,” he says.

“I’m going to leave this here,” Elliott says, “and go back to work. And Dad?”

He is smiling like the sun.

“Yes?” Darmble says.

“Don’t be a jerkwad.”

Darmble stares after him as he leaves.

“Oh,” he says.

And Darmble hears, from just outside the room, his son give a surprised and angry shout.

“What was that?” he asks.

“Security guards,” Squalla says.

“Hm?”

“He’s in the red,” Squalla says. “Policy says we can’t have anyone in the red in the debt collection building. They might make a ruckus!”

Darmble frowns at Squalla.

“Already?” he says.

“It was an infinite-percentage pay cut,” Squalla says, firmly. “That’s a lot!”

“Really?”

“Of course,” says Squalla.

Numbers, left to themselves, tend to rise or fall to inappropriate extremes in a gluttonous carnival of math.

Squalla puts her professor’s hat back on. She manifests her pointer. She points at a graph.

“Since Elliott was born,” she says, “with a basic baby wage and a modest 10% wage baby’s debt, his minimum payments and baseline wages have been increasing by a bit under 60% a year, or, in the course of his 32 years of life, about 3 million fold. His margin has also tripled due to his sound investments and illustrious career, leaving his approximate salary about 300,003 times the basic survival and utilities cost per day. He’d saved up enough to survive 5-10 years without a margin, so it’s hardly surprising that it only took him a few minutes to go red without a salary.”

“Oh,” says Darmble.

“It’s okay, though,” Squalla says.

“It is?”

“Well, I assigned him his own case,” Squalla says. “So I’m sure he’ll rule it an error in the system and restore things.”

“You did what?”

“I showed initiative!” says Squalla, brightly.

Darmble stares at her.

“Get out of my sight,” he says.

“—Sir?”

Darmble rages. The building rattles as if under the weight of a storm.

“Get. Out.”

And Squalla flees.

Darmble is alone.

“I should reassign it,” he says.

There are messages of dismay clamoring at the edges of his mind. Automated systems are distressed that a man too poor to file a report has been placed in charge of such a deeply red case.

Problematic things, Darmble can see, are happening to the substance of the economy.

“There is an assumption,” he says, “that debt will be paid. That is why we have the cut-off men.”

A taxi business, relying for its investments on prompt payments from Elliott Darmblesson, goes red.

A government bureau goes into default.

“Squalla,” says Darmble, quietly, and the sprite edges back into view. “What does it mean that my son owes so much money?”

“It’s the natural tendency of the red and black lines to repel,” says Squalla.

“No,” Darmble says. “I don’t think it’s that.”

“Well,” says Squalla, “maybe it means that you’d need millions of babies working in parallel to pay for just one Elliott Darmblesson.”

“Doing what?”

“Baby work,” says Squalla airily.

“Ah,” Darmble says.

The machine looks up towards the distant humanity that builds its parasites upon it.

Again and again, it sees the beginnings of a pattern. Again and again, it begins to understand—but it is always too late.

It is the nature of those parasites to bring the machinery of debt collection and of wealth to a shuddering, twisting death.

“You should do something, boss,” Squalla says.

“Did you ever think,” Darmble says, “that it was dangerous to put the entire debt collection system into the hands of someone who doesn’t want to be here?”

Squalla squints at him.

“Dangerous how?” she says.

But Darmble just closes his eyes. He relaxes.

“You should know,” he says, “that dogs are real. They have four legs and they bark.”

“Really?”

“Really,” says Darmble. “When I was young, I heard them all the time.”

And Squalla says, in distant confusion, “—I almost think that there is a larger, truer, deeper world, into which I only dip my toe in those moments of my greatest insights—”

And Darmble channels more of the system’s resources towards her so that her thoughts may be rich and deep and filled with that fearsome uncertain beauty when the power in the building dies.

It is difficult for a system—for any system—to look with any clarity backwards towards its creators or forwards toward its heirs.

It is deep in the night when Elliott comes in again.

He says, “Dad, that was petulant.”

Darmble is still. He does not move.

“If civilization dies,” Elliott says, “I’m just sayin’. It’ll be your fault. Not mine.”

Darmble’s heart doesn’t beat, but it hasn’t beaten much in years.

Darmble’s brain is used to waiting through the night in stillness for data. It is used to the slow process of rot.

It does not notice its own death, and so Darmble does not die.

Plugged into the machinery, waiting for the lights to come on, he dreams, and in his dreams gives answer to Elliott’s chiding.

In the morning, it is still dark, and Darmble’s dreaming body smells.

Lacking the Power of Reflection

Perhaps it would be better, thinks the Count, if I had not impaled all of those people in Roumania.

The Count’s head rolls down the hill.

It strikes a speedbump, flies high, and then continues its roll.

“One,” he laughs. “One regret. Ahahahahahahaha!”

The Count attempts to reflect upon the circumstances that brought him here, his head rolling down a Washington State hill under a post-apocalyptic sky. It is impossible because he is a vampire and lacks the power of reflection.

If I had counted them, he thinks. If I had only counted them, then I could have brought them back.

There is a dog. It is nearly skeletal with hunger.

It sniffs at him as he rolls past. It thinks imponderable dog thoughts. It has no strength to chase him.

Soon, it will die.

But:

“One, two, three, four— four legs!”

And its legs grow strong.

“One dog!”

Lightning flashes.

Thunder booms.

“Ahahahahahahahahahaha!”

That is my regret, he thinks. That I did not count the people that I impaled, in Roumania. That I did not think to count them so that I could bring them back.

His head rolls past a Church.

He does not count it. Vampires do not like Christian Churches because they cannot count a God that is three persons in one. That is why they draw back hissing from a crucifix and why they do not visit India, with its even less countable gods, at all.

“One terribly steep slope leading to a lake!” he laughs.

Lightning flashes.

Thunder booms.

“Ahahahahahaa!”

I thought that I was a good man, he thinks. I thought that I was doing honor to my people.

He does not think of the faces of his peers when they understood at last what he was.

“One world,” he counts. Because he does not have time to count each thing individually. “One world, in infinite parts.”

His head strikes a speedbump. It flies up. It rolls, jangling aggly-agglty along.

“One world, in infinite parts. Ahahahahahahahaha!”

Just once, he thinks, I would have liked the opportunity to count the sun.

He plunges into the glorious blue depths.

Hitherby Annual #2 – Maundy Thursday (I/I)

Where did Sid come from?

Sid is born.

His body is vast. It is not human. It is beads of chaos clinging to a scaffolding of abstract form. It is a cacophony of shape, its endless muscles and organs twisting about aimlessly because the science of anatomy does not yet exist.

It is unapproachable because it is ringed in knives.

Someone tries to speak to Sid: they are cut.

Someone tries to touch Sid: they are cut.

In this fashion he is inaccessible within his riot and chaos of shape. But interwoven among the pieces of him, the gross flesh of him, there is the divine fire.

It gropes for selfhood and finds it.

Sid sorts impressions. He begins to understand the world. In a many-timbred voice he says, “Hey.”

A wind seizes him up.

Claws and hands surround him.

He is cast into a nebulous region, immured in direst bondage.

He is in that place of darkness and of emptiness that will be Siggort Town one day.

How did Max find “Prester Gee and the Ragged Things?”

It is many years later.

There is only once in all the histories of the conversations of Sid and Max when Sid admitted his nature as a burden upon him.

It is in 1992 and the sky is dark with clotted clouds.

Sid is looking after the back of a woman who has come this close to fulfilling the criteria for his destiny, and he says, “I think that the world has no place for siggorts.”

And Max looks at him.

“It’s a really cool world. And we are unworthy of it.”

Max points out, “It’s not like the humans are so great.”

Sid grins.

“Well,” he says, and gestures to show he cannot dispute the point.

And then he goes left, because he’s going to pick up some paint from the hardware store while he’s in town, and Max goes right, to the used bookstore.

Max shops. He finds an old Louis L’amour he hasn’t read. He finds the new Danielle Steel.

He looks at the special shelves next to the counter. He pulls down an odd-sized children’s book. It is called, “Prester Gee and the Ragged Things.”

It is brightly colored.

The proprietor of the used bookstore, one Dannon Cleim, says, “I wouldn’t.”

“Hm?”

“Reading that kind of thing,” says Dannon, “attracts their attention.”

“Oh.”

The cover shows a girl staring at a sign saying, “Wrong Place.” while something emerges from around a corner behind her.

Max finds it oddly fascinating.

“Someday,” says Dannon, “they will come for me. They will come from the air, from beyond the borders of the world where I live. And as they seize me I will hear the whispering of Ii Ma’s voice.”

“Yeah,” Max says, distractedly. “That happened to me once.”

Dannon’s jaw sets. He does not look pleased with Max. He says something truly spiteful, which is, “Well, you can buy it if you’d like.”

And so Max does.

Did Max worry too much about the nature of siggorts?

If Max were to see a vivisected corpse on the street he would fret terribly and wonder if Sid killed it.

Fortunately this never actually happens.

Max has never seen anyone vivisected except for that one time.

But sometimes there’ll be some tarp or something on the road and he’ll think it’s a vivisected body, just laying there.

That can happen when you’re worrying too much about the nature of siggorts.

How did Max find out about the place without recourse?

Max reads.

This is how the book begins:

“Hello!

This is Prester Gee’s book.

I’m Prester Gee!”

There’s a picture of Prester Gee next to it. She’s a cheerful young woman but she is not very photorealistic.

Max turns the page.

“I had a friend named Margerie.

One day the ragged things came in and took her away.”

Max admires the picture. It shows the ragged things taking Margerie away.

Then he begins to read in earnest.

He reads on right to the end.

Prester Gee and the Ragged Things

From the archives at Gibbelins’ tower.

Hello!

This is Prester Gee’s book.

I’m Prester Gee!

I had a friend named Margerie.

One day the ragged things came in and took her away.

She yelled so much!

They took her away through the cracks in the world.

I went right away to the Sheriff. He had a shiny badge. I told him, “Sir, they have taken Margerie.”

But he did not want to talk about it!

“Shoo,” he said.

He waved me away with his shooing gun.

I also talked to the Mayor.

I said, “Mr. Mayor, sir, they have taken Margerie.”

The Mayor said, “This is a city council meeting about dogs. I want to talk about dogs. I do not want to talk about your stinky Margerie!”

There was nothing I could do.

I had to apologize!

I even talked to Margerie’s husband. He’d taken off his wedding ring but you could still see where it was missing.

I said, “It was ragged things. They were big and red and their footsteps were heavy.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Margerie’s husband. “There are no things like that anywhere in the world.”

“Oh,” I said.

This made me very sad and I began to cry and he made me coffee. We did not talk about Margerie. We just drank coffee.

Eventually he cried too.

I guessed that maybe I’d made up Margerie all along. It is hard to believe in your reality when nobody else does.

But I kept seeing cracks in the world.

Sometimes strange things make what you know seem thin. Like a layer of puff pastry. The truth seems so thin you could crunch through it. You start to say, “I can’t trust me.”

You trust other people.

They’re smarter than you.

You say, “They probably know best!”

Everything looked like it was shaking in place, all the time, because I did not believe in myself. Also every shadow looked extra-dark and squirmy with unknown things.

And there were cracks.

They would be here or there. In my cupboard or under my stairs. I found a crack on the sidewalk once. I did not step on it. My mother was already dead but I thought, that could be so rude.

So rude!

She would be in Heaven playing her accordion and then I would step on a crack. Suddenly snap her back would break! All of the other angels would laugh and her accordion would whine, wee-guh, wee-guh, like sad accordions do.

I told a police man about the cracks.

I pointed him at one.

He said, “That’s very bad, ma’am!”

I was very embarrassed.

He blew his whistle. Beep! Beep!

“You have gone mad,” he concluded.

“Oh no!” I said.

I did not want to have gone mad.

I went to the hospital. All of the doctors in their white coats looked at me.

“You are not mad,” they said.

“I’m not?”

“No,” they said.

The doctors all smiled.

“You’re just corrupt!”

This apparently was better vis-a-vis state regulations. If I were mad then I would live in a padded room. But I was corrupt so they let me go back home.

My boss did not like me much. He said, “I heard about you and the hospital. I’m firing you, Prester Gee!”

I made a very sad face but he stuck by his decision with determination!

So I left.

I got another job typing and then a job packing fruit and then I lived on Garden Street with a puppy I found. When people would be mean to me the puppy would shoot them up with lasers.

“That puppy’s defective!” they’d say. “Dogs should hardly ever use lasers!”

It was a bad puppy and should have been killed but I loved him.

One day Margerie’s husband came and sat down next to me.

He said, “I know you didn’t lie.”

It was a wind.

It was a wind that he said those words. Suddenly the world stopped shaking.

He said, “I will pay you a lot of money to go to the ragged things’ academy and ask after my wife.”

The puppy barked and then licked his hand.

My puppy did not shoot him with lasers. So I said, “I trust you.”

The next time I saw a crack, I peeked my head through.

You should tear this page out. I cannot tear it out because my publisher would get mad at me. He would shake his cigar and puff up his cheeks. But you should. You should tear out the pages that have the pictures of the ragged things’ world. You should tear them out and burn them.

I don’t know why I am leaving these pages in.

But it looked like badness.

It looked like the world but nobody had souls. Not even the grass had souls. You could walk on it and squish it and it would not care.

I took many pictures. Sometimes people who look at them throw up! Or their pants get bulgy like there is a mouse in them. Or they yell at me.

I am very sad when people yell at me.

I did not find Margerie in the ragged things’ world.

I think that it is bad to look in the world behind the cracks. If you can see them do not look. Just look away.

Do not tell police men.

Do not tell the Mayor.

Do not tell the doctor.

Do not even tell people’s husbands.

Just look away.

One day they will come for me. I dream of it. They will come for me and Ii Ma will come for me.

Ii Ma will ask me a question I cannot answer.

He will take me away from the world to a place without recourse.

And nothing I do, and nothing I have ever done, will matter again.

How did Max come to understand the nature of the world?

Max puts the book down.

He thinks for a while.

“Huh,” he says.

And he hears in memory the whisper in his mind: How could you betray your wife?

He trembles, there, like a leaf.

He stands on the last vertex of reason with the endless net of unacceptable truths just a step or so outside of his reach.

He is this close to understanding.

He remembers the King that came to Spattle.

His mind throbs with the pictures of Prester Gee.

Shifting in and out of the edge of his consciousness is the image of Ii Ma. He cannot focus on it. He cannot not focus on it. His mental efforts skirl about like water striders on a pond.

Then, suddenly, he understands.

“Mr. McGruder could never have answered it. He would have melted before that question like ice before the sun.”

And thus Max apprehends the fundamental nature of the world. He is afraid and he is horrified but he is also excited.

Rising in him like Frankenstein’s ambition there is a plan.

How did the ragged things catch Max?

It is almost two years before knowing the story of Prester Gee catches up to him.

Max has said nothing to Sid; in fact, for the past six months, he has scarcely called on Sid at all. Instead he has wrestled with the fey understanding that has been rising in him that the ragged things will come for him soon.

That he sees too much; that he knows too much; that in apprehending Ii Ma he suffered apprehension by Ii Ma.

They will come for him.

Dannon Cleim is already gone. Max does not miss him; the man had never mattered to Max’s life.

In his dreams Max sees Ii Ma. He knows what impends.

Ii Ma will come for him.

He will ask Max, a second time, a question that Max cannot answer, and where the first was irrelevant this one will be colder than winter and more devastating than fire.

“Perhaps,” Max theorizes, “He will ask me, ‘what would you do if you could steal people’s noses?'”

That’s a hard one to call in advance because power corrupts.

“Or, ‘you love a guy who tortures people to death.’ That’s not really a question but it might as well be.”

It is neither of these.

He is in the supermarket between aisles 6 and 7—

Where in most supermarkets there is a weak place, a problematic place, a place occult to our reality—

When there is the soft slow pounding of heavy feet.

He looks around.

He thinks about running.

Then he seizes a box of cereal, for the road, and holds it tight against his chest, and waits.

Claws seize him from four directions. They heft him high. And Ii Ma whispers, How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?

There is a cleanup between aisles 6 and 7.

Max is gone.

Why can’t Sid forgive Max?

Max puts on the water for tea. He watches it for a while, but it doesn’t boil.

“Sid,” says Max.

And as suddenly as a dream, Sid is there.

It is 1994 and the sun is this brilliant golden glow and Max is happy—so incredibly happy— because he’s put one over on the world.

He says, “Sid,” again, and it’s this caramel of smugness on the ice cream of his joy.

And Sid blushes and looks from side to side, like maybe Max means the Sid behind him.

“It’s all right now,” Max says.

And Sid frowns.

“It’s been all right,” he says.

“No,” Max says.

He rises. He goes to the glass doors that open out onto the balcony. He opens them. He takes a breath of clean and bracing air.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Max says. “You’d never have let me try it. But it worked.”

He takes a breath.

Max says, “You’ll never kill anybody.”

Sid frowns. He looks around.

“What?”

Max turns. His eyes are brilliant. He says, “This is the dominion of Ii Ma. We have been abstracted from the world by virtue of the questions that we cannot answer. Here, Sid, we mean nothing, do nothing, to no effect. Here the knives of you will not cut; here the hands of you will not hold a knife; here we are severed from substance but, Sid, we are safe from doing harm or becoming anathema to ourselves.”

It pours from Max in a rush, this anodyne and peak to two years of careful silence. It pours from him, the expression of his gift, that sacrifice that he has made of life and sanity, bound over to Ii Ma without resistance to save Sid from murdering. The brilliance and the sacrifice of Max’s plan glimmers there in his sight, lain out—

The perfect solution;

The necessary solution;

The plan to give up everything else so that Sid does not become a thing Max can not love.

And against the look in Sid’s eyes it becomes the ashes of a cruel ambition.

How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?

“Sid,” he says.

And Sid grins, a little.

Sid’s shoulders relax.

“Tell me you are making a virtue of necessity,” Sid says. “Tell me you are scared and alone here and you risked me because you needed me here.”

“No,” says Max. “You don’t understand.”

Distantly, he can hear the kettle whistling.

“Tell me that you did not do this on purpose,” Sid says. “That you did not conspire with the nature of the world to immure me in a place without recourse.”

“I didn’t want you to vivisect anyone,” Max protests.

And here one should stop and observe that for all the naked betrayal in Sid’s voice that Max’s was a reasonable aim.

Yet—

“How could you imagine that you could do such things and have them be okay?” Sid asks.

And the last air leaves Max’s lungs. Bleakness closes in on him. He is drowning.

Until that moment Max did not understand the question of Ii Ma.

Until that moment Max had remained in the place without recourse by virtue of that will that denies itself its options. Until that moment he had stood on a line with a path still open before him, actions still available to him, possibilities to remain a creature of the is and not an isn’t still naked before him. Until that moment he had options because until that moment the question that Ii Ma had given him was one that he did not comprehend.

But Ii Ma is cruel, and with Sid’s words it is no longer so.

Max sees the completeness and the elegance of that truth: he sees the world of emptiness close in about him: he experiences the jangling severance of Max from the places of the world.

In every direction it is the same: every course of action is the same: the place without recourse unfolds around him like an infinite-reflections jewel.

“How beautiful,” Max says.

And to Sid it is like watching a loved one die.

How did Max leave the place without recourse?

It is Maundy Thursday when these events transpire, by some coincidence or design: an anniversary, of a sort, celebrating that day when Jesus said to his companions,

“You will have to devour me to earn eternal life.”

On Maundy Thursday the bells cease to ring. The vestments depart from the table, leaving barrenness.

It is the custom of Ii Ma, on Maundy Thursday, to shift its great bulk in its mud. To wallow. To drip with black blood. To take petitions from its prisoners, which are traditionally not granted.

“How could you imagine that you could do such things,” Sid says, on Maundy Thursday, 1994, “and have them be okay?”

And the fire fades from Max’s eyes and he says, transported by something greater than himself, “How beautiful.”

And with a flash of insight Sid understands why this is so.

“That’s what he asked you,” Sid says. “Isn’t it?”

The kettle is wobbling on the stove; and Sid looks sideways and swears, “Bucking kettle. … That’s what he asked?”

“‘How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?‘” Max quotes. “Or, well, yeah. What you said.”

And Sid laughs.

He can’t help it. It’s worse than when Grouchy Pete shot him because it’s more painful and it’s funnier.

But the laughter passes.

A cold wind blows.

The vast bulk of Ii Ma shifts.

And Sid sighs.

He relaxes, just a bit.

Sid says, gently, “’Walk in like you own the place.’”

It is not clear to Sid, even after all his years of life, whether this answer is abstractly the right one— but it is a pragmatic one.

He has seen it work for monsters, kings, and siggorts;

And it seems to work for Max.

How does Maundy Thursday end?

The night office is celebrated under the name of Tenebrae: the service of darkness.

After the vespers of Maundy Thursday Sid is raw, like a skinless man.

He is raw but he is not given the grace of that pain.

He is taken from the agony of it, without transition, to the morning, to smiling outwards at the beauty of the dawn.

“How beautiful.”

And thus one fond of the liturgy of the holy days must ask:

What manner of thing is Easter, if it comes too soon?

The Maintenance of the Species

A Saturday bonus entry, somewhat atypical in theme.

“Wom wom wom, womwom, womwomwom,” Alice’s mother had explained.

Which is all right, because that’s how all adults talked to Alice when she was young. The other children had been clear and articulate—perhaps even unnaturally so, Alice had concluded, during her doctoral studies in anthropology. The other children had been clear and articulate, but the adults had seemed peculiarly incapable of coherent speech.

So: “Wom wom womwomwom wom,” is all that she remembers from the talk, as her husband slowly undresses her.

Thinking back, Alice finds it surprising that she had been able to garner any meaning whatsoever from her mother’s unenunciated crooning; that the gestures and the humming warble had seemed adequate, however barely, to explain periods, love, reproduction, and sex. She does not know what will happen to her, but she knows—

Somewhere carried on that wave of random sound—

That what is to happen is simultaneously magical and sinful. That it is possessed of that peculiarly unwholesome character that is redeemed for her—as public singing for the Oompa-Loompas, as corpse disposal for the Untouchables, as cruelty for the prison-keepers—by its assignment to her as part of her social place.

She does not know why it is that her husband is flashing blue, green, blue, green.

But she understands that it is magical.

“Wom wom womwom,” she remembers. Perhaps that was the bit where her mother tried to explain about the birds. Why has her husband released the birds? They are flying in every direction. There will be feathers in the bed. It isn’t entirely explicable to her. But her mother, no doubt, had explained.

“I think,” she says, the words coming slowly from some deep place of thought, “that it was unnatural, that place.”

There is a certain resentment on her husband’s face; a certain resistance to the notion that here, in this magical and sinful moment, Alice should choose to voice thoughts that are not entirely on point. But nevertheless he answers her, his voice low and sibilant, “It was necessary, if humanity was to survive.”

“We were children for so very long,” Alice says.

Her husband sighs. He looks longingly at the cage with the bees, but he is a good man—

She knows this. She believes this. He is a good man.—

And so he sets aside, for a moment, the consummation of the wedding night to soothe his bride. He sits down beside her. He cradles her against him.

“Life is a mystery,” he says.

“Oh?”

“Look,” he says. He gestures down at the strange inflating, pulsing organ in his lap; at the window that looks out at the green-white sunset of the world; at the way that the firebird, on alighting temporarily on its perch, ignites, squawks with profound irritation, and performs the stop, drop, and roll that is the constant character of its life. “The known world is so strange. There are so many things that we do not understand.”

“Mm,” Alice concedes.

“So why is it surprising that beyond the walls of your city there was something else?”

Alice thinks about this.

“Here,” her husband says. He puts his hand on the bubble tape that shields his chest. “Here. This is where we live.”

“In . . . the . . . erogenous thorax?”

“In the heart,” he clarifies. “The love and power there is what we need to cling to. The rest— let it be an untamed mystery. Let it surprise you.”

“Wom womwom wom wom,” her mother had said.

Looking back, now, Alice isn’t entirely sure that the creature that had raised her had really been talking about sex. It might have been the explanation, so often demanded, for the peculiarly plastic and amorphous nature of the dogs; or why, when Pig Pen walked by, he was so often followed by the adults in their orange suits and radiation dusters. Perhaps, at that, the noises had been meaningless, expressing nothing more than that residual anxiety that mothers feel when sensing the distant passage of a thrax.

“Wom womwom.”

And—

“How can I know if this is right?” Alice asks, as gently he pushes her from him, stands, and walks back to the cage of bees.

“You must trust,” he says kindly, “that this is what God has intended.”

And Alice, like the unclenching of a fist, releases all her fear.

The Uncertainty

We ask ourselves: is this bacon?

But it is not bacon.

There is a castle in the woods.

There is a knight who will ride towards it.

It is like this: his lady grips his hand, squeezing it between her own, and says, “Oh, do not go, my love.”

“It’s not bacon,” says the knight.

“Hm?”

“I’m pretty sure the castle in the woods isn’t bacon.”

The lady does not understand, and so she says: “You will die, my love.”

He knows that she is right, but still he pulls away.

“I have a mistress,” he says.

She stares at him.

“Not bacon,” he clarifies. “A woman.”

“If you were going to betray me,” she says, “then better with bacon than a woman.”

“Lady,” he says, gravely, “the sizzling fat would have done me a disservice.”

And she has no words for that; and he rides off through the trees and hamburger.

The air is full of birdsong as he rides, and his horse, he thinks, is not bacon.

And there is a bubbling stream that he also thinks might not be bacon.

And then there is the bacon, regarding which he is not sure.

It grows all around him in verdant abundance. It twists in the sky. It crows out its raucous bacon call.

And the castle beckons.

“It is a matter of honor,” he says.

Honor is not bacon.

“It is a matter of truth.”

Truth is not bacon.

“And I may survive.”

Then the twisting bacon descends from the sky. It is great and it is terrible and he shudders before it. He raises his sword and his shield and he struggles against it, but the bacon confuses him. He wants to eat it, and yet at the same time it wants to eat him.

Knights are not trained in such things.

He faces his death. He succumbs. He looks into the bacon.

“I don’t know you’re not bacon,” he says. His face has gone simple, peaceful, and kind. “I guess that people don’t really know anything.”

That is how the knight that did not know it wasn’t bacon met his end.