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]

As To Why You Should Drink the Coffee We Sell Here, as Opposed to the Coffee Sold in World and Sound

1. Coffee

Some coffee’s processed in the guts of monkeys. Some, of ferrets.

Our coffee’s not like that.

Some coffee’s brewed by starving orphans and their puppies in the basements of the pyramids wherein Starbucks may be made.

Our coffee’s not like that, either.

Our coffee’s the good stuff. It’s the right stuff. It’s the stuff of joy and virtue, and of love.

2. The Merry Christmas Man

The Merry Christmas Man goes to Holidaytown.

And he walks its streets, and he slums inside its stores, and on his way out of one store there’s a Sid at the door who tells him, “Happy holidays.”

And it’s like the words are a knife on the Merry Christmas Man’s skin.

They cut him right open. They grate down his arm. Blood wells up, red and angry, and there’s the faintest tinge of green.

And Sid’s gone pale with horror, he’s stammering an apology, but the Merry Christmas Man just growls at him and says, “You say that again.”

But Sid doesn’t.

He won’t say it, not even in Holidaytown, not now that he recognizes the Merry Christmas Man. For he knows the words will cut a Merry Christmas Man, but he doesn’t know the reason why.

Say it,” says the Merry Christmas Man.

But the silence, it just stretches until the Merry Christmas Man goes away.

3. Guilt

The Merry Christmas Man’s not here to buy presents. He could get those at Christmas, or, leastaways, somewhere in Twelve Days. And he’s not here to start something. He’s not that sort of Man.

“I killed me a reindeer,” he says.

He doesn’t have much of an audience. He’s sitting on the corner, next to a giant candy cane, surrounded by forest animals and a pale-faced little girl.

She’s looking at him in confusion.

She’d been walking by in her wolf-eared fur coat, but then she’d seen him, and she couldn’t quite get it, so she’d stopped and she’d stared and she’d been staring ever since.

“. . . Santa?” she asks, like she isn’t sure.

It’s not her fault.

You have to understand, it’s not her fault, growing up in Holidaytown, that she doesn’t really get it about the Merry Christmas Man.

But scorn still plops from his voice like thick batter from a spoon, and he says, “I’m not Santa, little girl. I’m not anything like Santa. I’m a Merry Christmas Man.”

“Oh,” she says. Then, to be sure it’s all quite straight in her head, she says, “And you killed a reindeer?”

“It’s deep magic,” he says. “You take on the spirit of Christmas with the skin of the reindeer, and you gulp down its meat. And you hang tinsel from your hat and put a candycane in your shoe, and you hop, skip, and jump and you’re a Merry Christmas Man.”

There’s more to it than that.

There’s a step or two he’s skipped, right where he says he’s skipping ’em, and another that we’re leaving out, because we don’t want our readers going all skinwalker or curse-maker when they read these words. There’s more to it than just skinning and eating a reindeer and doing some junk with sympathetic magic (not that it’s really all that sympathetic); but those things, they’re the gist.

“And then you can fly,” says the Merry Christmas Man, “and make snow fall where you please, and pull presents from the emptiness if the recipient is good.”

He makes a present-summoning flourish with his hand, and then looks sourly at the result.

“Or,” he says, “pull forth coal chunks for the naughty, if the recipient is so disposed.”

“Thank you, sir,” she says, and takes the coal. “It’s because I am always skinning animals to make my coats.”

“Good lass,” he laughs, forgiving her at once. “Good lass.”

Such forest animals as had remained through his declaration of reindeer-skinning skulk off to frolic elsewhere now: a pointed objection, perhaps; a shunning of the animal-skinning kind; a subtle contextual reminder that even in the winter wonderland of Holidaytown happy forest animals would rather like to keep their skins. Now in Christmastown, to hear some tell it, they love nothing better than to roll stickily in blood diamonds before they jump into the furring machines themselves, but —

“Happy Holidays,” says the girl, and she nods her head, and she walks on.

The snow is turning crimson with the Merry Christmas Man’s bright blood.

4. Jelly, in the Cold

It’s cold in Holidaytown, just like it is over in Christmas, and he’s wishing, just a little, that he’d gone to Valentine’s instead.

It wouldn’t have served his purpose, no, but the hearts would have kept him warm.

Instead, he’s cold.

He’s really, really cold.

His beard is white with snow now and his belly, it’s too cold to jiggle—it’s just like a bowl of jelly that you’ve left out jiggling in the cold while its jiggling grows feebler and feebler until it can’t jiggle any longer, not a bit, and it grows a last despairing rind of ice.

And he’d like to laugh it off, ho, ho, ho, but his laugh had turned to silvery bells when he’d become a Christmas Man.

Didn’t eat enough reindeer, some would say, while others would suggest he’d ate too much.

There’s a lot that we don’t know about the magic that makes a Merry Christmas Man.

They have magical powers. We know that. And they probably eat children. They can lay fell curses, and they really like Christmas, and when you tell them “Happy Holidays,” they bleed.

And one more thing, which we’ll get to! we’ll get to! But not till later on.

5. The Jinglers

The Merry Christmas Man is fading.

In the cold, he’s fading, he’s losing his sense of self and liveliness, and he’s wondering if he’s going to get to do what he came to do before he loses fingers to the cold.

Then ring the bells. Then sound the footsteps on the walk. Then voices that had seemed quite far away unexpectedly draw near.

He thinks with sudden fierce and giddy joy:

I am in luck.

There’s a whole party of jinglers coming his way, just off their work, and they won’t be able to help stopping to look at the Merry Christmas Man.

And he’s sure they’ll wish him Happy Holidays, and the words will make him bleed; and the first of them is kneeling down beside him now—but—

Damn it, thinks the Merry Christmas Man.

“Hey,” says Sid. “Hey, you OK?”

Sid looks up at the others.

“It’s a Merry Christmas Man,” he warns. “So ixnay on the olidays-hay. And a Merry Christmas to you,” he adds, turning back to the Merry Christmas Man, “good sir!”

“Uckfay your ixnay,” says the Merry Christmas Man, preserving this legend’s suitability for children by inventing a jolly new curse word for the holidays instead of saying something potentially obscene. “And the horse it rode in on. I’m in Holidaytown, for the Holiday, I don’t want to hear any ittyshay uckingfay Scrooge-uggeringbay ‘merry Christmas’es.”

At this point the narrator must assume that the Merry Christmas Man has gone around the bend and begun to speak in tongues, likely from exhaustion and cold fatigue but potentially from possession by the Holy Spirit.

Sid seems even more confused than we.

“Sir,” he says, “you’re overwrought.”

The Merry Christmas Man snorts.

Sid says, “If we all actually wished you a Happy Holidays—“

The Merry Christmas Man bites his tongue to hold in the scream.

“Well,” says Sid, his face ashen, “you see, I mean, it’s like—“

But the Merry Christmas Man is on his feet now. He’s holding out five fingers crooked like candy canes, and the stripes of them are red, red, red, and his fury has made him so warm that his stomach may shake like a bowl full of jelly once again.

“We, ‘sir,’” he spits out between his teeth, “are in Holidaytown.

Sid doesn’t cringe.

It’s a near thing, but Sid doesn’t cringe, not even with those fingers pointing most of the way in his direction before they cunningly curve and point backwards towards the hand. Not even with the sweetness of the sugar-snow that has fallen on the shoulders of the Merry Christmas Man. Not even knowing that the Merry Christmas Man is a skinwalker, and that skinwalkers can kill.

“Merry Christmas,” he says, and turns away;

And the Merry Christmas Man is vast like a giant, and billowing with his power and his rage, and bellowing, “What does it take to get a bloody ‘Happy Holidays’ in this town?”

The answer to which, apparently, is that shout; for as if by autonomic motion, for streets around, and in answer to that cry, the people of Holidaytown turn in the Merry Christmas Man’s direction and wish his holidays be bright.

6. Transcendence

The Merry Christmas Man is cut, at first, and bleeds.

Then it is beyond mere flaying. Then the words are tearing into him, catching him like great hooks, ripping him apart, this way, this way, and that. He is pulled apart, and yet improbably alive; and the veins transport the blood of him, and the nerves convey the feel of him, and he is dissipating like some gateway god into the form of ten thousand spheres; but the cutting does not stop.

The world where he was rips open.

The space inside him is made to emptiness, and one vast ring surrounds it, and inside that ring is no location known to man; and with a terrible cry and one last great inversion, the Merry Christmas Man vomits into the world through the vehicle of that emptiness the shining contents of his soul.

They splay there, burning with a holy light against the whiteness of the snow, and with great hope:

The coffee beans the reindeer’d ate, before the Merry Christmas Man began.

For that’s the secret of it all, isn’t it? The source of that grace and that ineffable mystery that brings a Merry Christmas to the world? Isn’t that where all our joy and virtue, and our love, begins?

It’s thus.

O, merrily, it’s thus!

The secret of life isn’t coffee beans processed in the gut of some monkey, we can tell you that. And certainly not a ferret.

You can’t get the good stuff by having orphans hammer and brew it out in the dark reaches beneath the world.

I mean, it’s pretty good.

We are not knocking a good Frappucino.

But it’s not the thing.

To get the kind of coffee that can bring a real Merry Christmas to the world, that can fill the body with great warmth and make a person into a font of joy and virtue, and of love, you have to process the beans through the gullet of a sacrificial reindeer and a sacrificial man. You have to feed them to the flying arboreal ungulates that live in the canopy where the beans are grown, and let them process them down into the spirit of Christmas; and then somebody has to have the courage to step up and be a Merry Christmas Man, to cut the reindeer open and put on its skin and eat its meat and swallow down the coffee beans entangled in its soul.

And if they’re cruel then the world shall know a time of sorrow; for it tempts you to dark magics, oh yes it does, being a Merry Christmas Man.

But if the candidate is good enough, if they’re strong enough, if they’re cussed enough to cling to their first intention in the face of the power that a Merry Christmas Man can wield, why, then they’ll go down to Holidaytown and they’ll flay themselves on the innocent unknowing words of the Happy Holidaysers there. And their death will give back to us the beans we use in the coffee we sell here;

For just 99 cents a cup.

Ophion (I/I)

A history of Ophion and Cronos

“Once upon a time . . .”

Once upon a time a boy named Cronos forgot who he was.

He walked east.

Around him the world was swirling and filling and closing. It was surf. His snake Ophion wound around him. Its scales were obsidian plates. It circled about him. It made patterns of darkness and light.

His heart was full of joy.

Joy burned in his chest. He could not hold it back. He gave a great shout from it, “Yey-aa!”

All around him the surf crashed. He could not breathe reliably. The sea kept hitting him. It got in his mouth and his nose.

Ophion made a sound, ssaaaa.

It was like the sound of the surf, stopped at its very middle point.

Something was killing him.

To the east the world divided into lines.

Around him the world was swirls and filling and closing but to the east were lines and dots. Blue and white turned to scattered golden sands. Then a ragged line marked the edge of grass. A great round line made a boulder and stark rising lines denoted trees. Only at their tops with their thousands of leaves did the east turn to swirls and filling and closing once again.

Cronos walked east.

Ophion was killing him.

“Thus far, and no further.”

The snake tightened about him. Its teeth bit into his ear.

“I love you,” he said to Ophion, which was true; and the snake drew back, and it said, ssaaaa.

Cronos staggered.

One hand came down on hard round texture. There were rocks beneath the sea.

His vision became a tunnel edged with red. Under the surf he heard this sound: ba-put, ba-put, ba-put, ba-put. It was as if the world were suddenly on measured and accelerating time.

One hand squirmed under the coils to be between the serpent and his neck.

“Ophion,” he gasped.

The snake whispered, “We will die here.”

And the starry chambers above the world spoke, and its voice was everywhere and nowhere, and mellifluous and kind, and said, “Thus far, and no further.”

Cronos looked up.

It was visible even to the sky that he did not understand.

“I have made an Eden,” said the voice. “I have made a world that is perfect, just, and good. And to maintain that world it is necessary to exclude such things as Ophion. This is a doctrine of self-defense; it is a doctrine of mercy; it is a blessing of the stars.”

Cronos’ hand slipped away from his neck. The coil tightened.

And Ophion squeezed him and he could not breathe and his right foot sank into the sand and his left foot turned and his right fist seized about the body of the beast and pulled and his waist bent and his arms stretched out and he cracked the neck of Ophion against the stone and held its head beneath the waves.

The coils loosened. The snake flailed.

The fingers of Cronos cracked the scales of Ophion. His nails dug into the muscle of the beast. Its head was under the sea.

Loop by loop it fell away from him. It twitched.

He did not say: o my love.

He staggered up onto the shore and he fell down.

“What have I done?” he asked.

And the sky spins over him and it is some time before it said, “The question is immaterial.”

Silence swelled.

“There are no deeds,” said the sky, “beyond the boundaries of the world.”

All around him rose the deep voice of the earth

Cronos lay on the sand.

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.

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.”

“Be not proud to be Uri’s son,” said the earth. “For he first thought of shameful things.”

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.

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.

“Castrate him,” said the earth

Cronos came down. He looked at a pool of water in the deeps that swelled with the fire given by the sky. In that pool the earth strained to make a nymph, so that the water rippled and splashed. Between the pulses of that labor, the water stilled, and for the first time Cronos saw his own face.

“I am rugged in the nose,” he said, “and wild in the eyes, and angry at the fate of the unworthy things that are bound below.”

“It is so,” said the earth.

“I am their avenger,” Cronos said. “I am Cronos.”

“Then come deeper,” said the earth.

The earth called a gathering of titans. Cronos walked deep into the world. And the hollowness of Ge called out to them through all the chambers of her, “If you will obey me, we will answer this vile outrage of your father, and return the siggorts and the woglies to the land.”

The room grew chill with fear.

“But to strike at our father,” Rhea said, “is not correct.”

The attention of the earth turned to Rhea. It looked into her. It said: “Have you fallen, Rhea, into your father’s sin?”

“We may not oppose him,” said Rhea. “He would jerk the chains that bind us and we would dance away into great pain. We have no voice in the world of our father. We have no mechanism for defiance. And if we should crack the sky— oh, mother, if we should crack the sky—”

And here her voice was near to breaking.

“What then?”

“Castrate him,” said the earth, with calm brutality. “Sever from him that quality that I need to engender life. Then what will it matter if the sky has broken or Heaven knows no sway?”

Rhea, horrified, shook her head.

“It is not correct,” said Oceanos.

He was a man of water. His shape washed about. At times he would fill the cavern with water and with salt and then recede into his form. The words of him were water too.

“You fear this too?” asked Ge.

“If it is not correct,” said Oceanos, in his washing voice, “then it will not happen. How may I implement an action that will not happen? The concept is a nonpareil of futility.”

“We are all bound by Necessity,” said Coeus. “In all this world only our father the heavens is free.”

“He will cast us out as unworthy,” said Hyperion.

“There is no hope,” Oceanos confirmed.

The cave was very dark.

“Mother,” Cronos said, “do you ask us this in vain? Do you ask for the impossible and the incorrect?”

But the words fell in emptiness into the chasms of the world.

They left no ripples and the silence pulled at Cronos’ heart.

It tugged forth words from him: “I will do this deed.”

Joy rose in the earth. The earth rejoiced. The chasms of her resounded with song, such that all across the world there rose an alleluia. And the deer turned their heads to listen and the hummingbirds paused in flight and the worms that ground inevitably through the soil shivered with that song and even the sky took note and joy in it for that the world was pleased.

And to the woglies and the siggorts in their hell Ge said:

“My children!

My children, o my loves!”

But they did not hear.

“I had not thought you capable of planning evil”

The earth took Cronos away from his brothers and his sisters to a secret place.

There the rock swelled with the fire of the sky and birthed grey flint in the shape of a sickle, and the sickle’s head spanned the space between two mountains, and it whispered, “I will cut. Take me to your hand and I will cut. Take me to your hand, o my love.”

And Cronos stared up at it and said, “So vast.”

“Then be vaster,” said the earth.

So Cronos made himself into a giant and he stood at the boundary of the whole world and the sea and he looked down and he saw that it was good. The surf crashed against his feet and the sky brushed against his shoulders and the great mountain-spanning sickle fit neatly in his hand.

And the sky felt a tickle of foreboding.

“What do you there?” asked the voice. “For I had not thought you capable of planning evil, o my son.”

But Cronos lifted his right foot from the land and stood between the ocean and the sky, his weight outside the boundaries of the world, and he said, “I am not doing anything.”

There are no deeds beyond the boundaries of the world; so this was so.

And Cronos made himself a space between the worlds and crafted himself a guard of horn to be the sickle’s hilt and waited there for the sky to descend upon the earth.

That night the sky sank low upon the world and murmured words of love and fires sparked everywhere across the grass.

And the sickle whispered to Cronos the secret of its magic and Cronos understood.

He stepped into the world and sound.

That even the least of these may know joy: for even the woglies and the siggorts in their Hell, and for all the rest of a bad lot besides: for even the great evils, and the little horrors, and the twisted failed dreamers who walk among us now: he stepped into the world.

In Uri’s Kingdom, nothing happened that was not appropriate. That was its law.

Cronos said, “To serve a corrupt regime is not correct.“

And he ripped the sky with the sickle; and the genitals of his father fell into the sea.

And from this act, and in due season, rose the anakim,
the erinyes,
the incandoi,
and the melomids.

“Thistles and thorns and dust shall be your lot”

Cronos stood naked beneath the stars.

There is so much fire, he thought. So much power.

The sky looked down.

“I am rendered impotent,” said the voice of his father. “Now there shall be nothing brought forth in all this world that does not know suffering, nor grow from the accursed ground; thistles and thorns and dust shall be your lot for all the generations of the world.”

It was not judging him.

Its words were flat and simple.

It was as if Uri were completing a syllogism; nothing more.

“You will rule this world,” said the sky. “But your son will take it from you.”

It was not even a curse.

“He will punish you for this deed, and you will bear the burden of that punishment until the end of time.”

Cronos licked his lips.

Defiantly, he said, “Is that the price, then, that even the least of us should know joy?”

The stars laughed at him.

It was the most withering of all experiences, Cronos apprehended, to have the entirety of Heaven laughing at one’s shame.

“You accuse me of impropriety”

“You accuse me of impropriety,” said the sky.

“They deserved better,” said Cronos. “The woglies; the siggorts; Ophion; they deserved better. To punish them so cruelly: that is the nature of your crime.”

“Beyond the boundaries of the world,” said Uri, who was the sky, “there is no ‘deserving’. Who may say whether the character of a man outside the world is good or bad? Who may say what should befall them for the deeds that they have done? There may be beauty there. There may be wonder, and hearts to give you joy, and creatures in whom I could find such virtues as your own. I do not know. I know only that there are horrors there beyond imagining, and insidious treason, and things that will corrupt this world; and you have given to them rein.”

“And they will know joy?”

“No,” the sky said, flatly.

“No?”

“A world with only the good may bring only the good to all within it. A world that is only perfection may bring perfection to all within it. But to permit the ungainly and the imperfect into paradise does not lift them up. It drags us down.”

“Be welcome, o my love”

Cronos went down to Tartarus and cast open the gates.

He said, “Come out, ye that may.”

Past him in a stream flowed the damned and terrible progeny of the couplings of Uri and the world. Some skulked low and chittered. Some shivered with cold slime. Some screamed foul prophecies as they flew above his head. Lastly there slunk forth the worst of them, a cutty angel, saying, “There is hope.”

They went out into the world and the world took the weight of them.

But the siggorts didn’t come out; nor the woglies.

So he went in after them.

He walked down through the darkness into the siggorts’ home.

He found Bidge there. Bidge was wandering in darkness. The knives of Bidge cut Cronos. They maimed his hand. They lay his face open to the bone. They cut his neck. They caused dark blood to trickle down his leg.

“Come free,” Cronos said.

The key to the gates of Tartarus was small: too small, almost, for the eye to see. But he held it out to the siggort in his hand.

Something stirred in Bidge’s mind.

He awakened to the knowledge of another creature in his place of imprisonment.

He formed a face. A thing like a face. It hovered in the center of him. Around it spun the blades and spheres and cutting wires of the siggort’s shape.

“‘Come free?’”

And Cronos said, “Be welcome, o my love, into the world.”

And Bidge laughed a horrible, broken laugh. And he laughed and he laughed on.

Cronos stared at him.

“And how did you free us, then?” Bidge asked.

“I have aspired to the throne of the world,” said Cronos. “Now I rule; and I will not set my will against you if you choose your freedom.”

These words fell strangely flat.

Siggorts gathered behind Cronos’ back. He felt a terrible chill of threat. The knives of them cut away his leg, his arm, his dorsal tendril, and his glunin. He tried to remember how to shape them back.

“That would not do,” said Bidge.

Cronos didn’t understand. You could tell. It was in his face.

So Bidge flowed forward until he was very close, two fingers’ close, to Cronos, and he gaped his mouth quite wide. And he did not bite.

And after a moment, Cronos understood.

He said, “Those are not teeth.”

“Where you are warm,” said Bidge, “we are cold. Where you are light, we are shadow. Our teeth are not teeth. Our faces are not faces. We are a dhamma inexpressible in your world. Should I not cut you then, o my love?”

Cronos’ heart beat, doki-doki.

It burned in him like a fire. And Bidge could see it, right through his chest. He wanted it. So the shears cut closer. Cronos’ nipple fell off. His breast and his ribs caved in. He was very bloody. And the question hung there: “Should I cut you, o my love?”

Cronos whispered, “No.”

Slowly, reluctantly, the siggorts withdrew.

“I shall trust you, then,” said Bidge, with consummate calm and the tightest control. “I shall trust you,” he said, and he turned away.

And they left Cronos there, alone, trying to justify himself to himself.

“I do not want to keep you here, imprisoned,” said Cronos.

“It’s not my fault!”

But the words rang hollowly there in Tartarus, because he could have saved them.

He could have saved them.

He could have saved them, o my love, if he had thrown everyone else away.

In such a fashion, again and again

It is incumbent on a man, if he will lapse the leash on monsters, to bear the weight of their actions.

Cronos had unleashed great horrors on the world.

The world did not suffer from them.

Rather, from his place on the throne of the world, the titan held that suffering at bay. He made a plate of stone and set it behind him and upon it he bore the weight of imperfection. Thus when swarmed the namecatcher wasps, they did not cause harm. Thus the staggering crooked heartless men did not bleed out their life into the hollows of their chests. The titan reconciled in himself their dharmas, saying: “Swarm here, wasps, where their names are a burden to them.” Or “Stuff your chests with herbs, and palpate them with palpation bugs, and live and farm thereafter quietly and in peace.” He set the demons against the narcissists. He sent the angels to the bleak.

9512 pesserids before time began, a nymph wandering the roads encountered an ogre.

“Raar,” cried the ogre. “Raar! I am a hideous man-eating ogre.”

“Oh, thank Heaven!” the nymph replied.

“Eh?”

“There is a hideous man,” said the nymph. “There is a hideous man behind me, and I would much rather he were eaten.”

The ogre looked.

In fact there was: a telchine wizard practicing as a highwayman, whose intentions were in no way serene.

The ogre looked back and forth. He reached his decision.

“The telchine has more meat,” he said. “So I’ll eat him!”

“I don’t mind being eaten,” the telchine conceded. “If you’ll spit up my bones afterwards into your pile of gold, that I may be rich for ever.”

In such a fashion, again and again throughout the world, were all conflicts neatly and equitably solved. In such a fashion did the chains of Necessity make all people dance to a perfectly harmonious tune. The weight of effort for pulling all those shifting chains fell to the only creature who was not bound to them: Cronos, titan, lord of all the world.

“It is heavy,” he admitted to Rhea.

It fell to Cronos to reconcile the horrors and the lambs; the killers and the saints; the humans and the gods. He mediated between the perfect and the real.

“It is so very heavy,” Cronos said.

Rhea rubbed his shoulders, but it did not help. She tried to carry her share of it, but she could not: because the chains bound her, she participated in the system of them, and the efforts that she contributed solved out in the equations of it all.

“What would happen,” asked Cronos, “if I let this plate to fall?”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“In all the world,” said Cronos, “only I may stand aside, and shrug aside this weight, and let things happen as they will. And it is heavy. So I wonder: what would happen if I let this plate to fall, and the storm run riot across the world?”

“If you let it fall?”

“Yes.”

And Rhea answered: “Then we should live in the Elysian Fields, where there is no sorrow, and everything be well forever after for us all.”

“The Kingdom I have builded gives way to Tyranny.”

Rhea thought.

“Save for Cronos, and the woglies, and the siggorts, I suppose.”

Cronos lay with Rhea that night and in the course of seasons she bore him a daughter.

And most fathers would have been happy, because, you know, perfect adorable daughter, but Cronos wasn’t one of that kind.

“I will make this world into a torture chamber,” Cronos said.

“Gii-whii!” answered Hestia, as he held her in his arms.

She wriggled her toes and hiccupped and guarded with her power the hearths and houses of the world.

“Listen,” Cronos said.

He looked up at the stars.

“This world is bound to forms,” he said. “To concepts. To the ideal. But I have made the work of my life the severing of that bond.”

Hestia’s face grew very still and intent.

“I had forgotten it,” he said. “But still, it is my work. And there is only one way that it may be done: I must make the forms abhorrent to themselves. I must make the edifice of right and wrong and tradition and form and even structured thought a crime.”

The world revolved around him, as it does, when one sits upon the throne of all the world.

Rhea’s face grew very pale.

“Cronos—” she said.

The teeth of Cronos set on his daughter’s arm. He bit it off. He chewed. He swallowed.

Hestia wailed, thinly. Her blood fell upon the earth.

“Shh,” Cronos said.

He put his finger to her lips. He looked at Rhea.

“The Kingdom I have builded gives way to Tyranny,” Cronos said, “and there is no answer to it within the structures of the world.”

“She is also a princess.”

In the Golden Age that preceded the Titanomachy nothing happened that was not correct.

Such was the imprint of this time upon our world that even the richest, even the wisest, and even the greatest of us still look back with wistful sorrow and remember it. The world was in harmony. Morality dominated in every portion. And no man or woman could rightly say that the chains of Necessity upon them were a burden. The behaviors that those chains compelled were virtuous, honorable, and good; save from one.

In all the world only the titan Cronos was free.

He ruled nobly and justly, one must assume, except for that incident with Hestia, and one day Rhea approached him with Demeter in her arms.

She was tentative and hesitant.

“Lo,” said Rhea. “The Great Goddess.”

Cronos judged Demeter.

“She, like Hestia, is food,” Cronos said.

“Not every goddess is food,” Rhea said. “Demeter is a marvel of the world.”

“Is she?”

“She is the goddess of the harvest,” said Rhea. “Of the bounty of the earth. Of grain and green and growing things—”

Cronos had a wry look.

Rhea cleared her throat. “Observe her nose,” Rhea said.

“She has a nose,” allowed Cronos. He lifted Demeter from Rhea’s arms with great gentleness. He looked at her. “And she is the harvest. But she is also a princess.”

The Great Goddess wriggled, and offered, “Goo?”

“To put it another way,” Cronos said, “‘an asset to my throne.’”

He bit off Demeter’s nose. He swallowed it. Then he ate her head to stop her wailing. He bit the rest of her in half. He swallowed her. His stomach grew bloated on this flesh.

He ate Hera too. And Hades. And Poseidon. He ate them all when their presentation came.

Rhea’s life became a horror to her.

Once she had loved him. She no longer recognized in him the person that she’d loved. Once she had lain with him gladly, and found in the straining of their sex an emptiness to cultivate with child. Now she resented their union. She lay with him only because she was his wife. She resented his seed inside her womb.

The chains of Necessity bound her.

She could not do otherwise than serve him. She could rage against him. She could question him. She could hurt him in small, petty ways. But this was the Golden Age, the Age we wistfully speak of, when things were better, and she could not defy him.

To defy him would not have been correct.

In all the world only one creature was free, and it was not she.

“A new tonality for words of love”

And in the end she cracked.

“I do all the work to bring forth our children,” she said, staring into the mirror of the world, “and he keeps eating them.”

The Kouretes who served her shouted. They rattled their swords and armor. They began to dance.

“It is not right—“

She was pregnant. Her belly was full. She did not want Cronos to eat this child. So she took the sickle of flint. She climbed a web that hung between the places of the world. There, not in the sky, not on the land, and not in the sea, she cut her belly open and spilled Zeus out onto the web.

“Yey-aa!” cried the Kouretes. They shook their swords. They made a thunder upon the world and drowned the cries of infant Zeus.

With fear and courage Rhea looked down onto the face of her newest son.

Infant dismay gathered like clouds on the clearness of his face. He looked woeful. He had not asked to leave the womb. He had not wished Rhea to birth him onto a web. He did not want Rhea to leave him there, with the roar of the Kouretes’ dancing and morning dew to be his milk. He was cold and bloody and he did not want to be alone.

But only one creature in all the world was free, and it was not yet Zeus.

Rhea stitched her stomach back together with the substance of the web. As he watched her work the needle understanding came slowly into Zeus’ mind.

He spoke words that no one had said in many thousands of years.

“The Lord am I of all within this world,” said Zeus.

And then he laughed, and then he laughed, seeing his perfect little fingers for the first time in all the history of the world.

Rhea bundled a stone in swaddling and returned to the world. Her face was impassive. She handed Cronos the stone and said, “Look, o my love, delicious pink and purple Zeus.”

Cronos did not look.

He swallowed down the stone and cut up her placenta and he ate it too.

“You have invented a new tonality,” he said. “For words of love.”

“I am not happy,” Rhea said.

And Cronos smiled over the blood of the placenta on his mouth and said, “Then I am doing well.”

“We bring forth children in sorrow”

Cronos slouched on the throne of the world.

He contemplated his sickle.

Zeus entered.

“Son,” said Cronos. O my love.

“Dad.”

It was an awkward moment.

I thought I’d eaten you, but maybe it was a rock.

“You’ve been eating everybody,” said Zeus. “Poseidon and Hera and stuff.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I did not ask to rule a Golden Age,” Cronos said. “Rather I wished to dominate a freakish carnival of horrors. A masque of the imperfect. A world of people with the bones of their pain jutting out so that you can hardly talk to them without saying, ‘O my love, why are you broken?’”

Zeus said, “I understand.”

Cronos smiled.

“I am going to cut your stomach open now,” said Zeus, “and spill out my brothers and my sisters, and a rock.”

“And if I forbid it?”

“In this world,” said Zeus, “we bring forth children in sorrow.”

Cronos had trouble finding an answer to that one.

“It’s the rule,” Zeus explained.

“Who are you, o my son?” Cronos asked.

“I’m the Lord of Misrule,” said Zeus. “I’m the answer to your prayers. I’m the one who’ll bring this whole world down around your ears.”

Cronos’ heart fluttered in his chest.

“Show me,” he said, and his voice was desperate with hope.

Your authority has no foundation,” said Zeus, “for you have done a wicked thing.

It was electric. It cut through the air. But it didn’t impress Cronos.

“More,” Cronos said.

The dog that carries a serpent on his back is vile; the tiger that carries a dog, we call a saint.

Cronos mulled that one over for a while.

Then he shook his head.

He stood.

The sky gathered behind his shoulders and the stars burned bright with Uri’s fires and the world grew heavy as a woman carrying her child and he said, “You are not equal to this task.”

Dread was the nimbus of Cronos at that moment. The power of him held Zeus still. Cronos was Ge’s son in that moment, strong as the earth, unsurpassable, indestructible, horned and terrible, and free—as only one creature in all the world could be—to act accordant to his desires.

It obliterated the thoughts of Zeus. It held him still.

But Zeus had trained for this.

He had spent years in empty meditation and practice and taught his flesh to act when his mind could not.

The world swam with the blinding rapture of Cronos and it drove away the thoughts of Zeus and the will of Zeus and the fire of him flickered and went dim beneath the wind of all that power, and the flesh of Zeus stepped forward and took the sickle in his hand and cut his father’s stomach open to bring his brothers and sisters into the world.

It seemed impossible to Zeus that it did not hurt Zeus; that the opening of the wound in his father’s stomach brought Zeus no pain, burnt none of Zeus’ nerves; that he could see and hear and smell the wound but he could not feel it.

It seemed a thing that should wound, instead, the all of world and sound.

Out fell the stone; and Hades and Poisedon; and Hera and Demeter and Hestia; and great snaky loops of titantestine too; and Cronos looked down at his stomach and Zeus could hardly see his face through the blindingness of the reality of that moment when he cut his father open at the throne of all the world.

Cronos staggered. The storm shifted at his back. It loomed upon the world and in that moment it seemed very possible that the world would end and everything be well forever after for us all—

Somehow, Cronos held it back.

Somehow, Cronos balanced himself and held aloft the burden of all pains while his innards snaked themselves back in.

The fingernails on his hand were cracked and dirty. His hair was wild. He reached for his son with hands soaked in everybody’s blood.

Cloud-shouldered Zeus, the son of Cronos, born in the fullness of Tyranny to bring justice to the world, seized five babies and a stone and fled.

The world rang with the iiyegh!

This is not the history of the Titanomachy. This is the history of Cronos. And so we will not speak of how the Lord of Misrule won the world, or what Zeus did then to save the gods from his father’s fate. We will not speak of the origin of the thunderbolts or how the woglies aided Zeus in the twilight of that age. We will not speak of how the siggorts were freed, or how and why Zeus put them back again.

We will not even speak of Never, or how it came to pass that the terrible power of Cronos could be broken.

We will only speak of the end of it, when Cronos stood alone and bereft of all his allies and his strength, and Zeus made judgment on his father.

“It has come to my attention,” said the lord of all the gods, “that you carry on your back the price of imperfection. That if you should let it lay, then things shall end forever and forever and we shall all know our happy ending and be done.”

“Will you be taking up this burden, then, yourself, milord?”

Zeus made a horrible face. Really, it was impressive. The world rang with the iiyegh! of it.

“It is my judgment, rather,” said the lord of all the gods, “that you shall wear it forever.”

And Cronos laughed.

It was a horrible laugh. It was a funny laugh. It was the kind of laugh that a man laughs after his son cuts him open, throws a thunderbolt at him, casts him off the throne of the world, and now wants to sentence him to carry an impossibly heavy weight forever and ever.

“I can’t possibly do that,” Cronos said.

“Why not?”

“If I were strong enough to carry it forever,” said Cronos, “then I would not feel the pain of it now.”

“Heh,” said Zeus.

And he sank Cronos’ body into the substance of the world and he poured molten brass and iron over his father’s legs and arms and chest to bind him to the crust with chains that would never break. He marked the space around his father with the symbols of the seasons and lay him down below the world to keep his intemperate and loving mother far at bay. He set his judgment upon the man who had wielded first the sickle of grey flint and he called this torture Time.

“Why do you choose this destiny?”

And Cronos tried.

He tried very hard for many years while his father laughed and his son reigned over the world.

One day when it seemed to Cronos that his strength would finally give out, Demeter came down to join Cronos in the darkness. She made a sacred ritual of shushing, going, shh! and hush! though Zeus, of course, could choose to know.

She studied him for a while. Then, at her bidding, the roots of the plants came down through all the darkness and wove into the crust to lighten Cronos’ burden.

Later Poseidon chose to hold back the weight of the storm with all the pressure of the seas.

Hades, too, and Hestia, and Hera, and even Ophion. Ophion came to coil upon his chest and softly drip its venom in his eye, and Cronos smiled, and Cronos smiled, and he cried out through his cracked dry lips his joy: o my love.

One day as Cronos struggled Zeus spoke to him in dreams. Zeus said, “Why do you choose this destiny, o father?”

And Cronos said: “Dharma moves.”

“Hee,” laughed Zeus, the lord of all the gods.

And Ophion coiled around Cronos in the darkness and the snake hissed, ssaaa and it seemed to the titan that it had not been so very long, after all, the time that they had been apart.

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!

Ink Unwrappable (XII/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

In 1926, André Masson created a box without entrances or exits. One could only access its roomy interior through unconscious action. It contained a road, he thought, and a moon, and quite possibly a fox; and human anatomy would not have been out of place. Masson’s landlord visited as he slept. Finding the box profoundly disturbing, the landlord cast it into the elevator shaft, where it fell and continued to fall until it at last reached the weary kingdoms beneath the world. Clinging precariously to a ledge therein, it heard the gospel of King Snorn and became a person. Rising, it said, “It is dangerous even for an artist to make a box without entrances or exits: how easy it could be for the soul to become trapped inside, and how impossible to verify that such a thing has never happened!”

Over the years and through a process of unconscious action the box extracted arms and legs and a head and a chest and other appurtenances of daily life from its roomy interior, finally taking its place in the kingdom of King Snorn as a full citizen and training as a medical orderly.

That’s how it came to pass that he’s standing there, holding the girl down against the altar of the doctor of the deeps.

That’s what orderlies do, nowadays, in Sarous’ kingdom.

They hold people down.

The theory’s like this. People are degenerate. Most people, anyway. But a good doctor—someone with a solid grasp of medicine—can root that degeneracy out. Surgically, maybe, or with pills, or with a sound regimen of diet and exercise. Certainly not with homeopathic medicine, since everyone is forever exposing themselves to heavily diluted substances of corruption and never gaining much resistance thereby; but possibly, the orderly thinks, and here he’s a bit disloyal, possibly with a rigorous program of moxibustion and acupuncture.

There isn’t any need, in an enlightened modern society, for somebody to be corrupt.

Nor is there an excuse.

It’s a public health issue, after all.

If your morals decay, treatment is mandatory. But it isn’t always easy. Some people are still puzzles even to medical science. Melissa—the good doctor’s wife—he’d never managed to cure her, for instance, and that was as tragic as it gets. This girl, she’s another example. Stepladder syndrome complicated by acute hyperrachia— diaphoretic hyperrachia, to judge by her sweating—

Not that much you can do about that.

And there’s always one or two incurables like that around. People like a show, so they hunt them down. Sometimes it’s the hunted who proves degenerate and sometimes it’s the hunter, but either way, people like a show.

The doctor always has a supply of people who are degenerate but not so easily fixed. People so corrupt that you just can’t reform them. All you can do is the time-honored recourse of medicine when you can’t do anything else—

Bleed ’em.

Bleed ’em, and hope it helps, and if it doesn’t, well, it’s not like they were a very good citizen in the first place.

Previous histories of the imago:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,

10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19.

This particular girl—her name is Ink Catherly. Everybody calls her the imago, she’d said. Short for the imaginary agonies of form, she’d said, and maybe that was the truth.

She’s an interesting case.

Not every orderly cares about interesting cases, but the leftmost orderly—the box without entrances and exits—does. He cares, because he’s taking classes at night in hopes of becoming a doctor.

And she’s an interesting case.

This girl burps up woglies, for instance. The orderly’s not sure what they are. They’re round, though, and they hiss, and the entire ziggurat’s felt strangely unstable ever since one hit.

That wogly bit the doctor right in his hand, it looks like. What makes that interesting is that it’s a plausible vector of contagion and a sign of stepladder syndrome in one. People with stepladder-style moral degeneracy get wounded hands. The congruence of physiological and dharmic elements fascinates the box.

The doctor, naturally, is just a little bit concerned.

He can’t disprove that he’s sick—not with that hand—

So the matter concerns him.

“If I’m corrupt—” he says.

He’s licking his lips. He’s hesitating. He’s not cutting, yet, and maybe he won’t. The orderly loosens his grip on the girl, just a little bit, in case it turns out that he’s going to let her go.

“If I’m sick, and I bleed you,” the doctor says. “Then that’s a corrupt action. And not bleeding you is what a good, wise, sound man would do. But if I don’t bleed you, then that’s the corruption—that it’s swayed me away from my position of righteousness. A good, wise, sound man would bleed you, then, and only a corrupt man would celebrate your corruption by letting you go.”

He’s sweating.

“There’s no way you can win,” the girl concedes. “And whatever you do, medical science will blame you for it.”

Dr. Sarous’ hands are trembling.

It’s like he’s in a box, the orderly thinks. It’s like he built a box without any entrances or exits, and now he’s regretting that he’s built it.

Reason elbows him in the stomach of his mind.

Not everything is about boxes without entrances and exits, reason observes.

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

“I’m going now,” decides Ink Catherly.

“Eh?” the orderly says.

Ink winces preemptively and then slams her forehead down against the altar. It makes a horrible sound.

“Hey!” says the orderly. People aren’t allowed to kill themselves before being bled to death. “Hey!”

He holds her neck down.

But the whole ziggurat is shaking. That shouldn’t happen, the orderly is pretty sure. Giant stone ziggurats are practically bursting with structural integrity. But it doesn’t seem to have that now.

THOOM.

The altar collapses. The ziggurat collapses.

Everything is roar and noise.

The orderly looks up as they fall. He can see the girl, and the doctor, and the rightmost orderly, and somehow things have turned around and now a block of stone is coming down on them all.

It is an unconscious action. It does not originate in his mind; there is no intention and there is no plan.

The orderly reaches into the box of his heart. He pulls out a road. He leans it up between the space of falling things, where the other three may stagger down it into freedom.

Then the ziggurat staves him in.

  • That’s it for Chapter Four of the Island of the Centipede, but it’s not the end of this particular series! Tune in TOMORROW for the next exciting history of Ink Catherly:
    INK INCOMPARABLE.

Ink and Anarchy (X/XVI)

[Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

“You have the signs of moral degeneracy,” says the doctor of the deeps. “The wounded hand; the lightly wounded throat; you carry a small parcel; your hair is dark. You have avowed the intention to kill God. Let us call it stepladder syndrome.

This term is patterned after the pattern of the marks.

“You deny it,” says the doctor. “Thus, we add to your diagnosis acute hyperrachia.

He stands, face uplifted.

He is bathed in the cold blue light of phosphorescent worms.

The pathological perception that one is well. The manifestation through symptoms and their alleviation of a false state of wellness. If a patient presents this disorder, they are confused. They affect wholesome, healthy innocence through the psychosomatic imprint of their syndrome. This is an innocence that they do not possess. Orient them: they will deceive you. Restrain them: they will fight you. Medicate them: they will conspire, much as those in the grip of senility or paranoia, to reject the medications. Yet the hyperrachic immoral are not well.”

The girl stands before him. She is fifteen years old and her eyes have the look of a wild creature’s.

“Do you understand,” the doctor asks her, “why I say you are not well?”

“‘Cause I get wogly burps,” says the girl.

He looks at her.

His expression suggests the word: Eh?

So the girl works her diaphragm for a moment. Then she burps. It’s one of those deliberate burps that you only do when you’re alone or on a doctor’s ziggurat or you want to be rude. She chews for a minute, then she spits out a wogly.

“Like that.”

He doesn’t know whether to write this up for the journals or to bleed her for defiance. He’s totally nonplussed. That’s how unexpected a wogly burp can be!

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Cronos: “Save for Cronos, and the woglies, and the siggorts, I suppose.”

That’s . . . it cuts in there.

Something for everyone, said Rhea, something, something, something, save for Cronos, and the woglies, and the siggorts, she supposed.

He lay with her that night, Cronos with Rhea, and in the course of seasons she bore him a daughter.

This was earlier than the last history. Maybe about 12 pesserids before the end of the Second Kingdom. She lay with him and she bore him a daughter. And most fathers would have been happy, because, you know, perfect adorable daughter, but Cronos wasn’t one of that kind.

“I will make this world into a torture chamber,” Cronos said.

“Gii-whii!” answered Hestia, as he held her in his arms.

She wriggled her toes and hiccupped and guarded with her power the hearths and houses of the world.

“Listen,” Cronos said.

He looked up at the stars.

“This world is bound to forms,” he said. “To concepts. To the ideal. But I have made the work of my life the severing of that bond.”

Hestia’s face grew very still and intent.

“I had forgotten it,” he said. “But still, it is my work. And there is only one way that it may be done: I must make the forms abhorrent to themselves. I must make the edifice of right and wrong and tradition and form and even structured thought a crime.”

The world revolved around him, as it does, when one sits upon the throne of all the world.

Rhea’s face grew very pale.

“Cronos—” she said.

The teeth of Cronos set on his daughter’s arm. He bit it off. He chewed. He swallowed.

Hestia wailed, thinly. Her blood fell upon the earth.

“Shh,” Cronos said.

He put his finger to her lips. He looked at Rhea.

“The Kingdom I have builded gives way to Tyranny,” Cronos said, “and there is no answer to it within the structures of the world.”

The Kingdom I have builded gives way to Tyranny.

He opened his hand, and there was a wogly in it, and I took it. This is one of the few interactions that we are allowed between history and the now: the taking of woglies. I took the wogly from him, because Dr. Sarous was going to kill me if I did not, and I chewed on it and I sucked away a bit of blood, and then I burped and spit it out.

Cronos didn’t even seem surprised.

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, but everybody calls her the imago. It’s the name of her website, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

She’s standing there in a white straightjacket and the holes along its arms gape in the darkness like little mouths. There’s two orderlies holding her still. They stand behind her, and to either side, gripping the blunted ends of the straightjacket’s arms.

In front of her there’s an altar with a blackened trench for blood.

On the other side of it there is Sarous, the doctor of the deeps.

The wind is rushing past them. They are high above the cavern ground. They are on a ziggurat built of great stone slabs. Beneath them mills the crowd.

“What the Hell?” says Sarous.

“They’re all through my diagnostic criteria,” Ink lies sadly. “They’re rendering dubious and undefined the very concept of my health.”

She coughs in a fashion that seems sickly but under closer scrutiny reveals itself to be a profound flaw in medical science.

“Undefined,” says Sarous. His voice is flat.

“In this world,” says Ink, “there are only three healthy things. To recognize that one is imperfect, and to seek perfection. To recognize that hope is not lost, and to embrace it. And finally to normalize one’s condition, blinding oneself to all the ways in which one is already perfect or in which there is no hope. But thanks to these woglies I can’t tell if I recognize my own imperfection or not, much less the ways in which I’m already perfect. It’s just too difficult!”

She kicks the wogly.

It hisses.

Dr. Sarous has a horrified look.

“It’s terrible,” lies Ink. “The closer you are to finding out how healthy I am, the more your results vary. They hooked me up to the ultimate diagnostic catheter and it exploded! The diagnostic focus of a doctor’s mind intrudes on me—snap! It hooks straight into madness. It’s why nobody will treat me any more, even if I make my sad pathetic ‘I have wogly burps’ face.”

Ink demonstrates.

The wogly, irritably, begins to eat the integrity of Dr. Sarous’ ziggurat.

The clouds of Dr. Sarous’ nonplussedness coalesce into anger and move towards icy confidence. Ink opens her mouth to say something and interrupt the process but a wave of dizziness shakes her mind. Perhaps it’s the tightness of the straightjacket or an infection in her wounded hand.

By the time her world clears it is too late.

“Argumentative hyperrachia,” dismisses Dr. Sarous. He picks up the wogly. He hides it in his palm. “It is not sound.”

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

“I’m just being helpful,” says Ink.

“You might think so,” Dr. Sarous says. He jerks his head. It is a signal. The orderlies push Ink forward to lay across the altar. “But you’re not.”

“I could have hurt you,” Ink says. “But I didn’t want to.”

Dr. Sarous palpates her back.

“I think the organ of your failings is here,” he says.

“That’s the kidney, sir,” an orderly says.

“Slightly to the left.”

“Ah.”

“I still don’t want to,” Ink says.

“That’s the hyperrachia talking, my dear.”

“I could have said, ‘You have Melissa’s disease.'”

Dr. Sarous goes still.

“Because it’s contagious,” Ink says. “She said.”

Dr. Sarous does not move. He stares at the imago’s back.

“Sir?” the orderly says.

“It’s probably in the same general category as stepladder syndrome,” Ink says.

“How do you know about her?” Dr. Sarous asks.

“You inherited her backpack, probably,” Ink says. “So you’ve got a small parcel. And your hair is dark.”

Dr. Sarous holds up his palm.

“But my hand is fine,” he says.

“Is it?”

There’s no wogly in his palm. Not any more. There’s a red mark bitten into it where the sign of moral degeneracy would go.

  • Tune in TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY, or maybe THURSDAY for the next exciting installment:
    INK ASCENDING
  • Special bonus! Updated through Chapter 2, but not yet converted to WordPress: the timeline.
  • And, since I’ll forget myself if I don’t tell you: pesserid (pesз:rid) – pre-temporal unit measuring the escalating {pitch, intensity, fervor} of a situation; related to basirat and pessos.

Ink Invaluable (IV/XVI)

In the belly of the world there is a great wintry battlefield where white slate snowflakes drift down from a ceiling measurelessly high and accumulate slowly on the bodies of the dead. They are sprawled there, creatures warped by any surface measure, people with the features of bugs and fish and writhing squirming weasel-things. Some wield weapons. Others claws. They are dead.

Around and among them works Riffle and his crew.

“There,” he says.

Where he points his crew converges. They prop up planks of wood against one another. They nail them together. They build scaffolds. They connect the scaffolds together in great rickety structures. They grow ungainly wooden structures, awkward and without pattern, towards the ceiling rock.

The cavern is full of the sounds of hammering, climbing, and crashing.

It is full of the dust of fallen wood.

The girl coughs.

All eyes turn on her. It is a look of accusation.

You are coughing, suggest the eyes of Riffle’s crew. This is distracting us from our vital and important work. Why, even the time we take to formulate this thought, to contemplate the knobs and pits and irregularities of our own introspection, is time we cannot afford.

“Don’t give them an excuse,” says Riffle.

The girl is fifteen years old, more or less, with hair as black as ink. She’s wearing a pink backpack that’s too small for her. She’s taller than Riffle. He doesn’t make it much past her elbow. She can tell, because suddenly he’s standing next to her, suddenly he’s guiding her away from the crew.

“They’ll slack if you give them the slightest excuse,” Riffle says. “So you have to keep them in fear of their lives.”

Then he stabs at her.

With a sword he’s picked up from the ground!

He stabs her right at the throat!

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. Short for Ananke, she’ll tell you — Necessity — although we already know that’s not the truth.

There are many legends about her.

People will tell you that she climbed a tower right to Hell, but didn’t find it at the top; or that she dove deep beneath the world to look for Heaven; or that she got caught amidst the soldier’s tents in a duly sanctioned war.

“We cut the freedom from the rock,” said Private Jameson.

That’s from that last legend that we mentioned, the one about the war.

“We cut the freedom from the rock,” Private Jameson said.

Outside the tent blew the wind, cutting and dark and terrible. It kicked up sand and small rocks. The great tall slouching jellyfish of the land moved blindly in that wind, walking amidst and beyond the soldiers’ tents.

Sometimes one of their tendrils brushed against the open flap and Jameson would shudder.

“Here,” he said.

He held a bit of freedom up. It was slick and soapy in his hands. It was translucent and milky and had sparks in it.

“We cut it from the veins in the rock and then we ship it home.”

“Toss it here?” said Ink.

She was shackled to a post in the back of the tent. Her hair blew about, then settled, then blew about again.

“Very funny, ma’am,” Jameson said.

Ink looked down.

“I don’t suppose you’d care to say why you’re in the war zone, ma’am?”

“I was exploring,” she said.

He looked blankly at her.

“I was looking for Hell,” she said.

“Ah,” said Private Jameson. He tapped his nose. “See, that thing, you see, that saying about war? It’s a metaphor.

Ink made a face at him.

“It seems rude,” she said, after a while. “Coming into another country and mining their freedom.”

“I felt sorry for them,” Private Jameson said.

“Sorry?”

“There’s this thing,” he said. “This happiness, this sweetness, this certainty at the heart of totalitarianism. We have it back home. It’s like a blanket wrapped around your heart and a cup of cocoa in your hands. And they were here, out in the Empty Lands, with the jellyfish and the sand. And I said, ‘They must be so cold, so scared, so helpless, there.'”

“With the freedom?”

“Nobody’s free in this world but Jesus and Jehovah, ma’am. They were chained, they were bound, they were helpless like the rest of us, but they had all this freedom just laying around. Just enough to feel it, if you see my meaning. Just enough to be cold.”

The tent shuddered. One of the jellyfish had blundered into it, with its great fat body and its gleaming skin. The top of it bowed in under the weight and there was a tearing sound.

“Oh,” said Ink.

Private Jameson looked up.

It was from the other side. That was why he didn’t have warning or time to stop it: it came from the other side, the tendril that spiked through the canvas of the tent and skewered him. He was looking one way, startled by the looming of the jelly, and the tendril came in from the other and it tore into his skin.

The poison of the jellyfish cut upwards along his spine. He spasmed. The freedom flew from his hand.

Ink stared.

It was very quick, the whiteness and blueness of Private Jameson’s death. It spread across his face. He fell.

“Hey!” shouted Ink.

The tent had pulled up from one of its pegs. The wind was blowing.

“Hey! Captured girl who was wandering around the war zone here! My security’s dead!”

In the distance she heard the echoes of guns and great picks. She could hear running feet. They were not coming for her. Their direction was north.

The tendril of the jellyfish was caught in the tent. It flailed near her.

Her foot stretched out.

The tendril cut across the leg of her pants and she froze; but it did not cut in and she did not die.

Her foot stretched out. Too far — too far —

Just as the muscle in the bottom of her foot cramped she touched her toe against the freedom. She got the tiniest of grips.

The post that held her slipped free.

She fell flat. She pulled at the shackles with her teeth. They gave.

Ink pulled the freedom closer with her foot. She gripped it in her hand.

“South,” she said.

She kicked to her feet. She ran south. The great blind jellies drifted. Behind her, men fought men.

There was more freedom there — just laying on the road. So she picked it up.

She took up more and more of it as she ran until even the gravity well of the world could not hold her; until she could kick up and go flying up from the ground; until the heaviness and slowness of her muscles could not hold her back and she flowed like a river up into the sky.

Se’irite!” cried a voice.

Forbidden thing. Beast. Anathema. Such were the implications of his tone.

Se’irite!” that person said, and she looked over, and she saw a man with horror writ upon his face. He raised a ramshackle cardboard-tube gun with spam cans tied on either side. He fired. Everything around her went white with the explosion of that gun.

The shadow of death rose behind her as she ran into the night.

The gun had only clipped her. Before it fired it again she rose into the sky and she was gone.

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Cronos: The end of human sacrifice was the beginning of time.

I wanted the details of the Titanomachy. I went looking for them. But that’s what I got. Not the origins of the thunderbolt. Not how Zeus freed the siggorts and the woglies, then put them back again. Not how the lord of the gods won the world, or how he saved his family from his father’s fate. Just that: the end of human sacrifice was the beginning of time.

It’s stupid, though, because human sacrifice never ended. We just stopped using the perfect, the beautiful, the valuable, and the precious, and started sacrificing the people we don’t care about instead. We feed them to our gods until their mouths are red with them.

I’m not sure why it doesn’t count.

Perhaps it is the karma of a worm that moves her arm. Perhaps it is the nature of the imago.

Ink’s hand comes up.

She catches the sword before it kills her.

A trickle of blood runs down her neck, and more from her hand, and she asks him, “What the Hell?”

“Fixed-rate liability insurance,” says Riffle, and he twists the blade.

  • Will tort reform destroy Ink Catherly at last? Will Riffle make his quota on scaffold-inches for the day? And what’s that horrific rumbling in Cronos’ belly? Looming up on the horizon, the next exciting installment of the histories of Ink Catherly:
    ACTUAL TERROR.

The Peculiar Case Of Miss Mu Lung (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

It is 532 years before the common era. Mr. Kong works in the state of Lu as a keeper of farm animals and parks.

He finds a scaled anteater—a pangolin—caught in an illegal trap.

Sluggishly, it licks its entangled paw.

Mr. Kong squats down. He distracts the anteater. He holds up a finger so that it tracks his finger with its eyes. He says, “It’s no shame that you can’t solve these knots; if you could, you’d be queer for a pangolin.”

The anteater attempts to process this information. It blinks its eyes lazily.

A woman’s footsteps approach.

“In this,” says Mr. Kong to the anteater, “we are alike. Diligently I study, but there are questions that I can’t answer, because I’m a man.”

The anteater shakes its head. Then, irritated that it cannot understand Mr. Kong with its tiny brain, it curls itself up in a ball.

It’s all right.

He’d held its attention long enough.

His free hand has already cunningly unraveled the knot that had trapped the anteater’s paw.

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

The Island of the Centipede

“It is very human,” says a woman’s voice, “how it waits to curl until once it has been rescued.”

Mr. Kong straightens. He looks towards the clearing’s edge.

Miss Mu Lung stands at the edge of the clearing. She wears the elaborate dress customary to the Lung family. Its fringe has blood and dirt and grass upon it.

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong. His voice is warm and his face shows pleasure. Her presence here is an impropriety, the blood on her hem a warning, and the texture of the woven trap reminds him of Miss Lung’s tapestries, but she is a fellow human being and as such receives his brightness. He gives her a courteous bow.

She looks upon him and her face is still.

“It is bold of me to say,” says Miss Lung. “But I have heard you called a great scholar and a man of discernment, Mr. Kong. So surely you tease the pangolin when you mention questions that you cannot answer.”

“I should not think to call myself a scholar,” says Mr. Kong. “If I were ten times more erudite, perhaps, and understood the Quinquennial Sacrifice, then I might be worthy of that name.”

“Ah,” says Miss Lung.

He holds up one finger so that Miss Lung tracks his finger with her eyes.

“I think that we are all trapped, in this life, like that unfortunate pangolin,” he says. “We do not measure to the standard of our ancestors, and so there are questions we cannot answer. There are questions we cannot answer, and so we do not execute our practices with precision. We find ourselves unable to comport ourselves with order and harmony; justice does not prevail; and emptiness flourishes throughout the world. One day, if the world does not explode, I hope to make myself a legendary minister and redeem these practices, but, of course, I can make no guarantees.”

Miss Lung thinks on these words.

Her eyes close, then open.

“Forgive me, Mr. Kong,” she says, “but I cannot see the emptiness of the world.”

“It affects to fullness,” says Mr. Kong, “but it is hollow, like the scar on the pangolin’s leg.”

Something in his words has freed her; the strength leaves her; she sits down.

She swallows and her eyes grow bright with tears.

“Miss Lung,” he asks, gently, “are you in some distress?”

Bleakly, she says, “More than some.”

“Come;” he says, “if there is need, you may impose upon me. But if there is not, I am afraid I must soon be on my way to catch the person who sows illegal traps upon this land.”

She looks miserably at the trap.

“No one can assist me,” says Miss Lung. She shakes her head. “I am in an ungodly state; someone has murdered the spirits of my ancestors and circumstances compel me to torment small animals to survive.”

To his credit, Mr. Kong blinks only once.

He straightens his clothing. He says, “Naturally I am at your service.”

Miss Lung says, “I cannot refuse so gentle an offer, but I fear your good character will bring me misery.”

Mr. Kong lowers his head in acceptance of this rebuke.

Miss Lung rises. She takes him to her house. As he walks its halls he frowns.

“Ah,” he says. “There is a hollow sound.”

“It is the absence of men, where once they would be talking. It is the absence of women, where once they would be working. It is the absence of the laughter and whimpering of children,” answers Miss Mu Lung.

She leads him to the shrine of her ancestors.

Its doors are heavy black wood. They are sealed with many sacred marks. They are scarred with hollow rings, white rings, like the marks of a lamprey’s jaws.

“I cannot go within,” says Miss Lung. “In my youth, we would say, ‘brik, brik, brak, open a crack!’ and the doors would open. Inside the spirits of our ancestors would dispense wisdom and benevolence.

“Then seven years back, as I walked this hall, I heard the great brassy voice of ancestor Zedong declare, ‘The more I look up at It, the higher It rises. The more I probe It, the more impenetrable It becomes. I catch a glimpse of It in front and It is instantly behind.’

“Then I heard an ungodly wind and I felt a sudden fear and I banged my fist upon the door, but since that day, they have not answered.

“Two years ago, I climbed atop the roof and looked down through a small round gap. Inside, the shrine was empty, save for some vague notion that took me of ethereal blood.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.

“Was it improper?” asks Miss Lung. “To bang upon the door?”

“What is impropriety?” says Mr. Kong. “I can’t criticize the selfless concern for your ancestors.”

He stares at the doors, deep in thought.

“Pardon,” says Mr. Kong. “But if I may, your family? The Lung family?”

“One by one they succumbed to kindness,” says Miss Lung.

“Hm?”

“It is like this,” says Miss Lung. “The Lung family has traditionally held some virtue of position in the celestial hierarchy. Assiduously we would seek to develop our personal merit to facilitate our ascension into the ranks of Heaven. Since our ancestors fell silent, the matter has become problematic; upon refining our spirit to a full measure of virtue, we explode. Now I and my obdurate brother remain; myself because I am a woman and dedicate myself to the methodical torment of animals, and he because, constantly insensible with wine, he is awake too rarely for the acquisition of virtue.”

For a long moment Mr. Kong stands there.

“Then,” he says, “if I may, I have solved the mystery.”

“Please,” she says.

“It is the emptiness of the world,” says Mr. Kong.

“If only you were the Grand Secretary of Justice,” says Miss Lung, with grave courtesy, “you could arrest it at once.”

Mr. Kong smiles at her.

“You are skeptical,” he says.

“Only, dulled with grief and fear,” she says.

“These are the scars of emptiness,” says Mr. Kong. He rests his hand on one of the circles in the door. “The methodology, I take to be as follows. The emptiness proposed to Lung Zedong, ‘In what fashion should a man conduct himself to bring harmony and order to all things?’ He could not answer this question without compromising the affairs of Heaven, and thus allowed the emptiness to devour him. The hollowness of your home represents a marker of its passage.”

“If that’s so—“

She struggles to hold back her emotions.

“If that’s so,” she says, “what can I do?”

“Open the doors,” he says. “Sacrifice to your ancestors. Set aside this animal torture and lawless skulking; cultivate the quality of kindness that you have denied yourself.”

Bitterness drives her to unworthy words: “Even to the destruction of my soul?”

“It often seems that virtue operates against our interests,” says Mr. Kong. “But if we do not cultivate the habits of virtue, then what value are our interests?”

She lowers her head.

“As you say,” she says, tonelessly.

“Here is my recommendation,” says Mr. Kong. “When you commit an act of kindness, do not seek to cultivate yourself but rather to build harmonious relationships with others. Then you need not fear unless you are so kind as to elevate all the world.”

“And if I am?”

“If the world explodes because of my advice,” says Mr. Kong, “then I fear I shall never find government employment, nor become a legendary practice-righting minister.”

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 )

The chaos has completed its adaptation to the knife.

Red Mary swims in a sea of Confucianism and blood.

Drawn by the blood the sharks have come. They are monstrously large. They dwarf her as they dwarf Max.

One of them bumps Max gently with its nose. He curls around the pain as a pillbug might.

“Red Mary,” the shark says, with scrupulous precision, “I cannot say your actions have been correct.”

“Yes, thank you,” Red Mary says irritably.

“If the sirens are not humane,” presses the shark, “then how may they expect the oceans to remain in order?”

Red Mary bares her teeth and the shark subsides.

“I have acted in error, but you may not correct me,” she says.

“The blood frenzy overcame my judgment, and I forgot my place,” the shark concedes.

“Hmf,” Red Mary says.

Then with one hand Red Mary lifts Max and with the other the knife and she draws them both up from the sea.

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.

Slick Jang and the Treason Maw

Bread City’s the toasting capital of the world, and they ain’t ashamed.

Bread Dog barks.

Bread Subway whirrs.

It’s a nice enough bread metropolis, but the toasting’s savage.

It’s worse than theft or vandalism, in Bread City. Its worse than assault. In the grottos and corners of the city, people’ll toast you as soon as look at you.

The fires of the toasting lick at a bread person’s skin. It gets stiff, but not the way bread likes. It spots with darkness. Then the soul burns away.

Toast always wants your soul.

Under Bread City there’s the cavern of teeth. That’s where Slick Jang Toast is. He’s one of the slickest gangsters in the city but he’s toast in his own petard.

“I ache,” says Slick Jang, to his buddy Doris.

“I hear that,” says Doris.

She’s still bread. She’s still doughy and fresh. But she knows that toasting can happen to anyone. So she stays on Slick Jang’s good side and she doesn’t critique his warmth.

“It’s like arthritis all over,” says Slick Jang. “Not just in my skin. In my soul. In the hollow spiritual fastness where my soul used to be.”

“Soon, Slick Jang,” says Doris.

They’re inching down on rappels towards the teeth. These are the storage teeth. They’re the replacements. They’re used when the Treason Maw’s teeth wear out.

“You’re gonna have teeth,” says Doris, “and then you can eat out someone else’s soul, and you’ll be toast with a soul and a girl named Doris.”

“Amen to that,” says Slick Jang.

His feet hit the bottom of the cavern with a crunch that makes Doris wince. He looks around at all the teeth. Then he begins scooping them up and putting them in his sack. He’s got a sack for the teeth.

He wouldn’t come down there unprepared. He’s Slick Jang!

He loads up all the teeth. He doesn’t even leave one. He puts most in his sack. Some he puts in his mouth.

He gnashes them.

He grinds them.

He snaps with them.

“I got teeth,” says Slick Jang.

Then he puts the sack over his shoulder. He doesn’t look at Doris. If he looks at her, maybe he’d eat her. But he’s not that kind of toast.

So he begins climbing up.

There’s a grinding sound in the corner of the room. It’s not teeth. It’s a giant boulder rolling away from the wall. It opens a corridor. Down the corridor is the Treason Maw.

“Hey,” says Slick Jang, looking down.

“Hey, maw,” says Doris.

They don’t mind the Treason Maw. It’s indiscriminately lethal but it’s on their side. It’s on the side of everybody in Bread City.

The Maw is vast and terrible and in it are many layers of teeth. There is no obvious body. There is no obvious head. It is simply the maw. It is devouring made manifest.

It gnaws its way into the room. Then it begins to gnaw upwards.

“Oh,” says Slick Jang.

Now he minds it some.

“Climb faster, Slick,” says Doris.

They climb faster.

They are only a bit above the floor but it feels like a dizzying height, because below them there is the Maw. The air is still but it feels like a horrible wind, because below them there is the Maw. And Slick Jang almost loses his grip on the rope, because his fingers are toasted and they’re clumsy as can be.

For a long moment he looks down into the endless rows of teeth, and his heart is beating great horrible crunches in his chest.

And then he sees.

“Oh, man,” says Slick Jang.

He can see the blackened spots where it’s worn down some of its teeth.

“Oh, man,” says Slick Jang. “You can’t eat up the treason under the city with teeth like those.”

The maw rises towards him.

The maw grinds and whines.

And Slick Jang turns his sack over. He dumps some of the teeth down to the maw.

“Sorry, man,” he says. “Didn’t think you’d need them today.”

Bread City’s the toasting capital of the world. It’s not ashamed.

It could be so much worse, after all, but it isn’t.