(Parousia) To Light a Candle (5 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Now, some people, thinking on these events, might come to the conclusion that there’ll be some kind of reason Max’ll be able to come back.

Like:

Death’ll gallop through the sky on the last of days and Sid will reach up and seize him by the arm and pull him from the horse and down to shatter on the island below.

Crunch! Death will say, or at least emote, and Sid’ll steal Max’s life from him.

Or:

Somebody’ll find Max’s skin, just floating free on the chaos, and—because you shouldn’t waste a good skin—fill it up with booze. Then Max’ll show up, lookin’ all like Max, only he’s an ale-man now.

Or:

Spattle’s still got its hooks in everyone who’s ever been there.

Max can’t actually die.

He’s lived in Spattle.

Or maybe even:

Sid’ll buy some new luggage one day, you know, for traveling, and he’ll open it up, and there Max’ll be.

“Hey,” Max’ll say.

Hey, Sid says. Thought you were dead.

“It’s a special.”

And Max’ll indicate the display with his head, and it’ll turn out that it does in fact say, “Free resurrection with every suitcase; and luggage $179.99”

And maybe it’s just the kind of thing that happens, you know, eventually. People coming back.

The world’s really old, and it’s got a long future ahead of it.

We wouldn’t necessarily know.

So you could be reading this, you know, and come to the conclusion that there’ll be some reason, like a suitcase sale or a Spattling or a bit of a double thing, and Max’ll come back.

But that ain’t so.

Not exactly, anyway.

See, it’s an epiphany. It’s a mystery. It’s one of those things that’s like a seething well.

There ain’t no reason.

He just comes back.

It’s June 6, 2004, and he just comes back.

It’s like a candle lights, and suddenly where things were invisible, they are visible; and where things were inaudible, they’re audible; and the world fills out with the glistening blue and silver of the sea and the wind as it roars in the sky and the cold refreshing spray that generates when the waves strike against the brown-black rocks.

And the scattering of points and colors becomes the beach.

And swaying patterns become the sun, and the shadows, and the trees.

And there’s Max, right there, with a hangdog look, like he’s never been away.

Maybe someday it’ll be a little more explained.

You can get close to the truth, sometimes, even when there’s no truth to be had.

So maybe we’ll get a bit of explanation here, a bit of explanation there.

But not a reason, not whole and entire.

Some things in this world ain’t ever really explained.

Like:
People always fight the things they love.

I would hug you, says Sid.

A mirrored shape flicks out to show him his own form, and the terrible perplexities and sharpness of it, and why that isn’t necessarily a very good idea. And he can see the darkness that weaves through him, too: for siggorts, like most things that aren’t Max, are terribly, terribly easy to cut.

Max looks up.

“You’re real,” he says.

Like Sid’s the one who shouldn’t be there. Like Sid’s the one who, last we checked, wasn’t in the world.

And there’s a drop of chaos on Max’s face, under the shadow of his hair, and his eyes are brown and deep.

Hesitantly, he says, “Did you—“

Sid cuts him.

Not much. Just a tiny bit, to get the blood he needs, to get a flake of flesh. And he can tell that Max is yielding it, not suffering it, because just this once Max isn’t hard to cut.

He should probably have asked.

But he didn’t; and Max lets it be.

“Did you—“

Sid begins to make the body of him, from flesh and blood and clay, and he says, Did I?

Max gropes for words.

“I figure,” Max says, “That Ii Ma said something like, ‘How can you live with somebody else’s guilt?'”

There is the rushing withdrawing of water and then the roaring of a wave.

“And ‘walk in like you own the place’ doesn’t quite work on that one.”

No, Sid agrees.

He’s almost got the body put together. They’re fast workers, siggorts. It’s the hundred hands.

“So—did you—“

Of course, Sid says.

Then he opens up the body of him and he pours himself into its core and he closes the hollow of the entrance with a hook of him, all Sid-like, snap.

And Max stands there for a long time looking at him, while Sid dresses himself with pants and socks and shirts and stuff that drift in from the sea.

“How?”

He means: Can we . . . fix things? Is it okay now? Is it okay, even though I’m not still dead?

Because he’s a sharp one, Max, and he knows that must’ve been an answer Sid was using for a while.

Is it okay?

Can broken things be remade?

And Sid can hear these questions in his voice; and they’re not the only questions Sid can hear.

How can you forgive him? whispers the voice of Ii Ma, like it always does.

How can you forgive him? Ii Ma asks.

And Sid gives this great big smile like the morning of the world, and he kicks away a cardboard box drifting upwards from the sea, and he says, “Because I’d like to.”

Nothing more; nothing less.

“Because I’d rather,” he explains.

Because we make our own judgments, light and dark, and they are our servants—

Not the other way around.

The Island of the Centipede
Fin.

On The Nature of Judgment (4 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

See also this legend.

It would be difficult to explain what has changed.

That shouldn’t be surprising.

If Sid’s answer were easy—if it were the kind of thing that you could just say and have it be done—then Martin would have given it to him. Not for free, not easily, but certainly after all Sid’s service.

So it is necessarily difficult to explain.

Much of it, certainly, is simply having the power to change, after all these years.

That which we hide away in the place without recourse:

It does not grow.

So some of it, certainly, is having that power of growth and changing, and the motivation to use it: returned to him, after all those years.

And some of it is the exercise of force.

Forgiveness, we should understand, is a quality of the powerful. The powerless endure; the powerful forgive.

It is not possible to forgive without an unencumbered choice.

Without power, forgiveness is indistinguishable from compliance, or at best surrender; and thus it has no value.

It has always been a dark and tasteless joke, when the powerful ask the downtrodden to forgive.

So the exercise of unrestrained power, however undesirable it might have been—that contributed.

Certainly.

And if one may go further and say that forgiveness is between equals—

A broader statement, requiring more analysis, but a plausible one—

Then it matters that Max met blow for blow, standing against the siggort a surprising length of time in the oceans of the end.

And there was the uncritical all-forgiving all-embracing never-bending flare gaze of the Good.

And there was the dancing stabbing cutting preaching whispers of the history of Mr. Kong.

And there was Tara and there were the heaps and there was the crumbled tower to the east where earlier they fought—

Yet none of these things change the character of Max’s crime.

None of these things make it better or worse that Max has done what Max has done.

None of these things change the essential or actual qualities of his deed.

None of these things prove Sid in error, relative to some natural universal law, when he says that what Max has done cannot be okay.

Arguable, perhaps.

Too critical, perhaps.

But not in error.

So one cannot say that even all of these things together have resolved Sid’s underlying dilemma, or changed the nature of his prison; at best, they have cast light on the substance of his cage.

It would be difficult to explain what has changed; and in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

It doesn’t really matter how it came to pass that Sid should forgive Max and lift the weight of Ii Ma from his wings.

Max is dead.

The world is cold.

The siggort is alone.

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

Max had planned to do something really cool.

He wasn’t sure what, yet.

Maybe something like shouting, “Oh, yeah? Well, you can’t beat me at tiddlywinks!

Then suddenly he was winded and the world spun and just as he realized that he’d been hit in the stomach by something moving very very fast he mainlined THE END and Sid piled an island on top of him.

So now he’s drifting in the Good.

Now and again, an impulse will surface in him. He’ll surrender a bit of that ancient answer that holds him in the world faster or slower than the question that—however momentarily—had cut him out of it.

He’ll wobble, for a moment, on the border between those creatures whose stories have ended and those creatures that have no stories at all; and an impulse will arise.

Like:

“What the Hell happened when the Buddha reached enlightenment?”

And the Good does not explain.

Drifting against the beat of emptiness in the joyous, he imagines that the dharma of a Buddha is irreconcilable with the dharmas of the world—

Like Sid’s, in a way.

That the world is hollow of its gods because, in the face of the inevitability of suffering, it cannot understand how there can be a Buddha.

That the very idea of dharma—

In the face of the simple corrosive concept of enlightenment—

Has become a contradiction unto itself.

Russell’s paradox writ large; the definition of the world unravelled; the world unable to accept the concept of purpose if it does not lead to pain.

And a long time afterwards, Max grins in the burgeoning emptiness of joy, and he says, “Coward.” to the world.

That was one impulse.

Days later, another rises:

“How the Hell is this my happy ending?”

But for all the bafflement in those words, there isn’t any suffering.

By fiat?

By force?

By love?

There isn’t any suffering. This is his happy ending.

And maybe he’d like to be suffering, except that also he wouldn’t. He doesn’t really want to suffer just because he sort of thinks he should.

He’d like to think that he needs Sid to be happy, but the secret of the world is that it’s loving Sid that makes him happy, not Sid himself.

Lost in boundless happiness and joy, Max understands—and finally—that it’s an error to imagine that our happiness comes from anyone but ourselves.

It is not given unto us.

It is not forced upon us.

It is a thing we give outwards, unto the world.

People always fight
The things they love.

What is the nature of judgment?

Jane had imagined a perfect Good that came and cast away the 9/10 least worthy, straining only the brightest and the best through the holes in its net. She called this a disaster to the world.

What would it have meant, instead, to cull the half least worthy; or the whole?

The single worst of us, severed from the world; or all of us save the single best?

The idealist sees the dangers in this path and casts out judgment from the world; the pragmatist seeks a perfect middle ground; yet both of them, if they wish to live, must recognize that there is that which is desirable, and that which is correct, and that which, in turn, is not.

The hundred-handed horror that is Sid curls on the island he has made, and skitters on the surface of the sea, and dreams of the fight of centipede and tiger.

He is alone.

The Matter of Zheng’s Son (3 of 5)

Mr. Kong is steeping tea. He hears a rustle of silk.

He looks up.

It is a winter evening. His house is cold. He can see his snowy yard. No one is visible, but he can hear motion. No one has announced themselves, but he can hear the shifting of metal against leather and the soft hissing of someone’s breath.

His eyes narrow.

There is a stool inside the entryway, where there was none before, and a staff leaning against the wall. There is a dusting of snow.

He can hear, distantly, the jingling of a bell.

It is 501 years before the common era. The sun hides behind the clouds. An assassin has come.

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

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

“In these degenerate days,” says Mr. Kong politely, “it is good to have an assassin who is observant of the rites and practices. Will you take tea with an old man before you kill me?”

Mr. Kong breathes in the air of the room.

It is probable, he thinks, that the assassin has unwound a length of garrote. It gleams between the man’s fingers—behind Mr. Kong, no doubt, and to the left, and three steps back: the honorable place for an assassin, according to the Book of Rites.

But the man does not move.

He is like a statue, frozen by Mr. Kong’s question.

“It would make me happy,” says Mr. Kong.

The assassin reaches his decision. There is a snap as the garrote retracts. He walks seven quick paces and now he stands before Mr. Kong. He lowers himself, with great decorum, to sit opposite Mr. Kong, and Mr. Kong pours the tea.

“It is unusual for an assassin to attend diligently to the rites,” says Mr. Kong. “The requirements of attending to giving and repaying are the principal matter of contention.”

“Yes,” says the assassin.

Mr. Kong studies the assassin. The man is dressed in white; his hair is tied back; he has features of grave discernment and etched with terrible sorrow.

“If I may ask,” he says. “Whom?”

Whom are you mourning, that you would seek to kill a humble scholar in his home?

“My son.”

“Ah.”

“We sparred,” says the assassin. “With sticks of wood. I struck him. The mark was red on the paleness of his skin. He skipped back. He laughed. He blurred to the side, and came forward to attack. But I caught his stick and twisted it from his hand and I struck him again; and this time his eyes opened very wide and he cried out, ‘It is thus!'”

Mr. Kong sighs.

They sit there. They drink.

“In the days of the Zhou,” says Mr. Kong, “it did not matter how many times you hit a man with a stick; still, he would retain his false conceptions and his attachment to material existence. But the world has changed.”

The assassin’s voice is choked.

“You deny your responsibility?” he says.

Mr. Kong thinks on that.

“I do?” he asks.

“The men of old,” says the assassin— “they lived with unhesitating purpose and they loved virtue. The nature of them prevailed, and they could not hesitate to act. Is it not so?”

“I have said as much,” says Mr. Kong.

“Our ancestors exceeded us.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.

“Heaven is distant from the world; it acts through mortal men, who must struggle to hew to the spirit of goodness—is it not so?”

Mr. Kong says, “You are in mourning for the days of antiquity, when humans possessed the character of uprightness that allowed them to perform miracles, and we did not suffer the plague of spiritual enlightenment.”

“You speak of it,” says the assassin, “as if these days were centuries ago; but they were not.”

Mr. Kong smiles over his tea.

“It has been less than forty years,” he says, “since last I witnessed magic in the world—you mean? But I have told my disciples, I do not discuss magic.”

“So,” says the assassin.

“I am not dissembling,” says Mr. Kong, in tones of gentle protest. “It is not the matter of spirits, or ghosts, or devils that concerns me. When I look upon the past, it is not the flying brooms and wishing boys and Heaven-Defying Lightbringing Yama Kings that draw my eye, but the spirit of humaneness that pervaded the ancients even in the face of all these wonders.”

“You are a man,” says the assassin, “who spoke unto the world words that changed it. You told Heaven and Earth: we are not like the ancient men. And thus it was. You told Heaven and Earth: we are empty; we are in disorder; we are the only channel by which Heaven may affect the world—and thus it was. You teach a disregard for spirits, and they flee from us—or so I must conclude.”

He sets down his teacup.

He folds his hands in his lap. His face is very bleak.

“My name is Zheng,” he says.

He hesitates.

“Please tell me that when I have killed you, my son shall return; and magic; and purpose; and the will of Heaven manifest on Earth; and things will be as once they were.”

Outside the wind toys with flakes of snow.

It is not Mr. Kong’s way to deny an accusation when doing so will only heighten the wound in another man’s heart; so he searches in him for an answer that is courteous, honest, and humane.

A sadness rises.

“It is the character of humanity,” Mr. Kong says softly, “to be wrong.”

A sound comes from Zheng. It is like the peal of a bell, and it comes from his throat as if it were ripped from it.

“Once,” says Mr. Kong, “I imagined that I had the power in me to make all things correct. That I could right all the practices of the world. That I would do these things because I am Kong. And when I understood that it was not so, I cried out: Heaven, Heaven, why have you abandoned me?”

Zheng does not respond.

“But I’m glad,” says Mr. Kong.

Zheng looks up.

He sees that Mr. Kong is smiling.

“Do you understand? It is because we are not as the ancients were that we may look up to them. Were we as gods, we would spend our lives in the affairs of gods; but because we are human, we may practice humaneness.”

“Why?”

Mr. Kong tilts his head.

“Why,” says hoarse-voiced Zheng, “should we practice humaneness, when Heaven denies us righteousness? Why should we strive for good, when we are always wrong? What is this world we live in, where a man may burn out his own son’s soul?”

But Mr. Kong ignores the last of these questions, and answers only the second.

“Love.”

And Zheng let him to live, and went away, and in the mountains he taught his students that it was not so important to kill as to kill with good character as a righteous assassin; and Mr. Kong found himself a limited employment in government service; and the world went on for many years, severed from its gods.

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

In the darkness of the sea, Max slices through Sid. The knife glitters darkly in his hand.

A wire snaps.

Like all the wires of Sid, it is under high tension. It scissors through the world and cuts the sea and causes a great turbulence in the mechanisms of Sid. His thoughts become deranged, disordered, and unbalanced.

It is June 3, 2004.

Sid is furious and maddened, under the staring eye of Good.

Since cutting does not work, he slams Max down into the silt floor of the sea. He smashes Max against the shell of the world; but the human—

The heap he reminds himself; not Max, it cannot be Max—

slips aside and the blow only widens the crack at the base of the rising Good.

Max is thinking something wry about learning from the lessons of history. Sid can taste it; it amplifies in the jangling of his thoughts. The man is going to stab him again. The opening in the world through which Good rises is nearly critical mass: much larger, and the Good will transform the shell that holds it back and all the stories of the world shall end.

Sid conceives a plan.

His plan is mad, like the siggort himself.

He anchors himself. He hooks himself with shivering cutting lines into the sea. He insinuates himself into sea and sky and the shadow of the sun. He hopes for time—

Not so very much; just a little bit—

To finish cutting away the heart of the Good. But if he does not have it—well, very well.

Max cuts at a great bundle of the mind of Sid and Sid’s memory of 1955 and his knowledge of differential equations and his power to taste snow all snap and the tangling spinning power of it progresses inevitably through the system of him and a great spinning wire hits Max’s chest and, because Max will not cut, drives him into the Good; and a great heaving convulsion in the world slams together the elements of the crust and makes an island of stone and sky where once there was a crack beneath the sea.

In the aftermath, there is blindness to match the silence of his world.

He drifts there, free of attachment to things.

Max loved him, he thinks.

Certainly, so did the Good.

He wonders why.

Max is Dead (2 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

The horizon divides the sea from the sky. In Sid’s tactical judgment, this is the world’s mistake. He skates a long chain-blade of him along its length and severs them, so that the sea and sky sag apart and show through them a great gap in the world.

He can feel the heat of the Good fluttering against the heart of him.

It is gummy; it is heavy; it slows the rotation of that one element of him, and speeds others, and binds that portion of him into the world.

It becomes hot where Sid is cold and cold where Sid is hot; actual where he is contemplative; metaphorical where he is real.

The gaze of the Good twists that part of him through the axis of accessibility of space.

He cuts it from himself.

He huddles in around the pain of it. It is a fragment, he tells himself: nothing more.

The way that the sea air tastes one way on one morning and a different way on another: a tactical weakness. A rusty, hooked, and sensitive knife of him cuts along it.

The eye of the Good turns to that gap.

It stares into the emptiness; and a portion of it is lost.

He sees something.

He is starting to see something. It flickers at the edge of his consciousness: the heart of the Good, tilted ninety degrees from the rest of it at the end of an infinite sequence of approximations to the real.

He cleans his flensing blades and lets rust drift down onto the surface of the sea.

It is capable of an error, he calculates: a tactical weakness.

There is room between the truth of the thing and its image in the eyes of the Good to insert the thinnest of his blades; and to cut in a great fractal arc along the length of that gap until he reaches its heart.

But first there’s a man.

There’s a man, standing on a boat, in the middle of the surging sea.

There’s a man staggering in the icy wind and waving a knife of melomid skin and shouting up at Sid, “You wanna go?”

He tastes like Max.

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.

There is a darkness between the pieces of this man.

The Buddha put it thus: anatman.

A man is not the hand and a man is not the eye. A man is not the torso or the limbs. A man is none of these various parts. So when we say that we see a man, such as Max, in the world, we do not describe the physical existence of a thing. We describe instead a particular and contingent assemblage of parts.

What does this description mean?

It is, argues the Buddha, a filter created by our own mind and imposed upon the world, which we then confuse for real. It is an aggregate of misconceptions. It is not possible that in composing our idea of a man, such as Max, that we are accurate even in the moment.

It is not accurate even in the moment; and with the passage of time, its accuracy inevitably degrades.

That is why Sid sees not the man but his gaps. That is why it is practical to see not the man but his gaps.

For the most part that which one might think of as “Max” is not really there.

There is a darkness between the pieces of the man. There is an emptiness. There is no observer who can see more in Max than an aggregate of misconceptions paired with a function of surprisal that is in all practical respects computationally random.

For some time, Sid has refrained from chopping Max into little pieces, but that’s not because it’s difficult.

Red Mary’s proven it.

So has Ii Ma.

So, in the long run, has life itself.

Chopping Max into little pieces is actually pretty easy.

The miracle, really, is that it doesn’t happen more often.

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

Max is dead.

It is a fragile line of truth in a universe of confusion. It is the knowledge that keeps Sid sane.

How can you forgive him? Ii Ma had asked.

He is dead. He is dead. And for another thing, Sid says, flaring with the fire of his dharma, Max is dead.

Things end.

Hopes die.

Max is dead, torn apart, severed from the pieces of himself and scattered through the sea.

And with Head Island so near—

Head Island, teeming with angry skandhas, most terribly easily mistaken for a man—

He cannot rely on evidence to the contrary.

Max is shouting, but Max is dead, and the particular conglomeration of circumstances that produced him in this world will not recur.

And so Sid is angry, not happy, to hear the voice of the man. He is angry and he is hurt and he knows the most marvelous anodyne for that pain.

A black thorned wire of Sid comes down to cut through the darkness inside of Max.

The history of Mr. Kong shifts in Max’s hand; it turns the wire aside.

The knives of Sid burst forth from the sea like the tendrils of a beast; and the history cuts sideways and blocks two, three, four, but not the fifth.

He cuts through the man.

He hooks into the man.

He seizes up the man and stares into him and the world beats with the tempo of his angry breath.

Max’s left hand closes around the point of a curved and rusty knife. He shifts his right arm over a wire of Sid for leverage; and by chance or planning, he catches a leaf of Good between his shoulder and the wire, so that for a moment it does not cut.

He twists the knife sharply, as if it were Sid’s kneecap.

Shock unfolds.

The sound from Sid is like the shriek of startled birds.

Through the space occupied by Max’s torso, a sleeting of sharp edges flies.

The grip of Sid releases.

Max falls.

For a lingering moment, Sid is quite still.

Then he sunders the air, he cuts the sky, he makes a thunder with his wings, he falls on Max like vultures, like lightning, like the rain. A rumble builds in him, like a purr, like a roar, like the blast of an engine, to shudder the world apart.

A drop of blood floats free.

But it is as if Sid has cut the air between two lovers, or the space between two/words.

In that place, in that moment, under the eyes of Good and drawn together by Red Mary when once scattered far apart, the pieces that make up Max are holding together not by assertion but by choice.

He is not the blood and he is not the bone; not the hand and not the eye; not the flowering rain of red but the dharma: Max.

He holds himself together.

He seizes a bundle of wires of Sid.

Without looking at the hideous gap of the horizon or the burning eye of the Good, he vents a great-voiced shout and he twists the siggort in his grip and he drags the siggort down into the sea.

(Thanksgiving) The Metal That Longs to Move (1 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Max is smiling.

He’s leaning back and looking at the horizon of the sea — for it is too deep to say he properly sees the sky.

He says, “Do you know, I have organs?”

Red Mary is looking at him.

“Yes.”

“I have almost all of them,” Max says proudly. He feels them with his mind. His lungs are breathing. They’re breathing chaos, but that’s okay. He’s getting pretty used to that. His heart is beating. His intestines are all there, thank God.

Have you ever thanked the world for intestines?

They’re actually surprisingly cool, and almost entirely organic.

“Yes,” says Red Mary. “I put them back.”

“That’s great.”

“I repeat,” she says. “Do you know Meredith? Because if you do not, you will die; and if you lie, you will die painfully.”

“Exploded girl? The chaos god?”

“Ah.”

Red Mary’s voice is clotted with grief and anger.

“I’m honestly a bit more surprised,” says Max, “that you know her.”

“She is anathema to me,” says Red Mary. “She is abhorrent. She, having surrendered her boundaries and scattered her spirit throughout the world, regrouped it; made a cyst of it; strives, still, to reconcile being everywhere and in one place. She is the antithesis of my song.”

“Love?” suggests Max.

“Sometimes in the deeps I breathe her,” says Red Mary. “Sometimes I comb my hair and I hear her song. I taste her in the particles of the sea.”

“Hunger?”

“Sight,” says Red Mary.

“Sight?”

“I have seen her,” says Red Mary. “And that is more and less of a thing than love. And because I have seen her, I will help you, Max, who knows her, though it cost my life.”

“Do you need a spleen for anything?” Max says.

“I’m not going to eat you, Max.”

“No,” says Max, hesitantly. “I mean, are they . . . are they important?”

“Why?”

“No reason,” says Max, his face burning, and he begins to swim back upwards towards the Good.

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

Click.

Click.

Click.

It is rusted. It is broken. But it is not defeated.

It scrapes its surface against its other surface. It does not give up.

It is a thing that moves.

It is a thing that longs to move.

It jitters.

Click.

It falls back to where it began.

There is something looking at it.

It trembles under the awareness of that gaze. It converts — shame? Uncertainty? Aversion? — into heat. Knowing itself seen it begins to burn.

The metal that longs to move begins to warp.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It falls back to where it began.

It is hot. It is broken. But that time was better than the last.

A wildness rises into motion.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It manages a full rotation and then another.

Motion breeds interpretation.

An impulse rises from the rotation of the thing.

I am suffering.

It means something terrible. It means something horrible. But the tiny pieces that grind together to make that meaning are terribly excited to have moved.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It is bobbing up and down now like a parrot about to receive a treat.

It is trembling with its excitement.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It is moving.

It is burning and it is moving and each rotation is just a tiny bit freer from the heat.

An impulse rises.

I am in Hell.

It is surrounded by slag and spikes and rings. They are in doldrums, caught in the absence of wind. They are crumpled in about that thing that has relearned to move and they are still.

But a wind is rising.

The ring that it scrapes against begins to move.

The ring catches the shivering hunger of that first turning spike.

It scrapes against an outer ring; and a balance shifts; and heavy things fall and light things rise and wings beat and everywhere there is a dazzling chaos of form and pain.

Blades cut against blades.

The machine spasms.

Spikes shift.

Hooks rise and fall.

A control system awakens to the knowledge that it can see. Sick and mad with longing it spins itself into motion.

It sees a shivering blur of storms.

It sees the inside of a heart.

It sees a shivering blur of storms.

It sees the inside of a heart.

It loops inside and outside and back and forth and cries out sight and carries the data of one thing to the awareness of the other.

A ring of knives on a wire cord untangles itself from the engine.

Inside out and upside down, it thinks: Max is dead.

It drags itself along an inner circuit. Bits of fire dance along its edges. It skitters off of the substance of a frictionless sphere.

Something is watching it.

With aching and terrible relief, it notices — for the first time in so very long — that it has been in Hell.

Can you imagine how good that must feel?

How incredible it must be?

The shock of that first agony after all those years of still?

And Sid turns his gaze to the light of Good that stares in at him in his place of imprisonment, and he smiles his siggort smile, and he says, “You will die, you know. You will die; you will die; the world will die; and I will not hold back.”

Once he would have held back.

Even with Max dead.

He would have held back. He is Sid. He’s a slacker. He’s the kind of vivisecting horror who’d sit in a box for a good ten years rather than put anybody out.

But not now.

Right now, he’s thinking that if there’s any hope in all this vale of tears, it’s that suffering might transform; and in the ashes and the ruin of his life, twisted and tangled up in the borderland of the place without recourse —

For he is not properly in that dread valley while there is something that sees him, even if it should be the Good —

He gives his trust to Martin.

He unlimbers a spike of siggort back into the world, before the night, before the dawn.

I’ll cut out your heart, he tells the Good.

He almost cannot think through the power of the elation of the Good, to see an isn’t returning to the world.

And it says: Come get some.

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

Max’s head breaks water.

He gasps in air splattered with the foam of the sea.

He breathes.

Above him the sky is livid with long strands of siggort sharpness. Sid is unfolding like a labyrinth and he is cutting open the world and the sea.

The eye of the goodblow pierces Max. It sees Max. It knows him and its knowing burns up his life.

It is patterned like a tapestry. It is leaf’d like a tree. It is diffuse and strange because it is being cut and the leaves of Good conflict against the cutting wires of a dharma inexpressible in the world.

And perhaps what Max should be thinking is: how is it possible?

How is it possible that I knew him all this time, and I did not know?

But he is missing his spleen and his thoughts are off their temper and instead he can only look up at his friend, who has shed the better half of his imprisonment, and say, “Thank God.”

To say: Thank God.

To say: Thank God.

And: Welcome, o my love, into the world.

He thinks these two things first, and willingly puts off a plan to stop Sid from destroying everything until thought three; or possibly, in practice, thought four, as he is still rather concerned about his spleen.

The Latter Days of the Law (2 of 2)

[The Island of the Centipede – Interlude]


Red Mary takes Max’s ears so that he cannot hear.

Red Mary takes Max’s voice so that he cannot speak.

Red Mary takes Max’s life.

Here is how it happened.

She came upon him in the waters outside the broken island, intruding on her sacred place like a hunter on Artemis’ nudity or a serpent into a lake. She struck at him in the certain knowledge that he was unworthy of his life.

We all are.

That is the creed of Red Mary.

We are drunkards and life is a drunkard’s walk. We do not do things for the reasons that we claim. We do not achieve the results that we desire. We cling like leeches to the things that hurt us and we kill the things we love.

We are cysts of flesh that keep the fire from the chaos.

We are a trouble to the world.

He taught her another way. He’d used the blackest of all magics to do it, that is to say, history and Confucianism, and he’d opened her heart to the idea that maybe even drunkards should try to be good.

It was fast.

That’s the problem with easy answers, whether they come from sloppy thinking or a magic knife immersed in chaos. It had been too fast.

Red Mary was of the mind that given a few hundred years to contemplate it she might be a very good Confucian indeed.

But as it was it was suspicious to her.

She’d breathed it in through the gills. She’d inhaled the certainty of Mr. Kong like a drug and when she looked back on the path that led her to its answers she couldn’t see where she had been.

She finds herself thinking of the owl—

That owl of a long line of owls, whom she’d brought down over the sea and drowned, but first had spoken with—

That owl whose grandfather had licked three times at a tootsie pop, and crunched, and said solemnly, “Three”;

Whose mother had licked twice, and crunched, and said in sorrow, “Two”;

Who had bitten down on the very first lick until the tootsie pop oozed caramel like Max is oozing red and said, just “One”;

And who had had no children because the limit of owls as the number of licks decreases is emptiness.

She had found the owl very foolish and sang a song to disperse it into the universe and now she suspects that karma has circled round to bite her in the tail.

To the west of her island there is Good.

To the west, where she does not go, where she has not gone in quite some time, but where she is certain it had not been before—

Good.

Heaven.

Happy endings.

The eye of God.

And looking at it she recognized that there is such a thing as an answer, even for someone like Red Mary. That if she walked straight and pure and on a sober path, she could get there, she would get there, she could have her happy ending.

Or even if she just swam west. One hundred miles, perhaps, two hundred miles at the most; no harder, really, than if it had been an inch.

She does not know what it would mean to do that.

She does not understand how her crooked life could lead to such an end, and so she knows she cannot take that path.

She had always thought that it would be impossible for such a creature as herself to know perfection, and now she knows that it is simply wrong.

To go there—

To live in a world where the difference between perfection and the Red Mary she is now is just a hundred-mile swim—

It is not impossible, but it is wrong, and she must not.

Max is dying.

It is strange and not strange to her that the divine fire of his life burns more brightly in his fragile state. That trapped in that imperfect form it does not dwindle but rather flares, suffuses, wraps in him—

That broken he is still Max;

That broken he is all the more himself because he does not give it up.

It is strange and not strange that the thing that is a person can be severed from its voice by nothing more than magic, severed from its senses and still remain, that so much can happen to him and still he is in the world;

That it is not simply the body that is so terribly fragile but the self within;

And that is the miracle of the fire, that it survives such missteps, that it burns in the broken body that is Max and the cold sea thoughts that are Red Mary’s.

If you asked her what the fire was, Red Mary would say that she does not know.

She does not know, save perhaps that the fire is that which sees the fire; or, that being wrong, that the fire is that which casts the light by which the fire may be seen.

She whispers to Max’s heart that it need not beat.

She whispers to Max’s lungs that he need not breathe.

She whispers to Max’s life that it need not burn.

His last thoughts drift from him like bubbles.

They rise through the chaos and she watches them as they rise.

The sea is full of the mumbling of the severance of Max.

The man she’s killing is mumbling and Red Mary’s too tired not to listen.

“Oh,” he is thinking.

She drags him down, down, down.

“Love is not a duty.”

She hears it reversed, performing that causal mirroring so convenient when gods must listen to the ramblings of men.

We make others’ choices on the theory that we love them, only to discover that we did not love them after all.

“Love is a transforming power.”

We discover a strength blossoming in the world, in us, in those we look upon, in everything, and then discover that we are looking upon a thing that we do love.

Red Mary draws in breath.

She sings to make the man dissolve, to crack the cyst of his existence and return his karma to the world.

“I’ll come back,” he mumbles.

The presupposition of this statement is his death, and so she hears it thus:

Even if I survive, you’ll still probably have killed me.

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 coracle 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 Island of the Centipede

“Like Meredith did,” he mumbles. “I’ll come back.”

He is fraying, and she’ll be rid of him at last, but—

Like Meredith did.

This is the agony of taking the path instead of simply its ending. This is the unbearable horror she has brought upon herself by not simply swimming west.

Along the path one may discover the nature of one’s errors.

He should be dead, but the fire has not yet flown from him.

She has discovered a problematic contingency and she must make a choice.

“Live,” she says.

His life stutters into alertness.

“Breathe,” she says to his lungs, and “Beat,” to his heart.

She gives him back his ears, that he may hear things incorrectly. She gives him back a voice, that he may say the wrong things.

It seems to her perhaps that she has failed to rebuild him; that she has left out some fundamental error and made a thing more good than what she’d broken; but then again, that may be Max himself, or just the nature of the fire.

It is the miracle of the fire that we may grow better than we are.

She lets the mind return to him, that he may think the wrong thoughts, and take the wrong actions, and for the wrong reasons.

And “Oh,” she says, awkwardly, with the horrified politeness of a woman signing the warrant of her own destruction.

“Oh,” Red Mary says. “You know Meredith?”

The fire lives even in our crooked paths, and it redeems them.

Dedicated to someone not at all like Max, save in the brightness of her burning and the immediacy of hope.

The Aftermath of Heaven (1 of 2)

[The Island of the Centipede – Interlude]

He is like God.

That’s the funny thing. The more he hunts God down the more opportunities Max has to understand just how much like God he is.

Like, with Sid.

Max just had a simple little wish. He just wanted Sid never ever to torture somebody to death. So he stuck his nose in. And he found himself blunted, a thousand times frustrated, by Sid’s free will.

The siggort would just look at him. Like it was Max who didn’t get it.

Like the ichneumon who looked at the angel and said, “But don’t you understand that torment is better than hope?”

Like people explaining unto Heaven why what they want must certainly be right.

Like a child, young and certain of some perverse idea, defying a parent.

Not that Max was ever like a parent to Sid. Not to that ancient creature.

No. Max, with Sid, had always been like God. He’d loved him. He’d judged him. He’d tried to save him. He’d even sent Sid more or less to Hell, and damn bad he’d felt for doing it, too.

Out of love.

Somewhere that had been wrong. He got that. He lived with it every day. Somehow it had been wrong. Somehow he hadn’t had the right.

He didn’t know what he had been supposed to do, but from the ashes of that occasion he’d figured out that taking away Sid’s choices wasn’t it.

And maybe that made sense.

Sid hadn’t ever done it, that vivisection thing. Wasn’t doing it. Wasn’t killing people. Didn’t even know why he might.

So all Max had was the guess, the belief, the assumption, that someday Sid would think he had to—

And that he’d be wrong.

It made sense. Sid thought it would happen, and that it would be right, and the difference between these statements is that the one is a lot more probable than the other.

But it still left Max with nothing more than not trusting Sid.

Than not believing Sid.

Because he loves him. Because he loves him and he can’t let Sid go wrong. He can’t let Sid go all vivisecting people on public streets while nobody notices wrong.

And he can see why that’s maybe not the cleanest motivation in the world, why the intensity of his fear doesn’t make it right, but at the end he’s still got this, that there’s something wrong with a guy so sure he’s going to kill someone, and that it’s a Hell of a thing that Max just has to watch.

So here’s the weird thing.

The goodblow—God, Good, virtue, whatever it was—had looked at him. And loved him. Its love was powerful enough to kill. Its love was terrible enough to drive Red Mary right back to the point of murder,

Not that she’d been so very far away,

And to make him feel—

Like he’s safer, safer, being drowned, being dragged down, down, down, than he had been before that gaze.

But it had been okay with his being wrong.

He doesn’t get that.

He isn’t okay with his being wrong. His soul is full of rough and knobbly edges. He lives in them. They are the grain in the wood of his existence. But he wants them smooth.

The goodblow hadn’t . . .

He doesn’t understand, as he’s preparing himself to die, why such a rough unfinished creature as is Max could know the love of Heaven.

Why it hadn’t fixed him.

He’d fumbled it with Sid, but that was the way in which he wasn’t God. He’d fumbled it, and he’d owned his guilt, because Max just wasn’t good enough to do any better.

Why hadn’t it fixed him?

And that’s the only bad thing about dying here and now, of letting go of the pain and passing on, now that he knows how intensely valued he is. That he’s seen the brightest love in all the world and still can’t figure how to save Sid.

That it’s useless to him.

That the goodblow doesn’t understand anything at all about how love is supposed to work, that it didn’t fix him, and that that meant it hadn’t shown him how somebody could fix Sid.

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

The Island of the Centipede

It is June 3, 2004.

The chaos is bluer than the bluest sea and wracked with love. It is full of air like a gel and dazzling with patterns of shifting light.

Oh, Max thinks.

Red Mary is beginning to sing. Her song is a paean to death. Her song transforms into iconic music the sea that devours, the sea that consumes, the sea that returns all things to the cauldron of life.

But:

Oh, Max thinks.

His thoughts flutter over and over again against the wall of things not being exactly as he’d expected, and one swoops back to him with the smallest of small answers.

Oh.

Love is not a duty.

Somewhere a part of him insists, it is.

But he lets go of that idea as the sea devours him. He lets the sea take that miscomprehension first—that worst and meanest part of Max.

A man’s got a right to choose in which order he gets eaten.

Love is not a duty.

He’s not chained to Sid’s outcomes.

Love is a transforming power.

And he wants—

So much, so much! he wants—

To use that, to use his last thought to make his eyes into flamethrowers and burn the world with his love for Sid, to take a trick from the goodblow and ignite the chaos with the power of that love so that whenever Sid would walk by, the sea would say,

“Max loved you, you know.”

Or just to love so fiercely that somehow Sid would feel it from afar.

But if people could do that it would happen more often, and not just in the fairy tales, because people love very hard indeed;

And Max is small and frail so instead he thinks, I’ll come back.

His mind is a wasteland made by the aftermath of Heaven and the siren’s song. He’s sailed to the end of the world for love of Sid and at the end, he can’t pull it to the forefront of his mind.

He thinks about survival instead.

Like Meredith did, he thinks.

I’ll come back.

Of course, if Sid had been there to ask, he’d have preferred that last thought anyway.

Next Tuesday will be an Audience post. The Island of the Centipede will continue on Thursday.

Happy Endings (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede — Chapter Three]

Max breathes shallowly. He can feel the pain. It is like static. In his leg it is large-grained static, woven through with long sinuous purple-brown strands of pain. In his hands and arms it is loud, fine, angry static. In his left hand it has a twisting interference pattern: the pain can’t bear itself, it drowns itself out, it wrestles with itself to impress great oscillations on his perceptions.

From the pain comes fear. The fear closes down the functions of his mind. It narrows his world to specks of thought.

The waves lapping against the boat and the sky and the clear purity of the rock and the sheer greenness of the grass—

He has these sensations too. They pass in and out of his consciousness.

He tries to notice them.

On some level he feels that it is important to notice them and the thinness of his presence in the world frees him to focus on what is important.

But when the pain dies down, even for a time, less meaningful things edge in, and he finds himself wondering,

Am I going to turn into a pumpkin?

Had the giraumon touched him? Was a touch enough?

The sheer purposelessness of that fate terrifies him, obsesses him, catches him up in it the moment the power of conscious thought returns to him.

He passes between these states—between pain-haunted awareness and near-maniacal obsession—for an hour and some change.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue 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.

The Island of the Centipede

“We fought,” Red Mary says.

Max is staring at his left hand.

He’s thinking: I don’t want to turn into a pumpkin. Is it going to turn into a pumpkin? God, I wish that white bit wouldn’t keep moving. Please don’t turn into a pumpkin. Or move into my wrist. Can I wiggle my finge—

Pain.

Damn it.

“Eric wanted to save us. So we fought. Because people always fight the things they love.”

Max looks up.

“Where are we going?”

“West.”

Max nods.

“We fought,” Red Mary says, “and we won, and we lost everything, and there wasn’t any hope any more.”

“Are you going to kill me?”

“The longer you are here,” Red Mary says. “In the vicinity of this island, the worse things will be.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“I don’t want to turn into a pumpkin,” Max says.

“Neither do I,” Red Mary says.

“Then I saved you.”

“The giraumon’s still alive,” Red Mary says.

“Oh.”

“The light in him gets a little dimmer every time he sets fire to the chaos and burns of himself to build. He is suffering. I cannot imagine how much he is suffering. But one extra splash won’t kill him.”

Max laughs a little.

“What?”

“You’re going to turn into a pumpkin too,” he says.

He even sings a little song:

I’m a pumpkin, you’re a pumpkin,
Wouldn’t you like to be a pumpkin too?

“I’ve been a siren for a long time,” says Red Mary. “But no one’s ever tried to sing me into despair before.”

“It’d be poetic,” Max says.

“No,” Red Mary says.

“What?”

“I was listening. It wasn’t poetic.”

“I meant the justice,” Max says.

Red Mary snorts.

“What?”

“Scansion before justice,” she says.

“But he’s going to.”

“Yes,” Red Mary says.

“Yes?”

“Unless I kill him first.”

“Ah.”

“We don’t have long,” she says. “Like I said. We only had a scant one thousand years. Then the fighting starts.”

Pain surges.

Time passes.

“It’s not rude,” Max says. He is squinting at the sky in the fashion that one might squint at a jigsaw puzzle.

“What?”

“He was talking about killing me anyway.”

“Yes.”

“So I had a right to be belligerent.”

“Are you making an appeal to me as a siren, or as a Confucian?”

Max hesitates.

“As a punching bag,” he says. “I’ll stop.”

“Okay.”

“But if you eat me,” he says, “you have to start with the hand.”

“What?”

“Man’s got a right to choose the order in which he gets eaten.”

“He could have infected you,” Red Mary says. “So you’re right. No eating.”

“Good.”

Then the island clears away down the seacourse to the west and for the first time Max sees the goodblow.

Miles and miles and miles away, but there:

A burning radiance with the shape of lightning, and it looks at him.

It looks at him.

It sees him.

The power of that gaze!

One hundred miles away if it’s an inch, and still it has the power to transform him, to catch him up, to drive into him and permeate the skin, the bones, the muscles, and the soul.

It loves him. In that moment he realizes that it loves him. That it names him and sees him in ways not even Sid has managed.

It is burning him.

It is destroying him.

It is knowing him too fast, and eating through the measures of his life. It is completing him.

It is the laying down of burdens. It is peace. It is all-enfolding joy.

It is ripping away his fragile sense of what is good and right and just and replacing it with adoration of the light.

He casts up a tarp. It flutters in the wind. It gives them some small shadow from that regard. Red Mary catches it before it flies away.

They huddle there.

In a small and feeble protest against Heaven, he says, “I’m not finished being Max.

The wind upon the tarp makes a sound like gunfire. The tarp bends in like the wind is pounding fists.

Then the goodblow fades and Max realizes through its absence that it has been staring at him through the tarp for all this time.

Red Mary lowers the tarp.

The sky is blue and purple and the clouds rush past above like cars.

Good is visible to the west but some sleight of weather or chaos or circumstance makes it temporarily more dim.

“Enough,” Red Mary says.

She seizes Max in the two arms of her and she leaves the knife of the history of Mr. Kong upon the deck and she kicks herself off the boat and they fall down into the sea.

“I should not,” she says, as the pressure builds, “have let you live.”

Her eyes are cold and black and murderous and like shade to him on the hottest summer day.

Pumpkin Sickness (3 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

It is June 3, 2004.

The sky is blue and the wind is fresh and Max’s blood is thick and red.

It’s soaking through the sailcloth of his bandages.

Red Mary’s face is not human but it is beautiful. Her eyes are black. Her teeth are sharp. Her skin is smooth and rounded. On her neck flutter purplish gills.

The sun makes a shadow from one cheekbone and seems thereby to evoke old sorrows.

Suddenly, Max laughs.

Red Mary looks at him.

“Iphigenia’s all right,” he says.

“Your . . . telepathic girlfriend?” she guesses.

“The sun,” says Max. “I’d been worried about her. But, look, she’s right there, you can tell by the light.”

Red Mary looks at him.

“Your nose is sunburnt,” she observes.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue 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.

The Island of the Centipede

Seacourses wind through the broken island. The catamaran glides past the island’s grassland, dry land, and trees.

Max catches the heavy smell of pumpkin, a flat sort of scent, just a little bit rotten.

The seacourse cuts into a hill — cuts clean through it, without a tunnel, so that the island rises on both sides of it but the only thing above it is the sky.

There is rind in the rock: orange corrugated rind.

Over the edge of the hill, and ambiguously presenting themselves to Max’s vision, he can see great round orange distant shapes.

Max looks down. He starts to say, “Why the pumpk—”

But Red Mary’s face is taut and she is shaking and he thinks it is with rage.

“It is the giraumon,” Red Mary says.

The catamaran approaches a long gentle curve in the seacourse’s path. Red Mary slows it as they turn.

“The giraumon?”

“He has been making.”

She stares ahead. The muscles of her jaw tense up. Then she says, “If he comes, do not speak to him. If he approaches, do not let him touch you. If he attacks, do not kill him, or I will feed you to the firvuli and humaneness be damned.”

“Oh,” Max says.

And the catamaran comes slowly around the great bend and there, standing on the water in their path, the giraumon waits.

He is reminiscent of a man, tall and bold, with windblown hair and skin the same sweet color as your own. His eyes are incredible, full of laughter and compassion and beloved secrets.

He has pumpkin sickness.

He has wings, these beautiful wings, flexible like rubber and strong like stone. He has wings and a sword and he is beautiful.

But he is sick.

Pumpkin is inching across the left side of him. Patches of its rind jut forth from the skin. The sickness makes a corrugated orangeness of his features. It has turned his left ear into a hole. It mars and makes lumpy the smooth flawlessness of his arm.

It has not quite yet reached that marvelous left eye.

Red Mary slows the catamaran. She takes down the sails. She lets it glide to a halt.

The giraumon walks forward on the waves.

“Hello,” he says. He smiles. “I’d hoped you’d come by. I made a road for you.”

Red Mary glances down at her fishtail.

“I thought, ‘what if I made a path by which Red Mary could reach perfection? Then she’d stop maundering on about the necessary impermanence of all solutions to our fate.'”

The giraumon gestures broadly. He indicates the island behind him. There is a path in the distance like a great bridge arching up from the rock towards Heaven. Most of it has fallen down. The rest has gone orange and saggy and rotten.

“Better you were dead,” Red Mary says. “Than wasting your fire thus.”

The giraumon grins. His teeth are more suggestions than discrete. “It was better before it turned all pumpkin.”

“I’ve asked you not to make things for me,” Red Mary says.

“Yes,” the giraumon agrees.

His grin fades so that he can lick his lips. He looks at Max.

“This is Max,” Red Mary says.

Pumpkin shudders across the giraumon’s face and brushes against the edging of his eye. The creature blinks in irritation.

Max’s hand inches towards the knife.

“He’s trying to find God,” Red Mary says.

“Men can’t find God,” the giraumon says. “They do well for a while but then they turn into pumpkins and, as often as not, fall into the sea.”

“I think, in this case, it’s shorthand for virtue.”

The giraumon spreads a hand, as if to say: But what does that change?

“I’m helping him,” Red Mary says.

Her body language poses this as a challenge.

The giraumon’s eyes flick over Max’s wounds. His grin returns. “Max must taste awfully.”

Red Mary makes a little face. It involves poking out her tongue and adopting an expression of disgust.

“Let us do this instead,” says the giraumon. “I will kill Max and transfer my consciousness to the corpse. Then I will have a handsome new body to wear for formal occasions.”

Max lunges for the knife. The sailcloth bandage tangles his arm. He kicks his legs to help with balance. The bandage on his leg catches against one of the blocks. Max rolls over. For a terrible moment he supports himself on his maimed left hand while his right hand claws at the knife. Then he screams an ungodly scream and twists to take the weight from his hand, loses his balance entirely, rolls over the knife, sinks it smoothly into the muscle of his arm, and falls halfway out of the boat with his head lolling into the sea.

The giraumon blinks.

“Or he can kill Max,” the giraumon says. “If he insists.”

Red Mary leans forward and catches Max’s collar and drags him back onto the ship. Max sputters, coughs, and collapses against the deck.

“How can you call yourself my friend,” Red Mary says, “giraumon, if you kill somebody I’m trying to help?”

Pumpkin spreads over the giraumon’s eye and makes of it an empty gash with candlelight behind.

The candlelight flickers.

“Don’t presume,” the giraumon says.

“No?”

“A thousand years ago,” the giraumon says, “I thought I saw something in you. A thing to make it worth my while to leave you in existence. But I have spent a thousand years in contemplation of the matter and every way I find to leave you lot alive just turns into a pumpkin and rots and falls into the sea. So do not mind me if I think that perhaps it is too much trouble to call Red Mary my friend.”

Sluggishly, Max pulls himself back into a sitting position. He tries to tug the knife out of his right arm using his right hand but he can’t get a grip. His face is pale.

“Come here and fight me,” he says.

“Whisht!” snaps Red Mary.

The candle behind the pumpkin gleams.

“I don’t want to listen to this,” Max says. “Fight when I’m gone.”

“Leave him alone,” Red Mary hisses.

Max slumps. His maimed left hand drops into the sea.

The pumpkin sickness edges rightwards and the giraumon loses his nose. Then he is moving, he is close, his orange knobbly finger is lunging in towards Max.

Max’s hand comes up to meet it.

He splashes chaos straight from the sea into the candle of the giraumon’s brain.

The giraumon shrieks. He recoils. He recedes along the seacourse, steam bursting forth from the top of his head. It rises in great clouds which form into circling bats, a piano, forgiveness, a white sword longer than a ship, and a sheet of paper on which is written the answer to all pain.

The giraumon bounds up to the shore and he is gone.

Slowly, Red Mary extends her hand to catch the paper. It drifts into her hand. Its surface is thickening, growing orange; she squints to make out the first word, and by the time she reads the second the writing on it is gone.

“Will he live?” Max asks, by way of asking, Will I live?

“If it were not bats and a piano,” Red Mary says, “he would have used it up on something else.”

They are surrounded by orange and the catamaran gently sways. The sea beneath them stinks of pulp.

Max isn’t sure whether she’s answered him or not, or whether that answer would be positive or negative.

Red Mary starts the catamaran to moving again.

Something large and gray and terrible rises from the center of the island and catches three of the bats in its great flat teeth.

Max slumps.

“We souls within this world,” Red Mary says.

The sea licks blood from the catamaran’s side.

“I think we do not need to find God,” Red Mary says, “so much as a way to live with what we love.”

The Loneliness of the World (2 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

Once upon a time, if you can believe Red Mary, the Buddha walked the world.

Back then, everything was exactly as it was.

Things had their own natures. A cloud was a cloud. A person was a person. A tree was a tree.

And more than that, every last person had their own way of being.

The world chose some people to be Kings by birth, gave rise to them with a nature for rule, and they sat on thrones and this was right. To others the world assigned a destiny of merchanthood or prostitution. The world birthed witches, killers, and creatures with terrible talents. It also gave rise to people with no more magic to them than the right to have a name and a family and an origin and an age.

The Buddha took that away.

He looked around and he said, “Because Kings are Kings, there is suffering. Because prostitutes are prostitutes, there is suffering. Because one man is a witch and can cast terrible spells, people suffer, and because another man is not and cannot, people suffer. It is even occasionally problematic that clouds are clouds.”

“Sure, but what can you do about it?” his mother asked.

The Buddha, if you can believe Red Mary, was always arguing with his mother. Even when you might think he’d be taking care of his son or meditating under a bo tree or achieving enlightenment or something, if you listen to Red Mary, he was probably arguing with his mother instead.

“What can you do about it?” she asked. “Because it’s so very precious to people that they are as they are.”

“It’s precious,” he said. “But that won’t stop me! I’ll still take it all away.”

And he spoke the word anatman and from him issued a great breath of change that stripped the natures from the world and from that point it was no longer true that things were always themselves.

From that day forward, when somebody was King, it wasn’t because it was right or even wrong that they were King. It was because of a causal chain of events that had put them on the throne. And when somebody was a merchant or a prostitute, that wasn’t dharma either. It just was. Even if you could figure out what the world had made you to do, it wasn’t necessarily so that you could do it.

Trees weren’t always trees.

The sun wasn’t always the sun.

Sometimes clouds turned to vapor and just drifted apart.

And as for the gods, they weren’t there.

The gods, the magic, the power of the witches, it was just . . . gone.

And for five hundred years this made people happy even in the face of the torments of the world; and then for fifteen hundred years, no matter how unhappy people were, they still had access to salvation.

But all that’s over now.

Now it’s the latter days of the law. The power of the Buddha’s word is fading. Magic is creeping in around the edges. People sometimes act in accordance with their nature. Kings by birth sit on the thrones again. People find themselves pawns helpless before their dharma.

The old ways are coming back.

But we already know that magic doesn’t fix things. We already know that it’s not enough to save anyone.

And as for the Buddha’s answer?

The powerlessness of anatman?

It’s kind of surprising, in these the Latter Days of the Law, that it ever helped anybody at all.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue 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.

The Island of the Centipede

“What was it like?” Max asks.

“Hm?”

“For the gods,” Max says. “I’ve always wondered.”

“And hadn’t I just said we were gone?”

“Not all of you,” Max says. “Not Rahu. Not Pelopia. Not even Santa, if Jane is to be believed.”

“Santa,” says Red Mary.

She laughs.

“Disbelief?”

“Disdain.”

“Ah.”

Red Mary sighs.

“We were severed from the world,” she says. “We lived but we could not touch you. We spoke but you could not hear. I sang my song to Halldis who suffered and whom I imagined needed the power to dissolve. For she who made me, I sang, and to open for her a gateway to the freedom from her pain. But she did not dissolve. I cried to the White Christ to give her surcease but He did not answer. I begged favors of the sun, of the moon, of the stars. And four years later Halldis died in childbed and I went on. I lived in a fountain with cracked stone lions and I sang to kill the lamps and the pigeons and when that failed me I crawled westwards to the sea, and none in all that place to remember my passing or that I had ever been.”

“Why?”

“‘Why?'”

“Why?”

“‘The problem with egolessness,'” Red Mary says—and the inflection is strange, so that Max thinks she is quoting—“‘is that it never happens to the right people.'”

The catamaran drifts left and Max can see the texture of the island, the wrinkles of the rock, the black stones embedded in it, the mussels at the chaos’ edge.

“We’d never had the power we thought we had,” Red Mary says.

Max looks blankly at her.

“I’d thought it was the dharma of a siren to dissolve others into the greatness of the world,” she says. “But better to say: it is the dharma of a siren to dissolve others for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time, and to the wrong outcome.”

“Ah,” Max says.

“And yet we must try to be good.”

There’s an edge of skepticism to her voice that worries Max, so he doesn’t answer her.

“We can’t,” says Red Mary. “But somehow, we must try.”

She laughs.

“Disdain?” Max asks.

“Disbelief.”

And the catamaran sails on in the channels of the broken island, in the sea of chaos to the west of Gibbelins’ Tower, in the loneliness of the world.