Standing in the Storm: The Jaguars

Five of Emily’s friends, and one acquaintance, are dead.

“Come on,” says Saul. He rises. He takes Emily’s arm. He leads her out onto the street. They begin walking towards the school where it all started.

“They’re dead!” Emily shrieks. “You killed them! You monster!

Saul doesn’t seem to have noticed her outburst. After a moment she realizes that that’s because she didn’t outburst aloud. She outburst silently, inside herself.

The moment has passed. She can’t shriek at him now. It would seem artificial.

“He liked me,” she says.

She means Fred. He’s one of the dead ones.

“Good,” says Saul.

This is a story about jaguars. Emily loves them.

It’s also a story about death. Emily doesn’t want to be eaten. She wants to live a long time and then die in a beautiful place, surrounded by something wonderful.

Finally, it’s a story about a hat that sorted people into a high pure vision of what they should be, and about the people who thought that that might not have been the best idea.

This isn’t a story about Vladimir or Edmund. If it helps, Vladimir meets a horrifying fate and Edmund lives happily ever after. Edmund would have died, except that Saul sends him to safety shortly after this story ends.

Just in case you really wanted to know.

“There are tiny scales on your skin,” says Emily. She’s looking at Saul’s hands. She’s looking at his fingers.

Saul looks at his fingers.

Saul bites at one of his fingers. It’s a thinking gesture. But pretty soon it turns into a chewing gesture, and then a flesh-tearing gesture. He stops himself with a wrenching shudder.

“Listen,” Emily says. “When people look at other people, they don’t see what’s really there. They see something else. They see reality, but distorted. Like it’s through a lens. The lens is flawed. The shape of that flaw is Gotterdammerung.”

“The apocalypse,” says Saul.

“People kept predicting it,” says Emily. “But it didn’t happen. Because it was something in the world we see. Not in the world that is.

Saul tilts his head to one side.

Emily shrugs.

“You know how primitive people would see lightning and think of gods?” she says. “It’s like that. We’d look at other people and see these alien things. Heroes and villains and trash for the killing. That’s the world we saw. A world where the apocalypse drew ever closer, driven by the marching drumbeats of the heralds of oblivion.”

There is a distant drumbeat in the wind, and the bleat from far Bifrost of Heimdall on the tuba.

“It’s actually a lower-energy state for the world,” Emily says. “Gotterdammerung worlds are easier. The kind of thing God could have done on a lazy Sunday afternoon, after finishing up here. But he didn’t. Your purpose didn’t come from God. Instead, Vladimir made a hat, and it sorted you into his vision for the world.”

Emily might have had more to say. But she doesn’t say it.

Instead, she hisses in air. She bites her lip. She stares.

They’ve just rounded the corner and she can see the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth.

It has, at last, lived up to its name.

All through it the ivy grows and the students are dead, save where the surviving beasts of Hunger run.

Saul isn’t taken aback by the sight. He’s still thinking about their conversation.

“Hats don’t lie about moral issues,” says Saul, uneasily.

But Emily is staring at the dead.

The Edmund-beast snarls. Then it yowls. It’s the kind of noise that reminds you that if the gnostics are right there’s a blind idiot God somewhere in the universe burning popcorn in the microwave before settling in to watch the suffering of your life.

It is answered by howls.

All through the school there is howling. It is a rising voice. The beasts give praise to hunger and to death.

“It’s obscene,” explains Saul, who still hasn’t noticed her horror. “I see a purpose. It is high. It is holy. It is noble. We must develop the hunger until it consumes the world. This purpose is inherent in the universe. The hat opened my eyes to that purpose. It can’t have created it.”

And Emily wrenches herself from the sight. She lowers her eyes. She looks at the shadows on the ground.

“It’s not your fault,” she says.

“But how can I know?” says Saul. “By what yardstick? How can I tell if what I see is universal or delusion?”

“It’s not your fault,” Emily stresses. “It’s too late. You’ve already been assigned. You can’t tell. It was always nothing more than a question of how long we could contain the damage.”

“Oh,” says Saul.

The hunger is rising in the beasts of the school. To Saul, it is the great surging of an endless sea. To Emily it is a concert for xylophone and tuba. It fills the air with the power of it.

And the Keepers’ House is there.

“We’ll hold it back,” Emily says, “for as long as we can.”

Edmund’s broken away from Saul and Emily. He’s loping over towards the remaining Keepers. He’s looking into their faces.

“Don’t eat me,” says the foppish Englebert. “My family has the ear of the Queen.”

“Wow,” says Edmund. “Really?”

“No,” admits Englebert. He slumps. Then he dissolves into a spray of various parts.

“I’ll give you Keeper cooties,” protests Isobel.

“I’ve got some,” says the Edmund-beast.

“I hope the wolf steps on you,” Isobel mopes.

Things proceed.

There aren’t enough of them left to hold Edmund’s hunger back.

It surges out from the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth. The breaking of the Keepers’ lives is a gap in the dike, and the hunger pours down into the world.

“What’s going to happen?” Saul asks.

Emily looks at him bleakly.

“No reason not to say,” says Saul.

“The wolf will come,” says Emily. “You’ll turn into beasts. The boot, no doubt, will fall. The world we’ve dreamed of will force its way in. And I guess I don’t get the death I wanted.”

Saul nods. The hunger rises in him. It is like a flame. It is like a cold and terrible sea. Saul does not hold it back. He opens his fanged mouth. He rears back like a serpent. The Saul-beast’s eyes burn red and its hat is green like a snake’s.

Er, scales.

Like a snake’s scales.

And just before he eats her, three things happen.

The first thing is that a great wolf wanders in. Its binding cord has broken; where the hunger is, the dwarves have no power. Fenrir is curious. The hunger calls it. So it has come.

The second thing is that the House of Hunger sloughs off more of its humanity.

And suddenly Emily is cheerful. She is pointing at Edmund. She is laughing, like a child, like a bright clear bell. “You have spots,” she says.

This causes Saul to pause and Edmund to blush.

“They’re good spots,” the Edmund-beast mutters.

Saul’s eyes are narrowed.

“You’re oddly bubbly,” says Saul, “for someone who’s about to die.”

Emily’s shoulders sink as she relaxes. She looks at him peacefully. “Jaguars are my favorite part of Gotterdammerung,” she sighs.

The third thing is that the great space station, Vidar’s Boot, comes down; for there is something in a boot that loves to stomp, and nothing is quite so stompable as one’s alma mater.

“The wolf’ll eat most of you before it dies,” says Emily, peacefully. It’s not a threat. It’s a gift. She’s giving Saul a chance to react.

WHAM!

The station strikes the ground.

WHAM!

The station strikes the ground again.

WHAM!

The shockwave of the boot’s impact throws the House of Hunger into the air.

Now it’s raining men. Well, jaguars. Well, jaguar-men.

“It’s like Christmas came early!” Emily says, happily.

The boot clips the wolf, and suddenly it is looking for a place to run, and there are howling and yowling and clucking and chittering beasts in its path.

Down fall the jaguars like a gentle rain; and it is there, standing in the storm, surrounded by something wonderful, that Emily dies.

Standing in the Storm: Calling to the Wolf

The Hubble II drifts around the world.

It looks at space. Space is different. There’s something at its edges. Something hungry.

The Hubble II clicks and whirrs. Its great glass lenses roll into position. The frame of the telescope vibrates. It stares harder at the edge of the world.

“This is beyond me,” it says.

So it turns its burning eye on Vidar’s Boot. It sends a message. It opens a link. Data flows.

“I was looking at things,” says the Hubble II. “Space has a texture now.”

It is 2012, and the tape drives of the majestic computerized space station, Vidar’s Boot, begin to spin. The lights on its consoles flash.

Vidar’s Boot says, slowly, “Space is performing work.”

“What does it mean?”

“It means that I am summoned,” says Vidar’s Boot. “I am called to stomp.”

It hesitates.

“You cannot stomp upon the world,” acknowledges Vidar’s Boot. “You are a telescope.”

“I will look at things,” says the Hubble II.

There is affectionate warmth in Vidar’s Boot‘s reply.

“You are a wonder,” the space station says.

Fred and Emily were members of the Keepers’ House. They kept hunger, and torment, and even saintliness at bay.

One of the stories of hunger and saintliness begins here. That’s the one where we meet Edmund, who just ate Fred, and also some other people.

This story begins here. So far, it’s about what Keeping means, but today it’s also about the things that are Kept.

It is 2012, and the doom of things approaches. In Mr. Domel’s basement, the wolf is restive. It is pacing. It is tugging on the cord that binds it. It is whining.

Mr. Domel stands at the top of the stairs. He looks down. His face is affectless.

“Be still,” he says.

Fenrir, unhappy, vomits up a bit of dwarf and various stomach liquids. Then it looks at the ground and sniffs at the puddle. It looks up at Mr. Domel.

“. . . you can’t expect me to clean that up,” says Mr. Domel.

“You left the dwarf out,” reasons Fenrir, persuasively, cocking one ear down and one ear up. “That makes it your fault.”

“I didn’t—”

Mr. Domel founders, hesitates, and then looks disgusted.

“I’m not going to talk about a dead person this way when he’s right there in front of me in chunks,” he says. “What the hell happened?”

“He wanted to check my cord,” says Fenrir.

Mr. Domel steps back three steps. He slams the door. There is darkness for a while. When he returns, he’s pointing a loaded shotgun at Fenrir.

“It’s got wolfshot in it,” he says.

Fenrir tosses its head. It licks a bit at the dwarf, then shrugs. “Do you know why the dwarfs made my cord from things like a river’s stillness and the lightning’s depth?”

“No,” says Mr. Domel.

“In the energy differential between concept and reality,” says Fenrir, “there lies a power. This is the fuel for the dwarven engines, the dwarven smithies, the dwarven works.”

Fenrir tugs on the cord. The cord strains but still it holds.

“Leave me alone,” says the wolf, pettishly.

“Why did the dwarf break into my basement?” says Mr. Domel.

Fenrir looks up.

“He was drunk,” says Fenrir. “Drunk and afraid. He thought the hunger of the beasts would call me. He thought that it would set me free. But it hasn’t, yet.”

So Mr. Domel backs away. Mr. Domel closes the door.

Fenrir tugs on the cord. There is a snap. It’s the nerve of a bear, one of the strands of the cord, and it just broke.

In 2004, Emily met Fred’s mom for the first and only time. Emily and the other Keepers were standing in a spooky circle around one of the poor kids from the House of Torment at parent-teacher night, holding in his pain. And Fred’s mom walked past and suddenly she stopped.

“Oh!” she said. “You must be Emily!”

Slowly, Emily turned her head. She gave Fred’s mom a wicked squint. But Fred’s mom returned a brilliant smile.

“I’m Heather Moorage,” she said. “Fred’s told me everything about you.”

Heather looked Emily up and down.

“But I thought you’d be more talkative,” Heather added.

“I’m keeping him sane,” said Emily. She jut her chin towards the poor kid from the house of Torment. He didn’t even have a name. That’s how much his life sucked. “If his torment really took hold, it’d call the wolf.”

Heather scratched at her head. She looked in at the kid, squinting like she was having a little bit of trouble seeing him.

“Is that really something a girl your age should be doing?” Heather said.

“Do you know what happens when the dike cracks between the Earth and Hel?” Emily said. “Do you know what they say about people who leave the dike to break because they’re ‘girls my age?'”

Heather grinned a little.

Emily looked back. “The pressure would equalize,” she emphasized. “Gotterdammerung is a lower-energy state.”

Heather grinned wider.

“What?” Emily said.

“You’re so serious,” Heather said. She took Emily’s hand, squeezed it once, and walked away beaming.

Eight years later, as Saul drags her out of the coffeeshop, Emily suddenly realizes that Fred liked her.

“He liked me,” she says.

“Good,” says Saul. “It is good to be liked.”

“Don’t call the wolf,” says Emily.

“We’re not going to call a wolf,” says Saul. “Unless that’s an unanticipated consequence of turning into beasts and eating the world.”

“. . . yes.”

“Then today is probably not your day,” says Saul.

Or is it? Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion, Standing in the Storm: The Jaguars!

Standing in the Storm: Their Lives Were Jewels

This story begins here.

“It’s getting harder,” says Emily.

She’s hanging out in a booth in a coffee shop talking on her cell phone to Bertram. Using the phone is pretty much habit. Since they’re not talking aloud, neither of them has actually bothered to turn their phone on.

“Totally,” says Bertram.

There’s a woman at one of the tables. She looks at Emily. She’s generically irritated that Emily is on the cell phone even though she can’t actually hear anything that Emily is saying. But before the woman can comment Emily looks at her with empty, hollow eyes and mouths the woman’s name. That’s so horrifying that the woman shudders and hurries from the shop.

“It’s Hunger,” says Emily. “The House of Torment is still pretty well-behaved. Dreams is Dreams, and I’m not even sure there are any saints left. But Hunger . . .”

“It’s like they’re encouraging it,” Bertram says.

“They can’t do that, can they?” interjects Fred.

Emily hesitates.

“Fred,” she says, “I am trying to impose the context of a phone call on this conversation.”

“It’s a conference call,” says Fred.

“Oh,” says Emily.

Emily shivers away her confusion.

“I think they are encouraging it,” Emily concludes. “I think they are actively cultivating the hunger within them.”

“But it’ll get out,” says Fred. “We won’t be able to keep it.”

“Yes,” says Emily. “But it’s okay, if we tried? I mean, failure’s okay?”

But before Fred answers, Emily suffers a distraction.

“You are a difficult person to eavesdrop on,” says the Saul-beast.

It should never have happened.

The sorting hat was not the first crack in the armor of the world. Through cracks of just such a kind came Fenris Wolf into the world, and other things. It was not the first and it was not the last.

But it should never have been at all.

At the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth, the only British boarding school that doubles as a secret weapon against giant wolves, the sorting hat came into the world. It changed people—into saints, into mad scientists, into tormented souls, into beasts. It sorted them into new destinies. It perverted them to new forms.

One man was sorted twice. He is the head boy of the House of Beasts. He is its visionary. His name is Saul.

The call is like elevator music, like Barry Manilow ballading on the sitar, like a cheerful twanging distant and strange. It is a ballad heard not with the ears but with the heart.

It is how the Keepers know that Gotterdammerung nears.

Emily looks up.

Bertram is there. Fred is there. Morgan is there. All of the others are there. They have drifted into the scene from unknown places. They are standing in the entrances to the coffee shop, outside the glass wall, against the bar. They are watching events unfold.

“Guys,” silents Emily, in profound relief.

“Yo,” says Fred.

And in the silence the Saul-beast opens its mouth.

“Are you still a saint?” Emily asks him, aloud.

Saul hesitates.

“I’ll tell you what we are,” Emily says, “if you will tell me that.”

Then Saul sits opposite her. He pulls the salt and pepper shakers out and sets them on the table between them. He smiles at her.

“Hello,” he says. “My name is Saul. I was sorted into the House of Hunger, but it was my second sorting. Before that I was a saint. I am the last survivor of the House of the Saints. My brother Edmund ate the others. Who are you?”

Emily looks at him.

“Oh God Oh God Oh God,” she is saying, to the other members of the Keepers’ House, because she is terrified that Saul will eat her. But he cannot hear her. She is silent and gnomic before him.

“Saul,” she says. “You have to understand that what you are doing is not in the best interests of—”

The hunger that surges up in Saul’s eyes is like a physical blow. It silences her and pushes her back against her seat.

“Who are you?” says Saul, companionably, again.

“My name is Emily,” Emily says meekly. “I like jaguars and coffee. I am a Keeper. I contain you so that your hunger does not call the wolf.”

“Good,” says Saul.

He leans back.

“Containment,” Saul says, thoughtfully.

Emily reaches out. She touches his hand. It’s a dangerous thing to do. But she wants to tell him a confidence.

“I don’t want to be eaten by people or wolves,” says Emily. “I want to live a long time and die in a beautiful place, surrounded by something wonderful. It is like the Hunger, only it’s not.”

Saul stares at her for a while. His eyes are distant like a snake’s.

“The purpose of humanity,” says Saul, “is to transform into beasts and devour the world. You are inhibiting this purpose. You must cease.”

“That isn’t so,” says Emily.

Saul looks around.

“Why haven’t I eaten you yet?” the Saul-beast asks. It is genuinely puzzled, because it was sure it would have eaten her already.

“Damn!” swears Bertram silently. “He’s on to us!”

“Run away! Run away!”

“We can’t run,” notes Fred. “He’ll eat Emily! I like Emily.”

Fred pauses.

“Not that way,” Fred clarifies.

Emily gets to her feet. She stares down at Saul. The others swell around them, containing, keeping, holding back Saul’s hunger.

The beast in Saul can sense it.

He is catching on.

“Saul,” Emily presses, in her last few moments of safety. “You have been corrupted by the sorting hat. Your mind has been altered. You are wrong about the destiny of humanity, and you will destroy your own House.”

“Make your case,” says Saul.

“I—”

Fred is gone.

Emily looks up sharply. She looks around the shop. Her brain cannot parse what has happened.

Bertram is gone.

There is something warm and wet on Emily’s face.

Morgan is gone. Lisa is gone. Betty and Veronica are gone.

“Go!” says Emily, to the others. Her voice is audible, so shaken is she. “Go now.”

The Keepers’ House disperses, leaving only Emily, Saul, and their dead; and sitting on the floor amidst the blood, chewing happily on Bertram’s arm, is the Edmund-beast.

And there is a burgeoning breath of pain in Emily. And she says, “I—”

“Ah,” says Saul. “I have backup.”

“I—”

“It’s all right to be frightened,” Saul says. “But you’ll need to make your case.”

Emily isn’t frightened. She is staring at him. She is mouthing a single syllable blankly. But what she means by it is this:

“How dare you take them from me and this world?

“Their lives were jewels: unswerving, dauntless, loving, precious things—And they died before they knew how wonderful they were.”

Doesn’t it suck when that happens?

Anyway, now Emily’s alone with the beasts, and also, the world’s about to end. Check back tomorrow or the next day for Standing in the Storm: Calling to the Wolf!

Standing in the Storm: The Keepers’ House

Emily had always wanted a jaguar. When she was a young girl, she’d point at them in the zoo and say, “Mommy! Mommy! Jaguar! Jaguar!”

But her mother didn’t understand. She’d just say things like, “That’s right!” and “Yes!” and “It’s time to go home now, Emily.”

Young kids can’t say what’s on their mind. They can think it, but they can’t boil down those thoughts efficiently into a communicable form. That’s why Emily just said “Mommy!” and “Jaguar!” when what she meant was:

“It is very hard to be a person. To live in this world—that’s an exquisite sorrow! What is not tainted with the universal characteristic of suffering?

“But there is also this: the recognition in this moment that I may find beauty within this world. That there is something that makes it worthwhile to be here. That there are jaguars. These are things to take my breath away and lift my spirit and make me glad that I was born, that I will live and breathe and suffer and eventually die. These are a marvel. Oh, mother, oh, mother. Look at them move!

Then she’d wave her chubby little hands around in frustration because her mother did not understand.

Emily’s admiration of the great yellow beasts never faded.

That’s why she was very excited when she was sorted into the Keepers’ House. The hats of the Keepers’ House are yellow, just like a jaguar’s.

Er, fur.

Just like a jaguar’s fur.

The Houses were born of Vladimir’s hubris.

His “sorting hat” reshaped the students of his school into five distinct Houses. It changed their nature. It subjected them to the rules of their House. It committed a crime against their humanity.

Thus Peter, of the House of Saints, interceded for others even unto his death.

And Cheryl, of the House of Dreams, lives with lightning in her mind.

And Sid, of the House of Torment, hurt until he died.

And Saul, of the House of Hunger, has become a beast.

Their story began with House of Saints, here. But there are truths the saints would never know.

Emily graduated in 2008 from the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth, but she keeps tabs on all her classmates. “The Keepers’ House keeps in touch,” as Bertram says.

“Yes, we do!” Emily always replies.

They have a very important duty. They have to keep the world from ending.

“I try to stay enthusiastic,” says Emily. “But it’s hard.”

She doesn’t have to actually say it out loud. They hardly ever do. Most of the people in the Keepers’ House just know what the others want to say. It’s part of the nature of the House.

“It really is,” Fred agrees.

It’s 2012, and they’re standing in a creepy circle around Saul. Saul is a young man now. He’s lean and his eyes are deeply-set. He is meditating in a cross-legged pose. He’s a student of the House of Hunger, and hunger seethes in him like a stormy sea.

His skin has very tiny scales on it, almost too small to see. They are more visible when the hunger is upon him, like the beast in him is prickling up and hardening his flesh.

It’s hard not to sense the creepy circle. It’s people standing around him and they’re staring.

So Saul opens his eyes. He feigns a neutral expression.

“Do you mind?” Saul says.

“Run away!” says Emily. Saul does not hear, but the others do. “Run away!”

The Keepers’ House disperses. Emily always feels very awkward and ungainly when she flees, but Bertram’s reassured her that she is as silent and flowing as the rest of them. So she tries not to feel too embarrassed as she gusts away.

Saul gets to his feet. He tilts his head to one side. Then he swings it to the other. Inside him, he twitches, and the beast takes over.

Gaunt and feral, it begins to stalk Emily.

“Uh oh!” says Emily, as she finds herself facing a wall with the Saul-beast stalking behind her. The beast doesn’t hear. She cuts left to the cargo lift.

The lift, which she had left locked there on the ninth floor, is now on the first.

“Fudge,” silents Emily.

She presses the button. She looks around her.

There’s a window to her left. It’s plexiglass.

Her yellow hat is the brightest thing in the hall.

The building she’s in is the main office of a company called Manifest. It is where Saul works. If it were Emily’s nature to do so, she could shout out, and there is a chance someone would come. They might say, “Saul, please remember that we are already being sued over the last nineteen visitors you have eaten.” Then there would be a chance that the Saul-beast would back down, and there would be a separate chance that it would eat the complainant and acquire another permanent black mark for Saul’s record.

It is not Emily’s nature to shout. So instead she turns. She looks at the Saul-beast.

In a clear and audible voice, she says, “What is it, Saul?”

“I am hungry,” states the Saul-beast.

“I am indigestible,” says Emily. “It is my bad diet. I eat too much salt, fat, and plastic. If only I were a normal girl! I would eat the Pringles, but leave the bag. But I am not, and I must decline to be eaten. With apologies.”

The Saul-beast laughs.

It steps closer.

Emily shrinks back.

“I am always hungry now,” says the Saul-beast. “And I am practicing to become more so. That hunger is my strength. One day I will open my mouth and I will eat the world.”

“Oh,” cries Emily.

It is a soft, pained sound. She looks down.

Then the Saul-beast is on her. It is pushing her back. Its hands are like iron pistons that force her shoulder and side back against the door. Its neck is absurdly long and thin and it arches back. Its canine teeth are longer than they were, once, and there is venom in them.

“That wasn’t fear,” says Saul. “That was sympathy.

“It wasn’t,” protests Emily. “It was sadness at the way of things. It was a recognition of their ohness.”

“Tell me,” says Saul. “What is your House for?”

“Hm?” Emily says.

“Why do you gather? What prompts your comings and goings? Why do you stand around people in a creepy circle, and then disperse to the winds? For what purpose did the sorting process make you?”

“Oh,” says Emily. “That’s a secret.”

The lift doors open. There is a janitor in them, pushing a wheeled contraption involving a trash can, mops, and cleaning supplies. For just a moment, as Emily drifts back, the geometry of the situation confounds the Saul-beast. She is inside. The janitor is outside. The Saul-beast is outside. The doors close. Emily slumps.

Time passes.

. . . but it won’t be a secret tomorrow! Be sure to read Tuesday’s entry, Standing in the Storm: Their Lives Were Jewels!