Scarab All-a-Fulminatin’, Explody & Oh Shi— (I/I)

Video:

The warhead strikes Central. It explodes! The explosion freezes. The scarab beetle catches it. It begins to roll up the explosion into a clever little ball.

The picture freezes.

“This,” the monster says, “is a scarab of explosions. It’s an infallible defensive measure in event of bombings, since it uses explosions both as its food and as the containers for its eggs.”

It is 2002 the year of our Lord. The monster is speaking to a Prince of men; a Prince in white, with a small black beard.

The Prince is not entirely convinced.

“Why?” he asks.

“Why?” the monster repeats.

“Why should there be a beetle that contains explosions? The Star Wars missile defense has been called fanciful, fairy-tale, fantastic; this defense, then, cannot even qualify for those names.”

“Ah,” says the monster. He closes his eyes. “Why should there be a beetle that rolls the sun across the sky? That dies at the end of each day, and is reborn from its own semen, shot into a clod of dung? Why should there be beetles that carry the souls of the dead away, to be judged in unhallowed courts? Why should there be beetles at all?”

Sir,” says the Prince. He is angry.

“People don’t want to explode,” says the monster.

He opens his eyes. His voice is a little sad. “They look for something they can do. There isn’t anything, though. God won’t save them, Highness. Science gives them nothing. So they turn to coleoptera.”

The monster starts the video up again.

“How does it live?” the Prince asks. Perhaps, demands.

“Shamelessly,” says the monster.

The video shows little scarabs scrambling out of bursts of flame. It shows the battles and power struggles of the children. It shows Melanie, laughing, with three tiny little bomb-bursts crawling along her skin.

“They die, constantly,” the monster admits. “But they come back. They’re like roaches. Or that—”

He doesn’t know whether saying ‘that Jesus dude’ will offend a Prince of Saud.

“Or Cary Grant. They’re beetles.”

The screen goes black.

“It’s what they do.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER TWO]


May 28, 2004

Melanie has no time to react. It is all instinct. She is horribly exposed: she can tell that much. She is standing in the middle of a battlefield without an aegis. She’s face-to-face with Micah, who is very dangerous, and she has a scarab of explosions at her side.

Threnody is hurling the lightning.

Melanie slams down the walls around her heart. She sets everything aside. She bites the head off of every question in her being, like a mantis with its mate, and she is open, she is empty, she is floating and groundless and without origin or endpoint as the lightning strikes.

That is how it has to be.

She knows the rule of lightning: that it begins with that which is struck.

So she asks not the question to which lightning makes its wild answer. She does not lower the lens of her perceptions or preconceptions down to see the world. For a long moment, as the lightning falls, she floats there, rootless.

It slams into Micah, and she is safe.

It crucifies him, blasts him head to groin and flows down into the ground, spreads his hands apart and agonizes him—and she, demanding nothing, is safe—

Is—

Is—

What the Hell, Micah, she thinks.

She stares.

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

He is screaming. Oh, so terribly he is screaming. But she is not safe at all. She is, instead, astonished, for he has caught the lightning.

He is burning. Oh, so terribly he is burning. But he is not letting go.

He is not letting it dissolve. He is not letting it ground through him to the earth. He is holding it.

She whistles, long and low.

It is possibly a mistake, she realizes, suddenly, to let Tina go around torturing gods with electricity; working it into them, branding them to their bones with the lightning-pain, making them know it as they know their eyes, their hands, their hearts, their thoughts, their fate. It is possibly a mistake to let that become a part of somebody, a core of their life experience, if you might ever need to blast them with lightning later—

It strikes her as a subject worthy of a monograph, at the least. On the wearing thin of the judgment of Heaven when used without discrimination, perhaps, or Recidivistic considerations related to the galvanic treatment of captive gods . . .

The lightning is burning him. It is melting him like a candle, but he is not letting the liquid flesh drip from him, he is holding it on the surface of his hands by will alone.

He is holding the lightning and he does not let it go.

He is turning towards her, oh, so slowly, and his teeth are white and his eyes are white and the screams have stopped and his face holds such enormous pain—

Oh! she whispers, in her mind. Such pain!

—and he whispers, “Shall you know not justice?”

” ‘Should,'” she corrects him, absently. SHOULD you know not justice?

It would have derailed any other god. It should have derailed him, should have made him fumble, made him lose his grip, but Micah just smiles whiter. His teeth are sweating in the heat.

“Should you know not justice?” Micah asks, “You who hate good and love evil? Who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones? Who eat my people’s flesh, strip off their skin, and break their bones in pieces? Who chop them up like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot?”

She wants to laugh. It’s brilliant.

“You can’t be serious,” she says. “That’s from a verse about the sun setting for the prophets, and the day going dark for them. That’s about God’s vengeance on people like your sister, Micah, and her fastness becoming a heap of rubble, and this hill a mound overgrown with thickets—”

He isn’t listening.

He isn’t listening to her at all. She stares.

“Should you know not justice?” he asks again. “Because the thing is, Melanie, the thing is? What you do?”

She owes him this much. She maps the terrain around her, quickly, with her eyes, and then she meets his burning gaze and she says, “Yeah?”

“It’s wrong.”

It fountains from him then. It overflows. He does not hurl the lightning, but rather bursts with it, loses it, runs over with it like a clogged sink struck by a sudden flow. It shatters from him like the waves from a missile that falls into a lake. It cries out thunder. Lightning arcs from him to the scarabs, to the crayon creatures, to the footsoldiers and the dog. It dances in frustration around Melanie like a braided rope, like a hoop from a crinoline skirt, like a halo forbidden and restless to lay itself upon and brand an angel’s brow.

It is hungry for her. It grinds its teeth around her but it cannot bite.

She sees what is coming. It unfolds in her mind, and there are two paths for her, two roads that she may walk.

There is a flying god that is swooping past. She can take its tail and be away; may float past as it floats; she has timed it, she can do it, she can leave him there to wail, and be safe

Or—

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me.

The scarab of explosions bursts. It becomes a string of fireworks. It becomes a bang, and then another bang, and then another. It cannot contain itself. It cannot bind its own explosion. If it could then scarabs would be immortal, rather than always dying and always rising up again.

It is just a beetle. Beetles don’t know not to think the kind of question that the lightning answers. Beetles don’t know to let themselves loose from expectations and from preconceptions when people are throwing lightning here and there. Nobody hires beetles as meteorologists, and that’s half the reason for it; the other being, now and then, if there’s an errant spark or whatever, a beetle will explode.

And life is sweet and it loves the sun
But we’re born to die when our hour comes.

He is howling. The howls and sobs are ripping themselves from him, heavier than the whole of his chest and body, and he is scrabbling at the ground, and his eyes are burning and the world is throbbing and shivering with great bursts of light.

Cool hands touch his face.

They burn his melted skin all over again. He whimpers.

Melanie pulls his head up to face her.

“Look what you have done,” she tells him.

He cannot comprehend. Not killed you, he thinks, in absolute frustration.

“You’ve killed fourteen,” she says. “And that’s not even counting Vincent. That’s awfully good, dear.”

Not you.

It’s like she’s heard him. “Not me never me,” she agrees, sadly.

His vision swims. She picks him up.

“It was my very own dear beetle,” she says. “I raised it from the egg. And so I thought, ‘It will not kill me.'”

The doors of the facility are shattered.

“The fire will burn all around me, and shards of stone and shell fly past, but it will not touch me.’ That’s what I thought.”

The wall is shattered. The ground around them is broken.

Melanie stands in the great brooding gap where the doors should be, at the entrance to Elm Hill.

She grins.

She tilts her head.

“Sometimes you have to trust,” she says, “you see, in those you love.”

[The Frog and the Thorn — END OF CHAPTER TWO]

Forsaken of their Gods (II/III)

Now it was always Billy’s conception that he should be as God to Melanie: that she should know him as a person knows their God, absolute, primal, preceding all other things in his authority, and at every moment witness to the secret movements of her heart. It was always Billy’s conception that Melanie should fear him and his red right hand, not as one fears a mortal tyrant or an older brother and his fists, but rather with the nakedness and openness that characterizes a fear of God: of that against which there is no recourse, and from which every punishment arises in the end from the workings-out of one’s own weaknesses and shames.

That she should fear him as that which is just by decree of the universe. That she should recognize the only alternative to that fear as having been better in the past, remaining though that past remains a bitterly unalterable country. That she should greet him only with the full humility and helplessness of one who has nothing not given her by the hands and whims of God.

In this conception Billy failed.

Like the seed of some black apple rotting in her stomach Melanie acquired freedom. She in some strange fashion learned unruly petulance, a quirk which he extinguished only with brute force, and never for all time. And finally he took that step which is every bit as much forbidden to the monsters as to God, which is to say, coming to accept as writ that which he could not change; coming to despise her for her weaknesses, rather than to cultivate them; and giving her a license, in that doing, to take that unsightliness that lived within her and grow it into strength.

He was, in the end, not so very terrible a monster, and he never grew his wings.

He’d gotten the idea, somehow, of what he was meant to be, understood that great awfulness of his nature, but nobody ever showed him how to get there, the unraveling of the riddles of it, the ways to open it up and live with it, so he lived in pettiness, instead.

His sister was afraid of his fists.

Nabonidus would have eaten Billy alive. 1968’s monster would have ground him down for jam. Mylitta would have cut him open. Even Prajapati could have beaten him, not even a hero or a monster, just a girl, but even she could have beaten him, brought out gods and the weapons of her good character to defeat him, triumphed, surpassed him, and broken him, left him gasping out his life like a fish might do on land.

It never even occurred to Billy to stake his sister out with the ropes of her own tendons and let the birds feed upon her flesh. It never even occurred to him as a threat, much less as an actual thing to do. It never occurred to him to winkle out every last bit of herself that she loved and take it from her, returning it if ever in bits and pieces imprinted with his name. It didn’t seem necessary to him. Not when she loved him. Not when she feared him. Not when he had his fists.

He even let her run.

He had Melanie for five years plus, the most vulnerable years that she would ever have, and he didn’t break her. At best he imprinted himself on her, just a little, made her like him, gave her a bit of that clumsiest monster’s nature and overlaid it on her own.

If you had any idea what running from a real monster is like, you’d know how utterly miserable a failure it makes him, that she’d gotten on a boat and run.

He was God to her; but such a God as to make her doubt — such a God as to make her think, as early as 1977, age 5, “is it so bad to be a Lucifer under him, and raise my hand against the Lord?”

And at that moment, when she first had that thought, she caught sight of something rippling, twisting, something strangely purple and terrible beyond the horizon of her life.

She couldn’t help herself.

She shook her head, once, twice. She tried to focus.

And she saw —

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

“There is a King.”

It is worse than she imagined. It’s not the worst words she’s ever heard. It can’t top never you not you. But it’s worse than that time when Billy showed her Papa’s head.

“There is a King of the old countries,” the woman is saying, “that came before the Round Man’s world. And he is bloated with a clotted mass of life. It moves damply and uncomfortably within him, as if a man had swallowed ten other men, or a fish had drunk the ocean.”

The woman’s voice is like the wind.

“These are the signs of his coming: dreams and portents. Death. Trouble between friends.”

Melanie is in a great and wild and empty space and there are words like silver wire cutting channels in her soul.

“He is wearing rotten vestments and they are indigo and green. He is heralded by helplessness, and memories, and principles that are left aside. There shall be corruption, fear, and hatred, and polluted water, and tainted colors, green and black.”

Melanie makes a sound.

“The Kings of the Unforgivable Dominions,” Liril’s mother says, “break the covenants of the world.”

There is silence for a while. Liril’s mother gets up. She walks around, tidying up the room.

Melanie’s eyes focus once again.

“What?” she asks.

I thought you said you didn’t hate me.

“You will drown in him forever,” Liril’s mother says. “You will never die. This is the fate I see for you, Melanie, whom my daughter has befriended.”

“No,” Melanie protests.

Not me.

Liril’s mother can’t help grinning. It’s ghoulish. It’s mean. It slips out onto her face until she bites her lip to hold it in.

“My,” she says.

She thinks.

Then, carefully, she releases the little happiness that she has in her, to see one of Amiel’s line disturbed so. The smile fades. There is only careful awareness of the world.

“There’s nothing I can do about it,” Liril’s mother says, “or I’d blackmail you, or help you, or something of the like. But I can only tell you: this is a thing that comes to pass. Will you leave us alone now, Melanie? Will you let me and my daughter be?”

Melanie twitches.

She wants to run.

She’s run before. It works. It works. But she’s caught in the web of a spider.

So she sighs, instead.

She shakes her head.

“So be it,” Liril’s mother says. “No stealing. No loud music. Her bedtime is ten o’clock exactly. No bringing trouble to this house.”

And Melanie goes up to Liril’s room to talk; and to these two children thus forsaken of their gods it is given to be childhood friends.

Stupid Words and their Stupid Power, Anyway (I/III)

“It is the elephant,” Melanie says.

Liril looks at her.

Melanie is laughing. She is looking upwards at the sky. She is hugging her hands to her own chest now and it is awful and Liril wants to cry but Melanie had asked that she stop crying, so she doesn’t.

“Melanie,” Liril says.

“’Why do we suffer?’” Melanie asks. “’Why do we have to suffer, and fear, and die?’”

“We don’t,” Liril says.

“No,” Melanie says. “Not ‘we don’t.’ It is ‘because of the elephant.’”

Liril looks blank.

“You go,” Melanie says.

“I can’t go,” Liril says.

“It’s easy,” Melanie says. “All the answers are elephants.”

It is beginning to seep in through Liril’s reserve. It’s too ridiculous.

“You go,” Melanie insists.

“What’s gray and awful,” Liril says, hesitantly, “and has a shiny tie?”

“Oh,” says Melanie. “That one could be a frog.”

Liril makes a squinchy face.

“Or an elephant,” Melanie says. “An awful elephant in a tie. Why did the elephant step on the grape?”

Liril shakes her head.

“He thought it was a pair of shoes.”

Liril closes her eyes.

Please, she thinks. Please go away.

It is too late. She is beginning to laugh. It is escaping her. Awful things will happen and it will be her fault, it will be her fault for laughing, it will be her fault for accepting this precious gift that is given to her life.

“You go.”

“What’s gray and wrinkly,” Liril asks, instead of laughing, “And antithetical to the covenants of the world?”

It’s almost like having a will, being able to ask a question like that.

Almost.

“What the hell kind of word is ‘antithetical?’” Melanie asks.

And the giggling takes Liril, and she is lost.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

They go to Liril’s house. Liril opens the door. She goes in and turns around and she is inviting Melanie inside —

“Get out,” says Liril’s mom.

She is standing there, frozen. It’s a whisper. It’s a strangled, horrified little whisper. It’s barely loud enough to hear.

Get out.

Melanie straightens. She braces her feet. She gives a tight grin to Liril’s mom.

“Fear’s showing, love,” she says.

It’s a weird thing to hear from a ten-year-old girl.

A moment passes.

Liril’s mom doesn’t move; so Melanie just shrugs, and nods, and pretends their words were greetings; and she walks past Liril’s mother, and takes up Liril’s hand, and goes up to Liril’s room.

That’s the first time the two of them meet.

The second time they meet, Liril’s mother doesn’t say anything at all.

The third meeting, though, a few weeks into their acquaintance, she’s found some kind of peace.

She stops Melanie at the door. She can stop her, this time. She’s not terrified, this time, and that means that Melanie has to pay her mind — a tall woman like her, with the ability to call the police and the like, maybe even overpower Melanie, physically, with her raw adulthood’s might.

“Go up to your room, honey,” Liril’s mom says, to Liril.

So Liril does.

Liril’s mom leads Melanie into the living room. She makes hot tea and little plates with tea sandwiches. She brings them in. She sits down, facing Melanie, to talk.

Melanie takes a sandwich.

“Thank you,” she says.

“She says you’re a good person,” Liril’s mother says.

“She does?”

“For now,” Liril’s mother agrees.

“Huh.”

Melanie thinks about this. She chews on the sandwich.

“Weird,” Melanie decides.

“So I’ve decided I can’t hate you. And so I am not going to tell the monster that you are here, and have him hale you away and raise you in the customs of the monster’s house; or, failing that, cast you back against the wall and pierce your eyes and heart with the Thorn that Does Not Kill, or hang you from a cross and put razor wire on your brow and let you bleed; or stake you out on some bleak hill for the carrion birds to feed. Because I would enjoy seeing him do those things to you, I would enjoy seeing you suffer, but I shouldn’t go that far for somebody I don’t hate.”

Melanie puts her sandwich down.

It has become unappetizing.

“I would be haled away,” she says, “and raised in a monster’s house?”

“He doesn’t have children,” says Liril’s mom.

Melanie thinks about this.

“It would be nice to have a house,” says Melanie, “and customs.”

“Would it?”

Melanie gives a little snort. Then she shakes her head.

“He won’t catch me,” Melanie says.

“Yes,” agrees Liril’s mother. “Children are so very good at avoiding being caught by monsters. It’s practically a trend.”

“Won’t,” Melanie underlines.

Not me.

“One day,” says Liril’s mother, “you will find him; or he will find you; and you will meet the monster. And then you can decide whether to tell him that I betrayed him. You can decide whether to tell him that I had you here, that I knew you were here, a girl of the monster’s line, and I didn’t even like you, and I kept it from him anyway. If you tell him that then you will have more than enough revenge for what I am going to do to you today, but you’ll also prove that Liril’s wrong.”

It’s hard for Melanie to believe she could stomach this woman’s sandwiches and tea at all.

“If I may ask,” says Liril’s mother, “how do you live?”

“What are you going to do to me today?”

“No,” says Liril’s mother. “It is my question now. It is your question later. How do you live?”

Melanie frowns.

“I don’t understand,” she says.

“I mean,” Liril’s mother says, “are you—fostered? Did you grow up here? How do you live?”

“Oh,” Melanie says.

She shakes her head.

“I steal,” she says. “I carry messages. I live with the fairies in their dells, sometimes.”

“You must be very cunning,” Liril’s mother says.

Melanie’s heart shouts a warning.

She is standing up.

“You won’t do this,” she says.

“What am I going to do?”

“You won’t.

Why am I afraid? she asks herself.

It is the expression on Liril’s mother’s face. It is subtle but familiar. She has seen it on her brother’s face. The last time she saw it Billy was holding up Papa’s head —

The words are not what she’s expecting. She doesn’t even understand how they can stop her; how they can catch her up; how they can freeze her; how, for that matter, it could mean anything to her at all, when Priyanka says:

“There is a King.”

Six’s Story

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

1.

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

“We will call you One,” Nine says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The room stills.

“Six,” says Five.

“Six,” say the others.

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

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

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

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

She sees a truth but not its reasoning.

She asks, “Where is Nine going?”

And, “Why is Six afraid of Seven?”

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

2.

Two is in the shadows.

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

But it burns in her.

She loves the crookedness of his nose.

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

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

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

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

Six always survives.

And she moves on.

3.

Three is crooked, wry, and sinister.

“We all have a dark heart,” he says.

“You wish,” Six tells him.

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

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

“Hwa, ha ha ha ha.”

He cannot sustain the laugh under her level gaze.

Your reasoning is inconclusive, her eyes say.

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

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

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

He grins a bit.

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

She hugs him once, then she moves on.

4.

Four is a crone. She is half-asleep.

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

And Four wakes up.

Four smiles to her.

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

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

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

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

5.

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

Instead, they kiss.

“You could stay here,” he proposes.

“And leave Seven unpunished?”

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

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

“Honor is an unverified hypothesis,” he sighs.

But he lets her go.

7.

Seven is in the back, staring at the wall.

Seven says, “Listen.”

“Hm?” Six asks.

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

“No,” Six says.

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

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

Six’s fear chills her.

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

Six counts on her fingers.

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

Seven narrows her eyes. “Eh?”

“That blood.”

“Seven ate nine,” Seven murmurs lucidly.

“Right.”

“And?”

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

Seven frowns at Six.

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

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

So Six does not answer.

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

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

“I do,” Seven says.

“Do you understand what must be done?”

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

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

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

And all becomes tableau.

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

“Seven,” pleads Six.

Her voice shakes.

“I don’t recognize you,” Six says.

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

“No.”

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

“That may be so,” Six agrees.

Seven sighs.

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

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

“And what is your sentence?”

8.

Successor,” Six says.

It is a curse.

It is a judgment.

Seven increments into the principle of devouring.

9.

Six comes to the end of her journey there.

She stands in cutting silence.

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

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

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

And then:

“Come here,” says Five.

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

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

Nine, so vibrant:

So alive:

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

And now devoured.

“Nine always dies,” Two says.

10.

“But,” says Ten.

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

And she says, “You survived.”

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

“You survived,” she says.

Last year’s Nine.

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

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

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

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

A legend about spring.

Starfish Men (I/II)

Martin stares at Jane.

“Why do you care about starfish men?” he says. “They’re gross.”

Jane holds up two fragments of Necessity and touches them, one against the edge of another. Some of the roughness matches. “I think this story’s got Meredith in it,” she says.

This is the story of the starfish men.

Once upon a time, in 1975, a young girl meets and marries a starfish man.

Her name is Clarissa.

Here is how they meet. Clarissa is a runaway. There is a shelter not too many blocks away from the starfish man’s house. She’s noticed that nobody ever goes in to the starfish man’s house and nobody ever comes out. She’s noticed that all the lights are off except that one witchlight burning in the upper window. So she’s figured that something’s happened to whomever lives there, probably something fatal, but maybe just something that needs help.

So she breaks in.

It’s not a very nice house but it does have some nice stuff— sculpture, mostly.

She finds a room.

At first it seems like it’s full of corpses. But it’s not. It’s just full of weird corally lumps. That’s the kind of misapprehension that can happen when you look at a room of weird corally lumps in the dark!

Then she finds the starfish man.

That happens like this. Part of her knows that if she wants to steal things, there’s one room she absolutely shouldn’t check— that room upstairs with the witchlight shining. Conversely, if she wants to maybe help someone, that’s the one room she totally can’t miss. So she figures, making a compromise between the two sides of her nature, that she’ll open it up really quickly and peek in, then run away.

She opens it up really quickly.

She peeks in.

She stops and just stands there staring.

The starfish man is very old. He is sitting very still. He looks just like a human, pretty much, except that his skin’s a little lumpier and his eyes are black.

He’s looking at the door and his eyes capture her.

“Who are you?” she says.

“I sit here every day,” he says. “When one of my limbs rots off, I grow a new one. When the tax man tries to confiscate the property, I grow more taxes. When I’m hungry, sometimes I will eat the roaches, and sometimes I will eat one of my fingers, but I am not hungry very often.”

“Oh,” she says.

His irises are jet black, she thinks, like two little lumps of coal.

“It must be lonely,” she says. “So I thought I’d check up on you. Also, I thought that if you were dead, I’d steal some of your stuff.”

“Dead,” he snorts.

“Well, yes,” she says. “Most people can’t live on fingers and bugs.”

He cracks a smile.

In a rough voice, he confides, “I also have a certain quantity of Twinkies that I picked up long ago.”

She laughs. She doesn’t know why.

“I don’t like people,” he says. “I am practicing to be a bodhisattva, but I am very bad at it, and I generally hurt the people that I encounter.”

Clarissa has no idea what a bodhisattva is.

“Lots of people hurt people,” she says.

“Then you may stay,” he says. “And we will talk.”

She visits him now and again for the next few years. It’s too freaky not to. He’s a starfish man. And eventually he presses her down against the bed and has sex to her, and because she does not resist she considers this process a binding obligation upon her, and they are wed.

They are happy.

Clarissa likes having a home that is always warm and a husband of spartan needs. It is not the marriage she imagined as a child, because he is still and slow and almost lifeless and sometimes he is cruel. Their house has no picket fence, no children, and no dog. If something causes him to lose a limb or other convenience, he waves away her expressions of concern. Irritably, he tells her to leave him alone for a time and the offending limb or article regrows. It is not the marriage she imagined as a child— but it is functional enough.

For the starfish man, the wedding breaks his loneliness. He is a reclusive man and finds her presence grating; but also he finds it warmer than the long years of sitting in the upper room slowly regenerating. So for him also it is a mixed but functional thing.

In any event, it has happened, and both of them consider that they must adjust.

One day, he finds that the endless stepping and breathing and swallowing and burping and scratching and swishing and sitting noises she makes around the house are unbearable intrusions. Rising, wrathful, he forsakes the vow of the bodhisattva to seek the benefit of all sentient beings and hits her. This accomplished once, and seeing the expression on her face and the irritating blood, he hits her again until she is dead, and places her in the room with the sloughed-off bits of himself, and leaves her there.

He becomes lonely.

He regrows her. First she is a lump at the end of his hand. Then she is a body. Then she is Clarissa. He severs her from himself and she assumes an independent identity.

“Oh,” she says.

She rubs the back of her head, feeling a little embarrassed.

“I killed you,” he says. “I’m very sorry. I’ll try to do better. It was not appropriate to my compassionate oath.”

“Um,” she says.

She wraps a blanket around herself. She goes to her room. She takes out some clothes and puts them on and then she sits in her room staring at the wall for a few days.

“I am going away,” she tells him.

So she goes away. It is easier to return to the streets because she does not get hungry any more.

He is lonely.

He regrows her. First she is a lump at the end of his hand. Then she is a body. Then she is Clarissa. He severs her from himself and she assumes an independent identity.

“Oh,” she says.

She rubs the back of her head, feeling a little embarrassed.

“There was an accident,” he says. “That is why you are confused.”

“Oh,” she says.

They are happy.

Clarissa notices that she is not hungry any more, and that when she is, a roach or a Twinkie can conveniently calm her hunger. She notices that she does not get cold and that when she loses a bit of flesh it regrows with uncommon speed.

She does not ask the questions that this poses to her. The implications make her hyperventilate with horror so she simply tries to be a good wife.

Eventually it occurs to her that she should seek work outside the home, which she does, and in the process becomes unfaithful to him with Timothy, an associate.

Wrathful, the starfish man forsakes the vow of the bodhisattva to seek the benefit of all sentient beings and hits her. This accomplished once, and seeing the expression on her face and the irritating blood, he hits her again until she is dead, and places her in the room with the sloughed-off bits of himself, and leaves her there.

He is lonely.

In 1985, Clarissa is struck by a burst of spring cleaning fervor. She airs out the rooms of the house. She dusts everything, even under the refrigerator. She tackles the great project of the sloughed-bits room, and there she finds more than a dozen corpses, each of which bears her face, each of them peculiarly dry and stiff in their death and grown over with starfish mold.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh, dear.”

She stares at them for a long time. Then she gets the starfish man drunk on a sour mix of vodka, lemon, and brine, sets fire to the house, and leaves.

Clarissa works odd jobs long enough to put herself through DeVry and qualify as an electrician. That accomplished, she establishes a new life.

One day she finds a lump at the end of her hand and she sets her job aside for a time. She sits on her bed— unworried about the utilities, which turn themselves on whenever they are turned off; unworried about food, which she does not need; unworried about her friends, whom she suspects now will be better off without indulging in her company. She sits on her bed and she watches the starfish man grow.

“Everything is connected,” she tells him, when the time of gestation is complete and she may cut him from her hand.

“It’s true,” he says.

This is the first step on Clarissa’s road to enlightenment, and so the whole experience might very well be considered a net good for her, except that when he kills her she forgets.

Such a Strange and Funny Image

Sometimes the plague paralyzes instead of killing.

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

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

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

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

But it was not death that found her.

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

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

And she can hear them come.

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

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

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

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

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

She cannot answer.

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

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

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

Her breath gasps in and out.

She becomes light.

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

“Leila,” she says. “I am Leila.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She goes in.

She places an international call.

“Christopher,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

The silence on the other end stretches.

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

“We can fix it,” she says.

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

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

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

“Oh,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I—” she says.

She keens, I feel so light.

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

It is ridiculous to imagine that she should need something.

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

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

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

He is broken, the boy.

He is in pain.

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

Something has broken him.

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

She lays him out on the ground.

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

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

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

The boy is dead.

He is dead still.

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

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

She smiles.

It’s so good! she says.

The others smile with her.

There is a time of silence, and then—

Did you really help make us? Kern asks.

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

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

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

Death Unsacred

1. Ms. Dorothy Adams

It is December 10, 2012, and Ms. Dorothy Adams is lost in a magical land.

On the ground at her feet is the vegetable boy. He could be dying, she thinks. He could be dead.

There are at least ten and perhaps fifteen of the tiger-things closing in on her position. She does not recognize them. They are no earthly beast. Their claws and fangs testify regardless to a tangible and certain prowess.

She holds a makeshift club—a stripped-down fallen branch—in her hands.

“This is the measure of a life,” she thinks: “What you’ll risk it for.”

2. The Spry Old Man

Her story properly begins with the rendition. She was in the process of returning home from Europe to her parents’ Virginia estate when an irregularity in her documentation incited the agents on the scene to draw her aside. In security she languished, for a short period of time, before the Agency came to speak to her; and when they found her intransigent in her unwillingness to profess false crimes—as one could only expect from a woman, no, more, a Virginian! of the United States Armed Forces—they handcuffed her and placed her on an outgoing flight.

Her guard, an old man in the Agency’s dark uniform, was so spry he could barely sit still in his seat. He was alive with a fierce and radiant energy; he was smiling, he laughed when the pilot made intercom jokes, and when his partner came back into the cabin to bring them their meals, he came very close to cheering.

From time to time during the flight, he would pat her shoulder and smile to her—an intimacy that she, naturally, rebuffed.

“You’re so lucky,” he said.

She gave him a frosty look.

“You’ll see!” he assured her.

The plane shook a little in the wind and there was the soft pitter-pat of weather on the hull.

“They told me that in certain places in the world,” said Ms. Adams, “it was legitimate, no, standard practice to employ torture. So I expect that is my situation; and I would not call it lucky; but I will not break.”

“Oh, there’s torture,” said the spry old man. “There’s plenty of torture in the world. There’s all kinds of horror. But not where you’re going.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Then I don’t see the point,” she said.

The elimination of potential difficulties,” he said, and his smile was so brilliant that in any other circumstance Ms. Adams would have smiled back; but as things were, and expecting as she did rendition not to a magical land but to Syria or Guantanamo, his smile struck her as evidence of intense sociopathic bent.

She turned her eyes away towards the window. She frowned.

“It’s hailing fucking marshmallows,” she said.

“Language, young lady,” he said, “Language!”

She was forty-five.

3. Thrown

At a certain point in time and space, in response to an unknown signal, the spry old man seized her from her seat. She did not struggle, not at first, because he had a gun and the circumstances were poor; but when he began to force her towards the door, and with the plane still in flight, she fought for her very life.

“Quiet!” he said, and struck her on the head. Her vision went white. Her ears rang. Then she could hear the opening of the door; and while she desperately tried to remember how her arms and legs worked, he released her from her restraints and flung her from the plane.

“Cheerio!” he cried, and “Godspeed!”

She fell.

Ms. Dorothy Adams, Private First Class, passed through a layer of clouds, the soft springy substance of them parting only reluctantly as she hit. She disturbed a flock of stairstep birds in flight, her fall broken awkwardly and embarrassingly by first one then the other as she caromed through the sky. Then there was nothing beneath her but a spreading green land, and she said, “I shall, at least, have a story to tell in Heaven.”

Then, with a grace in tragedy and a grim resolve to—if at all possible—survive the impact that would follow, she closed her eyes, made her body limp, and thought of distant lands.

4. Waking

It was the sun that woke her: the rising sun, over the hills. She mumbled and she whined, for a moment not Ms. Dorothy Adams but the small child she had once been, tossing in her bed at the Virginia estate, resenting fiercely such early awakenings. Then the cold realization of her situation struck. She was at once on her feet and staring about.

“I am unbruised,” she thought, and a dizzying wave of confusion passed over her. “I am in a forest and I am still dressed in my clothes from three days ago and I am unbruised.”

In the distance she could hear bird calls, so many bird calls, and an occasional, terrible throaty roar.

To her credit, Ms. Dorothy Adams wasted no time on her confusion. She was a woman, no, more, a Virginian! of the United States Armed Forces. Her first priority was not to understand but to survive. She tuned her senses to their fullest and their most alert. She seized a fallen branch from the ground and stripped it of its twigs and bark. She placed her back against a tree.

Slowly, because of the low priority and reliability of this sensory data, she came to realize that from the branches of the trees around her hung not nuts or flowers but roast turkey; saving, of course, for those from which hung clumps of potatoes or bowls of stuffing, and where the birds had cracked them open, she saw that the potatoes were mashed and buttered inside their skin.

“Gracious me,” she swore, her gutter mouth forsaking her. “It’s a proper feast!”

5. The Vegetable Boy

This magical scene would no doubt have ended with a fine repast or a psychotic break, save that a certain other event intervened; that being that the vegetable boy, fleeing the pursuit of a pack of Kazimajars, burst at that very moment into the clearing.

He was handsome, for a vegetable boy: his hair was green, his skin a fine nut-color, and his eyes as warm as the spry old man’s were bright. He wore fine purple raiment with a white silk undershirt. He was tired, panting, his clothing torn and the leaves in his hair half-wilted; but nevertheless he had some energy left to him.

Ms. Adams had been, during her native country’s unfortunately prolonged excursion in Iraq, reckoned the second-best sword in all the Middle East; though, of course, her skill with the gun was far more relevant. Thus she did not hesitate in considering herself the vegetable boy’s superior in personal combat, and, reasoning that he should have information of value to her, she confronted him. With a lithe step and a fierce demeanor she stepped out and brought her makeshift club to his throat; or so, at least, she had intended.

“Foul!” cried the vegetable boy, stepping back; and from the back of his hand grew a great long thorn, which he brought across to parry her club. “Treachery!”

As she did not know how much time there was to waste, Ms. Adams wasted none; she disengaged her weapon and attempted to strike him on the head. In this she would have succeeded, save that the thorn was amazingly swift in motion. Each blow she attempted he parried or reversed, and as she fenced with her opponent she realized that here was a boy, albeit a boy apparently made principally of vegetable matter, who could easily have ranked as one of the top five swords in the Middle East. After three more exchanges, she found herself admiring him, not so much for his skill but for his style; and after a passata-sotto lunge had failed her, forcing her into an awkward, stumbling retreat while the thorn stabbed about her face, the innate courtesy of her birth overcame her dedication and she exclaimed, “Such a waste that you should be an enemy!”

“The same,” he said, and stepped back a moment to salute. “For I had scarcely expected to encounter a princess of such beauty and such skill in this Kazimajar-infested region, much less find myself wood-to-wood with her.”

“I am not a princess,” she said.

“Then what are you?” asked the vegetable boy.

“Ms. Dorothy Adams,” she said, “Private First Class of the United States Armed Forces.”

“Well,” he said. “It seems to me that a Private First Class is much the same as a princess, only perhaps a bit fiercer; so you must pardon my misunderstanding.”

“What are you?” she said. “What am I doing here? Where is this place?”

“I am the hope of the vegetable tribe,” he said. “When I am ready to plant myself, I will tame this region, and make it habitable for my kind. As for what you are doing here, I cannot say; and as for this place, well, it is the Peapod Forest of Gillikin, as its unusual green color should indicate.”

Then she is staggered; then she says, “I have taken rather a journey—”

But the vegetable boy’s hand goes to his side; he clutches at a tear in his clothing, where his flesh has started of a sudden to leak a dark purple ichor.

“Oh, dear,” he said. He smiled at her. “I guess those beasts back there were more accurate than I’d thought.”

“Beasts?”

“It’s all the activity,” he said. He stares at his hand, which is purple. “I’m sorry. I’m going to pass out now, and here I’ve hardly just met you.”

And she could hear the beasts that hunted him approach.

6. The Tiger-Things

They are everywhere: the hunting Kazimajars, great cats of a sort but with patches of serpent-scale and bear-fur and the voices of men.

“He is our prey,” whines one of them.

“Tasty, tasty vegetable boy.”

And Ms. Adams, with the stern strength accordant to a woman of the United States Armed Forces, denies them. She stands over his fallen body and says, “Find something else.”

Some of them are circling around behind her. She can hear them.

“A turkey. Or mashed potatoes,” Ms. Adams says.

“He’s tastier,” whispers one of the beasts.

She has no time; the position is rapidly becoming untenable. She steps forward and whirls her club and cracks that beast upon its face. It reels back, stunned and whimpering: “You hit me!” it declares.

“I’ll beat all of you to a pulp,” she says. “I’ll show you what it is to fight a woman of Virginia!”

She clubs another sideways. It staggers into a tree. Spinning to drive back another, she unleashes a war cry: an unearthly yell, terrifying, the cry of a goddess come down to make war among men. And there is fear in them, and the will of the pack is breaking, and the Kazimajars are scattering, but there is one, the largest of them, the savage beast named Groth, who does not succumb to fear. He remains where the others have fled. He leaps upon her; she is borne down to the ground under his weight; his teeth bite out her throat, his claws score her sides. Her arms are numb and she cannot feel the club in her hand and she is only thinking, “I must throw him off and drive him back before I die.”

And as a last act to give credit to her name, a moment of heroism to prove that even in these troubled lands the life of a woman—no, more, a Virginian!—was not without account, she woke her arm to life and placed the club under his neck and thrust it upwards; and gagging, wretching, in great misery, the Kazimajar staggered away.

She lay there, soft and quiet, waiting to die.

But in this magical land of childhood, there is no heroism; there is no accounting; there is no virtue to such deeds. Death is unsacred here, and she realizes, when the moon rises and the blood that flows from her and the vegetable boy fades to a trickle, that there is not even any pain.

A tide of hopeless rises in her.

She tastes a sick horror in the back of her throat: for these are the lands of childhood.

Then she sets the matter aside and sits up slowly and turns her thoughts to the south, where if there is an airport it most likely resides; for it is not meet for a woman—no, more, a Virginian!—of the United States Armed Forces to surrender easily to those who find death unsacred.

An Unclean Legacy: “The Marvelous Fingerbone”

The Lady Yseult Gargamel was pregnant with her second child.

Gargamel caressed her stomach with his long thin fingers. “Witness,” he cackled, “the terrifying power of my little gold men.”

Yseult rested her fingers on her forehead for a moment.

“Dear,” she said, carefully. “The power of your magic is beyond compare but it is not, in this case, responsible for my condition.”

“Eh?”

Yseult walked to the window. The birds were singing outside. She held out her hand, and two strikingly-colored robins spiraled around her arm.

“It is like this,” said Yseult. “These birds—they love one another. The life in them surges up. It cries to the world: let there be more life!”

Gargamel squinted at the birds. He went to the dresser. He picked up his spyglass. He looked from one bird to another.

“I see,” he said, dubiously.

Yseult took two steps back into the room. Butterflies swirled in through the window and spun in the air around her.

“Or these butterflies,” she said, as the prelude to a longer speech.

“They’re from my butterfly tree,” observed Gargamel proudly.

Yseult hesitated. In the garden, the ten thousand wings of the butterfly tree folded, unfolded, and fluttered.

“Or . . . some other butterflies,” she said, losing her momentum. “From . . . other places.”

“Eh?”

Yseult was blushing full on now, but still the Lady was bold.

She took the hands of Montechristien Gargamel. She looked into his eyes, and as always, the breath left him and he felt like he was floating on the sky.

“It is not the magic in us, my love,” she said. “It is the love. It is the life. It has roused itself to desire further expression. It has woven together the truth of me and the truth of you to make a child who is both of us. In this fashion though we are frail and will die, that principle of life within us will go on, driving forward and on through all the endless years.”

“And this,” said Gargamel, raptly, “is what my little gold men have done.”

Yseult, with a heroic effort unremarked upon in the sagas, suppressed an innuendo.

“It’s because of that night when we flew together, love,” she said.

Gargamel squinched up one eye. He stared at her suspiciously.

“That?” he said. “Not the magic?”

“That,” Yseult confirmed. “Not the magic.”

Gargamel gulped once.

His mind went awhirl. But then he straightened, just a little bit. He found acceptance.

Gargamel caressed his wife’s stomach with his long, thin fingers. “Witness,” he cackled, “the terrifying power of life!”

“Ha ha!” laughed Yseult.

“Ha! Ha ha ha!” laughed Gargamel.

“Ha ha ha!”

Thunder boomed in their sunlit garden, and the laughter of Yseult and Montechristien Gargamel rang out through the forest and the sky.

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

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

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

It is not long before the night of fear.

Francescu is nine.

He stands before his father in the cracked courtyard of Castle Gargamel. There are flowers growing through the stones around his feet.

He’d asked his father why people die.

So Gargamel had dragged him out.

Gargamel says, distantly, “People die when they’re done.”

“Huh?”

There is a death’s-head butterfly swirling lazily through the courtyard. It has colorful wings and the face of death on its back, which it uses to discourage predators.

Gargamel gestures in the butterfly’s direction. “That. It’s pretty, yes?”

“Yes,” Francescu nods.

Gargamel’s bony finger points at it. The butterfly explodes, precipitating a somewhat ironic afterlife scene to which we are not witness.

“It’s no longer useful,” Gargamel says.

Francescu recoils.

“There’s a purpose for all of us,” Gargamel says. His body language is ungainly, uncomfortable. “When it’s done, we’re done.”

“But how do we know?” Francescu asks.

“For this,” says Gargamel, “your mother and I planted timing flowers. Hers are dead; mine still remain.”

Francescu looks down at the flowers in the courtyard.

“What, under the stones?”

“My gardening practices are not so rigorous as Yseult’s,” Gargamel concedes. “Still, they have sufficiently broken the stones to see the sun, so all is well. Now, we’ll use them to measure how much purpose you’ve got left.”

“—Okay.”

The flowers around Francescu begin to grow.

“See?” Gargamel says, as they rise. “That’s the surging purpose of your life. That’s what you’re for, son.”

The flowers are still rising.

“And when they stop—” Gargamel says. He waits for them to stop.

The flowers continue rising.

Gargamel backs up. He starts over. “They’re measuring how long there is before life is done with you,” he explains. “It’s different for every person. And when they stop—”

The flowers continue rising. They are all around Francescu now. He can barely breathe through the flower stalks. He begins to flail.

Gargamel looks irritable. He stomps his foot. He unleashes magic. The flowers, driven by his will, cease to grow.

“When they stop, you’re done,” Gargamel concludes.

Francescu flails his way out of the prison of green. He kneels on the ground, catching his breath. He’s mildly allergic to timing flowers, so this is hard.

It is there, with his face low to the ground, that he sees the flowers at Gargamel’s feet, and notes without understanding that they are withered, black, and dead.

An Unclean Legacy


The Marvelous Fingerbone

Francescu is ten.

He is rubbing the little finger in his left hand. He is squeezing it, holding it, getting to know it, because he intends to cut it off.

“Life is magic,” he says.

“Hm, hm,” agrees Francescu’s angel.

“It’s this . . . thing,” he says. “It’s bigger than me, and brighter, and there’s nothing that’s standing between it and the dark.”

“Hm,” says Francescu’s angel, more skeptically.

“I’m going to put it in my fingerbone,” Francescu says, “and cut it off. It’ll be the most magical, wonderful, marvelous fingerbone ever.”

The angel visualizes a really shiny fingerbone. It sighs happily. “Mm, hm,” it says.

Then it pauses. It parses.

“Um—”

Will Tomas break the fingerbone?

How valuable is a life?

Tune in on Monday for the Unclean Legacy adventure: “Tomas vs. Francescu: Fight!”

Wilma

Once, long ago, Wilma strangled her devil-conscience. Now her left shoulder is bare and she is immortal.

“Ow!” says Wilma.

Her angel-conscience is hitting her.

“What?” she asks.

“I’m hitting you to make you better,” says her angel-conscience. “Assault for empathy and battery for wisdom!”

“Ow,” mutters Wilma, again.

She’s on the arena planet. She moves through the crowds like a guttersnipe does, with her eyes downcast and her body language pulled in. People are roaring and mingling and mumbling all around her. They don’t notice her, because they’re all too important and too busy to notice someone like her.

She’s wearing a crinkling silver jumpsuit, like a futuristic woman should. She’s pulled her hair tightly back into a ponytail, and let it return—after many millennia—to its natural red. She’s blending in so that no one finds her.

And on the electronic billboard it advertises the fight between her lovers, the fight that their presence in the 25th century has made inevitable, a fight she cannot bear to watch:

Buck vs. the Flintstone Man, the billboard screams.

“It’s possible,” says Wilma, as she squirms between two knots of people, making her way steadily towards the dock, “that I have empathy and wisdom already.”

The angel hits her on her right shoulder.

“Ow.”

There is a burst of sound. The announcer’s voice booms out:

“FROZEN IN SPACE . . .

“Frozen for millennia by a freak combination of gasses, the Flintstone Man awakens in the savage world of the 25th century! Here he must strive with his obsidian monoknife and his barbaric foot-powered starship to defeat his enemy. FLINTSTONE! DESTROY ALL SPACEMEN! MELEE!”

Wilma covers her head in her hand.

“What?” the angel says.

“I give him 38 seconds,” says Wilma.

“35,” argues the angel. Then the angel hits Wilma again.

“Ow!”

The announcer roars over the shrieking of the crowd:

“FROZEN IN TIME . . .

“Coincidence—or destiny? Flung forward in time, frozen by a similar freak combination of gasses, this 20th century primitive found himself falling in love with the Flintstone Man’s ancient wife! Now, trapped on an arena planet, forced to battle for survival, he so far refuses to kill his enemies—but will he kill his savage rival for love? BIDIBIDIBIDIBIDI TO THE DEATH, BUCK!”

“Ancient?” cries Wilma.

“In fairness, if you hadn’t killed your entropy, you’d be grayer than a Balthusian dawn,” the angel says.

Wilma steadies herself. She sighs.

“You’re right,” she says. “I guess.”

So she resumes her walk.

“You could go back,” says the angel-conscience. “You could save one of them.”

“I could,” Wilma concedes. “But they’ve turned up a flash-frozen 23rd century feminist out by Aldebaran, and I hear he’s hot.”

“Oh-oh,” says the angel.

They move on.

These are a few of the shouts from the crowd, as Wilma picks her way towards the dock and the billboards count the time:

“He’s got a dinosaur! Oh God! The teeth!”

“Yabba! Yabba! Yabba! Yabba!”

“Orbital ballistics? Stupid primitives and your booster rockets! Get an inertialess drive!”

Then there is a horrible cauterized noise and all is still.

The billboards shine forth green numbers: “37.06. Buck.”

“Oh my God!” says one of the rich women in front of Wilma. She’s holding up a ticket. “37.06 seconds! I called it!”

She frantically stuffs the ticket in her purse. It does not stuff well, and as the woman runs towards the ticket counter, the ticket sproings out and flutters flutters flutters down to the bleacher floor.

“Punch!” says the angel-conscience.

“Ow! Stop that.”

“Punch!” says the angel-conscience. “It makes you better.”

Wilma is looking down at the ticket. She is warring with herself.

“Punch!”

“Ow! Stop that.”

“It makes you better,” says the angel smugly.

But Wilma has picked up the ticket. She is holding it tightly. She is realizing that she has the chance to leave the arena planet not just free but also rich.

“Punch! Makin’ you better!”

“It doesn’t seem to be working,” Wilma points out.

What Wistful Sally Says

Immortal Ken never has to die!

That’s why he’s packaged differently from Mortal Ken. Mortal Ken dies every time you press the button on his back! That’s his special mortality action. It’s easy to kill as many Mortal Kens as you want, and it’s a great opportunity for kids to learn the ins and outs of serial killing.

Reviving Stacy is a special Stacy who can bring Ken back from the dead. This changes the underlying morality of killing Ken. If Ken can never come back, then killing him is wrong. But if you can revive Ken with a Reviving Stacy doll, then who knows what moral rules apply? It’s like with Tickle Me Cthulhu—his life and death are meaningless and the human condition doesn’t apply!

If Mortal Ken has an Immortal Soul, which you can buy with the Immortal Soul Play Kit, then reviving Ken ensures that he’ll never go on to his glorious afterlife. He won’t have a harp like in Christian Heaven or many sloe-eyed virgins like in the Great Church of Sloe Heaven. He won’t shuffle emptily in Hades. He won’t earn his way into the Elysian fields. (Admittedly, that wasn’t really going to happen anyway except to Greek Hero Ken, that barrel-bodied Ken of legend that strides through the battlefields of Siege-Time Ilium.) In short, reviving a Mortal Ken renders the Immortal Soul meaningless and chains him immanently and externally to the cycles of the Earth.

Immortal Ken differs because it is the nature of Immortal Ken’s existence that he does not have to die. His purpose and definition transcend time, negating the moral argument for evolution, death, and change. No matter how hard you push the button on Immortal Ken’s back, he just won’t end! Philosophers suggest that Immortal Ken expresses a certain Zeist-Geist of denial popularized by evangelical toy companies and the makers of Highlander 2.

People in backwards regions have taken to eating parts of Immortal Ken dolls in the hopes of longevity or sexual prowess. In general manufacturers provide a heavily diluted shaving of plastic taken from the outer epidermis of a Ken doll, sometimes mixed with bits of the sea and the sky, which customers drink down to become homeopathically immortal themselves. Many young children deplore this practice as it is disturbing to try to play with dolls when there are always practitioners of homeopathic medicine lingering about.

More forward-thinking people do not consume Immortal Ken in any concentration. It is better, assert the monks, the priests, the intellectuals, and the old women in their huts, to hold tight Wistful Sally to one’s chest. Shunning Ken, shunning Stacy, they pull the string, and listen to her words.

She says, “Let’s go shopping!”

Or “Math is hard!”

Or “No one should ever have to die.”

Sometimes, but rarely, she says, “Yo Joe!”