Anatman (I/VII)

Anatman’s the god of a godless world.

He’s stood against the Devil himself and said, “You don’t exist.”

(And oh! how the Devil laughed; but that’s a story for another time.)

He’s stood against the demons and the fiends, and fought them back; and the angels and the fetches too. He’s won ten thousand different battles against ten thousand different gods.

He’s the man who stands at the boundary of the world and keeps theology at bay.

Here’s how it goes.

801 years into the common era, an octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god of unspeakable and abominable torments tries to break into the world.

Anatman puts an end to that.

“Those are some pretty abominable torments,” concedes Anatman, “but they’re totally speakable.”

The hydra glares at him.

“You know I’m right,” Anatman says.

It’s not easy to talk about the torments of the octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god. You have to put yourself through a mental wringer just to figure out where the bird’s beak goes, and that’s before you even get into the torments.

But you can.

And if they’re not unspeakable, then it’s not the kind of octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god-abomination that it thought it was, and so it doesn’t break into the world.

Later, in 816, the wolf of space comes down to eat the Earth.

It takes Anatman himself to go out there and stop it. Alchemy doesn’t work and people don’t have nuclear weapons yet and longbows are notoriously ineffectual in space, but Anatman, he goes out to where the wolf is ravening towards the world and he says, “The Earth is bigger than your head.”

This brings embarrassment to the wolf.

The wolf says, “It is sometimes difficult to correctly judge perspective when you are in space.”

“See that you’ve learned better, then!” Anatman laughs.

And that’s the resolution for the matter of the wolf.

Finally, there is a firvuli.

To become a firvuli is the destiny born into a girl named Halldis, the purpose seething in the flesh and fire of her, 981 years into the common era and under the Icelandic sun. She is born for no other reason, and to no other purpose, than to one day decide it is better to be a firvuli and cast aside her mortal flesh and ascend to become a great grey god-mountain firvuli that is winter and death and the substance of THE END.

Right now, of course, she’s still a baby girl, because she’s just finished being born.

Anatman slips into the room while the midwives are distracted. They probably couldn’t have seen him anyway, since he’s the person of there-aren’t-really-any-people as much as he’s the god of there-aren’t-really-any-gods, but he isn’t taking chances.

He slips into the room, and he looks down at the baby, and he stares into her fire.

“You’re gonna be a firvuli,” he says, “little girl. And that’s no good.”

It turns on him.

It’s shocking. It’s terrifying. It’s not even technically or literarily possible. It’s like suddenly reading a book that the writer hasn’t even started writing yet—that’s how unexpected the rising of a firvuli can be. It fumes up from her soul like the steam from a fresh corpse’s blood and it looks at him, it looks at him, and suddenly instead of a baby girl or a firvuli he’s looking at THE END.

His senses desert him.

He flails in emptiness.

He remembers suddenly forward to the moment of his death.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


981 CE

“Why, you rotten old Anatman,” he hears future-Anatman say. “You’re a no-person man!”

A no-person man!

A philosophical conceit!

Not a god, not a person, not really anything at all!

And under the power of those words, just like he’s going to do one day, later, on the day Anatman dies, he finds himself unfolding, unraveling, dissolving and stopping being, because you can’t very well be a god of godlessness or a person of no-persons, after all.

Today, though—

Today, he shakes it off. Today, he laughs. Today, he scruffs the baby’s head, and he plucks the firvuli from her soul, and he kisses it lightly on its brow.

“It’s OK,” he tells it, cheerfully, and hugs it close against his heart. “It’s OK. You don’t have to fight me. You don’t have to be afraid of not existing. I do it all the time, and it’s really not so bad.”

So he carries the firvuli away, off to the lands of fable, to live estranged from the humans and the good earth and the wind. He carries it off to the borderlands of the world, to live in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, in the corner-of-the-eye, in the hypothesis, the supposition, and the edges-of-the-map. He takes it away from the earth to the fairy regions, where hydras and great wolves and firvuli were still allowed to be, and he tells it the secret that cuts it off forever from the world and sound: that nothing ever ends.

That everything’s always ending.

That nothing’s ever even really started.

And that might sound like more than one secret, or even a contradictory passel of secrets, if you’re someone like you or me; but if you’re a no-person man like Anatman, all those secrets are the same.

And Anatman and the firvuli become great friends; but as for Halldis, she is empty, she is desolate, she is born to know great suffering, for she is a girl who should be a firvuli, who should become a firvuli, anyway, a great grey god-mountain of THE END, and who can never be a firvuli at all.

Well, that wasn’t the noble truth we were expecting! Still, you’ll probably have to wait another week before we allude vaguely to a different noble truth instead.

In the meantime, you could

Why is Six Afraid of Seven? (VI/VII)

Melanie grows up with awful, breakneck speed.

In 1979 she is seven.

Almost she stops there. Almost she gives up—entangled as she is in the soot-web of a spider—and stops aging forevermore, choosing instead the timelessness of death.

She does not.

She entangles herself in life. She escapes the spider’s web, and lands in Santa Barbara, and walks to Santa Ynez; and there, and vigorously, corollary by corollary and year to year as if in the inevitable progression of a theorem, she grows.

In 1979, she is seven, but one year later she is eight. Another year, and nine. Then, in 1982, she’s ten. If she continues at this rate she will grow from age seven to age twenty-one in less than fifteen years.

It’s ridiculous.

It’s crazy.

Her body weight will triple, more or less, assuming she eats better than she’s done. Her mind will grow orders of magnitude more sophisticated and complex. She will shoot up a foot and a half and more in height—

And all in less than fifteen years!

Everybody around her pretends that this is normal, even inevitable; that it happens to everyone, and just like so.

But that isn’t true.

There’s a girl at the local elementary, for example, for whom it is not thus.

Her name is Liril.

It’s not obvious just from looking at her that Liril does not age. In fact, it’s not even obvious, just yet, on the census. She hasn’t lived long enough to be suspicious in her youth.

But she’s timeless, anyway.

That much you can see.

She’s way too young to have such silver hair, and eyes so old, and to be so broken by her pains.

She’s way too young to have the power to turn humans into gods.

She’s not the kind of slam-dunk evidence against the naturalness of aging that she will later be, you understand, she’s eight or nine years old and she’s barely lived for twelve, but she’s still a bit of a corroboration: if a girl that young is that quiet, that still, then there’s something strange about the world.

It’s probably that aging isn’t normal.

Or that gravity doesn’t exist.

Something like that, anyway. Something reasonable, something sensible, something comprehensible about the world.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

It is 1982. Melanie is ten. Micah does not exist.

One day Micah will exist. When he exists, he will hate that Melanie came while he was away. He will think, “Maybe I could have saved her.”

The pronouns will be ambiguous.

He won’t be sure, even then, whether he means Liril or Melanie. He won’t understand, even then, the way that they hurt one another, and so even with his loyalties going almost entirely to Liril in any given circumstance he won’t be sure which of them he wishes he could have saved.

But he will hate.

He’ll hate himself, then, in those heady moments of existence, hate that the richness of the power of his life is circumscribed by time, hate that there was nothing, from the beginning, that he could do. He will resent, and bitterly, that the worst of it was over by the time he existed to do anything about it, and he will wonder if in some strange fashion that could possibly have been his fault.

The answer to this is that it almost certainly was not.

Not in any conventional sense.

When Melanie sits down in front of Liril, on the grass, Micah isn’t anywhere within a hundred miles of the place, and he doesn’t exist, and he has never existed, and he has never had a single chance to act or speak or do anything efficacious in the world.

He cannot, reasonably, be blamed.

So: “hi,” Melanie says. “Hi. I’m Melanie.”

And Liril doesn’t open up her eyes.

She says, “Nng,” instead.

It’s a lost little sound. It’s full of pain. So Melanie reaches for Liril’s hand.

“Don’t touch me,” Liril says.

And Melanie’s holding Liril’s hand. Melanie’s squeezing it and stroking it. She’s not sure when that happened, exactly. She missed the actual moment when she decided to seize it up. It’s just that she realizes suddenly that it’s already happened, that she’s already taken Liril’s hand, and there isn’t anything else that she can think to do in answer to Liril’s pain.

Liril can’t help laughing at that.

Liril clutches her hand to her chest and Melanie’s comes along.

Liril is sitting with her back against a tree, and her silver hair is spilling down it, and their hands are clutched together against her chest, and Liril is laughing, she cannot stop laughing.

That’s just how much it hurts.

When she finally does stop, Melanie rubs at one of Liril’s tears with a finger, and then licks her finger clean of salt.

Liril is quiet.

Liril is still.

“I’m stuck,” Melanie says.

Liril shakes her head.

“I’m stuck,” Melanie repeats, louder. “I came here, I came to Santa Ynez, and the colors were beautiful and bright, and everything was awesome, except, when I turned around and looked behind me, I saw the colors had made a web. They’d come together in a web.”

Liril’s face twitches. Her eyes come open. She looks at Melanie for the first time in their lives.

“There’s a spider in the sky,” Liril agrees.

It’s the colors of the dawn and the sunset, the piled soft blues of the sky, and the colors of the drifting clouds. It is beautiful and it is translucent, the spider is, and it is very difficult to see.

It has caught the whole of the city in its web.

This, as the monster has instructed it to do.

“I can’t be stuck,” Melanie says.

“You’re not.”

“But it’s a web.”

I’m stuck,” Liril says. “You’re not stuck. You’re not the kind of person that a spider’s web can hold. You’re Melanie, cunning Melanie, beloved of the gods.”

This is the first time Melanie has heard this appellation.

“I’m what?” she asks.

Liril is crying.

It’s starting to freak Melanie out.

“Stop that,” she says. “Stop crying.”

And Liril does.

Liril shakes her head a bit, and then she rubs away her tears, and then she cleans her snuffling nose upon her shirt.

She isn’t crying any longer.

She is looking at Melanie, instead, with reddened eyes.

“You got out of the soot-web,” Liril says, “so you should know.”

Melanie takes a deep breath.

Liril knows.

She lets it out.

“So you’re really . . . you really are magic,” she says.

That’s what the fairies say, and some few of the kids. Liril’s magic. She can solve a person’s problems. She can answer the riddles of your life.

She can turn you, if you ask her, into a god.

“I can’t fly,” says Liril, “and I can’t grant wishes, not really, and my hands can’t hold the sun. I can’t grow larger than a castle or shrink down smaller than a ladybug. I can’t bend the seasons in their course or make the wind to blow. I can’t even— I can’t— I— I’m not really very magic. But I’m a crucible of gods.”

Melanie doesn’t know the word crucible but she interpolates from context.

“Then make me one,” she says.

It is a raging need in her. It is a hunger. It is a thirst. She can taste it. It is rising in her, what she can become.

“Make me a god,” she says. “Make me the kind of god that can kill spiders, and break free of any web, and never go hungry or go thirsty, and be by all others loved; to tell the lies that everyone believes, and to slip past any security, and to overcome any obstacle, and to perform transformations, and to become the cleverest creature in all the world and save all the hurting people from their pains. Can you make me that?”

And be free, at last, of the web that is the world—

And be more

And Melanie is already standing up, she can feel it, it is so terribly, terribly close, her bright transcendence, and she is strong; but

that’s it for this week! Gotta stretch this out, you know, don’t want to leave all the people who haven’t noticed that the story’s updating again in the dust! I’ll probably go to twice a week starting in March or April—

But for now, you’ll have to wait one whole week for (I/VII).

Maybe to pass the time you could . . .

To Serve the String (I/I)

Melanie walks into a bar.

THUNK!

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


April 18, 1989

It’s in a rubbish bin in Jericho that she finds the grangler. He’s a spirit bound to a red, red cord. He’s a ghost from Rahab’s days.

“Poor thing,” she says. She’s kneeling down.

She’s picking up the cord.

And the grangler’s hands are claws, like this—like spears of withered bone—and they slice at her like a siggort’s knives, only, Melanie rolls away.

She’s fast.

She’s ripped a thread from the weave of the cord and still she had time to dodge his claws—that’s just how fast she is.

The grangler is faster.

She’s ripping a lock from the hair of her head, and she’s knitting it together with the thread from the grangler’s cord. She’s scrambling back, but the grangler is faster.

He’s as fast as falling.

He’s as fast as running out of air after your dying cough.

He’s fast like a puma’s jump.

She kicks out, hard, as the grangler comes. She shatters the grangler’s nose. He shakes his head. He snarls then. She skips back three times before he moves again.

It isn’t fast enough.

He seizes her. He’s got her leg. He’s pinned her down. He will rip her with his next blow.

“Guess what?” she says. She isn’t scared.

She isn’t scared, so the grangler blinks.

Just a blink! But it’s long enough.

While the grangler’s blinking, she’s pulled tight the knot—bound the thread to her bloody hair. While the grangler’s blinking, she’s bound him up, and to the grangler become the master.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


May 7, 1977

Her brother’s Billy but Billy’s bad.

Melanie walks into a bar.

THUNK!

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


April 17, 1989

The grangler’s an old ghost. He’s a god of hanging on. But there isn’t much to hang on to, any more.

He’d been killed by the people of Israel.

They’d promised not to kill anyone living with his Auntie Rahab: anyone sheltering in her care; anyone hiding, in short, behind the crimson cord that she’d use to mark her home.

And they’d come into his city, and they’d knocked away his sword, and they’d killed him, and all because he wouldn’t stay at home with his Auntie Rahab, whom he’d despised.

For a very long time that had seemed like enough reason to live, as much as a ghost can be said to be living, all tangled up in his hate and the threads of the crimson cord.

But lately it’s felt a little awkward and pointless and unnecessary to be a god bound up in string.

He’d hung in a bar, or the cord had, anyway, like maybe one day the tribes of Israel were going to get confused and attack Jericho again, only, they’d see the red cord hanging from the bar, and stop.

“Wait!” the hardened Israeli commander would say. “We cannot attack this bar. That would break our covenant with Auntie Rahab!”

In the 50s and 60s this was a possibility.

In 1989, with the city firmly in Israeli hands, the scenario seems remote.

And maybe that’s why the barkeep eventually took down the cord, and trashed the grangler, like he was any other piece of string.

Or maybe he’d just killed too many customers.

Human reasoning is often opaque. The grangler doesn’t know.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


May 7, 1989

Melanie walks into a bar.

THUNK!

That’s the sound of the door that she’s just kicked open striking Connor on the head.

And Duncan growls, “What the Hell?”

Melanie is young. She’s not a legend yet.

Duncan reaches for her arm.

Her weight shifts. His grip is just a tool to her, to pull him off his feet. She’s turning, and her heel is on his foot, and her elbow is in his gut. It’s all very quick and painful then and Duncan follows Connor to the floor.

Melanie looks at Billy.

Her attention’s shifted a bit too fast. It’s a bit of a mistake. Duncan is outclassed against her skill, but he’s also a big strong man. He’s throwing his weight against her as he falls.

For a moment she’s off balance.

Billy’s growling. He’s closed the distance, bloody fast, and bloody fast he’s thrown a punch. She’s leaning right into it, on account of being off balance, and it looks to shatter Melanie’s face.

The grangler’s claws come through Billy’s eyes and they squeeze tight, instead. They short the circuits of his brain.

Melanie has caught her balance. She’s advancing through the bar. And Billy’s gang are already on their feet, but she moves through them like the wind.

She’s laughing.

She’s laughing, and it’s brilliant, and she yanks up Billy’s head and she tells her brother’s shattered, staring eyes, “Remember me?”

It’s 1989 and Melanie’s only 17, but she’s bright and burning with hubris. She’s wound a red cord in her hair. She’s learned the secrets of the gods.

And she whispers, sweet, to Billy’s head, “I’ll never live in fear again.”

But what about you?

Can you make it a week—a terrible, whole week—until Hitherby posts again? Can you endure without the darkness closing in?

Maybe you should pass the time by . . .

  • rereading the first storyline Hitherby had, which is named:
    At Gibbelins’ Tower
  • learning what we meant by the phrase “a siggort’s knives”
  • debating whether it’s that Duncan and that Connor
  • reading about the forthcoming 3rd edition of Nobilis, by Jenna Katerin Moran! (3, 2, 1!)
  • admiring this awesome news story about a shark charitably expiating a debt of karma owed from a former life
  • mourning my inability to watch literal music videos while in China
  • glancing over the Book of Joshua, so you can laugh at me when I mangle it? or even
  • reading the entire archives of Gunnerkrigg Court in a single sitting, and then falling over blind and legless for five days!

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

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

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

Like:

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

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

Or:

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

Or:

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

Max can’t actually die.

He’s lived in Spattle.

Or maybe even:

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

“Hey,” Max’ll say.

Hey, Sid says. Thought you were dead.

“It’s a special.”

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

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

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

We wouldn’t necessarily know.

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

But that ain’t so.

Not exactly, anyway.

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

There ain’t no reason.

He just comes back.

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

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

And the scattering of points and colors becomes the beach.

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

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

Maybe someday it’ll be a little more explained.

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

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

But not a reason, not whole and entire.

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

Like:
People always fight the things they love.

I would hug you, says Sid.

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

Max looks up.

“You’re real,” he says.

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

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

Hesitantly, he says, “Did you—“

Sid cuts him.

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

He should probably have asked.

But he didn’t; and Max lets it be.

“Did you—“

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

Max gropes for words.

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

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

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

No, Sid agrees.

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

“So—did you—“

Of course, Sid says.

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

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

“How?”

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

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

Is it okay?

Can broken things be remade?

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

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

How can you forgive him? Ii Ma asks.

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

Nothing more; nothing less.

“Because I’d rather,” he explains.

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

Not the other way around.

The Island of the Centipede
Fin.

On The Nature of Judgment (4 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

See also this legend.

It would be difficult to explain what has changed.

That shouldn’t be surprising.

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

So it is necessarily difficult to explain.

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

That which we hide away in the place without recourse:

It does not grow.

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

And some of it is the exercise of force.

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

It is not possible to forgive without an unencumbered choice.

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

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

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

Certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arguable, perhaps.

Too critical, perhaps.

But not in error.

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

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

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

Max is dead.

The world is cold.

The siggort is alone.

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

Max had planned to do something really cool.

He wasn’t sure what, yet.

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

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

So now he’s drifting in the Good.

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

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

Like:

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

And the Good does not explain.

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

Like Sid’s, in a way.

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

That the very idea of dharma—

In the face of the simple corrosive concept of enlightenment—

Has become a contradiction unto itself.

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

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

That was one impulse.

Days later, another rises:

“How the Hell is this my happy ending?”

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

By fiat?

By force?

By love?

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

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

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

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

It is not given unto us.

It is not forced upon us.

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

People always fight
The things they love.

What is the nature of judgment?

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

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

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

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

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

He is alone.

The Matter of Zheng’s Son (3 of 5)

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

He looks up.

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

His eyes narrow.

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

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

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

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

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

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

Mr. Kong breathes in the air of the room.

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

But the man does not move.

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” says the assassin.

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

“If I may ask,” he says. “Whom?”

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

“My son.”

“Ah.”

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

Mr. Kong sighs.

They sit there. They drink.

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

The assassin’s voice is choked.

“You deny your responsibility?” he says.

Mr. Kong thinks on that.

“I do?” he asks.

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

“I have said as much,” says Mr. Kong.

“Our ancestors exceeded us.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.

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

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

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

Mr. Kong smiles over his tea.

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

“So,” says the assassin.

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

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

He sets down his teacup.

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

“My name is Zheng,” he says.

He hesitates.

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

Outside the wind toys with flakes of snow.

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

A sadness rises.

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

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

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

Zheng does not respond.

“But I’m glad,” says Mr. Kong.

Zheng looks up.

He sees that Mr. Kong is smiling.

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

“Why?”

Mr. Kong tilts his head.

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

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

“Love.”

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

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

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

A wire snaps.

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

It is June 3, 2004.

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

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

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

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

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

Sid conceives a plan.

His plan is mad, like the siggort himself.

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

Not so very much; just a little bit—

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

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

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

He drifts there, free of attachment to things.

Max loved him, he thinks.

Certainly, so did the Good.

He wonders why.

Max is Dead (2 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

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

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

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

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

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

He cuts it from himself.

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

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

The eye of the Good turns to that gap.

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

He sees something.

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

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

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

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

But first there’s a man.

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

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

He tastes like Max.

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

There is a darkness between the pieces of this man.

The Buddha put it thus: anatman.

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

What does this description mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red Mary’s proven it.

So has Ii Ma.

So, in the long run, has life itself.

Chopping Max into little pieces is actually pretty easy.

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

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

Max is dead.

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

How can you forgive him? Ii Ma had asked.

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

Things end.

Hopes die.

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

And with Head Island so near—

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

He cannot rely on evidence to the contrary.

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

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

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

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

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

He cuts through the man.

He hooks into the man.

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

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

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

Shock unfolds.

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

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

The grip of Sid releases.

Max falls.

For a lingering moment, Sid is quite still.

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

A drop of blood floats free.

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

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

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

He holds himself together.

He seizes a bundle of wires of Sid.

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

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

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Max is smiling.

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

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

Red Mary is looking at him.

“Yes.”

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

Have you ever thanked the world for intestines?

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

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

“That’s great.”

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

“Exploded girl? The chaos god?”

“Ah.”

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

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

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

“Love?” suggests Max.

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

“Hunger?”

“Sight,” says Red Mary.

“Sight?”

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

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

“I’m not going to eat you, Max.”

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

“Why?”

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

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

Click.

Click.

Click.

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

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

It is a thing that moves.

It is a thing that longs to move.

It jitters.

Click.

It falls back to where it began.

There is something looking at it.

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

The metal that longs to move begins to warp.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It falls back to where it began.

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

A wildness rises into motion.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It manages a full rotation and then another.

Motion breeds interpretation.

An impulse rises from the rotation of the thing.

I am suffering.

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

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

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

It is trembling with its excitement.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It is moving.

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

An impulse rises.

I am in Hell.

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

But a wind is rising.

The ring that it scrapes against begins to move.

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

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

Blades cut against blades.

The machine spasms.

Spikes shift.

Hooks rise and fall.

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

It sees a shivering blur of storms.

It sees the inside of a heart.

It sees a shivering blur of storms.

It sees the inside of a heart.

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

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

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

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

Something is watching it.

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

Can you imagine how good that must feel?

How incredible it must be?

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

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

Once he would have held back.

Even with Max dead.

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

But not now.

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

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

He gives his trust to Martin.

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

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

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

And it says: Come get some.

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

Max’s head breaks water.

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

He breathes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To say: Thank God.

To say: Thank God.

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

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

Between the Panels of the Day – Piracy (I/I)

Tara’s master didn’t approve.

He’d helped her build the ship.

He’d helped her crew it.

But every time she looked at him she could see through the grey beard of her master how amazingly he disapproved.

“You can’t enlighten people by committing corporal violence on a god,” he said. “Not even a heap.”

She looked at him. It was a serious, pensive look. “Don’t tell Amitabha?”

“If you can do it,” he says, “it won’t work; contrariwise, if it could work, you won’t be able to do it.”

“The point’s not to do it,” she said.

“Oh?”

“I just think, if people are always going to be mugged by bandits, that there should be a pirate somewhere, you know, fighting on their behalf.”