Brick Road

“They say the Wizard did a favor for an angel once,” Saul says.

Clair sighs. “I don’t want to hear your crazy theories about the Wizard.”

“So the angel granted him three wishes. And he said, ‘I wish to always win at cards, if I want to; and that anyone who sits down in that chair won’t be able to get up without my permission; and anyone who climbs my old orange tree, why, without my permission, they won’t be able to come down.'”

“The Wizard’s a myth,” Clair says. “This is a naturally occurring fairyland. It doesn’t require a Wizard.”

“And that’s why nobody ever dies here,” Saul says. “Because Death’s stuck up in the Wizard’s tree, and he can’t come down.”

Fairyland,” Clair emphasizes.

“Well,” Saul says. “We’re going to find out soon.”

“Oh?”

Saul looks insufferably smug. “I got a call from my contact in Puzzleville,” he says. “He says he can blow the conspiracy wide open. He’s going to expose all the lies, Clair. The Brick Road. The Wizard. Fairyland. We’re going to know the truth.”

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

Saul and Clair stroll through the woods. Puzzleville fades in slowly. One or two pieces of the dirt path seem like odd stones: on closer examination, they are jigsaw pieces. Green ropes of dangling jigsaw hang from the tree branches overhead. Slowly but surely the entire world becomes a jigsaw construction, until the grand jigsaw gate rears over it all, surmounted by a sign reading PUZZ_EVILLE. Part of the sign has fallen to the ground and broken, and two jigsaw children work fervently to reassemble it.

Clair points at a smaller sign, off to the side. “Fragile,” she says. “Please do not apply concussive force.”

“Guess you’d better not go wild on the drums,” Saul says.

“I forgot to bring them,” she says. “I guess fate loves a jigsaw.”

They walk towards the building labelled, “Saul’s Contact’s House.” They’re easy. They’re relaxed. Then there’s a horrible crunching, crashing sound from within.

“Clair,” Saul says.

Clair draws her gun. They advance slowly towards the building. Its entire facade crashes down on them in a rain of jigsaw pieces. The creature roars out.

A physical description does the creature no justice, for its physical form is an unassuming jackanapes. For a resident of Fairyland, its deformities are minor. It has wheels attached to its arms and legs, instead of hands and feet. The long tails of its coat jut back stiffly, like an animal’s tail bristling. Its moustaches are sharp. None of these things disturb Saul or Clair, but there is an animal ferocity and a demoniac madness on its face that makes it horrible. It is a thing that hungers, and its hungers are dark. The venom of its glance strikes like a blow, and Saul falls over backwards.

“Catch it, Clair!” he shouts.

Clair fires, once, twice, three times. The first bullet strikes its shoulder but does not slow its advance. The second bullet, dead into its forehead, sends it twisting back and around. The third prompts the creature to scream, high and terrible. It twitches and goes still.

“Cover it,” she says. Saul crawls into a sitting position, pulls his own gun, and holds it trained on the creature.

Clair advances gingerly. She puts two fingers to the side of its neck. “Unconscious,” she says.

“I’ll check out the building,” Saul says.

Saul goes inside. Clair efficiently strips off the creature’s tires and puts its wheels up on improvised blocks. She clips a long metal rod to its bow tie so that the creature cannot twist its neck. Then she waits. After a moment, Saul comes out. He shakes his head.

“He’s in pieces,” Saul says. He turns. He looks up and down the street. He shouts, “Hey! We need an assembly squad, stat!”

A few jigsaw people poke their heads out from nearby buildings. Reluctantly, subduedly, they go into the ruins and begin assembling Saul’s contact.

“It’ll be at least three hours,” Saul says. “He’s pretty scattered.”

Clair calls for backup. They wait. About an hour and a half passes before the creature wakes up. It snarls at them.

“You shouldn’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong,” it says. “Someone’s likely to eat it! And then spit it back in your face, all gooky with saliva!”

Clair frowns. “Ew.”

“What do you know?” Saul asks, companionably.

“I know how to hurt you,” it whispers. “Forever and ever, oh yes. With wheels.” It struggles against the blocks.

“I mean, about the conspiracy.”

The creature opens its mouth, then closes it again. “Can’t tell you,” it says.

“Typical,” Saul mutters.

A helicopter circles overhead. The fragile jigsaw people look at it warily. The pilot is skilled, but no skill is sufficient. The helicopter’s landing disassembles a large chunk of road, three bushes, a horse trough, and a festive tavern sign reading, “300 Piece Liquor.” Two men in suits get out to take custody of the creature. A third steps down, and Saul snarls.

“You,” he says.

The third man is on fire. He seems pretty casual about it. Smoke spirals off him into the sky, slowly turning jigsaw as it rises.

“Yes,” says the smoking man.

“What do you want?” Saul says. He steps forward, belligerently.

“Just taking this thing back to the oubliette where it belongs.”

“You’re at the heart of all this,” Saul says. “I know it.”

“Feh,” says the smoking man. “I’m just the lord of the oubliette.” The two suited men drag the creature into the helicopter. The smoking man follows them in. “If you want to complain,” he adds, “talk to the Wizard.”

The helicopter takes off again. Saul stands up. He paces. A young fresh-faced woman made entirely out of corner pieces comes out of the ruins.

“He’s reassembled,” she says. “But not entirely.”

“Not entirely?”

“He’d been mauled,” she says. “Badly. We couldn’t find all the pieces of his brain. Mostly, he sits in one place and says ‘guh’.”

Saul and Clair hurry in. Saul’s contact is in the middle of the ruin. He sits. He smiles at them. He says, “Guh.”

“As advertised,” Clair says, grimly.

“Please,” Saul says. “Jigsaw-1. Can’t you tell me anything?”

“Guh!” the contact emphasizes.

Saul sits, heavily.

“That’s it, then,” he says. “The smoking man’s won.”

“Guh,” the contact says, expressively. Then, with the smile of a man sharing a wonderful secret, he opens his hand and shows Saul his palm. Attached to it is a transparent piece of cellophane. It shimmers with stained glass-style colors. It is cut into the shape of an X.

“It’s pretty!” declares Clair.

Saul takes it. “I guess,” he says, “that even if I don’t have the truth, I have a new window decoration.”

Dejected, they go back home. They stop at Saul’s door. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” Saul asks.

“Sure,” Clair says.

Clair follows Saul in. Saul fixes the stained-glass cellophane X to his window. He goes into the kitchen. He makes coffee.

“They say there’s no evil here,” Saul says, “because the Wizard trapped the Devil. The Devil didn’t care that the Wizard couldn’t die. He wanted his due. But when he came for the Wizard, the Wizard offered him a chair. And before he knew it, the Devil was stuck, and he couldn’t get up without the Wizard’s permission.”

“Do you really think there’s no evil here?” Clair asks.

“I think there’s evil everywhere,” Saul says. “But in most places, it seeps out and infects everything. Here, mostly, we throw it in the oubliette.”

“What about the conspiracy?”

“That’s not evil,” Saul says. “It’s just rude. Hey.”

“Hey?”

Saul points. On his desk is a map of Fairyland. The evening sunlight coming in through his window passes through the X and illuminates a spot.

“Where is it?” Clair asks.

“It’s on the Brick Road,” Saul says. “Near the valley of the sheep.”

They get up. They go to the car. They drive.

Time passes.

“What were the cards for?” Clair asks. “I mean, in the story.”

Saul pulls over, gently. He parks the car. He turns off the headlights.

“The Devil wanted to game for his freedom,” Saul says. “So he bet the Wizard’s soul against his freedom from the chair, and he lost.

“‘Double or nothing,’ said the Devil.

“‘I only got one soul,’ said the Wizard.

“‘I’ll bet you dominion over all Hell,’ said the Devil. ‘And if you win, I’ll even go to work for you. Against your soul, and my freedom from this chair.’

“So they played, and the Wizard won.”

Saul gets out of the car. He walks forward. He shines his flashlight about. Then he stops.

“Over there,” he says. “It’s an orange tree. And there’s someone in it.”

Clair’s flashlight flicks up onto a startled and skeletal face. “Saul,” she says. “I think . . . I think it’s Death.”

Death turns his face away. Tear tracks have cut channels deep into his skull.

“It’s not my fault,” he says. “There was a sparrow up here. It was dying. I didn’t have a choice.”

“So it’s true,” Saul says.

“It’s true,” Death confesses. “All of it. This isn’t a Fairyland. It’s just Hell.”

“Poor thing,” Saul says. “I guess being stuck in an orange tree for a few thousand years must be Hell, all right.”

“It was paved over,” Death says. “The demons were thrown in an oubliette, and only let out for special assignments. ‘I don’t want to rule a place of torture and pain,’ said the Wizard. But he’ll trap me in a tree for thousands of years, oh yes. He’ll do that.

“Wait,” Saul says. “Literally, Hell?”

“Look under the bricks,” Death says. “The truth’s right below you.”

So Saul pries back the golden bricks, one by one.

Beneath the road there is a river of blood.

Meredith’s Fairy Tale

On Tuesday, Meredith goes from house to house. She knocks at the kitchen door of Old Manor.

“Please, ma’am, ” she says, to Irma the cook. “Do you have any scraps, or used tea leaves?”

“You’re a well-favored girl,” says Irma. “Why do you beg?”

Meredith shrugs, a little. We make do as we can, the gesture says. So Irma gives her some scraps and some tea leaves, and Meredith is off to the next house.

“Who was that?” asks the cook’s assistant, Jordan.

“A beggar girl,” Irma says, dismissively. Then she looks out the kitchen window. “It looks like she’s hitting the Minister’s house next.”

“Oh, my,” Jordan says.

On Wednesday, it’s the tradition of the Minister of Terrors to tidy up her affairs and make proper disposal of the remains of the week. She rings a bell and summons her servants. “I paid you early,” she says, “but money on Sunday is worth more than money on Wednesday. So I need a shaving, just a scrap, from the coins I gave each of you.”

The servants don’t look happy. But they take out their coins, and she scrapes a bit from the edge of each. She piles up the scraps, adds some sulfur to the mix, and blows on it; a cloud of foul-smelling smoke rises to the ceiling. “That closes my accounts,” she says, “for the week. Then there are the outstanding debts.”

She rubs under her nose with one finger and thinks. “Simon,” she says. “You spent hours hunting down the best tea at the market. I’m grateful for that, but I can’t go around owing people favors. So I’m going to repay you now, with a glimpse at any Terror you please.”

Simon hesitates. “I hear that one of them is beautiful,” he says, hesitantly.

The Minister shakes her head. “It’d kill you to look at her,” she says.

“Um,” Simon says. “Then, maybe, one with historical interest?”

The Minister passes a hand before Simon’s eyes. He sees the 1880 Terror. He springs backwards, strangling a shout, and falling into the wall. When his eyes clear, he smiles uneasily. “Thank you, Minister.”

The Minister turns to look at her bodyservant. “Melanie,” she says, “you put too much scent in the water. I was practically reeking at the meeting of government. It was terribly embarrassing, so you’ll have to have a cat’s tail for three weeks.”

Melanie sighs sadly. Then she yelps as it grows from her back.

“There,” the Minister says. “Karma all balanced.”

She turns to her cook, Morgan. “Please,” she says, “bring me the used tea leaves from the week.”

Morgan pales. He does not move.

“Hm?” asks the Minister.

Morgan is a new hire.

“I did not know,” he says, “that you would be needing them again, Minister.”

“I do divinations in my tea!” she exclaims. “And incantations with it, to boot. I need to disinfect the leaves so that no one can use them against me.”

“Ah,” Morgan says. “You see, that is an even more specific description of that thing I did not know.”

“Well, then,” the Minister says. “I am glad that I have corrected your ignorance.”

“It is just,” says Morgan, “that I gave the tea leaves to the beggar lass who comes to the kitchen door.”

The Minister raises her eyebrow.

“She was very pleased,” Morgan says. “She said, ‘Wow! I always ask, but I’ve never gotten this house’s tea leaves before. That old cook—he was too stern about them! Not like you, sir.'”

“Bah!” declares the Minister, stormily. She gestures, and Morgan becomes a monstrous cat-bodied gargoyle. He yowls. Then, not even delaying for a letter of recommendation, Morgan darts out the door to seek a new position elsewhere. The Minister frowns at his wake. She gestures towards the wall and a surprised silverfish assumes human form.

“You are now my cook,” she says. “I like my toast cold and my eggs runny: take heed!”

“Yes, ma’am,” says the silverfish, bowing furiously. He signals, behind his back, to the other silverfish in the wall: Someone! Help! But there is nothing that his family can do.

The Minister thinks. “I must also obtain revenge upon this girl,” she says. “So I will give out the scraps at the kitchen door myself, henceforth.”

On Thursday, Meredith returns. She knocks on the kitchen door of the Minister’s house.

“Please, sir,” she says, to Silverfish the cook. “Do you have any scraps, or used tea leaves?”

“One moment,” says the cook, quite properly, and closes the door. He fetches the Minister. The Minister opens the door and smiles falsely at Meredith.

“Oh!” Meredith exclaims. “A witch! I can tell by the nose.”

“Good evening, child,” says the Minister. “I wish to personally offer you these scraps and tea leaves, which are in no fashion cursed.”

“Oh, thank you!” says Meredith. She takes the scraps and tea leaves away.

“Good, good,” says the Minister. She rubs her hands together. “When she eats those scraps, she’ll turn into a horrible long-toothed ogre. That’ll serve her right!”

On Saturday, Meredith returns. She knocks on the kitchen door of the Minister’s house.

“Please, sir,” she says, to Silverfish the cook. “Do you have any scraps, or used tea leaves?”

Silverfish frowns at her. He places his hand on top of her head, and then moves it back to verify that it is level with his chest. He peels back her upper lip to look at her teeth, which are short. He runs his hand around in her hair, looking for the horns. There are no ogre horns.

“Pardon, ma’am,” he says. “But you seem to be a beggar girl.”

“Ah!” Meredith says. “Yes. I had planned to be a hot air balloon, but that strange and mysterious agency that assigns souls to bodies chose otherwise.”

“Ah,” says the cook. “One moment.”

He closes the door. After a moment, the Minister opens it. She peeks out at Meredith.

“Oh!” exclaims Meredith. “A witch! I can tell by the hair.”

“Yes, yes,” says the Minister of Terrors. “I’m a very important witch. But I always have time for the little people!”

She carefully packs some scraps and tea leaves in a fancy box. Then she hands the box to Meredith.

“Like the previous gift,” the Minister says, “these are in no way cursed.”

“Hurray!” says Meredith. She skips off.

“She must have dropped the previous scraps,” says the Minister. “Perhaps she threw them in the gutter, saying, ‘I only eat scraps from a fancy box. To think that that old witch gave them to me in a greasy bag!'”

The Minister tears at her hair, expressing her deep frustration with the insolence of youth.

“In any event, when she eats these scraps, she’ll turn into a mouse. That will fix her!”

On Tuesday, Meredith returns. She knocks on the kitchen door of the Minister’s house.

“Please, sir,” she says, to Silverfish the cook. “Do you have any scraps, or used tea leaves?”

Silverfish narrows his eyes. “You’re a resilient child,” he says.

“I like dancing!” Meredith exclaims.

“One moment,” Silverfish says. He closes the door. There are sounds of consternation from within the house, and at least one explosion.

After five long minutes, the Minister opens the door. She stares at Meredith through narrow, unhappy eyes.

“Oh no!” Meredith says. “A horrible witch!”

A muscle at the side of the Minister’s face twitches. “Very well,” she says. “I am going to take time out of my busy schedule to personally prepare you a collection of delicious finger sandwiches. And fresh tea.”

Meredith frowns. “Are they going to turn me into something?” she asks.

“I doubt it,” grumbles the Minister. She chops up watercress and puts it on a sandwich with butter. She slices cheddar cheese thinly and adds cucumber. She mixes smoked salmon and horseradish. Soon she has a widely-varied collection of delicious finger sandwiches to offer Meredith. Then she curses them and hands them to Meredith on a platter. “Please,” she says. “Eat one.”

“Oh no!” Meredith says. “I can’t eat them here!”

The Minister frowns. “You can’t?”

“No,” Meredith says. She shakes her head so vigorously that her ponytail makes a cracking noise—just like a whip!

“Hm,” says the Minister. She dismisses the girl. She sips at her tea. Then she looks at the tea leaves. “Will she die?” she asks them.

The tea leaves gather themselves sulkily. In the ancient language of their kind, they answer, Not today, you old harridan, or any time soon.

“Bah!” the Minister snaps. She throws her teacup into the wall. It cracks. The tea leaves spill down the wall, wailing, Tragedy! Disaster! Disorder is upon us!

“I cursed her to lose her heart to someone who will never love her,” says the Minister, “and wither away in despair. If she’s not going to do it, that curse is no good!”

“I’m sorry,” says the cook.

“It’s not your fault,” says the Minister. “I made those sandwiches myself.” She thinks. Then she frowns. “I’m going to follow her and find out why she wouldn’t eat here and why my curses didn’t work. Then I’ll tear her heart out with my fingernails, just like on Geraldo.”

The Minister of Terrors turns into a raven. She flies out of the house. She follows Meredith. Meredith stops at several other houses and collects scraps. Then she goes to her tiny little apartment. There’s a sign on the door. It had previously read, “Meredith is OUT.” But now it reads “Meredith is IN.”

The Minister sits on a sconce in the hallway and fluffs her wings. She watches. One by one, beggars come to Meredith’s door. They knock.

“Please, ma’am,” they say. “Do you have any scraps, or used tea leaves?”

“Of course!” she says.

“Bah,” mutters the Minister to herself. “These people are so ill-favored! Look at that one. He’s got pox all over his face! And that one—she stinks! What kind of insensible dolt gives these fools scraps and tea leaves?”

The last man to come by is John. He’s mute, so he doesn’t say anything. He’d use sign language, but no one in this neighborhood knows ASL. So he just smiles at her.

“John!” she says. She hugs him. “Come in. I have finger sandwiches! I saved them for you!”

The door closes.

“Aha!” screams the Minister. She fluffs her wings furiously. “She’s a scrap reseller!

Meredith, puzzled, opens the door. But at just that moment, a long-toothed ogre springs out from around the corner and grabs the Minister.

“Yum!” he declares. “Talking raven!”

The Minister resumes her normal form. She’s suddenly a witch! “You!” she says, pointing a finger at Meredith. “This is your fault!”

“Yum!” declares the ogre. “Witch!” He eats the Minister and tromps off.

“Wow,” Meredith says. “Life is exciting.”

John nods.

On Wednesday, Meredith checks the morning paper. “MINISTER OF TERRORS MISSING,” declares the headline. She brings it into her house. She reads the article. She turns to John, who has stayed over.

“The Minister of Terrors is missing,” she says.

John raises an eyebrow.

“Evidently, the prime minister is desperate. He’s looking for someone magical enough to replace her before all the Terrors get loose. But there just aren’t that many witches these days!”

Meredith pauses. She thinks. “Wait,” she says.

John puts his hand on his forehead. Thump!

“That is a very fancy house where she lives,” Meredith admits. “And she did say she was a very important witch. But I thought that was just hyperbole. I mean, she has enough free time to make finger sandwiches for beggars!”

She sits down and sulks. “This is all my fault,” she says.

John sits down beside her. He puts his arm around her shoulders. Then he pauses, blinks, looks at her, and shakes his head.

“No,” she says. “It is. She said so, and that makes it true.”

John’s face falls. Meredith springs to her feet.

“We have to rescue her!” she declares.

John makes hand signs indicating that she should talk to the police, but Meredith does not know sign language. She nods and pretends to understand, but she doesn’t!

“I’d best fetch Broderick,” she says. She goes to her dresser. She opens the top drawer. She takes Broderick out. Broderick was her friend, but now he is a mouse. She puts Broderick in her purse. Broderick squeaks protestingly, but Meredith shakes her finger at him sternly. “It’s your own fault for turning into a mouse,” she says. “That’s your indignity!”

Broderick crosses his paws and sulks. It’s a curse, he squeaks.

“Weirdest guy I ever knew,” she says. “Turned into a mouse! Just a few days ago! In the middle of dinner!”

John rolls his eyes. Then he follows Meredith out the door.

“How will we find the ogre’s castle?” Meredith asks.

John points at the footprints sunk deep into the hallway floor. Then he points out the window at the line of footprints sunk into the cement of the sidewalk.

“Good spotting!” Meredith says. They follow the footprints to a miniature golf course. There’s a castle at its center. She rushes to its door.

“Rowr!”

There’s a terrible yowling. A monstrous cat-gargoyle detaches from the castle’s roof and flutters ponderously downwards at them.

“It’s the castle guardian!” Meredith exclaims.

“Rowr,” declares the cat-gargoyle. He lands and slinks towards them on padded feet. He yawns widely, showing great teeth. John hides behind Meredith.

“Every heroine must make moral compromises,” Meredith decides. She fishes Broderick out of her purse. She throws the mouse underhand. It flies past the cat-gargoyle’s face and lands, stunned, nearby. The cat-gargoyle turns, lithely. It prods the mouse with one paw. It hesitates. In that moment, Meredith and John rush by.

In the center of the castle, the ogre sleeps.

Do we challenge it? John asks. Wake him and fight him in honorable combat? It’s two against one, but he has a weight advantage.

“Agreed,” Meredith says, although she doesn’t understand sign language. She takes a sword from the wall and cuts the ogre open, up and down. The Minister tumbles out of the ogre’s stomach and rests, panting weakly, on the floor.

“That was unpleasant,” the Minister says.

“I’m sorry,” Meredith says.

The Minister shakes her head. “You’re a brave girl,” she says. “I’ll give you anything you ask for, in exchange for freeing me from the ogre’s stomach.”

Then she stands up, weakly, tears Meredith’s heart out with her fingernails, and hobbles away.

That’s horrible! signs John. He looks at Meredith’s dying body. How is she supposed to ask for anything like this?

Meredith bleeds.

Ah, well, John says. I don’t think she could have really loved me anyway.

He tears out his own heart. He dips it in the ogre’s blood, because ogre’s blood is potent magic. He presses his heart into her chest. He smooths her chest awkwardly together over the heart.

I hope it works, he says. He watches. But the heart does not beat, and John withers away in despair. Only when he is dust does the heart pound, once, in Meredith’s chest, and her eyes roll open again.

On Thursday, Meredith knocks on the kitchen door of the Minister’s house.

“Please, sir,” she says, to Silverfish the cook. “Do you have any scraps, or used tea leaves?”

“I’m actually a silverfish, you know,” he says. “I’m not cut out for this kind of stress.”

He closes the door in her face. After a few minutes, the Minister opens it.

“Oh!” says Meredith. “A witch! I can tell, by virtue of our long acquaintanceship.”

“What do you want?”

“Scraps and used tea leaves,” Meredith says. “Only, not cursed this time!”

“That’s fair,” the Minister agrees.

Behold the Rabbit

“I’ll travel back in time,” declares the rabbit, “and steal Cain’s cereal.”

The rabbit is briefly lost in bliss. “I’m sure that even back in Biblical times,” he says, “the grain that Cain intended as a sacrifice for God was deliciously fruity!”

Quickly, the rabbit dons his disguise. He dresses as Abel. He buys a rack of lamb from the supermarket. He boils it in sheep’s milk, because only things boiled in sheep’s milk can use the temporal fibrillator. Then he travels back in time!

On the sacrifice rock, he finds the cereal of Cain’s sacrifice. The rabbit seizes it and sets the lamb down in its place.

“At last!” he cries.

But there is Cain, coming through the fields, and there is a sharp stone in his hands.

“Cain,” cries the rabbit. “Do you not recognize me? It is I, your brother Abel!”

“I have no brother,” says Cain, his puzzlement genuine.

The rabbit frantically makes his disguise more convincing. “Don’t you remember me?” he asks. “Your younger brother, a keeper of sheep? Born in sorrow from our mother’s womb?”

For a moment, Cain almost looks convinced. “It seems plausible that she could have more than one child,” he admits. “And I have extremely poor long-term memory.”

One of the rabbit’s ears pops out.

Cain’s eyes narrow. “Yet,” he says, “that cereal was meant for God alone.”

The rabbit tries to tuck his ear back under his wig, but only frees the other.

“Silly rabbit,” Cain says, in a voice of blood.

Admonitions for Hungry Divers

It is common in this degenerate age for hedonistic tourists to combine extreme diving with gustatory satisfaction, often trailing a cloud of hooked fishing lines behind them as they explore the ruins of sunken ships. In a spirit of public service, Mrs. Parvati Schiff has assembled these “Ten Cogent Suggestions” for safe and enjoyable culinary diving.

One

Use common sense. If jellyfish stings send you into anaphylactic shock, restrict yourself to devouring the bloated gasbag.

Two

Zombie pirates are not a main course. If you must indulge, slice them thinly and serve them on minitoast as an hors d’oeuvre.

Three

Do not attempt to eat a live great white shark, particularly not while recovering from the stresses of your dive in a bath of luxurious blood-based broth.

Four

Remember: many species of whale are “endangered.”

Five

Don’t be gluttonous! Leave some of the Great Coral Reef for other hungry divers.

Six

Atlantean nobility are prone to many communicable diseases. If you must eat one, verify that there are no electric eels, giant octopi or squids, whales, seagulls, or huge seahorse-mounts inside your kitchen. Then, cook at a high temperature.

Seven

Do not eat one enormous octopus tentacle without first verifying the location of the other seven.

Eight

Pufferfish can expand to fifty times their original size. Always check whether your recipe refers to bloated or shrunken pufferfish before mixing ingredients.

Nine

Real life singing crabs are limited to an operatic repertoire. If your target crab begins to sing something to the effect of how life is better under the sea, you are suffering from oxygen toxicity.

Ten

If you accidentally hook an icthyosaur, do not eat it. Report it to the nearest marine authority at once; icthyosaurs are notorious criminals and ruffians.

It’s a Wonderful Murder

Cain sulks in his Caincave.

“Why was I born, ” he says, “into a world full of sorrow?”

Clarence attempts to console him. “So much would be different,” he says, “if you’d never been born. There wouldn’t be any leavened bread. Angels would speak Japanese. Great white sharks would be captured, belled, and released. People would generally be a lot less apologetic about murder. It would be madness.”

“Ha,” Cain says. “I’d like to see that.”

The next day, the angel Clarence shows him.

Interjection

Frogs rain down. Newts rain up. But only axlotl rain sideways. That’s their special gift, given only to them and to nobody else.

The greatest shark ever captured was Menace, a horror weighing more than thirty thousand pounds. He slew more than twenty ichthyologists during his capture, but it is the character of scientists to forgive; so he was belled and released, never to trouble the beaches of humanity again. At times, he tried, but the ringing of his bell drove the swimmers out of the water before he could taste of their flesh. He found himself forced to subsist on fish, and so he swam deeper and deeper into the ocean, growing great on grouper and halibut, and ever as he swam came the tolling of his bell.

Today, Menace is a great bulk that one might easily confuse for Atlantis. He sits in the deep, tolling, tolling, ringing, and chiming, like a great angel-winging machine. That’s the problem, after all. He’s giving wings to too many angels. They’re breeding as fast as they can, which is arguably “not at all,” but they’re still running out of the wingless kind.

It’s not just because Cain was never born. This problem has been looming for centuries—ever since a meddling gang of theologians and their talking dog discovered that angels exist in finite numbers. A finite number of angels means a finite number of wings. A finite number of wings means a finite number of rings. Sooner or later, despite the best efforts of the Unringers that dwell under Northumber Abbey, they’re going to run out.

Dramatic Reenactment

“Jinkies!” declares Thomas Aquinas. “What’ll the angels do when they’ve all got wings and bells are still ringing? It’s a mystery!”

“A rifftery!” agrees their talking dog. “Uh-huh!”

“Surely,” argues Teilhard, “that occasion will mark the completion of the world’s evolution towards God.”

“Revolution towards rod!”

“Rod is dead,” snarls Scrappy Nietzsche. Standing on two legs, he punches at the air. Without the art of leavening, humanity cannot make Scrappy Snacks, and the younger dog has grown up cold, hard, and philosophical.

Some have hypothesized that, once all the angels are winged, ringing will convert directly into luxury goods—every time a bell rings, an angel will get a Lamborghini. Others have theorized that this occasion will mark the Singularity, when the terrible chiming of bells will fill the air above Earth and humans will grow wings as one. But the angel Clarence knows the truth. Every time a bell rings, in this terrible alternate reality, an angel will get their gills.

It begins.

The endless ringing of Menace’s bell begins to draw them there, gilled angels in groups of one or two. They bring presents before him—grace, and wishes, and power.

Then one bleeds.

Flashback

“Why was I born into a world full of sorrow?” Menace asks Monstro.

A swift school of carp dart by.

“It is not sorrow,” Monstro says. He breathes the deeps. A puppetmaker, somewhere inside him, screams. “It is simply existence.”

“But is there not good and evil?” asks Menace. “Are we not creatures that should strive for something higher than the savage ocean of Hobbesfish’s anarchy?”

“Good is a beam of tachyons,” Monstro says, meditatively. “To create pure evil, reverse its polarity. To create pure good, revert it to base values. Yet a society bombarded by tachyons cannot survive. Remember this, Menace: the fish of mind must make his own path. Were you not born, the world would still be every bit as cruel.”

“I am sorry,” says Menace, sincerely, to the angels. “But I am entering the blood frenzy now.”

“Hai, wakarimasu,” Clarence says.

“Wow,” realizes Cain. “It really was a wonderful murder, after all.”

A Succession Of Magical Fish

Ellen sits on the shore of Lake Tahoe.

There’s a splash. A fish lands on the beach next to her. It wriggles in the sand.

“Fish, ” Ellen says. She raises an eyebrow.

“I am a magic fish, ” the fish says. “If you throw me back in, I’ll grant you your heart’s desire.”

“I don’t have one,” Ellen says.

“Oh.” The fish thinks. “I could give you a free ice cream.”

Ellen picks up the fish.

“Mind the tail!”

Ellen throws the fish back in. It wiggles, happily, in the water. After a moment, Ellen receives a free ice cream.

Ellen leans back. She looks up at the sun.

There’s a splash. A fish lands on the beach, a bit past her. It wriggles in the sand.

“Again?”

“I am a magic fish,” it proclaims. “If you throw me back in, I’ll grant you your heart’s desire.”

“Oh,” she says. “You’re a different fish.”

It looks embarrassed. “This has happened before?”

Ellen indicates the ice cream wrapper on the ground beside her. “I got ice cream.”

“Funny heart’s desire, that,” the fish says. “Well, I can give you a subscription to Popular Mechanic. If you like.”

Ellen picks up the fish. She throws it back in. The fish uses its powerful flipper to stand, for a moment, on top of the water.

“I’ll need your address,” it says.

“Just deliver it to needy orphans,” Ellen says. “With an interest in science.”

The fish dives under the water and is gone. Ellen dozes off. The sun goes down. The sun rises. Ellen rubs briskly at her arms to warm herself.

There’s a splash. Then a whoosh. Ellen watches a fish glide by, attached to a paraglider formed of shells and small stones. It is aerodynamic but insufficient; the fish flops to a halt not far past her.

“Nicely done,” she says. “That’s the best distance yet.”

“I am a magic fish,” it declares proudly. “In addition to my obvious technical ingenuity. If you throw me back in, I’ll grant you your heart’s desire.”

“I don’t have one,” she says.

“Oh.” It looks at her sidelong, which, being a fish, is the best it can do. “Did someone else get to you first?”

“I got an ice cream,” she says, “and a subscription to Popular Mechanic for some orphans. But I already didn’t have a heart’s desire. I lost it a couple days ago.”

“That’s too bad,” the fish says. “I’ll give you a get out of jail free card.”

“I’m rarely arrested,” Ellen points out.

“Sell it to terrorists,” the fish says. “Or captains of industry!”

“Fair enough,” she says. She picks up the fish. She throws it back in.

She looks at her slim metal wristwatch. She times it. It’s two hours and forty-five minutes before the next fish flies by. It’s on a primitive rotary aircraft, which putters and shudders vigorously as it moves past her. Moved by a vague generous impulse, she follows it to the tree line. The aircraft is not powerful enough to rise above the trees. After weaving past three trees, it crashes, and the fish flops to the ground.

“Are you a magic fish?” she asks.

“I like to think of myself more as an innovator,” it says. “But yes.”

“I don’t have a heart’s desire,” she says. “But I’ll throw you back in.”

“That’s decent of you,” the fish says.

“It’s kind of like a calling,” Ellen says. “I sit on the beach, fish fly past me, and I put them back in the lake.”

“It’s one of those jobs you pretty much have to luck into,” the fish observes as she picks it up and walks back towards the lake.

There’s another fish flopping helplessly on the sand. Ellen picks it up with her other hand. She heaves the first fish back in.

“What are you doing?” she asks the other.

“We’re trying to reach the sea,” it says. “We’re salt-water fish.”

“Oh,” she says.

“I’m magic,” it says. “Thus, you know, why I’m still alive. If you want, I can grant your heart’s desire.”

“I don’t have one,” she says.

“Maybe you should go to the sea,” it says. “I mean, that’s my heart’s desire, and it seems like a pretty good one.”

“Huh,” she says. “That seems kind of arbitrary.”

A fish ascends tremulously from the lake in the gondola of a hot water balloon.

“It’s not arbitrary,” answers Ellen’s fish. “Just think of all the salt!”

The Place Without Recourse (I/I)

My name is Train Morgan. This is my website. This page is the story of my brother Thomas. I am writing it so that people will know what happened to him.

Sam and Bird like to visit the abandoned facility on Elm Hill. They invited me many times. I only went once. I did not like it.

I told my brother about Sam and Bird. He thought it sounded cool. He went with them to the facility. He had bad timing. He was seen. He attracted someone’s attention. They did not like his presence. Now I have lost him.

The facility on Elm Hill has been abandoned. There is no machinery there now. There are no rats. There is no pain. There are no dancing Popes.

It is 2002.

“I don’t think this is a good idea, ” says Train. He’s a teenager. He’s wearing jeans and a skin-tight shirt. He’s got black hair and a tan.

Bird frowns at him. “It’s the coolest place ever, ” she says. “Just feel the air.”

Bird’s also a teen. She doesn’t look scared, but she is hanging, just a bit more tightly, on Sam’s arm.

“They had big ‘Keep Out’ signs,” Train points out.

Sam tilts his head to one side. “You’ll like it here,” he says.

Train rests his hand on the stained white wall. He looks uncertain. “What do you do here?”

“Commune,” Sam says.

“Listen,” Bird says. “Have you ever thought that there was something . . . bigger, in the world? Bigger than the ordinary way of being?”

Train listens to the air. Then he shakes his head. “I don’t, Sam. I don’t like it.”

Sam walks forward. With his free hand, he gestures to Train. “Further in,” he says. “It’s okay. I’m not so fond of this part either. But you’ll like Cheryl.”

Train shakes his head. But he lets Sam and Bird lead him deeper in.

He attracted their attention. So they found my brother.

They took him to a room. They asked Thomas, “Why do such terrible things happen in the world?” Thomas could not give them an answer. So they showed him the reason.

I was not there. I was in bed. I woke up screaming. I had lost my brother.

There are pipes on the walls. Sam’s flashlight plays over them as they walk. There’s a mist here, a condensation in the air.

Bird waves her hand through the mist. “This is Cheryl,” she says.

Train frowns. “Why do you call it Cheryl?”

Bird’s eyes are half-lidded. She’s looking upwards with a distant expression on her face. She sways slightly.

“It makes me feel lost,” Bird says. “It makes me feel alone. Like a dead girl might feel.”

Train looks at Sam, a little disturbed.

“Cheryl was her sister’s name,” Sam says. He closes his eyes. He wriggles his shoulders and his hands. “It’s good. Just . . . relax. Can’t you relax, Train?”

“I guess,” Train says. He closes his eyes.

“I’m not really real,” Bird says. “I’m just someone’s dream. I think that sometimes.”

“You’re real,” Train says.

He was not real any more. He was not a person any more. He was no longer my brother Thomas. He was. He had been. Now he isn’t.

There’s a chill in the air.

Sam says, softly, “The mist makes me think of a place far from here. A place where there is no recourse. It is not a place of the scholar’s books or the ancient memories of man. But it is known. It is seen between the ink and the white on the pages of a newspaper. It flickers on the dead channels of the television. It is something I have read of on the sides of a bus, passing by too fast to truly understand. Wouldn’t you like to have such visions, Train?”

“I wouldn’t,” Train says. “Not if I’d read it in the paper. Not if I’d see it on the television. Not if I’d read it on a bus.”

“There aren’t any people there,” Sam says.

“I wouldn’t like it without people.”

A mosquito lands on Train’s arm. He slaps it, then makes a startled noise. Its body is cold and the stain it leaves is black.

“Come on, Train,” Sam says. “Let yourself feel it.”

“I asked the mist,” Bird says. “I asked Cheryl, ‘Did you dream me?’ But it didn’t answer.”

Slowly, the three walk through the mist.

I saw his fate written on a milk carton’s back. Then I blinked and it was gone. It said:

Ii Ma, the Warden, keeps the place without recourse.

They sent my brother there.

“The place without recourse,” Sam says, “is a deep-walled valley. And each person who goes there is given a question to hold close to their heart. Until they answer it, they cannot leave. And because they can’t answer it, they’re not really people any more.”

They pass a room.

“That’s the Liril room,” Bird says.

Train looks in. Scratched in jagged letters, near the bottom of the wall, is the word LIRIL.

“It’s a palindrome,” Sam says.

“It’s like ‘Croatoan,'” Bird opines. “A mystery, left behind, to explain why the facility closed down. Are you the one who dreamed me, Liril?” she asks the air.

“I’d try to run,” Train says. “If I were in the place without recourse.”

“You could try,” Sam says. “But the valley walls are steep. And when you’d climbed until you could see the outside world, even as you crested the top and looked down at the paradise outside, you’d find yourself waking back in your bed, in the place without recourse. And you’d look at the dawn, and you’d say, ‘how beautiful.'”

There’s a spider on the wall. It’s hideous. Train recoils. Bird rubs its furry back with one long finger. “Did you dream me?” she asks it.

It scurries off into the mist. If anyone there knew the spider language, they might have heard its answer.

“I’d organize a rebellion,” Train says.

“You might,” Sam says. “And when you marched on the guards, you’d find yourself waking back in your bed, in the place without recourse. And you’d look at the dawn, and you’d say, ‘how beautiful.'”

They sent Thomas to the place without recourse. But he did not give up. He went to Ii Ma. The Warden is a squamous and amphibious beast with six great flippered legs and a face that drips black blood. Its eyes are cadaverous and filmed with slime.

“Free me,” Thomas asked Ii Ma. This is courage unparalleled. You cannot understand unless you have seen it. To speak in its presence at all shows courage. To make a petition of it, from a position of powerlessness—I am proud of my brother.

Thomas woke, in his bed, in the place without recourse. And he looked at the dawn. And he said, as he says every morning, ‘How beautiful.’

There’s a coughing sound in the mist. Train looks around.

“Hey,” Train says. He’s uneasy now. “Hey. Shouldn’t we be . . . communing? With something?”

Bird peers at Train. Her eyes have neither iris nor pupil. He realizes, in that moment, that they never have.

“Did you dream me?” she asks. “You’re a nice boy. I’d like it if you’d dreamed me.”

He shakes his head. “No,” he says, helplessly. “I’m just Train.”

“The air is full of answers,” Sam says.

“I don’t belong here,” Train says.

“It’s all right,” Sam says. They walk on down the empty hall. Finally, Sam points to the left. “You can go out that way,” he says. “We’ll stay for a while.”

“I’m sorry,” Train says.

“You’d like it,” Sam says. “If you tried it. If you just . . . let go.”

Train walks out.

I left.

Sam let me go. Bird let me go. If Ii Ma did not take them, they are now in twelfth grade. Sam will still be praising the virtues of the place. Bird will still be seeking whomever dreamt her.

Ii Ma did not let me go.

I dream of it. I know that it will come for me. It will ask me a question I cannot answer. It will take me away from the world to the place without recourse. And nothing I do, and nothing I have ever done, will matter again.

Perhaps I will see my brother. It would be kind. There is a great deal more cruelty than kindness in the world. But there is that hope, and so I tell myself:

I think I can endure.

Kama

It suddenly occurred to us that Kama’s identity and function might not have been obvious to the audience from context, what with him being obscure in non-Hindu culture and all. Sure, there were plenty of clues in his uniform, with its manifold subtleties and differences that indicated that this science fair student was responsible for maintaining human and inhuman interest in hoochie-coochie, marriage, and lust-related archery. But we can’t expect everyone to catch details like that!

So.

Kama, for clarity, is the deity governing sensual desire. That’s why Mr. Schiff was so harsh on him—you can’t be a renunciate if the god of sensual desire is piercing you with perturbing arrows all the time! Why, with someone like Kama around, Mr. Schiff would probably be married by now, just like the cookie Norn’s fortune said.

Kama got burned up by a volcano, anyway, and that was sad, and would probably have meant the end of things for civilization and stuff; except that his science fair prize—

ultimately—

was resurrection.

But that’s another story!

For another day!

Now here’s a fantasy about King Earth.

At The Academy

“It is trivial,” says Lady Wells, “to be a mollusc. It requires only that one be adopted into the phylum Mollusca.”

“One must also be invertebrate,” Mr. James points out.

“Such rules are for the lower classes,” Lady Wells says. “For a chiefly marine animal of quality, exceptions can always be made.”

“Ridiculous,” Mr. James says. “A mollusc with bones cannot perform traditional mollusc duties.”

Lady Wells raises an eyebrow.

“It’s true,” Mr. James says. “If an oyster had bones, it’d ruin the oyster bar.”

“Oysters,” Lady Wells says, dismissively.

“Or snails. If you use a snake, a puppy dog tail, and a bony snail to make a little boy, wouldn’t the little boy have too many bones? If a clam had bones, wouldn’t it lack the obligatory clam happiness? Nor could you have a clam bake without a preceding clam fillet.”

“A periwinkle could twinkle better if it had a spine,” Lady Wells points out. “It takes a spine to be cheerful in this modern world. And a bony scallop could wallop smaller shallots.”

Mr. James frowns. “Is that the scallops’ traditional duty?”

“The age-old war between scallops and shallots has been . . . let us say, one-sided.”

“The quahog,” Mr. James proposes.

“A perfect example of my point,” Lady Wells answers. “The quahogs, like their terrene cousins, were vertebrates, until adopted.”

“It is better to have bones,” Mr. James agrees, reluctantly.

“They’re osserific,” Lady Wells concludes.