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

“It is the elephant,” Melanie says.

Liril looks at her.

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

“Melanie,” Liril says.

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

“We don’t,” Liril says.

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

Liril looks blank.

“You go,” Melanie says.

“I can’t go,” Liril says.

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

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

“You go,” Melanie insists.

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

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

Liril makes a squinchy face.

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

Liril shakes her head.

“He thought it was a pair of shoes.”

Liril closes her eyes.

Please, she thinks. Please go away.

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

“You go.”

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

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


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

And the giggling takes Liril, and she is lost.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]

1982 CE

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

“Get out,” says Liril’s mom.

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

Get out.

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

“Fear’s showing, love,” she says.

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

A moment passes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Liril does.

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

Melanie takes a sandwich.

“Thank you,” she says.

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

“She does?”

“For now,” Liril’s mother agrees.


Melanie thinks about this. She chews on the sandwich.

“Weird,” Melanie decides.

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

Melanie puts her sandwich down.

It has become unappetizing.

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

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

Melanie thinks about this.

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

“Would it?”

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

“He won’t catch me,” Melanie says.

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

“Won’t,” Melanie underlines.

Not me.

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

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

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

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

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

Melanie frowns.

“I don’t understand,” she says.

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

“Oh,” Melanie says.

She shakes her head.

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

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

Melanie’s heart shouts a warning.

She is standing up.

“You won’t do this,” she says.

“What am I going to do?”

“You won’t.

Why am I afraid? she asks herself.

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

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

“There is a King.”

As To Why You Should Drink the Coffee We Sell Here, as Opposed to the Coffee Sold in World and Sound

1. Coffee

Some coffee’s processed in the guts of monkeys. Some, of ferrets.

Our coffee’s not like that.

Some coffee’s brewed by starving orphans and their puppies in the basements of the pyramids wherein Starbucks may be made.

Our coffee’s not like that, either.

Our coffee’s the good stuff. It’s the right stuff. It’s the stuff of joy and virtue, and of love.

2. The Merry Christmas Man

The Merry Christmas Man goes to Holidaytown.

And he walks its streets, and he slums inside its stores, and on his way out of one store there’s a Sid at the door who tells him, “Happy holidays.”

And it’s like the words are a knife on the Merry Christmas Man’s skin.

They cut him right open. They grate down his arm. Blood wells up, red and angry, and there’s the faintest tinge of green.

And Sid’s gone pale with horror, he’s stammering an apology, but the Merry Christmas Man just growls at him and says, “You say that again.”

But Sid doesn’t.

He won’t say it, not even in Holidaytown, not now that he recognizes the Merry Christmas Man. For he knows the words will cut a Merry Christmas Man, but he doesn’t know the reason why.

Say it,” says the Merry Christmas Man.

But the silence, it just stretches until the Merry Christmas Man goes away.

3. Guilt

The Merry Christmas Man’s not here to buy presents. He could get those at Christmas, or, leastaways, somewhere in Twelve Days. And he’s not here to start something. He’s not that sort of Man.

“I killed me a reindeer,” he says.

He doesn’t have much of an audience. He’s sitting on the corner, next to a giant candy cane, surrounded by forest animals and a pale-faced little girl.

She’s looking at him in confusion.

She’d been walking by in her wolf-eared fur coat, but then she’d seen him, and she couldn’t quite get it, so she’d stopped and she’d stared and she’d been staring ever since.

“. . . Santa?” she asks, like she isn’t sure.

It’s not her fault.

You have to understand, it’s not her fault, growing up in Holidaytown, that she doesn’t really get it about the Merry Christmas Man.

But scorn still plops from his voice like thick batter from a spoon, and he says, “I’m not Santa, little girl. I’m not anything like Santa. I’m a Merry Christmas Man.”

“Oh,” she says. Then, to be sure it’s all quite straight in her head, she says, “And you killed a reindeer?”

“It’s deep magic,” he says. “You take on the spirit of Christmas with the skin of the reindeer, and you gulp down its meat. And you hang tinsel from your hat and put a candycane in your shoe, and you hop, skip, and jump and you’re a Merry Christmas Man.”

There’s more to it than that.

There’s a step or two he’s skipped, right where he says he’s skipping ’em, and another that we’re leaving out, because we don’t want our readers going all skinwalker or curse-maker when they read these words. There’s more to it than just skinning and eating a reindeer and doing some junk with sympathetic magic (not that it’s really all that sympathetic); but those things, they’re the gist.

“And then you can fly,” says the Merry Christmas Man, “and make snow fall where you please, and pull presents from the emptiness if the recipient is good.”

He makes a present-summoning flourish with his hand, and then looks sourly at the result.

“Or,” he says, “pull forth coal chunks for the naughty, if the recipient is so disposed.”

“Thank you, sir,” she says, and takes the coal. “It’s because I am always skinning animals to make my coats.”

“Good lass,” he laughs, forgiving her at once. “Good lass.”

Such forest animals as had remained through his declaration of reindeer-skinning skulk off to frolic elsewhere now: a pointed objection, perhaps; a shunning of the animal-skinning kind; a subtle contextual reminder that even in the winter wonderland of Holidaytown happy forest animals would rather like to keep their skins. Now in Christmastown, to hear some tell it, they love nothing better than to roll stickily in blood diamonds before they jump into the furring machines themselves, but —

“Happy Holidays,” says the girl, and she nods her head, and she walks on.

The snow is turning crimson with the Merry Christmas Man’s bright blood.

4. Jelly, in the Cold

It’s cold in Holidaytown, just like it is over in Christmas, and he’s wishing, just a little, that he’d gone to Valentine’s instead.

It wouldn’t have served his purpose, no, but the hearts would have kept him warm.

Instead, he’s cold.

He’s really, really cold.

His beard is white with snow now and his belly, it’s too cold to jiggle—it’s just like a bowl of jelly that you’ve left out jiggling in the cold while its jiggling grows feebler and feebler until it can’t jiggle any longer, not a bit, and it grows a last despairing rind of ice.

And he’d like to laugh it off, ho, ho, ho, but his laugh had turned to silvery bells when he’d become a Christmas Man.

Didn’t eat enough reindeer, some would say, while others would suggest he’d ate too much.

There’s a lot that we don’t know about the magic that makes a Merry Christmas Man.

They have magical powers. We know that. And they probably eat children. They can lay fell curses, and they really like Christmas, and when you tell them “Happy Holidays,” they bleed.

And one more thing, which we’ll get to! we’ll get to! But not till later on.

5. The Jinglers

The Merry Christmas Man is fading.

In the cold, he’s fading, he’s losing his sense of self and liveliness, and he’s wondering if he’s going to get to do what he came to do before he loses fingers to the cold.

Then ring the bells. Then sound the footsteps on the walk. Then voices that had seemed quite far away unexpectedly draw near.

He thinks with sudden fierce and giddy joy:

I am in luck.

There’s a whole party of jinglers coming his way, just off their work, and they won’t be able to help stopping to look at the Merry Christmas Man.

And he’s sure they’ll wish him Happy Holidays, and the words will make him bleed; and the first of them is kneeling down beside him now—but—

Damn it, thinks the Merry Christmas Man.

“Hey,” says Sid. “Hey, you OK?”

Sid looks up at the others.

“It’s a Merry Christmas Man,” he warns. “So ixnay on the olidays-hay. And a Merry Christmas to you,” he adds, turning back to the Merry Christmas Man, “good sir!”

“Uckfay your ixnay,” says the Merry Christmas Man, preserving this legend’s suitability for children by inventing a jolly new curse word for the holidays instead of saying something potentially obscene. “And the horse it rode in on. I’m in Holidaytown, for the Holiday, I don’t want to hear any ittyshay uckingfay Scrooge-uggeringbay ‘merry Christmas’es.”

At this point the narrator must assume that the Merry Christmas Man has gone around the bend and begun to speak in tongues, likely from exhaustion and cold fatigue but potentially from possession by the Holy Spirit.

Sid seems even more confused than we.

“Sir,” he says, “you’re overwrought.”

The Merry Christmas Man snorts.

Sid says, “If we all actually wished you a Happy Holidays—“

The Merry Christmas Man bites his tongue to hold in the scream.

“Well,” says Sid, his face ashen, “you see, I mean, it’s like—“

But the Merry Christmas Man is on his feet now. He’s holding out five fingers crooked like candy canes, and the stripes of them are red, red, red, and his fury has made him so warm that his stomach may shake like a bowl full of jelly once again.

“We, ‘sir,’” he spits out between his teeth, “are in Holidaytown.

Sid doesn’t cringe.

It’s a near thing, but Sid doesn’t cringe, not even with those fingers pointing most of the way in his direction before they cunningly curve and point backwards towards the hand. Not even with the sweetness of the sugar-snow that has fallen on the shoulders of the Merry Christmas Man. Not even knowing that the Merry Christmas Man is a skinwalker, and that skinwalkers can kill.

“Merry Christmas,” he says, and turns away;

And the Merry Christmas Man is vast like a giant, and billowing with his power and his rage, and bellowing, “What does it take to get a bloody ‘Happy Holidays’ in this town?”

The answer to which, apparently, is that shout; for as if by autonomic motion, for streets around, and in answer to that cry, the people of Holidaytown turn in the Merry Christmas Man’s direction and wish his holidays be bright.

6. Transcendence

The Merry Christmas Man is cut, at first, and bleeds.

Then it is beyond mere flaying. Then the words are tearing into him, catching him like great hooks, ripping him apart, this way, this way, and that. He is pulled apart, and yet improbably alive; and the veins transport the blood of him, and the nerves convey the feel of him, and he is dissipating like some gateway god into the form of ten thousand spheres; but the cutting does not stop.

The world where he was rips open.

The space inside him is made to emptiness, and one vast ring surrounds it, and inside that ring is no location known to man; and with a terrible cry and one last great inversion, the Merry Christmas Man vomits into the world through the vehicle of that emptiness the shining contents of his soul.

They splay there, burning with a holy light against the whiteness of the snow, and with great hope:

The coffee beans the reindeer’d ate, before the Merry Christmas Man began.

For that’s the secret of it all, isn’t it? The source of that grace and that ineffable mystery that brings a Merry Christmas to the world? Isn’t that where all our joy and virtue, and our love, begins?

It’s thus.

O, merrily, it’s thus!

The secret of life isn’t coffee beans processed in the gut of some monkey, we can tell you that. And certainly not a ferret.

You can’t get the good stuff by having orphans hammer and brew it out in the dark reaches beneath the world.

I mean, it’s pretty good.

We are not knocking a good Frappucino.

But it’s not the thing.

To get the kind of coffee that can bring a real Merry Christmas to the world, that can fill the body with great warmth and make a person into a font of joy and virtue, and of love, you have to process the beans through the gullet of a sacrificial reindeer and a sacrificial man. You have to feed them to the flying arboreal ungulates that live in the canopy where the beans are grown, and let them process them down into the spirit of Christmas; and then somebody has to have the courage to step up and be a Merry Christmas Man, to cut the reindeer open and put on its skin and eat its meat and swallow down the coffee beans entangled in its soul.

And if they’re cruel then the world shall know a time of sorrow; for it tempts you to dark magics, oh yes it does, being a Merry Christmas Man.

But if the candidate is good enough, if they’re strong enough, if they’re cussed enough to cling to their first intention in the face of the power that a Merry Christmas Man can wield, why, then they’ll go down to Holidaytown and they’ll flay themselves on the innocent unknowing words of the Happy Holidaysers there. And their death will give back to us the beans we use in the coffee we sell here;

For just 99 cents a cup.


The target drinks miso soup. This lightens the target’s heart and buoys their senses.

The target takes a bit of wasabi and puts it in a bowl. The target adds soy sauce. The target stirs until the wasabi is evenly distributed through the soy.

This is the correct moment in which to throw unagi shushiriken.

Unagi shushiriken uses electric eel. It may therefore electrify the target. The target convulses. One hand dips into the wasabi-soy mixture. Lightning plays across the surface of the soy. Then the target slumps.

It is traditional for the target to refresh themselves at this point with a bite of pickled radish, but it is also impossible.

If you use tamago shushiriken the target will have egg on their face.

Sometimes a ninja will have no access to sushi. In such a case it is traditional for them to go into a fit of rage and bread everything around them. This is known as a tempura tantrum.

Performed on a lover, this is instead tempura tantrick. It is called a trick because we do not bread the ones we love.

Some ebi shushuriken still has the head of the various shrimps attached. It is traditional for the ninja to remove the head of the shrimp and then the head of the target. If this order becomes confused comic eventualities may ensue.

A ninja may lose face by using dynamite roll shushiriken improperly. In such a case it is best to attach a new face using sticky rice and sometimes seaweed. Attaching a new face without using rice is the affair of sashimurai and is not appropriate for ninjas.

Fatty tuna shushiriken batters the target with blunt force. There is a widespread social prejudice against fatty tuna shushiriken. Certain ninjas believe that this emerges from unrealistic norms and a positive social delight in demonizing others. Other ninjas disagree. Both are in any case ruthless killers.

Mekajiki shushiriken is as sharp as a sword. Some ninjas use mekajiki shushiriken to kill their targets. Others say, “Wait, why not just use a sword?” This is the heart of most of the great ninja philosophical arguments. The remaining great ninja philosophical arguments concern brains in vats on trolleys making decisions through veils of ningjorance.

California roll shushiriken is not thrown. Rather it is rolled along the floor to the target. This shushiriken works best for assassinations in California. If you were to use california roll shushiriken in Montana everyone would look at you funny.

Mirugai shushiriken employs surf clams to ensure that a target either surfs or clams up. The other role is taken by the ninja. This is another form of shushiriken best employed in California, but the requirement is less strict.

Tako shushiriken is actually a Mexican ninja weapon. Every now and then a Mexican ninja must travel to Japan to show disrespectful gringojin clans the true way of the tako shushiriken. The lesson is spicy but soon forgotten.

Tai shushiriken is made from sea bream. Often the target will not know they have been killed by the shushiriken for many days. Instead they walk around in a daze and wonder if it was all just a beautiful bream. Then they realize the truth and plummet dead into the sea. This is known as the “death touch,” but the ninja will not actually touch the target. That would be considered “unhygienic” and would detract from the target’s delicious shushiriken experience.

Everyone should have as delicious an experience as possible before they die, particularly if they are being killed by traditional Japanese assassins. That’s the firm resolution of a shushiriken ninja!

The Gesundheit Stratagem

Prawns are natural bullets. Their hard shell acts as a casing. Their combustible tails, struck by a shrimp fork, experience a controlled burn that can send a prawn straight down the barrel of a gun and into—or through—a person’s chest.

Spies know these things.

That’s part of what makes them spies; and it’s why Chester is so terribly nervous, in the Red Lobster, where Dankers Soph will be.

Here’s how he’d called Dankers.

He’d gone down to the sinus-talkers’ room. Then he’d had one of the sinus-talkers talk about Dankers.

When you talk about a spy—

When you talk about anybody, really, behind their back—

They sneeze.

The sinus-talkers have a natural feel for it—they’ve been raised on anime since birth—and they know how to use it for communication.

Somewhere in the world, Dankers had started sneezing.

He’d probably just been sipping at his drink, maybe companionably talking up some stranger in a bar on an island far away, when his first sneeze had blown the pink umbrella from his glass. He’d have looked embarrassed, like you do, and then the next sneeze would have hit him.

By then he’d have been concerned.

“Pardon me,” he’d have said. “It’s just—achoo! It’s just— someone must be talking about me.”

But pretty soon he’d have noticed the Morse code.

He wouldn’t have told anybody. He’d probably have gotten to a bathroom as soon as possible, would have hidden in a stall and written down the pattern on toilet paper, possibly faking extra sneezes now and again so that nobody else could understand.

Then he would have realized.

“My God,” he would have said, “I told them, I’ve retired.”

“I’ve retired,” he would have cried, in the repetitious matter of de-retired spies.


The salad bar is pretty dangerous, too, Chester knows.

It’s not easy to make C-4 out of the build-your-own-salad bar at a typical Red Lobster, but it’s not impossible, either, and the sneeze guard won’t protect you against explosions from within.

Dankers had called him.

He’d been furious.

“What the hell is this, Chester?” he’d said. “It’s over. I quit.

“I’m activating you.”

There’d been a pause. A sneeze and sniffle, followed by an accusing silence. Then, “Red Lobster. Santa Monica.”

“When?” Chester had asked.

But Dankers hadn’t set a time. He’d just said, “Soon.”

A platter of food bumps Chester’s arm. He startles, cries out, and starts to curse the waiter; but before he finishes, he sees the man’s red sleeve hides Dankers’ arm.

“Oh, God,” he says. “Finally.”

A spy can eat a lot of all-you-can-eat shrimp while waiting eighty hours for a meet. It starts out pretty tasty but by the third day it’s like Pringles from the Pit.

“I won’t stay,” says Dankers, dropping the platter on the table and sliding into the seat behind it.

He lowers his voice.

“There is a pollen god with me. He will kill you if I give the signal. He will kill you if I stay too long; if I leave with you; if I am followed. He’ll kill you if I so much as frown, Chester, and then he’ll go to the bureau and make as much havoc as he can before the priestesses palliate him. So don’t you screw with me. Just talk.”

Chester licks his lips.

“Dankers,” he says, “two of the sneezers are down.”


The sneezers: top operatives culled from a dozen agencies, trained to impersonate the officials of the U.S. government so well that they could sneeze for them.

Trained to intercept those sneezes, so that people like the President could go about their day without the continuous sneezing that you’d normally get from all the people talking about them.

Down in the Sneezing Room they dwell, surrounded by the plushest tissues, and taking notes—insofar as they can through watering eyes and shaking hands—on the timing of their convulsions.

It burns a spy out fast, being a sneezer, but there’s no better way to serve your country; and Dankers had been the man to put it all together. He’d singlehandedly dragged Constitutional governance out of a mire of Kleenex and made the President more than a joke again.

It burns a spy out, being a sneezer, but it shouldn’t kill them.

The room’s well-guarded and it has all the comforts of good life.

A sneezer might want to, but they shouldn’t have to die.

So it doesn’t take long for Dankers to reach the obvious conclusion.

“Not guns,” he says. “Not bombs, or there’d have been more casualties. They were dragged down to Hell by nose demons—because someone didn’t say God bless.”


“There’s a mole,” Dankers says, “in the blessing room.”

“They all say it,” Chester says. “I mean, we’ve listened to the tapes. The very, very boring tapes. When someone sneezes in the sneezing room, the blessers bless them from the blessing room. Nobody’s slacking. But someone doesn’t mean it in their heart.”

You have to mean it when you bless someone after a sneeze. You can’t just say it. This is a thing spies know.

“Someone doesn’t mean it,” Chester says. “Which means one of the blessers got taken out at some point—swapped for a double. Replaced with a damnable insincerely blessing mole. And you’re the only one on God’s green earth who can possibly figure out who.”

Dankers sighs.

He rises to his feet. He drops a bundle of bills on the table. He thinks for a moment.

“I’ll check it out,” he says. “If you’re telling the truth—“

“You can’t tell people,” Chester wails.

“If you’re telling the truth,” Dankers says, “then I’ll come back. But just this one case. Then I’m gone, and you never, ever talk about me behind my back again.”

Chester sags. He looks very small, except for his tummy which is a bit rounded because of all the shrimp he’s been eating.

“Thank God,” says Chester softly. “Thank God.”

Ironically, it’s almost impossible to kill someone with a lobster, or use them for any other intelligence purpose except maybe boiling them and dipping them in butter.

You can’t kill someone with a lobster.

But that hardly would have mattered, given Dankers’ pollen god.


Time passes.


If you’re in the spy business, you have to expect surprises.

That’s why the blesser hardly blinks when he gets home and sees Dankers on his couch eating the leftover pasta from last night.

“Thought you were dead,” the blesser says.

Dankers puts his feet up on the table. It’s a display of dominance, such as is common among spies.

“I didn’t die,” he says. “I retired.”

“Nobody retires,” says the blesser. He drops into a seat opposite Dankers. “Pepper?”

Dankers gives him a wry look.

“It’s good with pepper,” the blesser says. “Look, what’s this about?”

“There’s a mole,” Dankers says. “Someone isn’t blessing with a whole heart. I’ve checked you all out, you all look like when I hired you— but it’s not that hard to steal a man’s face with a goose liver mold, so looking’s not enough. Anyone blessing weirdly? Behaving oddly? Sniffing around and asking questions they oughtn’t ask?”

“There’s a guy,” says the blesser. “Been sniffing around.”


“Dankers,” says the blesser, “I spend my life in a clean room rattling off ‘God bless you’ to an intercom. And meaning it. I don’t know from Russians any more. But he gives his name as Gesund.”

“Funny,” Dankers says.


He already knows, the blesser can tell. Heck, for all I know, he hired the guy.

But he doesn’t say that. Not to Dankers. He just waits for Dankers to chew more pasta and swallow it and talk.

“What’s he look like?” Dankers says.

“Blue eyes. Heavy set. Bit of a beard.”



“Gesund’s height?”

“Funny,” the blesser says.

Then he hesitates.

“Tall, I suppose.”

There are seventeen ways to kill a man with a plate of pasta, and none of them have names.


If you bless someone in German, they turn into a German. Their loyalty shifts—slowly but inevitably—to the German government.

It didn’t used to matter, not when Germany was split and its politicians spent all their time sneezing.

Now, in a lot of ways, it does.

“None of my blessers would have made a mistake like that,” Dankers says. “They hear Gesundheit, they say, God bless you. Quick as a gunshot, even if they missed the sneeze.”

They look down at the slumped body of the man.

“Good work,” Chester says.

“It hurts a man’s soul,” says Dankers, after a while.

Prawns are natural bullets.


“This job,” Dankers says. “It hurts the soul.”

Prawns are natural bullets. Sneezing’s a signal. Some people are okay to kill because they’re on the other side.

“Mm,” Chester agrees.

Just some of the things you have to know
If you want to be a spy.

A Guide to Giant Monster Country Cuisine

Visitors to Giant Monster Country often express an interest in sampling the delightful native cuisine. Here are some things you need to know.

First, it is not possible for the natives of Giant Monster Country to decide in advance which giant monster will attack. Thus it is important that the visitor understand that no matter how reasonable their requests the people of Giant Monster Country can only prepare the monster that is available. Most monsters are peanut-free but many are glutinous. One can expect several kosher monsters to attack in any given month, but a giant monster suitable for vegetarian consumption (e.g. a vampiric plant, radioactive plant, or evil plant) attacks only three or four times a year. The diet of Giant Monster Country is generally unsuitable for vegans unless they are visiting during Giant Robot Month.(1)

Whichever region of Giant Monster Country you visit will be attacked by a new monster each week. Currently the giant monster attacks on a Tuesday but the attacks are occasionally shifted to a different day or pre-empted for a message from a giant politician.

Once the monster begins its attack you should immediately rush to the street and begin pointing and exclaiming. As the people of Giant Monster Country say, “A monster that no one exclaims over can’t taste sweet.” The best exclamation is the monster’s name, which is generally written inconspicuously on its otherwise smooth crotch. If you wish to point and exclaim a monster’s name but are unable to read kaijukanji do not feel embarrassed about asking a native for help!

It takes roughly 25-50 minutes from the monster’s initial appearance for a team of plucky heroes to defeat the monster. Even if you are very hungry you should respect the customs of Giant Monster Country and wait until after the monster is defeated before taking your first bite. Also please do not bother the hotel chef about preparation details during the rampage or they may irritably claim that monsters do not exist and laugh you off as a drunk.

Do not expect to eat the giant monster in the American style, tearing off and frying or barbecuing large chunks. Every monster must be carefully portioned out and prepared so that it will last the entire region one week. This is the origin of the “eccentric” cuisine of Giant Monster Country; if you have ever wondered why so many recipes focus on unblinking eyeball soup or giant small intestines, now you know! They are driven by this inexorable economy.

It is proper to eat a slice of pickled ginger between each course of monster.

Sometimes a monster will be particularly tasty or, conversely, particularly high-yield.(2) In these cases you would think that the people of Giant Monster Country would preserve the excess monster against future famine.(3) This is not so. Monster meat must be used up within the week, if necessary by feeding it to pets or shipping it to starving children in China or India.(4)

Here is the reason.

Monsters are extremely durable. If you store or freeze part of a monster there is a very good chance that it will reconstitute and attack Giant Monster Country again. Everyone will say, “Look! This is what your arrogance has unleashed!” They will shout at you and call you a mad person. You will feel humiliated and may be driven out with pitchforks and torches. Nobody wanted to eat the same monster two weeks in a row!

The best times to visit Giant Monster Country are probably Sweeps Week (when the Iron Chefs are most likely to confront the giant monsters directly) and the summer. In the summer no new monsters attack Giant Monster Country; instead, various monsters that were particularly popular return for an encore attack. The annual return of everyone’s favorite monster, Crazy Love Fish, is the centerpiece of the quixotic but unforgettable Crazy Love Fish Festival; people say that if a bit of exploded Crazy Love Fish falls on you and your boyfriend or girlfriend that you will stay together forever.


(1) Giant Robots do not suffer, but only wish to kill.
(2) For instance, an environmentally-conscious team of heroes, confronting a Lernean hydra, will often take care to generate as many heads as possible before they kill it. This maximizes the caloric return on the energy they spend.
(3) Famine . . . from the FUTURE!
(4) Thus obviating their pedagogical purpose and rendering them full of lassitude.

On the Origins of Common Foods

Flying on a plane is very nice.

It is not as nice as wings. But it has more peanuts. Unless you are a peanut elemental, spreading great peanut-pattern wings. Then the peanuts of a plane are comparatively few.

This is not to say that peanuts are always an advantage.

Some people are allergic to peanuts. They do not value the peanuts on a plane. Some peanut elementals are allergic to peanuts. They go immediately into anaphylactic shock and die. We do not talk about them much unless they fall through our roofs, at which point it becomes difficult for the rest of the year to talk about anything else.

Some people are not allergic to peanuts. They have the advantage in that if they do meet a peanut elemental they do not necessarily die; and if they meet an elemental of non-peanut-ness, they are still generally all right.

(An elemental of non-peanut-ness is an elemental spirit formed from and exemplifying the conceptual category “not a peanut,” such that, when you see them, you immediately recognize that here is the pure distilled essence of not being a peanut—possessing none of the trace impurities that exempt most things in the world from Platonic non-peanut-ness. For example, the Earth is shaped too closely to resemble a peanut to qualify, while Eggos are legumes.)

This advantage of being able to survive contact with a peanut elemental is principally intangible and a matter of form (unlike the peanut elementals themselves) because peanut elementals are rare, and, when encountered in flight, have difficulty forcing their way onto the plane. Nor are they able, in this era of heightened security, to sneak easily onto the plane as a passenger unless they are willing to take off their shoes, limit their toothpaste allowance, and have names that do not resemble a terrorist’s name. (So, for instance, Mr. Peanut would have trouble, as would Al-Qaffar, but Mr. God of the Thousand-Slaying Legume Kick is probably okay.)

In the old days peanut elementals were a greater trouble for air traffic. This is how Mr. Carver invented peanut butter. People will say that he developed peanut butter in the laboratory but in fact George Washington Carver was the preeminent air ace of World War II. His contribution was ignored at the time as the United States government feared that, if they acknowledged it, the Axis would deride them as politically correct.

During one of many dogfights with German nationals Mr. Carver caught a peanut elemental in the engine of his plane and the rest was secret history.

But peanut elementals were not the only inhabitants of the stratosphere who would prove troublesome for air traffic in those troubled years. The Metatron Incident (wherein Metatron descended to the earth in a cloud of grace to reveal the new gospel and was caught in the engines of an uncertified Boeing) made angelfood cake possible for the first time in the history of the world. The efforts of hundreds of French chefs to reproduce this masterwork of massacre eventually created the “vegetarian angelfood” that we know today, using baking powder, whipped eggs, and flour to approximate the manifold virtues of Heaven. Masons traditionally added a snake, which they would wrap around the egg and convince to bite its own tail before baking; this added a sense of timeless mysticism to their delicious recipes and rightly they were honored throughout the culinary world.

The impact of the Metatron Incident was not to end there. Many of the people on the plane became focal points for mysterious phenomena. One of them, struck on the forehead by a bit of Metatron debris, became Billy Graham. Another became Vice-President Cheney. The plane plowed into the East Oak Lake house of a previously ordinary schoolboy; he would later grow up to become Noam Chomsky!

Tofu was originally made from ufos.

—Not to quit talking about Noam Chomsky when we’ve barely just begun, but he’s really not a common food!

So, anyway, tofu was originally made from ufos. Japan never admitted it, but you can tell because of the letters of its name.

—And why are the letters in tofu’s name in English, anyway? It was probably made from *British* ufos! Back benchers probably evolved into ufos because somebody fed them after midnight, and then they flew unwisely into Japan. All of this is hypothetical, because the true nature of the ufos is still unknown. But it seems likely—and yet, like Noam Chomsky, ufo pedantry is not a common food, and we must leave it lie.

Tofu, as noted earlier, was at one time made from ufos. But now it is not made from ufos. There are simply not enough ufos in the sky to support the scale of the modern tofu economy. So now most tofu is made out of a blend of textured swamp gas and weather balloons. Only trace impurities of alien origin remain!

Ballet is a wonderful art. Often in the grand jete the dancer will appear to fly. Conversely, while not so very grand, Boeing jets do fly. On one occasion, a joyous serendipity generated the Reese’s peanut butter cup; on another, to speak very delicately, battement fondu.

Ironically despite its historical origins fondue is rarely served on planes. One reason is that there is not enough leg room on a plane for a ballerina to survive. Confined in the middle seat they wither away and die. Another reason is that in the event of turbulence it is hard to explain to people that they will need to wear clear plastic masks to minimize the risk of cheese burns. The third and last reason is fear. In the post 9/11 era, fondue is just too scary for the no-longer-friendly skies!

Stitch Doll Boxing

Emily and Jordan rummage around at the end of the alley.

She finds a candy cane. She reads its label.

“World peace candy cane,” it says. “Delicious peppermint on the outside—world peace on the inside! 90 calories.”

She wrinkles her nose.

“Too sweet!” she says. She tosses it aside. She rummages around some more.

She finds a newspaper that shows the future.

She flips through the headlines. She notes the lottery number. She tosses it aside.

“Ooh,” Jordan says.



He’s found a magical pony with utensils for its mane.

“Oh, man, I wanted a pony.”

“Mneh,” he says, sticking out his tongue. “Magical fork pony.”

“Stupid pony,” Emily sulks. Then she brightens. “Here!”

She holds up a pair of x-ray dinners. They’re like microwave dinners, but you can see through them. “Salisbury steak,” she says. “And welsh rarebit!”


Jordan and Emily lead the pony out the chink in the back wall of the alley. They head around the block. When they get to the man with his Stitch Boxing booth, at the alley’s other mouth, they cross the street to their parents’ little white house. They get the key out from under the mat. They sneak quietly in.

Emily pads down the hall and around the corner.

The pony tromps up into the foyer.

Emily and Jordan both freeze at the clomp-clomp-clomp sound of the magical pony’s hooves on the foyer floor.

“Anyone?” Jordan hisses.

There’s a pause.

“Nope!” Emily says, cheerfully.

She strolls back. She turns on the lights. She pops the welsh rarebit into the microwave oven. The microwave whirs and the little table in it spins.

“Thank God,” Jordan says. “A night to ourselves.”

Emily grins at him.

“Want to go rummaging again after dinner?” he says.

“Nah,” she says. “The bullies were bad today.”

He looks her over clinically.

“You don’t seem too bruised,” he says. “Who was it?”

“The irons.”

Jordan whistles.

“Though I think,” Emily says, “that they should really call Steel Jaw Kay a steel, and not an iron.”

“Hard to call a bully what they don’t want to be called,” Jordan says.

His pony flops on the floor and Jordan flops, in turn, against its warm magical belly.

“You got off pretty easy,” he says.

“I’m tough,” she says.

“If you were tough,” he says, “you wouldn’t be beaten on by bullies.”

“I’m a pacifist!” she protests.

“Hmm,” he says dubiously.

“It’s just,” she says, grabbing the rarebit and tossing the steak in the microwave, “all the parts of them that aren’t iron. That I don’t want to hurt. And it’s not like I can do anything I like to Lindsey’s leg or Luke’s hand, neither; I mean, what if it got bent up and she couldn’t walk?”

“Why wouldn’t she be able to walk if Iron Fist Luke got bent?”

Emily parses that. She frowns.

“I don’t know,” she says. “That’s a very good question.”

I think,” he says, then pauses. “You the rarebit or the steak?”

She looks at the x-ray dinner. She hesitates. Then she says, firmly, “Steak,” and slides forward to give him the rarebit. He grabs a fork and munches.

I think,” he says, “that you’re just not up for a fight, and this whole pacifism thing is an excuse.”

“You would,” she says.


“It’s your limited brain capacity,” she says.

He makes a face.

“Oh, yeah?”


“Well, maybe I’ll just get an electronic brain coprocessor from the back of the alley,” he says.

“Maybe you should!”

He sighs. He reviews. He thinks he’s lost that one.

“Still think you’re chicken,” he says.

“No way!”


“No way!”


“I’ll box Stitch,” she says.

Words like a bomb.

Now he sits up. Now he looks serious. He says, “Really?”

“All fabric and stuffing,” she says. “So it’s not very well immoral.”

“But Mayor Cloon—“

“Mayor Cloon’s a ponce,” she says. “He couldn’t box his way out of a paper bag.”

“And Mrs. Persimmons?”

This gives Emily a reason to hesitate. Mrs. Persimmons is actually pretty scary, and the Stitch doll took her down fast. But finally she says, “Well, it’s not very well courage if it’s a guaranteed win, now is it?”

“You’re a better man than I,” he says, waving his fork and dripping a clear bit of cheese on his face.

He scrubs it off.


She looks at the microwave. It’s having a hard time with the x-ray dinner due to the Salisbury nature of the steak aggravating the discrepancy in the wavelengths.

Her stomach rumbles but her chin comes up.

“Now,” she says.

And he gets awkwardly to his feet and leaves the fork pony there and he follows her out, right to the Stitch Boxing booth.

“Box Stitch?” the booth man asks. “5 cents.”

She looks between the man and the Stitch doll. The man’s got a salt and pepper beard. The Stitch doll’s got the seasoned look of a doll who’s been in a hundred fights and never lost not one.

“Box Stitch,” he says, his voice carnie-low, “and if you win, you can go down to the other end of the alley, and there, little girl, there—“


“It’s like materialist Narnia,” he says. “Like do-anything-you-please Disneyland. You can get anything you might want there, if you can just get past Stitch.”

She looks at him.

She’s not entirely sure how to play this one.

“I find that hard to believe,” Jordan says. His voice is consciously flat. He holds up a nickel. “So I will certainly pay this young woman’s boxing fee and see what then transpires.”

The man grins.

“You really gonna do it, Emily?” Jordan says, in his normal voice.

“For the chance to win anything I could possibly want?” she asks. She stifles the laughter that seeks so desperately to rise. “How can I possibly resist?”

Jordan’s voice lowers.

“Seriously? This doll is badass. I mean, you’ve got weight on him, but he’s got four arms and I think he can talk.”

Emily looks Jordan straight in the eye.

“Do it,” she says.

And Jordan tosses the man the coin.

Bonus! Due to recent interest in the author’s intent, I’ve posted earlier versions of this story on

Intermission – How They Choose the JellO King

They search for people who don’t have room for JellO.

Even if it’s only for a moment!

Then they snatch them up. The great wobbly snarvums snatch them.

They blow their frigid snarvum breath and freeze their candidates’ bellies solid so that they’ll never have room for JellO again.

Then they take them up and they take them to the lands where JellOs live under a black-bodied sun and a red red sky.

There the candidates for King are surrounded by JellO.

There they take the test.

If they pass they are the King.

Why must they be those who have no room for JellO?

No one else would be safe.

Someone with room for JellO would devour the people of that kingdom; would break the seven circles of spells that they lay about the King in the language of that land and render with their horrible white teeth the Kingdom into ruin; as was done in the time of David and the time of Gilgamesh and the time of hungry Kings forgotten now to Man.

Someone with room for JellO would devour the prancing, bowing ministers of the JellO court; would eat those courtiers with Cool Whip perhaps or perhaps with cake.

That is why it is only those with no room for JellO who can become the JellO King.

Now one might ask if all those who have this quality must be taken, if it is necessary that any man or woman or child who has no room for JellO become a candidate for the throne; but to the sages and their dented fingertips the answer is most obvious, because the marketing copy demands nothing less.

So only those with no room for JellO can become the JellO King; and anyone with no room for JellO must become a candidate; and so you might wonder in your bedrooms and your offices, what of those who were King before?

What of the previous Kings, when the snarvums freeze and snatch another man or woman worthy of the throne?

What of those who had no room before, when a new great soul of fullness the snarvums find?

They do not say.

The sands and the JellO and the beetles in their dens are silent.

They do not say.

The Immensity of Love (I/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

In ten thousand miles of dreams there is only one Max.

He stands surrounded by dream, lost in great billowing clouds of dream, lost in endless and infinite dream, one tiny speck of human in a surging sea.

The wind that rushes past has taken the skin from him, taken the bones from him, flayed him down to just that speck:


He is flailing in his bed but he does not know it.

His arms are casting about.

Then there is light pressing against the darkness, sunlight turning the insides of his eyelids into shapes, and he remembers his name.


There is a welter of blankets around him. There is cool air flowing through the room. His bones ache.

In his eyes there is sun.

He mumbles a complaint.

These days, when the sun sneaks in through the pinhole in his curtain, it’s personal. It’s not just an anonymous irritant or the wicked hands of fate. It’s Iphigenia, and she’s probably doing it on purpose.

She is a mischevious girl.

She’s a burning yellow heat.

She is 1.4 million kilometers in diameter when she is the sun but no siggort ever came out of Siggort Town just to be her friend.

“Gr,” he mumbles.

In his eyes there is sun.

Something nags at the back of his mind.

He doesn’t want to wake up.

He doesn’t want to wake up. He’s tired and unhappy but there’s some reason—


Max opens his eyes.

There’s a horrible little thing on his pillow. It’s like a crocodile’s skull, only it’s got horns. Its dry and its white but it’s not dead. It’s looking at him.

“Right,” he says.

He reaches out his hand. He holds its jaws closed. With his other hand he rubs his own forehead.

“Martin warned me about you,” he says. “Sneaking in through the pipes and making bad dreams like that.”

The thing struggles in his hand.

Max looks wry.

“I feel sorry for you,” he says. “Coming to a place like this, a little thing like you.”

It’s a horror of living bone. It was probably eating his soul as he slept. But there’s never been a siggort who’d show up just because it said the siggort’s name. There never was a siggort who’d look so . . . so Sid at it when it smiled.

Aside from the numbing horror of it, it’s kind of cute.

So Max doesn’t kill it.

He takes his hat off his hat rack and hangs the horror there and puts his hat on it and then he goes to wash his face in the dinky blue bathroom that’s next to his room.

He doesn’t want to wake up, but there’s some reason—

And he looks at himself in the mirror and he thinks, Ah, right.

Of course he has to wake up.

Sid loved me.

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

It is June 1, 2004.

There’s a knock on Max’s door.

Max has an image to maintain, so he doesn’t answer. Instead, he pushes a button next to the door.

On both sides of the door a BROODING light lights up.

He can hear from outside: “Aw, man!”

It’s Jane’s voice.

Jane’s like a self-arming nuclear bomb with independently mobile legs. She’s a six-year-old girl. But there’s never been a siggort that waited thirteen hundred years just so Jane could be born.

Max, sure.

That happened, with Max.

But not with Jane.

Max pulls on a white shirt. He doesn’t need pants because he sleeps in his jeans so he’s wearing them already.

He flops on his bed.

Jane gives him a full two minutes to relax, to think: maybe she’s gone away?

Then she knocks again.

Max stands up.

He opens the door.

Max brushes back his hair with one hand.

“It’s four in the morning,” he says.

“It’s ten,” says Jane, scandalized.

Max makes a gesture as if to indicate that he cannot be bothered with mundane details of timekeeping.

“I’m brooding,” he says.

“I saw,” says Jane.

Seconds elapse.

“What do you want?” Max asks.

Jane looks at him. She wrings her hands. Then she says what she rehearsed.

“It’s all right to fight,” she says. “But it’s all right to make up, too.”


Max sighs.

“Come in,” he says.

Jane comes in. She pulls herself up on the spare bed, the one Max doesn’t use, the one all spread with a cowhide-colored quilt. Max flops in his desk chair, more or less directly in front of and below his hat rack.

What do I say?

“It is because of Sid that I can be here,” Max says. “It’s because he looked at me and saw something worth saving, worth rescuing, worth returning to the world. But I can’t make up with him.”

“It’s easy,” stresses Jane. “You just say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you hug.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“You could make him a cake!”

Max looks for words.

“It’s Sid’s business,” he says. “Fixing it, I mean. It’s not mine.”

Jane gapes at him.

“See,” says Max, “if I was all, ‘we must make this right, I miss you, I hurt every day over this,’ then how’d Sid feel?”


“It’d be like if the monster came to you and wanted you to accept his apology,” Max says.

“Oh,” says Jane.

Her mouth moves, like she’s thinking or trying to sound out a hard word.

After a bit, she says, “Sometimes I beat up Martin, or he dangles me by my feet or dunks my head in water, and then we make up.”

“Yes,” says Max. “You’re modeled after young primates.”

Jane giggles.

It’s a kind of unexpected giggle, as if the image in her mind is surprisingly silly.

“What?” Max asks warily.

“Like in Pokemon!” Jane declares.

Max narrows his eyes. He stares at her with his gunman’s gaze.

“You’re thinking of Primape,” he corrects, and she’s laughing too hard to stop him when he chases her out of his room.

It is June 1, 2004.

Max is alone.

Max feels alone.

He is surrounded by inhuman things, in a place beyond the boundaries of the world. If he thinks about it very carefully, even ten thousand miles of chaos is not so frightening to him as Jane.

Or Mrs. Schiff, that casual swallower of horrors.

Or Martin.

Or even the Roomba.

But he doesn’t have to think about it carefully.

It’s not necessary.

There’s no one but Max within ten thousand miles who’s ever had a siggort come out of Siggort Town just to love them, and the immensity of love makes everything else seem small.


You can make miracle pasta by stirring together flour, miracles, milk, salt, and butter. Then you cut the mix into long strands, air, and cook. The biggest difficulty is in finding the miracles. Once you have done that the stirring, cutting, airing, and cooking is easy.

Miracle pasta is good with a spicy red sauce and shrimp.

It is also good with despair as it is the function of miracles to alleviate despair.

A long time ago seven miracle pasta wheels fell to Earth, one of them landing on a frog.

It was like this:

Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Squish! Thump!

“We will guide these people, and guard them, and shepherd them,” say the miracle pasta wheels.

Then they roll around and make all kinds of havoc.

“Oh, look!” says a hungry child in Germany. She points at a pasta wheel. Then she eats it. This alleviates her hunger and her despair!

Six pasta wheels remain.

“The simplest way to rid our planet of the troublesome infinite-weight stone would be to launch it into space via rocket,” decide Atlantean alchemists.

Whoosh! Sploosh! It is a typical Atlantean disaster.

Two pasta wheels are on Atlantis when it sinks. They grow weak and soggy in water and eventually drown.

A mammoth in North America stumbles across a pasta wheel. “At last,” it says, “the power of miracles is mine!”

Three blind sages stumble across the pasta wheel at that same exact moment.

“No!” cries the first blind sage. “Pasta is a human treasure!”

“A tasty meal!” cries the second.

“An ineffable symbol of hope and endurance!” explains the third.

“I’ll show you my terrible tusks,” trumpets the mammoth. But only one of the blind sages is even aware of the mammoth’s tusks! He runs away and two sages remain.

“I’ll stomp you with my terrible feet!” the mammoth declares. But only one of the blind sages is even aware of the mammoth’s feet! He runs away, leaving one blind sage.

“I’ll defeat you with my mammoth philosophy of nonviolence!”

There’s a pause.

“Yoink!” says the last blind sage, grabbing half of the pasta wheel. The mammoth seizes the other half. They each run away, treating the pasta in ill manner.

Later, Arthur Pendragon falls.

He bleeds from many wounds.

“Oh, Arthur,” says a wheel of miraculous pasta. “You were the best of England.”

This is in fact not true. The best of England was probably the curry. But pasta does not know such things.

“So hungry,” murmurs the dying king.

“Partake of my flesh, my liege,” the pasta wheel says. “You will never die.”

Two pasta wheels remain.

They roll around the world causing all kinds of havoc.

One meets a man.

They fall in love.

It is the forbidden love. It is the love between man and pasta: that slippery, boiling love that slowly stiffens as it cools, eventually becoming dry and tasteless.

Heaven frowns upon this love.

The man is chastised.

The pasta is cast up into the sky, where it becomes a new constellation.

Thus in these days there is only one wheel of miracle pasta left upon the Earth.

There is only one miracle left to guide us, to guard us, to shepherd us, and to bring us hope.

Treasure it while ye may; the world progresses swift.