And Sometimes You Just Slip (III/III)

And one day in 1988 they are talking and Liril tells her about the monster.

It’s like they’ve been avoiding this conversation for most of seven years.

“I screamed,” Liril says, factually. “It was really awful. I started thinking that I was going to forget who I was and I wrote LIRIL on the wall. But then I looked at it and it didn’t even make sense to me, like it was just some palindrome.”

“Oh,” says Melanie.

Seven years, of course, is exactly how old Liril is right then, though she’d been rather more like eight or nine when the two had met, and Melanie’s turned sixteen.

“He made gods from me,” Liril says.

“He did?”

Liril nods. “They were born because I hurt. And he took them. Like—“

She makes vague motions with her hand. She has no real idea what this is like. There’s nothing to compare it to. Pulling birds out of your brain and then using them as firewood might be a good analogy if it were something that ever happened. Stealing your hope for freedom and forging it to a chain.

“Like an awful thing,” she says.

Melanie stares at her.

“You’re so calm,” she says.

Liril’s mouth twitches. It’s like a smile. “You told me to stop crying. Anyway, he kept me caged, and this kind of thing went on and on, and—“

Melanie interrupts her.

It might have been different, what happened later, if Melanie had heard the rest—if she’d learned back then what had happened at Elm Hill.

But she doesn’t.

She’s desperate to say anything to escape the implications of You told me to stop crying.

“I’ll stop him,” she says.

And Liril laughs, great peals like sobs. “You won’t.”

“I will,” Melanie says.

She’s begging.

She’s begging, suddenly, with those words: let me help with this. But this Liril cannot do.

Melanie is running. She has been running.

Melanie doesn’t know when it started. She missed the part where she stumbled to her feet and ran, and knocked open Liril’s door. Did she knock down Liril? . . . no.

She doesn’t think so.

She thinks Liril was to the left.

She’s missed the first block and a half from there, so she can’t be sure; but even so she doesn’t stop.

If she could be a hero—

If she could be a hero, be an angel, be an anything, an anything that could help—

Anything but a fallible, mortal girl, or the most terrible of gods—

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1988

There is a web around Santa Ynez, in those days. It is meant to keep things in.

Melanie does not care.

She reaches it, and she can’t pass through, so she just starts tearing at the web.

And if she were a human, then this would have been ignored; and if she were a god, then the matter would be clear: the spider must attack.

She is not a human and she is not a god.

The spider does not know what to do with her; it descends, uneasy, from the sky, on a single strand of web.

She tastes of the monster—of Amiel’s twisted, empty get, save younger and not so sure.

It looks at her.

She glares at it. It flinches from her eyes.

“What are you?” it whispers.

She has ripped free strands of its subtle web. She has knotted them together to make a cord. She has stretched them between her hands.

And because it is between Melanie and freedom, and because it’s the monster’s slave, and because it’s everything wrong in young Melanie’s world, she says a terrible thing.

“I am the fate which rules you.”

Its eight eyes glint.

Then the cord is a bit ‘neath the spider’s jaw, and she’s leapt onto its back.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


1988

It is bloody and tired when it gives in at last.

It is lolling on the sky.

And she climbs down from its back on a silken thread and she tells it, “You are mine.”

This it concedes.

“You will seal this place no more forever.”

She has strung it between the will of the monster, and her own; and finally it snaps.

“As you like.”

And from that day forth it is in the heights that it spins its delicate web.

Haunted (IIb/III)

They aren’t friends.

Melanie tells herself this each time she thinks of visiting Liril. They are not friends.

Not really.

They can’t be.

There’s just something inside Melanie, she tells herself, that has trouble letting Liril go.

The nephilite haunts Melanie’s thoughts, and she keeps finding reasons to go and talk to her, and pretending that she doesn’t love her and she doesn’t hate her and she doesn’t want to own her or be owned.

And also, they’re not friends.

It’s really . . . Liril and Melanie, that is . . . it’s not really a big deal at all.

Liril hasn’t cried. She isn’t sad. She hasn’t cried since that first day.

And Melanie, mostly, she’s OK too.

You will drown in him forever.

You will never die.

It’s a little hard, sometimes, because she really wants to have the upper hand over Liril’s mother, she finds herself craving it sometimes, like a spider might crave blood, and she can’t, she can’t even really look at the woman any more without seeing those billowing clouds of violet, that indigo, that green, that sick sensation of the words like wind beating from every direction against her soul.

But she’s OK.

She never cries, not where Liril can see.

She reminds herself that she’s cunning, and she’s strong.

This is a thing that comes to pass.

There’s nothing I can do.

“She hasn’t aged,” Melanie says, one day in 1988, to her first and fairy lover.

This person who is not my friend.

“She’s maybe even lost a year.”

Not that it matters, or anything.

“Isn’t that really kind of strange?”

Forsaken of their Gods (II/III)

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

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

In this conception Billy failed.

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

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

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

His sister was afraid of his fists.

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

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

He even let her run.

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

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

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

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

She couldn’t help herself.

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

And she saw —

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

“There is a King.”

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

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

The woman’s voice is like the wind.

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

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

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

Melanie makes a sound.

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

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

Melanie’s eyes focus once again.

“What?” she asks.

I thought you said you didn’t hate me.

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

“No,” Melanie protests.

Not me.

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

“My,” she says.

She thinks.

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

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

Melanie twitches.

She wants to run.

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

So she sighs, instead.

She shakes her head.

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

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

There is a King (Ia/III)

Q: What’s the difference between a firvuli and a King?
A: The King wears vestments of indigo and green.

Q: What did Tarzan say when he saw the firvuli?
A: “Me Tarzan. You firvuli.”

Q: What did Jane say when she saw the firvuli?
A: “It is a King of bloated life.” (Jane is color-blind.)

Q: Is Jane color-blind?
A: You have caught me. This series of jokes is inaccurate. I am so ashamed.

Q: Do you know who else tells inaccurate jokes?
A: It is the elephant.

— from Melanie’s journal, recovered after the siege of Elm Hill.

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

“It is the elephant,” Melanie says.

Liril looks at her.

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

“Melanie,” Liril says.

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

“We don’t,” Liril says.

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

Liril looks blank.

“You go,” Melanie says.

“I can’t go,” Liril says.

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

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

“You go,” Melanie insists.

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

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

Liril makes a squinchy face.

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

Liril shakes her head.

“He thought it was a pair of shoes.”

Liril closes her eyes.

Please, she thinks. Please go away.

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

“You go.”

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

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

Almost.

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

And the giggling takes Liril, and she is lost.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

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

“Get out,” says Liril’s mom.

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

Get out.

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

“Fear’s showing, love,” she says.

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

A moment passes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Liril does.

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

Melanie takes a sandwich.

“Thank you,” she says.

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

“She does?”

“For now,” Liril’s mother agrees.

“Huh.”

Melanie thinks about this. She chews on the sandwich.

“Weird,” Melanie decides.

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

Melanie puts her sandwich down.

It has become unappetizing.

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

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

Melanie thinks about this.

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

“Would it?”

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

“He won’t catch me,” Melanie says.

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

“Won’t,” Melanie underlines.

Not me.

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

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

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

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

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

Melanie frowns.

“I don’t understand,” she says.

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

“Oh,” Melanie says.

She shakes her head.

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

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

Melanie’s heart shouts a warning.

She is standing up.

“You won’t do this,” she says.

“What am I going to do?”

“You won’t.

Why am I afraid? she asks herself.

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

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

“There is a King.”

Hitherby Annual #2 – Maundy Thursday (I/I)

Where did Sid come from?

Sid is born.

His body is vast. It is not human. It is beads of chaos clinging to a scaffolding of abstract form. It is a cacophony of shape, its endless muscles and organs twisting about aimlessly because the science of anatomy does not yet exist.

It is unapproachable because it is ringed in knives.

Someone tries to speak to Sid: they are cut.

Someone tries to touch Sid: they are cut.

In this fashion he is inaccessible within his riot and chaos of shape. But interwoven among the pieces of him, the gross flesh of him, there is the divine fire.

It gropes for selfhood and finds it.

Sid sorts impressions. He begins to understand the world. In a many-timbred voice he says, “Hey.”

A wind seizes him up.

Claws and hands surround him.

He is cast into a nebulous region, immured in direst bondage.

He is in that place of darkness and of emptiness that will be Siggort Town one day.

How did Max find “Prester Gee and the Ragged Things?”

It is many years later.

There is only once in all the histories of the conversations of Sid and Max when Sid admitted his nature as a burden upon him.

It is in 1992 and the sky is dark with clotted clouds.

Sid is looking after the back of a woman who has come this close to fulfilling the criteria for his destiny, and he says, “I think that the world has no place for siggorts.”

And Max looks at him.

“It’s a really cool world. And we are unworthy of it.”

Max points out, “It’s not like the humans are so great.”

Sid grins.

“Well,” he says, and gestures to show he cannot dispute the point.

And then he goes left, because he’s going to pick up some paint from the hardware store while he’s in town, and Max goes right, to the used bookstore.

Max shops. He finds an old Louis L’amour he hasn’t read. He finds the new Danielle Steel.

He looks at the special shelves next to the counter. He pulls down an odd-sized children’s book. It is called, “Prester Gee and the Ragged Things.”

It is brightly colored.

The proprietor of the used bookstore, one Dannon Cleim, says, “I wouldn’t.”

“Hm?”

“Reading that kind of thing,” says Dannon, “attracts their attention.”

“Oh.”

The cover shows a girl staring at a sign saying, “Wrong Place.” while something emerges from around a corner behind her.

Max finds it oddly fascinating.

“Someday,” says Dannon, “they will come for me. They will come from the air, from beyond the borders of the world where I live. And as they seize me I will hear the whispering of Ii Ma’s voice.”

“Yeah,” Max says, distractedly. “That happened to me once.”

Dannon’s jaw sets. He does not look pleased with Max. He says something truly spiteful, which is, “Well, you can buy it if you’d like.”

And so Max does.

Did Max worry too much about the nature of siggorts?

If Max were to see a vivisected corpse on the street he would fret terribly and wonder if Sid killed it.

Fortunately this never actually happens.

Max has never seen anyone vivisected except for that one time.

But sometimes there’ll be some tarp or something on the road and he’ll think it’s a vivisected body, just laying there.

That can happen when you’re worrying too much about the nature of siggorts.

How did Max find out about the place without recourse?

Max reads.

This is how the book begins:

“Hello!

This is Prester Gee’s book.

I’m Prester Gee!”

There’s a picture of Prester Gee next to it. She’s a cheerful young woman but she is not very photorealistic.

Max turns the page.

“I had a friend named Margerie.

One day the ragged things came in and took her away.”

Max admires the picture. It shows the ragged things taking Margerie away.

Then he begins to read in earnest.

He reads on right to the end.

Prester Gee and the Ragged Things

From the archives at Gibbelins’ tower.

Hello!

This is Prester Gee’s book.

I’m Prester Gee!

I had a friend named Margerie.

One day the ragged things came in and took her away.

She yelled so much!

They took her away through the cracks in the world.

I went right away to the Sheriff. He had a shiny badge. I told him, “Sir, they have taken Margerie.”

But he did not want to talk about it!

“Shoo,” he said.

He waved me away with his shooing gun.

I also talked to the Mayor.

I said, “Mr. Mayor, sir, they have taken Margerie.”

The Mayor said, “This is a city council meeting about dogs. I want to talk about dogs. I do not want to talk about your stinky Margerie!”

There was nothing I could do.

I had to apologize!

I even talked to Margerie’s husband. He’d taken off his wedding ring but you could still see where it was missing.

I said, “It was ragged things. They were big and red and their footsteps were heavy.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Margerie’s husband. “There are no things like that anywhere in the world.”

“Oh,” I said.

This made me very sad and I began to cry and he made me coffee. We did not talk about Margerie. We just drank coffee.

Eventually he cried too.

I guessed that maybe I’d made up Margerie all along. It is hard to believe in your reality when nobody else does.

But I kept seeing cracks in the world.

Sometimes strange things make what you know seem thin. Like a layer of puff pastry. The truth seems so thin you could crunch through it. You start to say, “I can’t trust me.”

You trust other people.

They’re smarter than you.

You say, “They probably know best!”

Everything looked like it was shaking in place, all the time, because I did not believe in myself. Also every shadow looked extra-dark and squirmy with unknown things.

And there were cracks.

They would be here or there. In my cupboard or under my stairs. I found a crack on the sidewalk once. I did not step on it. My mother was already dead but I thought, that could be so rude.

So rude!

She would be in Heaven playing her accordion and then I would step on a crack. Suddenly snap her back would break! All of the other angels would laugh and her accordion would whine, wee-guh, wee-guh, like sad accordions do.

I told a police man about the cracks.

I pointed him at one.

He said, “That’s very bad, ma’am!”

I was very embarrassed.

He blew his whistle. Beep! Beep!

“You have gone mad,” he concluded.

“Oh no!” I said.

I did not want to have gone mad.

I went to the hospital. All of the doctors in their white coats looked at me.

“You are not mad,” they said.

“I’m not?”

“No,” they said.

The doctors all smiled.

“You’re just corrupt!”

This apparently was better vis-a-vis state regulations. If I were mad then I would live in a padded room. But I was corrupt so they let me go back home.

My boss did not like me much. He said, “I heard about you and the hospital. I’m firing you, Prester Gee!”

I made a very sad face but he stuck by his decision with determination!

So I left.

I got another job typing and then a job packing fruit and then I lived on Garden Street with a puppy I found. When people would be mean to me the puppy would shoot them up with lasers.

“That puppy’s defective!” they’d say. “Dogs should hardly ever use lasers!”

It was a bad puppy and should have been killed but I loved him.

One day Margerie’s husband came and sat down next to me.

He said, “I know you didn’t lie.”

It was a wind.

It was a wind that he said those words. Suddenly the world stopped shaking.

He said, “I will pay you a lot of money to go to the ragged things’ academy and ask after my wife.”

The puppy barked and then licked his hand.

My puppy did not shoot him with lasers. So I said, “I trust you.”

The next time I saw a crack, I peeked my head through.

You should tear this page out. I cannot tear it out because my publisher would get mad at me. He would shake his cigar and puff up his cheeks. But you should. You should tear out the pages that have the pictures of the ragged things’ world. You should tear them out and burn them.

I don’t know why I am leaving these pages in.

But it looked like badness.

It looked like the world but nobody had souls. Not even the grass had souls. You could walk on it and squish it and it would not care.

I took many pictures. Sometimes people who look at them throw up! Or their pants get bulgy like there is a mouse in them. Or they yell at me.

I am very sad when people yell at me.

I did not find Margerie in the ragged things’ world.

I think that it is bad to look in the world behind the cracks. If you can see them do not look. Just look away.

Do not tell police men.

Do not tell the Mayor.

Do not tell the doctor.

Do not even tell people’s husbands.

Just look away.

One day they will come for me. I dream of it. They will come for me and Ii Ma will come for me.

Ii Ma will ask me a question I cannot answer.

He will take me away from the world to a place without recourse.

And nothing I do, and nothing I have ever done, will matter again.

How did Max come to understand the nature of the world?

Max puts the book down.

He thinks for a while.

“Huh,” he says.

And he hears in memory the whisper in his mind: How could you betray your wife?

He trembles, there, like a leaf.

He stands on the last vertex of reason with the endless net of unacceptable truths just a step or so outside of his reach.

He is this close to understanding.

He remembers the King that came to Spattle.

His mind throbs with the pictures of Prester Gee.

Shifting in and out of the edge of his consciousness is the image of Ii Ma. He cannot focus on it. He cannot not focus on it. His mental efforts skirl about like water striders on a pond.

Then, suddenly, he understands.

“Mr. McGruder could never have answered it. He would have melted before that question like ice before the sun.”

And thus Max apprehends the fundamental nature of the world. He is afraid and he is horrified but he is also excited.

Rising in him like Frankenstein’s ambition there is a plan.

How did the ragged things catch Max?

It is almost two years before knowing the story of Prester Gee catches up to him.

Max has said nothing to Sid; in fact, for the past six months, he has scarcely called on Sid at all. Instead he has wrestled with the fey understanding that has been rising in him that the ragged things will come for him soon.

That he sees too much; that he knows too much; that in apprehending Ii Ma he suffered apprehension by Ii Ma.

They will come for him.

Dannon Cleim is already gone. Max does not miss him; the man had never mattered to Max’s life.

In his dreams Max sees Ii Ma. He knows what impends.

Ii Ma will come for him.

He will ask Max, a second time, a question that Max cannot answer, and where the first was irrelevant this one will be colder than winter and more devastating than fire.

“Perhaps,” Max theorizes, “He will ask me, ‘what would you do if you could steal people’s noses?'”

That’s a hard one to call in advance because power corrupts.

“Or, ‘you love a guy who tortures people to death.’ That’s not really a question but it might as well be.”

It is neither of these.

He is in the supermarket between aisles 6 and 7—

Where in most supermarkets there is a weak place, a problematic place, a place occult to our reality—

When there is the soft slow pounding of heavy feet.

He looks around.

He thinks about running.

Then he seizes a box of cereal, for the road, and holds it tight against his chest, and waits.

Claws seize him from four directions. They heft him high. And Ii Ma whispers, How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?

There is a cleanup between aisles 6 and 7.

Max is gone.

Why can’t Sid forgive Max?

Max puts on the water for tea. He watches it for a while, but it doesn’t boil.

“Sid,” says Max.

And as suddenly as a dream, Sid is there.

It is 1994 and the sun is this brilliant golden glow and Max is happy—so incredibly happy— because he’s put one over on the world.

He says, “Sid,” again, and it’s this caramel of smugness on the ice cream of his joy.

And Sid blushes and looks from side to side, like maybe Max means the Sid behind him.

“It’s all right now,” Max says.

And Sid frowns.

“It’s been all right,” he says.

“No,” Max says.

He rises. He goes to the glass doors that open out onto the balcony. He opens them. He takes a breath of clean and bracing air.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Max says. “You’d never have let me try it. But it worked.”

He takes a breath.

Max says, “You’ll never kill anybody.”

Sid frowns. He looks around.

“What?”

Max turns. His eyes are brilliant. He says, “This is the dominion of Ii Ma. We have been abstracted from the world by virtue of the questions that we cannot answer. Here, Sid, we mean nothing, do nothing, to no effect. Here the knives of you will not cut; here the hands of you will not hold a knife; here we are severed from substance but, Sid, we are safe from doing harm or becoming anathema to ourselves.”

It pours from Max in a rush, this anodyne and peak to two years of careful silence. It pours from him, the expression of his gift, that sacrifice that he has made of life and sanity, bound over to Ii Ma without resistance to save Sid from murdering. The brilliance and the sacrifice of Max’s plan glimmers there in his sight, lain out—

The perfect solution;

The necessary solution;

The plan to give up everything else so that Sid does not become a thing Max can not love.

And against the look in Sid’s eyes it becomes the ashes of a cruel ambition.

How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?

“Sid,” he says.

And Sid grins, a little.

Sid’s shoulders relax.

“Tell me you are making a virtue of necessity,” Sid says. “Tell me you are scared and alone here and you risked me because you needed me here.”

“No,” says Max. “You don’t understand.”

Distantly, he can hear the kettle whistling.

“Tell me that you did not do this on purpose,” Sid says. “That you did not conspire with the nature of the world to immure me in a place without recourse.”

“I didn’t want you to vivisect anyone,” Max protests.

And here one should stop and observe that for all the naked betrayal in Sid’s voice that Max’s was a reasonable aim.

Yet—

“How could you imagine that you could do such things and have them be okay?” Sid asks.

And the last air leaves Max’s lungs. Bleakness closes in on him. He is drowning.

Until that moment Max did not understand the question of Ii Ma.

Until that moment Max had remained in the place without recourse by virtue of that will that denies itself its options. Until that moment he had stood on a line with a path still open before him, actions still available to him, possibilities to remain a creature of the is and not an isn’t still naked before him. Until that moment he had options because until that moment the question that Ii Ma had given him was one that he did not comprehend.

But Ii Ma is cruel, and with Sid’s words it is no longer so.

Max sees the completeness and the elegance of that truth: he sees the world of emptiness close in about him: he experiences the jangling severance of Max from the places of the world.

In every direction it is the same: every course of action is the same: the place without recourse unfolds around him like an infinite-reflections jewel.

“How beautiful,” Max says.

And to Sid it is like watching a loved one die.

How did Max leave the place without recourse?

It is Maundy Thursday when these events transpire, by some coincidence or design: an anniversary, of a sort, celebrating that day when Jesus said to his companions,

“You will have to devour me to earn eternal life.”

On Maundy Thursday the bells cease to ring. The vestments depart from the table, leaving barrenness.

It is the custom of Ii Ma, on Maundy Thursday, to shift its great bulk in its mud. To wallow. To drip with black blood. To take petitions from its prisoners, which are traditionally not granted.

“How could you imagine that you could do such things,” Sid says, on Maundy Thursday, 1994, “and have them be okay?”

And the fire fades from Max’s eyes and he says, transported by something greater than himself, “How beautiful.”

And with a flash of insight Sid understands why this is so.

“That’s what he asked you,” Sid says. “Isn’t it?”

The kettle is wobbling on the stove; and Sid looks sideways and swears, “Bucking kettle. … That’s what he asked?”

“‘How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?‘” Max quotes. “Or, well, yeah. What you said.”

And Sid laughs.

He can’t help it. It’s worse than when Grouchy Pete shot him because it’s more painful and it’s funnier.

But the laughter passes.

A cold wind blows.

The vast bulk of Ii Ma shifts.

And Sid sighs.

He relaxes, just a bit.

Sid says, gently, “’Walk in like you own the place.’”

It is not clear to Sid, even after all his years of life, whether this answer is abstractly the right one— but it is a pragmatic one.

He has seen it work for monsters, kings, and siggorts;

And it seems to work for Max.

How does Maundy Thursday end?

The night office is celebrated under the name of Tenebrae: the service of darkness.

After the vespers of Maundy Thursday Sid is raw, like a skinless man.

He is raw but he is not given the grace of that pain.

He is taken from the agony of it, without transition, to the morning, to smiling outwards at the beauty of the dawn.

“How beautiful.”

And thus one fond of the liturgy of the holy days must ask:

What manner of thing is Easter, if it comes too soon?

The Marvelous Hill

Young Pedro follows the fox.

The fox worms through the underbrush. So does Pedro.

The fox runs, gently, tail high. So does Pedro, except that he does not have a tail.

The fox darts into a hole. Pedro thinks about it. But then Pedro is distracted by the marvelous hill.

Pedro’s older sister is fond of quoting Casablanca. “The problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” she tells him, when food is short, when nights are cold, when times are hard.

Pedro had always accepted it. A hill of beans must not be much, thought Pedro.

“But it’s actually pretty incredible,” Pedro admits now.

The beans are dry and they come in many colors. There are red beans, brown beans, golden beans, white beans. They are stacked in a pile, out in the middle of nowhere, a hundred and twenty feet high.

“It’s made of beans,” breathes Pedro.

Pedro advances on the hill. The fox is forgotten. Pedro begins to scramble up the hill.

The colors are like a painting. The beans are like daubs of paint on canvas, thick and striking.

There is one bean that is blue.

Pedro stares at it for a while. “I’ve never seen a blue bean before,” he says.

This is actually not true. Pedro has seen blue beans. But not like this one: not this perfect cerulean, like a bean snatched from the sky.

Pedro reaches for it. But then he hesitates.

“It could be a structural bean,” he says. “Load-bearing.”

So he just looks at it, very close, with his nose practically up against the bean. Then he scrambles on up the hill.

He is almost halfway up when the beans begin to shift under his feet. He is almost halfway up when it is like the beans are quicksand. His feet are sinking into the hill. The beans are shifting all around him. And he can feel, with the certainty of death, a terrible hand wrapping around his ankle, deep amidst the beans, ready to pull him down.

Pedro screams. Pedro struggles. He claws at the beans as they shift all around him. He tries to make progress, forward, backwards, any direction but in.

It is successful. He kicks something old and bony within the hill. His flailing scrambling body finds sterner purchase. He drags himself up and out and lays there, panting, spread-eagled face-down on the beans for maximum surface area, and he waits.

“I am alive,” says Pedro.

He can still feel it. There is something wrapped around his ankle, but it is not pulling him downwards any more.

“I am alive,” Pedro says, but he does not look at his leg.

He writhes around and begins heading down the hill. He does not stand up until he is much lower on the hill, and then he is running, scrambling, hurrying desperately to escape.

He is almost to the bottom when he looks down and sees that the hand that grips his leg is a dead man’s hand, old and skeletal and ancient bones, and the ring on its finger is made of ancient sapphire-studded gold.

It is a cold winter, and a hard one, but Pedro and his sister eat well. Forever after, when his sister tells him that human problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, Pedro’s eyes get very wide and solemn.

“They sure don’t!” Pedro says.

It was a pretty unusual case. Not every hill of beans has gold and magic and terror in it. Some of them are even pretty tame.

But you’d never know that by Pedro!

The Domain of Reason

The evil peony thrashes in its rage.

“It’s horrible,” says Shannon. “Bruce, it’s horrible.”

Bruce shakes his head. He clicks his tongue. “Tsk, tsk, my adorable partner. Remember that if you don’t respect nature, nature won’t respect you!”

“It’s a giant mutant peony! And I think it’s evil!”

Bruce stares down at the evil peony. He thinks. Finally, he snaps his fingers. “It’s the radioactive meteor, Shannon! It’s got to be!”

“The radioacti—what radioactive meteor?”

“The one that crashed to the earth last night—right here! In our garden!”

Bruce and Shannon stand on the balcony. They look out at the garden of the historic Winders Estate. Below them the evil peony writhes in mindless mutant malevolence.

“Bruce, we have to talk about this.”

Bruce grabs Shannon’s shoulders. His voice is low and intense. “A mutant plant that’s starved for basic nutrients inevitably comes to hunger for human flesh. And once its mutant genes escape into the general population it’ll hybridize with other plants to create an unstoppable mutant army!”

Shannon looks pained.

“Bruce,” she says, and her voice is low and sad. “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be bringing these problems down on our heads with your sloppy reasoning?”

Bruce looks blank.

“I mean,” Shannon says, “well, I mean, do you remember the bee-men?”

“Ha ha!” says Bruce. “The terrible bee-men . . . defeated with ordinary table salt!”

“Yes,” says Shannon. “Those. Bruce, why were there bee-men in our house?”

“That’s a good question,” says Bruce. He lets go of Shannon’s shoulders so that he can rub his chin meaningfully. “In the end, aren’t bees our greatest enemy?”

“It’s because you do this!” Shannon shouts. “It’s because you do this and you don’t make sense and the world still follows your ideas instead of mine!”

She pushes him, in sudden fury. Bruce falls, quite surprised, off the balcony and into the flower.

“Help!” he says, struggling. “It’s trying to eat my brain!”

“Bruce!” Shannon says.

“Shannon! Quickly! The Flower-Redeeming Bazooka!”

Shannon turns towards the Flower-Redeeming Bazooka mounted on the wall. She starts to pull it loose from the mounting. Then she shakes herself and snaps out of it.

“Bruce, there is no reason why we’d have a flower-redeeming bazooka!”

“It’s the kind of thing I’d make.”

“You need a causal explanation,” Shannon whimpers.

Bruce hesitates.

Shannon firms up the line of her jaw. “You do. You’re supposed to. I don’t know if I can live with you any more, Bruce. I don’t know if I can stay married to someone who isn’t bound by the domain of reason. I got captured by bee-men because bees have an incredible sense of smell before you defeated them with table salt.

Bruce looks blank. “It has the structural form of a reasonable statement,” he says. “I don’t see what the problem is.”

The evil peony writhes. Its petals wrap around Bruce’s limbs. Its pistils probe viciously at Bruce’s earwax. Bruce shouts in horror and kicks a petal away.

“It’s not fair,” says Shannon. “It’s 2005, Bruce. You have your marvelous flying chair and the rest of us don’t even have our flying cars. You have your marvelous anti-depression serum and the rest of us are dealing with Dark Ages psychiatry. I used to look at the Space Needle and ask myself where our glorious future went, and you took it, Bruce! That’s got to be the reason! You can’t have science if there are people to whom it doesn’t apply!”

Bruce bites down on a petal and spits it out so that he can speak. “That’s ridiculous, Shannon! Science and technobabble coexist in nature—it’s only man’s arrogance that forces us to choose between them!”

Shannon is crying now. She is stripping off her wedding band.

“Shannon,” Bruce says. “Now isn’t the time. You can’t walk out on me while I’m being eaten by a giant evil peony! . . . it’s the radiation affecting your mind!”

“The radiation?” Shannon asks, hesitantly.

“Please,” Bruce says. “If it eats my brain this peony also gets all my scientific genius! All my knowledge! My priceless legacy! It will use it to kill us all!”

The petals fold over him. He kicks one out. He kicks out another. Petals flutter slowly to the ground.

“He loves me,” whispers Shannon. “He loves me not. He loves me. He loves me not.”

“Shannon,” Bruce says, “don’t you see that your cold and mechanical reason can still construct hypotheses regarding the nature of the domain in which it does not apply?”

Shannon freezes.

“He loves me!” she says.

Then the bazooka is in her hands and firing. The evil peony screams and burns in a great flare of light as it becomes a good peony.

“Ha ha,” says Bruce, as he stands and dusts himself off. “It’s nature’s perfect creation—the benevolent mutant man-eating peony.”

“I will not eat you at this juncture,” hums the peony. “My morality argues against such an action.”

“I get to run tests on you,” says Shannon. “I mean, real tests. Not just the Test-O-Meter.”

Bruce makes a face.

“Not my fault you don’t have flying cars,” he says. But it’s a sulk and a concession all in one.

The Factory of Wonderful Things

On the first floor there is a room seething with pink cotton candy. It is alive. It has a great and terrible mind.

The room has a balcony overlooking it. Scientists come there and look down at the cotton candy. So it doesn’t grow lonely.

They say, “Hello!”

“Hello,” says the cotton candy. It swirls. “I have a great and terrible mind.”

“Is that so?” the scientists ask.

“Yes,” says the cotton candy. Then it will say something profound and useful. Like a unified field theory. Or a new cardinal number between one and ten that no one had ever heard of before. Or practical dating advice.

People who get tired of working in the factory sometimes come to the balcony. They dive in. They vanish under the swirling and the bubbling of the cotton candy. They drown there. And as they drown, the cotton candy shouts, “I’m bubbling with love and death!”

It is not wonderful that that happens, you understand. It’s just the cotton candy that is wonderful.

There is a room on the first floor packed tight with rotating gumballs. These are like ordinary gumballs. But they do not like to be eaten. Instead they like to rotate around people. If they ever got out then people would be constantly surrounded by rotating gumballs. It would be very socially awkward. It would produce the kinds of complications that nuclei have to deal with every day. It’s too bad that nuclei have to suffer that, but people shouldn’t have to!

The whole factory is full of things like that. Things that are wonderful, but can’t be let out.

On the second floor, there are tigers. Tigers are pretty cool. But they like to eat people sometimes. Eat them, gnaw on them, or sometimes just playfully maim them. That’s why tigers don’t make good wonderful things to have in your house. People would always be saying, “Spot! Stop eating the guests!” and “Spot! Bad tiger! That’s mommy’s arm.”

This would not just be bad for people. It would also make the tigers sad.

The second floor also has that guy. That guy. The one to whom freedom of speech applies. It’s not so that everyone can talk, you know, whatever activist judges say. It’s for him. Scientists visit him sometimes too.

“I think,” he will say, “that the moon is a giant marble, that escaped the factory.”

“It was actually an affiliate—” starts one scientist.

“You shouldn’t criticize me,” he’ll say. “I have a right to free speech!”

“You’re right!” admits the scientist. “I have to shut up now.”

He’s not very pleasant to be around. But he’s important! Free speech osmoses to everyone else. As long as he’s alive, everyone else gets some too.

On the third floor, there is the happiness machine. You push a button and you are guaranteed to be happy. Leonard Schnauzel, who, due to his name, had never previously been happy, was the first man to push the button.

“Oh my God,” he said, at the time. “I finally understand.”

That’s when a bunch of underdressed women and a hot car were delivered to his home. Also, there were sacks of cash. When you look at commercials that promise sex and money if you buy the product, it’s not just something they’re making up—they’re harkening back to the legendary experience of Leonard Schnauzel.

“What a wonderful machine!” he said. He hugged it. A lot. But then they locked the machine away on the third floor of the factory. It’s still there today!

On the fourth floor, they have the hall of inflatable gods. These work a lot like RealDolls, except for worship instead of sex. They are not as good as an actual god, and definitely not as good as God, but sometimes people get lonely.

“Zeus!” a woman might say, inflating a Zeus. “Transform yourself into a swan and let’s get it on!”

That is not something that this reporter can personally imagine happening. But it is the illustration on the Zeus box.

“Wolf god!” a mysterious wanderer might say. “Help me restore the balance of the world!”

Then he would inflate the wolf god. The wolf god would help him restore balance to the world. Studio Ghibli knows! They’ve toured the factory in a special bus.

There is also a giant lollipop. It is stuck on the fourth floor for three reasons. First it is sticky. Second, if it were let out, people would be licking it all the time and would never get anything done. Third, it is bigger than the room it is in, which makes it also bigger than every possible egress for the room it is in. It’s true! You can prove it mathematically!

On the fifth floor are the cubiclemaids and cubiclemen. These are like mermaids and mermen, except that the bottom half is not a fish but rather some sort of office supply, like paperclips or printer toner. They sing marvelously and try to call passing workers.

“We promise a marvelous life in the cubicle maze!” they sing. “It will be full of joy and wonder!”

Their song promises a look at hidden treasures sparkling in the cubicle maze. It promises a chance to see the dolphins and memos that dart and play in the cubicle reefs. But if someone heeds their call, usually, they wind up drowning in work. It’s best not to listen!

On the sixth floor are the people responsible for the factory of wonderful things. They think they’re allowed to leave. But they’re not. If they ever stopped to think about it rationally, that’d be pretty obvious. But they don’t. They just go on making stuff!

The factory isn’t far from here. Just head downtown and take a left. The building shines like ice.

You can’t miss it!

To Have Forsaken Being Wrong

Whimsical on a cold Monday
Solomon carried a wooden box
Down to the gap in Gibbens Park
And filled it with uncertainty
Until its seams were bulging dark and tossed it down;
. . . . Forsaking being wrong.

This couldn’t be wrong
As, since that day, He’s had the perfect answers down
And lives inside the outside of the box
And by this very action crowned with coronet of certainty;
. . . . That day, in Gibbens Park.

A girl was watching in the park—
Still capable of being wrong
But filled with errant certainty.
Her thoughts and plans were wrong that day;
Her morals, somewhat scanty; she made herself a different box
. . . . And no guilt dressed her down.

She made a bed of eiderdown
And silks and satins in the park
She sent him through the letter box
A promise stark, a promise wrong,
A promise locked his heart that day
. . . . His chains were certainty.

He blamed her, from that certainty,
For how his morals canted down,
And nothing was his fault that day,
And blossoms drowned the silks and park
And played they and it was not wrong;
Then she took needles from her box—

She took three needles from the box
And she told him his new certainty
The fear that gripped him was not wrong.
She told him what was up was down.
And he believed her, fierce and strong, in Gibbens Park;
In Gibbens Park, that day.

They fell from the park to the stars that day;
So up must be down, post the game they played. The box
Kept the chance he was wrong away; and locked truth to his certainty.