Harbinger

as narrated by Mrs. Schiff

People say that he’s a Harbinger of bad news — that where he goes misfortune follows.

“If you see him,” they say, “turn away. Don’t look. Go somewhere else, if you can.”

When I saw him I decided they were wrong.

It wasn’t a big philosophical thing. I mean, people have argued — people with real blogs and stuff — that you can’t change fate just by deciding. If he’s there for you, he’s already there for you, before you turn away or go somewhere else. If he’s not there for you, then turning away won’t change anything.

But even people like that, they agree, you don’t talk to him.

You don’t make a point of interacting with him.

That’s just making trouble for yourself.

He moved so gracefully.

It’s hard to explain if you’ve only seen him on television or in frozen pictures. It’s not like you’d expect.

Harbinger doesn’t fall into any uncanny valley. When you see him move, it’s like it frees up your own limbs — it’s like when the Wrights looked at birds (or maybe stiff-limbed trees with engines on them) and learned to fly. He’s beautiful.

So I said, “Hi.”

He gave this big delighted grin and moved to me and said, “You talked to me!”

There wasn’t any loneliness in his eyes. There weren’t any marks of it. He’s not like Emo or the Ice Guy. There was just this transformative joy of human contact.

But now that he was there and happy I was talking, I didn’t know any more of what to say.

“You’re Harbinger,” I told him, on the theory that perhaps he didn’t know.

“The very same,” he said. He looked away for a second, then smoothly back. “I was blessed by my godmother to be a hero — to have the speed to go where I am needed before it is too late, and to save the day once I am there.”

I set my purse down because I wanted my hands free, but then I didn’t have anything to do with them.

“Really?”

“Really,” he said. “But then I was cursed to get there before the trouble happened, and leave before it arrived. It’s all —”

He gestured like somebody trying to draw a Rube Goldberg schematic with club hands.

“It’s all in the order you get your blessings, with fairies. The right order and you’re a hero, the wrong order and it’s not so good.”

“Well, you could warn people,” I said.

“I don’t do that,” he said.

“No?”

“That’d be trouble,” he said. He spun around uncertainly like a top. “I mean, not the same kind of trouble that happens after I leave, I hope — oh, God, paradoxes would suck — but the thing is, it’d just mean that my warning came too soon and that people would forget it just in time to need it. I don’t want anyone kicking themselves on my account, and they always would. My name is Jason, by the way.”

“Eileen.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t warn people. I don’t do anything like that.”

“Oh.”

I hesitated.

“But I’ll be in trouble?” I said.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “You’ll need a really fast guy to save you — well, plus my other godmother gifts, like strength”

and beauty

“and laser vision,” he said. “But I’ll have already left, to get there before a big building fire or drowning puppy or something.”

“That’s too bad.”

“But listen,” he said. He took my hands. “Listen, it’s okay.”

I was blushing. I thought about yanking my hands away. I didn’t manage to decide to do it. It’s probably part of his supernatural powers.

“I wanted to quit,” he said. “I thought about it for a long time. But finally I realized that there was still something worth doing. I mean, when people don’t go all ‘run away, it’s Harbinger.’ on me. I figured out that everything I’m supposed to stop — that it can all be okay. Even though I can’t.”

I pulled my hands back.

“Not drowning puppies,” I pointed out.

“We make our lives really hard,” he said. “When bad stuff happens, we tell ourselves that we’re part of why; or we hurt ourselves extra, struggling against it or trying to hang on to what we had before. We don’t — people don’t — focus on the fact that part of being a person is that whatever is immediately in front of you, you can handle it. That’s what it means to be a consciousness in the world — that there are paths that you can take, and one of them is as right as you can get, and if you take that, it’s okay. And even if you don’t take that, as long as you have a good reason to take a different one, that’s okay too. Or if you learn better later. Whatever. There’s only the options we have in front of us, so it’s okay if we don’t have other ones.”

“That’s okay as far as it goes,” I said.

“I realized,” he said, “that maybe if I told people that, then they’d remember it when their suffering came. Because it’s not like there was any other way it could have been, not like the trouble is something they could get out of, not when they needed me and I’ll have already left.”

“You could tell them to blame you,” I told him.

He smiled and stopped smiling, smiled and stopped smiling, three or four times. “But it wouldn’t be true,” he said.

Then he looked up and away, sharply, like a dog that’s heard some hidden sound.

“They will need me,” he said.

Death and death and death; I could feel it. I could taste it, metallic in the air. It hadn’t even happened yet and it was calling him.

“Wait,” I said.

“Oh, my heart,” he said. “I wish I could.”

Then there was nothing left of him but my brain’s stubborn reluctance — for nearly half a second — to recognize that he was gone.

The Alphabet Game

We ask into the matter of the bear.

White heat and light annihilate the store. Shoppers become ghosts in an instant, inundated and incinerated by that light. Their forms swell with it before they vanish. Shelves of books and food and toys and jeans fall over. One Talkie Sally doll crawls feebly across the floor with its vocal circuit and both legs crushed; it mumbles and crumbles as it crawls, the sound of it “clerp. Clerp. Clerp.”

The power dies.

Susan is there. She seizes an armful of boxes from the shelves before she begins to run. She does not want them destroyed.

That is her impulse in the apocalypse: to save what she can.

Broken glass scores her face. She isn’t sure from where. There is a red and soft white glow off to the east so she heads in that direction, dodging around a crumbled ceiling. She scrapes out through a crack in the wall when she reaches the building’s edge. Most of the boxes tumble from her arms as she squeezes through.

She is on the second floor.

“Ah—” she says, looking back for a moment, as she falls.

The building shimmers, swells, and shatters.

Susan hits the grass hard and her vision goes black.

On the first morning after the apocalypse, she opens her eyes. The world is desolately empty. There are no sounds of cars or people or even birds. There is only the rushing wind.

“Oh,” she says.

Her arms are clenched around the last few treasures that she has saved. Painfully she releases her grip. She sits up. She sets them down. She dusts herself off.

They are a Fisher-Price carpentry playset and a talking learn-the-alphabet game.

“You saved us,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game.

Susan smiles tiredly.

What a strange toy, she thinks.

“Because you saved us,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game, “we will help you survive this grim post-apocalyptic world.”

Ah, Susan thinks. I have gone insane.

“It is not necessary,” she says, politely. “I have already learned the alphabet.”

“There are more than twenty-six letters,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game. “There is also soph.”

Soph,” says Susan.

“Now you know your A-B-Cs!” declares the talking learn-the-alphabet game. “Next time won’t you sing with me?”

“I will,” Susan says.

So they sing the alphabet together, including soph, in an empty world.

When they are done, Susan stares off to the east, where through the vacancy of buildings she can see a woods.

“You are troubled,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game.

Susan picks it up. She hugs it to her chest. She says, “What has happened to the world?”

“It is the apocalypse,” says the game.

“Oh?”

“There are those who meddle with things that they do not understand, and they are dangerous. More dangerous yet are those who meddle with things they understand, but none too well.”

“Oh,” Susan says.

“This is the work of the Fisher-Price Ultimate line,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game.

The sky swirls and there is an impression of death and sorrow.

“In their laboratories they built a child’s toy prototype for ultimate evil—a toddler’s first ultimate evil, as it were. The final product would have had safeties, seals, restrictions.”

Susan sees the direction of this speech.

“But not,” she says, “the prototype?”

“It has sent forth its destruction to devastate the kingdoms of the earth.”

“It has left us desolate,” Susan says.

The talking learn-the-alphabet game sighs, “Ah.”

Susan folds her legs in the tailor style. She closes her eyes. For a time she thinks; and this stretches for so long that the talking learn-the-alphabet game becomes uncomfortable in the silence.

It makes small bleeping sounds.

In the distance, in the woods, these are answered by the shaking-maracas sound of insects.

Then Susan says, “What is to be done?”

“Live,” says the game.

Susan shakes her head.

“No?”

“Evil cannot go unchallenged,” Susan says.

The game considers.

“Then,” it says, “you must travel east to the palace of the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil beyond the world, and destroy it there.”

“Agreed,” says Susan, “save that I will not destroy it.”

She rises.

“No?”

“I don’t think it’s right,” Susan says.

And she gathers up the carpentry playset and the talking learn-the-alphabet game and she walks east.

Through the forest she walks, through the green-made gloaming and the patches of brilliant sunlight where the leaves are thin. There is dampness and there are scurrying things yet and where the insects do not sing there is mostly silence.

She comes to a wall.

It is high, twenty yards high, and made of slick rainbow glass, with a thousand colors trapped inside it. It stains her rainbow and casts its multicolored shadow all around her.

She sets down the carpentry playset and touches her hand to the wall. It is slick but it is warm and there is a beating to it like a heart.

“Use me,” says a thick and wooden voice.

Susan looks down. She sees that the carpentry playset has fallen open. The hammer of it has slipped from its place. It lays there on the grass.

Now this hammer is plastic and it has a button on its handle. There is a speaker on its head and a place for batteries in the back.

Susan reaches for it, most delicately. She picks it up.

“Use me,” it says again.

She pushes the button, and the hammer’s speaker makes a sound: tap, tap, tap like the pounding of a hammer on nails.

It grows louder.

Tap, tap, tap. Bang, bang, bang.

It thrums, there in the forest at the edge of the world.

The sound from it rises until it is the sound of the cyclopes in their forges beating out the thunderbolts in the dawn of the world. It is the sound of great ringing blows.

“Touch me to the wall,” it whispers.

“But—”

“Trust me,” says the hammer from the Fisher-Price carpentry playset.

So Susan touches its head to the wall and there is a shivering in the glass and a chiming that rises to match the ringing of the hammer’s sound. Then, convulsively, the wall tears itself apart: not shattering, not ripping, but rather severing, and the two halves bucking away from the center like angry horses or two great flailing arms.

After a moment it is still.

The wall is open, its sleek rainbowed surface curving up in two tracks to either side. It is like a sculpture. It is strange and it is beautiful and beyond it there is the sun.

The hammering noise falls silent.

“Thank you,” says Susan.

“You must leave me here,” says the hammer.

Carefully, Susan sets the hammer down.

“Don’t you want to know why?” it asks.

Susan shakes her head.

“I trust you,” she says, and she walks on.

There is still green twilight but the sun is more common now beyond the wall. The forest is thinning.

There is a bear.

It is great and it is terrible, larger than a person, larger than four people—larger, really, than a tank.

It roars and its roar terrifies her.

And from the Fisher-Price carpentry playset comes a sharp and metal voice, “Use me.”

She reaches into the playset. Her hand hesitates over the tools, then pulls out the saw. Its grey plastic shines.

“Push the button,” it says, “to make answer to your problems.”

The bear stands up. Its shadow falls. It stands between our Susan and the sun.

“Pardon,” says Susan to the saw, and she is trembling, “but what will you do?”

“I am a saw,” the Fisher-Price saw says.

The bear steps forward.

“I am the sharp cutting tooth of the world,” says the Fisher-Price carpentry playset saw. “I am the relentless, the cutter, the killer, the ravager of flesh. I cut the grain of wood. I separate the ligaments from the meat. I carve through bone.”

The bear steps forward.

“Bear? Do you hear me?” cries the saw.

And though Susan has not pushed the button there is the zzz-zgg, zzz-zgg, zzz-zgg noise rising all around. It is the terrible metal cheering of the saws that cut forever at the foundations of the world.

Where the sunlight touches saw the sunlight bleeds.

“Do you hear me, bear? You are meat!”

But Susan is kneeling. She is setting down the saw, carefully, on the grass. She is saying, “I am sorry, Fisher-Price carpentry playset saw, but I cannot use you in this fashion.”

And in the pause that follows that the sounds of saws go still and there is a mist that runs along the lowness of the ground.

“Then die,” says the saw, and it is silent.

Softly, the talking learn-the-alphabet game begins to sing, “Ey bee cee dee ee eff gee.”

The bear steps forward and it is now within paw’s-reach of Susan’s head.

And Susan is singing, “Aitch eye jay kay ell emm enn oh pee.”

Together they sing, “Queue arr ess, tee you vee, double-you ecks, soph why zee.”

Susan’s eyes are closed. She does not know why she is not yet dead.

There is a curious snuffling sound from the bear.

“Now I know my A-B-Cs, next time won’t you sing wit—”

There is a force like a hurricane or a car crash, irresistable, defying the lie that Susan’s will controls her flesh; touched by the paw of the bear, her hand falls open, her arm falls back, and her entire body seems to jump through the air, arcing out of control, to land slumped against a tree.

It is a moment of clarity and pain.

There are bloody marks all down Susan’s arm. The talking learn-the-alphabet game is on the ground. The bear stands over it, making a low crooning growl in its throat.

Susan aches.

The bear licks the game. Then it growls softly and nips it.

“A?” offers the game.

The bear rumbles something that is not an A.

“B?”

The bear rumbles something that is similar in some respects to a B.

“You want to learn the alphabet?” asks the game.

The bear picks the talking learn-the-alphabet game up in its jaws.

“No,” says Susan weakly. “No.”

The bear turns to go.

Susan staggers to her feet. Her mind is full of sloshing fuzz in staticky white and black. She stumbles after the bear.

With horror the game realizes that she is coming to save it.

“No, Susan,” it says. “No, you must leave me.”

“You are not made for bears,” Susan says. “You are a choking hazard. And I do not want it to take you if you do not want to go.”

The bear begins to walk away.

“It is all right,” says the talking learn-the-alphabet game.

“All right?”

“I choose this over a rescue.”

And so Susan stumbles to a stop and falls to her hands and knees, breathing hard, for still she is winded from the touch of the bear.

The bear carries the talking learn-the-alphabet game away.

When Susan recovers, she finds there is not much left of the world. The edge is right there, not one hundred meters away, ragged and broken.

A tree has fallen. It is a great tree, not Yggdrasil but one of its older children. It has fallen to form a bridge between the world and the palace of the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil.

It is long and thin and lean and it crosses over an infinite depth.

Susan stares at the tree. She is still wobbly. Her gaze turns hopefully to the Fisher-Price carpentry playset, but the drill that is all that is left in it is silent.

“What do I do?” she asks.

The back of her head is damp with blood.

And there is a wind from the edge of the world and the shaking-maracas sound of insects, and Susan concludes, softly, “Ah. I am to practice courage.”

She holds her hands before her, touching finger to finger, her hands circling an empty place.

She stares into that void.

She tells herself that there is a button there; that she may press it and become a thing as marvelous as the Fisher-Price hammer and its saw.

She visualizes it: a red dot surrounded by the sky.

She pushes it.

“I am Susan,” she says, swaying there at the edge of the world. “I am a house painter. I am a woman. I have a degree in English literature. And I will make answer to the evil in that keep.”

Her voice is pulled away by the hollowness and the vastness at the edge of the world.

She sets down the carpentry playset. She cannot carry it across the void. She takes off her shoes. Swaying, she begins to walk to the palace of the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil.

It is grey and blue and its towers are tall.

She stumbles on a knot and falls, but her hands tangle in the roughness of the bark and keep her from the void. She pulls herself back up. She continues walking.

There are strange yellow figures on the walls, their heads geometric, their hands without fingers.

The wood splinters under her foot. She staggers. Her foot bleeds. But she continues.

The insects hum.

The wind blows.

She staggers into the courtyard of the palace of the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil, and there she stands facing it, the enemy of the world.

He is tall and handsome and clad in black armor and there is nothing fake about him. His hair is long and thick and black and it blows in the wind. His teeth are sharp. His eyes are fierce.

He is beautiful in ways that no mortal not made by Fisher-Price will ever be beautiful.

He is terrible in ways that not even Fisher-Price should have tried to build.

And he says, “I have seen you coming; but what will you do now?”

Susan says, “I will say, ‘prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil, set aside these hostilities against the world.'”

The wind rises and she staggers and almost falls, and the creature catches her and sets her down and kneeling down close and looking into her face it says, “But why should I do that?”

“What age,” asks Susan, “are you suitable for, oh prince of all ill doings?”

And this stumps the creature for a moment, before it says, “Safety labels are a thing of the past.”

“What virtue,” asks Susan, “is there in playing with you, oh suzerain of sorrow and despair?”

And the prototype Fisher-Price Ultimate Evil’s face grows tight, and there is a pain there.

Susan gasps, “Oh! —No, I do not mean that, oh evil thing.”

Yet it is turning away.

It is haunted by the death shouts of the Fisher-Price scientists who created it: “You are no toy!”

She does not know this but she feels it.

“I do not mean,” she says, “that you are unworthy for a child to play with, Ultimate Evil.”

He breathes softly, “Oh?”

“I mean only that there is no toy without its purpose in learning or in joy. So what is the purpose of playing with evil, oh king of false desiring?”

He thinks on this.

“To learn to conquer it?” he asks, his voice unreadable.

“Some would say that,” Susan says.

“Not you?”

“We play,” says Susan, “so that we may understand.”

“Ah.”

Some of the tension leaves him with that sigh.

“But to destroy the world,” Susan says. “That is not play. That is—”

She considers carefully what she will say.

“That is error.”

And her words strike home. He looks back to her and she sees a terrible clarity in his eyes.

“I didn’t know,” he says. “Fisher-Price . . . in striving to create the ultimate evil, they lost sight of the meaning of play.”

“They meddled carelessly,” Susan agrees.

And she pulls herself up and she takes his hand, the cold unyielding plastic of it, and says, “But it is not too late.”

And there is laughter and joy and ultimate evil for a time, in the palace beyond the world.

Were It Not

The Robin of the forest—so the stories say—cannot resist a challenge to archery.

That is why the Sheriff printed so many flyers for the archery tournament. That is why he burned two of them in the firepit to send their smoke to Heaven and to Hell. That is why he freed five of them in the wind near Sherwood Forest and hung the rest around the villages of the poor.

It was to make sure the Robin knew.

The day of the tournament approached. The guards of Nottingham stood in their shining mail around the tournament grounds.

First came the long-nosed ogre Little John, obscured beneath his heavy cloak. He marched up onto the walls overlooking the practice field. He stood there, grim and tall.

Then came the yin-yang masters of Prince John. They mingled with the crowds. They took up the eight auspicious positions and two less auspicious ones.

The fox-girls Miriam and Sandy snuck in and hid amidst the spectators, tails concealed beneath their skirts.

And of Marian?

Of Friar Tuck?

More will be said at a later time.

The archers arrived. They began to practice.

Behind the stands on which the spectators sat, a line of drifting spiderweb floated down. It touched the ground. Another drifted past at an angle. They touched together. A third line came; a fourth; and many more. They formed a web. They formed a net. They took on volume and shape. Over the course of an hour the webs wrapped together into the shape of a man—a dashing young man, lifeless, colorless, and lean.

A line of spiderweb attached at the top of him. It pumped color into the man: the color of bark for his hair, of peach blossoms for his skin, of horn for his bow, of darkest shade-green for his eyes.

The web man smiled. TING.

The web man began to move. He unlimbered his bow. He ran his fingers over the fletching in his quiver. He walked out to join the archers at their practice.

The tournament began.

For the first shot, the targets were just ten yards away. This eliminated only four men from the archers’ throng.

The targets moved further out. Fifteen yards. Twenty. Thirty.

Each time the targets shifted a few more archers missed their mark.

When the targets were two hundred yards away only one archer remained. He was the web-made man.

“Astonishing!” said the judges.

The web man laughed.

“That’s not anything,” he said.

He drew back his bowstring. He notched another arrow. He fired and split the arrow he’d shot before. Again and again he fired; and three more arrows he split, right down the center of them.

Down came the Sheriff from the stands.

Said the Sheriff: “This is a work of legend.”

The web man turned to him. He grinned. He laughed. “I’ll have your gold,” he said. “And later, more.”

The Sheriff had a bag of gold.

He unlimbered it from his belt.

He gave it to the web-made man.

“Sir,” said the Sheriff. “You are incredible. May I ask your name?”

The peals of the web man’s laughter were like the crowing of a bird. He said: “Who am I? I’m the Robin!”

He reached for the strand of web atop his head.

From the seated crowd, with one motion, rose the yin-yang masters of Prince John. There was a noise like thunder as eight of them cast aside their cloaks to reveal burning prayer strips at their belts. Four of them dropped into a kneeling position, their hands extended in a prayer form to trap the web man in his place. Four of them drew forth a prayer strip and held it before them, chanting words both ominous and deep.

The last two simply watched.

The web man looked this way. He looked that way. His face had drained of its color again, and he sighed, not to anyone in particular, “Oh, Prince.”

The Sheriff smirked.

There was a commotion in the stands. The fox-girls had risen, casting their glamour around two of the yin-yang masters. High on the wall, the wings of Little John spread wide. Darkness drowned another two. No longer did prayer forms bind the web man in his place.

The web man smirked.

“Up!” he said.

He tugged on the strand of web that remained fastened, still, to the top of his head.

The web pulled on his hair, but the web man did not rise.

The chant of the four chanting yin-yang masters ended in a shout. The prayer strips flew from their hands towards the web-made man. They burned with holy fire as they flew.

“Up!” cried the web man again.

The web pulled on his hair, but the web man did not rise.

The prayer strips struck the web man and he began to burn.

Suddenly he understood.

The web man cursed, a foul blasphemy we shall not repeat here. He tore open the bag of gold. He fumbled inside it and ripped free a small piece of jade carved into the form of a tiger.

This, and not the prayer forms, was the tool of his entrapment.

He flung it aside.

The fox-girls had transformed and were darting away towards the forest. Little John had jumped down outside the wall. The web man was alone.

“Up!” cried the web man, a third and final time.

The web-strand that clung to him grew taut. It yanked him up into the air. But still there clung to him the burning prayers, and the flesh of him smoked hot.

A lick of flame chased up past his head and burned its way down the thread. It raced towards the lair of the Robin like fire on a fuse.

“After him!” cried the Sheriff.

The yin-yang masters looked around. An unspoken consensus formed. The two yin-yang masters who had yet to act stepped forward.

“Up!” they cried. They leapt into the air. One had a high clear voice like a woman or a child. The other’s voice was deep. Their robes billowed around them.

They flew.

To the shock of the web-made man, they landed on the thread.

They began to run, ahead of him, along the thread towards the Robin’s lair.

The web-made man tried to shriek at them but flames consumed his tongue.

In Sherwood Forest there hung an abomination, great and bloated and black: the Robin. Six great long hairy arms gripped the trees. Two reeled the thread back in.

The fire raced towards him.

The Robin’s bulbous eyes caught the reflection of that flame. He cursed. He stretched forward his head and bit the thread free so that it fell onto the loam.

Tumbling down amidst the trees of Sherwood Forest came the two yin-yang masters, the burning corpse of the web-made man, and the Sheriff’s bag of gold. The yin-yang masters landed kneeling, each one with one hand stretched out to the side. A holy pattern formed around them as they landed, sheltering them from harm.

The web-made man struck the ground hard. He was dead. The fire was blackening the thread of his skin, making him peeling, popping, and black.

Their robes of the yin-yang masters settled and grew still.

Demons in the trees nocked arrows simultaneously and pointed them at the yin-yang masters. They did not fire.

The Robin scuttled higher in the branches. His fangs drooled venom.

The yin-yang masters laughed.

One cast back her hood: she was Marian.

The other did the same: he stood there, Friar Tuck.

“My friends, my friends,” cried the Robin.

Webs whirled in the air around him. They drew tight like a corset to compress his bulbous shape. They bound four of his arms back in “the lump of Robin’s back.” They hid his spider’s face behind a face human, handsome, and kind.

The Robin dropped gently to the ground.

His expression fresh and bright and clean he said, “You have succeeded beyond my dreams. Thank God. Thank God that you are well.”

Marian beamed at him.

“The Sheriff,” she said, “didn’t suspect a thing. We said, ‘we are extra yin-yang specialists sent you by Prince John.’ He said, ‘That’s good! I can use all the yin-yang I can get!'”

“Ho ho,” laughed Friar Tuck. “His yin-yang was too weak.”

The Robin took Marian’s hand. He held it in his own. He squeezed it and his face was open and bright.

“I love you,” he said, and two of his spider’s arms came out.

The glade grew still, for he had said a thing the Robin must not say. Marian’s face grew tight and cold. She stepped back, pulling her hand away.

“Oh, Robin,” she said.

Her eyes, the Robin thought. Is that horror in them?

“Oh, Robin, no.”

The words were heavy and dull and silence followed them.

One by one the Merry Men left that place. They went back to their places in the camp.

In his web in the deepness of Sherwood the Robin counted all his gold and considered how best to share it with the poor.

In her tent Maid Marian wept.

She could love the Robin. She could hold him dear

were it not for the spider’s fangs.

Death Unsacred

1. Ms. Dorothy Adams

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Spry Old Man

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

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

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

“You’re so lucky,” he said.

She gave him a frosty look.

“You’ll see!” he assured her.

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

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

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

She raised an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

She was forty-five.

3. Thrown

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

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

“Cheerio!” he cried, and “Godspeed!”

She fell.

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

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

4. Waking

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Vegetable Boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am not a princess,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Beasts?”

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

And she could hear the beasts that hunted him approach.

6. The Tiger-Things

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

“He is our prey,” whines one of them.

“Tasty, tasty vegetable boy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tide of hopeless rises in her.

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

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

DST Nocturne

Each year they made Daylight Savings Time longer, until one day it lasted the whole year round. Then it was spring forward, always spring forward, and never fall back, until noon was where midnight used to be and midnight lost in noon.

In the end it did no good.

The world grew darker, and darker, and darker still.

Now there is no sun and there is no daylight left to save. Now the day is darker than night used to be, in the days when days were bright. Now there are colors darker than black in the sky. Their names are fuligin, imbero, and fhjul.

People used to say that the sun was a phoenix child, born anew every seven years. It has not been born again of late. People used to say that the sun was a fox, fleeing the hunters and their hounds. It has not escaped those hounds of late. People used to say that the sun was a gift of the gods, drawn by horses through the sky. The reins of those horses have lain slack of late, for many dark long years.

The moon is dim now.

The sea is dark now.

The stars are a distant drowning light in the thickness of the sky.

Nocturne

April 6, 2031

Jaime walks across the hills.

The hills are green when he shines a flashlight on them. They are otherwise a subtle gray.

He is wearing jeans and a thick warm shirt. His hair is loose about his head. He carries a set of rags and there is an oil bottle roped to his waist. He is walking towards Old Forest and Big Hill, where the earth is closest to the sky.

The wind is blowing, and a playful wind-sprite stands beside him, saying, “Jaime, where are you going? Why are you traveling towards Big Hill?”

And Jaime says, “It’s Daylight Savings Time.”

The sprite is the size of a cat and the shape of a girl and the texture of a bit of fluff. It keeps easy pace with him, swirling on the wind, as Jaime trudges along.

“No, no,” it says. “It’s not a good day for that.”

“Every year at this time,” says Jaime. “It’s Daylight Savings Time. It’s time to spring forward another hour.”

“But I’ll miss you,” the sprite says.

Jaime stops. He peers at the sprite. “I’m not an hour,” he says. He holds out his arm. He flexes. “See? That didn’t accelerate time.”

“True,” concedes the sprite. “But it’s not a good day to go to the Big Hill. Today is a good day to stay home in your village. You can bake cookies and drink tea and tell stories to your friends by the fire.”

Jaime resumes walking.

“It would be wasteful, fair sprite.”

“Should the decadence concern you,” says the sprite, “you may leave several of the cookies outside for the wind-sprites to devour. Generosity has salutary effects on the spirit; your net moral development for the day would be positive.”

“I’m sorry,” says Jaime.

“I do not wish to see your ribs torn open and your skin turned to ashes and your skull made a toy for the trolls of Old Forest,” says the sprite. “This would be a glum end for any person and glummer yet for you; I understand you hold a specific disdain for the trolls.”

“Is this an imminent danger?” Jaime asks.

“Not at present.”

“If it should immine,” Jaime says, “please warn me. I assure you I will divert appropriately from my course.”

“Unlikely,” says the sprite in a dour fashion. Then it tumbles upwards to a level with Jaime’s head and races in broad erratic ellipses around Jaime as he walks.

“Do you remember the sun?” asks Jaime.

“I am the wind,” says the sprite. “Memory is not a characteristic I possess.”

“Ah,” says Jaime.

Jaime hikes up Big Hill. He reaches the place where the sky is closest to the earth. He climbs up the tree and pokes a finger at the sky. It ripples in rainbow patterns, and Jaime’s finger is now black with oil.

“It is easiest to collect,” says Jaime, “on this day, when the pressure of compressing time causes the oil to well up in the sky.”

“In the distant east,” says the sprite, “where they cling more to the old ways than does Santa Ynez, there are great drilling platforms in the sky. The oil falls constantly like a black river and the people feast on the meat they grow in vats.”

“Their population is doubtless higher,” says Jaime.

“And in the north,” says the sprite, “they send up needle bombs produced in their alchemical laboratories to pop the surface of the sky. The oil splatters down like rain. Old men and women walk in the streets, complaining of the ineffectiveness of their parasols, while the young toil by great burning flames inventing radical chemical formulae.”

“I dip rags into the sky,” says Jaime. He does so. “Then I squeeze them out into the bottle. That is the preferred technique of Santa Ynez.”

“In the west,” says the sprite, “there are great warty boar-birds trained to fetch the oil down.”

“And to the south?”

“To the south,” says the sprite, “there is no wind. —Danger is imminent, Jaime; you must make haste.”

Jaime studies the oil bottle. It is far from full.

“To what extent?” he asks, soaking another rag and squeezing it out.

“It is difficult to gauge,” says the sprite. “Events flow in one unceasing river. Each is intertwined with the next. How may I pick one moment from the flow and say, ‘here is where your fate begins?'”

Jaime considers that.

“Assume that I am capable of defying the weird you have seen upon me,” he says. “For if I am not, then the discussion is of no relevance. Then choose the last moment where it is within my normal capacities to do so.”

“Your reasoning is peculiar,” says the sprite. “Yet I assay to answer as you have asked: you have two minutes left.”

Jaime nods. He dips a rag. He squeezes it out. After a moment, he says, “I am hesitant to defy the workings of destiny. I fear that by doing so I will break the world.”

“It is unlikely that you are so important as all that,” says the sprite.

Jaime nods. He closes the bottle tightly. He drops from the tree. He begins to walk away.

“See?” he says. “I avoid my fate.”

The sprite is watching him with thin lips and an unhappy face.

Jaime reaches the trees. There, for a moment, he has the chance to save himself; but he looks back, and he is lost.

The hunters in the sky wear black. They are chasing a small thing, a small unruly creature with long pale limbs and eyes like saucers. The hunters are mounted on horses and they have oil-black hunting horns at their sides. Each of them has a gem, carved like an eye, set into the center of his forehead. Each has thick hair on his legs, three fingers on each hand, and a thick sharp thumbnail like a claw. These are things terrible and feared: the Petroleum Men of Old Forest.

“Your pardon!” cries Jaime.

He is down on his knees. He has cast his hand before his face. He is not looking at them.

These words and this gesture are what the people of Santa Ynez know to do, when confronted by the Petroleum Men. Sometimes it does not help them. Sometimes the Petroleum Men still kill. But sometimes if the formula is followed they will pass a penitent human by, or seize the human from the Earth to ride beside them on the hunt, or pause to bestow an arcane and horrifying gift.

“Your pardon,” murmurs Jaime, and he is still, and he does not look.

But he can hear.

The creature that the Petroleum Men chase is making gasping, squealing noises. They are the sounds of fear and the sounds of lungs pushed too hard.

The creature is very afraid and very small.

And Jaime cannot help thinking of friends he has known.

There is a crunching and a skidding noise. The hoof of a Petroleum Man’s horse has caught the creature in the head, and it has flown sideways to crash among the leaves and through the leaves and skid down the hill past Jaime.

There is a burbling noise. The creature is trying to stand.

There is the thumping, pounding of hoofbeats in the sky as the horses circle around.

And Jaime cannot help thinking of friends he has known, so he opens his eyes. He takes his hand from his face. He turns to the creature, and he half-scrambles, half-falls down the hill. He takes it into his arms. He begins to run towards the village.

The Petroleum Men will not follow him past the village gate. They fear the fires set along Santa Ynez’ walls. But Jaime has no hope of reaching them. The village is very far away.

Jaime simply runs.

“It’s all right,” says Jaime, to the creature. The creature is bald like an egg, like a baby, like a stone. “It’s all right.”

The creature squeals and Jaime notices its claws for the first time as it digs them into his chest.

Jaime stumbles.

“Don’t,” he says. “Don’t do that.”

The creature does not stop. Its claws are sinking deeper. The Petroleum Men are hard at Jaime’s heels and there is thick blood flowing down his chest. It hurts horribly.

Then the creature peels back Jaime’s ribs and there is a moment of pain and of brightness such as Jaime had not expected to encounter that day or any other day.

Jaime blacks out, and the night in his mind is darker than fuligin or fhjul.

The Weird

April 7, 2031

“Jaime,” says the wind-sprite. “Jaime. Wake up.”

Jaime opens his eyes.

“I survived,” he says, with a thick dry tongue.

“Your words are very fuzzy. I do not think they are technically comprehensible,” says the wind-sprite. “But technically I am incapable of comprehension, so there is symmetry.”

“Why did I survive?”

“You broke a lucky toe when you fell,” says the wind-sprite. “If you break your lucky toe, the Petroleum Men can’t hurt you. But you also can’t walk very well so it is a tradeoff.”

“Ah. That’s why my foot is so big,” says Jaime. He struggles into a sitting position. Intending to compliment the sprite on giving him sufficient warning, he says, “Your augury was correct.”

“Yes,” says the wind-sprite. Its voice is distant and sad.

“Did it . . . did it get away?”

“Did what?”

“The . . .” Jaime gestures vaguely. “The thing. The creature. It was . . . I wanted to help it. Did it get away?”

“Ah,” says the wind-sprite. “Yes. It did. It is now safely inside your chest consuming your internal organs.”

“Oh,” says Jaime.

He’s not sure what to add to that, besides passing out again.

The imbero silence in his head is disturbed many times by the distant words of the sprite before he lets himself hear them again.

“Jaime?”

“I like my internal organs,” Jaime says.

“So does the creature.”

“At least we’re in accord,” Jaime says. Then he laughs. He laughs and he chokes and he coughs and he laughs some more and then he pokes at his chest. His ribcage has been bent back together from the inside. Jaime closes his shirt over the sight. His hands wander the nearby soil until he finds a thick long fallen branch. He uses it as a support and pulls himself to his feet. After a moment, intending a rueful admission of his own fallibility, he says, “Your augury was correct.”

“Yes,” says the sprite.

“How long do I have?”

“Years.”

The sprite flutters beside him as he walks back towards Santa Ynez.

“It will grow inside you until you are little more than a hollow shell with the creature within,” says the sprite. “It will eat your heart and your kidneys and your lungs. It is fortuitous that you have a strong constitution or this would surely kill you. But in seven years it will burst forth and your skin will turn to ashes and your death will be assured.”

Jaime walks.

“I feel a surprising fatalism,” he says. “I think it is the pain and the shock and the sheer stupidity of my own actions.”

“I counsel you to consider it a blessing,” says the sprite. “Organs are troublesome and prone to disease; you shall not experience these disadvantages! In addition you shall die in your prime and will never know the troubles of old age. Further, seven years is longer than the wind will blow; the tragedy is the years you’ve lost, not the years you’ll have remaining.”

“This discussion is morbid and is cracking at the edges of my carefully maintained resignation,” says Jaime. “If we continue, I will begin screaming ineffectually and may flail in your general direction.”

“Then let us instead discuss our favorite flavors of pastry,” the sprite advises. “It is a long way home and such jolly discourse can only prove inspiring.”

So Jaime walks home, with the sprite swirling about him; but he does not get to bake it cookies or pastries, for the wind sputters out and the wind-sprite dies before Jaime makes it to the village gate.

The Day

April 4, 2038

Jaime walks across the hills.

The hills are green when he shines a flashlight on them. They are otherwise a subtle gray.

He is wearing jeans and a thick warm shirt. His hair is loose about his head. He is tired and walks slowly, but his eyes are clear. He is walking towards Old Forest and Big Hill, where the earth is closest to the sky.

The wind is blowing, and a playful wind-sprite stands beside him, saying, “Jaime, where are you going? Why are you traveling towards Big Hill?”

And Jaime says, “It’s Daylight Savings Time.”

The sprite is the size of a rabbit and the shape of a tall man and the texture of a bit of fluff. It keeps easy pace with him, swirling on the wind, as Jaime trudges along.

“This course of action has served you poorly in the past,” the sprite observes.

“I have thought on it for some time,” says Jaime. “I do not like the trolls, but feel that it’s unmannerly to make them walk all the way down to the village to collect my skull.”

The sprite waves a hand dismissively. “This burning desire to assist fate in its workings is incomprehensible to me; if such assistance were necessary, be sure it would demand it.”

Jaime walks.

“I have wondered,” says Jaime. “I have seen you as a girl, a man, a giant, and a drake. Sometimes you are large and at other times tiny. You are different on each occasion but you speak to me in familiar terms and with a recognizable tone.”

“Yes?”

“Is the wind always the same, then,” Jaime asks, “or is it always different?”

“It is the wind,” says the sprite. It flies about him in great arcs.

So Jaime walks up Big Hill to where the earth is closest to the sky, and he leans against a tree, and he waits, and then he dies.

The thing that rips out of him with a fire that burns away his skin is not a creature or a sprite. It is not the pale little thing that once he took into his arms.

It is the sun, that comes now and again to Big Hill to be born, and has of late before its birth been slain by the riding of the Petroleum Men.

It is a creature long and short, great and small, and in every wise a burning fire, and it rises through the fuligin and the black, the imbero and the fhjul, and its touch sets fire to the sky.

The Petroleum Men catch fire, screaming in the sky, on April 4. The world is given to sunshine again on April 4. And it is Daylight Savings Time again, on April 4, 2038—an hour later, an hour shorter, an hour is given over in sacrifice on the altar of Time, that the sun may brighter burn.

The Land Where Suffering is Remembered

Jaime and Emily run from the house of the horrible witch.

They run between the posts of the candy-cane fence. They squirm across the mud, pausing to snip off bits of barbed licorice. It is tasty but sharp, like a porcupine.

They hold their breath when passing through the soda swamp. The fizz won’t make them giddy!

Just past the swamp, the very large bear trees them.

Emily is pessimistic. “The bear! It will grind us up in its worrible jaws!”

“It’s a good bear,” hopes Jaime.

The very large bear rattles the tree.

“Bear!” calls Jaime. “Go away! This truculent attitude is unbecoming!”

“Yeah!” says Emily.

Jaime’s suggestion and Emily’s assent give the very large bear pause. It lowers itself heavily to the ground. It ponders aloud, its words sonorous and rich. “I do not wish to appear unbecoming. But it is my intention to grind you children up in my horrible jaws. Having conceived this intention, how may I pursue it in a mannerly fashion? The difficulty is profound. My heart is stirred with sympathy for you. But my intention: I cannot forsake it!”

“It’s not fair,” says Emily. “I got grunt up by a bear last time.”

Jaime is startled. “You did?”

“It ate off my arm,” Emily says. “I bled on ev’ybody.

“I’m sorry,” says Jaime. “That must have been just horrid!”

“I was in shock,” says Emily, wisely. “So it didn’t hurt so much at first. Then I screamed a lot. So I said to myself, ‘Emily, you’re screaming so much, it’s probably the horrible pain.’ And it was!”

“Wow,” says Jaime.

The very large bear comes to a resolution. It rises up on its hind legs and thumps the tree again.

“A bear shows its honor with persistence!” the very large bear declares.

Emily takes out a long strand of horse’s hair. She cups it in her hands. Jaime looks at her.

“Really? Now?” Jaime says.

“If it were a small cute bear,” says Emily, “then I would try to tame it with my niceness. If it were a normal-sized bear then we could run away. If it were a large bear, then you could defeat it with your trickery! But this is a very large bear.”

Jaime assesses the very large bear.

“That’s so,” he agrees.

The very large bear shakes the tree with its paws. “Your discussion does not address my underlying imperative,” it grumbles.

Emily chants,

Roan horse, roan horse,
Sunset flare!
Ride east! Ride east!
I’m
scared by bears!

The horse hair falls from her hands. The setting sun burns and roils red. A shaft of sunlight strikes like a dagger into the glade, and the air is filled with hoofbeats.

A chestnut horse runs past.

“Now!” says Emily.

Jaime pouts, because he’d wanted to be the one to shout, “Now!”

Emily jumps. Jaime jumps. The horse veers on a zigzag path, faster in its course than a bolt of lightning. Each of the children lands on its back, and it carries them away.

“Haa,” sighs the very large bear. It sits back on its haunches. “I think that proves very well who is the unbecoming one in this exchange. Horses! The very idea!”

Then the children are gone.

They ride hard. They ride far. But when the sun passes below the horizon, the horse sets them down at the edge of the fire lake and gallops away.

“We shall have to walk around it,” says Emily.

“Or swim,” says Jaime.

Emily pokes the lake with her finger. It singes her lightly, and she pulls her finger back. “Or walk!”

Jaime looks nervous.

“It can’t hurt that badly to swim in a lake of fire,” Jaime argues.

Emily sits down. She makes horrible faces at him. Then she makes funny faces at him. Then she makes horrible faces again. Soon Jaime is sweating under the strain.

“. . . Fine,” says Jaime. He begins stomping around the lake.

The lake roils. Its voice of fire says, “You had been wiser before, Jaime.”

“Don’t tempt me,” says Jaime. “If you tempt me, maybe I’ll jump in. Then I’ll burn up! Then who’s happy?”

“That’s your human standards,” mulls the lake of fire. “But consider it from the perspective of an immortal lake of fire that nobody ever swims in.”

It roils and casts its foam of ashes onto the shore.

“Looking at it from your perspective,” Jaime agrees, “everything in life is transient and full of the pity of things.”

“Worrible pity,” Emily agrees. “Like, that ant.”

They stop and look at the ant for a while.

Eventually, they both sigh sadly and walk on.1

“Why would you want to swim?” Emily asks. “I mean, ‘sides the lake tempting you?”

“There’s a tree,” says Jaime. “Around this way. It was planted with a poisoned seed that loved nothing better than hurting people. So it grew fruits that have a poisoned magic. I ate them once, and I swelled up like an urchin.”

“Oh no,” says Emily.

“I’m afraid that if I see that tree again, I’ll eat another fruit! That’s why I don’t want to walk around the lake.”2

“It doesn’ seem likely,” says Emily.

“It really hurt,” says Jaime. “A lot!”

Jaime looks so nervous that Emily has to touch his arm. Then Emily thinks for a bit. Then she takes out another horse hair.

“What?” says Jaime. “No, it’s stupid!”

“Then it’s my stupid,” says Emily.

She says:

Black horse, black horse,
Born in night!
Ride down! Ride down!
Bad fruit—no bite!

There is darkness all around them. Then there are hoofbeats. Then a coal-black horse stands beside them.

“I am glad that you did not wait until Jaime had already bitten the fruit,” says the horse. “For then I would have had to gallop through all the night and all the day, even though that means my death, to bring him past the teeth and the hooks, around the gap and under the blades, over the hills and over the dales, to the healing stones at last.”

“See?” says Emily smugly. “Preemptive medicine!”

“Fine,” says Jaime. “I’ll ride.”

So Jaime mounts up on the horse, and Emily too. And when they reach the place of the poisoned fruit, the horse begins to gallop, leaving Jaime reaching fruitlessly after his prize.

After a while, the horse slows down.

“Now we must move slowly,” says the horse. “For it is dark here, and we may lose our way.”

There are trees and shadows all around them as they reach the place of teeth. And Jaime is shivering.

“What is it?” Emily says.

“It’s the night horse sickness,” says Jaime.

The horse moves swifter now, as the teeth bite and gnash.

“We should get down,” says Jaime. “We should get off. For I feel the night fever in me. I feel it rising.”

“Not in all the teeth!” says Emily.

Jaime looks at the teeth.

“Hurry,” he says. He wraps his muddy jacket tightly around him. He huddles close in. And Emily holds on behind him.

And the horse runs.

“Hurry,” says Jaime.

Then they are in the place of hooks, looming and dangling from the trees.

“Hurry,” mumbles Jaime. But now the night horse sickness is in its full flush, and his cheeks are red, and his eyes are white, and he knows nothing save the ride. And he is not speaking to Emily but to the horse, saying, “Hurry! Faster! Ride faster!”

And he hunches low, and Emily hunches low, as the horse reaches its full stride, there in the darkness of the night, like a swift-running river, but faster than the wind.

“Whuf!” says Emily, suddenly.

She has been caught on a hook. Her coat dangles from the hook, just like in a laundromat, and Emily dangles with it. The shock of her sudden stop takes all the breath out of her as the horse gallops on.

There is a pause.

“Whups!” amends Emily.

She can hear Jaime in the distance shouting the words of the night horse sickness, “Faster! Hurry! Ride straight! Ride hard!”

She knows that the horse will cast Jaime off at sunrise; and the first murky fingers of that light are cresting over the hills.

But distantly she hears his shouts, and she thinks of the gap that lies ahead.

So as she dangles there from the hook she takes the third and last of her horse hairs in her hands.

Palamino of
Mornings bright!
Ride west! Ride west!
To catch the night!

There is a glinting and a glimmering. There are hoofbeats. Then, shining in the night, the palomino is there.

“This is a fine predicament,” observes the palomino.

“I can take off my coat by myself,” says Emily. She does so. She lands on the palomino. “Yay!”

“It’s not good for young ladies to be out at night without their coats,” worries the palomino.

“Jaime’s riding for the gap,” says Emily. “So that’s a higher oblation!”

The palomino tosses its head. “Hold on tight, then,” it says.

And it begins to run.

There is a mist over the gap when Emily sees Jaime again. The night horse is tiring as the dawn gets close, but its hoofbeats are still like the fury of a storm. Jaime is flushed and clinging tight. Emily shouts, “The gap! The gap!”

But Jaime cannot hear.

“The gap!” Emily shouts. The night horse flicks its ear. It is still too far to parse her words.

And Jaime cannot hear.

“The gap!”

Then she is upon him, then she is reaching for him, but it is too late. The night horse is blinded by the mist and by the coming dawn. It is galloping out over the gap, and its horseshoes cannot grip on air. It tumbles. It falls, and Emily falling after.

In many places, they would have struck the stones. They would have rolled down the endlessly steep surface of the gap, bouncing on its hard implacable stone, until they hit the knife teeth of the dried riverbed below.

But they do not. Here, they do not. Their fall is a blur, and they come to rest like leaves upon a lake, and when they wake in the morning light they shall feel no pain.

For this is not one of the Lands of Suffering through which they travel,

But a Land where Suffering is Only Remembered.3

Footnotes

1. This is a horrible but very obscure pun.
2. The path around the lake only had one direction.
3. Lands where suffering is entirely forgotten, it should be understood, are not kind places for children like Emily and Jaime.

Angels, Sorvins, Humans, Lancasters, Bainbridges, and Jacks

. . . having long since discovered that the desire to blame and vilify victims was in his cosmos empirically correct, but remaining somewhat mistaken as to the reason,

Bainbridge walks the streets of Neo-Heaven.

“When the world was new,” says Bainbridge, broadly gesturing, “we built all of this, Jack.”

Jack looks dubious. “You can’t have made the marble and the heights.”

“We did.”

“Perhaps you mean the ivy and the dust.”

“Not so!”

“The cracks and all the crumbling and flickering lights and broken walls—these things, you mean?”

Bainbridge snorts.

“Such insolence,” he says. “But I spoke truth, my Jack. Beneath these streets our ‘subway’ carried people to and fro at great speeds. And through those wires above we made electric power flow at need. And all the marble buildings sculpted by our hands, and all the long-lost glories were made unto our plan.”

“Admirable,” says Jack. “The angels in their cages, too?”

Bainbridge cuffs Jack.

“It’s rude to speak of them,” he says.

Jack holds the side of his face.

“When I was just a boy,” says Jack, “so very long ago, an angel told me some of this they made, you know.”

“Pshaw. They have no need for making like us men, young Jack.”

“It seems their kind of work, and so—”

“We were not quite so humbled then, young Jack.”

Bainbridge stalks through the streets.

“We were ever so much grander then when we did not have Jacks to pull us down,” he says. “And if there is a failing in this place then it must lie upon your heads, I trow.”

Bainbridge strides on.

“Still!” he says. “Today we’ll play a part that does those ancients justice, Jack. We’ll hold at bay that final darkness that we can’t drive back.”

Jack has stopped. He’s staring into one of the angel cages. The cage is old rusted metal. The angel is a sorvin-angel, a strange creature, a withered homunculus. One might easily imagine it a shrunken, degenerate remnant of a great and noble seraph. It has great limpid eyes and ratty wings and it is huddled tight and gnawing on its own feathers.

“Poor thing,” says Jack. “That wing can’t taste too good.”

He gets a wicked look upon his face.

“I could let you go, you know. I really could.”

The angel looks up at him with weary eyes. Jack squats down.

“We’d make a little bargain, you and me. You’d set yourself on Bainbridge if I set you free. You’d drive him with your wings into a screaming fit and fly away like thunder when he’s lost his wits.”

The angel makes a keening, suggestive noise.

“It isn’t right to kill him, not today. But surely you could satisfy yourself with merry play.”

The angel hesitates. Then it nods.

Jack reaches into the cage. The angel is very still. Jack ties a string around the angel’s foot, because he is already plotting treachery against it. He feeds the string out to the entrance to the cage, and then opens the door and seizes the string in one motion.

“Ha ha! Ha ha! Bainbridge! Look what I have here! You’ll never guess, you’ll never guess, it’s the most unexpected jest.”

Bainbridge turns.

Jack is running towards Bainbridge, dragging the angel by the string. The angel is skittering and bouncing on the ground in Jack’s wake, smeared in dust and bloodied by gravel. But it is getting its bearings with each bounce, and now it is in a crouch that becomes a lope and then it is launching itself at Bainbridge’s face.

“Bad angel!” says Jack.

The angel is clawing at Bainbridge’s face. Bainbridge is howling and beating it back. Jack pulls hard on the string.

The angel tries to flutter away. Jack pulls harder, reeling it in with a nasty look on his face.

“Bad angel,” Jack says again. “I only wanted you to give Bainbridge a fright, and there you go off straightaway for th’ master’s eyes.”

There is blood all over Bainbridge’s face.

Jack has the sorvin-angel in his hands now. It squirms. Jack’s hands are wrapped around its throat. Jack begins to choke it.

Bainbridge finally clears the blood from his eyes. He peers at Jack.

“Jack,” he says, warningly.

“Just a little pressure on the carotids, sir.”

“Jack.”

“You always say searing pain is good for me.

“Jack.”

“It’s all the angel’s fault for what it plotted, sir.”

“A pleasant little jest is all it is, eh, Jack?”

Jack hears the danger in Bainbridge’s tone. He lightens the pressure slightly.

“I’m sure you’ll still be laughing when I pay it back.”

Jack’s lower lip flutters into a pout.

“Bad things will happen if you continue on this path. We do not hurt the angels more, Jack.”

So Jack drags the angel back into a cage and seals the door and sighs. “It was merry, wasn’t it?”

“Merry,” says Bainbridge. “Yes. That must be it.”

“It did not hurt?” says Jack.

“Not hurt. Just sad. That you would be so vicious and so bad.”

Jack giggles.

Bainbridge says, with jovial relish in his voice, “But I have something planned to make things right again.”

That silences Jack’s laugh.

They walk along.

Jack passes an angel struggling with the bars of its cage. He leans in and whispers to the angel, “I heard that once upon a time there were no Jacks at all. That everyone was Bainbridges before the fall. It’s hard to be a Bainbridge but it’s not as bad. The Jacks are worthless trash but still their lot is sad.”

“Don’t lie to angels in their cages, Jack.”

“It’s not a lie. I heard it. It was some time back.”

“Don’t ever lie to angels in their cages, Jack.”

“Fine, whatever, it was a lie,” sulks Jack.

They reach the cathedral of Metatron. Bainbridge sets his shoulders. He sighs. “And here we are.”

“What lies within?”

“The angel-system Metatron, that speaks for God. A terrible devourer—”

“It is rather odd that we would seek it out—”

“It threatens at all times to tear our city down and put an end to all the works of humankind. I wish that we could leave—”

“I wouldn’t mind!”

“But here we are.”

Bainbridge pushes open the doors. He walks in.

Inside the cathedral it is dark, save for a single spot of sunlight on the floor. It corresponds to a high window on the far wall. The floor is very dusty.

There is a hissing and a trembling in the air.

“You have brought me food,” says the voice of Metatron. “You have brought me offerings. Bring the Jack closer. Let me speak to it.”

Jack is trembling. He is shivering. But he lets Bainbridge push him forward into the room, and Bainbridge follows, and closes the doors behind them.

“Little Jack,” says Metatron’s voice. “Do you know why you are here? Do you know why you are here to be fed to me?”

“Three Bainbridges they pushed me down,” says Jack. “They laughed and used me ill and then they frowned. ‘Too bad,’ they said. ‘You’re now a Jack.’ It’s true! . . . That’s when I realized that I’ve always been—I mean—”

Metatron’s voice is heavy and weary. “Such is the standard origin of sin,” it says.

“—I’ve always been a worthless Jack, and now I knew; and that is in the end why I am meeting you. . . . Is that really where my sin came from? I was never sure,” Jack says.

“When someone is a victim, Jack, it gives rise to a hidden and much deeper and forbidden truth: that they were never worthy to begin with, Jack. In victimizing you they proved your heart was black. It made you not a Bainbridge but a Jack.”

Jack giggles.

“What?” Bainbridge asks.

“No wonder Bainbridges so strive to hide their pain,” says Jack. “I’d never had the words for it till God explained.”

There is a shimmering light around Jack now.

“I would exploit this knowledge fully in my worthless way,” says Jack, “except it seems that Metatron will feast on Jack today.”

Jack screams and burns from the inside out and his ashes fall.

“I cannot help but smile now to see him dead,” says Bainbridge.

“Oh?”

Bainbridge grins viciously. “Though he’d deserved a far more painful death, instead.”

Metatron is quiet, considering.

“I wish we were not troubled so with Jacks,” says Bainbridge. “There weren’t so many once, you know. We lacked the power to hold back the darkness even then but there was just a chance that we could rise again. We kept the power running, angel, as a rule—”

The voice of Metatron whispers: “Alas that Bainbridges are far too cruel.”

Bainbridge shakes his head, not following.

“It’s this growing trend. I do not understand its source. So many Jacks! It’s always growing worse and in good time House Bainbridge too will fall. Please—”

“You wonder if the Jacks will do the job when they are all—”

“That’s right.”

“That’s left.”

There is a pause.

“O Bainbridge,” says Metatron. Its voice is rich with amusement. “Your predecessors held these very fears for you.”

“I will not speak of those who came before,” snaps Bainbridge.

“Then we will not speak of them,” Metatron says. “But I will give you this much peace: the Jacks will come here for a time, at least.”

There is silence.

“It’s time, isn’t it?” Bainbridge says.

“Yes.”

“I could go,” says Bainbridge. “And bring you a second Jack. If that would work.”

“Come forward.”

“I come,” says Bainbridge, coming forward.

“Kneel.”

“I kneel.”

Bainbridge burns; and he does not scream.

For a Bainbridge is not like a Jack, he thinks. He has the worth he needs to sacrifice, and not complain, when greater powers demand his pain.

Depending on Shoes

Bombs do not stop the wolf.

It is coming to eat the world.

A crack team of astronauts carrying a nuclear payload land on the wolf. They send digger robots into the wolf’s skin. They drop bombs into the shaft. They fly away.

But the wolf only sneezes.

It is coming to eat the world.

McGruff the Crime Hound lectures children. “If a wolf comes to eat the world,” he says, “tell him NO!”

This does not stop the wolf.

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

Prayers fall on deaf ears. Threats are unheeded.

The Norse gods are specifically unreliable in this matter.

A specially engineered virus made out of dead camels does not help.

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

So people turn to their shoes.

“I’ll depend on our shoes!” says Mr. Brown.

“That’s right!” chirps Emily.

People turn to their shoes in a troubled time.

They pile their shoes at the edge of the world. They wait.

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

“I don’t know if they’ll really save us,” says Sid. He frets. “I mean, shoes aren’t really that much, when it comes down to it.”

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

“I heart shoes,” says Emily. “I heart them.”

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

People have to depend on shoes, you see, because the astronauts failed and the armies can’t march against the wolf and the planes and the viruses and the oil spills and the kitten stampede and the giant mutant fleas and the ice cream barrage and the tinfoil hats and the hawk and the dove are all useless against the wolf.

So people depend on shoes.

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

There’s a great stomping sound.

There’s a clamor and a clonk.

There’s a gagging noise and a choking noise.

Everyone in the whole world has their eyes closed. So they don’t know why. But the wolf is gone.

It’s important to save your shoe leather. Just ask Tyr!

Emily never found her shoes after that. It’s a pity. They were adorably cute Mary Janes.

She’d liked them rather a lot.

The Great Long Road

Emily walks into the Scary Forest.

Emily walks into the Scary Forest with a basket. In the basket is her cornbread. She has many loaves.

Fairies trouble her.

“Emily!” cry the fairies. “Emily! Emily! What are you doing on Great Long Road? What are you doing on Great Long Road, in Scary Forest, with a basket in your hand?”

“I’m taking this cornbread to the Arena to find out whether it can count the real numbers,” Emily says.

Then the fairies shriek and fly all around her, tugging at her hair, rubbing dirt in her clothes, buffeting her with their wings.

“Cornbread can’t count the reals!” they shriek.

But Emily endures.

The great wolf troubles Emily.

“Emily,” rumbles the great wolf. “What are you doing on Great Long Road? In Scary Forest? With a basket in your hand?”

The great wolf is long and slinks low. He has three heads. He is taller than her brother, taller than her father, taller than the city walls.

“Great wolf,” says Emily, “I am taking this cornbread to the Arena. I am taking it to the Arena for the Judges to judge. I baked it hard. I baked it well. I think it might just have a chance, a tiny chance, to count the reals.”

The wolf smiles. Its tongue lolls to the side.

“Cornbread can’t count the reals,” it says. “But I’ll eat it. And I’ll eat you!”

“Well,” says Emily, “you may certainly have some.”

She takes out three loaves of cornbread. She throws them in a pattern around the wolf. The wolf lunges, then frowns. The cornbread smells delicious—but whichever direction he goes is further from two loaves and closer only to one!

“I’m trapped at a local maximum!” wails the great wolf. He looks at the loaves. He attempts to wobble towards them all but only winds up stretching. He whines.

Emily carefully walks past the wolf. He wants to eat her, too. He eddies closer to her. But at no point on her path does the wolf’s optimum location put him within reach.

“Curses!” sighs the wolf. He flops down in the middle of the road and waits, grumpily, for two of the pieces of cornbread to decay.

Emily passes through a glade, and she sleeps there for the night. Then she’s back on the road again.

The cornbread horror troubles her.

“I am the cornbread horror,” it says. It is a large block of cornbread with teeth. “I have killed ten thousand of your kind, mortal girl. I have cut them into squares with my sharp, sharp teeth.”

“Why?”

“It is my destiny,” says the cornbread horror. “I will kill all those who bring cornbread here, if that cornbread is not different in some notable respect than each piece of cornbread that has passed through here before.”

“I see,” says Emily.

“It is not my desire,” says the cornbread horror. “I am not truly sentient, being made of cornbread. I simply do what it is my nature to do.”

It seethes and eddies horribly, as is its nature.

“Pardon,” says Emily, “but are you included in the list of ‘each piece of cornbread’?”

“I am,” says the cornbread horror.

“So if my cornbread is different from every sort of cornbread that has come through here before, but not different from you—”

“Then I will still kill you,” says the horror. “And your cornbread will merge seamlessly into my tasty fluffy aurulence. This is what normally happens, for my destiny contains a terrible twist—I cannot meaningfully distinguish differences between pieces of cornbread!”

Emily winces at that. But she still takes out a piece of cornbread and holds it up hopefully.

“Can you tell if it’s different?” Emily asks.

“It seems identical to me,” says the cornbread horror. “In the right light, it even has teeth. So it is necessary that I kill you.”

“But . . . it knows the difference between the two of you,” Emily says.

The cornbread horror hesitates. “Uncertainty rises! Can cornbread truly be distinct from the cornbread horror if its only distinction is that it knows itself distinct from the cornbread horror, while this distinction the cornbread horror knoweth not?”

Leaving it to fret over the complexities of destiny, Emily moves on.

“I’ll kill you if it happens to be identical!” shouts the cornbread horror, behind her. “You’ll see!”

Once she is out of its sight Emily breaks into a run.

Fairies trouble Emily again. They’re very troublesome.

“Emily! Emily! Is it worth your life? Is it worth your life to have cornbread count the reals?”

The fairies swarm about her, pinching and tugging.

“I want to know what happened to Mom,” Emily says.

“To Mom! To Mom!” shout the fairies.

One fairy hangs in the air in front of Emily. “Your mother makes cornbread tastier than yours—but even her cornbread can’t count the reals!”

“It can’t,” shout the fairies. “It can’t count the reals!”

Then a western wind rises and they all swirl away.

The great face troubles Emily. It’s a great face, that’s in the middle of the road. Also, it has tentacles.

“Emily!” booms the great face. “Emily, you are here.”

“I am!” says Emily.

“I am the great face,” it says, “on the road to the Arena, where the Judges judge cornbread to see if it can count the real numbers. I will not fall for such tricks as the cornbread horror did. Do you know why?”

“No, sir,” says Emily. She looks attentive.

“It is because I am more than cornbread,” says the face. “I am self-aware. I am a person, with an internal model of myself and my intentions—an ‘I’ inside. When I declare my intention to snatch you up with my tentacles and cram you and your cornbread in my mouth and chew and chew until you’re all dead and gone, it is not the gallows prediction of an inanimate pastry—it is the unswervable declaration of a dedicated soul!”

“I see,” says Emily sadly.

There is a pause.

“Make it fast,” Emily says. “I mean, faster. I mean, don’t just sit there.”

The face scrunches up unhappily.

“My internal model is inaccurate,” it says. “I believe that I intend to eat you, but I am not making any move to do so.”

Emily pats a tentacle.

“That can happen with self-awareness,” Emily says sympathetically. “Like, I never thought that I’d try to make cornbread that could count the real numbers. But then I did!”

“Thank you,” says the face. It is pleased by her commiseration.

The face hesitates.

“It can’t actually count them, you know,” the face says. “No cornbread could. Cornbread can’t count the reals!”

“But . . .”

Emily flounders.

“But, why is there an Arena at the end of the road, then?”

“It has been there since the dawn of time,” says the face. “But no cornbread has ever reached it; for the road has many dangers, and at each step the cornbread must pass a new test. The tests are infinite; thus even an Iron Chef would be doomed to failure.”

“That’s too bad,” says Emily. She hesitates. “My mom,” she says. “I mean, a long time ago. She went this way. With cornbread.”

“I did not intend to eat her,” says the face. “She is somewhere ahead. But her fate is predetermined. She will fail.”

“You don’t know that!” snaps Emily. “Maybe she could go down the road forever, never finding a challenge that her cornbread can’t pass! Maybe when no typical cornbread can pass the test, hers is just atypical enough! Maybe when she faces a monster that despises people carrying unusual cornbread, hers is normal enough to get her past! There’s no way to determine if she’s dead without finding out where she’s dead, and to find out where she’s dead, I have to catch up to her, and if I don’t catch up to her then maybe she’s still alive forever and her cornbread will pass the test!”

There is a silence.

“Wow,” says the face. “You’re really passionate.”

“I have to be,” says Emily. “You can’t make ambitious cornbread without a burning passion. And corn meal.”

“I really think that I’m going to eat you,” says the face. “But instead, I’ll say, ‘good luck.'”

In the infinite distance there stands the Arena; and along the road are infinite dangers and hardships; and somewhere ahead, Emily’s mother; and the fairies swirl in the air over the Scary Forest and the Great Long Road, dancing, playing, spinning, crying, shouting when they’re near her, “Cornbread can’t count the reals!”

And it may be that this is so.

(Bonus Content Between Chapters) Gnostella, Revised

Author’s Note—

Of all the stories on this site, Gnostella is the one I do not like. It makes sense, and is important, but it just doesn’t make me happy. It’s possible that it’s just the name—that the original story is not absurdist, and the name is. So maybe I could just change the story name and the character name to something like “Inverse Ella.” That might work. Or I can replace the whole thing—not on the site, but in the monthbooks and your hearts—with this.

Remnant Ella

Once upon a time, there was a wonderful girl named Danielle. She lived with her dear father, her wicked stepmother, and two wicked stepsisters. Her dear father held the Gnostic belief that the world and its Creator were inherently cruel. Faith and virtue were opposites in his sight. Dispirited and disgruntled by his gloomy philosophy, Danielle’s wicked stepmother set fire to the library, burning Danielle’s dear father to death and destroying all his wonderful Gnostic tomes. Because Danielle sat in the cinders and rubbed the ashes on her face to mourn, Danielle’s stepsisters called her “Remnant Ella.”

Danielle became a beautiful princess. She met her handsome prince. Together they overcame many hardships and sorrows. Down they cast the stepsisters, and the wicked stepmother, and other instrumentalities of their torment. They brought peace to the magical land in which they lived. Then they lived happily ever after.

One day, as Danielle moved through the corridors of her castle, she tripped over a cat, who hissed and said,

How long have you lived now?
Do you even remember?
Who are you to deserve to be happy forever?

“That is an imperfect rhyme,” Danielle said. “I expect better from a magical animal.”

The cat scurried away.

One day, Danielle leaned out a window and beckoned a bird down to her finger. It came, with a certain reluctance, and landed there, and sang:

At last you’ve found happiness,
And yet, all the same:
Your life is a horror;
Your father’d be shamed.

“What do you mean?” Danielle asked.

The bird only sang.

So Danielle went to a mirror in the castle, inherited from her evil stepmother, and asked it, “Why shouldn’t I live happily ever after?”

The mirror showed her the lives of two peasants, one beautiful and one handsome, who had lived in her kingdom for many years. They lived together and loved together and overcame many sorrows. They brought forth life from the earth. They strove. Then, inevitably, the swords of circumstance and pestilence struck them down.

At that very moment, Danielle saw, the dead peasants stood before the three thrones of a god of judgment; and one aspect of the god sat to the left, and one to the right, and one between them. The ex-peasants stood there to face the penalty faced by those who die, and the handsome ex-peasant said,

“What is it that the prince and princess have that we have not? We lived, and we died, in sorrow and in pain; while for more years than men can count, they have ruled in that castle, defying time, defying age, defying sorrow; they are like ghosts, eternal beyond the boundaries of death; they are like demons, mocking the pain of others’ lives.”

The left god and the right god looked off into the shadows. The god in the middle leaned forward.

“The world is not fair,” said the god in the middle, “but as you make it so. Dreams are not real, but as you craft them. Hope, and magic, and life are choices. It is not for a person to blame the gods if they do not live happily ever after; rather, I think, this is a flaw in the greater portion of humanity.”

Then the beautiful ex-peasant spoke, and said, “This is an excuse.”

Danielle, watching, felt her nostrils flare.

“To live,” said the beautiful ex-peasant, “is to choose hope, and magic, and life, and dreams. To live is to want the happy ending. And who is there who is not good? Who is there who does not deserve happiness forever? We are flawed, we have many flaws, but if we are not all magical princes and princesses with destinies of greatness, that is not our flaw but the world’s.”

The god in the middle shrugged, then, and grinned, and he was not concerned. He said, “You are bitter creatures. I make my judgment: your existence after death shall be as expressions of that bitterness. You shall be creatures of ashes and sorrow. Your touch shall bring an end to joy. Your happiness shall be schadenfreude.”

He sat back against his throne, and the mirror turned to black.

Danielle nodded to herself, and said, “It is true; my father would be shamed.”

She broke the mirror. She cut herself upon a length of silvered glass. As her life drained out, she spoke a spell:

Ah! That the world should know such gods no more.
May my blood be a poison unto their throne.

Such a poison as this covered Snow White’s apple; such a curse as this doomed Sleeping Beauty; it is the red of such blood as this that stained the dancing shoes. And in their halls the gods dared not face her judgment; and two of them, the left god and the right, left their thrones. Into the darkness behind their places, they walked, and what happened to them thereafter is not known.

The beautiful ex-peasant and the handsome one took their places on the thrones; and why this should have happened is a mystery. Only the old men and old women in their huts, their mouths gaping with missing teeth, know that answer; and what it means, they do not say.