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

1. Coffee

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

Our coffee’s not like that.

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

Our coffee’s not like that, either.

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

2. The Merry Christmas Man

The Merry Christmas Man goes to Holidaytown.

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

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

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

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

But Sid doesn’t.

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

Say it,” says the Merry Christmas Man.

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

3. Guilt

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

“I killed me a reindeer,” he says.

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

She’s looking at him in confusion.

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

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

It’s not her fault.

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

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

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

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

There’s more to it than that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Jelly, in the Cold

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

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

Instead, he’s cold.

He’s really, really cold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Jinglers

The Merry Christmas Man is fading.

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

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

He thinks with sudden fierce and giddy joy:

I am in luck.

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

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

Damn it, thinks the Merry Christmas Man.

“Hey,” says Sid. “Hey, you OK?”

Sid looks up at the others.

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

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

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

Sid seems even more confused than we.

“Sir,” he says, “you’re overwrought.”

The Merry Christmas Man snorts.

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

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

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

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

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

Sid doesn’t cringe.

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

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

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

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

6. Transcendence

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

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

The world where he was rips open.

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

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

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

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

It’s thus.

O, merrily, it’s thus!

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

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

I mean, it’s pretty good.

We are not knocking a good Frappucino.

But it’s not the thing.

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

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

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

For just 99 cents a cup.

Frognarok

First, evil frogs talk. Then they kill.

“So,” says the evil frog.

It kicks its legs.

It’s sitting next to Marilyn on a branch overlooking the swamp. She looks a little green, but not so green as the evil frog.

“So,” she says.

The evil frog inflates the bladders by his head, as if an idea were coming to him, then lets them deflate and shakes his head.

“It’s not your fault,” Marilyn says. “Communities project their sins onto evil frogs, producing your blood thirst and various mutations.”

“That is good of you to say,” he concedes, “but I must make my own meaning.”

He emits a noise, burrup, which for all we know is his meaning; nothing further is said, for in the next moment, he is turning, webbed fingers opening around his palm, and the sigil of Carcaon (which was his name and his aspect) is burning like a coal therein.

They dance the great circle. Her wrist strikes his aside. Then there is only red and green.

She lands, lightly, in the swamp.

She leaves footprints, behind her, as she goes.

Later she hangs out in a hot spring with another frog.

“I loved once,” Marilyn says. “I loved so brightly. But the people of the town, they would not have me. They said, ‘frog hunters are green.'”

“It isn’t easy,” the frog admits.

This one is poisonous. Vapors waft off of it. If they talk too long she will die and won’t even get to fight it first. But it has a very approachable air that makes her want to talk longer than frog hunters usually talk with evil frogs.

“Did you know that we absorb it?” she says. “The green?”

“I did not.”

“We kill the frogs and take in their color, to remedy the fallen condition of humanity.”

“So in a way,” the frog says, “we are the same.”

“Always,” Marilyn says passionately. “I would so be insulting you if I did not feel empathy as I killed.”

The frog has no response to that.

It wants to complain or criticize—to observe that it is more concerned with killing than propriety—except that it has never particularly tried to feel as its victims must.

So he just sits, stewing in his poisonous vapors, and thinks, and after a while says, “I too have been a’ courting.”

“Oh?”

“I thought that I would marry a lovely woman,” he says. “And poison her in the process of our love. But then a dove swept me up and carried me off to a distant land.”

It is wearing a dove feather in its baldness.

“That must have been a miracle,” Marilyn says. “Some kind of miracle bird.”

“Or a bird enemy of marriage.”

Marilyn nods. She drags herself out of the water. She sways. She is an ugly color, yellow brown.

“Time to kill?” the frog says politely.

Marilyn’s vision blurs.

“No,” she says. “It’s already done.”

She staggers away, two steps, three, then five.

The frog nods wisely.

“My poison mixes with the steam,” he says. “That’s why it’s hard to see.”

“Not me,” she says.

And she dunks her face once, twice, and three times in the swamp, before taking a few more steps away and vomiting noisily against a startled thrush until she looks a bit more green.

“You’ve boiled,” she says, at last.

Days pass.

“I wish I weren’t green,” she says.

She’s hunting for a third frog. She’s heard it’s drawn to sorrow. And indeed, no sooner has she spoken the words than it eddies up, like ichor on the marsh.

It is transparent, practically invisible. Its hand clasps over her mouth, dripping with slime, and it tries to draw her down.

She bites down, sucking in a mouthful of horrid frog, and gives a muffled scream.

It pulls.

She fumbles at her belt. She pulls out a frog hunter micro-dynamite. She slams it into the side of the frog and twists and pulls and breaks free as it bangs.

They separate.

She gasps and shudders. It pulls back and wraps around a tree, sucking out the life force of the tree to heal its wound.

“Evil frogs talk,” Marilyn says, “then they fight.”

It hisses.

“There are rules,” Marilyn says.

Finally, it sighs.

“I have nothing to say to you, human,” it says. “I am frog. You are frog hunter. There is no point in conversation.”

“We have to make connections with the things we kill,” Marilyn says.

“That is your scruple.”

It is alien. She has never fought an evil frog so alien and cold.

“Why are you like this?” she protests.

It is silent. Ripples pass through it, this way, that way. Finally, as if the words are torn from it, it says, “I was the first. I was the frog of finding words. I was the frog of assumption of mastery of death. I sucked death into my air bladders. I rattled his bones. I spat him out and took power from him. Then he slunk away to live at the outskirts of the world. But I was green.”

She looks at him.

“It isn’t ea—” she starts.

“Shut up!” it howls.

So she falls silent.

Behind it the sky is full of the aurora; and it makes red and blue light to flicker in its skin.

“I was cursed with green,” it says. “It was my testing. And I could not bear it. And I said, ‘Lord, take this burden from me.’ And it was granted to me, my wish.”

“Colorless,” she says.

“It is better!” it says. “Better, this. I need no color. I live alone. I kill humans that come into my realm. Women, men, frog hunters, even the little girls and little boys and their hungry soul-devouring swords. Colorless I am supreme. But you trouble me with your words and make them itch inside my head.”

She looks down, briefly.

“I didn’t mean—” she says.

It hisses. It gives her no time to finish. It leaps into the air, spreading out like some great smothering tarp, and she is falling back and hoisting a twisted branch as if it were a spear.

Its ichor covers her as she emerges from the swamp. She is dripping with it.

Underneath it her face is the color of a peach, and the ichor trail behind her is wet and green.

It’s like it’s sucked the sin from her, she thinks, but something unaccountable’s been lost.

On the Hill

It is on the top of the hill that Jaime discovers the dissected naturalist; and looking up, its dissector; and had the squirming mass of impulses that comprise Jaime’s mind had their way, his sanity would have fled forever into the dark.

But the creature holds up a light and it constrains him.

A rigid altruism sets in his bones; irons of sanity form barriers in his mind. His thoughts gibber and fling themselves about, but their efforts are self-dampening. Finally they settle and he stares at the thing with fey reason in his eyes.

“I wanted to discover,” it says, “why that Great Maker that hath made the swallow and the swan, as well, made me.”

“Some would say, sir,” Jaime responds, “that your presence is in itself a demonstration that no such Maker exists; that you have blasted down ideas of soul and purpose simply by your being. That the sacred is illumined as folly, that ghastly hollowness shines through the tissue of goodness and mercy, and that nowhere in this colloquy of organs you have extracted is anything resembling worth—sir.”

“And what do you say?”

Jaime gives a rigid smile. “Sir, as you would like, sir.”

It shifts softly in the darkness, and forms and shapes emerge and dissipate within its substance.

Hesitantly, Jaime says, “Because I have seen you, sir, I am damned; misery is my lot, and there is only bleakness that I may celebrate. Thus I must squint, and dubiously, at the concept of justice; but I retain the concept of justice. The waterway of logic in my mind balks; I seek to abandon it—but I retain the concept of logic. So I am at a loss. Perhaps there is something that I do not understand.”

“It came to me one evening,” the creature says, “that it is not a matter of moral universe or amoral universe. That there is not the tension previously understood between the great divine harmony where all directs to a glorious and beautiful end, and a bleak mad emptiness where hope is a joke man’s nature plays on man. Rather, the importance of the matter is how one relates to the amoral universe, or the moral one.”

“Sir?”

“We are children,” the creature says, “who come to your world, and teach you of bleakness. Those mad chthonic and aerial pantheons that are my peers—who say, ‘what is purpose, in the face of the gibbering substrate?’ or ‘why cherish your soul, when it will fall into the many maws of my siblings before it reaches any other place?’—it has finally occurred to me that we are children. What is important is to honor those spaces in ourselves that are moral, and those places that are degenerate and foul. But I have fallen out of practice in morality, in the dark places.”

Jaime frowns.

“This disturbs you?”

“I am not certain how to give over my life to bleakness and to worship you in mad revels, sir, if you insist on demanding sanity and morality of me; and if you should do the latter, sir, it seems cruel to confront me with the horrid blasphemy that your existence represe—”

He falls quiet there, as the creature is no longer listening.

Staring at the glistening remains of the naturalist, it has had a sudden insight; fervently, now, it is rooting in the naturalist’s bowels, it is sorting calcified and crystallized and unsolid structures, it is realizing and reinforcing a certain order that it is recognizing as transmitted through the flesh.

There in the darkness, on the hill, Jaime watches the creature assemble that bright truth of beauty that ascends towards Heaven and possesses the universe with a coruscating brilliance of love.

It is more radiant than the stars.

“You see,” the creature explains, helpfully, “it was actually structurally implicit—”

But Jaime, mired in the duality of the divine and godless universes, finds rational and irrational impulses come congruent at the last. He has drawn his knife; he is whispering the names of saints; he is driving it deep, again and again, into the undifferentiated substance of the horror, until at last it retreats from the material into the gibbering substrate and leaves him in uneasy contemplation of the intestines of a man, and God.

The Court of Father Time

Father Time holds his court, as he always does, to decide whether there shall be a New Year.

His court is crowded.

It is always crowded, in this moment, in this twelve-toll interregnum between the new year and the last.

He takes his seat with grave dignity upon his bench. He adjusts the fall of his hair.

He gestures to his adjutants with his gavel, with his hammer of old wood marked with an arabesque in gold. “Separate the righteous from the unrighteous,” says Father Time.

Now his adjutants move among them.

Shrieking, pulling at hair, fluttering their tattered wings, his adjutants move among the petitioners to his court.

The crowd rings with cries of outrage, pain, and derision.

The adjutants drag the petitioners apart. They separate the unrighteous from the just, not by their character but by the nature of their petition. They set forth velvet ropes to seal apart the groups. Then and only then may the court of Father Time begin.

The first two tolls have passed.

He begins, as he always does, with the first unrighteous petitioner.

Gravely he listens to the man’s tale of the horrors he would wish visited upon his enemies; and how, that failing, he would rather they not have a year at all.

A thin judicious sneer appears upon his face.

He dismisses the matter with prejudice.

Again and again through the line of the unrighteous he dismisses their arrogant and evil claims. They ask him to end the furtherance of time as a punishment for others; or to save them, to salve them, from the impending awareness of their own unexamined faults.

What righteous judge could answer such requests?

The tolls of the clock of the interregnum slip by, the third and fourth and fifth, and he dismisses such complains.

Thus it always is.

Yet something, this year, is different.

He feels it first as a peculiar adumbration, a distant crawling sensation that something is wrong. Something is different. Something has changed.

Sixth toll.

Seventh toll.

Eighth toll.

It comes to his awareness that the unrighteous petitioners are dissipating more quickly than he hears their cases—that something besides his disregard is motivating them, each to each, to depart.

He frowns.

He signals to one of the adjutants of his court.

He murmurs to it, “I would know the reason for this thing.”

And his adjutants scatter in their flock, and in due time, another case now heard, they return.

“The righteous bribe them, milord,” they say.

A cloud appears on the forehead of Father Time.

He scans the crowd.

Ninth toll.

Now he lingers, deliberately, longer over each case. He is cautious. He is formal. He grants each petitioner the benefits of his judicious doubt.

Gay marriage, now.

This one a rich vein:

The petitioner and his gathered supporters present their case most reasonably. It is a sickness, they say; it will come to flower. Better that the march of time end here, in 2006, before catastrophe descends—before the institutions of marriage dissolve and leave society a howling and bestial mob, unbound by goodwill, righteousness, or grace to their fellow men.

He allows a great debate, but in the end—

He is Father Time, le juge ancien, and reactionary to his bones. He lends his sympathy to the petitioner. He hears the words of the petition with grave regard. But to end time and abort 2007 before it can be born?

He brings down his gavel.

He dismisses the case; he affirms 2007, even in the face of social change; he tells the pallid and choreal priest who brought forth the case, “Do not return again.”

The tenth toll comes. The crowd of the unrighteous is down to eight.

A man argues to him that the year had best not come; America is losing, he explains, its “racial balance” and another year might tip the scales.

It is no different from any number of cases that Father Time has heard and disregarded; with a thunder of his gavel and a laugh of scorn, he had sent them forth never to trouble his court again.

This time, he says, only, “Denied, pending an evaluation of the events of this coming year.”

He hedges against the docket of next year.

And so; and so; and so on.

Three of the unrighteous remain.

He takes the unprecedented step of calling a brief recess.

He returns to his stone bench in the arrears of the court. He meditates decorously, and with great pomp. He arranges his brow so that all who look upon him may say: ah! What deep and potent thoughts swim and mate within the river of this mind?

He senses more than sees the pleading and bargaining across the velvet line.

The clock of the interregnum sounds its eleventh toll.

Worn down by the douceurs of the righteous and an eleven-toll litany of juridical scorn, one of the unrighteous petitioners casts down his hat and departs.

Father Time pales.

Panic sweeps him.

He returns to his feet.

He says, “Adjutants, bring forth that man.”

But it is too late.

The third-to-last unrighteous petitioner departs the court of time.

Now such grandeur does he give the justice of the second-to-last unrighteous petitioner as to ring down the annex of time; how deeply considered, how thoroughly-debated, how many witnesses he calls and how many points of law he allows the barristers of this court to dispute!

Gravely does young Peter argue that 2007 must not come.

His older brother had struck him in the face.

Their parents yield no insight; “You must understand that Peter’s character is not fully formed; nor James’.”

Dragged by subpoena into the court of time, his playmates refuse their association with the case. Old Mrs. Skivvens, Peter’s father’s boss, speaks eloquently about the need for modern parents to better rein in their children. He finds her in contempt; he casts her out.

He graces his court by giving even a child his due; but he cannot grant the petition, and the case of Peter ends.

One more!

One last unrighteous case!

His nightmare comes to fruition.

The last unrighteous petitioner is incoherent, incompetent: a creature contorted by mindless rage, unable to muster a believable argument.

His case is a mix of jingo and cliché, incapable of supporting the dignity of the court—a dignity already in the balance, in the aftermath of the time spent on a child.

To grant an extended hearing to this stream of foulness and incoherence, thinks Father Time, would leave him embarrassed before the company of all men.

Father Time looks to the clock of the interregnum.

Now is the last toll of the clock and it does not measure well.

He cannot tell, looking at the silver surface of the clock, how long he has remaining.

He fills his judgment with harrumphing and the clearing of his throat.

Palely, he dismisses the case.

And, so that there be no final appearance of impropriety, he rejects the mad impulse to call a second recess.

Listening to the labored beating of his heart, and all unwillingly, he calls forth the first of the righteous petitioners to speak.

The petitioner opens a dry mouth; gives due honor to the court; and begins to speak a case—

Tolls the twelve bell; ends the interregnum; interrupts the petitioner with the resounding march of time.

Father Time breaks with the tradition of his court.

He lifts his hand for silence.

He stands, abruptly.

He does not hear out the remainder of the final case, as is his wont; nor even its beginning.

Instead he begins, and with a waxing juridical outrage, to upbraid the remaining righteous. He says, “It is beneath you, I should think, to make payments to the unrighteous; it makes a mockery of the process of this court; and I should hope you are ashamed.”

He says, “Where is the distinctive mark, the decorum and the civility that marks you as the righteous to this court?”

He says, in the roaring and aching white-bearded fury of the dissipation of his fear, “How dare you?”

He turns.

He retreats from the court.

He says, “I hope I shall not see you in this court again.”

The last petitioner is shouting, but he does not listen.

The court is over; the New Year shall come; and if there is some reason worthy of the man’s consideration that the march of time should end, if there is a righteous case that one could make that 2007 should not come, he has not heard it; he has never heard it; he has not considered it, through all the passing years, in the court of Father Time.

Happy New Year!
May all the best and brightest find you.
Namaste.

Ink Unwrappable (XII/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

In 1926, André Masson created a box without entrances or exits. One could only access its roomy interior through unconscious action. It contained a road, he thought, and a moon, and quite possibly a fox; and human anatomy would not have been out of place. Masson’s landlord visited as he slept. Finding the box profoundly disturbing, the landlord cast it into the elevator shaft, where it fell and continued to fall until it at last reached the weary kingdoms beneath the world. Clinging precariously to a ledge therein, it heard the gospel of King Snorn and became a person. Rising, it said, “It is dangerous even for an artist to make a box without entrances or exits: how easy it could be for the soul to become trapped inside, and how impossible to verify that such a thing has never happened!”

Over the years and through a process of unconscious action the box extracted arms and legs and a head and a chest and other appurtenances of daily life from its roomy interior, finally taking its place in the kingdom of King Snorn as a full citizen and training as a medical orderly.

That’s how it came to pass that he’s standing there, holding the girl down against the altar of the doctor of the deeps.

That’s what orderlies do, nowadays, in Sarous’ kingdom.

They hold people down.

The theory’s like this. People are degenerate. Most people, anyway. But a good doctor—someone with a solid grasp of medicine—can root that degeneracy out. Surgically, maybe, or with pills, or with a sound regimen of diet and exercise. Certainly not with homeopathic medicine, since everyone is forever exposing themselves to heavily diluted substances of corruption and never gaining much resistance thereby; but possibly, the orderly thinks, and here he’s a bit disloyal, possibly with a rigorous program of moxibustion and acupuncture.

There isn’t any need, in an enlightened modern society, for somebody to be corrupt.

Nor is there an excuse.

It’s a public health issue, after all.

If your morals decay, treatment is mandatory. But it isn’t always easy. Some people are still puzzles even to medical science. Melissa—the good doctor’s wife—he’d never managed to cure her, for instance, and that was as tragic as it gets. This girl, she’s another example. Stepladder syndrome complicated by acute hyperrachia— diaphoretic hyperrachia, to judge by her sweating—

Not that much you can do about that.

And there’s always one or two incurables like that around. People like a show, so they hunt them down. Sometimes it’s the hunted who proves degenerate and sometimes it’s the hunter, but either way, people like a show.

The doctor always has a supply of people who are degenerate but not so easily fixed. People so corrupt that you just can’t reform them. All you can do is the time-honored recourse of medicine when you can’t do anything else—

Bleed ’em.

Bleed ’em, and hope it helps, and if it doesn’t, well, it’s not like they were a very good citizen in the first place.

Previous histories of the imago:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,

10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19.

This particular girl—her name is Ink Catherly. Everybody calls her the imago, she’d said. Short for the imaginary agonies of form, she’d said, and maybe that was the truth.

She’s an interesting case.

Not every orderly cares about interesting cases, but the leftmost orderly—the box without entrances and exits—does. He cares, because he’s taking classes at night in hopes of becoming a doctor.

And she’s an interesting case.

This girl burps up woglies, for instance. The orderly’s not sure what they are. They’re round, though, and they hiss, and the entire ziggurat’s felt strangely unstable ever since one hit.

That wogly bit the doctor right in his hand, it looks like. What makes that interesting is that it’s a plausible vector of contagion and a sign of stepladder syndrome in one. People with stepladder-style moral degeneracy get wounded hands. The congruence of physiological and dharmic elements fascinates the box.

The doctor, naturally, is just a little bit concerned.

He can’t disprove that he’s sick—not with that hand—

So the matter concerns him.

“If I’m corrupt—” he says.

He’s licking his lips. He’s hesitating. He’s not cutting, yet, and maybe he won’t. The orderly loosens his grip on the girl, just a little bit, in case it turns out that he’s going to let her go.

“If I’m sick, and I bleed you,” the doctor says. “Then that’s a corrupt action. And not bleeding you is what a good, wise, sound man would do. But if I don’t bleed you, then that’s the corruption—that it’s swayed me away from my position of righteousness. A good, wise, sound man would bleed you, then, and only a corrupt man would celebrate your corruption by letting you go.”

He’s sweating.

“There’s no way you can win,” the girl concedes. “And whatever you do, medical science will blame you for it.”

Dr. Sarous’ hands are trembling.

It’s like he’s in a box, the orderly thinks. It’s like he built a box without any entrances or exits, and now he’s regretting that he’s built it.

Reason elbows him in the stomach of his mind.

Not everything is about boxes without entrances and exits, reason observes.

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

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

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

“I’m going now,” decides Ink Catherly.

“Eh?” the orderly says.

Ink winces preemptively and then slams her forehead down against the altar. It makes a horrible sound.

“Hey!” says the orderly. People aren’t allowed to kill themselves before being bled to death. “Hey!”

He holds her neck down.

But the whole ziggurat is shaking. That shouldn’t happen, the orderly is pretty sure. Giant stone ziggurats are practically bursting with structural integrity. But it doesn’t seem to have that now.

THOOM.

The altar collapses. The ziggurat collapses.

Everything is roar and noise.

The orderly looks up as they fall. He can see the girl, and the doctor, and the rightmost orderly, and somehow things have turned around and now a block of stone is coming down on them all.

It is an unconscious action. It does not originate in his mind; there is no intention and there is no plan.

The orderly reaches into the box of his heart. He pulls out a road. He leans it up between the space of falling things, where the other three may stagger down it into freedom.

Then the ziggurat staves him in.

  • That’s it for Chapter Four of the Island of the Centipede, but it’s not the end of this particular series! Tune in TOMORROW for the next exciting history of Ink Catherly:
    INK INCOMPARABLE.

Ink and Anarchy (X/XVI)

[Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

“You have the signs of moral degeneracy,” says the doctor of the deeps. “The wounded hand; the lightly wounded throat; you carry a small parcel; your hair is dark. You have avowed the intention to kill God. Let us call it stepladder syndrome.

This term is patterned after the pattern of the marks.

“You deny it,” says the doctor. “Thus, we add to your diagnosis acute hyperrachia.

He stands, face uplifted.

He is bathed in the cold blue light of phosphorescent worms.

The pathological perception that one is well. The manifestation through symptoms and their alleviation of a false state of wellness. If a patient presents this disorder, they are confused. They affect wholesome, healthy innocence through the psychosomatic imprint of their syndrome. This is an innocence that they do not possess. Orient them: they will deceive you. Restrain them: they will fight you. Medicate them: they will conspire, much as those in the grip of senility or paranoia, to reject the medications. Yet the hyperrachic immoral are not well.”

The girl stands before him. She is fifteen years old and her eyes have the look of a wild creature’s.

“Do you understand,” the doctor asks her, “why I say you are not well?”

“‘Cause I get wogly burps,” says the girl.

He looks at her.

His expression suggests the word: Eh?

So the girl works her diaphragm for a moment. Then she burps. It’s one of those deliberate burps that you only do when you’re alone or on a doctor’s ziggurat or you want to be rude. She chews for a minute, then she spits out a wogly.

“Like that.”

He doesn’t know whether to write this up for the journals or to bleed her for defiance. He’s totally nonplussed. That’s how unexpected a wogly burp can be!

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Cronos: “Save for Cronos, and the woglies, and the siggorts, I suppose.”

That’s . . . it cuts in there.

Something for everyone, said Rhea, something, something, something, save for Cronos, and the woglies, and the siggorts, she supposed.

He lay with her that night, Cronos with Rhea, and in the course of seasons she bore him a daughter.

This was earlier than the last history. Maybe about 12 pesserids before the end of the Second Kingdom. She lay with him and she bore him a daughter. And most fathers would have been happy, because, you know, perfect adorable daughter, but Cronos wasn’t one of that kind.

“I will make this world into a torture chamber,” Cronos said.

“Gii-whii!” answered Hestia, as he held her in his arms.

She wriggled her toes and hiccupped and guarded with her power the hearths and houses of the world.

“Listen,” Cronos said.

He looked up at the stars.

“This world is bound to forms,” he said. “To concepts. To the ideal. But I have made the work of my life the severing of that bond.”

Hestia’s face grew very still and intent.

“I had forgotten it,” he said. “But still, it is my work. And there is only one way that it may be done: I must make the forms abhorrent to themselves. I must make the edifice of right and wrong and tradition and form and even structured thought a crime.”

The world revolved around him, as it does, when one sits upon the throne of all the world.

Rhea’s face grew very pale.

“Cronos—” she said.

The teeth of Cronos set on his daughter’s arm. He bit it off. He chewed. He swallowed.

Hestia wailed, thinly. Her blood fell upon the earth.

“Shh,” Cronos said.

He put his finger to her lips. He looked at Rhea.

“The Kingdom I have builded gives way to Tyranny,” Cronos said, “and there is no answer to it within the structures of the world.”

The Kingdom I have builded gives way to Tyranny.

He opened his hand, and there was a wogly in it, and I took it. This is one of the few interactions that we are allowed between history and the now: the taking of woglies. I took the wogly from him, because Dr. Sarous was going to kill me if I did not, and I chewed on it and I sucked away a bit of blood, and then I burped and spit it out.

Cronos didn’t even seem surprised.

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, but everybody calls her the imago. It’s the name of her website, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

She’s standing there in a white straightjacket and the holes along its arms gape in the darkness like little mouths. There’s two orderlies holding her still. They stand behind her, and to either side, gripping the blunted ends of the straightjacket’s arms.

In front of her there’s an altar with a blackened trench for blood.

On the other side of it there is Sarous, the doctor of the deeps.

The wind is rushing past them. They are high above the cavern ground. They are on a ziggurat built of great stone slabs. Beneath them mills the crowd.

“What the Hell?” says Sarous.

“They’re all through my diagnostic criteria,” Ink lies sadly. “They’re rendering dubious and undefined the very concept of my health.”

She coughs in a fashion that seems sickly but under closer scrutiny reveals itself to be a profound flaw in medical science.

“Undefined,” says Sarous. His voice is flat.

“In this world,” says Ink, “there are only three healthy things. To recognize that one is imperfect, and to seek perfection. To recognize that hope is not lost, and to embrace it. And finally to normalize one’s condition, blinding oneself to all the ways in which one is already perfect or in which there is no hope. But thanks to these woglies I can’t tell if I recognize my own imperfection or not, much less the ways in which I’m already perfect. It’s just too difficult!”

She kicks the wogly.

It hisses.

Dr. Sarous has a horrified look.

“It’s terrible,” lies Ink. “The closer you are to finding out how healthy I am, the more your results vary. They hooked me up to the ultimate diagnostic catheter and it exploded! The diagnostic focus of a doctor’s mind intrudes on me—snap! It hooks straight into madness. It’s why nobody will treat me any more, even if I make my sad pathetic ‘I have wogly burps’ face.”

Ink demonstrates.

The wogly, irritably, begins to eat the integrity of Dr. Sarous’ ziggurat.

The clouds of Dr. Sarous’ nonplussedness coalesce into anger and move towards icy confidence. Ink opens her mouth to say something and interrupt the process but a wave of dizziness shakes her mind. Perhaps it’s the tightness of the straightjacket or an infection in her wounded hand.

By the time her world clears it is too late.

“Argumentative hyperrachia,” dismisses Dr. Sarous. He picks up the wogly. He hides it in his palm. “It is not sound.”

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

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

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

“I’m just being helpful,” says Ink.

“You might think so,” Dr. Sarous says. He jerks his head. It is a signal. The orderlies push Ink forward to lay across the altar. “But you’re not.”

“I could have hurt you,” Ink says. “But I didn’t want to.”

Dr. Sarous palpates her back.

“I think the organ of your failings is here,” he says.

“That’s the kidney, sir,” an orderly says.

“Slightly to the left.”

“Ah.”

“I still don’t want to,” Ink says.

“That’s the hyperrachia talking, my dear.”

“I could have said, ‘You have Melissa’s disease.'”

Dr. Sarous goes still.

“Because it’s contagious,” Ink says. “She said.”

Dr. Sarous does not move. He stares at the imago’s back.

“Sir?” the orderly says.

“It’s probably in the same general category as stepladder syndrome,” Ink says.

“How do you know about her?” Dr. Sarous asks.

“You inherited her backpack, probably,” Ink says. “So you’ve got a small parcel. And your hair is dark.”

Dr. Sarous holds up his palm.

“But my hand is fine,” he says.

“Is it?”

There’s no wogly in his palm. Not any more. There’s a red mark bitten into it where the sign of moral degeneracy would go.

  • Tune in TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY, or maybe THURSDAY for the next exciting installment:
    INK ASCENDING
  • Special bonus! Updated through Chapter 2, but not yet converted to WordPress: the timeline.
  • And, since I’ll forget myself if I don’t tell you: pesserid (pesз:rid) – pre-temporal unit measuring the escalating {pitch, intensity, fervor} of a situation; related to basirat and pessos.

“The Test Defends Itself from Life”- From the Journals of Ink Catherly (IX/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Sarous: Once upon a time there was a young man named Sarous.

Evolved from a fish, I’d say, and maybe that’s the truth; but he’s been a doctor for so very long now that it’s hard to tell.

He was raised up in the kingdom of Snorn; wakened in the great birthing when Snorn—

Himself transfigured from a stone—

Spoke the gospel of King Snorn to the stickbugs, the fishes, the moles, the stones, and the rats. Sarous was one of thousands, tens of thousands, of citizens of that great grey kingdom born that day. And he had a vision.

His vision was an estimable one.

It began with the thought, “Imagine a lens that shows imperfection.”

It led, as inevitably as the rain, to the thought, “I can fix this broken world.”

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

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

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

“Imagine that we could see the animalcules of imperfection,” he said to Melissa, who would later be his wife.

“Imagine,” he said, “that we could track those elements of suffering— those things that make the world not as we like it— back to the contagion that was their source. What is it that you think that we would find?”

“Yeast?”

Sarous blinked. He blinked three times, and fell in love with her at once; but still he disagreed. “Not yeast,” he said. “Moral decay.”

She raised an eyebrow.

Is all imperfection of human origin?

He waved a hand to dismiss the thought. All imperfection that matters. “If all people were upright,” he said, “they would act in all regards to prevent suffering. When people act to exacerbate suffering, we may say that they are infected with the animalcules of imperfection.”

“I see.”

“It is a paradigm, of course, and not a theory,” says Sarous. “Such a lens could not exist. But oh! The possibilities! The diagnostic and purgative techniques that could pertain!”

“But to cure a man of moral decay,” Melissa objected. “Isn’t that like curing one man of another man’s disease?”

This was sticky.

Sarous drank two and a half cups of coffee before he found his answer.

“No one would prefer to cause suffering,” he said.

So he went to his lab and he labored there to become a doctor, and from there to learn the techniques necessary to discover, diagnose, and purge moral decay. He found the animalcules of senseless cruelty and the general systemic pathology of spinelessness. He dug out for the first time the organ of privilege— not the testicles, as Yaoharneth-Lalai had hypothesized, nor yet the ovaries (as bitterly avowed by Mung), but rather a small sexless nodule of dubious provenance crunched up between the bowels and the gall. He caught at last the monopole that makes a jackass bray and the thwarted man to pout; he made a vaccine against the brutal rage; and if he found no general solution, no lens to show imperfection nor purgatives to sweat it out, still he grew legendary in the art of detecting and treating moral degeneration and decay.

In the early days he tested his diagnoses often on Melissa; at first as experiments, and then as control, and finally with a strange urgency to find a flaw, as if the negative results he found were illegitimate to a one.

“I think, my love,” Melissa said, “that you will test me until I prove corrupt.”

Sarous smiled.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Yet still something moved in him— something strange and uneasy, that kept his hand hovering near the latest draw of Melissa’s blood.

“May I?” he said.

“Oh, you will,” she observed.

“You’ll make me blush.”

“It’s just,” she said, “if I had such grave doubts for your purity, then that would be a symptom, would it not?”

He laughed.

He thought about it. Then he laughed again.

“I suppose it would,” he said. “But it is because you have been steady for so long, you see.”

She had a qualm that day, but he qualmed it out; for all his strange obsessions the intentions of her husband were still good.

Medicine advanced. The technology of Sarous’ work improved. He demonstrated practical results of clear legitimacy: sinners redeemed, murderers unmasked, qualms uncoiled into repentance, certainty, or calm. Word of his skills spread throughout the kingdom.

It became very popular for the people to submit their enemies and their goads to him for testing. Occasionally this had the desired outcome; at other times, it had a null result, or rebounded upon the issuers of these claims of moral decay.

It was in that latter fashion that Dr. Sarous deposed King Snorn.

“I fear treachery in my advisors,” said Snorn. “Or mutiny among my people.”

And Sarous ran his tests.

“Milord, I am afraid that it is not your people that are treacherous, but you.”

Slowly the King’s head sank onto his chest. His beard crunched against his tabard; and he thought.

He said, in sepulchral tones, “This is a notion that has fluttered against the windows of my mind; I had suspected it, but I had not dared to let it in. Is there a purgative?”

“It is too deep,” Sarous said.

Despair condensed to ice in the King’s veins. He went still. His eyes fell closed. His white hair hung around his head. He slept and he did not wake again. His body went cold and then turned to stone upon his bench. The people acclaimed Dr. Sarous to his throne, and asked him to purge unrighteousness from their ranks.

They built the ziggurat to honor him.

Everywhere they lauded Sarous’ name.

And in quiet and alone in the deeps of night, Melissa had a thought.

Her thought began with, “Imagine a lens that shows imperfection.”

It continued, as inevitably as the rain, to, “He will kill me.”

He ran his seven hundred and thirty-first test of her the morning after. He frowned at the results. He ran the test again.

He looked at the palm of her hand and he saw the marks of it, the faint red flush of moral decay.

Leaning close he saw the touch of it on her throat, in the smallness of her backpack, in the blackness of her hair.

“Decay?” Melissa asked him.

She was strangely calm.

“It is not curable,” he said. A cold wind blew.

She smiled. She could not help it. “And terribly contagious, I would suggest.”

He blinked. He tilted his head. “Eh?”

“My love,” she said, “what will you do now, that will not cause suffering?”

“—I must try a cure,” he said.

“Imagine,” she said, “a lens that shows imperfection.”

His thoughts were far away, with the results of the test, with the structure of her disease. Could he get it out, he wondered, if he bled her soon enough? If he operated? Could he preserve some portion of her, perhaps, to be later grown again?

“It would always show,” she said. “It would never be clear. Of course it could never be clear. Even if it were to look upon the purest thing, even if it were to show the good itself: still, the lens would be imperfect; the holder would be imperfect; the eye that looked through it, imperfect; the very concepts made manifest in that lens— imperfect, and so the lens would show.”

“I can’t just let it be,” he said. Sarous’ voice was strained. “I can’t just have a corrupt wife. I am the King.”

“You’re not listening, love,” she said.

He blinked. He refocused. He looked at her face. Of course. I am not listening.

He said it again, trying harder to communicate to her his meaning, his implications, and his sorrow. “I can’t just let it be. For their sake. You understand.”

“It isn’t logically possible for your diagnostic techniques to be correct,” she said.

He made a face.

“You’d say that,” he agreed.

“It’s because I realized that,” she said, “and resolved that I would tell you, that I failed to the test.”

And she talked, she explained, on and on she talked, but he did not listen.

“It defends itself,” she said, “from the stringencies of life.”

And she still thought then, to judge her smile, that she would win this fight, and perhaps on equal grounds she ought; but it was all symptoms, you see; all symptoms, every word of it, and it was not sign.

  • Tune in NEXT WEEK for a cavalcade of mad excitement: Ink vs. Sarous! The birth of Zeus! The general of the stickbugs! And possibly even something like a letters column, although that might be too much to hope until after part XV—
    INK IMMORAL!
  • You won’t believe your nosebugs!

The Treason of Minister Jof (VII/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

In Sarous’ kingdom it is always gay: the atmosphere is one of conviviality and festival. Streamers hang between the great stone buildings. The lamps writhe with glowworm-given light.

Minister Jof is drunk, or, rather, let us say, considering his station, “in quite good cheer.”

His hat sits askew upon his head.

A streamer winds around him, caught on his long nails.

“The only problem,” he confides to the barkeep. He leans forward. He’s whispering. “The only problem in this whole great happy ending is a niggling moral unease.”

The barkeep polishes a mug.

He used to be a mole, this particular barkeep. He used to be a mole. But he grew up, here in the crust of the world, and now he is a man.

This barkeep has evolved, and now may speak on moral issues.

“You might want to get that looked at,” he suggests.

“What?”

“Ain’t no need to have moral unease in Sarous’ kingdom,” says the barkeep. He gestures with his nose to the shops across the street. “Sawbones there’ll fix it all up, if’n there’s a qualm.”

Minister Jof looks.

There’s a sign. It’s hanging from the sawbones’ shop. It says, “Jimmy Q, the Sawbones, Physicker and Qualmer. I can make your problems disappear!”

“I love this kingdom,” Minister Jof exclaims.

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

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

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

Minister Jof brushes in past the dangling beads of the door and Jimmy Q looks up.

“Moral or physical?” he asks.

Minister Jof hesitates. He looks a bit aback. He harrumphs.

“Right, then,” says Jimmy Q, as if Minister Jof had answered.

He’s a slate of a man, is Jimmy Q, born right from the rock, and he’s still got a sharp bit of stone for one hand. His other hand, though, it’s as dextrous as you please, with long graceful fingers, pale and smooth. He pulls down a breath mask from a shelf and puts it on and he walks up interestedly to Minister Jof.

“Worm?” says Jimmy Q.

“Pardon?”

“I mean, before. Before you grew in moral stature. You were a sniveling little worm, right?”

Minister Jof’s lips thin.

“I don’t see—“

Jimmy Q grins with his even grey teeth. “Don’t nevermind that. Just getting my bearings on your physiology. What’s on your mind?”

He taps Minister Jof’s knee but isn’t surprised when it doesn’t kick. He takes Minister Jof’s pulses—a man’s got six pulses, down here in the weary kingdoms beneath the world, and Jimmy Q knows how to take them all. He looks at Minister Jof’s tongue.

“It’s eh moragh calm,” Jof explains around the tongue depressor.

“Oh?”

“There was this girl,” says Minister Jof. “This very devil of a girl. I couldn’t keep up with the things I’d been doing once I met her. Everything got all shaken up— are you, I mean, you’re not going to cut me, are you?”

He’s just noticed the bottles of preserved organs along the wall, and in particular, the one labeled, “Treachery.”

“Not for a qualm,” Jimmy Q says. “We don’t have to cut people to get out a moral qualm, here in Sarous’ kingdom. Best damn moral medicine in the world, here. Why, anywhere else I’d have M.D. after my name and not a Q; not that I’m complaining.”

“Ah.”

Minister Jof is a bit fidgety.

“I don’t know much about this moral medicine at all,” Minister Jof admits.

“There’s nothing like it in all the world!” declares Jimmy Q. “Why, this is the only place in all the world and sound where a man can feel guaranteed of getting up in the morning and going to sleep at night in a state of total moral confidence. Braces you something fierce, morality does. And if you don’t spit it out, my friend,” he says, and he’s turning towards his vials and his decanters, “I can certainly use an emetic.”

“I told the nurses she was going to kill God,” says Minister Jof in one long burst of sentencing. “I told the nurses she was going to kill God or at least ‘whomever’s sitting on the throne of all this world.’ That she was a destroyer. And they paid me for it!”

“Nurses,” mutters Jimmy Q.

He looks fiercely at Jof.

“Were you lying?”

“Well—” says Minister Jof. Slowly, his dignity gathers around him. “Well, no.”

“Really?”

Minister Jof nods.

Jimmy Q laughs. “Kill God, eh? And you’re feeling guilty about turning her in?”

“They said they were taking her to the ziggurat to be bled,” says Minister Jof.

The sawbones is still laughing. He’s sorting through his pills but he’s laughing, these chuckles that come and go, and Minister Jof flushes.

“Laughter is the best medicine,” he says, “but not when you are doing it to the patient.”

Jimmy Q tosses Jof a conscience pill.

“Boy,” he says, in complete disregard for the Minister’s station, “if they’re taking her up the ziggurat, then she’s in an advanced state of moral decay. Riddled with degeneracy! Now, you can’t honestly think that someone in that condition wouldn’t have betrayed you, can you?”

Minister Jof stares.

“Gulp it down,” Jimmy Q says.

So Minister Jof puts the pill to his mouth. He swallows. He continues to stare.

Slowly, the burden lightens from his heart. Slowly, it sinks in.

“Of course she would’ve,” he says.

He’s smiling.

“You’re a good qualmer,” he says.

Then he glares.

“You’re laughing again.”

“You cut a man open,” says Jimmy Q, “and rip the malign nerves right from his chest, and people say, ‘you old sawbones! That’s nothing much.’ But give a man a pill and a few good words, and he’s all ‘damn fine! Good God, that’s fine qualming!’ Here! Here in Sarous’ kingdom! Here where there’s the best medicine for morality in all the world!”

Minister Jof feels obscurely guilty.

“Well, it’s not like I’d want the malign nerves ripped out of my chest,” he says. “I mean, I’m a Minister.

It’s a tactical error, he realizes. It’s the kind of thing he wouldn’t have said, were he not in such good cheer.

He licks his lips.

“Not that I have any,” he says.

But Jimmy Q doesn’t seem to have noticed his error. The sawbones is lost in his own salugubrious thoughts.

“It’s the cuttin’ that I like,” admits Jimmy Q, not like he doubts the rectitude of Minister Jof, but more like it’s a tragedy.

  • The histories of Ink Catherly continue TOMORROW, with:
    THE GOLDEN AGE

Regarding Hope

In the city on the edge of the void the Nose makes her living tracking down Froot Loops for creatures forsaken of the Lord.

Solomon walks through the city. His feet go ‘tik tik tik’ on the metal of it.

He’s surrounded by scrap and stinking filth. That’s all the city is. It’s the bits that the Lord has thrown away, infested and ripened with the unlife of the void.

He can’t imagine how the Nose can bear to live here. The smell of it, he thinks, must be terrible.

He doesn’t actually know, though, because Solomon cannot smell at all.

His nose is like the nose of a swordfish, a long metal spike that resonates and modulates the power of Heaven.

It is incapable of olfaction.

The Nose lives in a bad part of town. Solomon can tell because he’s being followed and the thing that’s following him—like a great metal spider, with gleaming living eyes—has a predatory air. And that’s not the only thing: there are great cat-bats circling in the sky, drooling and twitching with the hunt, and he suspects that the grime that is rising ever-higher on his boots is an amoeba of evil intent.

“It’s always the way in a place like this,” he says.

The spider clitters and clatters closer.

“Before anyone can accept you, you must present your credentials.”

And he whips his head up to look the spider in the eyes and the nose of him catches the music of the spheres and modulates it into a rising crescendo; and it twitches and its heart catches on fire and it thinks how beautiful Solomon is.

And he turns towards the cat-bats and one falls from the sky and the others flee screaming.

And the amoeba at his feet withdraws just a bit, and says, “Pardon, gov’ner. Just doin’ a shine.”

And Solomon’s boots glow like the righteousness of Heaven.

So Solomon laughs and says, “Then show me where the Nose is.”

“You, gov’ner? You want Froot Loops?”

The amoeba’s voice is skeptical, as if to imply that Solomon doesn’t look like the kind of man to eat a delicious Froot Loops breakfast with milk, juice, and toast.

“She was better than that,” says Solomon, “once. She knew where the traitors were. She could smell the distinction between that which would bring the world towards righteousness and glory and that which would lead it down the paths towards Hell. A very discriminating woman, the Nose.”

“Wouldn’t know about that,” says the amoeba, but it oozes northwards and Solomon follows it towards the Nose.

The Nose works out of the Clifton Building, one of many buildings judged unworthy by the Lord. She’s a tall lean woman in a black plastic jacket and her eyes are blue.

She’s leaning back in her desk chair when Solomon knocks, opens the door, and enters.

Slowly, she straightens.

Slowly, one eyebrow lifts.

She says, softly, “Face.”

“Danielle,” Solomon says.

“I hadn’t thought,” says the Nose, “that I’d ever see you again. You— You—”

And she rises from her chair and she is holding Solomon close like one holds a love thought lost forever. Tears are leaking down her face, and she says, “Not you. Not you. You do not deserve this place.”

“It’s all right, Danielle.”

“If you are here,” says the Nose, “then there is no hope in all the world for the rest.”

She bites her lip.

“I had thought,” she adds, “that there was something sweeter than life here. But I told myself that it could not be so.”

“Well,” says Solomon.

“Well?”

“What is, is. And it will not be for very much longer.”

The Nose draws back. She looks him seriously in the eyes—though distracted, as any person might be, by the spear of metal jutting from his face.

“No?”

“I was not cast out,” says the Face. “I fled.”

The Nose turns to the window. She opens it. She leans out the window and she takes a long sniff of the ordure of the city, and she grows pale and green all at once.

“Then it has happened,” she says.

“It has happened.”

“The Red Right Hand has declared that it shall be the all of the Lord.”

“I had trusted it,” Solomon says.

“Naturally.”

“I had thought: what can it do on its own? It cannot see. It cannot smell. It cannot hear. It cannot breathe. It has every reason for loyalty. When it cut you from me and cast you out I said only, ‘Ah, that must be what Danielle had wanted. No doubt it is for the best. Because why should the Hand betray me?'”

“That is the way of it,” says Danielle. “Processes freeing one from the discriminating power rarely cultivate a doubt about themselves. Instead they clear the mind, fill it with relish, and offer a sense as if one has been released from a great weight or exposed to a clean pure breeze. This is, I think, the greatest problem with the cosmos, but as yet I have not found a solution to it.”

“There isn’t one,” says Solomon.

“No?”

“No.”

“Ah, well,” Danielle says.

Solomon nods.

“It’s hunting us, you know. I can smell it. It’s walking on the webs between the skyscrapers, running on the ground of the city streets. It can feel us talking and understand our words. In all the cosmos it is only the Hands that can feel such microscopic vibrations.”

Solomon frowns.

“But what can it do?” he says. “We are already outside the grace of the Lord.”

“Anything it wants,” says the Nose.

She takes another deep breath, this time through her mouth. She exhales.

“Come on,” she says. “We’ll go find breakfast.”

“Huh?”

“Follow the Nose,” Danielle says, firmly, and she takes his hand and she leads him out. “I’ll give you a freebie.”

They walk through the city streets under the leaning towers of garbage and twisted corpses. Behind them, Danielle thinks, the Red Right Hand is running on the five limbs of it. Lacking a heart it knows no limitations of endurance. Lacking a nose it has no discrimination of right and wrong. It is a peerless and unforgiving hunter. But even the Hand is bound by the limitations of time and for this reason she does not worry yet.

“I don’t understand,” Solomon admits, “how there can be Froot Loops here.”

“They grow,” Danielle says.

“They grow?”

“The dark reaches of the places forsaken of the Lord are like compost for them,” she says.

She points out at the surface of the void. This is possible because it stretches around the city like a balloon, its surface to the north, south, east, west, below, and in the sky.

“Do you see those moving things?” she says.

“I had assumed that an optical illusion,” he says.

“No. They’re boats.”

The Face squints. His metal nose hums with the subtle harmonics of the universe. Then he frowns.

“Hey,” says Solomon. “They’re made of Froot Loops.”

“Look down,” says Danielle. “And 29.2 degrees to the left.”

So Solomon does. He stares through the layers of trash and metal. He exercises the ultimate faculty of observation that ignores all obstacles. And he gasps.

“Was I right?”

Buried in the city, growing in the muck, he sees the gleaming sugary towers of the Froot Loops that grow there like formations of crystal.

“They’re glowing,” he says.

“They have an ‘inner light’,” Danielle says, a subtle intonation revealing the scare quotes.

“But what—”

Danielle sniffs. She pulls him around a corner. She leads him down a rickety metal staircase, past a thing of snot and brains, past a timeworn clockwork devil begging on a landing, past a hook monster and a cutting muck.

She tosses a coin in the clockwork devil’s hat as she does.

“Until you got here,” she says, “the Froot Loops were the best smell in this whole damn place.”

And they stumble into a great cavern of Froot Loops and all around them are the colors of it and she says, “They are like unto the Lord, and thus stay crunchy even in the void. That’s why they’re so important here—they’re not just part of this delicious breakfast, they’re also the only material that remains stable on the surface of the endingness.”

“Wow,” Solomon says.

She grins.

“They love me here,” Danielle says. “I’m the best damn prospector this whole place has.”

Solomon rubs his hand along the sticky hardness of the Froot Loops.

“Good Heavens,” he says.

He breaks off a few and crunches them between his teeth. He says, “Even in this emptiness—that there should be such things—”

“Eat,” says Danielle.

“No milk?”

“No time,” Danielle says.

And Solomon looks back and the power of his gaze strikes through the layers of the world and finds the Red Right Hand and he says, “It is so close.”

“There’s nothing we can do,” Danielle says. “It is blind and cannot see the beauty of your eyes. It is deaf and cannot hear the music of the spheres. It has no tongue to taste the riches of this place and if I were to think of a plan it would feel the vibrations of my thoughts and adapt its plans to mine.”

So Solomon and Danielle eat.

“We’ll fight,” Solomon says.

“Of course,” Danielle says.

“But we’ll lose?”

Danielle eats a chartreuse Froot Loop, the color and flavor of a fruit that never was.

“It is the Red Right Hand,” she says.

It is too big to enter the cavern so when it does it is like an explosion: it shatters the towers of crystallized Froot Loops, it bursts down the door, it is followed by the cracking twisting metal of the collapsing metal stair and the clockwork devil and the creature of snot and brains are tumbling after it in the vortex of its movements.

It is not human-shaped like they.

It is a hand larger than buildings. It is red with the blood of the Nose and of every other thing that has suffered in the world. Its fingers do its terrible walking and it has no eyes.

They had resolved to fight, but they do not fight: faced with the terror of the Red Right Hand, Solomon and Danielle run.

“There,” says Danielle, pointing. This is the vibration of her thoughts: The floor there—too weak to support its weight.

And she pulls Solomon across and her hair is streaming back and their faces both are white as porcelain and they jump for one of the towers of cereal and the Hand leaps after.

The whole of the cavern creaks and tilts sideways.

“Eh?” says Solomon.

He glances down. The cavern is on top of a rickety collection of buildings that have slumped inwards to hold one another upright; they stand on a mire of blood and dead trees, and below that a labyrinth of blindly moving worms and the great balloons that suspend the whole above the void.

“Problem,” he says.

And as the Hand comes after them the buildings shudder and the fourth floor of the cast-out Mariman House explodes inwards and the dead trees crack and the worms writhe and the balloons pop and suddenly they are looking down—in a direction that was ‘forward’ just a moment ago—towards the endless infinity of the void.

“I have always loved you,” Solomon says.

And the Red Right Hand shows no mercy but plunges into them and crushes Danielle’s arm and the left side of Solomon’s face and drives them down towards the void.

Solomon twists and jerks his head. His proboscis stings into the beast. He channels the music of the spheres and attempts thereby to tear the membrane of the Hand apart; but though it recoils back and gives a snapping howl it is not in the character of Solomon to destroy.

They fall.

It is the Froot Loops that cushion them, of course. They land like bumblebees falling into cereal, splashing the surface of the void, crushing and shattering the walls of cereal that would otherwise rebound and hover crunchily on the surface of the void—but even the splintered remnants of the pillars are enough to hold them up.

Like men and women after a shipwreck, the Face and the Nose cling to Froot Loop driftwood to hold their heads above the void.

Over their heads there is an immense strut of the city, leaning sideways but remaining whole; and on that strut, quivering with fury and with fear, there is the Hand.

“Close your eyes,” hisses Danielle.

And Solomon does; and he can see dimly with that remnant of sight that he is unable to entirely extinguish that Danielle has freed her working hand, draping her body across driftloops, so that she may pinch shut her nose.

“Why?” he says.

“It cannot feel vibrations in the void,” Danielle says. “It can only tell where the void lies by the substance of our thoughts.”

“Oh,” Solomon says.

The Hand skitters back and forth.

“It is afraid,” Danielle says. “And furious because I know that it is afraid. But with all the senses of us crippled, how can it know for sure where among the floating Froot Loops on the void it will be safe to leap down and pursue us?”

The surface of the void is like a flickering fire to the tactile sense of the Hand. Things come and go. They manifest vibration erratically. And down there there is the Nose that it cut off to spite the Face, the Face that it must kill to seize control, and the Froot Loops that because it cannot taste them should not be allowed to be.

Fear, it trembles.

Rage.

Danielle’s eyes widen.

It picks up her thought: Oh, God. I’m going to sneeze.

The Hand cultivates its plan.

“Don’t,” pleads Solomon.

Danielle is sniffling.

“Oh, Danielle, Danielle, no.”

And Danielle sneezes, and that sneeze sends the Froot Loops skirling across the surface of the void, and in the irrational reflex that follows it she inhales and her thoughts become rich with the scent-details of the world:

And the Hand leaps.

It is bounding across the surface of the void, its fingers never landing on a chunk of Froot Loops long enough to push it below the surface, it is coming for them—

And Danielle says, softly, “You have chosen poorly, Hand, to fight the Nose in its area of omniscience.”

And as the Hand comes down for her she taps her nose gently against the log on which she rests.

A crack spreads through it.

The Hand lands upon her. It drives her down into the substance of the void. The log of Froot Loops on which it hoped, momentarily, to rest, explodes.

It flounders, there, on nothingness. Its fingers catch hold of individual Froot-flavored rings. They crumble under it.

Then it is gone.

“Danielle,” Solomon says.

There is silence.

“Oh, Danielle.”

And the Face looks upon the substance of the void and his metal nose resonates with beauty and with sorrow.

There are some who say that the Nose that knows Froot Loops may know them even beyond the boundaries of life and death. That the smell of those Froot flavors crawls beyond nothingness and the grave to serve as a beacon for whatever lies beyond. There are those, thus, who imagine that this story has a happy ending, and also that the biggest problem with keeping Froot Loops in one’s house is the zombies and the restless dead.

That in that empty place beyond substance and mind the Nose still strains to know in which direction Froot Loops lie.

If she can find them—

If she can just find them!—

She will have won.

Lacking the Power of Reflection

Perhaps it would be better, thinks the Count, if I had not impaled all of those people in Roumania.

The Count’s head rolls down the hill.

It strikes a speedbump, flies high, and then continues its roll.

“One,” he laughs. “One regret. Ahahahahahahaha!”

The Count attempts to reflect upon the circumstances that brought him here, his head rolling down a Washington State hill under a post-apocalyptic sky. It is impossible because he is a vampire and lacks the power of reflection.

If I had counted them, he thinks. If I had only counted them, then I could have brought them back.

There is a dog. It is nearly skeletal with hunger.

It sniffs at him as he rolls past. It thinks imponderable dog thoughts. It has no strength to chase him.

Soon, it will die.

But:

“One, two, three, four— four legs!”

And its legs grow strong.

“One dog!”

Lightning flashes.

Thunder booms.

“Ahahahahahahahahahaha!”

That is my regret, he thinks. That I did not count the people that I impaled, in Roumania. That I did not think to count them so that I could bring them back.

His head rolls past a Church.

He does not count it. Vampires do not like Christian Churches because they cannot count a God that is three persons in one. That is why they draw back hissing from a crucifix and why they do not visit India, with its even less countable gods, at all.

“One terribly steep slope leading to a lake!” he laughs.

Lightning flashes.

Thunder booms.

“Ahahahahahaa!”

I thought that I was a good man, he thinks. I thought that I was doing honor to my people.

He does not think of the faces of his peers when they understood at last what he was.

“One world,” he counts. Because he does not have time to count each thing individually. “One world, in infinite parts.”

His head strikes a speedbump. It flies up. It rolls, jangling aggly-agglty along.

“One world, in infinite parts. Ahahahahahahahaha!”

Just once, he thinks, I would have liked the opportunity to count the sun.

He plunges into the glorious blue depths.