No Crutches for an Angel

The angel cannot see and cannot hear.

So he imagines forests.

The sun is hot and sometimes he tastes sand. But he imagines forests and talking animals. In the evening when he is thirsty he imagines that there is a river blue and clear. In the mornings he thinks that there is a pillow made of loam.

In his heart there is a drumming.

It drums because it is a warning. It drums because he will bring devastation. It drums the vengeance of the Lord.

It will burn the things around him.

It will burn with a terrible fire, unless he finds ten just and good and wholly righteous men.

“I think,” says a sloth, that is hanging from a tree, which the angel now imagines, “that you have already released this fire. For look, the sun is hot, and all around you there is sand.”

“Sometimes,” the angel says—

Though he cannot say much, as his tongue has melted to the bottom of his mouth—

“Sometimes I brush up against what seem like buildings, or I am pelleted with bullets. So I do not think that this is so.”

The answer is as haughty as a Queen’s.

“We sloths, we disagree.”

The angel stumbles on.

It is late in the day and he is tired and it is hard to hold back the fire that lurks behind the drumbeat in his heart when he meets Mikhael.

That is the name he gives the man.

He does not know the true name for the man because he cannot hear and he cannot see and he cannot speak. This is something that makes introductions difficult, particularly when you do not share a common tongue.

So he names the man Mikhael.

He says, “I feel you. I feel you in my heart.”

He is seized up. People grab his arms. Something goes over his head. He is pulled and he is dragged and his feet leave the ground.

Tum-dum, goes his heart.

Tum-dum.

He flares his great feathered wings. He makes a choked-off sound. He gargles.

But because he feels Mikhael near him, still, his heart retains some element of peace. He is frustrated. He is disoriented. He is angry and confused.

He is not enraged.

Something slides into his arm, metal in a vein, and time becomes a whirl.

“I feel you,” he says.

He is groping through a fever and looking for the sensation that told him that Mikhael was near.

“Ha,” laughs a duck. “You are an angel deaf and blind. What makes you think you are ever anything but alone?”

The sensation is distant. But he clings to it.

His heart still beats: tum-dum.

He is treated roughly. His wrists are sore.

Then he feels a mouth against his cheek. It is whispering to him through the vibration of his bones. It is too hard to hear but because his heart feels Mikhael he makes sense of certain words.

“You fell to earth,” says Mikhael. “And you were deaf and you were blind. And it is sad, because that makes it difficult to find a righteous man.”

“You have no idea,” says the angel.

It has a lot more humor and joy than something like that should have—gallows humor, but still this explosion of mirth in him, that someone would see that hidden pain and then think that perhaps the angel might not already be aware.

“You were captured,” says Mikhael. “Studied. It was decided that you should be turned loose against strategic targets. That you would wander here, in our homeland, until you failed to find ten righteous men. Then our land would be destroyed.”

“Ha,” says the angel.

He makes moaning, mumbling noises with his mouth. But what his heart says is, “You have no idea. You are making this about you. You are forgetting that I am laboring with every moment of my life not to hurt you but I am suffering myself.”

“You have been captured,” says Mikhael. “You have been bound. My people, they thought at first that they could contain you in this fashion.”

He makes an apology with his next words.

“I told them how to find you. I told them you were here.”

“Mikhael,” says the angel. “Will you bring me righteous men?”

“I am afraid,” says Mikhael, “that they have all been slain. There were never very many. There are children still, and dogs and cats, who are not unworthy. And they were indifferently incomplete in eliminating the women; three righteous such remain. But if it is only men whose hearts will serve then there are none; and if infants are excluded, then we can muster only eight. The rest are dead. They have been slain.”

The angel frowns.

“They have been slain,” he repeats.

“They were hunted for their righteousness,” says Mikhael. “It was elementary. There would be no point to send you here only to allow some incompetent discovery of ten righteous men to stop the fall of Heaven’s wrath.”

“Oh,” says the angel.

He turns his thoughts inwards for a time. He is thinking that perhaps Mikhael is righteous and that perhaps Mikhael is not. It is difficult to tell from the rough voice against his cheek and the tremor in his heart.

“Then you must hold me deep,” says the angel, “deep beneath the earth, deep in some far and isolated place, where the Heavens may rumble and the earth may crack but lives shall not be lost. Let the skies burn out their outrage against a nothing target and then all shall be well. —Or kill me.”

“I cannot do these things,” says Mikhael.

“But you must.”

“I have told them,” says Mikhael, “that you are an angel, and that we must therefore let you go. I have argued long and hard and finally I have won out. They fear me because I understand their hearts and they do not dare to go against this wisdom. They will hate me, of course. One day they will probably kill me out of fear. But while they let me live they listen to my voice and so they will let you go.”

“There are none?” asks the angel. His voice is a plea.

“The standards of an angel—“ says Mikhael. “They are not like ordinary men. I tell you, there are darknesses in every human heart. There are weaknesses and follies. They are not righteous. Save sometimes I would meet one of those who moved among us—frightening, inhuman, perfect, clear. They were the opposite of monsters, antipaths to devils that walked among us men. They shone and they frightened me and I thought that most likely they were as unworthy to live among us as we to live with them. They were obvious to those like me. They were obvious and easy targets and one by one their lives went out.

“They welcomed it, I think,” Mikhael says. “These are hard times for the righteous.”

“O,” cries the angel.

The bonds are stripped roughly from his wrists. He is dragged somewhere. He stumbles and he twists his leg but still they drag him on.

He feels the presence of a door.

“But I must kill you all,” says the angel, “if I find no righteous men.”

He falls onto the street outside. It is rough beneath his hands. He feels Mikhael go.

It comes to him softly there that if he is deaf and blind he must decide the presence or absence of righteous men upon his own; that the world, it cannot tell him, whether the angel now must act.

But he does not understand.

He does not see.

He does not understand how Mikhael let him go.

On the Origins of Common Foods

Flying on a plane is very nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tofu was originally made from ufos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’d Thought It Was Dopamine Overproduction

A legend about kindness.

“I do not understand this madness that comes on him,” Dr. Hans Fienl says.

He stares at the human clone, whose name of course is Adam.

Adam is threshing in the water-filled tube wherein Hans Fienl grew him. He is lean and strong and his brain is not developed but clearly he is mad.

And softly a voice from behind Hans Fienl says, “He is struggling for his wings.”

Hans turns, and it is his intention to shout, but the demeanor of the woman behind him puts Hans Fienl in silence.

She is tall and her skin is poreless, pure, like she has been dipped in fine glass.

She is wearing a jaunty orange jacket and behind her there are wings.

“I had had such hopes for this,” she says.

“Oh?”

She gestures towards Adam. “I had thought that perhaps the world would be so kind as that he would not have an angel’s soul. That human cloning would prove the answer to a problem that has worried at me for some good time.”

“Mm,” says Hans Fienl.

“You don’t understand,” the woman asserts.

“I don’t,” he says. “But I am flattered by your presence.”

“You should not,” she says. “You should not. I am—it is not good for you, Hans Fienl, that I am here. It is not wrong and it is not unkind but it is not the day I had wished to give you.”

“What is it,” he says, “that makes it wrong?”

“I must ask you,” she says, “and humbly, that you set aside this work. That you make these clones no longer, and treat this Adam well the long and horrid years of all his life.”

“Oh,” says Hans Fienl.

“Oh?”

He hesitates.

“I was hoping,” he says, “to have such a visitor as yourself, but also to continue my research, both in the interests of human longevity and of science.”

“It is not so,” says the woman.

“And why is that?”

“For some time it has been clear—some few millennia—that each human birth consumes an angel’s soul. That greedy in the womb you are and in the process of development you seize us, you rend us, you consume us for yourselves. And I cannot countenance that great hope I see rising on your face, Hans Fienl, because insofar as we are aware, you are not of our kind; that what you do with our souls is somewhat different from what we do with our own; that where you may be hoping that our spirits and yours are like, of kind to kind, we are more of what you might call your raw material of soul.”

“I see,” he says.

There is a silence.

“Well,” he says, “I do not see, but I see provisionally.”

“Pending,” she says, with light good humor, “that which I shall say that makes it more acceptable?”

And he blushes.

“Yes,” he says.

And in his cage of bubbling water behind Hans Adam writhes.

“Well,” says the woman, “there is this: that it is not your burden to bear, but ours, as your species is a reproductive one.”

“Ah,” Hans says.

“It is thus,” she says, because he doubts.

“Is it?”

“There is no policy that we may take,” the woman says, “that is kind to you and to our people both. That is why there is this tragedy, you understand. We cannot find a path that is moral root and branch; that is to you,”

And here she touches his chest,

“And to us,”

And she touches her own,

“Entirely kind. For there is an inextricability to it, you see. And so we have chosen to trust in the provenance of the world that if we allow you to— to still be born—”

And here her voice nearly breaks; and she turns her head aside.

“But that is not why I am here,” she says, abandoning the subject. “I am here because you must not engage in human cloning, Hans.”

“I see.”

“It is the cruelty of it,” she says. “The unimaginable cruelty of it. Look on Adam, your creation:

“He remembers an angel’s wings.”

There is a silence.

“It is not quite so publishable as my own theory,” Dr. Hans Fienl observes.

Reading Nearby Manuals

Sometimes you want a Canon copier.

Other times you want a Deuterocanon copier.

The standard Deuterocanon copier is based on the Book of Tobit. It works as follows.

Put the paper in the slot marked Tobit.

Seven printer cartridges explode. Finally, one survives long enough to start copying—but the printer jams!

The user wails, asking for death.

The user does not die and so Deuterocanon faces no liability. Instead, the Archangel Raphael shows up. He teaches a mysterious nearby bishounen to exorcise the copier.

Voila, copies!

It’s an affordable business solution based on sound, deuterocanonical, Biblical principles.

Dandelions

It is good to blow on ripe dandelions.

Their petals go everywhere!

Sometimes people blow on unripe dandelions.

This is dangerous. It’s not like blowing on ripe dandelions. It’s not safe. You shouldn’t try it at home.

Blowing on unripe dandelions is extreme. It’s the blood sport of childlike wonder. It’s frolicking in the fields—taken to the next level!

That’s not just the rhetoric of the dandelion cult.

One time in five hundred, when you blow on an unripe dandelion, it is not the seeds that scatter but the accidental qualities of your own existence.

One time in five hundred, the person who blows on the dandelion ceases to be and ceases ever to have been.

Many of the most wonderful people in the world met their ends in this manner.

There was Antijohnny Planetseed, the great negative space man whose footfalls left suns and planets in their wake. He blew on an unripe dandelion. That was his mistake!

There was Edna Porrins, whom you never met. She was ordinary but really cool if you talked to her a lot.

There was the angel Ogliel, who guest starred regularly on network television programs to remind people that angels are real.

Now they are gone, almost without trace, leaving only little echoes, little marks, faint imprints of metaphysical history etched onto the fabric of the world.

There were hundreds of them. Thousands. Endless thousands.

The world used to be much bigger than it is.

Once there was even Brad Morgan, who was probably pretty ordinary, just like Edna. He blew on the unripe dandelion, so we’ll never know.

“That’s why, in fact,” he said, as he puffed and he puffed, unmaking himself with slow statistical inevitability.

“That’s why?”

“No one will know how cool I could have been. Maybe I was the best. And each person gets to say—this is official Brad Morgan talking here—that I would have liked them. That I would have seen the good in their heart and loved them for it.”

And that’s the gift he gave you, by never having been.

But it’s not just him.

It’s all of them.

You can tell by the traces and the echoes.

They all would have liked you.

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.

On the Endings of Stories (2 of 3)

“Where were they,” Martin asks, “when we left off, yesterday?”

“It was cold!” Jane says. “And dark! And ominous!”

“That’s a good word,” Martin agrees. “Ominous.”

On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are cold and dark.

“This is the last place in the world I want to be,” says Jacob.

Jacob walks beside the angel in the basements under Central. He carries the spear that killed him in his hand. In the dark, his foot bumps against his runt. He growls and curses and reaches for it with his free hand but it is not there for his hand to find.

“The last place,” Jacob emphasizes.

“It is generally true that success is best achieved by pursuing the least pleasant course,” the angel says.

“That seems implausible,” Jason notes.

“There is the most progress to be made,” the angel says, “in those directions where we have made the least; that is to say, along the paths we are most loath to travel.”

Jacob nearly stumbles again. “Filthy runt,” he mutters.

He can see the angel’s eyes on him, even in the dark.

“Pardon?” the angel asks.

“I keep tripping on my runt,” Jacob says.

The angel watches.

Jacob gestures indistinctly with one hand. It is the gesture of someone who cannot easily explain.

“It is something the director gave me,” Jacob says. “A . . . thing. A horrid thing. A vessel for my imperfections.”

“Ah,” the angel says.

“I was very young,” says Jacob. “I was very young and I loved it very much. Because it made mistakes for me so I wouldn’t have to. It learned how to do math wrong when I learned how to do it right. It stumbled and crouched and scurried and spilled and I ran like a gazelle. When he kept me awake it was the runt who grew tired and weak. And I forgave it its errors and I kept it close and one day it went mad and began to rot so that I would not have to.”

The angel walks for a time in silence.

“It is a difficult thing,” says the angel, “to be a man; but sometimes it is harder to stand outside humanity and know that you can only grant those wishes that are possible to grant.”

I do not want to be this, Jacob thinks.

“I do not want to be this,” says the runt.

“Did you know,” asks the angel, “that when you were young, I thought you’d be a hero?”

Jacob shakes his head.

“You still have that choice,” the angel says.

Jacob laughs.

“Everyone does,” the angel says. “Everyone has a path to grace. You are never so far fallen that you cannot find the dharma within you, the thing that you can be, the brightness, and give yourself to it in sacrifice and joy and be a thing of beauty in this world. That is why I answered your call, Jacob. That is what I want for you. That is what the door to the right was meant to bring.”

“Then show me,” says Jacob.

The angel holds up the thousand shards of palm and fingers that are her hand and in it is an image of a fire and a light.

“What is that?”

“Coretta’s fire,” says the angel. “Dharma. Dragon’s light. The beacon towards the road that you should walk.”

Down the corridor Jacob sees the maw.

It is a characteristic of angels that their words are most difficult to understand for those who need the most to hear them. Thus one may reasonably say that the message the angel gave him was gibberish; that her words were incomprehensible; that it was not his fault that he could not understand. Still, he sees something in the light she holds, and gropes towards it in his mind.

But Jacob does not have much time.

The maw is like a serpent’s mouth, corded and fanged, but it has no inside or outside. It is not a physical thing. It is a principle of devouring.

Inside the maw,

Of course,

It is empty.

And the maw drives towards Jacob like the hammer of a god.

“Heroes can kill monsters, can’t they?” Jacob asks.

It is a distant, distinct question. He knows that his runt is scrambling and squeaking away. It has probably wet itself; it is certainly ungracious in retreat. But Jacob is perfect by the virtue of its imperfection, and he is simply thinking and gliding back, smooth as silk, his spear rising.

“Yes,” says the angel.

It has been two and a half weeks since Sebastien came to Central. It has been thirty-eight years since Jacob died. But what he is thinking of now is something that came between.

It was only six months back.

Iris was one of the children that Central held. The case review for her was on his desk. Her keepers recommended her release:

“. . . even in severe duress, the child is disinclined to issue supernatural manifestations. It is recommended that she be released and monitored rather than continuing to spend Central resources on her care and training. . . .”

Jacob knew better.

It was obvious for anyone who knew these children, for anyone who’d been one of these children, that Iris was falsifying her duress; that she was presenting as a child broken to fend away the chance that she would break; that she was suitable and strong but clinging to the power to feign weakness. Such gambits cannot last forever.

Release approved, he wanted to write. That’s what his runt was muttering.

But to write that would be a lie. It would be unprofessional. It would be false. It would not be correct for a man in his position. If he wrote that he would be forced to take up arms against the things that Central stood for, against the men who paid him and who’d tortured him and who’d killed him nearly forty years before.

He could not do that. That would be more false. That would put meaning to a world that had none and assert the humanity of an empty, worthless girl.

Jacob watched himself write the letter that condemned her to further pain, and then he went back to the games of Tetris that helped relieve his stress.

The runt was sniffling and crying and mouthing at Jacob’s hand, so he slapped it away and it stuck onto the wall.

Six months passed.

Jacob’s spear, sharp as a thorn, comes down. It pierces the maw and pins it to the floor. Jacob reaches for the fire within him, the waking of his dharma, the path that leads him from that place.

It is with a still small terror that he sees that the runt is caught in maw and spear.

They are thrashing together like the synchronized shuddering of the dead.

“It is hungry for you,” says the angel, “because of your contradictions.”

“Is it?”

“To exalt the sense in which things have no meanings,” says the angel, “is to create a contradiction. It overwrites the rules of meaning with imported context from a world that has none. That contradiction is like a knot: pull and twist at it, and it grows tighter until it resolves down to a single flaring NO at the center of your world. Pragmatically, this leaves you with two choices: accept oblivion, or grant things meanings. My ability to save you is entirely contingent on your doing the latter, and choosing a life in which salvation is coherently defined.”

Jacob struggles to keep the maw pinned down. The floor is writhing and shaking.

I will shoulder this burden, he thinks. But he does not say it.

“Shoulder,” mumbles the runt.

Then it coughs up blood and dies.

Jacob’s vision of the fire blinks out.

The maw bucks him off, and Jacob falls against the wall, and it is with a clockwork grin that he smiles at the angel.

“I’m sorry,” Jacob says. “I wasted your time.”

The angel’s voice is strained but the word she chooses is almost insanely polite. “Pardon?”

“To be perfect is to be unredeemable,” says Jacob. “Eternal. Unchanging.”

Imps eat the soul that you cannot bear to keep.

“When I took my runt,” Jacob says, “I lost the power to be other than what I am.”

The maw rises.

“But thank you for telling me I will not end,” says Jacob.

The maw falls on him.

Jacob feels himself dissolving and

“And?” Jane asks.

“The end,” says Martin. “The justification for eternity has ceased for Jacob to apply.”


See also The Fable of the Lamb,
Tigers in their Cages
Coming Home (a legend about Iris)
Saturday
Priyanka
and Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw.

Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw (1 of 3)

“Once upon a time,” says Martin, “that is to say, right now, there was a man named Jacob who should have been a hero.”

“Why wasn’t he?” Jane asks.

“Because sometimes things that just should happen, don’t.”

“What I fear,” says Jacob, precisely, “is the emptiness that follows life.”

His runt is down on the floor. It is pushing its face against Jacob’s leg. Jacob kicks it, and it scurries off into the shadows.

“It is unacceptable,” Jacob says, “that my personal story should end.”

The angel is a cloud of wings and faces. He can see her only as pieces. It is like looking through a broken lens.

She is wearing a jacket.

“It doesn’t ever end,” the angel says. “That is a fallacy.”

“Why so?”

Jacob is gray. That is because he died. He must take great care at all times lest he rot. He brushes at his cheek, his fingers checking for flaws or damage. He brushes off the leg of his brown suit pants.

“You cannot have the experience of no-longer-having-experiences,” the angel says.

Jacob hesitates. “That is not reasonable,” he says.

“You impose beginnings and ends on things,” says the angel. “But in this world only the perfect things are finite. In this world there is always an imperfection that leads into the beginning of each story. There are always dangling threads leading out the end. There is no thought that you can have that is a final thought. There is no action you can take that is your final action. There is only the point where you choose to say ‘the end’ and that is not the end.”

There is a clank. Jacob looks over. His runt has upset the coffee mug. It squeaks in horror and scurries away.

“Why are you here?” Jacob asks the angel.

“For you.”

It has been two and a half weeks since death came to Central; since the avenging wind that was Sebastien came; since everyone working in that foul place was given a choice: to speak their words of repentance, or to die.

Jacob stood before the men and women of Central, and he said of his sins, “It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.”

Then he walked through the door of life, which lay to his right, and Sebastien stayed his hand.

The runt skulked through after him.

Others went left and died. Others repented and they lived.

But Jacob had not repented.

He simply spoke the words.

It is Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004.

“I know what will happen,” says Jacob.

“Do you?” the angel says.

“I have been dreaming every night of the maw. It is down there.”

Jacob taps the floor with his foot.

“The basement goes ten layers deep. Somewhere in it there is a maw, a devouring god, and it is loose. After Sebastien freed the children we keep here, he freed the gods. And one of them is the maw, and it will hunt us down one by one and devour us, each of us that spoke the words of repentance but did not repent.”

Jacob looks around his office. There is a desk of fake wood. There is a coffee mug, now spilt. There is a narrow window and his rolling chair. Against the doorframe the angel leans.

“I cannot afford to end,” he says. “So I wished with my all heart and then you came.”

The faces of the angel shift and tilt.

“I think,” says the angel, “that if you fear divine punishment for your hubris, that the first step should be curtailing your pride. You suffered in this place. You died because of this place. Is it unworthy of repentance, what you have done in its name?”

Jacob holds out his hands. They are gray.

“It has been almost forty years since the director tore out my heart and shoved a spear through my brain,” Jacob says. “Here is what I learned from the experience: that those who imagine that they are people are wrong. Those who think they are more than mere machines are wrong. We are all horrors. We are all machines. We are a joke. I did not want to die. I lay there with my heart beating in his hand and his face shining with vindication and the pointed end of the spear sticking out from my mouth and I did not want to die. But when I got up again afterwards I knew that I was dead and everything I imagined about my life was false.”

“And yet,” says the angel.

“I cannot repent,” says Jacob. “I do not believe that anything I have done was wrong, for there is no wrong. The world has no deeper purpose and our actions mean nothing and the universe does not care what you or I imagine is unjust. There is only the question of survival: what is the most effective path for staving off the end?”

His runt is amongst Jacob’s papers and reports now. It is evaluating one of the client studies. It is writing down its observations. They are false and wrong and with a growl Jacob seizes it by the neck and hurls it against the wall.

The angel does not seem to see.

“It is regrettable,” says the angel, “that you will be judged by a moral standard that you do not hold.”

“Yes,” agrees Jacob. “But the gods love poetry.”

“It will be elegant,” says the angel. “Elegant and inevitable; something brought on you by the manner of your rejection; an example made of you in fate and blood that realizes the worst of all your nightmares. There are no kind fates for those who refuse their chance at grace. There are few enough for those who choose acceptance.”

“So,” says Jacob. He looks at her and his eyes are open and calm. “Save me.”

I entrust myself to you, he wants to say.

But he does not say it.

The strategy of the game is better played this way, he knows. The weight of his struggle must fall on the angel, and he must not make himself vulnerable before its grace.

“Entrust,” mumbles the runt. “Entrust.”

“Then we must go down,” the angel says.

On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are very cold and very dark.

Angels

“There are angels in this castle,” White Lion says. “They are born to fill Zenobia’s emptiness with hope.”

Angels are a kind of spiritual being (“god.”) They generally wear jackets with holes for their wings. Where angels go there is the potential for virtue and good outcomes—even when things are bleakest. The smallest, but genuine, chance of impossible and unlooked-for grace travels with them, drifts down where they pass, flies with the sound of their wings. Thus we say angels answer emptiness with hope.

Sadly angels aren’t quite so much as one would want.

Their power is real. Sometimes an angel goes into a hopeless situation and something good happens that couldn’t have happened without the angel. Sometimes that possibility of a good outcome, of being good, of finding good in another—sometimes that possibility wasn’t even there without an angel, and sometimes once the angel arrives, you find it.

Or, a lot of the time, you don’t.

Known angels include:

Daniel, who knew what it took to save Jenna but couldn’t do it;
Evasive Angel, who allows anyone who catches her to change their fate, even to the breaking of the cycle of the world (but who cannot be caught);
Forbidden A, whom one ought not think about;
Magic A, who can do anything (sometimes); and
Realistic A, who can provide a pragmatic evaluation of any situation.

Sometimes when people are hurting all we can do is dream up legends for them.

It hurts! But that’s all that we can do.

And Pelopia says that that’s sort of what being an angel is like. Only, when she says it, it’s when we’d expect it to be sad, and instead she looks—

Like the sea is crashing, somewhere, on the shore; like the world is brilliant with love; like the sky is bright, too bright for mortal eyes to look at, and with the sun.

Coming Home

In the forest there is a glen. In the glen there is grass and trees and dirt and earthworms and flowers.

Iris is a flower.

One day, she discovers that the ground is hurting her. Her roots are burning. So she pulls them up. The dirt is hurting her. The grass is hurting her.

She pulls her roots up. She pulls up her stalk. She spreads her petals and jumps and she catches the wind, and off she floats away.

The stars say to her at night, “We have lost one of our own.”

“I lost the ground,” she says.

“We have lost one of our own,” say the stars.

She drifts on.

It is hungry, being a flower in the sky. There is no soil to draw nutrients from. She must feed on clouds and the dirt in the wind. It is a lean time. But one day she finds a bag of plant fertilizer that drifts in the wind like she does.

“Did the fertilizer store burn you?” she asks, but bags of plant fertilizer can’t talk.

So she drifts to it, and buries her roots in it, and drifts on.

The wind says to her, one day, “There is a prince who is my son, and he has lost his love. She was stolen away. The chariot is taking her east of the sun and west of the moon, to the palace of a witch.”

“I miss my family,” Iris says.

“Then go back,” the wind suggests.

“The ground hurts,” Iris says.

She drifts on.

After a while, she finds a bathtub in the sky. She’s not very strong, but she’s determined. She empties the fertilizer into the bathtub. She adds dirt collected from the wind and opens the drain just enough that the soil doesn’t get waterlogged in the rain. She catches a picture of a forest that blows past, and in this carriage and with this comfort she rides high above the world.

An angel sits on the edge of the bathtub for a while. He’s wearing a jacket. It’s got holes for his wings. Hair flops in his eyes.

Time passes.

“The ground burns me,” says Iris.

The angel brushes her petals with a gentle hand. “I know what that’s like,” he says.

“That’s why I fly around in a bathtub.”

The angel nods.

“I liked the ground,” Iris says. “I mean, I liked it.”

“If you wish hard enough,” the angel says, “then you can go home.”

“How do you know?”

“I know,” the angel says.

Iris sighs. “I can’t,” she says. “I can’t wish that hard. I’m not that strong.”

The angel nods again. His wings beat, gently. He takes flight.

Iris floats on for a while. Below her, there’s a glinting in the ocean. That night, she calls to the stars, “I think it’s there.”

“We’ve lost one of our own,” say the stars.

“I think he’s there. I think she’s there. I think it’s there,” cries Iris.

There’s a tumult in the heavens. Then a silence. Then a stirring and a rising in the sea.

“We are whole,” say the stars.

Sometimes it rains very hard and lightning strikes the showerpole of the bathtub. Iris does not mind. It is invigorating.

Below her, one day, she sees a princess, in a chariot driven hard, east of the sun and west of the moon.

“Is that her?” she asks the wind.

“Who?”

“Your son’s true love?”

The wind fades out. The bathtub stops with a jarring halt, and falls nearly fifty yards before the wind is back.

“Thank you,” says the wind.

One day the angel comes to sit on the tub again.

“You could go home,” he says.

“I wish I could.”

“I know what it takes,” the angel says. “To help you. To help me. I’m just not very good at doing it. But you could go home. Just because the ground burned you once doesn’t mean it’ll burn you forever. Can’t you believe me?”

“One day I will,” says Iris. “One day I’ll believe you. One day something will happen, something will change, and then I can wish hard enough to find my way home.”

“Promise?” asks the angel.

“I don’t have any pinkies,” says Iris.

The angel smiles. Then he’s aloft again.

He says:

“I wish for you that ‘one day’ is soon.”