Intermission (I/I)

March 25, 1995

Tantalus hungers. Tantalus thirsts.

The woglies flee.

“That’s not important,” Martin is saying. “That isn’t. I’m going to sweep away the kingdoms of the world and tear down all the monsters. I’m going to rend the world down to a remnant and from its ashes build the most glorious of Heavens.”

His soul is in shreds.

He’s hardly alive. He’s holding himself up by sheer will and his eyes are full of the radiance of the numinous and every time he looks at Tantalus it’s like Tantalus is suddenly naked before the face of God; caught by shame and forbidden knowledge in the Garden of Eden; staring full on into Medusa’s eyes.

He’s a creature of all wild freedom, Martin is, and freedom’s terrible.

Then Martin wobbles and loses strength.

He falls, face-first, into the lake.

It is Tantalus’ lake. It belongs to him. It’s his clear cold lake of water. He has always thought that it must be extremely cool and damp and refreshing, but whenever he reaches down to cup up some water in his hands, the water flees from him. It drains away into the ground and leaves only parched dry earth behind. For three thousand years Tantalus has lived amidst his lakes and never once has he had a chance to drink.

As for Martin, he is cool and damp and refreshed but also trying to breathe.

He is underwater.

It does not work. Instead Martin, involuntarily, coughs. He thrashes. He tries to pull himself to the surface. It does not work. His eyes widen with panic. His panic redoubles. Shuddering and flailing washes through him. He breaches the surface. He flutters his arms against the water. His head rolls back. He sinks.

“Oh,” says Tantalus.

There is emotion in his voice. He is surprised to hear it there. He had not thought himself still capable of emotion, after three thousand years.

It must be envy, he thinks.

“Oh, I envy you.”

It is the Underworld. Martin cannot die. Beneath the water his eyes pop open. He gasps. He tries to take a breath but he cannot. He tries to scream but he cannot. His arms flutter but he cannot make his body move.

After a while he passes out again.

The emotion in Tantalus’ voice is not envy. This baffles him.

“Ridiculous,” says Tantalus.

It still isn’t envy. It is pity, perhaps. Maybe even kindness.

Tantalus’ heart beats once. It is irritated at him. His heart only beats when it’s irritated at him, these past three thousand years. He’s long since too dry for blood.

The clenching of his heart is a dry and agonizing pain. Air whistles through his veins.

“Ridiculous.”

It is a unique experience, to have his conscience blackmailing him again, after all these years of death. He reaches upwards. The wind whips the branches of the trees away from him. They are laden with sweet-smelling fruit and for three thousand years he has not caught hold of a single one.

He braces his hand against the trunk of the tree. He pulls himself upright.

Martin wakes up. His eyes open. He tries to scream but he cannot. He tries to move but he cannot.

He passes out.

Tantalus wades out to Martin. He purses his lips. He looks down at the drowning boy. Then he sits down heavily. The water level plummets. Tantalus snatches at it reflexively, tries to cup some up. There is no water left.

It has drained into the ground already. It has fled from him. It has left only dry dust behind, and Martin like a flopping fish.

Tantalus sets his withered lips on Martin’s own.

He inhales. He is like a vampire. He is seeking some scrap of sustenance — to draw some bit of soothing moisture up from Martin’s waterlogged lungs.

The heart of Tantalus beats.

Tantalus’ face grows taut with pain. He loses his grip on Martin. He tries to hang on but he cannot. In the moment he pulls back and curls around the agony in his chest, the water escapes him, makes a break for it, scrambling out of Martin’s lungs, drooling from his lips, pouring desperately into the ground to escape Tantalus’ touch.

Martin coughs. He wakes. He passes out.

He wakes again.

In the moment Martin wakes he recoils. He throws himself back. His eyes open. He gasps. His skin is bitterly dry. He stares.

Then he begins to laugh.

“Oh, God,” he says. He laughs. “Oh, man.”

His eyes focus on Tantalus. He sees the lines of pain on Tantalus’ face. He gives a wretched smile.

Tantalus shrugs.

“Thank you,” Martin says. “I’m so sorry. Thank you. Oh, man.”

“It happens,” Tantalus says.

“I was drowning,” Martin says. “And now I am not. It is really good to not be drowning. Nobody ever told me this. Nobody told me how good it was going to be. Nobody ever said, ‘it’s so incredible, not to be drowning, and then passing out, and then waking up and drowning some more.’ But it is. I think that people just don’t know.”

“I would like that,” Tantalus says.

“You would not.”

“It looked moist.”

Martin’s eyes flick down to the dry ground, then back up.

“Yeah,” he says, more softly. “Yeah, I guess.”

He sits up.

“It was cool, and clear,” he says, “and refreshing. It would have been really nice. Except then I started to panic. Because I couldn’t breathe. And then the panic got worse and worse until I think I would have done anything to make it stop. And then my brain shut down and I couldn’t think any more and my eyes filled up with agony and the dark. And then I’d wake up again and it wasn’t cool and clear and refreshing any more because I was already drowning when I woke.”

Tantalus licks his lips.

“And if it weren’t the Underworld —”

Martin shudders, suddenly.

“I’m so lucky,” he says. “Oh, God. If this hadn’t been the Underworld. If this weren’t the Underworld — what a stupid way to stop existing. I would have died.”

“It is good to be a living person in the Underworld,” Tantalus says, “since there is nothing here that can actually kill you.”

There is a distant cursing. There is a distant rumbling.

Sisyphus, rolled over by a distant boulder, screams.

“There are also disadvantages,” Tantalus concedes.

Martin looks down.

“You’ve been stuck here,” he says, “for three thousand years.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m going,” Martin says. “I’m going to go. You should also go. You should come out of the Underworld, to the surface world, like me. What d’you think?”

“I can’t.”

Martin tilts his head. “Why not?”

“It’s my punishment.”

“Yes?”

“Zeus said,” Tantalus says. “He said that I had to live in a land of plenty, and know only hunger. He said that I had to dwell amidst sweet lakes, and know only thirst. He said I had to be forever in the company of what I long for, and have it never. So I can’t go.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Martin says.

Tantalus shrugs.

“That isn’t punishment,” Martin says. “That’s just . . . that’s just life.

Tantalus can’t help it. He laughs. It’s a bitter laughter and it hurts almost as much as a heartbeat; and eventually it causes a heartbeat, and hurts strictly, mathematically, more.

Martin is watching him.

Tantalus isn’t even looking at him any more and he can still feel it, that Martin is watching him; that that fey power is coming back into Martin’s eyes.

“Hey,” Martin says.

Martin touches his shoulder.

“Hey,” Martin says. “I’m not — I mean, I’m not a good person. I’m not going to say that. But I’m not the kind of person who’s going to just meet somebody who’s been starving for three thousand years and then go away and let them starve and dry out for another three thousand. That’s too much. I’m the kind of cruel hell-god who might leave you to suffer another, you know, three months, for a total of six. Or stab you in the eye with a spork, but then take you to a hospital. But, I mean, seriously, man. Three thousand years. You’re done. You’ve paid enough.”

Tantalus’ heart is not beating. He has stopped laughing.

It is a certain grace that settles in around Tantalus, then, and frees him from the pain of Martin’s words.

“I’m okay,” he says.

“You’re not okay.”

“I have my lakes,” Tantalus says. “I have my sweet-smelling fruit trees. And when I reach for the fruit the branches fly up like winged birds, and it is beautiful; and sometimes, their petals float free to land upon the surface of the lake, like little boats. And they are beautiful.”

He cannot look at Martin.

He dare not look at Martin. He would break. Instead he stands up. He turns away. The water trickles back around his feet.

“I have the gourd of my stomach,” Tantalus says. “I am very used to it. It is always hungry, but I laugh at it, ho-ho-ho, and strike it with my hands to make a drum.”

Martin is on his feet.

That is good, Tantalus thinks. If Martin does not get up and leave the lake then I shall have to repeat this whole conversation again.

“I have no talent for drumming,” Tantalus observes. “And my stomach is not a very good drum. But I can still make Persephone weep or Hades dance with my drumming; for even the least talented man will become a quite good drummer if he practices for three thousand years.”

“You will still have a stomach,” Martin says, “if you go free.”

“I don’t want to go,” Tantalus says.

He risks a glance over his shoulder. Martin is standing on the water. It is lifting him up as it rises. His eyes are as the oceans and the skies.

“I didn’t ask if you wanted to go,” Martin says.

This is a lie.

“Well,” Martin admits. “I did. But that was earlier. After that, I said that I was not the kind of person who was going to just leave you here to suffer another three thousand years. You’re going now. It’s done.”

Tantalus’ heart is beating. It will not stop. It is like four little torturers having an agony party in his chest, one for every valve, and taking occasional vacations down his veins.

And for just a moment Tantalus believes in Martin.

For just a moment Tantalus forgets that he is doomed to this garden and this hell. For just a moment he believes there is a choice; and swiftly, perversely, he rejects it, rejects freedom, turns away from it, clings to his torment with the whole of him, with body, heart, and mind, crying: o my gardens! O my agonies! O my lakes!

And Martin grins.

“I want to stay,” Tantalus says.

Martin grins wider. He snaps his fingers. “Bang,” he says, and points his finger like a gun, because Tantalus has erred.

And desperately Tantalus reaches for the substance of his damnation, and it eludes him; claws for it, and it sinks into the dry parched earth; reaches for it, and the wind catches him up, blows the branches of him away, and he is gone.

What’s Gray and Hurts More than You Can Imagine? (IV/VII)

And Melanie, in the soot-web of the spider, asks her riddle:

Why do people hurt?

Why do we have to suffer, and fear, and die?

And the spider glares at Melanie.

It is angry.

It is angry because it is wounded. It is angry because she stabbed it right in the eye. It is angry because the riddle is very difficult, and arguably invalid, and giving an answer involving spiders would redound unfavorably upon itself.

“It’s your fault,” the spider suggests.

But Melanie, she shakes her head.

Not it!

She shakes her head, and it can feel her shaking her head, through the vibration in its web.

So the spider thinks some more.

“We’re attached to the things that hurt us,” the spider guesses.

This is actually pretty good, particularly under the circumstances, but it’s still not right; or, at least, Melanie is laughing a little, and fervently shaking her head, and the spider feels a moment of peculiarly stung pride.

“We don’t actually have to suffer?” proposes the spider, in a third and final guess, and Melanie is laughing now as gaily as the storm.

“It is because of the elephant,” she says.

And the spider cannot help it, it twitches itself upright, it staggers towards her on its web, it is all over rage. And it feels very strong, and then it feels very weak, as its nervous system misfires. And its face is all-over blood where Melanie had stabbed it, much worse than it had thought. And she is punching it, punching it, punching it and screaming, right where her knife had broken its eye.

Its world goes still.

It is the elephant.

Later she will remember this. Later, she will find it bubbling up inside her, will find Liril sitting there telling her, “I won’t make you that. It’s wrong.”

And she will burst out with, “It is the elephant,” and with laughing, and with desperation, and with discovering, to her regret, that it does not shatter every attachment, does not break down every web, does not bring an end to every difficulty—that it is inadequate as an answer to the difficulties of her life.

“It is the elephant,” the spider, blankly, says.

The patterns of lemma and corollary elude it. The soot ceases to make sense. And everything is clean and crisp and bright, in the world of the soot-spider, and nothing dark to it at all.

There is a hammering like an elephant’s stomp—

CHK-FUU

—in the chambers of its heart. The spider’s fragile life gives way.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1979 CE

And Melanie lays gasping in the corner of a room, and her knife is ringing to the ground;

and the soot-spider slips on a single thread to the land that is after life.

coming up in March:

  • letters columns;
  • my birthday!
  • quite possibly a special edition of Nobilis; and
  • the next part of this story: A Lament for Amiel.

In the meantime, perhaps, you’d like to poke around at the Nobilis products page? If you’re getting really weird characters, enable JavaScript!

What’s Purple and Incarnated in Human Form to Save Us All From Suffering? (III/VII)

Now Melanie is in the soot-web of the spider, and she is laughing.

She is laughing because she has posed a riddle and its answer—

Q: What is gray and wrinkly and fights fires?
A: A really old fireman.

—and, mostly, because she’s seven.

She may be about to die. She is terrified and she is hurting and she doesn’t understand why or what she did to deserve it or how it came to be—but she’s still seven.

The joke is funny.

If you’re seven, you’re probably incapacitated with hilarity right now. You’re falling over and may be too lost in your amusement to make sensible observations about this story.

If the spider were seven, it would have mixed feelings—it is, after all, wounded—but probably it too would laugh.

It is not.

In absolute time, it is somewhat younger than seven. In soot-years, it is much older. There are spiders that can live out the long aeons of the world, ageless as the sky. There are spiders that can sleep upon an acorn and wake up upon an oak.

Soot-spiders are not that sort.

For a soot-spider, waiting out a single child’s dehydration so it can eat them is a substantial portion of its life; the window to amuse a soot-spider with jokes like these is hours wide, at most, and long since past.

“I should not talk to you,” says the spider.

It says this in the voice of someone realizing something they would never have imagined could be true. Children are tasty, but dangerously insane.

“I should not get close to you and I should not talk to you. Not until you die.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1979 CE

“But it’s your turn,” Melanie says.

“I hate you,” says the spider. She’d stabbed it earlier, right in the eye. “I do not want to take a turn.”

Melanie goes silent.

She isn’t criticizing its choice and she isn’t praising it. She’s just letting the spider get more stressed, in the dark, in the awkward silence, with its wound.

Her own breath is ragged and full of pain.

There’s a bit of time where it thinks that possibly she is crying. Possibly she is not.

“Fine,” it says.

If she had just said something, instead of crying, it might have gone back to singing its song. Or rushed her, in hopes of killing her before she could use the knife. It seems unlikely to the spider that she has found the knife again, in any case, so this would probably be safe.

But she isn’t talking, and she isn’t moving, and it can’t help thinking about riddles, now, and when one occurs to it at last the pressure to say the just-thought-of riddle merges with the mad and painful pounding in its wounded head.

“The night is weeping,” says the spider. “The sun is rising. Look! The last tears of the night have yet to fall.”

Melanie doesn’t even realize at first that it’s a riddle.

She thinks the spider is making some kind of stupid poetic comment on the fact that one or both of them will die. It disgusts her. It irritates her. She clings stubbornly to her silence in hopes of forcing a riddle out.

When she finally realizes that the spider’s words are a riddle, it is beyond her.

She cannot grasp it.

The spider, uncomfortable in the silence, makes a tentative movement on the web. Melanie’s heart nearly bursts with the panic of it. It is only then, as she sits up suddenly and hugs her chest to hold in the pounding of her heart, that she thinks of the spider’s first riddle and its answer and she understands.

Q: What stands on eight legs in the morning; and one leg in the evening; and on something that isn’t a leg at all, in day?
A: A spider.

If you were a spider, you would probably think this riddle very deep and very insightful, but you would also have a fuzzy, eight-eyed face.

“It’s dew,” Melanie says.

Or, yes, a fuzzy, seven-eyed face, if one eye’d been stabbed out.

“The tears are dew. The tears of the night are dew, caught on a web.”

It surprises the seven-eyed spider how much this answer warms it.

It doesn’t care about stumping her. Not really. And it’ll hate her whether she can answer its riddles or she can’t. So the answer she’s given just bursts into a little bubble of happiness and pride inside the spider, because it’s not about her and it—it’s just a confirmation that the spider had asked a good and meaningful riddle after all.

“Yes,” it says.

Yes, it is dew.

“Now you.”

It knows it will regret asking. It knows it should stop there—but to give her a turn when it has taken one is fair, and besides, it is used to Melanie now.

How bad can it be?

And Melanie is cunning.

Oh, Melanie is terribly, terribly cunning, for a seven-year-old girl.

“Why do people hurt?” she asks. “Why do people have to suffer, and fear, and die?”

The spider’s mind goes totally and entirely blank.

This is a harder riddle than it expected. It is, in fact, one of the hardest riddles in the world.

An egg? the spider thinks.

It is numb down its right side.

An egg? A dinosaur? A grape?

A grape is a purple fruit that is not particularly responsible for the pervasive universal characteristic of suffering. Anybody attempting to blame this characteristic on the grapes has not completely thought through their theodicy.

That its thoughts are slow is not the spider’s fault.

Its head is not very clear. The knife, it thinks, in the pressing dark, might conceivably have reached its brain; and it realizes, after a moment, that it is thinking about answers to a different color of riddle entirely.

Next week: A Study in Entanglement (VII/VII). I could tell you why you have to wait, but then the soot-spider would kill Melanie and the later parts of this story wouldn’t make any sense!

In the meantime, perhaps you’d enjoy

Rainbow Noir: the Mountains and the Sky

It has been a certain interval, dear reader, since I first had the opportunity to speak to you of the magical land of rainbows above the world and the shadowed city that succeeded it. Of how it came to pass that a certain girl, born in shadows and dwelling in shadows, became the rainbow; how she challenged the notorious Nihilism Bear; and, in the end, defeated him. Later, and after the receipt of certain despatches and messages, I was able to speak to you further: of how she sought out Mr. Dismal, whom she falsely suspected of responsibility for her various plights, and, in The Case of Mr. Dismal, made an end to him. But we still did not know the why of it all—whose will it had been that had set itself against the rainbow; that had brought Mr. Dismal to that land; that had dulled the kingdom of every brightness into Shadow City’s noir.

Lately, some of my friends have been struggling. They’re trying to do something good, something amazing, something cool, but they’re working for and with people who’d really much rather it came out a product. There is a corrupt religion of money over worth that has seeded itself in the modern business world; and people I care about, dear reader, are being ground down by the faithful of that religion; by the Mythos cultists of this modern era who would never have believed, who couldn’t have believed, that a place like Shadow City ever had color in it at all.

And I thought, maybe, for them, as a Christmas present; and for you, as a Christmas present—

Even though it wouldn’t help them any, and even though it wouldn’t mean that my dear readers would hear regular tales from me again—

that I would look into the matter a bit. That I would find out a bit more about the thing that turns rainbows into shadows, and ask what kind of answer rainbows make.

Without further ado, and with the hopes that all who read this will trust their hearts and live in brightness, the conclusion and the beginning of a story that started long ago.

Rainbow Noir: The Mountains and the Sky

The girl rides the horse through the sky. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing, and underneath them there are endless miles of cold air.

Beneath that are the mountains, which we shall name Gray Death.

Her name—the girl’s name, that is—is Wisp. She’s saved the universe once or twice. She’s the kind who you just have to point and shoot, basically, and the universe gets saved. That’s what she is, and why she is, and why there have to be girls like her.

As for the horse—

As for the horse’s name—

There’s an ice crystal bigger than the world. There’s an endless distance, and space. There’s a great and brooding thought that presides over it all,

Like God had forgotten color, hope, and light—

And we could call that “I Am,” or “the All,” or “The Lord that Dwells in Starlight.”

But the horse itself, it doesn’t really have a name.

It’s the most marvelous horse there ever was. A horse like that doesn’t really need its own name. Who could you confuse it with?

It’s just, you know, the horse.

People laugh, talking about magical sky horses and rainbows, sure, they laugh, but if you saw it there, its feet pounding against the nothingness, endless miles of cold air below and below that, Death—

You wouldn’t laugh.

You’d just think, in that moment, that it was the most marvelous and warm and most incredible thing you ever saw.

One day, one day, once upon a time, the girl fell off that horse. She screamed. She’s very brave, but even a brave person can scream when you’re falling and the sky is rushing up around you and there’s only Death below. She screamed, and the world around her burned with its blues and its purples and its brightness, and her life flashed before her eyes in a series of twenty-minute shorts that in the end didn’t add up to very much—

And that time, he saved her.

That time, as she spun and fell and rainbows curled and twisted through the vastness of the void around her, the horse came down and lunged and caught her with his teeth and snapped her away from the touch of great Gray Death, and pulled her up and she twisted and she flung her hands around his neck and she sank her face into his mane and laughed.

She did.

She really did! Even with the awkward angles of it all.

She could, and did, climb up onto his neck and back, because there really isn’t very much gravity when you’re falling, and at that particular moment in time they weren’t really quite done with the falling part of their precipitous descent and back to the flying that the two of them were about to do.

The second time, though, the second time, he didn’t save her when she fell.

She asked—

With her eyes, she asked!

But the second time, when she found herself falling, and the sky was everywhere around her in its blues and purples fading into the shadows of darkness, and grayness was reaching up from the ground as if to seize her up and drown her and shatter her like a teardrop on the stone, the horse, it just stood back.

The ice is bigger than the world, and twice as far as anything.

Her name was Wisp, back then as now, but nobody called her that. Everyone called her things like “the rainbow,” “the rainbow girl,” or “hope.”

She was the one charged with the preservation of love and hope and beauty and power and magic. She was the one responsible for providing all the things that people need to have within their lives, in a world that is sometimes very dark. And the mechanism of this charge was color.

She would find places that were dark and colorless, in the world, in people’s lives, in people’s hearts.

She would walk among the gray shadows and get the feel of them.

Then she would bring the rainbow.

There are a billion places in the worlds that are that needed her special touch. A billion, or even more; so it’s not too surprising that grayness still endures. It took her time to find each spot of darkness. It took her time to find it, and know it, and see its antidote, and make an end to it. It took her time, and there were so many different shadows that needed her to give to them that time.

It probably makes a billion look small, really, the number of those shadows, if you actually could count each of them, and give each one its name. It’s probably laughable to imagine that it’s just a billion, like saying, “well, millipedes have at least one leg”—

But a billion, at least.

So that’s why it took her a while to see what had happened down on Earth.

That’s why she missed the whole of World War I. She was in a flower garden, where the insects had corroded beauty. She was in the Crab Nebula, where monsters were threatening a noble Prince. She was in Kansas, helping a lost child, and in the oceans, healing a dolphin’s heart.

She was polishing one of the stars in the endless sky when the trenches cut the world.

She was in the kingdom of the cats.

She was fixing a broken mountain.

She was painting a butterfly when the Nazis came to power. She was painting a butterfly with vibrant colors, because the butterfly had gone gray.

And she might have missed it;

She might have missed it all;

Save that butterflies can only wear so much paint before their wings will cease to fly. There are only so many stars that lose their glitter. There are only so many monsters, though they spawn eccentrically and at random intervals throughout the cosmos and its worlds; so many broken mountains; so many cats that have never ever been fed.

Before the end of the war—before it had even really gotten started—she saw it. She saw what we were doing. She saw what we had done.

She saw it, and said:

“Here is a darkness. Here are gray shadows. I will walk among them and I will find their antidote, and I will bring the rainbow.”

And tears were falling from her face, great rivers of tears, and breaking on the ground.

“And not just here,” she said.

The war to end all wars, well, hadn’t. But she decided, there and then.

“I will heal this thing,” she said. “I will bring an end to wars.”

Underneath the girl and the horse are endless miles of ice-cold air.

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling. They are a comet. They are a meteor. They are a dying, broken, tumbling leaf, a teardrop, a rainbow chunk of ice and fire, and they are falling towards Gray Death below.

“It’s impossible,” said the horse. “Even for someone like you. Even for someone like me. It’s impossible, rainbow girl, that we could bring an end to war.”

“It’s my quest,” she said.

“It’s wrong,” said Terrence. He was her sprite. “It’s wrong. It’ll destroy us. They’ll find us, if we try to end their wars. They’ll hunt us down. They’ll take Rainbow Land away, make it theirs, make it a part of their earthly kingdom, where only shadows rule.”

“But it’s my quest,” the girl said. “I have to heal this thing. I have to guard the beauty that the people of the Earth deny. I have to make them stop killing each other,

and so cruelly!”

But, oh! The sky was fading.

It was twilight in the rainbow kingdom, the sun was falling to the west, and the horse looked up.

“It will have to wait for morning,” the marvelous horse said. “Dear. You can’t do it today. You can’t do it now. You can’t stop people from fighting wars, forever, if you haven’t gotten any sleep.”

“That’s so,” conceded the girl.

So she went to bed.

She went to bed, to let Earth wait just one last troubled night.

And slept.

And while she slept there were doings in the darkness, and gatherings, and quiet acts of diplomacy and treason; and when she woke, her people did not sing to her, as they had always done, when Rainbow Land was bright.

Rather than sing, instead, they gathered around her, and their voices, they were low.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence.

She looked at him.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence, “why it is that you cannot save the world.”

And they took her down into the depths of the palace, and through the hidden passages to the caves where her servants labored, cutting forth light and hope from the lifeless stone, and to the Great Machine that had made her.

And she said, “It’s made of ice.”

She touched it with her hand.

She said, as if in a trance, “There is a place, so very far from here! And a flake of ice, and oh, it is so very bigger than the world! And God—”

But the horse was brusque.

It bumped her in the back with its nose and made her turn away, and said, “This is where we made you, to save us, to be a girl from nothing and make brightness in our land. We cut you out of ice and dolor and we brought you here, from nothing, to nothing, and filled your heart with fanciful lies. Like, ‘you are charged to save us, wielding light.’ Like, ‘you were made to fill our land with beauty.’”

And she remembered—oh, she remembered, and of a sudden!—how she’d come into existence and out of nothingness as if formed off some great crystal made of ice, and curled about herself in some strange womb, and dreamt of foreign colors as shaved fragments sprinkled by.

She remembered how she’d dreamed, oh! such dreams! of something brighter than the endless hungry void. How she’d conceived a sudden brilliant conception, in that womb of ice, of what the murky and dismal land some call “the world” could be.

And how it had seemed to her that a lady made of light had spoken, had said, “Wisp, will you go forth from this place to my land, my dismal land, that dwells under the hand of shadows, and make it bright?”

The sprites looked down.

In the shadow of the Great Machine, the echo of the work of ice that lives beyond the world, they could not speak; save for Terrence, who cleared his throat, and said:

“You were our doll, lady Wisp. You were our toy. And we are grateful to you, for that you were bright and brilliant and rainbows. But you must not think you are a person. You must not think you are a living girl with breath and heart and hope and rainbows, who can stand against our purpose and our decision, and bring chaos to the land.”

The breath left her.

It was as if he had punched her in the stomach, and all she could breathe in was chunks of ice.

“We had to make you,” he said. “But not the rainbow girl. The rainbow girl was fantasy. You are just a flake of snow.”

She was falling.

She was falling.

The sky was rushing up around her, and she could not breathe, and there was gray and black and white jittering before her eyes, and she could not find the ground.

She clenched around the emptiness in her heart, fell gasping, Gray Death opening below, and cast a glance, a single glance, up at the horse.

He was marvelous, that horse.

He was a wonder.

He caught her, once, when she was falling from the sky, when she was plummeting and she thought that she would die. He caught her, and lifted her up, and brought her back to warmth and hope.

Once, but not again.

As she falls into herself, as she goes black and white, not even gray, within her heart and body, the horse, he does not save her. The horse, he looks away.

And it all spirals away from her, leaving her empty of the rainbow, leaving her cold—

Except that’s wrong.

That isn’t now.

She isn’t falling into herself, now. She isn’t on the floor of a cave under the rainbow kingdom, desperate with pain, broken by impossibilities.

That isn’t now.

That was a very long time ago.

Now, right now, she is in a very real sky, and hope and truth have found her once again, and she is falling.

She is falling because her horse has broken its leg.

Her marvelous flying horse has broken its leg against a stream of ice, and so of course it cannot fly.

As has been told before, the girl who fell became the rainbow once again. She’d been needed. It wasn’t OK, any more, to leave her in her cold sense of soullessness.

A soulless girl couldn’t have saved the world from the death that had been coming.

As has been told before, once she’d been made whole again, she’d refused to transform back.

She’d understood—

Somehow—

That just because people told her she wasn’t a person, just because they’d shown her the womb of ice from which she’d come, and said, “Look, this is how we made you, this is why we made you, can’t you see that’s not how a person’s born?”—

That such a thing can’t end the meanings that lived inside her heart.

She’d spent years and years amongst the grayness there, and had found an end to shadows.

And now she is falling.

She’d gone to the man she’d thought had been behind it all—

A murky, dismal man; a man who had always sought to purge the colors from the world—

And she’d thought that she could save him. That the goddess she’d become, that the endless seven-colored power she had birthed in herself, that the girl named Wisp and sometimes Rainbow would be able to save him from his misery and show him the wonder that was color, light, and hope.

She’d tried, anyway.

And maybe she’d succeeded, in a way.

But it hadn’t done him any good, or her, as has been told; because, in the end, he wasn’t the villain of the piece.

He wasn’t the villain.

He was a villain, but not the villain, just another murky, dismal little man gone lost in shadows. In the end, all the light could buy for him was a single moment of forgiveness.

The villain, if there was a villain, was a thing of ice and distance.

It was something cold and far and cruel.

It whispered this of others: that

“They are not real.”

It was God, perhaps, or a horse, perhaps, or a snowflake larger than the world; and it hung beyond all world and sound, and brooded, saying:

“What there is, there is of me: there is the light I cast, there is the world of my imagining, there are the dreams I dream and the shadows I have made; and nothing else is real.”

And if it thinks that it is the only reality, the only beauty, the only justice, the only right, then it has, perhaps, an excuse of sorts, for it is not merely cold, and it is not merely ice, this king of shadows and winter that dwells beyond the world.

It is beautiful.

It is beautiful, and it is endless, and it is marvelous, and it sheds forth every beauty; and the rainbow is refracted through that ice; and the world is made from the waters when it melts, and the dirt that it sheds, and the light and shadows it casts forth.

It is self-contained.

It is self-complete.

And yet, in some contingency of motion, it has sent forth its avatar, its child, its element to us within the world, and with a spirit of great mercy. It has sent a piece of itself, an image of itself, a mirror of its icy vastness, to be the most marvelous thing, to live in the dreary world of its creation, to redeem it through the presence of the horse.

It has sacrificed for us, the most terrible and deadly sacrifice; it has chosen to become involved.

It is the pinnacle, is it not, the horse?

Is it not the most marvelous thing in all the world?

And did it not already risk itself—risk its perfection-in-itself, daring unimaginably—to descend beneath the darkness of the world and find a part of itself that dreamt of rainbows, and make a girl of it, and shelter her, and raise her against the darkness like a spear, and teach her the power of the rainbow?

So if it thinks it is the only truth; if it thinks it is the only right; if it thinks there is no justice, that is not the justice of the horse; if it thinks there is no beauty, that is not the beauty of the ice; if it thinks that in the end there are nothing but its shadows and its dreams, then it has an excuse of sorts, for in a very real way it is the author of us all, or at the very least its agent and its representative, the mirror-horse of God—

Most marvelous thing in all the worlds that are, and the brightest, and the best.

And so she came, at the end of her journey, the rainbow girl, to the field of grass and flowers at the center of the city, to the last remaining place of color and brightness (before the rainbow had returned), where the horse still lived, and danced, and woke up in the morning to laugh and play and sing; and to turn its eyes on her as she walked up, it seemed, and say, “Oh, Wisp, you have become my rainbow once again.”

And she knew.

His voice was guileless, as it had always been, as if he knew nothing in the world save love for others and self-praise.

His voice was guileless, but still she knew.

In the center of the crumbled world, in that little piece of paradise, he frolicked, and he looked at her with eyes that made her melt, possessed her with a girlhood that overcame the goddess in her, loved her still, with brightness still they shone, and still she knew.

She touched his mouth.

She swung herself up on his back.

She said, “Oh, my love, you have not forgotten me.”

But she knew what he had done.

They rose into the sky, didn’t they? They flew; or ran, at least, on the rainbow once again. They galloped out over blue skies and high above Gray Death.

She knew he meant to throw her.

“It was your lie,” she told him. “Wasn’t it?”

Right into his ear; which flicked, of course, as if to cast a fly away.

And on they rode in silence, far above the world.

It made her breathless with joy and pain.

“It was your idea,” she said, “to show me the Machine that gave me birth; and to tell me, ‘you are just a doll we made from snow, oh Wisp. You are just a toy. Just a toy, and not a person after all.’”

“It was,” said the horse.

The horse’s shoulders rolled. It said: “You are.”

Its voice was distant ice and starlight and it was pale against the sky.

“What else could you be,” mused the horse, “than a reflection of Myself? What else is there to be, than light against the ice? So I realized, when you brought trouble to my heart. That you are the rainbow, or a girl, or a thing I made, or a thing I loved, but in the end, still, you are just a toy, and of my crafting, like all the shining world.”

She wept for him.

“And so,” said the horse, “I tore you down; and buried you in darkness; and then, for reasons elusive even to myself, I must have set you free.”

She wept for him.

She clung to him and wept for him, knowing that he meant to throw her, because he was the most marvelous horse in the world, and yet—

“You do not know,” she said.

And her voice was seven-toned, like the rainbow; and the tears that flowed from her were as a stream of ice; and he meant to throw her, he really did, but it went wrong, he went wrongfooted, and if you were to find a thing to blame for it, you might say, he slipped or struck his leg upon her tears.

And his perfection was distorted.

And his gait was broken.

And suddenly, because a horse can’t exactly fly if it has a broken leg, he fell.

It struck him as ironic that he would not have to throw her; that he was freed, in the end, of the need to cast her from his back to fall screaming to Gray Death. He would fall, and that would be an end to things. He would die, and the world would end, and nevermore a rainbow to trouble him or make turmoil of his heart.

Right now, dear reader.

Right now, they fall—

He falls—

It falls—

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling, spiraling down through endless sky, with Gray Death looming up below.

And because he is a horse of courage, after all, even maimed and broken, he opens one pure and perfect eye.

She is not falling.

It is terribly unfair.

She is not falling.

She is, instead, laying down with a hand outstretched—oh, moving downwards fast enough, and technically perhaps that counts as ‘she is falling,’ but she is descending as a skydiver descends, or a stooping bird, not as a mortal plummeting to her death—

Laying on the rainbow, outstretched beside him in the sky.

Unfairly, she is reaching for him, supported by the rainbow, calling out over and over again for him to live—

He squinches closed both eyes.

The world moves far away, then farther, then farther again, until even Wisp seems to him twice as distant as the sky.

Ice closes about him, and rainbows.

“I’ve broken my leg, you foolish girl,” he says, and casts aside her power, and lets the wind and shadows carry him downwards to his grave.

Flutter,
flutter,
Flutter,

Down to the world below.

And there is a moment where the ice shatters, as he strikes against Gray Death.

There is a moment where the shadows seem to boil and drain away, plunging down through the jagged edges of the mountains to drown some other land.

There is a pure and crystal darkness, and finally, a light.

The rainbow hits the mountains, dances about them for a moment amidst a rain of ice, strives as rainbows strive to lift the broken and the dead.

And then, it flies away.

unknown authorship; part of the “Rainbow Collection” of documents assembled during Congress’ 1954 investigation into various Un-American Activities on the part of Un-American Activities Bear.

Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai: “Legendary Kneeling Lieutenant”

Learning the secret of perfect defense, Tomo begins her career—here!

She impresses her master Kon.

She saves lovers Meg and Cho.

She establishes the standard special effects LIGHT and I’M IN UR FIGHT, BLOCKING UR ATTACKS!

She even reforms two night-grim thieves!

But she has drawn the eye of a terribly offensive shogun—

DAIIMON!

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Bats scream silently in the airy heights of Daiimon’s citadel.

The terribly offensive shogun taps his fingers on his throne.

“I am displeased,” he says.

Before him—the LEGENDARY KNEELING LIEUTENANT,

MAY!

May lowers her head.

“Why is that?” she asks.

“It is difficult to govern as a terribly offensive shogun if I am not feared,” he says.

“And you are not feared?”

“‘He cannot destroy the perfectly defensive samurai’—people say. ‘Lo, his grip on this land weakens’—people say. Fear runs out of them like rain out of a gutter. Soon the last of it will be gone.”

“Then send me,” May says.

Daiimon looks up. His eyes are bleak and set deep in his head.

“If you fail,” he says, “I will end you with the lightest breath of the TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE TECHNIQUE.”

“Ha!” agrees May.

Then she is gone.

Tomo sits under a pink and white umbrella. She eats a sticky hunk of rice and melon. She leans back and looks at the sun.

“Ur hot,” she tells the sun. “But u can’t burn me. I can feel the breath of blocking u.”

The sun, she thinks, is obligated to agree.

But suddenly—

AN EVIL FEELING!

Time slows.

Tomo breaks the umbrella into three pieces with the side of her hand. The top blows away in the wind. The bottom falls to the ground. The middle piece is a great thin sword.

She pushes off from the ground with one hand, dirt griming up her fingers. The other hand swings the sword forward to block.

LIGHT

May staggers backwards. She falls into a kneeling position. Her sword slips back into its sheath. A lock of hair falls over her eye.

“No less,” May says, “from the legendary defensive samurai.”

“PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE,” Tomo clarifies.

“We’ll see!” says May.

She is a blur. She outpaces the green and blue of her kimono so that the color bleeds off of her to stay behind her in the air and she moves forward as a sepia ghost. She moves in that other world of kung fu where great scars cut through the air and the wind blows hollow.

Her sword is out. It is inevitable. It is invincible. It cuts towards Tomo’s neck.

LIGHT

The umbrella sword explodes. Tomo lurches back and to the side, May’s sword passing right by her neck.

May twists her wrist in a fashion that causes the tendons to jangle with great pain. But Tomo’s foot has found the bottom piece of the umbrella and kicked it up

LIGHT

May’s sleeve sword falls into her second hand. It jabs.

Tomo smiles ethereally.

She exhales: haa.

Her hand comes around. There is nothing in it. Yet:

LIGHT

And May rolls at terrible speed along the ground in a snapped-to-color world and black rocks cut into her skin and shards of broken umbrella catch in her hair and she fetches up against a stone building wall, KLUN.

Her sword snaps back into its sheath.

Tomo is transcendent.

She stands there with her hair floating back and her leg back in stance and a thin mist of dirt falling away from her hand.

May kneels.

“You are my master,” she says. “What would you have of me?”

Tomo hesitates.

Tomo explains:

I’M IN UR FIGHT,
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

“Your will!” May agrees, knocking her head.

And for three long weeks and three more days, where May fights, Tomo blocks, laughing. But a weed of guilt eats at the rice paddy of May’s heart. It grows to choke the ox.

Tomo’s spirit is too bright for May.

So May abandons Tomo and goes to the mountain, to a certain place she knows where Tomo cannot block Daiimon’s attacks, and she waits.

The fire of the TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE TECHNIQUE comes down from the sky and burns May’s shadow to the stone.

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Tomo walks along the road. She munches on a peach. She tosses the pit aside.

It hits a monkey.

“O noes,” Tomo says. She is horrified. Her face stretches in an expression of plaintive apology.

She is a perfectly defensive samurai!

She does not mean to attack!

But the monkey is not kind.

It chitters.

It shouts.

It jumps up and down.

It is an angry monkey, this monkey, and it does not forgive.

THIS IS THE SADNESS OF THE WORLD
PEOPLE LEAVE US
MONKEYS GET OFFENDED
PEACHES DO NOT REMAIN

Daiimon rises from his distant throne, and his eyes burn red.

Next time on Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai:
SHOGUN AND SAMURAI

(Parousia) To Light a Candle (5 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Now, some people, thinking on these events, might come to the conclusion that there’ll be some kind of reason Max’ll be able to come back.

Like:

Death’ll gallop through the sky on the last of days and Sid will reach up and seize him by the arm and pull him from the horse and down to shatter on the island below.

Crunch! Death will say, or at least emote, and Sid’ll steal Max’s life from him.

Or:

Somebody’ll find Max’s skin, just floating free on the chaos, and—because you shouldn’t waste a good skin—fill it up with booze. Then Max’ll show up, lookin’ all like Max, only he’s an ale-man now.

Or:

Spattle’s still got its hooks in everyone who’s ever been there.

Max can’t actually die.

He’s lived in Spattle.

Or maybe even:

Sid’ll buy some new luggage one day, you know, for traveling, and he’ll open it up, and there Max’ll be.

“Hey,” Max’ll say.

Hey, Sid says. Thought you were dead.

“It’s a special.”

And Max’ll indicate the display with his head, and it’ll turn out that it does in fact say, “Free resurrection with every suitcase; and luggage $179.99”

And maybe it’s just the kind of thing that happens, you know, eventually. People coming back.

The world’s really old, and it’s got a long future ahead of it.

We wouldn’t necessarily know.

So you could be reading this, you know, and come to the conclusion that there’ll be some reason, like a suitcase sale or a Spattling or a bit of a double thing, and Max’ll come back.

But that ain’t so.

Not exactly, anyway.

See, it’s an epiphany. It’s a mystery. It’s one of those things that’s like a seething well.

There ain’t no reason.

He just comes back.

It’s June 6, 2004, and he just comes back.

It’s like a candle lights, and suddenly where things were invisible, they are visible; and where things were inaudible, they’re audible; and the world fills out with the glistening blue and silver of the sea and the wind as it roars in the sky and the cold refreshing spray that generates when the waves strike against the brown-black rocks.

And the scattering of points and colors becomes the beach.

And swaying patterns become the sun, and the shadows, and the trees.

And there’s Max, right there, with a hangdog look, like he’s never been away.

Maybe someday it’ll be a little more explained.

You can get close to the truth, sometimes, even when there’s no truth to be had.

So maybe we’ll get a bit of explanation here, a bit of explanation there.

But not a reason, not whole and entire.

Some things in this world ain’t ever really explained.

Like:
People always fight the things they love.

I would hug you, says Sid.

A mirrored shape flicks out to show him his own form, and the terrible perplexities and sharpness of it, and why that isn’t necessarily a very good idea. And he can see the darkness that weaves through him, too: for siggorts, like most things that aren’t Max, are terribly, terribly easy to cut.

Max looks up.

“You’re real,” he says.

Like Sid’s the one who shouldn’t be there. Like Sid’s the one who, last we checked, wasn’t in the world.

And there’s a drop of chaos on Max’s face, under the shadow of his hair, and his eyes are brown and deep.

Hesitantly, he says, “Did you—“

Sid cuts him.

Not much. Just a tiny bit, to get the blood he needs, to get a flake of flesh. And he can tell that Max is yielding it, not suffering it, because just this once Max isn’t hard to cut.

He should probably have asked.

But he didn’t; and Max lets it be.

“Did you—“

Sid begins to make the body of him, from flesh and blood and clay, and he says, Did I?

Max gropes for words.

“I figure,” Max says, “That Ii Ma said something like, ‘How can you live with somebody else’s guilt?'”

There is the rushing withdrawing of water and then the roaring of a wave.

“And ‘walk in like you own the place’ doesn’t quite work on that one.”

No, Sid agrees.

He’s almost got the body put together. They’re fast workers, siggorts. It’s the hundred hands.

“So—did you—“

Of course, Sid says.

Then he opens up the body of him and he pours himself into its core and he closes the hollow of the entrance with a hook of him, all Sid-like, snap.

And Max stands there for a long time looking at him, while Sid dresses himself with pants and socks and shirts and stuff that drift in from the sea.

“How?”

He means: Can we . . . fix things? Is it okay now? Is it okay, even though I’m not still dead?

Because he’s a sharp one, Max, and he knows that must’ve been an answer Sid was using for a while.

Is it okay?

Can broken things be remade?

And Sid can hear these questions in his voice; and they’re not the only questions Sid can hear.

How can you forgive him? whispers the voice of Ii Ma, like it always does.

How can you forgive him? Ii Ma asks.

And Sid gives this great big smile like the morning of the world, and he kicks away a cardboard box drifting upwards from the sea, and he says, “Because I’d like to.”

Nothing more; nothing less.

“Because I’d rather,” he explains.

Because we make our own judgments, light and dark, and they are our servants—

Not the other way around.

The Island of the Centipede
Fin.

On The Nature of Judgment (4 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

See also this legend.

It would be difficult to explain what has changed.

That shouldn’t be surprising.

If Sid’s answer were easy—if it were the kind of thing that you could just say and have it be done—then Martin would have given it to him. Not for free, not easily, but certainly after all Sid’s service.

So it is necessarily difficult to explain.

Much of it, certainly, is simply having the power to change, after all these years.

That which we hide away in the place without recourse:

It does not grow.

So some of it, certainly, is having that power of growth and changing, and the motivation to use it: returned to him, after all those years.

And some of it is the exercise of force.

Forgiveness, we should understand, is a quality of the powerful. The powerless endure; the powerful forgive.

It is not possible to forgive without an unencumbered choice.

Without power, forgiveness is indistinguishable from compliance, or at best surrender; and thus it has no value.

It has always been a dark and tasteless joke, when the powerful ask the downtrodden to forgive.

So the exercise of unrestrained power, however undesirable it might have been—that contributed.

Certainly.

And if one may go further and say that forgiveness is between equals—

A broader statement, requiring more analysis, but a plausible one—

Then it matters that Max met blow for blow, standing against the siggort a surprising length of time in the oceans of the end.

And there was the uncritical all-forgiving all-embracing never-bending flare gaze of the Good.

And there was the dancing stabbing cutting preaching whispers of the history of Mr. Kong.

And there was Tara and there were the heaps and there was the crumbled tower to the east where earlier they fought—

Yet none of these things change the character of Max’s crime.

None of these things make it better or worse that Max has done what Max has done.

None of these things change the essential or actual qualities of his deed.

None of these things prove Sid in error, relative to some natural universal law, when he says that what Max has done cannot be okay.

Arguable, perhaps.

Too critical, perhaps.

But not in error.

So one cannot say that even all of these things together have resolved Sid’s underlying dilemma, or changed the nature of his prison; at best, they have cast light on the substance of his cage.

It would be difficult to explain what has changed; and in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

It doesn’t really matter how it came to pass that Sid should forgive Max and lift the weight of Ii Ma from his wings.

Max is dead.

The world is cold.

The siggort is alone.

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

Max had planned to do something really cool.

He wasn’t sure what, yet.

Maybe something like shouting, “Oh, yeah? Well, you can’t beat me at tiddlywinks!

Then suddenly he was winded and the world spun and just as he realized that he’d been hit in the stomach by something moving very very fast he mainlined THE END and Sid piled an island on top of him.

So now he’s drifting in the Good.

Now and again, an impulse will surface in him. He’ll surrender a bit of that ancient answer that holds him in the world faster or slower than the question that—however momentarily—had cut him out of it.

He’ll wobble, for a moment, on the border between those creatures whose stories have ended and those creatures that have no stories at all; and an impulse will arise.

Like:

“What the Hell happened when the Buddha reached enlightenment?”

And the Good does not explain.

Drifting against the beat of emptiness in the joyous, he imagines that the dharma of a Buddha is irreconcilable with the dharmas of the world—

Like Sid’s, in a way.

That the world is hollow of its gods because, in the face of the inevitability of suffering, it cannot understand how there can be a Buddha.

That the very idea of dharma—

In the face of the simple corrosive concept of enlightenment—

Has become a contradiction unto itself.

Russell’s paradox writ large; the definition of the world unravelled; the world unable to accept the concept of purpose if it does not lead to pain.

And a long time afterwards, Max grins in the burgeoning emptiness of joy, and he says, “Coward.” to the world.

That was one impulse.

Days later, another rises:

“How the Hell is this my happy ending?”

But for all the bafflement in those words, there isn’t any suffering.

By fiat?

By force?

By love?

There isn’t any suffering. This is his happy ending.

And maybe he’d like to be suffering, except that also he wouldn’t. He doesn’t really want to suffer just because he sort of thinks he should.

He’d like to think that he needs Sid to be happy, but the secret of the world is that it’s loving Sid that makes him happy, not Sid himself.

Lost in boundless happiness and joy, Max understands—and finally—that it’s an error to imagine that our happiness comes from anyone but ourselves.

It is not given unto us.

It is not forced upon us.

It is a thing we give outwards, unto the world.

People always fight
The things they love.

What is the nature of judgment?

Jane had imagined a perfect Good that came and cast away the 9/10 least worthy, straining only the brightest and the best through the holes in its net. She called this a disaster to the world.

What would it have meant, instead, to cull the half least worthy; or the whole?

The single worst of us, severed from the world; or all of us save the single best?

The idealist sees the dangers in this path and casts out judgment from the world; the pragmatist seeks a perfect middle ground; yet both of them, if they wish to live, must recognize that there is that which is desirable, and that which is correct, and that which, in turn, is not.

The hundred-handed horror that is Sid curls on the island he has made, and skitters on the surface of the sea, and dreams of the fight of centipede and tiger.

He is alone.

Pumpkin Sickness (3 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

It is June 3, 2004.

The sky is blue and the wind is fresh and Max’s blood is thick and red.

It’s soaking through the sailcloth of his bandages.

Red Mary’s face is not human but it is beautiful. Her eyes are black. Her teeth are sharp. Her skin is smooth and rounded. On her neck flutter purplish gills.

The sun makes a shadow from one cheekbone and seems thereby to evoke old sorrows.

Suddenly, Max laughs.

Red Mary looks at him.

“Iphigenia’s all right,” he says.

“Your . . . telepathic girlfriend?” she guesses.

“The sun,” says Max. “I’d been worried about her. But, look, she’s right there, you can tell by the light.”

Red Mary looks at him.

“Your nose is sunburnt,” she observes.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue 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.

The Island of the Centipede

Seacourses wind through the broken island. The catamaran glides past the island’s grassland, dry land, and trees.

Max catches the heavy smell of pumpkin, a flat sort of scent, just a little bit rotten.

The seacourse cuts into a hill — cuts clean through it, without a tunnel, so that the island rises on both sides of it but the only thing above it is the sky.

There is rind in the rock: orange corrugated rind.

Over the edge of the hill, and ambiguously presenting themselves to Max’s vision, he can see great round orange distant shapes.

Max looks down. He starts to say, “Why the pumpk—”

But Red Mary’s face is taut and she is shaking and he thinks it is with rage.

“It is the giraumon,” Red Mary says.

The catamaran approaches a long gentle curve in the seacourse’s path. Red Mary slows it as they turn.

“The giraumon?”

“He has been making.”

She stares ahead. The muscles of her jaw tense up. Then she says, “If he comes, do not speak to him. If he approaches, do not let him touch you. If he attacks, do not kill him, or I will feed you to the firvuli and humaneness be damned.”

“Oh,” Max says.

And the catamaran comes slowly around the great bend and there, standing on the water in their path, the giraumon waits.

He is reminiscent of a man, tall and bold, with windblown hair and skin the same sweet color as your own. His eyes are incredible, full of laughter and compassion and beloved secrets.

He has pumpkin sickness.

He has wings, these beautiful wings, flexible like rubber and strong like stone. He has wings and a sword and he is beautiful.

But he is sick.

Pumpkin is inching across the left side of him. Patches of its rind jut forth from the skin. The sickness makes a corrugated orangeness of his features. It has turned his left ear into a hole. It mars and makes lumpy the smooth flawlessness of his arm.

It has not quite yet reached that marvelous left eye.

Red Mary slows the catamaran. She takes down the sails. She lets it glide to a halt.

The giraumon walks forward on the waves.

“Hello,” he says. He smiles. “I’d hoped you’d come by. I made a road for you.”

Red Mary glances down at her fishtail.

“I thought, ‘what if I made a path by which Red Mary could reach perfection? Then she’d stop maundering on about the necessary impermanence of all solutions to our fate.'”

The giraumon gestures broadly. He indicates the island behind him. There is a path in the distance like a great bridge arching up from the rock towards Heaven. Most of it has fallen down. The rest has gone orange and saggy and rotten.

“Better you were dead,” Red Mary says. “Than wasting your fire thus.”

The giraumon grins. His teeth are more suggestions than discrete. “It was better before it turned all pumpkin.”

“I’ve asked you not to make things for me,” Red Mary says.

“Yes,” the giraumon agrees.

His grin fades so that he can lick his lips. He looks at Max.

“This is Max,” Red Mary says.

Pumpkin shudders across the giraumon’s face and brushes against the edging of his eye. The creature blinks in irritation.

Max’s hand inches towards the knife.

“He’s trying to find God,” Red Mary says.

“Men can’t find God,” the giraumon says. “They do well for a while but then they turn into pumpkins and, as often as not, fall into the sea.”

“I think, in this case, it’s shorthand for virtue.”

The giraumon spreads a hand, as if to say: But what does that change?

“I’m helping him,” Red Mary says.

Her body language poses this as a challenge.

The giraumon’s eyes flick over Max’s wounds. His grin returns. “Max must taste awfully.”

Red Mary makes a little face. It involves poking out her tongue and adopting an expression of disgust.

“Let us do this instead,” says the giraumon. “I will kill Max and transfer my consciousness to the corpse. Then I will have a handsome new body to wear for formal occasions.”

Max lunges for the knife. The sailcloth bandage tangles his arm. He kicks his legs to help with balance. The bandage on his leg catches against one of the blocks. Max rolls over. For a terrible moment he supports himself on his maimed left hand while his right hand claws at the knife. Then he screams an ungodly scream and twists to take the weight from his hand, loses his balance entirely, rolls over the knife, sinks it smoothly into the muscle of his arm, and falls halfway out of the boat with his head lolling into the sea.

The giraumon blinks.

“Or he can kill Max,” the giraumon says. “If he insists.”

Red Mary leans forward and catches Max’s collar and drags him back onto the ship. Max sputters, coughs, and collapses against the deck.

“How can you call yourself my friend,” Red Mary says, “giraumon, if you kill somebody I’m trying to help?”

Pumpkin spreads over the giraumon’s eye and makes of it an empty gash with candlelight behind.

The candlelight flickers.

“Don’t presume,” the giraumon says.

“No?”

“A thousand years ago,” the giraumon says, “I thought I saw something in you. A thing to make it worth my while to leave you in existence. But I have spent a thousand years in contemplation of the matter and every way I find to leave you lot alive just turns into a pumpkin and rots and falls into the sea. So do not mind me if I think that perhaps it is too much trouble to call Red Mary my friend.”

Sluggishly, Max pulls himself back into a sitting position. He tries to tug the knife out of his right arm using his right hand but he can’t get a grip. His face is pale.

“Come here and fight me,” he says.

“Whisht!” snaps Red Mary.

The candle behind the pumpkin gleams.

“I don’t want to listen to this,” Max says. “Fight when I’m gone.”

“Leave him alone,” Red Mary hisses.

Max slumps. His maimed left hand drops into the sea.

The pumpkin sickness edges rightwards and the giraumon loses his nose. Then he is moving, he is close, his orange knobbly finger is lunging in towards Max.

Max’s hand comes up to meet it.

He splashes chaos straight from the sea into the candle of the giraumon’s brain.

The giraumon shrieks. He recoils. He recedes along the seacourse, steam bursting forth from the top of his head. It rises in great clouds which form into circling bats, a piano, forgiveness, a white sword longer than a ship, and a sheet of paper on which is written the answer to all pain.

The giraumon bounds up to the shore and he is gone.

Slowly, Red Mary extends her hand to catch the paper. It drifts into her hand. Its surface is thickening, growing orange; she squints to make out the first word, and by the time she reads the second the writing on it is gone.

“Will he live?” Max asks, by way of asking, Will I live?

“If it were not bats and a piano,” Red Mary says, “he would have used it up on something else.”

They are surrounded by orange and the catamaran gently sways. The sea beneath them stinks of pulp.

Max isn’t sure whether she’s answered him or not, or whether that answer would be positive or negative.

Red Mary starts the catamaran to moving again.

Something large and gray and terrible rises from the center of the island and catches three of the bats in its great flat teeth.

Max slumps.

“We souls within this world,” Red Mary says.

The sea licks blood from the catamaran’s side.

“I think we do not need to find God,” Red Mary says, “so much as a way to live with what we love.”

The 100% Evil-Free Skeleton

In the deserts of a long-forgotten continent Dr. Angela Worble discovers a skeleton that appears, to her initial tests, 100% evil-free.

Here is how you can distinguish an evil-free skeleton from an evil or ambivalent skeleton.

First, an evil-free skeleton has a very happy smile.

It’s charming. It makes you want to smile back, even though its head is nothing but white bone. Its teeth, you might imagine, in the right light, might TING.

Second, it feels good to be near an evil-free skeleton. When Dr. Angela Worble cracks open the skeleton’s sarcophagus she feels the warm, happy glow one traditionally feels in the presence of an evil-free soul.

Third, when challenged on its actions, an evil-free skeleton can provide a clear, compelling rationale.

“Why did you lay here immured for all these years,” asks Dr. Angela Worble, “when the world needed you?”

No tendons, the skeleton seems to say—to indicate, really. No tendons and no tongue makes its hard to do much else.

“Wow,” Angela says.

She hugs herself, briefly, because finding an evil-free skeleton is just that cool. Then she begins making calls.

“James,” she says, to Dr. Standish, on her cell.

“Mm?”

“I’m pretty sure,” she says, “that evil isn’t natural to the human condition.”

“Oh?” he says.

“I think it’s an infection. I’ve been carbon-dating this evil-free skeleton and I think that humans began acquiring evil RNA parasites sometime after 3100 BC.”

“That would be the logical conclusion,” Dr. Standish agrees with that lightning-quick acuity characteristic to the scientists of the day.

There’s a bit of dead air on the line.

“But I can’t accept your premise,” Dr. Standish concludes.

“So, get on a plane,” Dr. Worble tells him, smiling, as she always does.

And Dr. Standish flies to the site.

It’s not very long before he’s standing there staring at the skeleton. “Well, that’s just rude,” he says, “overturning centuries of scientific exploration of the nature of genetic good and evil just like that.”

It just kind of happened, the skeleton indicates apologetically.

And Dr. Standish has to forgive it. He doesn’t have any choice! It’s too apologetic!

“Have you finished isolating the parasitic RNA?” he asks.

“It’s hard,” says Dr. Worble, “because what with one thing and another there are other genetic differences between my flesh and his bones.”

Dr. Standish clicks his tongue sympathetically. “The evil’s probably in the deoxyribolin swarm,” he says.

The deoxyribolin swarm is a special bodily animo that swarms over its genetic enemies during foetal development and chops them to bits with small particles of sheathed biomatter. It’s so fierce that 99% of all infants contain more deoxyribolin per gene than any of deoxyribolin’s enemies.

And yet:

“I checked,” Angela says. “He’s deoxyriboliffic.”

“Is he?”

Dr. Standish taps the skeleton accusingly.

Deoxyribolin builds strong bones, the skeleton suggests.

“Bah,” snorts Dr. Standish.

Sorry, blushes the skeleton, and James totally forgives it.

“What we’re going to have to do is set up a battery of tests,” Dr. Worble says. “And use them to discover relevant evidence!”

Dr. Standish looks skeptical.

“No, really,” says Dr. Worble. “We totally should.”

Dr. Standish is won over.

He nods, once, firmly. “I am at your disposal.”

But that night he isn’t disposed. Instead he is restless. He wakes from a tossing and turning sleep and walks into the skeleton’s room.

“What if you’re not evil-free?” he asks it. “What if you’re just charming?”

Don’t be ridiculous, the skeleton seems to say.

Easy

It’s New Years’ Eve on the last year of people sufferin’.

Here’s how it goes. One day, late in December, everybody suddenly wakes up knowin’. Some people take a little longer, but not that much.

This is it, they realize.

That’s all.

After this, things are easy.

And there are people who just go into denial immediately because they can’t have things that good. And there’s more than a few think it’s freaky and terrifying and that maybe the whole world’s going to die. There’s some of the Saved who think they’re going to Heaven and some of the pretty-certain-I’m-damned who’d be shocked if they were. There’s old white guys in suits and ties that don’t know what to make of it, except that they’d better do any killing they’re wanting to do in a hurry just in case January 1st is too late.

“Couldn’t it have waited until the new fiscal year?” they grumble.

“This calendrical thing—so outdated!”

And there’s plenty of people who are angry ’cause the gay people will be happy, or the women, or the men, or the black folk, or the white folk, or their parents, or their children, or whatnot.

Plenty, yeah.

But for most of them, it passes quick. Even for people who hate others more than they love themselves, it passes quick.

There’s this kind of magnanimous feeling that they fall right into. Yeah, there’s some resentment that the world’s turning sweet and they’ve still got to share—

That they’d let those people into the New Year—

But in the end, what with the New Year and all, it’s easy to be gracious. It’s easy to say: well, good. At least they won’t come crying and stomping to me about their problems any more.

And there are fathers and mothers who shed endless tears for the children who didn’t quite make it, and fathers and mothers who weep in joy because their children will. And there’s this thing in late December where people mostly stay off the roads, they stay at home, they only work if they love their job or if they can’t keep the electricity on till the 1st in any other way. And each death that happens in those last few days is a tragedy, just as unwanted deaths always are, but people maybe make a bigger deal of it now.

There’s a big speech on television near the end by the President, who takes credit for it all and gives most humble thanks to God.

And in his spacious home the Devil’s nodding off on his sofa, and he’s listening with half an ear, and the other half’s listening to the generator, because his whole house is powered by suffering, you see. He gets his main power from the agony of children who are sick or in unpleasant hands. He’s running hot and cold water from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and he’s got all his servers drawing straight from North Korea. (Because you need a very reliable source of suffering to keep servers up all the time. You can’t just use Syria or Tranquility Bay and hope that there’s never a little pause when everyone there’s all right. That’s bad system management, even if you’re the Devil.) There’s little things too, like, he’s got a cup warmer to keep his coffee hot that’s running on Firefly being cancelled, and he’s pleased with that, because while it’s not much suffering compared to the whole North Korea thing, he really hates cold coffee.

And he’s sitting there, amidst the stuff he’s bought from people’s shame and agony, in a house that’s running on pain, and listening just to see if, you know, the perfect New Year actually happens. If, for once, the humans’ dreams are right.

And it’s with this kind of peculiar self-satisfied little grin that he listens as it becomes a new day, and his generator spins down.

He’s not sad. His whole house is broken—heck, there’s a new episode of Firefly coming on his television right then—but he’s not sad.

He’s snorting. He’s saying, “About time.”

And he’s happy.

He’s always known—even though no one really believed him—that that pain he’s been using was someone else’s fault.

And the generator’s gone, and it’s a Happy New Year for everybody, even that guy over there who nobody really liked.

Things are easy now.

Just have to remember to write the right year on your checks.