Death Unsacred

1. Ms. Dorothy Adams

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

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

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

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

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

2. The Spry Old Man

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

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

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

“You’re so lucky,” he said.

She gave him a frosty look.

“You’ll see!” he assured her.

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

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

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

She raised an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

She was forty-five.

3. Thrown

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

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

“Cheerio!” he cried, and “Godspeed!”

She fell.

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

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

4. Waking

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. The Vegetable Boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am not a princess,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Beasts?”

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

And she could hear the beasts that hunted him approach.

6. The Tiger-Things

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

“He is our prey,” whines one of them.

“Tasty, tasty vegetable boy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tide of hopeless rises in her.

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

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

An Unclean Legacy: “Sophie and the Devil”

That night as the questing shadow comes Sophie does not run.

She stands there and the moonlight is behind her so she shines.

There is a sword of bone in her hand.

So dead old Baltasar stops and he stares at her through his ruined eyes. She does not move.

Slowly, taut with the pain of moving his broken body, he steps forward.

“Tonight,” says Sophie, in a clear and ringing voice, “I will destroy you. Or I will make you my slave. Or I will force you to leave me alone for all of the days of the world. Or, should I be vindictive, should I be angry for these past seven years, I will strip you of your throne as King of Hell and assign it instead to some lesser evil, such as a malevolent frog or Francescu’s shoulder demon. Then you will have to bow and simper and cower to it for all the days of your existence.”

There is a pause.

“And should I fail,” Sophie adds, in a concession to realism, “then I will try again tomorrow night, and the night after, and each night that follows until I succeed, and I will make you suffer more strongly for each night I have suffered before then. You have tested me and I have not broken. You may hunt me again each night between now and forever and it will only give me another chance to win.”

There is moonlight in her hair.

You are mine, and you will be mine, says the shadow.

But the shadow is hesitating, and it is more than just the ruination of the corpse.

Sophie lowers her sword. She points it at the shadow.

“Do we begin?”

And . . .

Once upon a time there was a seraph who had a different vision for the world than God’s.

He rejected the drive that would lead the world to grace. And God said to him, “Then I shall cast you from Heaven into the blue realm, whence you may strive against me to bring harmony and fellowship into the world even when it opposes the fabric of the greater design.”

“No,” said that seraph.

“Is it the purple realm, then, that calls you? Are you to be a servant of the life?”

“I am indifferent to life,” said that seraph.

“Then you may choose the onyx realm, though it sorrows me, the realm of Saraman and Santrieste; the realm that dreams of silence and the dark.”

“There is a realm of burning red,” that seraph said.

And God hardened his heart against that seraph and cast him down into the fire of the pit; and everlasting damnation decreed against him; and shattered in him forever the understanding of God’s grace.

Now that fallen creature seeks to turn men and women from the path of righteousness. Now he seeks the damnation of the world. As the serpent he broke the Garden of Eden. As the reveler in white he brought the flood. As the red giant he fought with Montechristien Gargamel. As old dead Baltasar he hunted Sophie down the road.

He will not rest while grace exists within this world. He is the architect of sin.

The shadow forces words from dead Baltasar’s lungs. “We will not start yet.”

Suddenly there is a chill in Sophie. Every sense is telling her that behind her there are eyes. Her hackles rise. She casts about with her mind, but there is no physical location sourcing this unease; it is “behind” her in the realm of spirit. The attention grows more strict; more fierce; more painful. There is a flare of red and black in her mind.

Her legs go nerveless and she sits.

The thing in dead old Baltasar sits down opposite her. It writhes inside the corpse. Then it abandons it. The corpse dissolves. Body parts black and blue and rotten fall to every side. Shadow dissipates.

Sophie glimpses a portal to another realm in the Devil’s shapelessness. It is a horror too great for her mind to comprehend. She squints, trying to filter it down to pieces she can grasp, but by that time it is too late. The enemy has chosen its new form.

It has become a lean and elfin man, four feet tall. He has horns. They are simple, curved, and short.

He is shirtless, though trousers hide his shame.

He is red, red, red, and his shapeless cap is white.

“I do not wish to engage you on those terms,” says the horned man.

Sophie forces out these words: “It is beyond your power to change.”

“I am a coward,” says the horned man casually. “It is because I have so much to lose. So we will converse, you and I, and find another way to settle our affair.”

“This is not a conversation,” Sophie points out, struggling even to speak.

“Ah.”

The sense of a predator’s gaze vanishes away. Feeling returns to Sophie’s limbs. She curls in on herself, gasping in breath, shivering, recovering, restoring order to her mind.

“It is not my specific intention to hurt you, though I am perfectly willing to see you in agony,” the horned man says. “You do not find my attentions enjoyable because change is distressing, and I must change you.”

Sophie half-looks up, squinting. “Why?”

An Unclean Legacy


“Sophie and the Devil”

The horned man tilts his head to the side. “Will I gain points with you, Sophie, for answering that question?”

“If the answer doesn’t suck.”

“I disagree with God as to the proper purpose for this world,” the horned man says. He stands up. Sophie notices for the first time that his trousers include pointed booties for his feet, and it is only because she is exhausted and terrified and wounded that she is successful in smothering her laughter. “He directs it like a symphony towards a kingdom of eternal grace. But I find it more interesting to develop its potential for drama and tragedy.”

Sophie is staring at him.

“What?” the Devil asks, irritably.

“You’re still trying to oppose him?”

The red thing laughs. “I would think you of all people would understand that, Sophie.”

Sophie blushes a little. “Yes,” she says, “I mean, sure, but still?

The red thing frowns, just a little.

“In truth,” he says. “I am winning. It is the nature of humanity to count as my victories their sins and their sorrows, these petty things that win one soul at a time away from God’s eternal kingdom. Then they see sorrow and tragedy in the world and they cry out, ‘Lord, why are you cruel?’

“The former may be my work, but the latter is my pride. When God is cruel, I am victorious. When God makes people suffer. When he tests. When he punishes. When he turns a blind eye to pain. Those are the points of my victory. Those are the compromises that he makes with my red purpose to achieve his eventual kingdom.”

“. . . I am not theologically prepared to debate the problem of pain with you at this time,” Sophie says, a little dazed.

The Devil grins.

“That’s so,” he says. “In truth, you are probably best served by listening to nothing that I say. But if you did not, we could not talk, and then I would continue troubling your life.”

“So what do you want?”

“You can be anything I want,” the red thing says. “That is the gift your father gave you, that he never had reason to explain. It is your most marvelous quality: that you alone in all the world can be anything that anybody wants.”

“Anything?”

“The damnation of the world,” says the Devil. “The destruction of Montechristien. You can be everything that I desire. And yet you prefer to be a bunch of animals at once or a girl with a sword growing out of her hand.”

“Oh.”

“It is vexing,” says the Devil, “and we will resolve the matter tonight.”

Time for theology! Can you minimally adjust Pseudo-Dionysus’ hierarchy of angels to include matrices of blue energy in human shape, three apples high, wearing shapeless white caps?

Can proper Biblical exegesis reveal more about these strange creatures? Are there oblique references in Ezekiel 15 to the doom ‘Handy’ worked on Israel? Did ‘Batty’ save Zipporah and Moses from a giant snake?

Make sure to read the first nineteen installments of this story, and tune in Friday for a special Unclean Legacy: “The Duel!”

Wilma

Once, long ago, Wilma strangled her devil-conscience. Now her left shoulder is bare and she is immortal.

“Ow!” says Wilma.

Her angel-conscience is hitting her.

“What?” she asks.

“I’m hitting you to make you better,” says her angel-conscience. “Assault for empathy and battery for wisdom!”

“Ow,” mutters Wilma, again.

She’s on the arena planet. She moves through the crowds like a guttersnipe does, with her eyes downcast and her body language pulled in. People are roaring and mingling and mumbling all around her. They don’t notice her, because they’re all too important and too busy to notice someone like her.

She’s wearing a crinkling silver jumpsuit, like a futuristic woman should. She’s pulled her hair tightly back into a ponytail, and let it return—after many millennia—to its natural red. She’s blending in so that no one finds her.

And on the electronic billboard it advertises the fight between her lovers, the fight that their presence in the 25th century has made inevitable, a fight she cannot bear to watch:

Buck vs. the Flintstone Man, the billboard screams.

“It’s possible,” says Wilma, as she squirms between two knots of people, making her way steadily towards the dock, “that I have empathy and wisdom already.”

The angel hits her on her right shoulder.

“Ow.”

There is a burst of sound. The announcer’s voice booms out:

“FROZEN IN SPACE . . .

“Frozen for millennia by a freak combination of gasses, the Flintstone Man awakens in the savage world of the 25th century! Here he must strive with his obsidian monoknife and his barbaric foot-powered starship to defeat his enemy. FLINTSTONE! DESTROY ALL SPACEMEN! MELEE!”

Wilma covers her head in her hand.

“What?” the angel says.

“I give him 38 seconds,” says Wilma.

“35,” argues the angel. Then the angel hits Wilma again.

“Ow!”

The announcer roars over the shrieking of the crowd:

“FROZEN IN TIME . . .

“Coincidence—or destiny? Flung forward in time, frozen by a similar freak combination of gasses, this 20th century primitive found himself falling in love with the Flintstone Man’s ancient wife! Now, trapped on an arena planet, forced to battle for survival, he so far refuses to kill his enemies—but will he kill his savage rival for love? BIDIBIDIBIDIBIDI TO THE DEATH, BUCK!”

“Ancient?” cries Wilma.

“In fairness, if you hadn’t killed your entropy, you’d be grayer than a Balthusian dawn,” the angel says.

Wilma steadies herself. She sighs.

“You’re right,” she says. “I guess.”

So she resumes her walk.

“You could go back,” says the angel-conscience. “You could save one of them.”

“I could,” Wilma concedes. “But they’ve turned up a flash-frozen 23rd century feminist out by Aldebaran, and I hear he’s hot.”

“Oh-oh,” says the angel.

They move on.

These are a few of the shouts from the crowd, as Wilma picks her way towards the dock and the billboards count the time:

“He’s got a dinosaur! Oh God! The teeth!”

“Yabba! Yabba! Yabba! Yabba!”

“Orbital ballistics? Stupid primitives and your booster rockets! Get an inertialess drive!”

Then there is a horrible cauterized noise and all is still.

The billboards shine forth green numbers: “37.06. Buck.”

“Oh my God!” says one of the rich women in front of Wilma. She’s holding up a ticket. “37.06 seconds! I called it!”

She frantically stuffs the ticket in her purse. It does not stuff well, and as the woman runs towards the ticket counter, the ticket sproings out and flutters flutters flutters down to the bleacher floor.

“Punch!” says the angel-conscience.

“Ow! Stop that.”

“Punch!” says the angel-conscience. “It makes you better.”

Wilma is looking down at the ticket. She is warring with herself.

“Punch!”

“Ow! Stop that.”

“It makes you better,” says the angel smugly.

But Wilma has picked up the ticket. She is holding it tightly. She is realizing that she has the chance to leave the arena planet not just free but also rich.

“Punch! Makin’ you better!”

“It doesn’t seem to be working,” Wilma points out.

(Boedromion 16: Legend, History, History) Three Short Bits

Desirable Properties for God’s Will

God’s will should be serially uncorrelated. That means that knowing God’s will at any given time should not provide information on God’s will at any other time. Otherwise it becomes possible to game God’s will and acquire moral authority without moral quality.

God’s will should not repeat within the lifespan of the universe. If God’s will repeats sooner than that then everyone will point and laugh at God.

“That God,” they will say. “So regressive!”

He will be separating the land from the waters, again, and smashing Jericho. The people of Jericho will say, “That was unnecessary.”

Then God will make the sun stand still and the moon stay put.

Everybody will wonder why but in fact it is so that Joshua can kill the enemies of the children of Israel.

You can see how unfortunate that would be.

In the set of cases that are materially identical, God’s will should be unbiased and statistically uniform. If this is not so then God’s will is a material consideration intrinsic to the perceivable universe.

People won’t say, “That’s God’s will!”

Instead, they’ll say, “That’s gravity. It’s attracting atoms to one another in a biased fashion.”

Or “that’s not design. That’s evolution!”

Or even “that’s not God’s will. That’s the hypnotic sexual power of Elvis’ gyrating hips!”

So that’s why it is important for God’s will to be uniform and unbiased.

The simplest mechanism for achieving serially uncorrelated, non-repeating, uniform mysterious ways in which God’s will can move is for that will to be random.

However, genuinely random will, omniscience, and purpose cannot coexist. Combining them creates a contradiction. Contradictions give rise to woglies. Woglies are anathema to doctrine, with the arguable exception of certain nontraditional theories regarding Jesus’ crown of thorns.

Since this is the case the most practical mechanism for God’s will is a pseudorandom sequence generated through non-arithmetic methods. It is best to seed such a sequence with a comparatively unpredictable quantity such as the Holy Spirit. This provides an acceptable quantity of mystery under most traditional tests.

The Wheel

Chaos Woman knows the future.

If she didn’t know the future, she couldn’t be Chaos Woman. She might make a mistake and then she wouldn’t be Chaos Woman any more. She might fail to consistently achieve the goals she is seeking at any given time!

So she makes sure always to know which future each of her actions will create.

What Chaos Woman doesn’t know is which futures are good and which futures are bad.

Chaos Woman gropes towards this idea.

Sometimes Round Man does something that she does not like. Then she corrects him! That is how she develops her sense of right and wrong—by correcting others.

But she has not fully developed it yet.

Sometimes Chaos Woman talks to the serpent. The serpent doesn’t exist yet. The serpent’s part of the future. The serpent’s something that she’ll turn into, later, if she learns what good and evil are.

She can talk to it because she knows what the future is and she knows what it’d say if she asked.

“It seems to me,” says Chaos Woman, “that if I learn good and evil, that there will be endless suffering. That’s why I turn into a snake and then get killed by my grandchildren.”

“It’s better, knowing,” says the serpent.

“It seems to me,” says Chaos Woman, “that I’ll decide the world is evil. Why would I want to learn how to judge things if I’m not going to like them afterwards?”

“It’s the judgment itself that’s good,” says the serpent.

“No, it’s not.”

The serpent hesitates. It wants to exist, which means saying something to convince Chaos Woman to learn about good and evil, but at the same time, the only thing it can say is the thing it said in its own past. It feels very deprotagonized by the mechanism of communication.

“No, it’s not,” admits the serpent. “Judgment sucks. But I’m glad I have it.”

“You like living under leaves and griping?”

“I love it,” says the serpent. It says this with honest passion. It is not sarcasm or bitterness.

It is better to suffer, the serpent thinks, than to know futures and pasts but have no functional opinion on them.

So that’s why Chaos Woman doesn’t peep when Round Man saves the world.

She could stop it. She could say, “Don’t make things appropriate, Round Man! You’ll cause all kinds of suffering.”

And he wouldn’t.

But she doesn’t!

Changed by Knowledge

“I’ve been changed by knowledge,” says Leucippus.

It’s an interlude. They’ve paused in their travels. He’s kneeling on the sea.

He’s bathing his face.

He’s scrubbing his eyes with the salt.

They’re stinging, but that’s okay, because he won’t have them for much longer.

“I can’t help but see things as they really are,” Leucippus says. “And that makes it very hard to be the carefree Leucippus that I consider myself to be.”

“You’re a fragile person,” says Demeter. “If the truth destroys you.”

“The thing is,” says Leucippus, “some of the fundamental ideas we need in order to be people are false. Like, being separate from everybody else. Being concrete rather than fuzzy at the edges. Being immune to external agencies of change. Things like that. So, speaking as an ordinary person who isn’t a goddess or anything, it’s hard not to be fragile.”

And Demeter smiles at him.

“You want the truth to be different,” she says.

“Can I have that?” he asks.

Leucippus and Demeter stand on the surging sea, near Delos, that island of stability on the chaos’ edge.

“Truth grows,” says Demeter, the goddess of the grain.

Hard and Cold

–As Narrated by Margaret Theas

When the shiv slid out of my side I knew I was alive.

It was funny. I cried a bit, which is what one does. I hung around the prison yard. The sun inched eastwards across the sky, from evening into morning, and then I slept for the very first time in my hard prison bed.

I watched the girl who’d stabbed me sometimes.

I asked her once, why she’d done it.

She said, “I was angry.”

“Why?”

“It’s a lot of responsibility,” she says. “Creating someone. Bringing someone from the deadworld into life. It haunted me every day. So when I saw you laying there dead in the yard I just couldn’t help it. I lost control. I stuck a shiv in you.”

“Thanks,” I said.

She looked at me. There was a lot of emotion in that look. It was hard and confused and happy and sad all at once.

“Don’t make me angry any more, okay?”

I hugged her.

Her name was Shelley.

I didn’t get my trial for three or four years, but that was pretty good. A lot of people stayed at the prison for a lot longer before their trial.

The judge leaned down towards me, when it began. He said, “Listen, Margaret. You are going to kill a man.”

“How do you know?”

“It’s because you’ve been in prison,” he said. “That’s how I know. You’ve been serving out that sentence since the moment you were born.”

“I have free will,” I said.

But all through the trial they kept reminding me. I’d been in prison, they said, like that meant they knew what would happen. I was reckless. I was bad. The people who came out of prison—they were reckless. They were bad.

My lawyer didn’t try very hard.

So when I came out I didn’t have much. I had some shoddy clothes. A purse without much in it. And I could feel, as the police car pulled out from the station, the beginnings of a drunk.

It doesn’t mean you have to drink, Shelley told me once. When you feel the drunk coming on. You have the choice. You can drink. Or you can just be stressed. Hit on the head. Be giddy with joy.

So I told myself, really hard, that this one would be joy.

But it had the hard stomach-punch kind of feel of the dizziness that drinks.

The car dropped me off.

The cop told me, “Here it is, Margaret. Here’s where you kill him.”

He dropped a gun into the dumpster for me.

“Why not just hand it to me?” I said.

And he leered at me. “Free will.”

Because it’s always your choice. You don’t have to stab someone. You don’t have to shoot someone. Just because you’ve been in prison doesn’t mean you have to yank someone from the deadworld down to Earth. You could be “innocent.”

I could be innocent.

But it looked like a dangerous neighborhood, and I was feeling pretty bad, and I didn’t want to be raped.

So I walked to the dumpster. I felt around. And as the cop pulled away, I pulled out the gun.

I’m really dizzy now. And sick.

They told me what he’d look like. Where I’d find him. But I have free will.

He’s just around the corner. A few streets back. Laying there dead, sprawled on the ground.

But I have free will.

Except that I don’t. There was a physics wonk in my block. She’d told me about it once. “The future’s the same as the past,” she’d explained. “It’s all written down in the book of the world. The only reason we think any different is that our memory only works one way—aligned against entropy with the ordering of the world. But that’s an illusion. It’s not the truth. The truth is, it’s all just there, future and past, lifeworld and deadworld, hard and cold.”

And there’s a pounding pressure in my head now. Just shoot him. Just shoot him and get it over with.

He’s so dead. It turns my stomach. It makes me feel sick. I don’t know how the coroners can stand it.

Just shoot him. Then he’ll get up. He’ll leave. You can go find your home. It’ll all be over.

I can see an ant crawling on him. Dimly. Through the haze. He’s so sickeningly dead.

I lick my lips.

What is he like, this man, my putative son? What will I bring into the world? Will he do good or harm?

I have free will.

The gun falls from my hand. The corpse is still there.

“Take that,” I say to the judge and the cops and the jury and them all.

I stagger back to the steps of the stoop of a nearby house.

I sit there, blank, shaking, the sickness all in and through me.

And I have the first sense that it will not be drink that ends this dizziness in my head but rather shock or fear or maybe joy.

The Cantor

An alternate history with small touches of data and humor. Do you think it would work?

The asylum is cold and its walls are damp.

Parvati sits in the cantor’s office. She is a tall, straight-backed woman with brilliant eyes. He is a well-respected cantor, with many degrees in the various sciences of mental health.

“Do you hear voices?” the cantor asks.

Parvati shakes her head.

“Smell things that maybe people around you can’t smell?”

“No,” Parvati says. “Except when their olfactory senses are not acute.”

“Have you ever felt,” inquires the cantor, “that the underlying mathematical reality of your mind was ill-defined?”

Now Parvati is suspicious. She recognizes this question as part of most standard mental health evaluations.

“I am not unduly concerned,” she hedges, “with the existence of thoughts that I possess but cannot prove that I possess.”

The cantor leans forward. He lifts his bushy eyebrows.

“Ms. Himavan, there’s no need to indulge in higher theory, here.”

“No,” Parvati says. “I feel adequately defined. It’s just . . . life is hard, sometimes.”

“Additively or multiplicatively?”

“Pardon?”

The cantor leans back. He picks up his cup of coffee. He sips. He thinks. “I mean, do the problems you’re having seem to accumulate linearly or geometrically?”

“Super-geometrically.”

Parvati laughs wryly. Then she holds up a hand when she sees the look in the cantor’s eyes.

“Just linearly,” Parvati says. “Sub-linear, really. I mean, the incremental gain seems to decrease each new day. It’s just that the limit function of the sum doesn’t seem to converge.”

“Is that why you chose to starve yourself? Because the limit function of your accumulated suffering might not converge?”

Parvati says, austerely, “I am starving myself to attract the favorable attention of a god.”

The cantor sighs.

“You know that’s not mathematically sound,” the cantor says.

“There are higher planes of mathematics,” Parvati says, primly.

The cantor opens his mouth to protest.

Parvati’s primness dissolves into an impish grin. “No, no, no,” she says. “It’s okay. I’m here. Prescribe your mathematics. I shall integrate it into my underlying worldview and see what transpires.”

The cantor smiles at her. “Well, it’s good that you’re willing to give it a try. Have you ever had ring therapy before?”

Parvati tilts her head. “Freud? Organizing sexual feelings into matrices and so forth?”

The cantor laughs.

“Oh, my,” he says. “No. Freud’s underlying analysis relied entirely on |R| being the second-largest infinite cardinal. We’re—”

Parvati interrupts him. “How did you say that?”

“|R|,” the cantor pronounces, carefully. “It’s the cardinality of the reals.”

“R,” Parvati says. “r. /R/. ?R?”

The cantor laughs. “|R|.”

“|R|.”

“In any case,” the cantor says, “Basic ring therapy consists of organizing your thoughts so that they perform predictably under addition and multiplication. For example, the thought ‘I am a person’ plus ‘I like apples’ sums to ‘boat’.”

“Boat,” says Parvati.

“Do you see how they add?”

“Boat!” says Parvati, despite the fact that this is not so much the sum of the the two thoughts as the third point of a right triangle formed by them in the plane of her transient epistemological context.

“Similarly, you can multiply ‘I am a person’ times ‘I like apples’ to get . . .”

Parvati attempts to think the first thought a number of times equal to the cardinality of the second.

“‘I like apples’ is a really big thought,” Parvati says.

The cantor considers.

“Perhaps you could multiply it by the singular sensation of waking up?”

Parvati’s hands spread reflexively.

“Wow,” she says. “It multiplies to form a somatic thought!”

“Very good!” says the cantor. He scribbles out a prescription for a book on basic ring theory.

“The nurse will come around and make sure you do your reading,” the cantor says.

Parvati hesitates.

“Does the fundamental undercomputability of the mathematics of thought,” she says, uncomfortably, “ever bother you?”

The cantor snorts, lightly.

“My dear,” he says, “if we let it bother us, there wouldn’t be any mathematicians, and people like you would still be getting ‘help’ from the engineers.”

The Land Where Suffering is Remembered

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a good bear,” hopes Jaime.

The very large bear rattles the tree.

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

“Yeah!” says Emily.

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

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

Jaime is startled. “You did?”

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

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

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

“Wow,” says Jaime.

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

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

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

“Really? Now?” Jaime says.

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

Jaime assesses the very large bear.

“That’s so,” he agrees.

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

Emily chants,

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

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

A chestnut horse runs past.

“Now!” says Emily.

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

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

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

Then the children are gone.

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

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

“Or swim,” says Jaime.

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

Jaime looks nervous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They stop and look at the ant for a while.

Eventually, they both sigh sadly and walk on.1

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

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

“Oh no,” says Emily.

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

“It doesn’ seem likely,” says Emily.

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

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

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

“Then it’s my stupid,” says Emily.

She says:

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

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

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

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

“Fine,” says Jaime. “I’ll ride.”

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

After a while, the horse slows down.

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

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

“What is it?” Emily says.

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

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

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

“Not in all the teeth!” says Emily.

Jaime looks at the teeth.

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

And the horse runs.

“Hurry,” says Jaime.

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

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

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

“Whuf!” says Emily, suddenly.

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

There is a pause.

“Whups!” amends Emily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it begins to run.

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

But Jaime cannot hear.

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

And Jaime cannot hear.

“The gap!”

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

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

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

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

But a Land where Suffering is Only Remembered.3

Footnotes

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

Dancer in the Night

There is a dancer in the night, a great tall dancer in the fog and when his feet come down on the earth they are like the feet of elephants, they are like the fall of hammers, they are like the blows rained down by the forging god upon unfinished Earth;

And when there is a person in that path, a small and fragile and tiny thing, who shouts, “Why?”

“Why do you do this thing, dancer?”

“Have a care, lest you should step on me!”

The dancer leans low and he replies,

“It is not that you are small, though you are small. It is not that I am great, though I am great. It is that you do not understand, my little person, how great and terrible and important it is,

“this dance.”

And then his breath is like the breaking of the seals,

And like the opening of gates,

And for a long mad moment the person sees it there, the vast immensity of purpose,

the certainty and the necessity

and how all that person’s life may have led to this:

that that person, and no other;
that that foot and no other;
Should come together in the dance.

There is no lack of love in that. There is no coldness. There is simply the way things must be: the dancer must dance, and the humans are so small.

And that is all.

The Frog and the Thorn

She drives through the desert of frogs in the hot summer night.

The frogs are croaking: ke-kax, ke-kax. They do not like living in the desert but since it is named after them they feel a peculiar obligation.

The asphalt cuts a razor track through the long empty sands.

Her name is Claire and she is not fulfilled. She wears shoes but they do not make her happy. She also has clothing and a car and a pet hawk named Albert.

Albert soars high above, on his car leash. He screams: kea!

There are scrubs and little desert rats that hop just like in that movie about Sting. There is the giant tic-tac-toe board, standing on edge out in the middle of the desert, abandoned seven long years. The sticky felt noughts and crosses have fallen off. Some litter the desert of frogs. Others have been carried away by buzzards to line their nests.

There’s a little coffee shop at the outskirts of Spattle. It has bright neon lights and a sign noting, “NO SHIRT – NO SERVICE” and Claire pulls in out front.

“Yo,” says the waiter, a big burly man in slippers and rough clothes.

“Hey,” says Max.

Max is lean and he’s wearing black. He’s got a notebook and a cup of coffee. The coffee is cold. He sips: klurp, klurp.

“I’d like a cup of coffee,” says Claire.

The waiter sizes her up. His eyes linger on her shoes. Then he shrugs. “It’ll be $2.50,” he says. That’s the kind of place this is: it sells coffee that costs $2.50 a cup. And has little bits of grounds in it. Not much. Just some.

So Claire sits down.

“Nice shoes,” says Max.

“Thanks,” says Claire. She doesn’t really want to talk to Max but she finds herself talking anyway. “I bought them cheap from some exploited Filipino children who were loitering outside my house.”

Max’s voice is interested. “Really?”

“No,” Claire says. “They’re from Nordstrom’s.”

Max nods.

The waiter brings her her coffee. There is also a complementary day-old roll.

“Are you in a funk?” Max asks.

Claire blinks at him. “What?”

“There’s this whole self-referential literary genre,” Max says. “Spattlefunk. People come to Spattle and they’re in a funk. You kind of had the look like you’d read some, maybe, felt a little unfulfilled, thought you’d try it out.”

“No,” says Claire.

Max scribbles on his notepad. Claire sips her coffee, looking increasingly blank and confused.

“What, I mean, why?” Claire asks.

Max shrugs. “It doesn’t really work that way,” he says. “Spattle’s no better or worse than any other city for funks. But they’re good stories.”

“It’s not a theme,” Claire says. “Being in Spattle in a funk.”

“They’re mostly about subverting the dominant paradigm,” says Max. “They’re about people realizing they don’t have to do things the way everyone else does.”

Max pushes his foot forward so she can see it. He’s got fine little hairs on his toes and neatly-trimmed toenails. After a moment Claire realizes he’s barefoot.

“That’s my little funk,” he says. “Not much. But I got Louis sold on it.”

Louis turns away from the coffeemaker and raises his waiter pad in salute.

“Shoelessness,” says Max.

“I’m not really very interested,” says Claire.

Max grins. “Not many are. I mean, you go out there shoeless, you might step on a frog. Or a scorpion.”

There aren’t any scorpions in the desert of frogs. But you can still imagine them skittering on the shadowed ground: kittle-ik, kittle-ik.

“Oh, God,” says Claire, ignoring him. She just realized that she’s eaten maybe half of the roll without even really paying attention to how it tastes. “I shouldn’t eat this. I should save it for Albert.”

“Boyfriend?” asks Max.

“Pet hawk.”

“Is it serious?”

Claire laughs a little.

“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, it is.”

Claire drains her coffee. She puts $3.50 and her empty cup on the table and picks up the last half of the roll.

“See you,” she says.

Out in the parking lot, she thinks about it. Then she grins. It’s kind of a sad grin.

“What the hell,” she says.

She kicks off her shoes. She walks to the car. She holds up the roll for Albert.

Albert screams: kea.

He dives for the roll. He snatches it from her hand. He perches on the car and eats it greedily.

Claire walks around to the driver’s side. On her way there she steps on a frog. It croaks: ke-kax.

Then she steps on a long thorn. It drives deep into her foot.

“Gah!” Claire screams. She leans against the car and puts all her remaining weight on the other foot.

The frog croaks slimily: ke-kax.

The pain is terrible. But Claire is laughing.

It is the freest thing that she has felt in more than seven days.

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.