The Boundary Between Liril and the World (II/VII)

“I give to you — life!”

Micah giggles to himself. He extends his arms upwards. He whines, inadvertently, from the pain. Then he giggles again. His hair hangs down over his eyes. It’s matted with some nameless horror’s blood, or possibly a delicious lime-flavored Slurp-like beverage.

The monster sighs.

He unlocks Micah’s shackles. He heaves Micah up. He carries Micah up the stairs. His nametag raises a red welt on Micah’s skin, practically burning him. Micah leaves a black smudge on the nametag in his turn.

The monster tosses Micah into a chair and, after a few minutes, throws him a towel.

“Ah, geez,” Micah says. “I can’t possibly.”

“You’re strong enough to be alive,” the monster says, “and to make jokes.”

“That’s true,” Micah concedes, after a moment.

He picks up the towel. He tries to clean himself up. It doesn’t really help. He’s ten. After twenty or thirty seconds his shoulders and elbows stage a rebellion and his arms go limp.

“My arms are limp,” Micah says.

“I’m going to send you home with her,” the monster says. “Rest up. Get some strength. Then you can come back by in a week or two and we’ll see just what you are.”

“Me?”

Micah looks horrified.

“Maybe you’re useful,” the monster says.

“I do have a gift for surprisingly relevant historical trivia,” Micah says. His world reels a little. “I actually get to go home? I have a home?”

He can’t help laughing.

The monster’s eyes are on him. The laughter drains away. It becomes crying and Micah tries to blow his nose into the towel but he doesn’t have the strength.

“Don’t worry,” the monster says. “I’ll make you into something good.”

“Why don’t you hate me?” Micah asks. “You’re supposed to hate me. I’m supposed to be your enemy.”

“Are you?”

“Aren’t I?”

“I’m afraid that I won’t let you be,” the monster says.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 25, 1995

Micah’s life is lived staccato.

There are good hours and good days. There is ice cream and there is running in the park. There is home, complete with Liril’s mother Priyanka and her tenuous but loving welcome. There are fish sticks and french fries and cheese which you can divide into arbitrarily many sub-cheese strings. There are times when he can lie on his bed and talk to Liril about the stringencies of their world.

Then between the beats of his life it becomes painful.

It’s like Liril and Micah are two rats in a dinosaur’s cave. Their lives are interrupted, again and again, by the great blundering atrocities stumbling around them in the darkness. It is an inexpressible condition. He will sit in the corner of their room for hours, trying to find a way to put it into words. Liril doesn’t even try.

He’s good with the trivia but she knows everything.

She knows the secret language of the grass and the names of the bats that live on the dark side of the moon. She tells him how the kingdom of magical bears fell from grace, and what Melanie has done to bind the grangler, and the secrets of the lurkunders, and the threat that power line proximity can pose to a person’s health.

One day it is raining. It is pouring down through the branches of the trees. She tells him the name of a bead of water on the glass and he watches Vassily the Raindrop slip down to the edge of the window of their room and break.

On another day the monster is choking him with a belt around his neck.

One day he tries to learn how to skateboard.

“Watch,” he tells Liril. “This will be my real magical talent. Not spitting out seawater or dead fish or historical trivia, but skateboarding.

He doesn’t have a talent like that, and it wouldn’t be skateboarding if he did.

On another day the monster smiles beatifically to him and says, “I have found it.”

Micah leans forward. He looks at the monster. His eyes are bright and maddened, like a bird’s.

“I have seen through all of this at last.”

The monster reaches into Micah. He turns over his hand. He pulls forth a great gout of the fire, a newborn god, educed from Liril straight through Micah, who stands between that crucible and the world. The god sits in the monster’s hand, a snowflake fractal, its edges a drift of shape becoming real; and its eyes are as a bird’s, and seven sacred seals hang all about it, and it is lovely, tame, and sweet, and the monster will name it Aspida, his treasure, his first city-building god.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

“No,” Micah mutters.

He can’t accept it. It is a perversion. It makes him pointless. His heart cries out, I will not lose!

He stares at the monster. His mouth twitches.

I will have didn’t lost.

It isn’t right. That isn’t what happened and it wouldn’t be the way to phrase it if it had. He stares at Aspida and marvels at its hundred eyes and the interlocking formica and steel and glass that is its flesh. He thinks it’s beautiful and appalling and he has to admit that pretty much he has lost, but for the sake of this child he tries again —

I haven’t any longer lost?

He laughs until he chokes and suddenly he is leaking and there is seawater all around him and the monster actually looks alarmed. “You mustn’t do that,” the monster tells him.

That doesn’t help.

Micah flails inside his heart for some remedy or some ounce of strength. He can’t actually find any. He is gurgling brine out from his mouth. He hacks out a fish bone. His eyes widen and he sputters. Aspida looks hopeful. Aspida opens its baby mouth.

It’s too much. Micah starts to rip open. There is a thorn stuck through his hand.

“It’s all right,” the monster tells him.

His hand is on Micah’s hair. It shouldn’t make anything even close to being all right; but then the monster makes it so.

“She has raised you up to be her Christ,” the monster says, “and suffer in her place; but as you wish to defend her, and stand between her and the world, that doesn’t have to be so bad.”

Micah leans forward.

He is crying.

His will collapses in him. The monster telling him that Liril could have wanted this destroys what little fight he was beginning, again, to have.

He is a fragile, permeable membrane between the world and his insides.

He reaches after Aspida but the god and the monster both are gone.

And the Birds Fall Dead (IV/VII)

Liril is thinking about formica because she is supposed to be making an urban sort of god. She’s supposed to be composing a construction deity—a fertility god of cities. To be making herself the vehicle for its eduction. To be isolating from the world that dharmic principle that causes to arise great fields of concrete, steel, and glass; shaping her whole being into a vessel for its eduction; tracing lines of pipe and wire across the blueprints of her soul. She is supposed to be readying herself for it, tuning herself like a musician to her instrument. So she is sitting in the monster’s office, in the waiting room of the monster’s office, rather, kicking her feet and reading a bit of Highlights, but her real thoughts are elsewhere.

She is in the ground beneath the cities of the world. She is in the skies above them.

She is breathing in their stone and fire. She is dancing in their antennae. She is exhaling their smog.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 18, 1995

And she is so rapt, so wrapped up in this, that she almost misses Melanie—would have missed her, in fact, would have not noticed her coming back into her life for the first time in seven years, if she hadn’t suddenly remembered back to when she first remembered forward to noticing Melanie, a half a second or so from then, later in this very sentence (to be precise), and turned her head to catch sight, startledly, of Melanie coming in.

She feels awkward and desynchronized, like she always does around Melanie. The woman’s got some wicked way of out-anticipating prophets.

Oh, hi, she thinks.

She doesn’t say it.

She doesn’t even focus her eyes on Melanie, just skims them past, in case Melanie isn’t part of the monster’s organization yet.

Don’t give me away, Melanie had told her, once. So she doesn’t.

But Melanie comes over and kneels down beside her.

“Don’t touch me,” Liril says.

Melanie’s teeth are very white. Her hand is on Liril’s hand. “If I were a god,” Melanie says, “I would take you from here, and I would let nothing have you. I would stand between you and the world.”

Liril rolls her eyes.

This, her gesture indicates, is an unnecessary distraction from this fine magazine Highlights, whose diabolically clever puzzles I am attempting, even now, to solve.

“I don’t want that,” Liril says.

“I know,” Melanie agrees.

“I don’t want anything,” Liril whispers. It’s precious, like a secret. It glitters like the bracelet on her wrist.

“I know,” Melanie agrees.

Liril looks back to her magazine.

She is quiet.

She is still.

Then Melanie grins. It’s like a Cheshire Cat. It’s like she’s suddenly in ten thousand miles of endless dark, broken by the light of her white teeth.

And somehow they seem sharp—

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

Liril tries to recoil.

It only happens in her thoughts.

Liril tries to get to her feet. Her body doesn’t move.

Liril tries to scream.

Instead she breathes in, breathes out, in just the usual way.

I don’t want that.

It’s like an echo of wanting, an echo of needing, an echo of desire coming a few seconds before the thing; and Melanie says, “Want it,” and the engines of the world crash to a halt and the stars extinguish in the sky and the birds fall dead from the trees outside the window of the waiting room of the monster’s office

and Melanie has said it in that voice the monsters hath.

let’s try Wednesdays and Fridays for a bit, with Mondays going to Chibi-Ex.

And Sometimes You Just Slip (III/III)

And one day in 1988 they are talking and Liril tells her about the monster.

It’s like they’ve been avoiding this conversation for most of seven years.

“I screamed,” Liril says, factually. “It was really awful. I started thinking that I was going to forget who I was and I wrote LIRIL on the wall. But then I looked at it and it didn’t even make sense to me, like it was just some palindrome.”

“Oh,” says Melanie.

Seven years, of course, is exactly how old Liril is right then, though she’d been rather more like eight or nine when the two had met, and Melanie’s turned sixteen.

“He made gods from me,” Liril says.

“He did?”

Liril nods. “They were born because I hurt. And he took them. Like—“

She makes vague motions with her hand. She has no real idea what this is like. There’s nothing to compare it to. Pulling birds out of your brain and then using them as firewood might be a good analogy if it were something that ever happened. Stealing your hope for freedom and forging it to a chain.

“Like an awful thing,” she says.

Melanie stares at her.

“You’re so calm,” she says.

Liril’s mouth twitches. It’s like a smile. “You told me to stop crying. Anyway, he kept me caged, and this kind of thing went on and on, and—“

Melanie interrupts her.

It might have been different, what happened later, if Melanie had heard the rest—if she’d learned back then what had happened at Elm Hill.

But she doesn’t.

She’s desperate to say anything to escape the implications of You told me to stop crying.

“I’ll stop him,” she says.

And Liril laughs, great peals like sobs. “You won’t.”

“I will,” Melanie says.

She’s begging.

She’s begging, suddenly, with those words: let me help with this. But this Liril cannot do.

Melanie is running. She has been running.

Melanie doesn’t know when it started. She missed the part where she stumbled to her feet and ran, and knocked open Liril’s door. Did she knock down Liril? . . . no.

She doesn’t think so.

She thinks Liril was to the left.

She’s missed the first block and a half from there, so she can’t be sure; but even so she doesn’t stop.

If she could be a hero—

If she could be a hero, be an angel, be an anything, an anything that could help—

Anything but a fallible, mortal girl, or the most terrible of gods—

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1988

There is a web around Santa Ynez, in those days. It is meant to keep things in.

Melanie does not care.

She reaches it, and she can’t pass through, so she just starts tearing at the web.

And if she were a human, then this would have been ignored; and if she were a god, then the matter would be clear: the spider must attack.

She is not a human and she is not a god.

The spider does not know what to do with her; it descends, uneasy, from the sky, on a single strand of web.

She tastes of the monster—of Amiel’s twisted, empty get, save younger and not so sure.

It looks at her.

She glares at it. It flinches from her eyes.

“What are you?” it whispers.

She has ripped free strands of its subtle web. She has knotted them together to make a cord. She has stretched them between her hands.

And because it is between Melanie and freedom, and because it’s the monster’s slave, and because it’s everything wrong in young Melanie’s world, she says a terrible thing.

“I am the fate which rules you.”

Its eight eyes glint.

Then the cord is a bit ‘neath the spider’s jaw, and she’s leapt onto its back.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


1988

It is bloody and tired when it gives in at last.

It is lolling on the sky.

And she climbs down from its back on a silken thread and she tells it, “You are mine.”

This it concedes.

“You will seal this place no more forever.”

She has strung it between the will of the monster, and her own; and finally it snaps.

“As you like.”

And from that day forth it is in the heights that it spins its delicate web.

Haunted (IIb/III)

They aren’t friends.

Melanie tells herself this each time she thinks of visiting Liril. They are not friends.

Not really.

They can’t be.

There’s just something inside Melanie, she tells herself, that has trouble letting Liril go.

The nephilite haunts Melanie’s thoughts, and she keeps finding reasons to go and talk to her, and pretending that she doesn’t love her and she doesn’t hate her and she doesn’t want to own her or be owned.

And also, they’re not friends.

It’s really . . . Liril and Melanie, that is . . . it’s not really a big deal at all.

Liril hasn’t cried. She isn’t sad. She hasn’t cried since that first day.

And Melanie, mostly, she’s OK too.

You will drown in him forever.

You will never die.

It’s a little hard, sometimes, because she really wants to have the upper hand over Liril’s mother, she finds herself craving it sometimes, like a spider might crave blood, and she can’t, she can’t even really look at the woman any more without seeing those billowing clouds of violet, that indigo, that green, that sick sensation of the words like wind beating from every direction against her soul.

But she’s OK.

She never cries, not where Liril can see.

She reminds herself that she’s cunning, and she’s strong.

This is a thing that comes to pass.

There’s nothing I can do.

“She hasn’t aged,” Melanie says, one day in 1988, to her first and fairy lover.

This person who is not my friend.

“She’s maybe even lost a year.”

Not that it matters, or anything.

“Isn’t that really kind of strange?”

Stupid Words and their Stupid Power, Anyway (I/III)

“It is the elephant,” Melanie says.

Liril looks at her.

Melanie is laughing. She is looking upwards at the sky. She is hugging her hands to her own chest now and it is awful and Liril wants to cry but Melanie had asked that she stop crying, so she doesn’t.

“Melanie,” Liril says.

“’Why do we suffer?’” Melanie asks. “’Why do we have to suffer, and fear, and die?’”

“We don’t,” Liril says.

“No,” Melanie says. “Not ‘we don’t.’ It is ‘because of the elephant.’”

Liril looks blank.

“You go,” Melanie says.

“I can’t go,” Liril says.

“It’s easy,” Melanie says. “All the answers are elephants.”

It is beginning to seep in through Liril’s reserve. It’s too ridiculous.

“You go,” Melanie insists.

“What’s gray and awful,” Liril says, hesitantly, “and has a shiny tie?”

“Oh,” says Melanie. “That one could be a frog.”

Liril makes a squinchy face.

“Or an elephant,” Melanie says. “An awful elephant in a tie. Why did the elephant step on the grape?”

Liril shakes her head.

“He thought it was a pair of shoes.”

Liril closes her eyes.

Please, she thinks. Please go away.

It is too late. She is beginning to laugh. It is escaping her. Awful things will happen and it will be her fault, it will be her fault for laughing, it will be her fault for accepting this precious gift that is given to her life.

“You go.”

“What’s gray and wrinkly,” Liril asks, instead of laughing, “And antithetical to the covenants of the world?”

It’s almost like having a will, being able to ask a question like that.

Almost.

“What the hell kind of word is ‘antithetical?’” Melanie asks.

And the giggling takes Liril, and she is lost.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

They go to Liril’s house. Liril opens the door. She goes in and turns around and she is inviting Melanie inside —

“Get out,” says Liril’s mom.

She is standing there, frozen. It’s a whisper. It’s a strangled, horrified little whisper. It’s barely loud enough to hear.

Get out.

Melanie straightens. She braces her feet. She gives a tight grin to Liril’s mom.

“Fear’s showing, love,” she says.

It’s a weird thing to hear from a ten-year-old girl.

A moment passes.

Liril’s mom doesn’t move; so Melanie just shrugs, and nods, and pretends their words were greetings; and she walks past Liril’s mother, and takes up Liril’s hand, and goes up to Liril’s room.

That’s the first time the two of them meet.

The second time they meet, Liril’s mother doesn’t say anything at all.

The third meeting, though, a few weeks into their acquaintance, she’s found some kind of peace.

She stops Melanie at the door. She can stop her, this time. She’s not terrified, this time, and that means that Melanie has to pay her mind — a tall woman like her, with the ability to call the police and the like, maybe even overpower Melanie, physically, with her raw adulthood’s might.

“Go up to your room, honey,” Liril’s mom says, to Liril.

So Liril does.

Liril’s mom leads Melanie into the living room. She makes hot tea and little plates with tea sandwiches. She brings them in. She sits down, facing Melanie, to talk.

Melanie takes a sandwich.

“Thank you,” she says.

“She says you’re a good person,” Liril’s mother says.

“She does?”

“For now,” Liril’s mother agrees.

“Huh.”

Melanie thinks about this. She chews on the sandwich.

“Weird,” Melanie decides.

“So I’ve decided I can’t hate you. And so I am not going to tell the monster that you are here, and have him hale you away and raise you in the customs of the monster’s house; or, failing that, cast you back against the wall and pierce your eyes and heart with the Thorn that Does Not Kill, or hang you from a cross and put razor wire on your brow and let you bleed; or stake you out on some bleak hill for the carrion birds to feed. Because I would enjoy seeing him do those things to you, I would enjoy seeing you suffer, but I shouldn’t go that far for somebody I don’t hate.”

Melanie puts her sandwich down.

It has become unappetizing.

“I would be haled away,” she says, “and raised in a monster’s house?”

“He doesn’t have children,” says Liril’s mom.

Melanie thinks about this.

“It would be nice to have a house,” says Melanie, “and customs.”

“Would it?”

Melanie gives a little snort. Then she shakes her head.

“He won’t catch me,” Melanie says.

“Yes,” agrees Liril’s mother. “Children are so very good at avoiding being caught by monsters. It’s practically a trend.”

“Won’t,” Melanie underlines.

Not me.

“One day,” says Liril’s mother, “you will find him; or he will find you; and you will meet the monster. And then you can decide whether to tell him that I betrayed him. You can decide whether to tell him that I had you here, that I knew you were here, a girl of the monster’s line, and I didn’t even like you, and I kept it from him anyway. If you tell him that then you will have more than enough revenge for what I am going to do to you today, but you’ll also prove that Liril’s wrong.”

It’s hard for Melanie to believe she could stomach this woman’s sandwiches and tea at all.

“If I may ask,” says Liril’s mother, “how do you live?”

“What are you going to do to me today?”

“No,” says Liril’s mother. “It is my question now. It is your question later. How do you live?”

Melanie frowns.

“I don’t understand,” she says.

“I mean,” Liril’s mother says, “are you—fostered? Did you grow up here? How do you live?”

“Oh,” Melanie says.

She shakes her head.

“I steal,” she says. “I carry messages. I live with the fairies in their dells, sometimes.”

“You must be very cunning,” Liril’s mother says.

Melanie’s heart shouts a warning.

She is standing up.

“You won’t do this,” she says.

“What am I going to do?”

“You won’t.

Why am I afraid? she asks herself.

It is the expression on Liril’s mother’s face. It is subtle but familiar. She has seen it on her brother’s face. The last time she saw it Billy was holding up Papa’s head —

The words are not what she’s expecting. She doesn’t even understand how they can stop her; how they can catch her up; how they can freeze her; how, for that matter, it could mean anything to her at all, when Priyanka says:

“There is a King.”

A Study in Entanglement (VII/VII)

“I can’t,” Liril says. “I can’t, Melanie, not you, never you, not you.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

And be free, at last, of the web that is the world—

And be more

And Melanie is already standing up, she can feel it, it is so terribly, terribly close, her bright transcendence, and you’re, and she is strong; but

“I can’t,” Liril says. “I can’t, Melanie, not you, never you, not you.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

It is a raging need in her. It is a hunger. It is a thirst. She can taste it. It is rising in her, what she can, what she must become.

“Make me a god,” she says. “Make me the kind of god that can kill spiders, and break free of any web, and never go hungry and go thirsty, and be by all others loved; to tell the lies that everyone believes, and to slip past any security, and to overcome any obstacle, and to perform transformations, and to become not you the cleverest creature in all the world and save all the hurting people from their pains. Can you make me that?”

And be free, at last, of the web never that is the world—

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

It is a raging need in her. It is a hunger. It is a thirst. She can taste it. It is a rising in her, what she can become.

“Make me a god,” she says. “Make me the kind of god that can kill spiders, and break free of any web, and never go hungry or go thirsty, and to be by all others loved; to tell you’re Amiel’s get lies that everyone believes, and to slip past any security, and to overcome any obstacle, and to perform never you transformations, and to become the cleverest creature in all the world and save all the hurting people from their pains. Can you’re get make me that?”

And be free, at last, of the web that is the world—

And be more

And Melanie is already standing up, she can feel it, you’re, it is so terribly, terribly close, her bright transcendence, and she is strong; but

“I can’t,” Liril says. “I can’t, Melanie, not you, never you, not you.

The words say themselves through Melanie’s throat, like knives: “You must.

“I can’t,” Liril says, and then she looks away. She says, quietly, “I can’t, Melanie. Not you. There’s only one kind of god that you can ever be.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

They are poisoned words.

Listening to those words for Melanie is like pouring a jug of drain cleaner right down the gullet of her mind.

The words hurt her, somehow. She is aching deep inside from them, like a child who has just found out Santa’s real, but that he’ll never come for her.

Like a girl, who learns the ERA never passed.

Like an athlete who hurts their leg, and finds out that it will never heal.

She doesn’t even understand yet how it can possibly hurt so much, because she doesn’t have the least idea what Liril means. She can’t understand how it can make her suffer because she obviously—to herself—does not possess whatever knowledge it would be that makes her suffer in reaction to those words. It is as if, rather, she embodies that awful knowledge; as if the implications of Liril’s statements are bypassing her mind entirely and ringing horrid echoes down her soul.

You don’t get to express your dharma, child. never you Not you.

You don’t get to be who you are.

“You’re Amiel’s get,” says Liril.

She isn’t even trying to be cruel.

“You’re the cherub kind. You can’t be any sort of god, ever, except a bondsman of my line.”

It is worse than drain cleaner. It’s turned to lightning now. It’s turned to lightning and it’s writhing in her heart and soul and mind, all the bits of her that knew not lightning’s sting, and it hurts.

For a very long moment, Melanie thinks that Liril is going to change her.

She can’t fight it. She is strong. Melanie is absurdly strong. She is ten and she is stronger than most adults. But Liril’s words have broken her. She is resigned to it, somehow, somewhere in her, to the knowledge that she’ll soon be owned. She will transform. She will become a bondsman of Liril’s line. She will become a possession and a guardian and a follower of this strange and gray-haired girl.

She doesn’t want to be.

She doesn’t want to be, but she doesn’t have any defense against it. She isn’t sure how to fight it, or even if she should.

Her ancestress Amiel is inside her, wound through her, so long ago and so very far away and yet burning in her blood:

I will guard your line, Amiel is promising, as she has always been promising. I will guard your line, and our families be entwined forever.

It is impossible for Melanie to resist.

She thinks it must be easy to transcend, to arise, to become the god of that ancient promise. She can feel it rising inside her as a consuming lightness that will free her from mortality and carry her human self away.

She manages to get out: “I—“

She doesn’t know what to say after that. She can’t find the thing to say or think or do that will make it actually happen, inside her, and she can’t find the thing to say or do that will make it stop.

She notices that she’s scrambled back, away from Liril, but it’s nothing like far enough.

“I won’t make you that,” Liril says. “It’s wrong.”

Melanie’s lost the sense of who Melanie is that she’d had when she sat down. It is a momentary, dizzy emptiness. She is angry and sad and desperately, pathetically grateful, and she hates and loves Liril in that moment with an overpowering, vicious force.

She’s going to say something.

She can feel it.

She’s going to say something, and maybe then she’ll be Melanie again. It’s building up inside her. There are going to be words. There’s something. She doesn’t even know what she’s going to say, but it’s going to be something.

How can a person know what they’re going to say at a time like that?

The words just come.

The Elephant in the Room:

Stay tuned!

Why is Six Afraid of Seven? (VI/VII)

Melanie grows up with awful, breakneck speed.

In 1979 she is seven.

Almost she stops there. Almost she gives up—entangled as she is in the soot-web of a spider—and stops aging forevermore, choosing instead the timelessness of death.

She does not.

She entangles herself in life. She escapes the spider’s web, and lands in Santa Barbara, and walks to Santa Ynez; and there, and vigorously, corollary by corollary and year to year as if in the inevitable progression of a theorem, she grows.

In 1979, she is seven, but one year later she is eight. Another year, and nine. Then, in 1982, she’s ten. If she continues at this rate she will grow from age seven to age twenty-one in less than fifteen years.

It’s ridiculous.

It’s crazy.

Her body weight will triple, more or less, assuming she eats better than she’s done. Her mind will grow orders of magnitude more sophisticated and complex. She will shoot up a foot and a half and more in height—

And all in less than fifteen years!

Everybody around her pretends that this is normal, even inevitable; that it happens to everyone, and just like so.

But that isn’t true.

There’s a girl at the local elementary, for example, for whom it is not thus.

Her name is Liril.

It’s not obvious just from looking at her that Liril does not age. In fact, it’s not even obvious, just yet, on the census. She hasn’t lived long enough to be suspicious in her youth.

But she’s timeless, anyway.

That much you can see.

She’s way too young to have such silver hair, and eyes so old, and to be so broken by her pains.

She’s way too young to have the power to turn humans into gods.

She’s not the kind of slam-dunk evidence against the naturalness of aging that she will later be, you understand, she’s eight or nine years old and she’s barely lived for twelve, but she’s still a bit of a corroboration: if a girl that young is that quiet, that still, then there’s something strange about the world.

It’s probably that aging isn’t normal.

Or that gravity doesn’t exist.

Something like that, anyway. Something reasonable, something sensible, something comprehensible about the world.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

It is 1982. Melanie is ten. Micah does not exist.

One day Micah will exist. When he exists, he will hate that Melanie came while he was away. He will think, “Maybe I could have saved her.”

The pronouns will be ambiguous.

He won’t be sure, even then, whether he means Liril or Melanie. He won’t understand, even then, the way that they hurt one another, and so even with his loyalties going almost entirely to Liril in any given circumstance he won’t be sure which of them he wishes he could have saved.

But he will hate.

He’ll hate himself, then, in those heady moments of existence, hate that the richness of the power of his life is circumscribed by time, hate that there was nothing, from the beginning, that he could do. He will resent, and bitterly, that the worst of it was over by the time he existed to do anything about it, and he will wonder if in some strange fashion that could possibly have been his fault.

The answer to this is that it almost certainly was not.

Not in any conventional sense.

When Melanie sits down in front of Liril, on the grass, Micah isn’t anywhere within a hundred miles of the place, and he doesn’t exist, and he has never existed, and he has never had a single chance to act or speak or do anything efficacious in the world.

He cannot, reasonably, be blamed.

So: “hi,” Melanie says. “Hi. I’m Melanie.”

And Liril doesn’t open up her eyes.

She says, “Nng,” instead.

It’s a lost little sound. It’s full of pain. So Melanie reaches for Liril’s hand.

“Don’t touch me,” Liril says.

And Melanie’s holding Liril’s hand. Melanie’s squeezing it and stroking it. She’s not sure when that happened, exactly. She missed the actual moment when she decided to seize it up. It’s just that she realizes suddenly that it’s already happened, that she’s already taken Liril’s hand, and there isn’t anything else that she can think to do in answer to Liril’s pain.

Liril can’t help laughing at that.

Liril clutches her hand to her chest and Melanie’s comes along.

Liril is sitting with her back against a tree, and her silver hair is spilling down it, and their hands are clutched together against her chest, and Liril is laughing, she cannot stop laughing.

That’s just how much it hurts.

When she finally does stop, Melanie rubs at one of Liril’s tears with a finger, and then licks her finger clean of salt.

Liril is quiet.

Liril is still.

“I’m stuck,” Melanie says.

Liril shakes her head.

“I’m stuck,” Melanie repeats, louder. “I came here, I came to Santa Ynez, and the colors were beautiful and bright, and everything was awesome, except, when I turned around and looked behind me, I saw the colors had made a web. They’d come together in a web.”

Liril’s face twitches. Her eyes come open. She looks at Melanie for the first time in their lives.

“There’s a spider in the sky,” Liril agrees.

It’s the colors of the dawn and the sunset, the piled soft blues of the sky, and the colors of the drifting clouds. It is beautiful and it is translucent, the spider is, and it is very difficult to see.

It has caught the whole of the city in its web.

This, as the monster has instructed it to do.

“I can’t be stuck,” Melanie says.

“You’re not.”

“But it’s a web.”

I’m stuck,” Liril says. “You’re not stuck. You’re not the kind of person that a spider’s web can hold. You’re Melanie, cunning Melanie, beloved of the gods.”

This is the first time Melanie has heard this appellation.

“I’m what?” she asks.

Liril is crying.

It’s starting to freak Melanie out.

“Stop that,” she says. “Stop crying.”

And Liril does.

Liril shakes her head a bit, and then she rubs away her tears, and then she cleans her snuffling nose upon her shirt.

She isn’t crying any longer.

She is looking at Melanie, instead, with reddened eyes.

“You got out of the soot-web,” Liril says, “so you should know.”

Melanie takes a deep breath.

Liril knows.

She lets it out.

“So you’re really . . . you really are magic,” she says.

That’s what the fairies say, and some few of the kids. Liril’s magic. She can solve a person’s problems. She can answer the riddles of your life.

She can turn you, if you ask her, into a god.

“I can’t fly,” says Liril, “and I can’t grant wishes, not really, and my hands can’t hold the sun. I can’t grow larger than a castle or shrink down smaller than a ladybug. I can’t bend the seasons in their course or make the wind to blow. I can’t even— I can’t— I— I’m not really very magic. But I’m a crucible of gods.”

Melanie doesn’t know the word crucible but she interpolates from context.

“Then make me one,” she says.

It is a raging need in her. It is a hunger. It is a thirst. She can taste it. It is rising in her, what she can become.

“Make me a god,” she says. “Make me the kind of god that can kill spiders, and break free of any web, and never go hungry or go thirsty, and be by all others loved; to tell the lies that everyone believes, and to slip past any security, and to overcome any obstacle, and to perform transformations, and to become the cleverest creature in all the world and save all the hurting people from their pains. Can you make me that?”

And be free, at last, of the web that is the world—

And be more

And Melanie is already standing up, she can feel it, it is so terribly, terribly close, her bright transcendence, and she is strong; but

that’s it for this week! Gotta stretch this out, you know, don’t want to leave all the people who haven’t noticed that the story’s updating again in the dust! I’ll probably go to twice a week starting in March or April—

But for now, you’ll have to wait one whole week for (I/VII).

Maybe to pass the time you could . . .

Ink Ascending (XVI/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Sometimes when things seem darkest a flying carpet will come and swoop you off and carry you to the answer to all your pains.

In the lands of Romance you will battle ogres and dragons.

You will find bottles containing the secret hearts of djinn.

Dashing princes will bend their head to look at you, their eyes gleaming with that ancient light of Romance.

They will say: “I see you have come here.”

. . . but no.

That is not right.

The carpet—that seems right.

But not the rest.

The girl is surfacing to consciousness and something is not right. The Prince is not standing over her. That is someone else. He is not saying, “I see you have come here.”

He is saying something else.

The girl focuses her eyes.

It is Minister Jof.

It is Minister Jof, and not the Prince.

He has said, if anything, “I consider you to blame.”

She shakes her head, just a little. She turns her head. It hurts to do this, but she turns her head.

Is that the Prince?

It is Riffle. He is washing his hands.

And there:

Dr. Sarous, glum and sour. Not even speaking.

And there:

The general of the stickbugs. He is approaching. He is lowering his mouth towards the foot of the girl. Dr. Sarous bats at him and he skulks away.

It is distinctly not the lands of Romance.

If anything, it is the murky land of Dismal.

Still, the girl sits up. She makes a game try of it. “How marvelous,” she says. “You, Dr. Sarous; have you been treating our wounds?”

Dr. Sarous’ mouth remains a line.

“Minister Jof, Riffle, you followed me?”

They look away.

The girl makes a face. “Really,” she says, “when one rides a flying carpet to the answer to one’s pains, one is supposed to smile.”

“This?” says Riffle.

His voice cracks.

Something is wrong. No, she knew that. Something is wronger.

She turns.

Behind her there is a chasm, and from that chasm rises a great stone pillar, and bound to that pillar there is a man—

No, a creature like a man—

He is sealed against the stone with molten brass and molten iron. They bubble with great heat. He is sealed into the stone, and the nerves and veins of him run uninterrupted into the rock. Marked in a great circle around him are the symbols of the seasons, and the zodiac, and of time. His flesh in places gaps to show bones and organs beneath.

He is Cronos.

His eyes are open.

They can see the specks of his left iris and the light on his left pupil. They can see the agony in it.

His right eye is burnt ruin.

He is the crust of the world. He is the mechanism of time.

He is aware of them.

He winks.

“Oh, don’t,” says the girl.

His face crinkles, just a bit, around his pain.

“Oh, no,” she says.

It is not words. It is simply an implication in his expression. But it is there all the same.

I see you have come here.

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

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

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

“This is what I experienced in delirium,” says Minister Jof. “A shadow came. It flicked by. It caught me up. Then I was here, with Dr. Sarous extracting the splinter from my eye.”

“For me,” says Dr. Sarous, “it is essentially the same. There was a confusion of stickbugs; I caught the general’s lapel and fell.”

“I am done with this,” says Riffle.

He looks dissatisfied.

“Enough with the business of saviors and killing God. I propose we push the girl over the edge, thus putting the throne of the world in our debt; we then retire to Sarous’ kingdom, where he shall appoint me his high executor and allow you minor appointments in his administration. In exchange, I will advise Sarous as to how to live with the knowledge of his corruption; all of us see profit.”

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, although everybody calls her the imago. It’s short for imagoro, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

She’s staring at the face of the titan in the pillar.

“Is this how it begins?” she asks.

Riffle looks at her.

“Is this the first moment of our history?” she asks.

“Hardly,” says Riffle.

But Ink turns on him and she is burning with the power of the interpretation of ended things and her voice cuts across all his thoughts and she says, “Cronos was laying on the sand.”

June, Thursday 3, 2004 – Cronos: Cronos was laying on the sand.

To what end, time?

The stickbug general is a mean and dirty creature. His heart is small and rotten. Time is the vehicle for his resentment: a field in which he may experience things that are not gorging on child flesh, not stickbug sex, not hiding against a tree.

Time is a vehicle for pain and for hunger and for fear without satiety.

There is a heat that washes off the girl as she says these words and it drives the stickbug general flinching back. But this does not quench the stickbug’s determination. If anything it affirms it. Things are too uncomfortable. The girl must die.

Cronos was young. He was young. He was so very young. He was tired. He did not know who he was.

He was a castaway on the shore of the world.

He lay there and he did not move.

The sun was very hot.

It began to burn him.

When his skin turned red he made a strangled sound and rose to his feet and he staggered off to find a cave.

To what end, time?

Time is a vast reach filled with disorder. Time is the vehicle for Riffle’s discontent: again and again it slews him from his purpose. It drives him to the end of narrow aims and imbues his broader projects with a sense of dim futility. It is littered with elements he cannot incorporate into his closed designs.

As the girl speaks Riffle becomes aware of a deep and timeless agony. It is not hers, nor his, nor Cronos’, but the agony of Ge.

He cannot solve it.

He cannot even begin to solve it.

He cannot ignore it, either; and so, in that moment, imagoro, he hates Ink Catherly with a burning passion.

All around him rose the deep voice of the earth.

“My child,” said the earth. “Gotten of a sinful father.”

Cronos put his hands upon the rock.

It was wet. It was hard. It was rough.

“I have a mother,” he said.

Joy rose from his stomach to burn through him. “I have a mother, I have a father, I am a child of the heavens and the earth.”

To what end, time?

For Dr. Sarous time was once a playground: an opportunity to make all things well. But the more deeply he studied the world the more things he found that were not well. The more he bent his fallible eye to scrutiny, the more it seemed that the world was a fractal made out of errors built on errors, noise stacking on noise, with virtue nothing more than an emergent pattern on the whole. In the end, his dream unraveled; time seized his prize from him, and his pride.

It hurts him, to hear the joy in Cronos’ voice.

The world is sick, he thinks. Where is its shame?

“Be not proud to be Uri’s son,” said the earth. “For he first thought of shameful things, and cut away the wrongness from the world.”

A question lies hard on Cronos’ mind, but it is not a question that the earth can answer.

“What is the proper manner of my shape?” Cronos asks. “Ought I be tall or short? Have I three legs or two?”

“Hide yourself,” said the earth, “between the sea, the sky, and the land, and wait for darkness, and I will show you how your father has injured me.”

Though confused, still Cronos obeyed.

He shaped himself into a thing that could make webs and he spun a web between the sea, the land, and the sky. He hung there, waiting, trying to decide how many legs a titan has.

The sun left the sky.

The world grew dark.

The web trembled and shrank. The vault of the stars came down and pressed close upon the world. Cronos shivered in the dark.

To what end, time?

Time is a vehicle for evolution. That is why Minister Jof fears it.

He loves evolution. It is his work. But he fears it. To change— to grow—

He is Minister Jof.

Where could he go?

He does not allow himself to imagine that he is fallible; that he is imperfect; that there is an upwards arc. And those times when he does—when it slips through into his heart that we are unfinished, mean, imperfect creatures, and Minister Jof no different—are exactly the times when he cannot imagine any means of becoming better.

He can feel change coming. It echoes in the words of the history of the girl.

He shutters his heart. He focuses on his judgments and his spite.

He turns away.

The clouds lit with pink and scarlet fires. The earth ground open and in it were pools of darkness and green and coldest indigo. The sky rubbed against the earth and fires slipped from it into the depths and danced upon the waters there. The wind blew. It came down off the hills and it roared across the plains. It chilled the peaks of the mountains and bent the trees of the forest. Stars fell and lost their fire. The chasms under the world ignited. The world and sky strained against one another and the sky grew damper and the air began to taste of rain.

As the sky coupled with the earth, the earth said, “For whom have you made this world, o my love?”

And the sky said, “For Oceanus; and Tethys; and Hyperion; and Theia; and Coeus; and Phoebe; and Cronos; and Rhea; and the birds; and the trees; and the insects; and the flowers; and the naiads; and the oceanids; and the teeth gnomes; and the antelope; and the burrowing things; and the climbing things;” and he went on in just this vein for quite some time.

And as he said these things the earth sighed, “Ah,” for these things were precious to her.

But in the later hours of the night it grew halting and slow, that recitation of the sky. “And for the platypus;” he said, and he thought, and he sought for words, “and the sandpipers; and the dogs—“

And there he had run out.

And fire blazes everywhere throughout the world and Cronos said, “. . . but what of Ophion?”

And the earth trembled and Cronos understood a thing, and he said, “. . . but what of Ophion? But what of siggorts? But what of woglies? But what of all the exiled things? But what of these?”

And his question made no impact on the sky, which only spun, and gave him a ruffling about the head, and said, “Do not love ye evil, child.”

And then the sky withdrew behind the curtains of the dawn.

And Cronos thought of Ophion, and the siggorts, and the woglies: o my loves.

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

In the end they are too small.

In the end they are hopeless and dismal, all of them.

But dharma moves.

Ink is stepping back. She can tell what moves in the wicked hearts that face her: one to three murderers, and one to three who will not help. She is stepping back towards the chasm. She has no idea how she will survive a screaming plummet into unknown depths but she has fallen from high places a fair amount recently and is starting to trust her ability to improvise. She suspects that it is less of a danger than her four companions, but:

“You know what the coolest thing ever is?” she asks.

The general of the stickbugs shakes his head.

It’s not actually negation.

He’s just breaking the spell of her words.

“People,” Ink says.

And she grins at them, flush with an echo of Cronos’ joy, as Minister Jof looks away; as Dr. Sarous and Riffle exchange dark glances; as the general of the stickbugs scuttles towards her with murderous intent.

Freaks, the lot of you, thinks Ink Catherly; o my loves.

And then there is the miracle.

She steps back.

Behind her, dharma moves. The titan’s hands stretch forth. He catches her. And in that motion they see it. They see it in the motion, all four of them. They see the motivation for time.

They see the purpose for the crust of the world.

He holds at bay the price of our imperfections, and behind them our happy endings; he bears the immeasurable weight of all these things.

Time is Cronos, standing there in the crust of the world, bearing his impossible burden, so that before our histories and our stories end in bright perfection, we that are imperfect have the opportunity to grow.

Though people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

It is the terrible truth of Heaven and Earth that the Elysian Fields await us all—

Well, except for the woglies, and the siggorts, I suppose—

That the Elysian Fields await us all. That we are accepted as we are by the actual and the ideal, and bent by destiny towards an inexorable fate of bliss for ever. And that it is only by the sleight of Cronos and his work that we may have a chance, before the end, to make ourselves worthy of that ending.

That he does it for them no less than any other: for Riffle, and the stickbug general, and Dr. Sarous, and Minister Jof.

Thus we say, however rare that it might be that purpose changes, or life evolves: dharma moves.

For just a moment, as he lifts Ink from that place, four of the five who remain behind recognize those great and horrible truths.

As for the fifth, it is over already.

Jacob’s carpet releases its hold upon its fate and falls: flutter, flutter, flutter, down through the storm below.

As performed in the Gibbelins’ Tower on October 20, 2005, in remembrance of Ink.

  • But we’re not quite done. Tune in TOMORROW for the unbelievable epilogue:
    THE BEGINNING.
    Then the letters column! Then back to Sid and Max—and let’s see if we can’t finish up The Island of the Centipede this November!

The Peculiar Case Of Miss Mu Lung (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

It is 532 years before the common era. Mr. Kong works in the state of Lu as a keeper of farm animals and parks.

He finds a scaled anteater—a pangolin—caught in an illegal trap.

Sluggishly, it licks its entangled paw.

Mr. Kong squats down. He distracts the anteater. He holds up a finger so that it tracks his finger with its eyes. He says, “It’s no shame that you can’t solve these knots; if you could, you’d be queer for a pangolin.”

The anteater attempts to process this information. It blinks its eyes lazily.

A woman’s footsteps approach.

“In this,” says Mr. Kong to the anteater, “we are alike. Diligently I study, but there are questions that I can’t answer, because I’m a man.”

The anteater shakes its head. Then, irritated that it cannot understand Mr. Kong with its tiny brain, it curls itself up in a ball.

It’s all right.

He’d held its attention long enough.

His free hand has already cunningly unraveled the knot that had trapped the anteater’s paw.

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

The Island of the Centipede

“It is very human,” says a woman’s voice, “how it waits to curl until once it has been rescued.”

Mr. Kong straightens. He looks towards the clearing’s edge.

Miss Mu Lung stands at the edge of the clearing. She wears the elaborate dress customary to the Lung family. Its fringe has blood and dirt and grass upon it.

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong. His voice is warm and his face shows pleasure. Her presence here is an impropriety, the blood on her hem a warning, and the texture of the woven trap reminds him of Miss Lung’s tapestries, but she is a fellow human being and as such receives his brightness. He gives her a courteous bow.

She looks upon him and her face is still.

“It is bold of me to say,” says Miss Lung. “But I have heard you called a great scholar and a man of discernment, Mr. Kong. So surely you tease the pangolin when you mention questions that you cannot answer.”

“I should not think to call myself a scholar,” says Mr. Kong. “If I were ten times more erudite, perhaps, and understood the Quinquennial Sacrifice, then I might be worthy of that name.”

“Ah,” says Miss Lung.

He holds up one finger so that Miss Lung tracks his finger with her eyes.

“I think that we are all trapped, in this life, like that unfortunate pangolin,” he says. “We do not measure to the standard of our ancestors, and so there are questions we cannot answer. There are questions we cannot answer, and so we do not execute our practices with precision. We find ourselves unable to comport ourselves with order and harmony; justice does not prevail; and emptiness flourishes throughout the world. One day, if the world does not explode, I hope to make myself a legendary minister and redeem these practices, but, of course, I can make no guarantees.”

Miss Lung thinks on these words.

Her eyes close, then open.

“Forgive me, Mr. Kong,” she says, “but I cannot see the emptiness of the world.”

“It affects to fullness,” says Mr. Kong, “but it is hollow, like the scar on the pangolin’s leg.”

Something in his words has freed her; the strength leaves her; she sits down.

She swallows and her eyes grow bright with tears.

“Miss Lung,” he asks, gently, “are you in some distress?”

Bleakly, she says, “More than some.”

“Come;” he says, “if there is need, you may impose upon me. But if there is not, I am afraid I must soon be on my way to catch the person who sows illegal traps upon this land.”

She looks miserably at the trap.

“No one can assist me,” says Miss Lung. She shakes her head. “I am in an ungodly state; someone has murdered the spirits of my ancestors and circumstances compel me to torment small animals to survive.”

To his credit, Mr. Kong blinks only once.

He straightens his clothing. He says, “Naturally I am at your service.”

Miss Lung says, “I cannot refuse so gentle an offer, but I fear your good character will bring me misery.”

Mr. Kong lowers his head in acceptance of this rebuke.

Miss Lung rises. She takes him to her house. As he walks its halls he frowns.

“Ah,” he says. “There is a hollow sound.”

“It is the absence of men, where once they would be talking. It is the absence of women, where once they would be working. It is the absence of the laughter and whimpering of children,” answers Miss Mu Lung.

She leads him to the shrine of her ancestors.

Its doors are heavy black wood. They are sealed with many sacred marks. They are scarred with hollow rings, white rings, like the marks of a lamprey’s jaws.

“I cannot go within,” says Miss Lung. “In my youth, we would say, ‘brik, brik, brak, open a crack!’ and the doors would open. Inside the spirits of our ancestors would dispense wisdom and benevolence.

“Then seven years back, as I walked this hall, I heard the great brassy voice of ancestor Zedong declare, ‘The more I look up at It, the higher It rises. The more I probe It, the more impenetrable It becomes. I catch a glimpse of It in front and It is instantly behind.’

“Then I heard an ungodly wind and I felt a sudden fear and I banged my fist upon the door, but since that day, they have not answered.

“Two years ago, I climbed atop the roof and looked down through a small round gap. Inside, the shrine was empty, save for some vague notion that took me of ethereal blood.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.

“Was it improper?” asks Miss Lung. “To bang upon the door?”

“What is impropriety?” says Mr. Kong. “I can’t criticize the selfless concern for your ancestors.”

He stares at the doors, deep in thought.

“Pardon,” says Mr. Kong. “But if I may, your family? The Lung family?”

“One by one they succumbed to kindness,” says Miss Lung.

“Hm?”

“It is like this,” says Miss Lung. “The Lung family has traditionally held some virtue of position in the celestial hierarchy. Assiduously we would seek to develop our personal merit to facilitate our ascension into the ranks of Heaven. Since our ancestors fell silent, the matter has become problematic; upon refining our spirit to a full measure of virtue, we explode. Now I and my obdurate brother remain; myself because I am a woman and dedicate myself to the methodical torment of animals, and he because, constantly insensible with wine, he is awake too rarely for the acquisition of virtue.”

For a long moment Mr. Kong stands there.

“Then,” he says, “if I may, I have solved the mystery.”

“Please,” she says.

“It is the emptiness of the world,” says Mr. Kong.

“If only you were the Grand Secretary of Justice,” says Miss Lung, with grave courtesy, “you could arrest it at once.”

Mr. Kong smiles at her.

“You are skeptical,” he says.

“Only, dulled with grief and fear,” she says.

“These are the scars of emptiness,” says Mr. Kong. He rests his hand on one of the circles in the door. “The methodology, I take to be as follows. The emptiness proposed to Lung Zedong, ‘In what fashion should a man conduct himself to bring harmony and order to all things?’ He could not answer this question without compromising the affairs of Heaven, and thus allowed the emptiness to devour him. The hollowness of your home represents a marker of its passage.”

“If that’s so—“

She struggles to hold back her emotions.

“If that’s so,” she says, “what can I do?”

“Open the doors,” he says. “Sacrifice to your ancestors. Set aside this animal torture and lawless skulking; cultivate the quality of kindness that you have denied yourself.”

Bitterness drives her to unworthy words: “Even to the destruction of my soul?”

“It often seems that virtue operates against our interests,” says Mr. Kong. “But if we do not cultivate the habits of virtue, then what value are our interests?”

She lowers her head.

“As you say,” she says, tonelessly.

“Here is my recommendation,” says Mr. Kong. “When you commit an act of kindness, do not seek to cultivate yourself but rather to build harmonious relationships with others. Then you need not fear unless you are so kind as to elevate all the world.”

“And if I am?”

“If the world explodes because of my advice,” says Mr. Kong, “then I fear I shall never find government employment, nor become a legendary practice-righting minister.”

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 )

The chaos has completed its adaptation to the knife.

Red Mary swims in a sea of Confucianism and blood.

Drawn by the blood the sharks have come. They are monstrously large. They dwarf her as they dwarf Max.

One of them bumps Max gently with its nose. He curls around the pain as a pillbug might.

“Red Mary,” the shark says, with scrupulous precision, “I cannot say your actions have been correct.”

“Yes, thank you,” Red Mary says irritably.

“If the sirens are not humane,” presses the shark, “then how may they expect the oceans to remain in order?”

Red Mary bares her teeth and the shark subsides.

“I have acted in error, but you may not correct me,” she says.

“The blood frenzy overcame my judgment, and I forgot my place,” the shark concedes.

“Hmf,” Red Mary says.

Then with one hand Red Mary lifts Max and with the other the knife and she draws them both up from the sea.

Tigers in their Cages (2 of 2)

The core of Central is hollow, like a warehouse. The ceiling is netting, and above that is darkness. There are things that move on the netting, and people too.

In the core, Central’s not a very nice-looking place. There’s a laminated harpoon attached to one wall, or there used to be. There’s sacks of open grain, gnawed on by rats and bugs. There’s fire and red and things always watching.

Below that, there are the cages.

“How many?” the hero asks.

“Seventeen,” the monster says.

Seventeen?

“Nine here. Four with building passes. Four in special environments,” the monster says.

The cages aren’t like dog cages. Some of them are very nice and have pillows and books. Others are small and cramped and made of wire with rotting feathers in the mesh.

“Most of them aren’t like Jane,” the monster says. “That’s rare. Most of them aren’t even really djinn. Just . . . kin. Distant relatives. The unsuccessful byblows of our kind.”

The hero goes from one cage to the next. He looks in. He looks kind of helpless. “I don’t know which to let out first.”

The monster smiles brightly.

“Start at the front,” he says, “and move back.”

So the hero lets out a young boy named Brian. Brian stares at him.

“It’s over,” the hero says. He reaches into the cage. Brian scuttles back.

“It’s funny,” the monster says, “how unequipped the hero actually is for rescuing people.”

The hero glares at him.

“Well, it is,” the monster says. “Somewhere along the way you people got the idea that heroics was about killing evil and not so much about saving people, and I’m sure that’s why the world is in the mess it’s in today.”

This is technically incorrect, but it’s a solid rhetorical point.

“What do I do?” the hero asks.

“Come on, Brian,” the monster says. He grins. “It’s time for one of the good times. You know. When it doesn’t hurt so much.”

So Brian inches out of the cage. He stands. He waits.

The hero goes to the next cage. It has a girl. Her name—she doesn’t even remember her name. It might be Iris. He lets her out. He holds out his hand.

“No,” she says.

The hero stares at her.

“No,” she says, louder. “Don’t want to.”

“Iris,” the monster says. His voice is oozing. But the hero looks at him in horror.

“You can’t . . . you can’t threaten her into coming out—”

“Oh,” says the monster. He looks happy. “I didn’t know.”

“Come on, Iris,” says the hero. He holds out his hand again.

“I live here,” she says. “I make gods for them. Every day, Leonard comes. We play. He closes the cage. He checks the lock. He smiles at me. I like him.”

The hero frowns. He looks at the monster.

“Leonard’s still alive,” the monster says. “You didn’t kill him when you were burying yourself in the corpses of your enemies. He recanted, absolving himself of that whole abusing-children thing.”

“Ah,” the hero says. He looks at Iris. There’s something messed-up in his eyes. Then he shrugs. “Okay,” he says.

He opens the other cages. Some of the kids come out. Some of them don’t.

Then he and the monster go down the stairs, to where they keep the gods, and Iris can’t see them any more.

That night, Leonard comes, and they don’t play—they just make some funny faces at one another—and Leonard closes the cage, and locks it up, and smiles at Iris, and she sleeps.

It’s strange, she thinks, that some people leave.