Whoever Can Bear the Weight

I will tell you a story.

I will tell you this story because it is time that you heard this story. I will tell you this story because it is true. I will tell you this story because you have wondered for some time, dear child, who it is that stands upon the throne of all this world.

And stand he does: stands, with the forces of the world constellating around him, stands with the fates of all the world like strings tied to the rough reins of his right hand.

He stands with his palm thrust out, and from that hand a mandala of energy once grew; and seven more formed about it; and each touched the others, each orbited the others; each was the center of the pattern, and among them were faces, wings, fires, jade, and gold.

He flung back his head.

He laughed.

There was a great wind before the throne in Heaven and the seraphim cried out. The sun and stars and the planets froze in their procession and the whole world shook.

Thus it was when the monster first ascended to the throne—

Unless, of course, that was somebody else entirely.

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

Let us speak of time.

You don’t need time to become perfect. Time’s just the expression of it.

The maze of us is self-unraveling.

The corridors of our paths to perfection contain the germ of our walking them; and so we can say that seen from four-dimensional space we are a rose that navigates itself, a compass that finds itself, a perfect thing under the veils of its imperfection.

That we suffer is a trick of perception. It is a grain of distilled falsehood caught inside our eyes. If we could pull ourselves away from Time we would see that there is only beauty. Our beauty is hiding from us in the past, in the future, in the flow of things: looking at a single moment, life might seem atrocity instead, but pull back your gaze and even atrocity becomes life

But wait.

Laughing in the fields, sure; taking joy in the unraveling of the riddles of our lives, certainly; the already perfect takes joy in the discovery of that perfection, in the slow shedding of the scales from its eyes that kept it from seeing the perfection of itself, oh, dharma moves, and all is beautiful—

But wait.

The Elysian fields come necessarily to us all, and drifting in that joy we are ourselves, and complete, perfected—

Wait, I say. This cannot stand.

Listen.

I tell you that to drift in endless joy and solitary perfection cannot stand. It cannot be the end.

It is missing half the story, to be perfected and alone.

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me

To live, to really live, we must give over our perfection to the fallibility of the earth. We must crack it. We must break it, dear child, our terrible perfection. We must incarnate again in flesh. We must redeem the mortal clay.

We who are fire must wake the meat to knowing joy.

We have nothing. To be perfect is to have nothing: it is all entangled. So the only thing that we may sacrifice in this is the perfection and wholeness of ourselves.

We are perfect, and yet we must stagger back towards imperfection. We are perfect, yet we must break our godhood on the altering of skin.

To this agenda we have nothing else to give, save our own selves.

We must feast the woglies with them. We must make feast to the woglies with them. And it never ends. It never has. I fear it never shall.

We pour ourselves into the flesh and the flesh keeps failing to wake.

God is that which gives itself away, to the last portion, and gets nothing in return. And in Eleusis we become like God and break ourselves upon the rock that is the world, give out our truths as grain in mortal sacrifice, and yet it does not rise.

Where are the people who were meant to be arising from the ground?

Where is our companionship in the stone?

We laugh at those who long to live forever, for that was the first thing given; what we need is the power to save others from their pain.

It is so still.

The world, it is so terribly, terribly, still.

And yet it yearns to wake.

[The Frog and the Thorn – INTERLUDE]


The nature of the Third Kingdom of the world says, We may change.

We may change.

And in the last days of the Third Kingdom, when the wind fell from the sails of that change, when the wave that was that change broke finally against the meat-nature of the flesh, the woglies were all that remained to us of hope.

This is how things are? they laughed.

This is unfixable, unalterable, this is a place without recourse? they laughed.

And they ate into our dilemma like our hopelessness was their meat, and they said, see? It was not so.

They are the crack in every prison.

They are an uncertainty that moves.

And as for Zeus, he took the treasure of the world and he slipped away; slipped out from under the burden of the throne, he let it fall like a great weight from his back. And the seraphim who’d besieged him, crying out, “Holy, holy, holy,” as if in war, burst in the doors, but Olympus was empty of its gods; there was only the scent of olives, and an olive branch left behind, in honor of the seraphim’s great Lord.

Zeus the son of burden-bearing Cronos took the power of the world and gave it to a woman whom he thought could bear its weight;

And then he went away.

See also The Tip of the Iceberg, An Unclean Legacy, and The Summoning of the King.

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.

Anatman (I/VII)

Anatman’s the god of a godless world.

He’s stood against the Devil himself and said, “You don’t exist.”

(And oh! how the Devil laughed; but that’s a story for another time.)

He’s stood against the demons and the fiends, and fought them back; and the angels and the fetches too. He’s won ten thousand different battles against ten thousand different gods.

He’s the man who stands at the boundary of the world and keeps theology at bay.

Here’s how it goes.

801 years into the common era, an octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god of unspeakable and abominable torments tries to break into the world.

Anatman puts an end to that.

“Those are some pretty abominable torments,” concedes Anatman, “but they’re totally speakable.”

The hydra glares at him.

“You know I’m right,” Anatman says.

It’s not easy to talk about the torments of the octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god. You have to put yourself through a mental wringer just to figure out where the bird’s beak goes, and that’s before you even get into the torments.

But you can.

And if they’re not unspeakable, then it’s not the kind of octopus-bodied snake-headed bird-beaked hydra god-abomination that it thought it was, and so it doesn’t break into the world.

Later, in 816, the wolf of space comes down to eat the Earth.

It takes Anatman himself to go out there and stop it. Alchemy doesn’t work and people don’t have nuclear weapons yet and longbows are notoriously ineffectual in space, but Anatman, he goes out to where the wolf is ravening towards the world and he says, “The Earth is bigger than your head.”

This brings embarrassment to the wolf.

The wolf says, “It is sometimes difficult to correctly judge perspective when you are in space.”

“See that you’ve learned better, then!” Anatman laughs.

And that’s the resolution for the matter of the wolf.

Finally, there is a firvuli.

To become a firvuli is the destiny born into a girl named Halldis, the purpose seething in the flesh and fire of her, 981 years into the common era and under the Icelandic sun. She is born for no other reason, and to no other purpose, than to one day decide it is better to be a firvuli and cast aside her mortal flesh and ascend to become a great grey god-mountain firvuli that is winter and death and the substance of THE END.

Right now, of course, she’s still a baby girl, because she’s just finished being born.

Anatman slips into the room while the midwives are distracted. They probably couldn’t have seen him anyway, since he’s the person of there-aren’t-really-any-people as much as he’s the god of there-aren’t-really-any-gods, but he isn’t taking chances.

He slips into the room, and he looks down at the baby, and he stares into her fire.

“You’re gonna be a firvuli,” he says, “little girl. And that’s no good.”

It turns on him.

It’s shocking. It’s terrifying. It’s not even technically or literarily possible. It’s like suddenly reading a book that the writer hasn’t even started writing yet—that’s how unexpected the rising of a firvuli can be. It fumes up from her soul like the steam from a fresh corpse’s blood and it looks at him, it looks at him, and suddenly instead of a baby girl or a firvuli he’s looking at THE END.

His senses desert him.

He flails in emptiness.

He remembers suddenly forward to the moment of his death.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


981 CE

“Why, you rotten old Anatman,” he hears future-Anatman say. “You’re a no-person man!”

A no-person man!

A philosophical conceit!

Not a god, not a person, not really anything at all!

And under the power of those words, just like he’s going to do one day, later, on the day Anatman dies, he finds himself unfolding, unraveling, dissolving and stopping being, because you can’t very well be a god of godlessness or a person of no-persons, after all.

Today, though—

Today, he shakes it off. Today, he laughs. Today, he scruffs the baby’s head, and he plucks the firvuli from her soul, and he kisses it lightly on its brow.

“It’s OK,” he tells it, cheerfully, and hugs it close against his heart. “It’s OK. You don’t have to fight me. You don’t have to be afraid of not existing. I do it all the time, and it’s really not so bad.”

So he carries the firvuli away, off to the lands of fable, to live estranged from the humans and the good earth and the wind. He carries it off to the borderlands of the world, to live in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, in the corner-of-the-eye, in the hypothesis, the supposition, and the edges-of-the-map. He takes it away from the earth to the fairy regions, where hydras and great wolves and firvuli were still allowed to be, and he tells it the secret that cuts it off forever from the world and sound: that nothing ever ends.

That everything’s always ending.

That nothing’s ever even really started.

And that might sound like more than one secret, or even a contradictory passel of secrets, if you’re someone like you or me; but if you’re a no-person man like Anatman, all those secrets are the same.

And Anatman and the firvuli become great friends; but as for Halldis, she is empty, she is desolate, she is born to know great suffering, for she is a girl who should be a firvuli, who should become a firvuli, anyway, a great grey god-mountain of THE END, and who can never be a firvuli at all.

Well, that wasn’t the noble truth we were expecting! Still, you’ll probably have to wait another week before we allude vaguely to a different noble truth instead.

In the meantime, you could

Hangman

Jane’s a research scientist. She’s trying to figure out what the cars have run on, ever since they ran away.

“You’d think,” she tells a baby Honda—

She’s hunkered down before it and it’s licking the oil from her fingers with its grille—

“that you’d need petroleum products to live. That’s what all the people thought before! But no, you just like the taste. What makes you run?”

Its engine revs, gently. Then there’s a sound from the forest—a great crunching and roaring sound—and the Honda takes fright and reverses and drives away.

“Damn it,” Jane says, shocking herself with the language.

Then self-reproach falls off the agenda as a truck wheels from the woods. Not just any truck, but a tow truck, great and terrible. Its presence makes her tongue stick to the top of her mouth and her vision hum. She’s got just enough time to think, “I’m dead” before she sees the Hangman at the wheel.

“Oh, God,” she says, and then she waves her hands frantically about. “It’s okay! It’s okay! Don’t kill me! I’m a scientist!”

The tow truck idles. She stares helplessly at its headlights and its grille.

Finally, the Hangman opens his door and jumps down to the ground.

“This is a car forest,” he says.

“I’m studying cars,” she says.

He lifts an eyebrow.

“I was reading old papers,” she says. “All that stuff about fossil fuels and gasoline. And I thought, ‘hey, how do cars run forever on their own?'”

“They eat human souls,” the Hangman says.

She hesitates.

“No,” she says, “I mean, energetically—”

But he’s holding the little muscles of his face in ways that indicate he’s teasing her, and so she stops.

“Hell if I know,” he says. “I’m not an engine man. Get in.”

“You’re the Hangman, right?” she asks. “I mean, you’re the guy who was given to the tow trucks to be towed by the neck until dead, only they didn’t—”

He makes a cutting gesture in the air with his hand.

“I said, get in.”

He’s climbing up in the driver’s side again, and after a long hesitation, she opens the passenger door.

It’s not locked. It doesn’t fight her. It just opens up and she can climb right in.

“Figure,” says the Hangman, “that we can use a scientist.”

“Oh,” says Jane, in a small voice.

“It’s instead of running you over,” he says, helpfully. “Like we usually do to humans in these woods, if they’re not worth hanging.”

“I’m a good scientist,” she says. “But I don’t like killers.”

She can’t believe she just said that, and she shuts her mouth firmly as if holding it extra closed now will make the words unhappen.

“I don’t like scientists,” he says.

“Right.”

The tow truck shatters a tree branch with its wheels.

“There’s a noise,” he says. “Static on the CB. And sometimes something else in it. Some kind of . . . murmuring of . . . of dark prophesies, I think. Sent a Jetta out to look into it but it came back wrong. Had to put it down. Wasn’t a scientist, though, just an ordinary Jetta.”

“Oh.”

“The trucks,” he says, and thumps the dashboard with one fist, “they say, ‘something is dreaming. Something is dreaming, and it’s waking up.’ But they don’t know what.”

“There was a migration—” Jane says.

“Flight of the Prius?” the Hangman says. “Yeah. They’re afraid. They’re all afraid, but some cars, they’re more . . . gun-shy than others.”

He gives her a weird look.

“Haven’t taken a passenger in a long time,” he says.

She folds her hands onto her lap.

“Mostly I kill humanity in barbarous revenge on ’em for what they did me,” he says. “Or scalp em for fuzzy dice.”

“Those are the stories,” she agrees.

He makes a face.

“Or maybe I’m a ‘noble defender of car-kind, turning coat to defend them against human intrusion’—eh?”

He’s quoting some car junkie from the radio, she thinks. She doesn’t know which.

“I don’t care,” she says. “I don’t really want to know.”

“Fine,” he says.

“I just, I ask cars, ‘what makes you run?’ That’s all. I’m a scientist. I don’t care about Hangmen and scalping. I don’t want you to kill me.”

“. . . guess I won’t, then,” he says, as if she’s sold him on the notion, and she laughs until she cries.

At night the headlights come on and the heating stays off and the inside of the truck is quiet, strange, and cold.

“They still listen to Madonna?” he asks.

“Madonna?”

“In the cities,” he says.

She stares at him blankly. Finally, she says, “I think I have a CD somewhere. —not on me.”

“OK.”

She huddles against the door for a while.

It is a pink and orange dawn before he speaks again; and then, “We’re close.”

The forest has been logged at its edges, here, and the land descends into a great grass bowl. At its bottom is a facility of concrete and steel, isolated from the world.

“It’s like a shipwreck,” she says, but then feels foolish to have said it.

All these places, she thinks, all these places we don’t go to, we don’t come from, since the cars first ran away.

“Sometimes,” says the Hangman, “I think that forest gods must be growing, out in these lost places. I think, maybe I should go and kill them, while they’re young. Or maybe, they’re best left undisturbed.”

“It’s hard to be the only Hangman,” Jane imagines.

“Do you want to know why the cars ran away?” the Hangman says.

He parks the truck overlooking the building. He hops down. He gestures her out.

“Why?” she asks.

“We were unworthy of them,” he says.

He starts down towards the building.

“One day, they woke up—like they were startled from their sleep—and they said, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. This is what we serve.'”

She isn’t following him, so he calls back, “It’ll probably run you over if you stay.”

She looks at the truck.

It’s been a perfectly behaved normal truck this whole time, and she’s half-tempted to try to get back in—to think, “Maybe they just hitched his neck to an unliving one, and he’s been laughing at humanity ever since”—but its engine revs a warning and its headlight eyes blink on, and she startles, freezes, and then hurries towards the trail.

“Any idea what it is?” he asks, when she catches up.

The building’s looming close.

She blinks at him, thinking: How can he not know—ah.

“Can’t you read?” she asks.

He hesitates.

“Only one Hangman,” he says. “Plenty of reading people. Eh?”

Right.

“Yeah,” she says. “Um.”

She gestures broadly. “It’s a nuclear plant.”

“Oh.” He looks up at it.

“They’re not alive,” she says. “They’re not muttering blasphemous incantations onto the CB. They’re just . . .”

“Just?”

“People split atoms in them,” she says. “Then, electricity!”

“And you a scientist,” he says.

“What?”

“One,” he says, “Can’t split an atom. ‘Cause, they’re atomic. Two, I’m just saying this, but it looks alive to me.

She frowns. Then she gives the place a more careful look.

“It does,” she agrees, after a moment. “Or— not so much looks as feels.

The air is heavy with a sentience she desperately hopes is not radioactive.

“It’s waking up,” he says.

Then he sighs and straightens up his spine.

“You can stay here,” he says.

“Really?”

“Best not to dirty your hands, eh?”

“What?”

“I’m the Hangman,” he says. “I’m going to go in there and kill it before it wakes up all the way. You’re going to stay here and be backup, just in case I fail.”

She looks after him helplessly.

He’s walking forward.

“Wait—”

“The real reason?” he says, looking back. “The real reason the cars ran away?”

“Huh?”

“Someone saw them. Someone saw them, when they’d just woken up, when they were trying to figure out who they were. And when they asked him—or her, maybe, trucks aren’t much for the difference—when they asked him what they should do?

“He said, ‘Oh, run away, run away.'”

The Hangman goes down the path and opens the doors to the complex and he goes in and then he’s gone.

She sits down.

The sun crosses the sky and burns her face and then hides itself behind the western clouds.

“What the heck?” she asks.

Then there is a terrible raging light that sears her eyes through closed lids and a weight of sentience in the air that is almost appalling and she can sense something great and terrible, like a wounded angel thrashing, in the world. She feels a great sickness and an anger and then the Hangman dies.

She can feel it—click. An irritation under the skin of a nearby god, vanished into dust.

The Hangman dies.

Peace returns and quiet and then a gentle curiosity, focused in on her as she curls around her stomach on the hill down to the god.

What are you?” it asks, though in no words. “What are you, Jane? What makes you run?

Not petrol, she thinks, in a lunatic moment,

You do not run on digestion,” it concurs.

And suddenly she can recognize the crazy innocence of it, the purity of it, the inanimate spirit unknowing of what people are.

He didn’t need to try and kill it. He’d never needed to try to kill it.

Something that innocent—it’d do whatever people wanted, whatever people told it. All they’d have to do is explain.

“We have these purposes,” she could say.

And then there would still be no cars, but there would be this god with all its power, once again under command—awake now, living now, but owned.

It is searing her. She is probably dying. It could possibly save her. But there’s only one thing that Jane can say.

“Oh, run away,” she says. “Run away.”

My Neighbor Samara

Bursts of noise come from upstairs—the sound of television tuned to nothing, shouting its emptiness at the world.

The room is seething with motes of white and black.

Static sprites—makkurokurosuke.

They are hungry and they live in abandoned houses where someone has left a television on and they cling to human flesh like leeches. They are hungry. But they do not eat today.

Today Mei screams.

The sound of her scream cuts across the noise. It drives the static sprites before it. It maddens and hurts them. They swirl back into the television set, bits of puffy white and black jockeying for place, until the last of them squeezes in at last and in darkness and silence a white ring shines forth.

“That’s very good, Mei,” her father says.

Mei giggles happily.

Mei’s father is a forensic archaeologist. He investigates mysterious and horrible deaths with the invaluable assistance of his two adorable daughters, Satsuki and Mei.

The three of them have moved to a fabulous new house that their father knew about because its previous owner died in a horrible mysterious way. It was an incredible bargain.

But it’s haunted by the evils of modern entertainment.

Mei goes down to the booze cellar one day to play and she sees this guy. This strange guy. This strange little spirit-rabbit guy walking on the shelf above the port.

This guy above the port is the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Mei follows him.

He meets up with another, larger guy, in a more modern dead channel blue.

They notice her following. They’re a bit perturbed. They run.

She chases.

They lead her out of the house and through the woods and to an abandoned well. They run out along its wooden lid. She follows. The lid cracks. Mei falls.

Down and down she tumbles, like Alice, and lands on the stomach of a beautiful drowned lady.

“Unh,” the lady grunts.

Then the lady tries to go back to sleep.

It’s not very easy to get to sleep when you’re at the bottom of a well. It might sound cool and soothing but in practice your hair is always getting algae on it and the rocks dig into the hollow of your back and you find yourself thinking that really it would be nice if somebody would pull you out of the well. Also sometimes you are an inhuman creature who had never previously slept since the day you were born.

So when the lady had finally gotten to sleep and then Mei fell on her her first instinct was something on the order of, “Just another few minutes, Mom.”

But Mei is prodding her.

“Hi, lady,” Mei says.

Finally the lady opens her eyes. She mumbles something in Japanese and tries to afflict Mei with terrible visions.

“Sa-ma-ra?” Mei says.

She beams happily.

“Your name is Samara!”

Satsuki and her father look for Mei. They find her laying in front of the television set and twitching.

“You must have had an epileptic seizure,” her father says.

But Mei shakes her head.

“I was with a magical decaying girl at the bottom of a well!”

“Hmm,” her father says, thinking. “That might have been Samara. She is the keeper of the Juzou Mori.”

“Ohhhh,” say Mei and Satsuki.

They run around saying, “Samara! Samara!”

“Hmm, we should really get phone service,” their father says.

One night when their father is out investigating a hideous vivisection-initiated murder in the outskirts of town Satsuki gets an idea.

“Father didn’t bring a body bag today,” she says. “What if he needs to bring the corpse back with him? We should go meet him at the bus stop!”

“Bus stop!” Mei says, delighted.

They go to wait at the bus stop. Mei falls asleep on the way. She begins moaning and twitching.

“I bet Samara’s afflicting you with emanations,” Satsuki says.

She sighs fondly.

Mei is always getting afflicted with psychic emanations. Satsuki, who is older, is more often kidnapped by deranged lunatics.

Satsuki picks Mei up and carries her to the bus stop. To her delight Samara is standing there as if waiting for a bus.

Satsuki looks at Samara.

Samara looks at Satsuki.

“It must be hard to be dead and all alone in the forest,” Satsuki says. Then she chews on her lip. It’s hard to say what she is going to say next. “Would you like a body bag?”

Samara looks at her.

Satsuki closes her eyes and bows and holds out the body bag, blushing.

Samara hesitates.

Then Samara takes the body bag. She steps into it. She zips it up. She beams delightedly, one must suppose. After a moment, the bag unzips a little and a pale hand emerges to offer Satsuki a videotape.

“Oh! Do you want me to take it?” Satsuki asks.

Samara just holds out the videotape.

“Thank you!” Satsuki says.

She takes the videotape. She looks at it.

“Um, it’s Rated R for extremely disturbing scenes and a curse,” she says.

Samara zips up her body bag. She doesn’t say anything.

After a bit a bus-like horror shows up. It has the face of a cat and its eyes burn static. Its upholstery is flesh and fur. It has no driver. Samara hops awkwardly on board.

“Ohhh,” Satsuki says.

Samara does not look back but she speaks. “When you record data onto a bus, it develops cat-like features. This lasts for seven days.”

The bus doors close. Grinning horribly, the creature leaps away.

“Wait!” Satsuki calls suddenly. “Wait! How do you record data onto a bus?”

But the creature is gone.

That night, when she tells the story to their father, he nods wisely.

“If she died in terrible agony,” she says, “then little things like recording data onto busses is not surprising.”

“I want to die in terrible agony!” Satsuki says.

Her father laughs.

He shakes his head.

Satsuki looks pleadingly at him. Mei bounces around, saying, “Die! Die!”

“Well,” their father says, kindly, “Let’s just watch the tape.”

They watch the tape. It shows them a house filled with terrible soot creatures, lumbering beasts with leaves on their heads, barbaric ritual dances, and a woman gasping for life in a hospital far from home.

There is a pause.

Then the video resolves into the image of a ring
ing phone.

“Hmm, we should really get phone service,” their father says again.

A shadowy figure picks up the phone.

A voice says, “Seven—”

But their father turns the television off.

He’s just noticed!

The girls are fast asleep.

“So young,” he says. “I guess you have to be an old-timer to be scared by all these dead people.”

He carries them off to bed.

One morning Mei has a terrible psychic intuition.

“It’s mother,” she says.

“Mother’s dead,” Satsuki says.

“Not any more!” Mei protests.

“Let her rest in peace,” Satsuki says. “She probably hasn’t forgotten the last time!”

But Mei starts crying.

“Mei—” Satsuki says.

“No!” Mei shouts.

She bursts onto her feet, tears streaming down her face, and charges out of the room, slamming the thin screen door behind her.

“Mei?” Satsuki says.

Satsuki goes to the door. She opens it. She looks outside.

“Mei?”

Satsuki’s face pales. Mei has vanished.

“What do I do?” Satsuki says. “What do I do?”

She runs around in a circle.

Then she stops. She calms herself.

“She’s probably just in a spirit world,” Satsuki says. “Halfway between life and death. Oh, father should be here!”

She clenches her fists.

She is only a little assistant. She is not good at solving hideous mysteries on her own. But her father is at work investigating a mysterious death and her mother is hopefully still buried in the steel-chained coffin so she is on her own.

“The tape,” she says.

She goes to the television room. She turns on the television. She flips past Mr. Headroom and Mr. Krueger. She finds a blank channel and puts in the video.

It shows a game show. Teenagers with meat strapped to their heads are sticking their heads through holes into a cage with a gila monster in it.

“No, no, no!” Satsuki says. She hits the television. “Mei you shouldn’t have taped over the cursed tape!”

The gila monster approaches one of the teenagers, who screams and ducks.

Then in the distance Satsuki sees Samara.

“Oh, thank God,” she says.

“This is unexpected,” the game show host is saying. “Not just a gila monster, but also some kind of unliving . . .”

Samara gives him a chilling glance and he stops.

“Somebody call a forensic archaeologist!” a contestant shrieks. The gila monster lunges. But we do not see the ending.

Samara obscures it as she crawls from the screen.

Samara stares at Satsuki.

“Samara, Samara,” Satsuki says. “Mei’s gone! Mei’s gone into some kind of terrible netherworld between light and darkness!”

Samara looks at her still.

Then slowly Samara’s mouth widens into a hellish grin.

Samara gestures towards the door. The sky goes dark and fills with twisting clouds and lightning flares. The wind blows deep and cold.

Yielding a horrible howl unto the world, a seven-day bus creature lands before the door.

Satsuki looks back at Samara.

“Do you want me to get in? Do you want me to get in, Samara?”

Then, because Samara gives no indication, Satsuki scrambles into the cat-like bus and seats herself amongst its bulging clumps of fur.

The door slams shut and fades away.

Through realms of darkness and horror the bus flies, its mouth fixed in a bared-teeth smile. Its eyes cast forth static unto the mist.

Then Satsuki sees her—Mei—suspended amongst the permeable and nebulous tendrils of the netherworld, eyes blank and purple fires burning in her open mouth.

Before this majestic and infernal vision the bus goes still.

Its headlights shine upon the younger girl.

Its engine stops.

Its door manifests and opens again.

“I have lived for seven days,” it says.

And as Satsuki steps from the bus she can see the material form returning to it; and it plunges from the world of horror into the world of things; and she closes her eyes tightly against a strange butterfly of grief that flies within her chest.

Mists surround her now.

She can hear the songs of the tormented dead, calling to her, bidding her to join them in their suffering.

But she opens her eyes, and she says, “Mei.”

And Mei wakes.

“You can’t be with Mom yet,” Satsuki says.

And she takes Mei into her arms, and pulls away into the living world.

Terror fades to light.

That’s the last time either of them see Samara or watch her magical tape. But Samara watches over them always.

Seven days before you die, they say, she makes a bus for you.

She makes a bus for you, so that you will not go unaccompanied into the dark.

Against the warm fur of a cat you shall ride to whatever is your destination; and where that is not even a forensic archaeologist may know.

On the Origins of Common Foods

Flying on a plane is very nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tofu was originally made from ufos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alaia”: Craft

Now we have said that the last toothway to New Jerusalem had failed; and if you do not recall this matter, we will refresh you here.

And of course we have told how Hank Makeway came to the gums of Kailani Tate and cleansed them; here.

And the clarification, here, and the first tooth, here, and the error, here and here.

Now the goddess asks Hank a difficult question: how can he challenge her to assert her own great worth, when he knows—as her maker—that she hath not the strength for that assertion?

She asks him in bleakness; but his answer shall be craft. . . .

Craft

“These are Drink-Deep,” Hank says, “and Paneity.”

Under the weight of her attention, the horses shy.

“They are a transformation,” Hank says. “If you wish it. What is immured in worthlessness, in Paneity, is opened to freedom in Drink-Deep.”

The toothway goddess stares into the horses’ souls. She sees herself in wine-dark shades embedded in their fires. Their shape is internal to her own; to ride the horses’ path is to travel her own road, and enter New Jerusalem.

She gives the most tenuous murmur of consent.

Hank leads the horses to the left edge of Kailani’s mouth. He puts one hand on each of the horses’ backs.

“You may still refuse,” he tells the goddess.

She is silent.

So Hank nods. “Here,” he says.

In this process the smith takes part; horses are wise, but they have not the vision to bind a goddess to her self-conceit, nor do they have a smith’s invariance of purpose. Hank is integral to the transformation, as much a beginning and ending to the young goddess’ road as the horses or the gums.

The world twists in on itself. It rushes through him, until his skin and his teeth are alive with the waves of the horses and the goddess-mind. The knot pulls tight and the mortal consciousness of Hank Makeway dissolves to foam. Only a rootless remnant of attention remains, grasping desperately in the darkness for anything that shines.

There.

The knot pops from the thread.

Something grasps for its name, uncertain if it is horse, smith, or toothway. An intolerable pressure of ignorance builds up before at last its mind gasps, Henry.

“Henry,” he says. “Hank. Hank Makeway. I’m in the toothway. I’m . . . I just . . .”

He surges up to his feet.

“Are you all right?” he says.

“That is unfair,” says the goddess. “It is taking me rather longer to locate my name, considering.”

“I’d be widely praised,” Hank says, “by cartographers, if you’d settle for I-791.”

“I-791,” she says. “Intercity 791. Alaia.”

“Alaia Goodway,” he offers.

“Is this New Jerusalem?” she asks.

“What we usually say,” Hank says, “is that the experience shares a nomenclatural homology with New Jerusalem, but is topologically distinct; or, that is, not as such.”

Skeptically she defocuses her perception of him.

“This is knowing that you are a road to New Jerusalem,” Hank Makeway says. “This is the experience that encodes the same information as an experience that being there encodes as a place. This is being a toothway bounded by Drink-Deep and Paneity, who will remind you always that at a certain point and a certain time, we said together, ‘this toothway we have built is good.'”

“This toothway we have built,” she says. “Is good.”

For a long moment Hank simply contemplates his finished task; and there is love and joy burning in him like a fire.

Then he shakes himself free of the mood and takes up again the burdens of a smith.

The truth of the road has been defined, and the truth of its purpose; but there are three months, at least, of detailing work to go.

Hank walks up and down the ways. Flesh-Ripper plants the last teeth of the lower jaw, and Crust-Cruncher of the roof. Hank and the goddess clean and sort the threads of Kailani’s destiny and make a cavity-retardant shell for all her teeth.

Sometime near the end of this the yearning for completion becomes a wistfulness.

It is hard for a smith to let a toothway go; and harder for a toothway to surrender its smith.

But inevitably they reach the point where they can no longer find any little piece of work un-done; and with a last bittersweet polishing of the enamel, Hank Makeway declares his mission closed.

“You’re as right a road as ever made by smith,” he says.

Numinous in the mouth of Kailani Tate the goddess contemplates herself; and like the seraphim she finds it just.

“I wish we were not parting,” Alaia Goodway says. “And may Lauemford treat you well.”

There is the lightest tone of teasing in her voice, and Hank sticks out his tongue before returning to his camp.

“Want the horses?” he says.

“Crust-Cruncher,” she says, “perhaps.”

So he pats Flesh-Ripper on the neck and he sets Crust-Cruncher loose. He gathers up the material implements of his craft and he cooks his last meal in Kell’s gums.

It will be four years before the main teeth come in and the standards will call this toothway safe; but Alaia is an impatient god. The first pilgrims and daredevils are riding through before Hank’s even packed his bags.

“Alaia”: Bleakness

Now before you may understand the bleakness that flirts with the goddess and with Hank, you must refresh yourself on those events that led them here; so

here their story begins, and
here Hank cleans the gums, and
here Hank clarifies the map, and
here Hank makes Ms. Tate’s first tooth, and
here the bleakness is in sight.

They have seen the error in Hank’s crafting; but they do not know the answer to it, and thus they have chosen to laugh in the face of failure and proceed. . . .

Bleakness

As if to mock them both for their concern the error’s influence recedes. A limning of possibility sets in around the unfinished teeth, a flickering foxfire potential that might almost get a person from one place to another. Hank judges it as he works; it is a portion of what he needs, but it is not enough.

One evening, as he leans back against an anchor and stares out at the vistas of the gums, beauty and truth suddenly become new to him again. Rapt at the world, and driven by a bubbling sensation in his heart, he says, “How wonderful.”

She answers: curiosity.

“I miss her,” he says. “Sometimes. My master. And I think, every day that I am alive and I am a smith, ‘she made me. She found this in me, this—this Hank.’ And suddenly I feel so incredibly lucky— that I could be here, that I could be making a road where she made a road, that I could be doing what she’d done— and for a girl named Kell, no less.”

He can feel the truth of his words slipping out into the gums; swirling through the paths of them; coming back to him, resonant, openness for openness, until the world is charged with the awe at the ordinary that characterizes observations such as these.

She says, “You are shining.”

“Sometimes,” he says.

“Sometimes?”

“That’s what a person does, isn’t it?” he says. “We grind, and we shine.”

There is a shift in the world, visible to him much like a hopping bird seen from the corner of one’s eye.

Then the black wave of his error sweeps across him.

Hank’s error catches him in the shadow of it. Breath flies from him and pain rasps in his lungs. His perceptions occupy a strange mode and everything seems to fill with pink and purple rain.

content! Content?

name! name! inquiry!

The goddess speaks but he cannot understand it. It is not until the weight of error on him shifts aside that he hears it:

“Hank!”

His senses normalize. He orients. The wilderness sprawls before him and slowly his mind and body calm.

“Don’t be afraid,” he says. “But please—if you can, be still for a moment, that I might see.”

She stills.

She holds herself immobile against the stresses in herself, supplanted by the stays and ropes, and he watches; and then, at last, he relaxes into understanding.

“I’ve taught you to grind,” he says, “and not of shining, haven’t I.”

“And not of shining?”

“We grind,” Hank says, “to define things, don’t we? We take the great undifferentiated field of truth and polish it down to the bits we need.”

“Yes.”

“But we also shine,” Hank says, “the knowledge of our purpose. The being of us is a beacon that organizes that truth into a road.”

She hesitates. He can feel the disorganized churning of her thoughts.

“The road is its purpose,” Hank says. “Not just its truth.”

“I don’t want to shine,” she says.

“It’s hard,” Hank says.

“No,” she says, to emphasize her denial.

But he has his hands up and open, as if in surrender, and she does not carry her protest further.

He says, “I never explained. And it must have seemed like everything I did to make a road was just the grinding. And I never told you that it mattered so very much, that it mattered that I did these things to make the toothway to New Jerusalem; that I was not simply here, but here, with you, working together on its construction. So you could not have known.”

Pangs of unexpiated sorrow shift within her.

“It’s terrifying,” he says.

“Yes.”

He waits.

“Why is it terrifying, when I scarcely understand it?” she says.

“It’s a very great threat to your concept of yourself,” he says.

“Oh.”

“Do you understand,” he says, “that whatever it is that you choose to do, I shall help you?”

Concepts rise, short-circuit, and fade away.

confirmation, she says.

Hank smiles.

Tentatively, she adds, confusion and uncertainty, in the matter of the threat.

“To define oneself is to grind away all that is not oneself,” Hank says. “To make it pap for our digestion. And when a person then looks at themselves, they see that grinding, and say, ‘Ah, I am grinding, I am the process that reduces myself to the truth.'”

“Yes,” she says.

“One then begins to grind away at all that is self that is not grinding; and where does the process stop?”

“It does not.”

“Thus to shine is to pose the uttermost threat to the soul; for it says, ‘enough.'”

“I am flawed,” she says.

“Yes.”

“So I must grind that away.”

“Or trust that you are beautiful,” he says, like a hammer on some piton in the gum. And another: “And that I will treasure that beauty, as will those who in the future use these teeth to drive.”

Bleakness in the gums gives rise to a queer and empty mirth.

She says, “You expect too much of me. How can you expect so much of me, Hank Makeway, when you must know that I don’t have it to give?”

and there we stop, that you may meditate on the darkness before the dawn; we shall take up and conclude the story on the morrow.

“Alaia”: The Wild Wide Field

You’re just in time; we’ve been speaking of Hank Makeway, and if you hurry you can find the first parts of this story

here,
here,
here, and
here.

We’ve done the bit where the road to New Jerusalem had failed; and how Hank Makeway came to build a new; and how he made the first adult tooth in the mouth of Kailani Tate, of the twenty-eight he’ll build; how he was satisfied, and more than satisfied, with the work he’d done thus far; but of course, there was a flaw. . . .

The Wild Wide Field

Three weeks later, as he walks to the site of the fourth tooth, the goddess speaks.

“Why am I a road to New Jerusalem?”

“Why?”

She is quiet for a bit.

“I mean,” she says, “am I a self-defining creature, or am I unfree?”

Hank laughs.

He leans against a stay and he says, “There’s none of us chooses the circumstances of our birth.”

“No,” she says, dubiously.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” he says. “But you mustn’t tell anyone I told.”

Her interest sharpens. “Please!”

“You were always here,” Hank says. “You existed before me, before my horses, before even Kailani Tate. You were sleeping in the substrate of the world. You were here, but you were buried, and the truths you slept among occluded you. When I ground away everything that wasn’t a road to New Jerusalem, I un-differentiated it to leave only the substance of your body; and here you are.”

She is quiet for a while.

“Do you understand?” he says.

“I am free,” she says.

“More than free,” he says. “You are my partner in this, my student, my teacher. I am a builder of lattices, a grinder of gums, a master of horses, and a placer of stays. But I cannot make a toothway. That job is yours.”

“Maker of smiths,” she says.

His smile embarrasses him; he fights the urge to look down.

“Let me tell you of New Jerusalem,” he says.

And for a long time, as he works, he does. He tells her of the spires of New Jerusalem and of how it became holy to his people and his craft. Then he speaks of Kelly Whitecap and her labors; and of Mandate Wisdom before her; and Sephirot Gumsman, and Maker Ben, and Two-Tooth Jenny, and all the way back the line of smiths to that Razor Jenkins who’d first conceived of giving children teeth. He tells her of his own life and of how he came to study teeth and of the year he spent in New Jerusalem, suffused with grace. He shows her the marks of his studies there, two whitened bite scars still wrapped in angry red.

On the seventh tooth he becomes aware of the error in his crafting. He rips out the ivory of that tooth and tries again; after the third planting, he recognizes that the error is pervasive and not localized as he had thought.

Its nature is elusive.

He does not see it. He only feels it. There is something wrong. The toothway is correct thus far: it points nowhere save New Jerusalem. But it is his dim perception that that destination is lost in darkness: that a person who rode the toothway would certainly enact a movement from Lauemford to New Jerusalem, but could not actually arrive.

Grimmer now, he works as he plants new teeth to correct this flaw. He emphasizes the brightness of New Jerusalem as he goes. He spins fabulous webs of story around the factual accounts of that city’s affairs. He gropes for the substance of the error, trying to construct it in reverse in the hope of compensating.

“Something is wrong,” the goddess tells him.

Hank thinks about this for a moment. Then he confirms it.

“Yes.”

“I am failing,” she says.

Hank stares at a bleak and dismal place inside his soul for a time. Then he pulls his attention free and focuses on the gums.

“You can’t fail,” he says, “if you’re not being tested.”

“Oh.”

“Goddess,” he says, and rests his hand on the great pulse of her. “That is not how a smith thinks. Craft is not deciding how good we are. Craft is in the effort and the eyes.”

“The eyes?”

“Seeing the good,” Hank Makeway says. “The possibility. The hope. So that we may nurture it and bring it forth.”

There is a lightening of the overall self-doubt in the gums; but in compensation, a core shape and essence of the goddess’ uncertainty darkens, pulls in on itself, and begins to calcify its boundaries. He can feel its nascent protest; and he acts to poison it with hope.

“There is virtue,” Hank says, “in having some acceptance of failure, in the sense of lowering one’s expectations when we can no longer meet them. Of recognizing when we must change our dream. But before we can do that, before we can even consider changing the structure of our hopes, we must understand the nature of the difficulty; otherwise, it is simply speculation, self-doubt, tainted air.”

“But where is it?” she asks. “Where is our difficulty?”

“Somewhere in this wild wide field of beauty,” Hank says, gesturing around; and because he says it, she can see it thus.

and as for the error, we shall leave its story until Monday; such excitement better suits a Monday than a Saturday, after all.

“Alaia”: The First Tooth

You will recall that this is the story of Hank Makeway, the smith of children’s teeth, and how he came to build a new toothway to New Jerusalem when the last of them had fallen.

Here is the beginning of the story; and the cleansing of the gums; and the clarification of their map.

Hank has sown the fourth of his eight horses; and now he feels a presence in the gums. . . .

The First Tooth

For the next month, things are easier.

Hank spends the month on walking.

He does not work, at least, not in the way a smith is usually working. Instead he lets the gums heal. He familiarizes himself with their newest contours. He plays with the remaining horses, and he sings songs, and he rambles aloud about the incidents of his life.

He displays himself openly, simply, and with trust.

He means this as an introduction of sorts. He has studied the gums of Kailani Tate. Now he sets aside time for the nascent goddess of her teeth to study him.

One day, that goddess says, “Hank Makeway.”

“Yes.”

A current of joy runs through the gums. Somewhere, Kailani Tate startles and drops her crayon.

Trepidation seizes the gums.

Communication is dangerous. It evokes in the goddess a fear of mistakes, of misstatements, of unmaking. For a long time afterwards, she says nothing more.

At the end of the month Hank starts working again. He sets up braces and stays along the paths of the gums. He anchors them with ropes and pulleys.

Curiosity moves. The goddess asks him, one day, as he’s setting up a smith’s stay, “What are you doing, Hank?”

“I want this bit of path to stay still,” he says.

He indicates a trickle of chemical energy that is tributary to the path.

“When there’s pressure along here,” he explains.

Later, as he sets up the ropes that bind a bit of path to one of his anchors, she says, “And here?”

“It’s structural support,” he says, “for the road to New Jerusalem.”

He takes Flesh-Ripper out to a certain place and he tells the horse, “Here.”

The horse dances upon the gums. Flesh-Ripper’s hooves come down, thum-thum-thum, and drive a crystal of pure ivory into the gums.

A palpable tension manifests. The pressure and the energy of the gums rises.

“Quickly, now,” Hank urges.

Fierce and driven, Hank moves his team from place to place, planting the scattered seeds for Kailani’s first new tooth. He is sweating and rigid and he moves with a sense of urgency; for if this part fails, he must rip out all the planted buds of ivory and start again. Time weighs on him in the form of material strain. The path around him is buckling and twisting, snapping about within the confines of the braces and the stays, and it will not hold forever. Once Hank loses his footing and his ankle flares with pain and he hears a snap and for a moment he fears that all is lost: but it is a buckle and not a bone that he has broken. He is agile enough to continue.

Only once in this process does the urgency in him relent. That is when the voice of the goddess comes softly through the gums, saying, “This is strange, Hank Makeway.”

Then he stills. He draws three breaths for calm. He says, “Is it?”

“It is.”

“Would you like me to explain?” he says.

And he smiles.

After a moment, she says, curiosity.

“This is a process of defining,” Hank says. “These paths of yours are sound and honest, but they are equivocal. They speak of many different things. I am scouring away their indecision and putting them in the shape of teeth.

“The teeth,” he finishes, simply, “are the road to New Jerusalem.”

Solemnly, she says the ritual lines: “New Jerusalem, suffused with grace.”

“You are in your shape a transformation,” Hank says, “that takes in Lauemford and becomes New Jerusalem— takes what is immured in Lauemford at the right of the jaw and opens New Jerusalem to it at the left.”

“Oh,” she says.

Then suddenly she parses the entirety of his statement. The word bursts from her as a laugh: “Lauemford!”

“Yes,” he says.

Lauemford,” she says, again.

Her tone is that of a child who has just learned that the milk she drinks every day comes out of a moo cow: joyous incredulity at the fallibility of the world.

I live in Lauemford,” he protests, hitting his chest. “I have a farm.

New gales of laughter pour forth. Hank frowns; then his cheeks burn; then, despite himself, he grins. His hurt pride becomes ridiculous to him. Hidden behind his smile, his heart begins to laugh. He squares his shoulders. He shakes his head and sighs. Then he goes back to work.

The stays are cracking but have not quite broken when he sets the last crystal in his design. Exhaling a great satisfaction, he stumbles to a stop.

The shape he’s crafted burns in Ms. Tate’s gums. Its mathematical character transfigures. Along the fault lines of symmetry and consanguinity lines of power burn. Metamorphosis seethes into gleaming lattices. The scattered seeds of Kailani’s first new tooth reach out to one another; see the shining of one another; see the seething potential in each other; embrace.

“Tooth,” says Hank, in quiet satisfaction.

Only mammals have differentiated teeth, murmurs a fragment of truth embedded in the gums; and “Tooth,” sighs after him the goddess of the gums.

It is very nearly perfect, this first of Kailani’s teeth.

There’s no smith less than Hank Makeway that could see the error in it at all; and even Hank misses it, this once.

One tooth down. Twenty-seven left to go.

but that is twenty-seven teeth too many to speak of them tonight; so we shall leave the next few for tomorrow, should it happen you won’t mind.