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Magical bears in the con.., p.9
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       Magical Bears in the Context of Contemporary Political Theory, p.9

           Jenna Katerin Moran
 
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

  **

  Spatters of coffee, sinking into the bureaucrat’s papers, shimmer a bright and wooden brown. The cuts on the girl’s wrist shine; her skin turns flush and pink, her blood a pure wine-red. The shadows and grime of Shadow City fade. The bandanas of the gangs gleam a brilliant blue, save for the one that is green; and a gangster realizes with a stark cold fear that he’s been hanging out with his blood enemies for the past ten years.

  There’s a wind, and it carries a message from the rainbow girl.

  “Hi,” says the wind.

  “This is my city now.”

  There is no blood that flows but that is red; and no tears that fall but jewels; and for a time, of the Rainbow World, we shall hear no more.

  At the Cherry Tree

  There is a young boy. His name is George. He is empty.

  He is empty, and from that emptiness is born a fairy, and her name is Lilimund. Through the white and cutting summers of his youth she is with him.

  “Is that the way things are?” George asks.

  He is looking at a dog, lolling on the ground, its stomach thin, its body ripped by a bear until it died. There are insects that are living in the dog.

  “It is one way,” Lilimund says.

  “The b’ar was very strong,” says George.

  In town, there is a store, and it sometimes sells liquor, but not to George. So he sends Lilimund in to fetch him some. She is quick and she is subtle. She brings a bottle to George. He drinks.

  “You’re very beautiful,” he says, to Lilimund.

  There are cherry trees behind his house. He goes to them, still with liquor on his breath, and there he sees the dryad. She is curled and straight: her body upright, but her hair wound round her in gentle curls and knots. It forms bark, and leaves, and flowers. It gives her more branches than her outthrust arms. Her teeth are made of wood.

  “George,” she says. It is a minimal acknowledgment. She does not give much time to George.

  “Dance for me,” he says. It is rude, but he is a child, and he is drunk.

  “There is sun,” says the dryad. “There is soil. Leave me in peace, child. I am content.”

  “Dance,” insists George.

  “You are nothing,” she says.

  “I’m more than you.”

  So George goes to the shed, and he finds an axe, and he takes it out. And he cuts the dryad down, hacking once, twice, thrice, and finally seven times, and she only stares at him through it all.

  “You had no right,” she says.

  And George looks down at her, as the blood ebbs from her roots, and suddenly he’s scared.

  “I did,” he says.

  “I will not hear a lying tongue,” the dryad says, “as my life fades.”

  “You’re my father’s tree,” says George. “So I can do what I want. And besides, God doesn’t like your kind.”

  The dryad says, softly, “You will know sorrow if you should lie again.”

  Her eyes close.

  “It’s okay, George,” says Lilimund. She lights on his shoulder. “It’s . . . well, it’s not okay, but it’s done.”

  “It wasn’t my fault!” he bursts out.

  Lilimund is silent.

  “Right?”

  There is a chill in him. The fairy falls, gently, off his shoulder, her body limp, her heart pierced through by wooden thorn, and splinters seal her eyes.

  “George?” It’s his father’s voice. He’s walked into the field. “George, what happened?”

  It is an inconceivable loss.

  “George?” says his father. “Why are you crying? What happened to my tree?”

  He searches for the words, and for the strength.

  Panda Dancing

  (A Story about the Purpose of the World)

  It is 1991.

  Sydney meets Michael in a coffee shop. Soon they are talking about their work. Michael is an accountant. Sydney breeds pandas.

  “Pandas?” Michael says.

  “It’s my family trade,” says Sydney.

  “I see.”

  “We used to be corrupt diamond merchants,” says Sydney. “But one day, Grandpa stood up at his desk and exclaimed, ‘Day in, day out, it’s always the same! Why are we murdering men to sate our greed when we could be some lonely panda’s angel of love?’”

  “A man of vision,” Michael says.

  “It was a midlife crisis,” says Sydney. “I assume. But he never looked back, and we’ve been breeding pandas ever since.”

  “You too?”

  “I’m in biotech,” says Sydney. “I use my laboratory to invent powerful new panda fertility drugs and then I bulk advertise them over the Internet. It takes about 10,000 messages to reach even one panda, but that’s enough to make it worthwhile.”

  Michael holds his coffee cup. It’s warm. He approaches the subject delicately. “Some might not call this fulfilling.”

  “Oh,” says Sydney. “But it is!”

  “It is?”

  “That’s why we’ve stayed with it,” Sydney says. She thinks. “Listen,” she says. “Do you know what it is to have a purpose?”

  Michael thinks about it. “I have tasks at work,” he says.

  “Not tasks.”

  “I would like to consume this coffee,” Michael says. “And process it into energy and urine.”

  “Not survival.”

  “I might want to seduce you later,” Michael says. “Hypothetically.”

  Sydney stares at Michael. “What do you want to be? What do you want to do with your life?”

  “Well, that,” Michael says. He laughs a little. He holds a hand flat over the table. “I suppose I want—”

  Sydney tilts her head to one side. Michael frowns.

  “Yes?”

  “It’s strange,” Michael says. “But I think that what I want is to manage the books for a firm that breeds pandas.”

  Sydney laughs. “Why that, good sir?”

  “You just . . . know,” Michael says. “Don’t you? I mean, it’s like when you’re playing a video game, and suddenly everything’s all in line; or when you’re dancing—”

  “Yes,” says Sydney. Her eyes widen a bit. “Yes, it is, isn’t it?”

  “And suddenly everything’s right, and it doesn’t matter how much you have to give up for it, because this, this is the purpose, and you’re flowing through your life like a river.”

  Michael is staring off into the distance. Then he gulps down his coffee in a quick, convulsive motion. “I haven’t felt this way since sixth grade, when I decided I wanted to be a CPA.”

  “You do understand,” Sydney says. “How marvelous!”

  Michael starts working at Sydney’s company. It’s not even too surprising that they fall in love. Eventually, they have a daughter of their own, named Emily.

  It is 2000, then 2004.

  “This one’s special,” Sydney says. She looks at a printout of her lab notes. “She’s a mutant.”

  Michael rubs her shoulders. “Is that so?”

  “It’s the new fertility drug,” Sydney says. “It caused something more than just ordinary breeding. It made a super-agile panda.”

  “I told you not to use spider DNA.”

  “I didn’t!” Sydney protests.

  Michael waits.

  “I only used a little,” Sydney hedges. “Spiders are very fertile. Their offspring are everywhere!”

  “Use spider DNA in your panda viagra, get a super-agile panda.”

  Sydney sighs. “Well, it’s not a bad thing,” she says. “We can teach her to dance.”

  And so they do.

  It is 2005.

  “It’s time for the panda to dance,” Michael says.

  “I’m nervous,” Sydney says.

  “Why?”

  “It’s just . . . this feeling,” Sydney says.

  “What’s that?”

  Sydney gestures towards the wall. “Do you know that there are hundreds of thousands of people gathered outside this building
, waiting for the panda to dance?”

  “Surely not that many,” Michael says.

  “They’ve been showing up,” Sydney says. “For weeks now. Months. They’ve been camping outside. They’ve been bringing food and water and medical supplies into town. This dinky little town of ours has grown tenfold.”

  Michael scratches at his forehead. “What we do here is important,” he says. “I guess people are starting to realize that.”

  “It’s not real,” Sydney says. “People don’t show up like this just because there’s a panda gonna dance.”

  “How do they know?” Michael says.

  Sydney shrugs uncomfortably.

  “I mean, this is just a recital you set up,” Michael says. “We didn’t tell everyone. Maybe they’re just here as some kind of subculture thing and it doesn’t have to do with the panda at all.”

  “They know it’s important,” Sydney says.

  “Oh.”

  “I asked one,” Sydney says. “Because he was sleeping in my parking space. And he said, ‘It just feels right. It doesn’t matter how much I have to give up for it. I needed to be here. For this. For the panda.’ And I said, ‘But I ran over your leg. You need a doctor.’ And he laughed and said, ‘It don’t matter none. I’ll live long enough.’”

  “Did you get a doctor?”

  Sydney opens her mouth, hesitates a long moment, then shrugs.

  “What?”

  “He’s right,” she says. “He’ll live long enough.”

  Emily comes in. She is a young and demure girl. She is wearing a gingham dress.

  “The panda’s ready,” she says. “I just helped her with her stretches.”

  “Good girl,” says Sydney.

  The three of them go to the panda room together.

  “Dance,” Sydney says.

  “Do you know,” says Michael, “I think this is what the Earth is for.”

  There’s a moaning, a humming, a whispering, a chanting from outside. There are a hundred thousand voices raised in worship outside the building walls.

  “You think so?”

  “God made this whole good Earth,” says Michael, “so that one day he could watch a panda dance. Not just any old dance, but like this.”

  “I guess you’re right,” says Sydney.

  The panda dances.

  “And bless Him for it!” Sydney says, suddenly, fiercely.

  The panda bobs in place.

  “So do you think,” says Sydney, “that it’ll go on? I mean, the world? After the panda’s done?”

  “I hope not,” says Michael fervently.

  The panda shuffles from side to side, her paws an expressive counterpoint.

  “But . . . I wouldn’t have guessed,” Sydney admits. “That this would be what we’re for.”

  “Wouldn’t you?”

  “Hm?”

  “Emily,” says Michael, “if I’d asked you last year what the purpose of the world was, would you have known it?”

  Emily nods firmly. “Yes, father.”

  “What would you have said?”

  “I would have said, ‘I think it’s . . .’ And I wouldn’t have had the words. But it would have been a panda dancing.”

  “I guess that’s true,” says Sydney.

  The panda shuffles to a halt, flumps to the ground, and falls asleep.

  Emily goes to the window and looks out.

  “Look, mama!” she says.

  The sky is falling, and Emily laughs with a sudden, bright, clean joy.

  The Bride of Transgression Bear

  It’s 1952, and not all the beauty has gone from the world. There is a woman. Her name is Shalva. She lives in a little temple by a lone lakeshore.

  Shalva was a child in Germany during the war. Her parents begged Heaven to save her, and so she came under the blessing of a secret angel; and all those who saw her knew not to think of her. She was forbidden.

  She grew in beauty and in grace, and soon she wished to find love, but this was also forbidden to her. So she lived in a temple, by a lake, and opposite she built her tomb. She wrote this message above its arch, “Here I shall lay my body down, and at my side the one who loves me.” Then she retreated to her home, and dwelt.

  There’s a kingdom in the clouds. It’s always covered in shadows, and neon lights reflect from pale streets. Magical bears live there. One of them is Transgression Bear.

  It is Transgression Bear’s birthday. She rises. She’s a cute little bear. There’s a lipstick symbol on her chest. She shines it at people, sometimes, to teach children and sinners that they must pay for their crimes. “Today,” she says, “I am an adult.”

  She goes to the treasure vault. She opens it. It clicks. She looks around. Then she takes out the mirror. Its frame is hammered from gold and set with opals, and in it is a mirror of such purity as none of earth have seen.

  “I’m pretty,” she says. “I wonder if there’s anyone prettier.”

  The mirror isn’t magical. So it doesn’t say. But Transgression Bear suddenly thinks of Shalva.

  “No,” she says, shaking her head fiercely. “I mustn’t think of her!”

  She thinks of Shalva again. She imagines her fuzzy orange finger tracing the outline of Shalva’s cheek. She imagines the wells of Shalva’s eyes.

  “It’s wrong,” she says. “Transgression Bear Glare!”

  The lipstick mark springs forth in bright fury from her chest and plays against the mirror, casting back upon herself. In that beacon she stands frozen.

  There’s a trundling noise. Then Alienation Bear waddles in. He wriggles his nose. He looks her over. He pokes her. Then he pokes her again.

  “Oh,” he says. “She’s transgressed.”

  He looks in the mirror. He can’t see himself. He’s Alienation Bear. Then, with a shrug, he takes it from her hand.

  Transgression Bear screams.

  “It’s okay,” he says.

  Her eyes regard him. The pupils have constricted to points.

  “You did something wrong, right? It’s okay. You’re Transgression Bear. It’s who you are.”

  “. . . I guess,” she says.

  “What did you do?” he asks.

  She looks down. “I thought about Shalva.”

  “Ah.” He hesitates. Then he touches her shoulder. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t understand how things like that work. But I think you’ll be okay.”

  There’s a long moment’s hesitation.

  “But you can’t live here,” he adds. He looks down. His eyes are shadowed. “Not in the magical kingdom. Not if you’re thinking of Shalva. It’s not a Bear thing.”

  “Who decides that?” she says. “Who decides what’s a Bear thing?”

  Alienation Bear shrugs. “Fate,” he says. “The fates that make us what we are. If you stayed, you’d eat away at the clouds. You’d wither in on yourself and become a shrunken gray homunculus, and unmake our whole world. If you go, you’ll die, and maybe be reborn. That’s how it works. We’re not supposed to understand.”

  She stares at him. The padlock symbol on his chest is glowing slightly. But not very much. Not enough to Glare her.

  “In the blood of Bear there is a tide,” he says. “A current. That draws us to our destined place. Go. Yours isn’t here.”

  So, bitterly, she puts on a trenchcoat and crams a fedora against her ears to shield her from the cold. She summons a monochrome rainbow and twines herself in its shades of gray and casts herself down to the world below. And wherever she goes, the windows slam down, and the doors close, and mothers pull their children away; for well humanity remembers the ancient powers of the Bears, and fears them.

  By night she curls herself down in the doorways of the shops, and shivers in the cold; but each dawn brings her hope, and the sunrise echoes in the shining of her fur, and the wind tugs at her hat and her coat, and she walks ever onwards, ever closer, driven by the heat and the fire that is in the depths of her mind the forbidden image of the beauteous Shalva
.

  When she reaches at last the lone lakeshore at the temple’s side, she bathes herself in its waters, and save her fur is nude; and the grime of her journey she casts away from her; and then she rises and wraps herself in the air of her aspect, Transgression. She boldly casts open the door of the temple and goes within. And Shalva does not turn her head from her, or shrink back, but only steps forward once and said, “You can see me.”

  “I can,” Transgression Bear says.

  Shalva looks down. “Will you love me?” she says.

  “For all the ages of the earth.”

  “Not so,” Shalva says. “Not so; for when I look at the stars, I see my ending written there.”

  “How long?” asks the Bear.

  “Three months,” Shalva says. “Three months, you may love me, and then be buried at my side.”

  “I should go,” Transgression Bear says, but she does not, and stands there looking at the forbidden. Her thoughts are filled with a strange orange fuzz.

  “Don’t,” Shalva says. “I have not known love since the Holocaust, and I have three months left to live. You are a Bear, and a girl, and this is not what I had wanted, but you are here, and that is more than I had hoped.”

  “I cannot leave,” admits Transgression Bear; and so she knows her ending. She loves for three months, bright and well, and then she and Shalva go to Shalva’s tomb; and Trangression Bear’s breath grows still and quiet; and with a sudden terrible pain she dies. Then by the lake, two entwined flowers grow. Their seeds fall on the world, and in the course of time turn orange. From them rises a new Transgression Bear, and she travels home.

  And with, of course,

  a certain debt

  to “The Bride of the Man-Horse,” by Dunsany,

  that story ends;

  and: another story begins . . .

  Sympathy for a Stranger

  Ashen labors.

  Ashen is a squirrel. He is white. His paws are almost as flexible as hands. He has a tiny hammer. He pounds metal into place. He has a tiny screwdriver. He twists tiny screws. He is building something. It is large. It is imposing. It has a shape much like a bear’s.

  One ear twitches.

  “Come in,” Ashen says.

  The door opens. It’s a walking dog. He has his hands in the pockets of his trenchcoat.

  “Hi, Joe,” Ashen says.

  “Here’s a tough spot,” narrates the dog. “Ashen’s a top government scientist, but he’s using the knowledge he picked up through military research for a personal project.”

  “I’m not using any government resources, Joe,” Ashen says. His tail twitches. He looks a bit nervous.

  “Good, Ashen,” says the dog. “But what would you do if communists approached you and asked you to put your knowledge to their ends?”

  “I’d bite them! Then I’d run away!”

  The dog hesitates. His eyes narrow. “That’s not what you’re doing, then? You’re not working for them?”

  Ashen shakes his head vigorously. “I’m a loyal American!”

  The dog’s suspicion fades. “Well, that’s the right thing to do,” he admits. “If communists approach you for a project, bite them. Then run away! Then tell your local police.”

  “Thank you, Joe.”

  The dog leans against the wall. “That’s how you can take a bite out of communism!”

  He’s Joe McCarthy, the communism-fighting dog!

  “But what are you working on?” the dog says. “I mean, if it’s not a secret communist project?”

  “I’m building a mechanical bear,” Ashen says. “I call it Mecha-Smokey.”

  The dog looks sad. “Oh, Ash.”

  “It’s legitimate!” Ashen says.

  “How is that legitimate?”

  “I’m going to send it to Germany,” Ashen says. “It’s going to challenge, and kill, the Black Forest Bear.”

  The dog hesitates. “Ashen,” he says, “you know that I can’t give my official support to projects involving the assassination of foreign nationals.”

  Ashen blinks. “I thought you did a commercial promoting it.”

  “As a last resort,” Joe says. “If you’re caught in a foreign country and can’t get home and a duly authorized agent of the U.S. government says, ‘Hey, since you’re stuck here anyway, could you kill this guy?’ Then, okay, sure. Mindless loyalty helps you take a bite out of communism! But you can’t just sit in your lab and build anti-Smokey robots. That’s the kind of thing that might damage our diplomatic position.”

  “You miss him,” Ashen says.

  “He’s a [censored] Nazi!” storms McCarthy.

  Ashen watches him for a moment.

  McCarthy’s shoulders slump, under his trenchcoat. “Yah,” he says.

  “I miss him too,” Ashen says. “That’s why I’m doing this.”

  McCarthy raises an eyebrow. He doesn’t actually have eyebrows, being a dog, but the gesture is pretty much the same.

  “Even the Germans don’t want him any more.” Ashen’s nose twitches. He’s not happy. “He was the one weapon that the Allies could never defeat, the one terror not even nuclear weapons could stop. But one weapon wasn’t enough. They lost the war. And now he’s just an unpleasant reminder of their temporary sojourn into cultural insanity. They don’t like Nazis over there, Joe. Not any more. But they can’t kill him either.”

  “It’s his own fault,” Joe says stubbornly. “If he’s miserable, good!”

  Ashen twiddles a nut in his little squirrel hands. Then he screws it into the robot bear. “Joe,” he says, “he’s our friend. We have to give him peace.”

  “Not any more,” Joe says. “He betrayed our country. He betrayed us!”

  “He meant well.”

  Joe sneers. “You believe that [censored]ing bull?”

  “It was true,” Ashen says. “At the time. Only U-boats could prevent forest fires. And . . . say what you like about him, but the Black Forest Bear is dedicated to preventing forest fires.”

  “And Auschwitz?”

  Ashen hesitates. Then he shrugs. “It’s not about forgiving him, Joe. It’s not about him at all. It’s about doing what I think is right. And I’m not vengeful. I just want closure. I want to give him a grave somewhere with a headstone reading, ‘He Shall Put Out Hell.’”

  “I’ll stop you,” Joe says.

  Ashen laughs. “I’ve got a good lawyer, Joe. I’d like to see you try.”

  “You haven’t seen legal pressure until you’ve seen the Communism-Fighting Dog at work!”

  “I’ve signed on with the owl.”

  McCarthy bares his teeth. He growls, softly. “The owl?”

  “‘Give a hoot. Don’t prosecute!’”

  “Damn it, Ashen!”

  Ashen turns back to his work. “You know the way to the door.”

  Joe turns. He strides away. He reaches for the doorknob. Then he hesitates. “Will it really,” he says, and then pauses. “You know. Be able to kill him? Not even Mothra could take down Smokey.”

  “Mecha-Smokey will be invincible,” Ashen says.

  “And he won’t run amok?”

  “He’ll walk through the sea, all the way to Germany. Then he’ll emerge. He’ll be dripping water. He’ll roar. He’ll begin crushing towns. Not because I ordered him to. Simply because they’re there. And Smokey won’t be able to resist.

  “He’ll wake.

  “He’ll stretch.

  “He’ll stand.

  “He’ll march to face Mecha-Smokey. And they’ll take one another’s arms in a great bear hug, and they’ll wrestle.

  “Then Mecha-Smokey will rip him, limb from limb. Its quantum hydraulics will be unstoppable.

  “And blood will pour from the stumps of Smokey’s arms.

  “And in the spring, where that blood fell, flowers will grow.

  “They will be Mecha-Flowers. They will be the color of blood and steel. And they will remember him.”

  Joe sighs.

  “Go,
” Ashen says.

  “I still have to stop you,” Joe says. “But . . . if I don’t . . . have it tell him . . .”

  Ashen nods. He turns back to the machine. He pounds. He screws. He twists. Then he buries his head against his hands.

  Joe opens the door. Joe walks out. Joe begins to close the door.

  “What could it possibly tell him?” Ashen asks.

  The door slams closed.

  Why Don’t Ducks Have Hides?

  Ducks don’t have hides. They have feathers!

  Bears have hides. That’s why you can’t see them. Look! There are no bears in evidence. Magical or otherwise!

  Geese have down. Down is a quark. Geese are indeterminate! If you observe geese, they collapse. That’s why geese aren’t used to guard houses any more. Burglars got too observant!

  Elephants have hides, but Daredevil can see them. This is because he does not actually see. Instead he has enhanced all of his other senses.

  Giraffes have spots. Here and there. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. You get through the bad spots to get back to the good spots. That’s the giraffe attitude towards life.

  Fetuses have placenta. The placenta is a form of currency. It is a medium of exchange. Fetuses use the placenta to obtain goods and services. Fetuses have a strong economy. Everybody invests in fetuses. That’s why they don’t use pladimas or plaquarteras. It’s too much money. Fetuses don’t have anything they need to buy that would merit upgrading their currency past the cent. They could get a Ferrari, but it wouldn’t fit into the womb. It would need to be a mini-Ferrari, and those are nice and all, but at a certain point you just can’t have miniaturized fetus versions of everything. It’s bad enough that they can buy crack, nicotine, and subscriptions to special fetus-enabled massively multiplayer online games.

  Wolves have fur. This makes wolves furries. Since they’re already wolves, they don’t pretend to be wolves. They pretend to be humans. A small excerpt from wolf furry-play follows.

  The alpha male struts in. He puts down his briefcase. He says, “Hello, honey, I am home! Since you do not need estrus to stimulate your sexual interest, perhaps you would be up for a rousing bout of Church-endorsed missionary position sex?”

  “Oh, no, honey, not now! I am too busy shooting my gun at the wolf who culled the weakest members of our herd of cows! Bang!”

  “That sounds like fun. Shooting wolves improves the strength of their gene pool! But surely we could have sex and shoot wolves at the same time?”

  “That is very kinky. I admire your dirty mind!”

  “Bang!”

  “Bang!”

  Together: “Bang!”

  That is how wolves imagine human intercourse must be.

  Birds feather their nests. Invest in birds! In the old days, everyone invested in birds. That made social mobility very easy. Today, few people invest in birds. Instead, they give them to other people. That’s their investment mistake!

  Lions have manes. Sewer lions have sewer manes. Gas lions have gas manes. Sewer lions are like regular lions but they live in the sewer. They have long flowing hair. They stink. They are greenish. Gas lions live in the upper atmosphere. They are ethereal. They also stink, but it is only because the gas company adds a foul smell to them. Newborn gas lions are odorless killers. Legerdelions have legerdemanes. They’re tricky, though, so I can’t explain them here.

  American eagles have lush heads of obviously natural hair. They’re not just the Presidents of the hair club for birds. They are also members!

  Fish have scales. They weigh your soul against a feather. The feathers are just lying around on the beaches. They’re duck feathers. They are very heavy. A fish weighs your soul on the scales to determine whether you deserve Heaven. Then the fish realizes that it cannot breathe air. It flops about in increasing agony. Someone hits it with a rock. That’s pretty much the end of things for fish.

  Giraffes, on the other hand, don’t die when they find themselves out of the ocean. Maybe it’s because their lungs can breathe air. Maybe it’s because they’re immortal! Or maybe it’s just because nobody hits them with a rock.

  Lemurs have lema. It’s a special kind of skin. It’s also used for lemons. That’s why lemurs seem so zesty all the time.

  Clocks have faces. They are good at facing their doom. They know that they are counting down the seconds to their own oblivion, but this does not bother the clocks.

  Sharks have sharkskin. Ducks don’t like being eaten by sharks. When a shark attacks, the ducks try to hide. But they don’t have hides! They have feathers. This is sad for the ducks, but pretty good news for the fish.

  Rainbow Noir:

  The Case of Mr. Dismal

  Mr. Dismal works in Shadow City. He stamps papers. He files reports. He is a gray little man who moves in a gray little world.

  It has been seven years since he looked out the window.

  It has been seven years since his heart last beat.

  But now it is 1952, and out beyond the city, the rainbow stirs.

  He hears a sound.

  “What is this terrible sound?” asks Mr. Dismal. He listens. It comes again. It is his heart.

  There is terror in Mr. Dismal now. There is a terror in him, but he must hide it. So he sips from his coffee and he tries to concentrate on his work.

  There is a flicker of color at the edge of his vision. He looks south.

  Mr. Dismal chokes on his coffee. He staggers away from the window.

  “Heaven and Earth,” he says.

  The rainbow has returned.

  “You are weak, Mr. Dismal,” says Mr. Dismal.

  He looks in the mirror.

  “Creating Shadow City was necessary,” says Mr. Dismal. “I should not apologize. I must not apologize. And I will not apologize.”

  Mr. Dismal’s face is like his suit: pale, cold, and grey.

  Barren and cold, he says, “I could not have known.”

  It is a bright spring day in 1947, and Mr. Dismal goes to his great grime machine, and he pours translucent crystals in. He stirs, and from the bubbling depths come horrors. These are the horrors that eat apologetic men. They have long arching limbs and those limbs end in hooks. They are like spiders and they are like snarls of twine. They are pale. They are large but they can fit themselves into the smallest spaces. They live in the nooks between the cabinets and the files. They live in the little shadow behind the coffeemaker. They curl up in the tips of his shoes and the corners of untended piles.

  And his heart, it does not beat.

  There is a trembling and a rattling in the room.

  Mr. Dismal walks to the corner. He sits down. He makes himself very small. But it does not help because Mr. Dismal’s nose is very, very large.

  The cabinets fall over.

  The door shatters.

  “I am here,” says the rainbow girl.

  It is 1952, and the Rainbow World is dead. That’s what Mr. Dismal thought. That’s what everybody knew.

  There aren’t any colors there any more. There isn’t any rainbow. There’s just Shadow City, dull, gloomy, and drab.

  But this girl has color in her. And the room has color in it. And there is a stain of brown coffee on Mr. Dismal’s financial reports, and his skin is the color of smog.

  “I do not believe in you,” says Mr. Dismal. “I do not believe in your rainbow.”

  The rainbow girl gives him a defiant smile. There is a stirring and a strengthening of the colors in the air.

  “It is the weak-minded and cowardly,” she says, “Mr. Dismal, who must deny the truth.”

  Mr. Dismal’s nose twitches.

  “Go away,” he says.

  The rainbow girl shakes her head and smiles.

  “I am taking over,” she says. “Do you run this place? Are you the master of Shadow City? Are you the one whom I must topple from the throne?”

  Mr. Dismal laughs.

  He laughs and he laughs.

  “I’m just a functionary,” he say
s, like it’s the most priceless joke imaginable. “Do you understand that, rainbow girl? You don’t want me.”

  “Pathetic, Mr. Dismal,” sneers Mr. Dismal.

  He looks in the mirror.

  “It is an inevitable historic truth that where color flourishes, so flourishes decay. It is color that tempts men and women to lasciviousness. It is color that prompts them to gluttony. It is color that makes the things of the world desirable to us, and it is color that ruins that detachment that allows us to be good. Thus it was necessary. It was necessary and it was important, what I have done. To destroy the the reign of color was worth any price. I must not repent. I must not betray and disavow my principles with repentance. For if I am not constant in my principles then what merit can they have?”

  Mr. Dismal’s face is like the world: pale, cold, and grey.

  Barren and bitter, he says, “I could not have known.”

  It is a sullen winter day in 1949, and Mr. Dismal goes to his great eugenics engine, and he pours translucent crystals in. He stirs, and from the bubbling depths of the machine come horrors. This time they are the wind-wolves, the horrors of the air that fall on those who admit the flaws in their expressions of morality. They are cold and their eyes are fierce and they are beautiful. When the wind blows, their heads and shoulders stream forth in gusts. They chase the circling leaves in the streets. They howl in windy nights at the moon. And Mr. Dismal knows that if he should say, even once, that he was wrong, the wind will blow; and the air will chill; and the world will sing with the hunting cries of wolves.

  The rainbow girl stares at Mr. Dismal for a long, long time.

  “No,” she says. “No. That is impossible. I know your crimes of old. You have always opposed the truth of the Rainbow World. It must be you.”

  “He came to me,” says Mr. Dismal. “He came to me, clad in the essence of the holy, and he said, ‘you strive always to steal the colors from the Rainbow World, without reward, while we work all our lives to give them away for free. Let us compromise. Let us remove this troublesome girl, and drown this land in despond, and sell a tiny bit of color at a time.”

  Mr. Dismal’s voice is crisp and precise and he bites out each syllable.

  “And I agreed. I agreed because it was right. I agreed because it was good. It was a victory that justified its price. I partake of the profits and I bend my knee in compromise but in the end the acts that shattered you were not mine; and Shadow City is not mine; and it is not my fault.”

  “And what of Earth?”

  Mr. Dismal clenches his teeth.

  “I stole the color from the Rainbow World,” he hisses. “I won. I saved the land. I have always striven to do what is right and what is expected of me and it was not wrong.”

  “Did he tell you,” says the rainbow girl, “that I wanted to stop the war?”

  “Sniveling worm, Mr. Dismal,” says Mr. Dismal.

  Mr. Dismal looks in the mirror.

  “How dare you even think of it as crime?”

  He’s been staring at photographs of the concentration camps again. He’s been staring at the faces.

  “People who can’t live with the consequences of their actions, Mr. Dismal, don’t deserve moral agency. Don’t you dare go thinking that your virtue owes a debt.”

  It’s a windy autumn in 1950 and Mr. Dismal goes to his great grime machine. He pours translucent crystals in.

  He’s muttering to himself. He’s saying: “There were plenty of other magical kingdoms that could have done something. There were the Bears. There were the Robot Lions. There was God. Wasn’t there? I just wanted to get rid of the Rainbow World’s colors. That’s all I was trying to do.”

  He stirs, and from the bubbling depths of the grime machine come the terrible malachite creatures of judgment. These are the things of faces and wings and teeth, great grinding wheels, fires, storms, and ice. These are the creatures that visit themselves upon those who are humble in the face of their transgressions. These are the blades that fall on those who recognize that they have failed to be good. They guard the gates of wisdom and make men believe their own perfection.

  “You will kill me,” says Mr. Dismal, “if I falter. If I let myself—”

  Then he shakes it off, and he goes to work in the files of Shadow City, portioning out color and the gloomy shadows for yet another day.

  His heart still does not beat, and the malachites are watching.

  The rainbow girl’s eyes are piercing and sad.

  “I want you to go away,” says Mr. Dismal. “Leave me alone. It’s not your place, rainbow girl. It’s not your place to be so cruel.”

  Then the rainbow girl squats down beside him. She puts her hand on Mr. Dismal’s knee.

  “I’m not cruel,” she says. “It is you who have locked away your heart. I’ll free it for you.”

  “I did not ask for your help, rainbow girl.”

  Mr. Dismal stands up. He is terrified, but he moves with stiff decorum. He goes to his desk. He gathers up his papers. He shuffles them into a folder and begins to walk out the door.

  “I am leaving now,” he says.

  “You just need a little color to lighten you up,” says the rainbow girl, and she laughs; and the rainbow touches him; and he tastes the rainbow; and the smog of his complexion becomes a pure and shining gold. The dismal garb he wears becomes a rich and textured gray. His eyes sparkle. His moustache shines. And there is something human in his eyes.

  The weight of it hits him all at once and knocks him to the floor.

  “Oh God,” he says.

  The rainbow girl grins. She pats him on the head. “See? Was that so hard?”

  He is crying, now, great wrenching sobs.

  “Oh God,” he says. And he does not say what he wants. Because what he wants is to find some way to make it right. He wants to give his life in labor and in service and count it as nothing if it should answer the smallest portion of his wrong.

  But it would not.

  And he does not have that time.

  “I’m sorry,” says Mr. Dismal. “I’m sorry I was blind.”

  There are noises and there is silence and there is a long, thoughtful pause.

  “Huh,” says the rainbow girl.

  “It is not meet, Mr. Dismal.”

  He stares into a mirror.

  “It is not meet for good men to bear reproach.”

  It’s almost an hour later when Mr. Dismal’s secretary pokes his head into the room.

  “Mr. Dismal?” he asks. “Mr. Dismal?—oh, dear.”

  The body is in pieces, and the pieces are in a pile, and the pile is bright with vivid color; and its spine does not work, and its brain does not work, and its kidneys and its neck and chest are shreds.

  The heart, in the center of the pile, still beats.

  The Land Where Suffering is Only Remembered

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

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

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

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

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

  “It’s a good bear,” hopes Jaime.

  The very large bear rattles the tree.

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

  “Yeah!” says Emily.

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


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

  Jaime is startled. “You did?”

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

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

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

  “Wow,” says Jaime.

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

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

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

  “Really? Now?” Jaime says.

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

  Jaime assesses the very large bear.

  “That’s so,” he agrees.

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

  Emily chants,

  Roan horse, roan horse,

  Sunset flare!

  Ride east! Ride east!

  I’m scared by bears!

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

  A chestnut horse runs past.

  “Now!” says Emily.

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

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

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

  Then the children are gone.

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

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

  “Or swim,” says Jaime.

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

  Jaime looks nervous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  They stop and look at the ant for a while.

  It’s really pitiful!

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

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

  “Oh no,” says Emily.

  “I’m afraid that if I see that tree again, I’ll eat another fruit! That’s why I don’t want to walk around the lake.”1

  “It doesn’ seem likely,” says Emily.

  “It really hurt,” says Jaime. “Like, a lot!”

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

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

  “Then it’s my stupid,” says Emily.

  She says:

  Black horse, black horse,

  Born in night!

  Ride down! Ride down!

  Bad fruit—no bite!

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

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

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

  “Fine,” says Jaime. “I’ll ride.”

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

  After a while, the horse slows down.

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

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

  “What is it?” Emily says.

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

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

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

  “Not in all the teeth!” says Emily.

  Jaime looks at the teeth.

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

  And the horse runs.

  “Hurry,” says Jaime.

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

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

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

  “Whuf!” says Emily, suddenly.

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

  There is a pause.

  “Whups!” amends Emily.

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

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

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

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

  Palomino of

  Mornings bright!

  Ride west! Ride west!

  To catch the night!

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

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

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

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

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

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

  And it begins to run.

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

  But Jaime cannot hear.

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

  And Jaime cannot hear.

  “The gap!”

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

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

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

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

  But a Land where Suffering is Only Remembered.2

  Footnotes

  1. The path around the lake only had one direction.

  2. Lands where suffering is entirely forgotten, it should be understood, are not kind places for children like Emily and Jaime.

  Great Mother Horror

  The great mother horror lived here long before you and me. She had many children.

  Her children ate the sharks.

  Her children ate the tigers.

  Her children chased down the hawks on the wing.

  There was a great darkness.

  They had eaten the sun.

  There was a great stillness.

  They had eaten the wind.

  Great mother horror walked among her children. She saw that some were eating puppies. Some were eating kittens. Some were eating little humans, not even as old as they were tall.

  “Stop that,” she said, gently. So her children dropped the puppies, and kittens, and the human babes from their long long teeth. They went off to fight enemies who were worthy of them.

  Great mother horror lay down to sleep.

  It was very quiet.

  It was very still.

  Then there was a rustling,

  A rustling,

  A rustling in the moors.

  They rose all around her in the marsh,

  With soft, high giggling,

  And little barks

  And little mews.

  And their tiny hands dragged her down

  They dragged her under

  And great mother horror was gone.

  Her children gathered to mourn her.

  “We tried to warn her,” they said. “Tut tut!”

  “We tried to warn her,” they said. “Ah so.”

  “But the babies deceived her.”

  “The little ones deceived her,” they said.

  Then they walked to the edge of her home

  And out into the great darkness

  And they were gone.

  If you look really hard,

  You can still see her shape,

  Trapped and drowning

  Under the marsh.

  Not quite alive

  But not all the way dead.

  The Filibuster of the Sailor-Senator

  Senator Saul travels in his sleek black car.

  He drives through the streets of Washington, D.C.

  Claire is in the back, next to the black package that holds Saul’s suit and his domino. Shades cover Saul’s eyes. There’s a cup of grape juice in the cup holder beside Saul.

  “Do you think there’ll be trouble today?” Claire asks.

  The shadows in the streets grow long. Words of poetry float by on the air. There is the harsh distant pounding of a drum.

  “Yup,” Saul says.

  Suddenly, the street signs all around Saul’s car indicate “ONE WAY” and they all point in at him.

  “Aha,” says Senator Saul. “It must be a one-way sign demon!”

  The creature that comes striding down the street has long stick-legs like an ostrich or a stick-bug. Its arms are thick long twisty metal, six feet of it, pointed at the end. It is bowed over and its color scheme is black and white and in many places it bears the legend, One way. It is crooning as it walks, crooning, “Saul . . . Saul! Saul, why do you hide from me?”

  Saul brakes. He parks the car. He opens his door. “Stay here,” he says. He steps out. He closes his door. He looks up at the one-way sign demon through his shades.

  “There you are!” cheers the one-way sign demon.

  The presence of the faceless gods is thick in the air. Saul can almost see them, standing like giants above the city. Their grave regard fills the ether, and so Saul speaks.

  The words pour through him. They burn him inside.

  “Through this street flows the lifeblood of this city: its people, its power, its commerce, its joys. You who would disrupt this flow and turn it back upon itself, sacrificing the sublime city plans of Pierre L’Enfant in the name of petty diablerie—to you I can show no mercy. I summon the Senatorial Garb!”

  The demon tilts its head to one side. It waits. It watches.

  Saul strips down, calmly and methodically. He walks to the back of his car. He opens the door. Claire hands him the package that contains his Senatorial Garb.

  The chaunting of the demon-lords in their hells is audible now. Under the pressure of the confrontation the membrane between Washington D.C. and the demon world has grown permeable and thin.

  Saul pulls on his Senatorial pants. He puts on his Senatorial shirt. He shakes his hair into Senatorial resplendence.

  “Now,” he says, “by the power vested in me as a United States Senator, I will teach you a lesson!”

  There is a peace in his heart.

  These words are sacred.

  The demon bares nasty jagged metal teeth in a smile.

  “Many months ago,” says the demon, “your ‘Senate’ implemented the Patriot Act, permitting federal agents unprecedented powers to destroy members of my kind without due process. For endless days I brooded in the dark, plotting my terrible revenge. Now I am here to show you a sign—”

  The word is horribly emphasized, and Saul can feel the wordless appreciation of the faceless gods.

  “—that you have traveled in the wrong direction. Oo hoo hoo hoo hoo.”

  Its hideous laughter grates on Saul’s ears.

  Saul calculates. He assesses the judgment of the gods. The instinct in his heart tells him that only Washington desires a drawn-out battle; the other three are hungry for blood and swift fire in democracy’s name.

  Saul sculpts the power given to him in his hands. It forms a glowing energy sphere. A mandala of light blossoms behind him, writhing with demonic script.

  “I’ll show you the power of the Subcommittee in Charge of Manifesting Spherical Chi,” snaps Saul. “I have broad procedural authority to dispose of trash like you!”

  The chaunt of the demon-lords rings louder now; and Saul takes his power, and twists it, and sends it forth in a levinbolt.

  The demon screams in fear, but the bolt does not strike.

  It is Lincoln, not Washington, that has caused it to fizzle.

  “Curses,” mutters Saul. Too late he remembers the Litany:

  . . .honor ye Roosevelt with sword and bear

  And unto Lincoln let your puns be prayers. . . .

  “Oo hoo hoo,” whispers the demon, in relief. “One small senator cannot stand against me. Now you must face the justice of my claim!”

>   Saul is thinking frantically. One-way signs are plunging in at him from every side, their tips like metal daggers.

  They do not reach him.

  Senatorial Aide Claire, grown tall as a stoplight, her bangs shining with mystic energy, has grasped the demon from behind. She pulls it back, and it shrieks.

  “Never in this land of love,” she grunts, struggling against its inhuman strength, “will a Senator of justice traffic with demons like you! Strike now, Senator! It’s the only way.”

  “That’s not a pun,” protests the demon. “That’s not even real wordplay!”

  Saul begins his invocation.

  “Wait,” whimpers the demon. “No. I didn’t really—I thought—”

  “In 1941,” says Saul, “John Borglum stole the faces of the gods for Rushmore. In 1971, John Dean opened the gates of Hell. In 2001, provisions of the Patriot Act created the role of Senator Domino, sworn enemy of all demons. He alone can command the Bear-Fires of Mammon, uniting the light of Roosevelt with the dark power of the demon-lords! Under subsection 360(b) of HR 3162, I hereby instruct the Bear-Fires to aggressively pursue this one-way sign demon’s destruction! Swiftly! Swiftly! In accordance with the statutes and observances!”

  The faceless gods are satisfied. The Bear-Fires sweep down. The demon burns.

  Saul leans against his car, spent.

  “Senator Saul!” says a shocked reporter named Sally. “Was that—did you—”

  Saul realizes his mistake. He tosses aside his shades and conceals his face behind his arm as he gropes in the backseat of his sleek black car for his domino mask. Only when it’s on his face does he turn to look at Sally.

  “Oh,” says Sally, her tone redolent with affected ignorance. “It’s you, Senator Domino.”

  “That’s right,” says Saul.

  He faces the cameras. There are usually cameras, after an incident like this. He clears his throat.

  “There are those who think that we as a nation have lost our way,” says Saul. “But this—this is my answer.”

  The Senator Domino theme music is playing, piped in by unholy pipers from the distant regions.

  “Imagine a world where there were no demon-lords,” says Saul. “No faceless gods. Only the brutal unmusical struggle of man against demon. Only the confusion of a thousand one-way signs, and death. It would mean nothing. It would be hollow and the corpses would be hollow and we’d never really know why.”

  “Senator, do you agree with the demon’s contention regarding the Patriot—”

  Saul holds up his hand. Sally silences.

  “This is the point of all our struggling,” says Saul. “This is why we live. To make the speeches, to wear the fashions, to launch the mystical attacks that are sacred to our gods. Not to win. But to serve.

  “And today—today, we have pleased them.

  “Today we have sacrificed to the distant powers our blood, our strife, our sweat.”

  Singers far away sing, “Senator Domino.”

  Saul says, “Today we have made our actions unto them a gift. We have justified our existence, here, upon this world, man and demon alike. Take this and treasure it in your hearts. Today humankind and demonkind are worthy.”

  The calm regard of the faceless gods fills his heart with joy.

  “This is not a partisan thing,” he says. “This is America.”

  Then he gets back in his car and starts it up. After checking in the rearview mirror that Claire has snuck back into her seat, he drives away.

  “Senator Domino!” cry the reporters.

  He drives further away, and they do not follow.

  After pulling around the corner into a conveniently unoccupied road in the middle of Washington, D.C., Saul removes the domino. He makes his way to the Capitol. He parks his car, gets out of his car, and walks with Claire into the building.

  The sailor-senator is still on the floor, as she has been for seven days. Her filibuster continues.

  “How long,” Saul asks Claire, “do you think she can keep that up?”

  There are signs and sigils scrawled in the air all around the sailor-senator. They are glowing with the harsh light of her slow death.

  “To let the words speak through you like that,” says Claire, “—it’s harsh, Saul. You of all people should know how harsh.”

  The sailor-senator is ranting, “—those who would take the Patriot Act forward even one more year, I can’t show you any mercy!—”

  “She gives her life for this,” says Saul.

  “—ruining the lives of young people who only seek love and arguably terror—”

  So he nods his head to her, and touches her shoulder gently as he passes, for all that they’re on different sides.

  “—not about Iraq but about we rock—”

  He will vote against her, when the time comes, but he loves her now.

  Such is the honor done to those who please the faceless gods.

  If Animals Had Elemental Powers

  There would be parrots with water powers.

  They would live under water.

  They would make raucous noises like “Squawk! bubble bubble bubble! Squawk! bubble bubble bubble!”

  This would be very disconcerting for the sailors.

  There would be burning tyrannosaurus rexes. They would not be extinct because their fire powers would allow them to survive K-T extinction events such as the one that killed all of the non-elemental dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period. The burning tyrannosaurus rexes would laugh and laugh as they rampaged through American cities but in turn people would laugh and laugh and laugh at their flaming stubby little hands.

  It is actually possible that the flaming dinosaurs would not survive but it is definite that any tyrannosaurus rexes with K-T elemental powers would still be around, so, anyway.

  There would be at least one Metallic Hopping Vampire. He’d be like a regular Hopping Vampire, only with powers over metal. That’d be so cool!

  Then there would be sharks who could jump twenty feet out of the water, hang there, and form bullets out of the wind to devastate their enemies. To hunt these sharks you would need a bigger boat. A bigger, bulletproof, flying boat. And lasers. And even then it would be a near thing.

  There would be octopi who would assemble in eight-octopus teams using their aquatic telepathy. It is arguably not so good to be able to talk to fish when one is the King of Atlantis but it is very, very good when one is a fish and normally unable to communicate at all.

  There would be koi with the ability to disrupt bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a terrible element but it is the element that koi get and the koi are not technically to blame for its presence in the traditional Chinese six-element cycle.

  Who is to blame for that, anyway?

  Bees. Bees are to blame for the presence of bureaucracy in the traditional Chinese six-element cycle and also they sting people so this story will not offer them any elemental superpowers that they do not already possess.

  There would be elephants with special elemental ninja powers. For example there would be an elephant master of snow and ice. If you asked the other elephants who the coldest elephant ninja master was, they would invariably trumpet, douse you in water, and then indicate the snow elemental master. There would be an elephant master of bears. Bears would be an element for the purposes of this elephant! They could shoot bears, or make a great bear-sword, or do other bear-related things. They could even bear arms, despite the fact that elephants don’t have any! Finally there would almost certainly be a shadow elephant—an umbral elephant, as it were—who could slip under your door and then manifest again and charge you.

  Charging shadow elephants are very scary even if you take away their credit cards because the phone book practically overflows with companies willing to extend shadowy elephant ninjas new lines of credit with no questions asked. They will even do so mid-confrontation, so that a battle might go like this:

  “Ha ha ha,” laughs strong-jawed Buck Williams, brandishing
the elephant’s credit card and thus preventing it from charging.

  “Trumpet!” trumpets the shadowy elephant ineffectually.

  The shadowy elephant spies one of many NO QUESTIONS ASKED credit card offers on the table next to the door where strong-jawed Buck Williams, son of Giorgi, keeps his unread mail.

  Swiftly the elephant seizes it.

  Swiftly the elephant mails it.

  Then the elephant, oh so ungraciously, looks smug.

  Buck’s eyes widen. In bullet-time, he turns and lunges for his elephant gun. He fills it with buck shot. He levels it. But it is too late.

  “Trumpet!” trumpets the triumphant elephant.

  He doesn’t ever even pay the charges. It’s a bad debt!

  The elephant isn’t the last elemental animal we will examine. There are also earth beetles. These are beetles capable of burrowing through the dirt. Right through the earth! People can’t do that. We don’t have the requisite elemental mastery of earth, which is the problem.

  Earth beetles are also good at throwing gigantic rocks at their enemies and at making clever balls out of dried dung.

  “What a clever ball of dried dung!” one might praise, seeing them.

  Such a compliment makes earth beetles puff up with pride!

  Metallic Hopping Vampire would like to clarify that hopping vampires are not animals and so his hypothetical metal powers have nothing to do with the premise for this story.

  (Oops!)

  Finally—um, finally, OK, there would be these owls who’d fly around shooting lightning at things. One of them might even shoot lightning at a K-T-powered tyrannosaurus rex.

  Bam! K-T extinction event!

  That’d show those elemental-powered animals.

  . . . yeah.

 
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