Asterion’s Canny Jaws

They never taught me to speak, my parents, but I learned in spite: born speaking, without words, my wide head and ungrown horns a mute testimony to human greed, a more than human thirst for the unsatisfying bite of the sea’s salt teeth.

They built this path for me, this maze of words, of obligations, of everything unsaid, demanded blood price from stranger and conquered kingdoms. I could not grow fast enough for my destined vengeance, so I took what ruth I could upon these clean-limbed and wailing youths, stuffed my stomach in the manner of my grandfather’s father.

We are all so much meat, nothing more.

Still: nothing lasts except the tides. Once I met a man, a twist of craft in his fist, and he struck me down, one more bloody heap tumbled to the bottom of this pit. He found his way out, and my long-delayed vengeance, and with that I must be satisfied.

I never asked for life, but in that, at least, I am not alone.

Alternate Reality Game

for Jane

There is no sign on the door and you have to call ahead to get in.

Only the desperate and the despairing find this place, those who spot the number scratched into the dull metal of a phone booth, who hear about it from someone else who has made it to the center. Those who risk the call, not knowing what will be at the other end.

The voice on the phone is warm, but anonymous. It gives an address and a time, and disconnects. Pick up the end of the skein and venture in—there is a monster at the other end who eats children, they say, but some children need to be eaten.

The apartment is warm, but anonymous. Full of women and children and noise; bright colors. It has been partitioned into several soundless cubbies; the door swings open just wide enough to swallow you in. Everyone here is nervous, with half an eye on the door in, the door out.

If you pass—some don’t—you will be grouped with others. Outside there is a van waiting for you, which will take you on. Some of you will have gone through this before, some of you will be here for the first time.

“It’s easy,” one of them will assure you. “They’re very good at this.”

Maybe you will want to forget; some do. Maybe you will stick around, learn their ways, spread your own cautious network. The work will always need to be done.


Double-Headed Ax

Decades denied entrance she wears hard into the gate.

They trickle past in their sixes and sevens, white haired, black eyed, hopeful, weeping, greedy, desperate. She plays knucklebones to pass the time. Beyond all quotas. Ripe with waiting, full to bursting, charged with secret learning. They have no tongue in common.

Walls of gold and heavy fruit. She spits seeds in the black, black earth, pulls shoots up by the roots when they dare go unveiled before her. Seeds among stones, among shallow ground, in a well-drained field. The beams are sound but the pipes are shot.

She circumnutates. Arianrhod. She echoes to the sound of youth and long-distant tides. Waveless, stony beeches.

The gate opens and he is there, her radiant bride, teeth and hooves bloody, bloody, who puzzled his way out to this meeting. She ends her waiting and folds the maze up in her sails.

We Shall See Face to Face

From everywhere his face, his malapportioned body. Unloved, he lacks language but not mother-wit; he understands that this worm of infinity, this endless mirrored coil, is meant to chastise him, meant to rebuke him for the unconscionable sin of bearing so flagrantly his father’s name.

They have gifted him a garden at the center, and there mercifully cloaked his reflection with rhododendrons, cashew trees, pepper plants, poison to one who lacks his mother’s placid digestion. There is a spot, just inside his filigreed gates — gates which have never closed, were never built to close — where he can spy the sunstruck hillside that holds his prison, dimly but faithfully reflected through the labyrinth’s undeceptive length.

Each year he waits for company.

They can none of them meet his gaze.

One by one, from the oldest to the youngest, they drop their eyes. Poor creatures, they cannot bear the weight of the god’s touch. He would go to meet them, if he could — there is but one path, after all — but one step nearer and they dissolve, and it is his own shape he sees and cannot bear. He flees, weeping, wrathful, to await their yearly coming.

Within the Plains of Memory

After something like twenty miles, the usual measures fade away. Distance and direction, past and future, all grown shifting and uncertain. She stands in a bazaar two hundred years after her own death, listening to conversations in a language she recognizes but cannot understand. She floats massless in space, watching the crisp line of the terminator sweeping across unfamiliar continents. She is a name half-said in a windowless room choked with decoration, a sharp crack of gunfire echoing across Kansas prairies.

At the center, in what might be the spiral castle of Arianrhod, she finds it, old and blind, rapt in contemplation of the infinite unfolding of the Aleph.

“Well met, o my brother,” she tells it.

“What’s that? Who’s there? Come closer that I might know you.” She gives it her hands, hairy with goat’s hide. “Do I know you? I do not think I know you.”

“Once we were closer than blood, closer than skin. Once we were two sides of the same door.”

“I don’t—” it begins, and she stabs it, new key in an old lock.