Thursday, October 16, 2008

Brent Peterson - Horror is a Dish Best Served by Moldavian Refugees

If all of the mental and physical representations of Kevin’s horror could be whittled down until a unifying principle might be identified, what would emerge would be an image, swathed in the numinous clarity of nightmare, of Carl’s jr. What Carl’s jr looked like, Kevin could only imagine: the teenage fry cooks suffused in oil, sweat, and hormones, hosts for grotesque archipelagoes of abrasions and acne; the Down’s Syndrome-afflicted cashiers with their lisping voices and indistinct features, bodies like trash bags filled with wet sand and minds imbued with a deranged elation that ignores both place and time; the middle-aged managers, balding and little more attractive than their teenage underlings, dull-eyed, yet sharply insistent on maintaining a certain arbitrary sense of order; the customers, blob-like automatons from whose mouths, extending like cilia in search of offal and lard, there comes a crackling and popping that signals an inward suction of the anticipatory release of saliva, a ritual of idiot desire; the miasmatic vapor of grease and dead flesh commingled that permeates the restaurant; the garish and illiterate promotional signs that serve as cynosures for the throng, now throbbing with hunger and transmuting themselves by blind need into writhing, tentacle-lined stomachs with pulsating, fleshy aperture. If these were only the feeble approximations of his agitated mind, Kevin could scarcely imagine the true, ineffable horror of Carl’s jr.

Throughout the day, Kevin would endeavor to calm his mind and consider the cavalcade of images offered up by his affairs. All too frequently, however, the image – or rather, his inadequate, envisaged facsimile thereof – of Carl’s jr. would roil the peaceful impressions that he tried to cultivate, insinuating itself into the mental processes that underlay even the most innocuous ritual. Or perhaps, Kevin considered, the subjective impression that he had of Carl’s jr. emerging from some hidden location in the depths of his psyche was a red herring; perhaps Carl’s jr. was not an excrescence that subsisted parasitically on his otherwise clear and pristine consciousness, but the substratum of his awareness, the turbid and frenetic canvas on which more pleasant thoughts were imposed.

Kevin could not carry this line of reasoning further lest he lose all sense of what it meant to be “Kevin.” If Carl’s jr. was not a phantasm superimposed on mental landscape that was intrinsically and inalienably his, then perhaps he, Kevin, was merely a minute extension of a topology both infinitely vast and infinitely callous, a tiny fragment of a horrifying whole whose misfortune lay in the accident of its sentience and its awareness of Carl’s jr.—the all-pervasive substance on which he, as well as all conscious beings, had been stamped. Upon banishing this thought from his mind, Kevin jogged home, stripped himself to the skin, and retrieved a few rolls of sandpaper from his toolbox. His skin felt as though, beneath its pale pink surface, it was one substance with the leering, uncanny façade of Carl’s jr. Upon climbing into his iridescent, claw foot bathtub, Kevin began to scrub his skin frantically with strip after strip of sandpaper, starting with his ankles and gradually inching his way up to his torso.

Useful Parasites, by Quentin S. Crisp

Useful Parasites

Some time on the 4th of July, 2008, poet and science fiction writer, Thomas M. Disch, put a gun to his head and shot himself. At 68 years of age, Disch had a long career behind him. Critically acclaimed for novels that extended the range of the science fiction genre, but perhaps best known to the public as the creator of The Brave Little Toaster, he had just finished a novel entitled The Word of God, written in the first person from the point of view of the titular hero.

This might sound like the profile of someone with abundant reasons to live, but it seems that the reasons for suicide, even without a note, are probably all too readily understandable. A fire in his apartment, the death of a partner of over 30 years, the flooding of his New York home, and then the threat of eviction on his return to that apartment – these appear to form the bones of the misfortune that overwhelmed him. Perhaps, however, the spirit of that misfortune, the way it might have felt to Disch himself, can be glimpsed in an event that took place two days before the suicide. This was an interview, apparently to promote his new book, on something called Radio Happy Hour. The interviewers, including one Dr. Blogstein, had not read the book, did not know who Disch was, and throughout, seemingly taking the title of the novel at face value, taunted Disch for believing himself to be God. Disch seemed to play along at first, but the mockery was as relentless as it was ill-informed, and at the end, Disch asked, “Is that it?” That, apparently, was it – fifteen minutes of schoolboy sniggering and abuse. Disch lost his composure (not with a raised voice, but only in diction) for the first time. His final words in the interview were, “Well, piss on your shoes.”

Though it would probably be wrong to hold the clueless ‘shock jockeys’ at Radio Happy Hour responsible for Disch’s death, they do provide us with a very specific example of the attitudes and conditions that can make society, for a writer, a depressingly hostile environment.

I learnt of these events from an article on a blog called His Vorpal Sword, to which the writer and para para dancer Justin Isis had sent me a link. The article in question was given the title, ‘Hypatia and the Burning Library’. Soon afterwards, I wrote my own blog entry on the same subject, under the title, ‘The Publisher Drinks Wine from the Author’s Skull’ (an aphorism associated with Ambrose Bierce used in ‘Hypatia and the Burning Library’, which brings to mind another quote, from Elias Canetti, about the ill-fated writer Robert Walser: “I ask myself whether, among those who build their leisurely, secure, dead regular academic life on that of a writer who had lived in misery and despair, there is one who is ashamed of himself”).

Something about Disch’s suicide and the circumstances surrounding it (given in admirable detail at His Vorpal Sword) seemed to have moved me. I don’t mean simply to sadness, but to fury, disgust, amazement. I wondered if others, who read my blog entry, would be similarly stirred up. I imagined hundreds or thousands of Internet users all Googling “Thomas Disch” to learn about the terrible thing that had happened. This prompted me to check the statistics for my blog and find how many hits the entry had received. I looked up and down the list. It was not there. All the entries I had recently written had received hits, even some I had written after the entry on Thomas Disch. The Disch entry alone had received none. I suddenly felt very cold. Could it be that no one actually cares?

I pictured to myself again Thomas Disch’s end, the personal loss, the overwhelming material setbacks, the ruthlessness of the landlords, who used the death of Disch’s partner, to whom the apartment was officially let, as leverage in suing for eviction, the humiliation from the representatives of a world of philistines, the suicide, and then… and then just nothing, it seemed. Bewilderment became anger, and I wrote my own comment beneath the blog entry I had written, where no one else had commented. I ended the comment with, “Piss on your shoes”, directed to everyone who was not there, which seemed to be the entire world.

I am someone who, like “the best” in Yeats’s poem, generally lacks all conviction. For once, however, my anger seemed deep and natural. Without wishing to sound pompous, for once I felt it almost a duty to express it.

Afterwards, of course, I did question that anger, and if I did not perhaps I would not be writing this. It could be that the lack of hits on that blog entry did not really indicate anything at all. Perhaps it was just ‘chance’, whatever that is. After all, it had not been very long since I had written the entry. It could be possible that I was overestimating the iciness of people’s apathy. At this remove from the event, I am still not sure. My impression is that if I was overestimating, then it was not greatly.

I would like to think that my indignation was not entirely selfish, but I’m sure that the reader will already have discerned that it was at least partly selfish (although I’m not sure how easy it is to separate selfishness from selflessness, in the sense that the latter perhaps involves feeling selfish on behalf of another) in that I am a writer, my particular area of fiction bordering on and even overlapping with that of Thomas Disch. Whether I was angry on behalf of Disch or myself, however, the question I was confronted with was did I have the right to be angry, generally or specifically, at how writers are treated by society?

This is not even a new question for me; in fact, it seems central to my life story.

After failing my A-levels (actually I received a U for ‘ungraded’ rather than an F for ‘fail’), it became clear to me that I would not be able to progress to university, and that I would therefore have to decide what it was I was going to do in the world. What I actually thought to myself, perhaps word for word, was, “I want to work with the mentally handicapped.” (I was soon to learn I should use the term “people with learning difficulties”.) I had one interview, and did not pass, because I had neglected to mention that I knew my duties would include helping people go to the toilet. However, about a week later, I received a ‘phone call from the careers office asking if I still wanted to do the same kind of work. This was the beginning of over five years of community theatre work with something called Wolf and Water Arts Company. For five years or more I signed on the dole, wrote poems, began and did not finish novels, recorded songs on a four-track in a band called The Dead Bell, and worked (on a voluntary basis) as actor, stage manager and general dogsbody in various Wolf and Water drama projects, including a film of Macbeth. How I managed to dodge work for five years, I cannot now say, except that I used the same lackadaisical slipperiness that I employed in dodging P.E. at school for a comparable period. To me, work meant the death of the independence I needed in order to create art. But could I be said to be truly independent if I was not earning my living? Was I not just a parasite? My own answer to this question, if anyone asked who was ready for such an answer – and none did – was that I considered the government handout pay for the contribution I was making to society with Wolf and Water. I suppose I still felt a little shaky over this explanation, my insecurity that expressed in the opening lines of Still Ill, by The Smiths: “I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving/England is mine/And it owes me a living/But ask me why and I’ll spit in your eye.” In any case, what was sure was that I could not tolerate having a boss, and signing my life over to a stranger for the sake of a merely financial arrangement.

I am now thirty-six, and my dilemma still has no ultimate solution. Over the years it has become clear that writing is a necessity to me in a way that is perhaps incomprehensible to those who do not write. Whilst being perfectly aware that writing is at very best an uncertain way to make a living, and more often, no way to make a living at all, I have been unable to tolerate, for any length of time, any other means of paying my way. This condition has kept me relatively poor (for someone in the United Kingdom), and, I fully believe, single. The social ladder of career, family and home, in other words, what is generally called a ‘future’, has remained as inaccessible to me as the outer planets of the Solar System, whether by my own choice or by some law of nature, I cannot tell. More than this, I have never yet achieved full financial independence, except for brief periods (teaching English in Taiwan, for instance), and have spent long periods relying on government handouts, scholarships, the generosity of those who know me, and so on. Why? Because my writing does not earn me anything resembling a wage (living or otherwise), and because, unlike some writers, I seem incapable of writing and doing the nine-to-five.

This state of affairs has been for me a source of alternating fury at the world and hatred of self. Where does the blame lie? Am I a parasite, or am I undervalued in a world of philistines? Surely, some might say, no one is obliged to think that any particular writer’s work is wonderful. One cannot legislate in favour of the right to have one’s dreams come true. In a sense, it’s sheer hard luck. Isn’t it?

In the early summer of 2007, I visited a friend in Paris and felt inspired to record the time in a literary diary, much-influenced by the Japanese zuihitsu form of discursive writing. It was, indeed, a very French and a very Japanese piece of writing, what the English-speaking world would probably give the rather dull term, ‘a slice of life’. I sent this to a publisher who had accepted some of my other work, and received a reply to the effect that it was good, but not commercial. Appropriately (as if the piece had decided its own fate), The Paris Notebooks, as I called it, contained a passage dealing very directly with the problem of the unsuccessful writer:

I envied, I said, those around me with careers, homes, life partners, but I knew that I was entirely incapable of sustaining such a lifestyle. When pressed, I managed to admit, “The only thing that comes close to giving my life purpose is writing. But that is something that’s not recognised.”

S--- indicated that she understood, though I felt I had not really expressed myself adequately.

“I mean,” I said, “there’s this attitude that as a writer you deserve nothing, that you should be content with poverty and obscurity. But imagine if people took the same attitude towards, say, doctors: ‘Well, being a doctor is what you want to do. It’s a privilege, so you shouldn’t expect any money or recognition from it. You should stack shelves during the day and practice medicine for nothing in the evenings.’”

It’s no one’s fault, exactly, except that if society at large had different values it would be easier for me to survive. In other words, an unfortunate difference of values between the majority of human beings and myself has rendered me ‘a parasite’ and not a very successful one, at that. They despise me (or would if they had heard of me); I despise them. There doesn’t seem to be much of right or wrong about it. I did not ask to be born. That is my final defence. Can I help it if I’m not exactly what society ordered?

I know a great many writers, and we have learned to be humble; that is, not to expect. It seems as if it is almost considered a duty to be a martyr, and at the same time to despise oneself. I am a parasite. Publishers are doing me a favour even to read anything I have written, and to expect payment is ludicrous. I must at all costs avoid the – legendary? mythical? – arrogance of the writer, and accept all the editor’s judgements and criticisms. The notion of artistic control resting with the artist is naïve. To want financial reward but refuse to write to order is perverse. And so on. Such are the attitudes that are perpetuated.

But imagine that we were demanding such attitudes of a friend. For instance, I have called this article ‘Useful Parasites’, but am I ready to say that Thomas Disch was a parasite (and incidentally, on hearing the news of his death, one pseudonymous Internet commenter, whilst commiserating unconvincingly, also said that his or her sympathy was less than it might have been, because Disch’s apartment was rent-controlled)? Am I ready to be self-deprecating on another’s behalf, self-loathing on another’s behalf, as I was angry on my own and another’s behalf? Under the circumstances, no.

Are there, then, other options, apart from considering writers (and other artists) as parasites? Perhaps, to answer this question, it might help to try and imagine a different world to the one in which Thomas Disch felt he had to put a gun to his head. What kind of world was it to which Disch fell victim? Were the values and mechanisms of that world universal? Inevitable? Overall, just and helpful? I am reminded now of a quote from The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen, a novel dealing with the torments of a doomed writer:

…Lucian was not only engaged in composition; he was plainly rapturous, enthusiastic; Mr. Taylor saw him throw up his hands, and bow his head with strange gesture. The parson began to fear that his son was like some of those mad Frenchmen of whom he had read, young fellows who had a sort of fury of literature, and gave their whole lives to it, spending days over a page, and years over a book, pursuing art as Englishmen pursue money, building up a romance as if it were a business.

Is it, possibly, the English-speaking world that considers writers parasites, and not the entire world? I’m afraid I have not marshalled any vast array of statistical evidence for this; I largely have anecdotal evidence, personal experience, and prejudice. (I do hear, for instance, that in France, any writer may claim money from the government as a kind of wage for one or two days a week to be spent “pursuing art”.) Ultimately, I doubt the division between the Anglosphere and the rest of the world in this matter is that clear, but sense there might be something in it, and, even if it is only relatively true, it would at least give us a sliding scale of attitudes to examine and, hopefully, choose from. At best, it might lead us to hitherto unrealised conclusions.

Let us try a little what if. What if the society that killed Thomas Disch (let us not mince words) underwent some kind of change and decided that there was some value in literature, in art, in dreams and imagination generally? Would that be a bad society? I suspect that most would think that, after all, that doesn’t sound so bad. Some might raise specific, ‘practical’ points, or even philosophical ones. Am I suggesting that artists should be state-funded? My immediate response is to say ‘no’. There’s a paradox here. If we recoil at the idea of state-funded writers, it is because we recognise that the writer must be an independent voice, an outsider, and must even be so perverse in his or her independence as to appear… a parasite. Can you rebel against your sponsor? Perhaps, though, there is something in the idea of state-funding for writers; after all, if it’s true that the government in France supports writers financially, then this does not seem to have done their literature any harm. Quite frankly, French literature pisses on the anaemic social realism of English literature, and the attitude of appreciation and support out of which such a government policy probably springs might have something to do with this. However, it is the attitude more than the policy that I would especially like to see change.

Until now any serious artist has been more-or-less forced to be subversive to some degree, simply because telling the truth (even an inner truth) in a society based on what David Korten, author of The Great Turning, might call ‘the hierarchies of Empire’, is intrinsically subversive. But a serious artist surely also knows that rebellion for its own sake is vacuous and boring. What if there were a world in which there was no need to rebel, in which children were not taught that they are all the same, but were seen to have their own individual qualities and abilities to offer the world, and were valued for them? Utopian? Perhaps.

What is the alternative? On the other side of the argument from this creative Utopia there is all that has been proclaimed sensible and respectable for centuries if not millennia. There is survival. Survival is making money by any means available. One must do this to become financially independent. It is necessary to be independent because no one can support anyone else. We are in competition. To be dependent is to be weak, a parasite, to fall from the grace of respectability and place a burden upon the survival of others. And yet, as we are discovering more and more, survival is not survival, but mass suicide. In order to achieve that respectable, competitive, financial independence, the respectable, sensible survivors are intent upon stripping the world of its resources, exploiting the poor, increasing social inequality, and making the planet generally uninhabitable, first spiritually (since this competitive society is an ugly hell), but ultimately in a very literal, physical sense.

It seems it really is true that we cannot live, cannot even survive, on bread alone.

I would personally like to suggest, therefore, that writing, as one medium through which human beings dream of things other than ‘bread’ and the suicidal survivalism of the nine-to-five, is actually useful in its uselessness, even a necessity.

Perhaps, to some, the idea of nurturing all talent wherever it might be found still smacks of Utopianism. Of course, to counter such a criticism, one might ask the question, is there anything wrong with Utopianism? It seems that, at the beginning of the 21st Century, we stand in need of Utopianism as never before. Competition, and its inevitable conclusion of war, involving an unprecedentedly vast population, and utilising technologies of such power that they might be likened to bazookas in the hands of infants, has surely now become an end game, and whether that end is merely of the game itself, or of a (relatively) stable civilisation and possibly the human race, is for us to decide. Perhaps, however, the less attractive, which is to say the latter, outcomes, are not to be avoided by Utopianism. Perhaps idealism will always fail. Life is messy, and perhaps remedies will be piecemeal and messy, also. With or without Utopia, I would suggest that the writer is a necessity. As a writer I am wary of such statements simply because they make writing sound ‘legitimate’, as if it should be part of an establishment, when the great power of writing, if it has any, seems to me to come from a kind of illegitimacy. Writers should not have the kind of power and authority that corrupts. They should question all things, and especially themselves. Perhaps, then (I say this tentatively), rather than asking for writers to be seen as noble and heroic, I should, after all, ask that we be seen as parasites, but as useful parasites, a necessarily messy part of this messy life.

Professor Weinstock at Tufts-New England Medical Center offers a view of parasites at variance with the orthodoxy. The obsession with hygiene that has taken hold of the world with the Twentieth Century has had unforeseen consequences. The industrialised world has seen an outstanding growth in diseases related to the immune system, including asthma and irritable bowel syndrome, in the past fifty years. During research in the 1990s, Professor Weinstock noted a correlation between the decline of parasite worms and the rise of irritable bowel syndrome. A theory is in place as to why worms might prevent diseases such as asthma (a condition, it seems, virtually unknown in worm-rich, sanitation-poor countries); the parasite stimulates certain “regulatory pathways” in the host in order to cover its own presence, and these pathways also stabilise the immune system. There is also some supporting evidence. In Brazil, for instance, cases have been observed of children taken from their worm-rich environment developing asthma, the condition being cured by their return to that environment. Moreover, Weinstock’s own experiments treating Crohn’s disease with whipworm have had considerable success.

I am not aware of a conclusion to this research as yet, but I mention it here because it provides me with an apt analogy. According to Weinstock, “The first law of parasitology says that the parasite must impart a survival advantage to the host.”

Perhaps Weinstock’s work will lead to people re-thinking their attitude to worms. My own wish is that people (writers included) would re-think their attitude to writers. When the hygienic Puritanism of the work-ethic has purged all writers from the system of human society, through disdain, starvation, apathy, envy, there may well be unforeseen consequences.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Iowa Writers Workshop Lacks Yuugen, by Sasa Zoric Combe and Quentin S. Crisp

To make the words come magically alive, by the power of dadaoism, please click here.

The Iowa Writers Workshop Lacks Yuugen.

The Iowa Writers Workshop lacks yuugen.
Arthur Miller, of course, lacks yuugen.
James Frey, he lacks yuugen, too.
None of these people will ever play the blues.

You win,
And so you lose.
You win,
And so you lose.
You win,
You’ll never play the blues.

Edmund Wilson lacks yuugen.
White Man Novels lack yuugen.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harold Bloom.
None of them have even been in the same room
With yuugen.

You win,
And so you lose.
You win,
And so you lose.
Your words, our bombs, you say,
And so you lose.
You’ll never play the blues.

Justin Isis, lacks the exacts beauty he wants
And he has yuugen as a result.
Thomas Ligotti has a book deal with Virgin
And he has yuugen too.

We win,
You lose.
We win,
You lose.
We have yuugen,
And you only have ‘the rules’.

So many people have stood in my way,
But I am not afraid.
I brush my teeth each day
With new, improved yuugen.

We win,
You lose.
We win,
You lose.
We have yuugen,
And you only have ‘the rules’.

So many people have stood in my way,
But I am not afraid.
I brush my teeth each day
With new, improved yuugen.

33 Ways of Winning at Life

But we shall speak no further of these matters, for the time has come to tell how these adventures, glorified in song like the gilding that makes the passing kalpas splendid, came sadly to their end. Few are the balladeers who can sing the last song of the cycle without tears, and there are even those who say to do so is a failing in the art.

It happened that, weakened from the revels of victory on Traken, and anxious at the cosmic alarum of the cloister bell, Justin Isis and Quentin S. Crisp came to ancient Metebelis Three in search of the fabled blue crystals, by which they hoped to replenish their depleted dancing and business skills before the final reckoning with the Black Guardian. Alas, the reckoning never came. Destiny intervened with long and cruel fingernails, like those of Weng Chi'ang.

While yet foraging for crystals on the plain, vulnerable and sorrowfully unstylish, they were taken by a brutish band of the Eight-Legs' slaves, and brought before the Great One, most mighty and evil of all the Eight-Legs, whose business skills were unsurpassed in all that quadrant of reality. The judgement of the Great One was without mercy, and She rejoiced in her quivering, slimy heart that two talented opponents had thus fallen so low. By Her decree they were sent to the lowest of the larder caverns, where a loathsome agitation of menial Eight-Legs bound the two anti-life writers in a tensile silk stronger than steel, gloatingly hissing, and drooling and rubbing the while their spinnerets in semi-sexual excitement.

Fastened to opposite walls of the cheerless cave, and physically paralysed by the obscene juices with which the fangs of the Eight-Legs had injected them, they knew that their fate was fixed. When human slaves or Eight-Legs came to ensure they were yet alive enough to taunt, they demanded to know what was intended for them, but ever were greeted with laughter. "This is a larder, is it not?" hissed one nefarious arachnid, and declined to show the mercy of revealing how and when the Great One meant to dispose of them.

Low in spirits as they were, they determined to pass their last hours by composing a wonderful document under the title of '33 Ways of Winning at Life'. It was the last true classic of dadaoist literature to be bequeathed the universe, and afterwards it was declared that dadaoism had come to its decadent phase. To this day, writers of unselfconsciously experimental prose who hear the distant murmurings of yuugen and know the sparkling of the Gold of Inner Space, declare '33 Ways of Winning at Life' the most splendid treasure to be fashioned from that Gold since before the pacifying of Traken. For that we must thank the single human slave to show taste and mercy, who, though he dared not do more, smuggled the document from that cave, keeping it safe in his hovel until the Armada of the Ghost of Magibon came finally to liberate Metebelis Three from the arachnid tyranny. Chomu guards each of the 33 Ways with unyielding stubbornness and devotion, and rejoices in its duty of revealing them again, at intervals, in this humble quarter of reality.

The first of the Ways will be made known soon.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Sea and Seagulls, By Kaneko Misuzu, Sasa Zoric Combe and Quentin S. Crisp

To make the words come eerily alive, please click this link.

Sea and Seagulls

I thought that the sea was blue.
I thought that the seagulls were white.

But now that I look at them, the sea
And the wings of the seagulls, too, are both grey.

I thought that everyone knew,
But it was all lies.

Everyone knows the sky is blue.
Everyone knows the snow is white.
Everyone sees. They know.
But maybe that's a lie, too.

Princess Kaguya, by Kaneko Misuzu, Sasa Zoric Combe and Quentin S. Crisp

Please click on this link to make the words come alive.

Princess Kaguya

The princess born
Out of the bamboo
Went back home
To the moon

The princess went back home
To the moon,
Looked down each night
From the moon and cried.

Sad for the house she grew up in,
She cried.
Sorry for the stupid people down there, down there,
She cried.

Night after night, each the same
She cried.
The world below
It swiftly changed.

The old man and woman who loved her,
They died.
The stupid people down there, down there,
They forgot all about her.

The Mask of Evil

The Mask Of Evil

On my wall hangs a Japanese carving,
The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer.
Sympathetically I observe
The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating
What a strain it is to be evil.

Bertolt Brecht

Justin Isis - I Hunger for Flesh But This Cake Will Do

Friday, October 3, 2008

Tristan Disappointed

Each sickened moment of my life has been
A waiting lover's deathbed
To which comes always only
A ship with sails of black
That snap and rumble with the starving air
Like hollow cheeks.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Justin Isis - I Attain to the Level of Fucking Your Basic Hairdresser, Etc.

The man and woman had lived on the island for as long as they could remember. It was their job to tend the flowers in the garden of precious metals, to clean the rust from the iron orchids and fill the ceramic vases with brittle copper roses. The island was small, but the man and woman never went wanting for anything.

They had always known that they were not real people. No blood beat in their veins, and their glass eyes shone only with the reflected glow of the electric sun. The man's golden hair never wavered in the wind, and the woman's shining silver skin was perfectly cold. But they had always loved each other. When they finished their work for the day, they retreated to the edge of the island and sat on the cliff overlooking the beach, watching the waves of acid lapping the shore. Sometimes they sat in the shade of a gemstone tree, the ground beneath it scattered with sapphires. At night they slept in each other's arms in a field of steel lilies.

The man had taken to watching the sky, and had noticed that the sun was growing weaker. Usually it pulsed strongest at midday and dimmed at night to a soft luminosity. At noon, at its highest intensity, it cast high-contrast shadows over the brass tulips and a nacreous gleam upon the pearl-studded stalks of the platinum daffodils. But now the light dimmed even during the day. The man and woman knew the sun's routine by heart, and the recent changes disturbed them. They resolved to question the Hermit when he returned to them in midsummer.

Everything the man and woman knew about the world had been taught to them by the Hermit. He was an old man who came to them once a year, sailing across the sea of acid in his lacquered hardwood ship. The Hermit had showed them how to care for the flowers, how to arrange them to produce the greatest beauty, how to leave them on the beach as an offering to the gods. And he had told them of the other world, Heaven, with its green fields, and people of flesh and blood, and other mysteries.

The man and woman felt certain that the Hermit would help them. But as the months went by, it became clear that the sun was dying. As they walked together in the garden they often felt the sky growing dark above them. Sometimes the light would fade entirely, leaving them stranded in darkness for hours. And the sun's decay spread to the flowers: when the man went to the orchids he found them furred with rust like a fungus, and the copper roses crumbled in his hand. After one long period without light, the orange frost spread even to the flowers in the garden of precious metals. The man and woman knew that gold and platinum were not supposed to rust, but it seemed to them that if the light could fade, anything was possible. Before the failing of the sun, they had known no change.

When darkness fell the woman rushed to the man's side, and they sat and waited for the light to return. At these times they were afraid, but as they drew close to each other they knew they could wait forever. If they stayed together, there was nothing to fear.

At the approach of midsummer the man and woman set out for the beach with a basket of flowers. They had spent the day gathering the last few untainted roses from the garden of precious metals and had arranged them in the fashion that signalled welcome. When they had laid them out on the beach, they walked along the shore and scanned the horizon for signs of the Hermit's ship. Towards noon the man sighted a dot moving towards them over the waves, and they moved closer to watch, careful not to tread too close to the acid tide. Eventually the ship pulled in and the Hermit debarked. He did not greet them at first, but moved to inspect the basket of flowers. Taking one of the copper roses in hand, he held it up to the sun and inspected the way the light reflected off its petals. Then he put it back in place, lifted up the basket and carried it out to shore. Gently he floated it onto the waves, letting them claim it. The flowers dissolved soundlessly. The Hermit turned back to look at the man and woman. They bowed, and he asked the question he always asked them.

-Are you happy here?

-Yes, they answered in unison.

The man thought how to broach the problem of the sun. He did not want the Hermit to think that it had resulted from anything they had done. As far as he knew, he and the woman had performed their duties to the best of their ability. But he did not have to say anything. As the three of them walked across the beach, they felt the light overhead fading. Before long darkness settled over the island, though it was just past noon.

-The sun is dying, the woman said.

The Hermit's expression remained neutral.

-Yes. I knew that it would when I built it. It's lasted longer than I expected.

-What will happen when the sun dies?

-I expect that the garden will die too. But you don't have to worry, I've prepared a ship to take you to Heaven. You can come and live with me there.

The woman came over and stood next to the Hermit.

-What is it like in Heaven? she asked.

-It's more beautiful than you can imagine. There are plants that grow from the earth and flower and die within a single season. There are men and women who live for a century or less, with coursing blood and warm skin. There is a different kind of sun that rises in the east and sets in the west.

The woman looked troubled.

-But isn't it frightening that everything dies so quickly?

-You might think so at first. But it's only because you've lived so long. In Heaven, everyone is used to a shorter life.

The woman nodded at the Hermit's words, but said nothing.

At length the Hermit announced that he was leaving the island for now, but would return tomorrow in his ship to carry the three of them across the sea of acid to the shores of Heaven. As he stepped aboard the ship and made ready to depart, the sun returned to its full intensity.

The man and woman watched the ship disappear over the horizon. When it had gone, they turned and walked back up to the garden. Just for a moment they felt the sun flicker, as if it had been struck by a sudden convulsion.

They spent the rest of the afternoon gathering untarnished flowers for the Hermit's arrival the next day. There were scarcely enough left to form an arrangement. The roses had all but rotted, and most of the orchids crumbled at the touch. Once the man found what he thought to be a perfect silver rose, but when he turned it over he saw a sickly greenish tint spreading across its petals. Its usual fragrance was gone; instead of the sharp scent of silver, there was only a dull metallic odor, the dull greenish stench of mineral decay.

With only a few flowers gathered in their baskets, they returned to the cliff overlooking the beach. The cliff face sloped down to a grouping of rocks that soon gave way to sand. The man and woman sat down next to each other and placed their baskets beside them. From here, they could make out the little cove where the Hermit's ship had landed.

The sun stuttered. The wind sang over the sands. For a long time the man could think of nothing to say. Eventually the woman broke the silence.

-I feel afraid, she said.

-What is there to fear? the man asked.

The woman took his hand, and her lovely unchanging glass eyes rolled towards him.

-The Hermit told us that the people of flesh and blood only live for a century. And what about the lovers in Heaven? Does their love only last for a season, like the flowers?

-Perhaps it fades as quickly.

-Then I don't want to go there.

The man lifted her hand up and examined it in the light of the electric sun. Her nails were chips of jade inset in slender silver fingers. He pressed them to his cheek as he stared out to the sea.

-I once thought that the Ideals were everything. I wanted to please the Hermit, and I spent hours talking with him, discussing the Ideals and the Greater Mysteries. But now I feel that I only want to keep living with you forever in the garden.

The woman's hand moved gently across his cheek and came to rest on his shoulder.

-I feel the same, she said.

They sat for a while in silence, and a resolution grew between them. They did not need to speak it aloud, but both of them knew they would not leave the island.

When dusk fell, the sun began its regular program of reduced intensity. But now its dimness was punctuated by flareups of light, sharp stabs like the last beats of a dying heart. The man and woman walked hand-in-hand down to the beach as the light broke around them. In its irregular flashes, they caught sudden frozen views of each other, of the man's golden hair and the woman's silver skin.

They crossed to the shore and saw before them the sterile surface of the waves, transparent like molten glass. The man turned to the woman and spoke.

-We will never bleed, or grow old, or attain any of the other Ideals. But we should not be afraid, because we can never remember having lived. What does it matter for us to die, if we no longer desire Heaven?

-I have no dreams, the woman said. I have never felt able to dream. And so I feel undeserving of everything, since I feel as if I can never repay my happiness.

The man looked at her, as if searching her features for some hidden meaning. Then he turned back to the sea, and as he looked at the movement of the waves, a sadness fell upon him. But when he looked at the woman again, he did not feel sad. He said:

-You remember the night a hundred years ago, when we sat speaking with the Hermit under the sapphire trees. At that time, I often dreamed of the Mysteries.

They came within range of the tide. When they felt the acid lapping at their feet, they stopped and turned to each other.

-I love you, the man said.

-I love you, the woman answered.

Still holding hands, they walked into the sea.

At first they felt only a rising warmth, as if they were stepping into a pool of liquid light. Slowly it spread from their feet up through their legs to the rest of their bodies, caressing their polished flesh. Only when it reached the line of their lips did they feel anything resembling pain, and even then it was only a higher intensity, an ecstasy, like looking at the sun. The sea rushed in through their mouths, their eyes, filling them from the inside, their hands still linked. As the warmth dissolved their other senses they were left with only touch, only the feel of each other's hands.

A strange sensation came over them. They felt as if, rather than the sea entering them, they were passing out of themselves and into it. They tried to focus on the feeling of their linked hands, but it was difficult to remember exactly where they linked, difficult to remember anything. Their awareness faded, lost in the greater warmth.

The man and woman's iron organs corroded slowly. Their polished flesh took longer; for hours afterward, two traceries of silver and gold lingered beneath the waves like sunken statues. Then they dissolved, first breaking into fragments. With their arms eaten away, their clasped hands floated together like a pair of glittering fish. As they drifted down to the sand, the sea picked them apart particle by particle.

The stillness of night settled over the waves. The last light faded, dimmed to black. But the sky did not stay black for long. A brownness like late autumn leaves spread from the dead sun, a color past death, as if the darkness were rusting. Slowly it filled the sky and crept over the island, until it covered the beach, and the cliff, and the garden of precious metals.