OUTCOME, n. A particular type of disappointment. By the kind of intelligence that sees in an exception a proof of the rule the wisdom of an act is judged by the outcome, the result. This is immortal nonsense; the wisdom of an act is to be judged by the light that the doer had when he performed it. —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1911.
Dear Giant Squid:
It's been a MONTH! PLEASE just ANSWER MY QUESTION: I read a thing that made me think I might be spending too much time online. How can I tell if I should cut back on reading Internet news sites and editorial columnists?
When I left off last week, I had just explained how Poncho the Villa, the Deathless Quasi-Spirit of Ambrose Bierce, and I had come to be trapped in a cave while Villa's soldiers were slaughtered by stoney Tarahumara indians and their disturbing horde of songbird-wingéd garter snakes and flying scorpions. As we bravely cowered in that cave, Bierce used a crank-operated telephone to call forth the Nahuatl psychopomp Xolotl who, according to Bierce, would only be too happy to take us into the Underworld and guide us to the City of the Dead, Mictlan, so that he, Bierce, might negotiate with its king, Mictlantecuhtli, and sort out his unseemly, and tedious, deathlessness.
Xolotl peered up at us. Although I had expected an Aztec death-guide to look much as the Tarahumara—a stolid figure of stone blocks, equally at home in an anthropological display or a woman's bodice-ripping manual, with birdwings and snakes pinwheeling around his rippling biceps—he was, in fact, a shaggy haired chihuahua, though somewhat bigger. And he appeared also to have arms and legs as a man. And his gaze was very discerning, and caused me to doubt in the legitimacy of my qualifications. "What do you want?" the little dog asked, his voice boomingly fit to the god I had expected to see.
The Tarahumara indians were quickly encroaching, and I was only able to hold them at bay with the occasional hurled stone, boulder, or lizard.
"I'm dead." Bierce allowed his flesh to fade to its supernatural alabaster, his eyes to sink and grow black, his gums to recede and his hair to fall in a clump on the stone floor of the cave.
"I can see that," Xolotl nodded. "But, those two aren't; only the dead can pass."
Scorpions had proceeded to fill the room, hovering on their little vibrating wings. Villa fired six shots from his six gun, downing zero insects (he was, as ever, an absolutely abominable shot), then threw the gun (likewise causing no loss of scorpions), then set to batting at them with his sombrero. I attempted to release a poisonous gas, but this had the ill-intended side-effect of partly paralyzing Villa, who gagged and bugged his simian eyes at me, throat gripped with his hands, until I ventilated the space with one of my motor's cooling fans. Serendipitously, I noted that if the fan was tuned up to a high speed, and if I lurched and thrust with precise alacrity, I could suck scorpions through it. The scorpions thus en-sucked were puréed, resulting on a fluid almost entirely dissimilar to tomato's soup. When the fan began to smoke and whine after the first several scorpions were destroyed, I considered the possibility that this usage might be counter-indicated by my suit's service manual, which I had mislaid somewhere along our journey.
"They're both open minded," Bierce assured the sidereal chihuahua, waving a withered hand amiably at the two of us, I lurching about in my overheating antibathysphere while trying to surgically chop poisonous flying scorpions, while Pancho Villa, gagging still and red as a chipotle salsa, beat at the remaining airborne arachnids with his festive cap.
"Do me quick, perrito dio," Villa gasped, the scorpions over-taking his form, relentlessly jabbing him with their stingers. He began to swell immediately, "Chingado dog-piss Christ in a desert, do me quick, do me quick, do me quick!" Villa rolled and squirmed on the ground. Robbed of language by his agony, he was reduced to a high, wheezing scream, like a small girl fed into a running newspaper press—if such screams could be heard over the rumble of the press, which, I attest, they cannot.
It dawned on me, watching Xolotl shake his head very slightly while inspecting Villa's greasy shirt, that Xolotl was most disconcerting for one reason: Though he looked exactly like a shaggy chihuahua, he also, at the same time, looked like a small German man in a three-piece suit.
Xolotl cocked his head at me in that fashion very common among both dogs and small Germans—a cock at once so very adorable and snide that I wanted nothing more than to devour him—and with that, we three creatures of the upspace world burst into incandescent flames, leaving ashy bones (in the case of Villa), a noxious puff of green gas (in the case of Bierce), and a smoking steel hulk (for my lonely part) in our wake.
Xolotl expanded from Dog, to Man, to God, taking on the appearance of a night sky. Or perhaps he came to be known by my heart as the great expanse of night. Or perhaps it is best to say that when I gazed upon him with the astral vestiges of my optically perfect eye, when I considered him existentially by way of the eye of my luminous soul, I knew him expansively and totally, he being deep like black space, and sprinkled with whimsical starlight. He no longer looked like a Mexi-Deutschlandic canine banker, though he contained that and many other things within his nature, and if I considered him in the correct fashion, he would re-assume that tender quality.
Simply put, he participated in the expansive unity of Creation to a greater degree than I, and yet I felt no ire toward him on this account.
We three stood on the mesa for a time, beneath the dog-banker's velvety expanse.
Bierce was young, as I had known him long ago. He wore his beard in a conservative, well-styled Van Dyck, and he was garbed in the blue woolen uniform of an infantryman of the Army of the Republic. The remains of a noose sat about his neck.
Pancho Villa lay in the dust, perfectly relaxed, and garbed like a well-kept mariachi; the bullets in his bandolero were well-polished, and his sombrero was again refreshingly free of scorpion ichor.
For my own part, I found I was very pleasantly floating in the air, though it moved as water does. And I was free of my creaking, clanking, suit. I was a squid among men. I stretched my full length and it was quite glorious.
Villa rose, dusting himself off. "Heeeeeey!" he admired his jacket, "This ain't bad. Also, I got no chingado escorpiones all over my ass. I get to keep the suit?"
No answer was forthcoming. Bierce cleared his throat, and then did so a second time.
"I have come to settle a debt," Bierce said to the chihuahua in the sky.
The dog's eye was Venus, and he winked to us. "I know," he nodded.
"I don't suppose you could direct us to Mictlantecuhtli?"
"The path," Xolotol rumbled, "Is arduous. You shall cross a deep river, then pass between two mountains which are joined together like a saddle, then climb an obsidian mountain—"
"To Hell with that," Villa shouted back, "We gonna climb two mountains so to climb a third one made of black glass? We don't even have a mule, and these fancy guitarrista boots ain't for walking!"
"—then pass through icy winds that cut like a knife, then pass under the waving flags of the dead, then be pierced by arrows—"
Villa waved his hand, making a dismissive buzz with his lips. I myself was beginning to suspect we were being dragged into a Shaggy Dog Chase.
". . . then pass among wild beasts which eat human hearts—"
Villa scowled, and I could not help but laugh, seeing as I had two hearts more than either of my companions, and none of them were human.
". . . then pass over a narrow path of stone and then, only then, you will reach the very center of Mictlan, and stand at the foot of the base of the thousand-step ziggurat on whose altar peak your soul might find rest at the feet of Mictlantecuhtli."
"That all sounds more than a bit tedious," Bierce opined. "Perhaps you could offer us advice on a few shortcuts?" He smiled with all of the charm he could muster, which was substantial.
The sky laughed, a rumble like a volcano falling from a great height.
"Certainly," Xolotl choked out through his giggles, "I might. But I shall not."
"To Hell with you!" Villa shouted, and fired twice into the sky. Xolotol laughed again—I suppose implying that Villa could not even hit the broad-side of an astral Aztec god-dog—and then trailed into silence, and did not speak to us again.
Bierce looked at the dust of the mesa, sighed, shook his head, and we began our decent. In order to evade the sort of tedium that Aztec gods seem to embrace, let us suffice it to say that the path to Mictlan was quite a bit less tedious than Xolotl had made it sound: the river was tepid and calm, and both the saddle-back mountain and obsidian spire significantly smaller than he had implied. Perhaps he had judged their size as a dog and not as a man? That said, the flags of the dead were significantly more terrifying than one would generally assume, the arrows precisely as unpleasant as one might expect, and the wild beasts interested in the hearts of men and squid alike, without discrimination. All said, the entire ordeal was quite nearly the least pleasant 86 minutes of my entire life—a point of fair distinction.
Mictlantecuhtli crouched at the top of his ziggurat, tending a small fire. I was satisfied to note that he looked a great deal more as I had expected Xolotol would. Hearing our panting, he craned about to look at us, his naked eyeballs peering out of his leering, fleshless skull, then looked back to his fire.
"You have taken so very long, Bierce," he said plangently. "You were due here years ago. Sixty years, almost to the day, by the reckoning of Christians such as yourself."
"Hey," Villa turned to face Bierce, "We done a lot of shit to get here; and this chingada fuerza negra ain't even gonna stand up and greet us proper?" Mictlantecuhtli then stood, and his head was in the clouds, and the sound of his breath was like the earth itself was breathing in quick pants. Villa shrank back a step, but Bierce continued unabated.
"Hatred, my dear Death God, is a sentiment appropriate to the occasion of another's superiority." He cracked his knuckles and shrugged off his sack coat. As it dropped it from his hands, the coat spun to dust and then to light, falling through the flat stone pinnacle of the ziggurat—for it was both more real and far false than the firm floor we stood upon—and eventually drifted back in time, scattering itself above the woods of Tunguska in a mighty blast. "After your curse upon me, I hated you, Mictlantecuhtli." Bierce spat and his spittle fell through the floor and rained upon the earth decades later, mountains shattering under the burden. "I have done as you commanded all those years ago, if I am tardy in my arrival I apologize: death tends to slow the feet worse than any fetters."
Mictlantecuhtli stirred in his heights; passing comets changed their courses. "Bierce, have you brought a heathen and a learned man?"
Ambrose grinned the smile of a confidence man and strode towards Villa. "Here is a sad and benighted creature who has the folly to worship something that he can see and feel. He is the heathen you require and an enemy of mine own to boot."
Villa frowned, "Maybe we don't get along all the time, but enem—"Mictlantecuhtli sighed and the cavern that was the world shook. A modest, stained burlap sack was at Pancho Villa's feet. "Take this, Heathen, but never look inside. These bones must be carried far from here, away from this land of Mexico, and salted and burned. Say nothing as you burn them and neither gaze upon the flames or inhale the smoke."
Villa sneered at the darkening sky. "And if I don't, hijo de puta grandote? If I look in your sack and make me a crazy xylophone of your bones, what then? You gonna make me more dead? Or dead again? Being dead, I got better boots and a nicer suit than I had bein' generalissimo of all of the North."
Bierce, sensing his cue, stepped towards Villa and settled an arm about his neck like a lazy python. "I can promise you two boons, you savage cur." Bierce held up his index finger, "Firstly I promise that history shall always know your name and speak of you in awe and fear. For history is an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools. And what fool is greater than you? And which man is more unimportant? And yet do this thing and all the world will know you." Bierce held up a thumb to elaborate his second point, forming a pantomimed revolver. "Secondly I promise that all you aim at you shall hit, after you burn these bones."
Villa thought upon the matter, chewing the ends of his moustaches, but did not think long: He hefted the sack to his shoulder, winked at Bierce, tipped his hat to Mictlantecuhtli, and began to track down the ziggurat steps.
As he left the blazing eyes of Bierce and Mictlantecuhtli fell upon me. In a voice like the hunting song of the dreadful humpback, Mictlantecuhtli asked, "Is this the learned man, Bierce?"
The man who was a writer, soldier, columnist, traveler and undead thing nodded.
"MAN," I sputtered, "THAT IS A FINE ACCUSATION TO LEVEL AT A BOON COMPANION WHO HAS TOLERATED YOUR IDIOSYNCRATIC JAUNTS FOR SO VERY LONG . . . "
I am chagrined to admit that I went on in this fashion for a long while, Mictlantecuhtli and Bierce watching me like doting grandparents tolerated a toddler's tantrum. Bierce's shoulders sank with exhaustion, and Mictlantecuhtli ran a large, soothing hand from his shoulder, down his back. Finally, I ran out of steam.
"We need the service of one so literate as yourself," Mictlantecuhtli explained, "To disseminate the new truth: Mictlantecuhtli has found his rest, and Bierce is ascendant upon the pinnacle of Mictlan, as the Devourer of the Dead."
This I swore to do and, although it is some four-score years tardy, what you read now constitutes my making good upon that solemn promise.
Descending the ziggurat, I found Villa waiting for me.
"You seen that bastard Mictlantecuhtli?" He asked, "He was easy nine-feet tall. Easy." I agreed it was so. He hefted the sack of bones onto his shoulder, and looked to the dust at his toes, addressing an imaginary Bierce: "Profesor," he sighed, "I ain't gonna miss you a damn bit, gringo." Villa hawked back deep on his throat, and spat an irregular yellow lump into the imagined face in the dust. "I'd pissed on you," he said regretfully, "but I ain't had no piss since we came down the guts of that tunnel with the little dog-god." He turned to watch me floated down the last few steps of the ziggurat, limned against the eternal, fiery scarlet of the End of Days. "How'd it go up there?" He asked, "That big bastard tear Bierce a new ano?"
"WHEN I LEFT THEY WERE EMBRACING," I explained, choosing to omit that I had glimpsed them kissing just before the top step of the ziggurat fully occluded my vantage.
Villa blinked, then shrugged. "Chingada madre de dios," he turned and began walking, "Whatever. I'm gonna piss like a half-dozen bulls standing over a matador's daughter when I get back to being alive, eh?" I nodded noncommittally. Villa adjusted the sack of bones again, and they remains clattered and talked among themselves. "You figure we gotta go like we came?" he asked, and I told him it was likely the case. "Chingada perrito dio," he muttered, and walked on down the narrow stone path. And I followed.
In closing, I presume the lesson is self-evident, but to be sure: Beware of all advice columnists and writers of opinion; while they proceed to persuade you that white is in fact white, they are often busy on some dark quest of their own and have no real concern for you or your well-being. Make your own path, cast your own spells, and beware the bridge at Owl Creek.
Your Giant Squid
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Copyright (c) 2000, 2004, David Erik Nelson, Fritz Swanson, Morgan Johnson