Before He Was Cool (I/I)

Between the Earth and the Moon there is a world made entirely out of firewood. It’s five hundred miles wide and ten miles deep. It has lots of firewood animals and firewood cities and firewood people. It is an innocent world, a young world, but it is no paradise. It is a savage jungle.

Martin is born on March 22, 1995, at 6:38 pm, on a night of screams and fire, on a world above the world.

The first thing he ever sees is the monster’s face.

Martin ducks instinctively. He throws his forearms before his eyes. But then there’s a shock of recognition, and a wave of relief, and he laughs.

“Why, this is just a firewood monster,” he says.

The firewood monster adjusts its lacquered tie. “You be-long to me,” it says. Its voice is vaguely animatronic.

There’s the sound of explosions in the distance.

Martin’s in a little room made of firewood. It’s like the monster’s house. There’s a spider, which is a real spider. Everything else is made out of firewood: the belt, the archaic aversion therapy devices, the couch, the bookshelves, and the bottles of pills. There are weird white spots here and there on the wood, like some birch got mixed in with the rest.

“You be-long to me,” says the firewood monster again.

The whole world creaks. A crack runs through the floor, stopping short of Martin’s feet.

Martin grins wryly at the firewood monster, gives him a little wave, and opens the door. He steps out onto the street. Death looks him in the face. Death has a scythe. Death has a cloak. Death is a skeleton.

Martin almost steps back and slams the door. But then he understands, and he laughs.

“Why, this is just a firewood Death,” he says.

“Solve prob-lems through ex-tinc-tion!” declares the firewood Death. He sweeps his scythe at Martin. Martin ducks under it and kicks Death’s knee. Death’s knee cracks. Martin scrambles away.

“Even a firewood Death is dangerous!” he realizes. So he runs. He ducks into a barber shop. There’s a spinning red and white log outside, and a ghastly barber inside.

“I’ll shave your hair in-to a bowl cut!” the barber declares.

“You’re just a firewood barber,” says Martin nervously. He’s a thirteen-year-old boy. He doesn’t want a bowl cut, but he doesn’t want to fight a ghastly barber, either!

Then he sees the mirror.

His soul knows its truths. You are nothing, it tells him. A firewood boy. An isn’t.

“Oh, God,” Martin says.

A great shadow moves along the street. There are firewood screams.

Martin sits down. He covers his face with his hands. He thinks.

“I can-not shave your hair on the floor,” says the firewood barber. “There are al-read-y sha-vings on the floor.”

“I’m thinking,” says Martin.

The barber processes this unusual situation.

“Do not o-ver-heat your brain,” the firewood barber cautions.

“I’ll overheat if I want to,” says Martin, sulkily. But he doesn’t. Then he stands up. “Will you bless me?” he asks.

The barber is nonplussed and ghastly. “I am a bar-ber,” it says.

“I have to do something really hard,” says Martin. “And you’re the only person I know.”

The firewood barber hesitates. It is horrid and stodgy and animatronic and it is not a priest. “I would pre-fer,” it says, “to shave your hair.”

“You’re the only person I know.”

So the barber nods. It puts down its shaver and its bowl for the first time in its long existence. It takes Martin’s arms, one in each clumsy hand.

“Bless you,” it says. “Be well. Good luck. En-dure.”

Martin is a thirteen-year-old boy. He does not let his tears show. He does not hug the barber. He simply walks out. He finds the gate to the Underworld. He goes in.

His soul knows its truths. You are nothing, it tells him. A firewood boy. An isn’t.

It’s his destiny. It’s the law of his nature. It’s his dharma. It’s the truth of his soul that he can’t escape. But then there’s a realization and a decision and a wave of defiance and he laughs.

“Why,” he says, “you’re just a firewood dharma.”

Martin puts it aside and he descends.