Archive for April, 2023


It’s All Bunk, Again

This is about the current AI hypestorm, and has intentionally a rather extreme title. :) For some values of “it”, it is not all bunk; there are lots of cool and funny and convenient things that AI in general, and that large auto-regressive language models specifically (“LLMs”), can do. Various tasks and jobs will become quicker and easier, and there will be some new fun things to do.

But when it comes to all the breathless claims that “ChatGPT / Bard / FooLLM will completely change the way that we X”, for virtually any value of X that isn’t “produce reams of plausible-looking text whose quality doesn’t matter much”, it’s all bunk. Something describable as AI may eventually do that (I’ll even say that it will eventually do that if everything else survives long enough), but the LLM technology that we have now, even if made better / faster / stronger, will not.

This is a prediction, and it could be wrong, but I’m willing to make the claim without much in the way of caveats. There have been various times in the past where I’ve muttered to myself that a thing was bunk, but not said it on the record so I couldn’t point back at it and say “ha, I toldja so!” once it turned out to be, indeed, bunk. So this time I’m putting it on the record.

It’s commonly observed that when reading a media account of some technical field that one knows something about, one often thinks “hey, that’s completely wrong!”. And that this suggests that the media is also completely wrong in technical fields that one doesn’t know enough about to notice the errors.

It seems likely that this applies to media stories like “ChatGPT / etc will completely change the way that we X” as much as to any other, so given that we know something about, say, software development, we could look at, say, “ChatGPT spells the end of coding as we know it” (also on Yahoo News).

And it’s bunk. The headline is sort of the usual cringey headline, in that it exaggerates the most extreme part of the article for the clickz, but the article does say inter alia, “For better or worse, the rise of AI effectively marks the end of coding as we know it,” which is close. “[T]he rise of AI” is considerably more general than “ChatGPT”, and “effectively” is a nice broad weasel-word, so the actual sentence is fuzzier and more defensible than the headline, but it’s still bunk. As is for instance the quote immediately preceding that statement, in which someone with a deep financial interest in the subject says “there’s no programmers in five years,” and various other breathless things referenced by the piece.

Bunk. Bilge. Bollocks.

A drawing in warm colors of a two-level bunk-bed in a pleasantly messy room with lots of shelves and things hanging on the walls and so on.
Not this bunk; this is a nice bunk.

The thing is that in software development, as I suspect in a whole lot of other domains, LLMs are in fact quite good at doing things that we’ve come to rely on as convenient proxies for important skills. What we ask software engineering job applicants to do in forty-five minutes to an hour isn’t really all that much like what they will be doing if we hire them, but it’s the best proxy we’ve been able to come up with that fits in that time-scale. In other fields, doing the questions on the bar exam isn’t much at all like what real lawyers do in practice, but it’s the best proxy that we as a society have been able to come up with.

Now we have a situation where there are pieces of software that can do a plausible job at various of these proxies (although even here some of the breathless reports are frankly bunk), but that absolutely cannot do the real jobs that we have gotten used to using them as proxies for. And this is driving people to all sorts of false conclusions about the real jobs.

In the software field specifically, what we ask candidates to do, and what various LLMs have shown various levels of skill at doing, is to take a description of a programming task and write code that does that, where the task is (ideally) one that they haven’t seen before, and also is simple enough to write code to accomplish within forty-five minutes to an hour.

Is this what actual professional (or even hobbyist) coders do? I think it’s safe to answer that with an unqualified No: this is not what human coders actually do. Once in awhile one might have a novel thing to do, and do it in forty-five minutes to an hour, but it doesn’t just fall from the sky into one’s lap; it comes up as part of some larger cohesive project that one is working on. Even if one is the most junior coder on a team, doing mostly what the more senior members ask you to do, that is essentially never “please spend an hour and write code to reverse a linked list for me”; that just isn’t how it works.

Actual working coders understand to a greater or lesser degree an overall thing that they are working on, what it does for a user, how it is supposed to work, how to debug it when it fails, at least the basic functional and nonfunctional requirements of the overall system as well as their part, the quirks it has, what libraries are available for them to call, what other members of the team are doing, and so on. And the overall thing isn’t a single function that reverses a linked list, or says whether one string is contained within another.

Let’s look at one of the motivating examples in our first example article. “Adam Hughes, a software developer,” it says, “… signed up for an account and asked ChatGPT to program a modified tic-tac-toe game, giving the game some weird rules so the bot couldn’t just copy code that another human had already written. Then he quizzed it with the kind of coding questions he asks candidates in job interviews….”, and voila, “Hughes found that ChatGPT came back with something he wasn’t prepared for: very good code.”

Unfortunately, this is the only place I can find this impressive feat mentioned. Adam Hughes’ own writeup of how “ChatGPT Will Replace Programmers Within 10 Years” doesn’t talk about this modified tic-tac-toe game at all, or the “coding questions” or the “very good code” referenced in the article. So I’m not sure what’s going on there.

The claim in Hughes’ article title is also bunk (which is to say, I disagree), while we’re on the subject. There is no reason to believe that any LLM will be able to do what’s listed there under “Phase 2” or later. Well, actually, the wording is odd: it says that the AI will “be able to make project-wide suggestions like: Rebuild this Angular 6 project in the latest version of React; Add 100% unit-test coverage to the project…”. I mean, sure, maybe the AI could suggest those things; but in order to predict that programmers are going to be replaced, the author presumably means that the AI will be able to do those things? A bit puzzling.

(Also puzzling is the title of that article; on the page itself the title is currently the nicely ambiguous “ChatGPT Will Replace Programmers Within 10 Years,” which is in some sense true if it somehow replaces exactly two (2) programmers by 2033. But the HTML of the page has a title-tag with the content “ChatGPT Will Replace All Programmers”, which is a much stronger claim about how many will be replaced (all of them!) but leaves out the timescale; heh. The actual text of the article predicts 95% job loss in 5-10 years, and 99% in “10+” years, so it’s sort of the most extreme combination of the two headlines (and it’s wrong).)

Hughes has been updating the beginning of that post with a list of things that are supposed to convince doubters that indeed ChatGPT Will Replace (All) Programmers Within 10 Years; the most recent is a video that, he says, shows “fully autonomous AI agents created python code. Literally replacing programmers. Not that smart, but it shows the how possible this is TODAY, well ahead of schedule.” (Bold in original.)

The video is, to be blunt, kinda silly. This guy has a system where two ChatGPTs talk to each other, and are in some way able to search the web and so on. He asks them to make code to display an input box, and they do that, at the level that one would have found with a web search for “input box python code example”. He asks them to make code to play tic-tac-toe (again, code that is all over the web), and they claim to do that, but it doesn’t seem to work (it displays the UI, but doesn’t make correct moves or reliably detect a win). Undeterred, he says “that worked”, and continues on (lols).

He asks them to “create a new strange simple game”, and they create a “guess the number in ten guesses” with high / low feedback game (not exactly “strange”, and again code that is all over the web), and it might work (aside from the apparently nonfunctional “difficulty” pulldown) but he doesn’t look inside or test it enough to be sure. And so on. And then for like the last 40% of the video he shows off “AutoGPT”, which appears just to fantasize to itself in text and non-functional pretend API calls about how it might create an AGI by linking together GPT instances in various vaguely-described ways, and then gets into a loop of repeating the same thing over and over.

What might Adam Hughes mean when he describes this as “fully autonomous” (given that it’s just doing exactly what it’s told) or as “Literally replacing programmers“? I’m not sure. Is there a programmer somewhere who is going to be replaced by a system that can’t write a tic-tac-toe game, or that can fantasize about creating AGI? I sort of doubt it.

One could cynically note at this point that the Business Insider / Yahoo News article has no doubt gotten lots of clicks and therefore ad sales, that the Hughes piece is a subscriber-only piece on Medium that ends “Stay tuned for my follow-up article about how to prepare for and thrive in this brave new world,” and that if you want to play with the system shown in the video you can “become a member of the channel” for like US$5/month and up. But that would be cynical. :)

There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of other examples we could look at, just in the coding area, let alone law, management, or all those other fields that AI is supposedly about to completely change (the last-linked article there is quite amusing, notably where it admits that it’s based on subjective occupation-impact estimates by people who know little or nothing about the occupations in question; i.e. bunk). But this is already long.

LLMs have shown an amazing ability to produce plausible-looking output in response to a huge variety of prompts. The output is even often (more or less by coincidence) correct and/or functional and/or pretty! That’s what it’s architected and designed to do, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that everyone’s been surprised by how well it does it.

Will that ability alone completely change the way that we do X, for any interesting value of X?

I’m putting myself on the record this time :) in saying that the answer is very much No.

Update: It’s been pointed out to me that from what I say here I do apparently believe that  “ChatGPT / Bard / FooLLM will completely change the way that we X” if X is one of those proxy tasks; and that’s a point! These things may significantly change the way that we do job interviews, or assign homework, or even give grades in university; but the main changes may be mostly along the lines of “like we do it now, only making sure people aren’t using LLMs to do the proxy task”, and that might not count as “completely changing”.



I should like phenomenology. Ontology is about existing, epistemology is about knowing, morality is about good and bad and valuing, but phenomenology is about subjective experience; about experiencing from the inside.

The relevant reason that I should like that, is that an ongoing project of mine (not one that I necessarily work on, but one that I think about, which is at least as good) is to start with whatever it is that is given, or Given, which I like to call The Experience Storm, and to see how everything else (existing and knowing and valuing) can (or cannot) be built up from that. To take, that is, the subject matter of phenomenology as foundational, and see what happens when we try to build everything else on top of it.

This is hardly an original thought. :) Descartes’ cogito is sort of that, taking that which he cannot doubt and seeing what could be built on that. I disagree with him about just what he cannot doubt (or at least I’m able to doubt lots of stuff he claimed he couldn’t), but it’s the same general project. Empiricism is also an approach to the same project, where The Given is something on the order of sense experience, which turns out to be wrong, but again it’s basically the same project.

If we look up phenomenology on the interwebs, a typical sort of thing we find is, for instance:

“The discipline of phenomenology is defined by its domain of study, its methods, and its main results.

“Phenomenology studies structures of conscious experience as experienced from the first-person point of view, along with relevant conditions of experience. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, the way it is directed through its content or meaning toward a certain object in the world.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, revised 2013l

which starts out fine for a couple of sentences, but then I am all like whaaaaat.

As I’ve said before in a just slightly different context, I find the whole “aboutness” and intentionality thing silly and unconvincing. And one of the reasons for that is especially relevant here: not only are there all sorts of experiences that aren’t about some object in the world (what is the experience of boredom about, for instance?), but in the foundationalist project, it can’t be fundamental to experience that it be made of things that are “about” “objects” in the “world”, because we don’t yet have a “world”, or any “objects”, or any relationship like “about”.

I talked about this a little on Mastodon the other day, and someone (who I now see is “lead of the graphics kernel team at Microsoft”??) commented usefully that, basically, people usually take phenomenology as not-foundational, as the study of how experience is given that we already know more or less how it all fits into the world, and what the world is like. (Not what they said exactly, but that’s what I read in it.)

And that’s fine, but I think it’s significantly less interesting.

Now, how do we actually build up a world from the Experience Storm? What happens when we try to? Or, perhaps more appropriately, how do I do it, and what happens when I try, since I haven’t established that you even exist yet. And vice-versa. :)

I haven’t worked that all out entirely yet, but an early interesting question is just what the Experience Storm is like: what it consists of, how it’s structures, what entities and properties and relationships it has. Descartes talked mostly as though what is Given is a bunch of propositions, and they include not just “I am thinking” and “I exist”, but really complicated stuff like “there must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause,” which is just whacky, and leads to stuff like theism. I don’t know whether he was also unable to doubt “I am reasoning correctly in all this stuff”, or if that occurred to him at all.

The standard empiricist viewpoint is (or one might even say, was) that what is given and undoubtable is sense experience, which is along the lines of two-dimensional red blobs, and rising tones, and whatnot. I think it’s fair to say that it turns out that that isn’t really how we experience the world, although (this being philosophy) the details (and even the broad outlines) remain controversial (see for instance I dunno maybe this).

My tentative hypothesis is that, first, what is given, the Experience Storm, is exactly this, and that any verbal description will be significantly wrong (very Zen, that, at least for my values of “Zen”). But if we forge ahead and write down verbal descriptions anyway, we get not only something like “raw feels”, but much more complex things that have big fat semantic labels attached, and relationships between them, and lots of stuff like that. And those labels (properties) and relationships are just as much part of what is given and indubitable as the rawer and more feel-like things that are also in there, and to which they are in some sense associated or “attached”.

And one can continue from there in various ways :) to build up more stuff on that, always keeping in mind that the words that one is writing down are significantly wrong. But it’s getting late at night, and I’m happy to have written this much down.

It’s a pity that the word “phenomenology” has this whole concept of Aboutness associated with it. Is there a good word for taking subjective experience (whatever that turns out to be like), and building the rest of the universe up from there? Probably there is, and I once knew it even, maybe forty years ago. :)


Chav Life

“Chav” is a British-adjacent word, usually derogatory, for a cluster of concepts involving economically and socially disadvantaged classes, youth, sneering, hanging about in groups in public, and so on. It may be offensive in some sense; it’s not like we have a lot of non-derogatory and non-offensive words for young people in disadvantaged classes. I hope and trust I am not offending simply by using it, for instance, in a weblog post title.

Anyway! For no particular reason I gave Midjourney (version 5) a number of chav-related prompts, and here are some of the results. These are mostly photorealistic, as that’s what v5 often produces unless explicitly prompted otherwise (so this isn’t “AI Art” so much as “AI Weirdness”). And I’m putting them in the weblog here just for fun. (For some highlights of other stuff I’ve been making in MJ, albeit without prompts or much commentary, see me on Pixelfed.)

Here for instance are some Cute Chavs (i.e. the prompt was “cute chavs” with some flags and stuff):

a photo of about a dozen young people, casually dressed, standing on an outdoor brick surface. Three wear red "baseball caps".

Mildly cute, and certainly numerous! Note the three red caps. Note also that Midjourney v5 has really improved in the people department: some of the faces may dissolve into blurs, some of them disquieting, if you zoom up too much, but no one appears to have seven fingers on the same hand, or any obvious extra limbs. Which is impressive!

Additional cute chavs:

Two pale young women in matching light blue denim tops and blue necklaces, one with purple hair and one with orange hair, smile at us against a crowded street in the background. The orange-haired one, to our right, has a rather adorable overbite.

Here “chav” might be a mildly negative comment on their taste in accessories and hair dye; not sure. Awfully cute, though.


Three short-haired young men standing outdoors; a car park and grass and trees in the background. The tallest of the young men stands in the center, in a bright pink hoodie and large black sunglasses with dark pink lenses, with his arms around the shoulders of the other two, who are a bit shorter and wearing bright blue hoodies and bright pink sunglasses with dark pink frames.

These may be the “tough young men” sort of chavs, although the bright pink and blue hoodies and those sunglasses are perhaps atypical.

Also supposed cute chavs:

Two little boys with rose cheeks and dark wire-rimmed oval sunglasses, wearing identical yellow caps and raincoats, looking rather serious and cute.

Certainly cute, but those matching raincoats and GKSY VHIS caps look pretty upscale; it may have strayed a bit from chavery here, but, again, certainly cute. And perhaps truculent.

Further cute chavs, who have perhaps looted a cargo of loud plaids (but who all seem to have the right number of fingers and extremities, again!):

A group of several young men, perhaps pre-teen, striding down a shopping street, all dressed in loud red, or garish plaid, or (mostly) both.

There are various more cute chavs, but we’ll finish this section with this one:

Three serious young men with mid-to-light brown complexions and to one extent or another short black moustache and beard whiskers. The one in the center has brilliant red flyaway hair, red earrings, and wireframe sunglasses with red lenses, and a slash of black tattoo on one cheek. The one to our right has a similar black tattoo, and black hair shaved close to his head except for a flyaway topknot. The one to our left has at least one upswept eyebrow (perhaps a tattoo), and a pastel abstract headband that gathers his black and red hair upward into a sort of messy "mohawk". Behind them is what seems to be a river passing through a city.

I tend to think of your basic chav as pale, perhaps because people who use the word “chav” often have other words for people who aren’t pale. These three are certainly impressive in their own way. Judgment of cuteness left to the reader.

Heavens, there are so many pictures that I’d love to share with you here! And that’s just these chav-related ones. So many thousands of pictures! See “Bach faucet“, relatedly. But anyway! Now we have some “chav life”:

Five young men with short hair standing among some brick buildings, looking at us perhaps rather truculently.

No notes on that one. We got at least one other one like this except that they’re sitting on a stoop with equal truculence.


Four young men in casual athletic clothing standing among brick buildings. All are making odd faces of one kind or another, two are making finger gestures, two are wearing sunglasses, and at least two seem to be whooping.

Perhaps “CY le HAWE” is the name of their YouTube channel, where they break cinder blocks on each other. For instance. (Do read the alt text on these images, by the way, if convenient; I put a lot of work into those!)

Asking for an artistic rendering of happy chavs, we got inter alia:

a colored drawing of four young men in casual clothing standing around a car in a parking lot, among low brick building. Three wear blue caps, one of them reversed. They do not appear terribly happy.

They don’t appear particularly happy to me, I admit.

On the other hand:

A drawing of four very similar-looking men with slightly brown complexions and black hair and moustaches smile at something out of frame, leaning against an ambiguous something; possibly they are all standing on the same balcony, or truck bed.

the Esposito Quadruplets here seem quite pleased by something.

Now this one:

Drawing of a scene on a busy shopping street with brick houses with British chimneys. The most obvious foreground figures are four cheerful men in kilts (with sporran), one apparently carrying bagpipes.

doesn’t really say “chav” to me at all, due to the kilts and sporrans and so on; MJ may be improvising here. The people do look rather happy however.

In Ireland, chavs, or a group akin to chavs, are known as skangers (also possibly offensive). Prompted to picture skangers, Midjourney gave us:

Three ice hokey players facing away from us, toward the crowded bleachers. Each wears a red jersey with white lettering; from left to right: "SAKKER" with the letter S, "SARKES" with the number 7, and "SIAKERS" with the number 4. Sarkes sees to be wearing a cloth "baseball cap" rather than a hockey helmet.

The famous trio of Sakker, Sarkes, and Siakers. Sakker is notable for wearing the number “S”.

Next and relatedly:

Seven ice hockey players posing for a group picture on the ice in a variety of uniforms, the leftmost two being mascots in plush costumes (a turtle and a bear, maybe), and the center one having a mascot head (a cow perhaps?) and otherwise a normal uniform.

Not sure of the relationship between skangers and ice hockey, frankly, but there we are. Perhaps it thinks it’s a typo for “Rangers”, which is a hockey thing.

Third “skangers” image:

Four tall soda cans, each with a different abstractly-drawn monster or something in different bright colors, and all with the same logo, which seems to say something like "GAKKES". They sit on a matte black surface against a dark background.

Perhaps Gakkes(tm) soda is popular with skangers and/or chavs.

And finally in the skangers set:

A bright pink shop on an otherwise unremarkable street corner. There is a low black box in front of the shop, perhaps for stacking newspapers. The windows display numerous colorful boxes, and words on the pink and white striped awning might say something like SANCNR SKAGNVERS.

“Oi, I’m goin’ down Skarnvers fer some baccy, yew wan’ anythin’ pet?”

(That was probably offensive, too.)

And finally, just so as not to overload my readers with offensive weird stuff, here are a few where we tried to mix chav with its opposite: posh.

On a busy perhaps-English street, two people (and a dog) face us. The person on the left is dressed in what might be a parody of a tuxedo and top hat, with dark sunglasses; his mouth is wide open but narrowed. The person on the right is dressed more casually, including plaid pants, a jacket with sleeves that expose the forearms, and a small black hat; his mouth is open more roundly, and his arms crossed. (The dog, at the left, seems to be panting in a happy sort of way, with his or her tongue out.) Text at the bottom of the image says something like "on'v Chasd Heaish".

This is the one that most obviously did that, but these two are clearly taking the piss, as it were, and on’v Chasd Heaish on top of it (the guy on the right looks familiar somehow).

We also got a fair number like:

Two men look seriously into the camera, in front of a brick wall with vague graffiti. Both are wearing suits and hats, and have a certain amount of stubble and earrings, and threatening vibes.

which might be interpreted as a posh sort of chav, as well as say:

Two somehow nouveau-riche-looking people with a crowd in the background. To our left a man wearing a (faux?) fur coat, thick gold chains, dark sunglasses, and a  patterned cap; to our right a woman with extremely pale blonde hair, dark sunglasses, a thin gold necklace, and pale lipstick.

similarly (Americans perhaps, haha!). Also some where it seems to have mostly ignored the instructions and just given us two ordinary people, as in:

Two women in white kitchen uniforms, one with a high chef's hat and a "Caliel" logo on her shirt. The one on our left has her arm around the other's shoulder (the one with the hat and logo), and they are smiling into the camera. There are shiny silver surfaces and piles of dishes in the background.

They’re just endearing! (Admittedly one may be missing a finger, but better that than two or three extra.) And not obviously chav or posh, so I’m not sure.

And to close, from the “a chav and posh person standing side by side” prompt:

Two people standing in a rich-looking room looking into the camera, both apparently holding golf clubs. On our left, a tall man in what might be a slightly garish sort of morning dress except that he isn't wearing pants, his patterned boxers and black socks are visible. On our right, with one hand up near the man's chest for no apparent reason, a perhaps chunky woman in an above-the-knee business dress, wearing just below-the-knee black socks, and shoes perhaps with gaiters.

and, well, I just have no clue, really.

I hope that wasn’t too offensive! Fun, though. :)

Off to make more! With different prompts…


The Girl and The Skulls

I hadn’t specifically planned to post this on Easter Sunday, but seeing that it worked out that way, it seems extremely (in)appropriate. Also, as seems advisable to mention in the current context, no generative AI (language models or otherwise) was used in the production of this story. We’ve even got a little badge at the bottom to declare that!

The first Mother to notice the skulls was her Monday Mother, Mother Agnes. On that night, the girl had had just five skulls, medium-sized ones, lined up on the shelf above the head of her ancient bed.

“Child, what are those?” Mother Agnes had bleated as she tucked her in, but the girl hadn’t bothered to reply. Mother Agnes was afraid of her, and the girl always ignored much of what she said. Mother Agnes had only shaken her head, pulled the soft cover up around the girl’s neck, and left with a silent empty kiss on her forehead.

Now there were many more skulls in her room, small skulls and larger ones, clean white fresh-looking ones and brown ones darkened with the stains of age. The shelf above her bed was crowded with them, and they sat arranged in lines on the floor and along the bases of the walls. Her most special skulls were on the wide sill of the big window that looked out on the moonlit lawns of the house.

Her Thursday Mother, Mother Farless, who was brisk and efficient and had a high voice like a chirping bird, had clicked her tongue at the proliferation of skulls, and said “We should get rid of these horrible things! I am going to speak to your father.” But the girl knew that Mother Farless would not do that; none of the Mothers spoke to Father any more.

The girl’s seven Mothers did not know that they were seven; each one thought of herself, in her own individually vague and annoying way, as the girl’s only Mother. All of them were ensorcelled to sleep six days of each week, and to be her Mother for the seventh.  Long ago, Father had established the weeks in this way, and the girl was happy enough with the arrangement. She thought that having the same Mother every day would be even more tiresome.

“Where do you find all of these bones, dear?” Mother Serenity, her Wednesday Mother, had asked. The girl had smiled beatifically, and said that they had been brought by angels. Mother Serenity had not argued; Mother Serenity never argued, only sat near the window glowing with a soft light that the girl found soothing, and bringing golden fruits and nectar for her meals.

In fact, the skulls came from underneath the floorboards of the house, from wide dusty spaces smelling of wood and time, that the girl had discovered one midnight, lying on her stomach on the floor, moving her arms and legs up and down, feeling the coolness of the boards through her cotton nightgown. An uneven place between two boards had caught hold of her sleeve, and she had snarled at it and torn at it with her fingernails until it yielded unexpectedly, and the treasure was revealed.

Her Thursday Mother could not come into the house to see the skulls, because she was a rainstorm. The girl took her umbrella and one of the larger and paler skulls out into the smaller garden, where her Thursday Mother rained down gently on them. She placed the skull on a low wall and stepped back so that it was not covered by the umbrella.

Drops from her Mother fell onto the skull, quickly wetting the smooth white upper surface and running in drops down into the eye and the nostril holes. The girl watched each moment, losing herself in the watching, becoming all awareness of the drops falling and merging, running into parts of the skull that had been dry, splashing off of the skull back into the air. She began to cry, and her tears ran down her face in just the same way. 

Putting the umbrella aside, she let her Mother’s drops fall on her hair and face, mixing with her tears, wetting the skin that covered the flesh that covered her own skull. She thought of her skull as she cried, thought of it as warm and pink inside of her, as the white skull on the wall was cold and pale. She cried until she could cry no more, and then went back to her room, cold and exhausted.

That night she shivered in bed with fever, moaning and twisting under the covers. Just after midnight her gentle Friday Mother slid silently into her room and stroked her face with a cool cloth.

“Sssh,” her Mother said, a whisper like silence in the dark room, “Sssh, my darling.”

The girl felt the coolness of the cloth on her cheeks and her forehead, even as in a fever dream she danced among whirling skulls under a cracked white dome, ecstatic with terror. Her Friday Mother piled heavy blankets onto her, and held her in gentle arms all night.

When her fever broke, the girl opened her eyes on a new world. The air on her face and shoulders was new, the skulls crowding the room, the moonlight through the windows, were all fresh and sweet with newness. She herself was hollow and light, and she sprang from her bed, staggering only a little, and went from one skull to another, kissing a dozen of them in welcome. Her Mother looked in on her around the door, and then brought fried duck eggs and warm bread for her breakfast.

On the next Monday, her Father visited her, as a tall man with spreading antlers, his powerful body covered in fine nut-brown fur. He allowed her to nuzzle for a moment into his arms, and she pressed her face against the fur of his chest, breathing his rich fragrance and feeling the strong bones beneath his flesh.

As the girl had known he would, her Father admired the careful arrays of skulls in her room. He held one of the largest in his huge hand, turning its hollow eyes to his own, a low sound deep in his throat.

“It is good to be with the past,” he said, and raised his wide deep gaze to meet hers, “with the ancestors.” She fell into his rich wild eyes, feeling herself deep within him, feeling the source of her own life in his, in all of those before him, in the tangled streams of the past, the skulls and bones of her family.

There were, in the dry shadowed places under the floors of the house, other bones scattered among the skulls. Not as many as the skulls, not nearly enough to populate a full skeleton for every beautiful skull, but a fair number. She had taken up some of them, held in her small hand a long thigh bone or a delicate finger bone, brought an enigmatic textured plate up to her nose to sniff. But they were not meant for her room, the way that the skulls were, and she left them down there under the floor, dreaming that they moved at night, arranging themselves in partial memories of the living shapes they had once inhabited.

Father stayed at the house for some time, loping off into the surrounding forest with his men, returning with bloody game for the kitchen. The Mothers and the unseen staff prepared savory meals, and the front of the girl’s dress became colored by the juices that ran down her chin when she ate. Her Thursday Mother tutted at the stains, and threw the dress into the fire, where it sizzled and sparked and finally burned, the girl watching the flames in hungry contentment.

The night that Father left again, they all stood on the balcony overlooking the front of the house as the staff blew the trumpets. It was a Tuesday, and her Mother Frances in her elegant gown only waved a lace kerchief at Father and his men as they disappeared into the silver moonlight. The girl clung to Mother Frances’ skirts, sobbing until her eyes were red, letting misery and loneliness wash through her in delicious waves.

When the house had settled back into the quieter duller patterns of Father’s absence, the girl returned to her room and squirmed under her bed, resting there in the close and slightly dusty space (even Father’s staff could not keep pristine the underside of a bed this old and vast), thinking of the skulls and where the rest of their bones might be. She imagined all of the skulls singing together a slow and mournful song, just for her.

It seemed to her now that she had always heard that song, even before she first clawed the floor open and found the first skull, domed and dusty in its resting place. The song filled the air, and went in and out of the windows in the darkness. It was a song about the deep woods, the game animals with their hot innocent blood and bones, about her and her Father and her seven Mothers and her one True Mother, her ancestors stretching back into the endless beginningless past.

“When did you first meet Father?” the girl had once asked Mother Frances, sitting in her lap before bedtime, her head on her Mother’s elegant shoulder.

“It was in Paris,” her Mother had answered, “at the opera. He was such a gentleman, so strong and handsome, but refined and gentle. He won my heart at once.” The girl wondered if “Paris” and “opera” were real things, somewhere in the world, or if they were part of Father’s sorcery in making Mother Frances into her Tuesday Mother.

“I was so young then,” Mother said, “young and innocent and full of dreams.” The girl thought she caught an uncertain something in her Mother’s voice then, as though her thoughts had wavered for a moment. But then she sat up straighter, and said in a cheerful voice, “And now look at me! The proudest mother in the world.” And she had kissed the girl’s cheek and tucked her into bed.

On another Wednesday, while her Mother Serenity sat glowing in the parlor, the girl wedged up a new section of the floor in the hallway just outside of her room, and found for the first time a nearly-complete skeleton, the bones arranged neatly under the skull between the floor beams, as though their owner had reclined there and then allowed the skin and flesh to melt away. They were clean and white, without the clinging scraps that some of her skulls nurtured.

She knelt by the bones and stretched herself out over them, imagining that it was she who had lain there, slowly restfully melting away. She moved her gaze from the toes upward, saving the skull for last. And when she looked at the skull, she saw the jagged hole in its dome.

“Look at you,” she whispered to the skull, softly running her forefinger around the edge of the hole, “Look at what has happened to you.”

The girl scooped the skull up carefully in her pink hand, and turned it around in the moonlight. The jagged hole was the only damage evident; otherwise, this skull was as perfect as all of her others, firm and intact, undecayed, only oxidized here and there, rusted with the patina of time. She made a place for it in the center of the sill under the big window, placed it carefully, and lay back on her bed, propped up on her pillows, looking into the tender sockets of its eyes.

“You are my first Mother,” she said to the skull, “before Father brought the Seven Mothers, before the first Monday.” The skull did not reply, but she knew it was listening.

“It was from you that I emerged into the world,” she said. And this felt to her as though it mattered. “And then your skull was broken open, and your life escaped.”

She wondered who had broken open the beautiful dome of that skull, and why they had done it. Had there been anger, or kindness, or boredom?  Had the same person neatly arranged the body under the floorboards? Had there been blood, like the blood of the game animals that her father brought back from the forest? 

The girl thought that surely there had been no blood, just the gradual fading away of skin and flesh, leaving the bones behind as they should be. The hole in the skull might have been the final perfecting of the bones, the last thing needed to complete everything. “You are perfect, aren’t you?” she said to the skull. Thickening clouds moved across the moon, and the darkness of her room deepened, only the palest and whitest of skulls showing in the black. Slowly the girl let herself slip into dreams.

She spent the next two days in her bed, dreaming of skulls and of her first Mother, and the jagged hole in the skull that watched over her with all the others. Her Thursday Mother Farless and her gentle nameless Friday Mother brought her meals and spoke words to her, but she was far away, dancing with her dream skulls and learning from her dream Father.

Her Saturday Mother, the Enchantress Niviène, sent to her a small glittering swan which circled above her bed, singing a song too beautiful to ignore, and the girl returned to the ordinary reality of her room and the unmoving skulls.

“Hello, my dear one,” the swan sang in her Mother’s voice. The girl thought again how powerful her Father’s sorcery must be, to bind Niviène as one of her seven Mothers. But she also suspected that perhaps this particular Mother was not as deeply ensorcelled as those earlier in the week.

The small swan glided around the room on diamond wings, lighting daintily on the broken dome of the skull on the window sill, and dipped its bright beak into the dark opening.

“You have found your Father’s magic, I see,” the swan sang, “and none too soon.”

“What do you mean, Mother?” the girl said, sitting up in her bed, feeling somehow the excitement and fear of infinite possibility.

The swan’s song was full of laughter. “Tomorrow,” her Mother’s voice said, “perhaps tomorrow.”

After this, the swan glided out through the window, and the girl rose eagerly from bed, dressing herself in leather and bright calico. She bowed to the broken skull, ignoring the others, and tucked it under one arm and went out into the night.

For many hours, the girl conducted the rituals of her family at the old holy place in the forest, and the beasts of the forest growled and whined all around her. The perfect broken skull presided from the highest point of the altar, and the song of the other skulls poured out of the sky and entered the skull’s jagged starry hole. This is what she had dreamed about, this is what had been whispered to her in her sleep.

Finally, the rituals complete, the girl slumped to the forest earth, and the beasts nuzzled and licked at her clothing and her limp body.

She was carried back to the house, tenderly changed into her nightgown and gently tucked into her bed. Voices spoke quietly, and a soft breeze blew, and she slept deeply and without dreams.

The next day was Sunday, a day that the girl always spent in the quiet dimness under her bed, or down in the mazy passages beneath the house. Of all of her seven Mothers, she loved and hated Lucinda, her Sunday Mother, the most intensely, because she was all light, and glory, and judgment.

But on this Sunday, the girl slept long from the night’s rituals, and was still asleep when her Mother Lucinda flung open the door and entered her bedroom, clad in white and gold, like a demanding flame. Her light gleamed from the skulls as she turned back the girl’s bed, and unseen hands helped her upright and dressed her in a severe white gown of her own.

“What are we doing, Mother?” she groaned, squinting against the light as the unrelenting Sun separated itself from the treetops of the eastern Forest.

“Going to the chapel, silly girl!” her Mother trumpeted, as the invisible hands tugged her gown here and there, and pulled a white lace veil up over her head. “Have you forgotten what day it is?”

The girl sighed. Being awake only one day in seven, her Mothers all had odd notions of times and dates. The old chapel had been in ruins as long as she could remember; it might be interesting to see what Mother Lucinda expected to do with it.

Out on the lawn, taking the path that led from the big oaken doors to the chapel, her eyes slowly adapted to the brightness of the Sun and of her Mother. She wished her Thursday Mother would come with her thick clouds and cooling rain, but it was Sunday, and a terrible searing Sunday at that.

As she and her Sunday Mother walked, the girl saw that others were moving in the same direction; people from the village in their poor finery, and also many others, dim vague figures somehow shadowy even in the omnipresent light. Both groups, the mortal and the shadow, gave a wide berth to the two of them from the house.

Her Mother seemed to ignore them, but the girl regarded them with interest as they walked, especially the shadows. Some of them limped or shambled, some held an arm tightly against the body, some walked together, unsteadily supporting each other. All seemed to one degree or another in distress, but their faces, those that had faces, seemed happy, happier she imagined than her own, as though they were eager to reach some destination.

As more joined them, the girl saw that although the shadows came from all directions, the largest stream came from the direction of the road that led to the village, and another stream from one particular part of the forest. She wondered what might be in that direction, and then she remembered, and smiled.

Looking back, toward the big house, she noticed that behind them on that path walked a tall woman, who held her head tilted to one side, perhaps owing to the spike or short metal pole protruding from it. This, she knew, was her true mother, with a perfect hole in her skull, and the girl’s heart was filled with love. Then she had to turn again to the front, hurrying to keep up with Mother Lucinda, and the shadow of her true Mother was lost among the others.

When they finally reached the chapel, the girl was slightly surprised to see that the old building was not ruined, but stood intact and immaculate in the sunlight, doors wide open on a spacious bright interior. Here the streams split, the shadows taking a pair of stairways leading down into dimmer places, and the less numerous others entering the chapel proper, seating themselves in the long pews.

Her Sunday Mother strode to the very front rank of the nave, the others in the chapel quick to get out of her way, and the girl hurrying along behind her. They settled down in the front pew by themselves, facing the chancel where the figure of the Hanging Man looked down from the wall. In the all-too-bright light of the chapel, the Hanging Man seemed to the girl to be the only point of ease and sympathy. His hands and feet were affixed to wooden beams by thick nails, and streams of blood dripped down his pale skin. He wore a crown made of thorny vines on his head, and the girl wished that he would look up at her, so she could see his eyes.

A man in a black cassock and white surplice came out of a door to one side of the Hanging Man, and stepped up behind the wooden lectern. He looked blandly out over the crowd, and began to speak. The girl let his words flow into her head and around and out again, one by one. She watched the carven animals on the lectern chase each other around the carven plants, playing and hunting and mating. She looked at the body of the Hanging Man, and saw that he had a wound in his side, from which blood also dripped. She thought that the red blood against his thin white skin was very beautiful.

Just as the man at the lectern addressed his Father, who was in Heaven, the Hanging Man did raise his head, and his gaze met the girl’s gaze, and she saw that the Hanging Man was her Father, nailed to the heavy beams of wood, and she was filled with joy.

The girl stood, as the man at the lectern continued speaking, and slowly climbed the steps leading up from the nave. She felt the judgment of her Mother Lucinda, puzzled murmuring of the crowd of villagers, and the searing light of the Sun, all pulling at her, obstructing her. But she had done the rituals well, and she entered the altar, and approached the Hanging Man, her Father, who smiled at her now from his place on the wall.

Poised on the knife-edge of Time, she rose up, and pressed her lips to her Father’s lips, and the skin of his body began to fall away. There were gasps and then screams from behind her, and her Mother Lucinda’s voice rising in agony or bliss. She held herself against her Father as all of his skin, his loincloth and crown of thorns, and finally his flesh melted and flowed away, and only his beautiful bones hung there on the wall of the chapel.

He slipped his purified hands and feet easily off of their nails, and held the girl in his arms as he descended from the wall. Comforting shadows pushed out from them, and from her true Mother, who rose up from the crypt, through the floor of the chapel, and was gathered also in her Father’s skeletal embrace. The screams of the villagers were cut off, or faded away into the distance, as the three of them walked out of the chapel, which was already falling back into its proper ruin behind them.

Outside the chapel all seven of her false Mothers waited to greet them, finally drawn together by her Father’s will. The clouds of her Thursday Mother hid the unwelcome Sun, and cooled them all with a gentle mist. Mother Agnes, Mother Frances, and her gentle Friday mother stood with their heads bowed. Even her Sunday Mother Lucinda, dimmer now and her white and gold raiment torn to ribbons, stood humbly, hand-in-hand with her Mother Serenity and the smiling Enchantress Niviène, and paid homage to the girl and her parents.

Her Father put her down gently. She looked up at him, at the clean jointed bones of him, and then at the shade of her true Mother, who looked at her with infinite tenderness from the shrouded eyes of her broken head.

With a small smile, the girl made a slight gesture with her fingers. Her parents, comprehending, exchanged a glance and then went to stand, heads bowed, with the others.

The girl stood there, feeling herself, feeling everything, in a flawless moment. The sound of the chapel crumbling behind her, the mist of her Thursday Mother on her skin, the heads finally bowed in obeisance to her, and farther away the big house and her skulls, all under a rapidly darkening sky. Everything exactly as it ought to be.

And now, she thought happily, the sun will never rise again.