Gargoyle 47Cover by Melissa ZexterPublished 9/3/2003
Iris lay on the bed with her eyes half closed, her warm flushed cheek resting on Glinda’s cool bare belly. She traced the outline of Glinda’s navel with her middle finger and admired the contrasts between their skins: the subtle cloud white of Glinda against the deep dark jade of Iris. Quite a contrast, she thought, but also, quite a complement.
Iris slid up the bed, thrilled with the sensation of the silk sheets as they ran across her naked legs. Leaning in, she kissed Glinda on the cheek, mouth open, tongue barely stroking the soft edge of her skin.
“Ung,” Glinda said, her eyes opened to half slits. “Your breath. It smells like my cunt.” Glinda closed her eyes and blindly pushed Iris’s face away, half serious, half playful.
“Well, it was your idea.”
Glinda sighed. “Even so. I can’t have you kissing me with your breath smelling like that.”
Iris sighed as she slid off the bed and plopped her feet flat onto the cold oaken floor. She walked over to her dresser and paused a moment to look out the window next to it. The sun was turning orange in its final steps across the day’s sky, turning the nearby mountains to a dim shade of blue. On the other side of the mountains was her sister’s territory, the eastern lands.Iris opened the top drawer and pulled some herbs out of a small canister and popped them into her mouth; the taste was bitter, but it would help with the breath problem.
Glinda sprawled across the entire bed, eyes still closed. Although Glinda’s breasts were slightly larger than her own, Iris was fascinated that her nipples were smaller. Such variety in life, and such beauty in it all. A smile spread across Iris’s face, the first smile she could remember for some time. Feelings of happiness walked across her skin, electric feelings that started at the back of her neck and ran down the entire length of her slender spine.
“One more thing,” Glinda said, again opening her eyes. “Can you do something about that?”
Off in the corner, crouching below a small table, was Hanu, leader of Iris’s blue monkeys. A book, his journal, was clutched tight to his little chest and the tops of his golden wings peeked out from behind his head. Iris felt a small pang of guilt. Sundown was usually the time she gave reading and writing lessons to little Hanu, and this would be the first time missed in many months.
“Hanu,” she said softly, “Hanu, scoot. We’ll study later.” Iris waved her hand in the direction of the window. Hanu understood, but still made a sad whimper as he walked across the floor to the window, spread his golden wings and flew outside. His feelings were obviously hurt, but he would forgive her.
“Better?” Iris said, turning back towards Glinda.
Glinda simply nodded and waved for Iris to rejoin her in bed. Without a thought, Iris fell deep into Glinda’s sumptuous arms, and found herself surrounded by a comforting warmth.
“Can you come again tomorrow night?” Iris whispered, her ear resting on Glinda’s breast.
“No. I have plans.” Glinda’s voice sounded flat, almost emotionless as it vibrated through her chest and into Iris’s ear.
“With the Wizard, darling. You know this.”
“I wish you wouldn’t see him anymore.”
“I wish I didn’t have to. But you know why. Satisfying him sexually. It keeps him on my side. On our side. He’ll be less likely to over run our lands if he’s dependent on me.”
Iris shook her head, felt Glinda’s pointy nipple poke into her cheek. “He’s dangerous. He wants to reshape the world. And I can’t bear the thought of him with you, inside you.”
Glinda hugged Iris and then shrugged her shoulders. “You’re just saying that because he reminds you of your father.”
Iris nodded. “Maybe. All the more reason for you to stay away.”
“It’s not so bad. He’s not tender like you, but sometimes a girl just likes to get fucked. Besides, I know what I’m doing, darling. I know what I’m doing. Now why don’t I take your mind off the problem. At least for the moment?”
Iris cared for Glinda, and feared hurting her like she did her father. But Glinda was careful. Glinda gently fingered the outside of her vagina, and moved inside being careful to avoid the jagged teeth that ringed the inside like the mouth of a shark. The touch was soft and gentle, soothing the small areas around each tooth. A moan escaped Iris’s lips as her groin filled with warmth.
Iris Remembers or What Came BeforeThe screams carried down the hallway to her young ears. She had heard them many times, and knew them as her mother’s. Iris looked over at her sister. Although 12 and only 2 years younger than herself, Miel simply played with a doll, tying its hair up in a bow and dressing it in home-made jewelry. Miel played the part of the shielded princess far better than she did.
“How can you just play like that?” Iris said.
Miel set down her doll and looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“I mean…nothing. Nothing.”
Miel shrugged and started to play with the doll again, turning it over on its back and spanking it. Iris rolled over on the floor to face the other way, and buried herself back in her book. It told about another world, a world very different from their own. A world where animals couldn’t talk, but they had wonderful things called machines, giant mindless things made of metal that would happily aid the people there in whatever work they needed done. It sounded wonderful to her, this idea of escaping from the life of a king’s daughter.
The door burst open. It was their father, the king. Compared to her own and her mother’s and sister’s, his green skin looked like disease. Instead of the beautiful sheen of a jade stone, his skin oozed a sense of rot, of gangrene, of death itself. His steps were erratic, drunk. He looked right at Miel and said, “Get out.”
“You heard me.”
Miel walked out the door, carrying her doll with her. Iris started to follow until her father grabbed her arm.
“Your mother. She won’t let me in anymore.”
His breath slipped out, a vile smelling creature of its own. Iris, in her near innocence, only half understood what her father intended. “Come here, Iris. Come here. Daddy’s little flower, you are.”
He pulled Iris towards him. Iris resisted, tugging hard in the other direction, feeling the strain on her shoulder and arm. She thought briefly, almost hoped, that it would just snap off like one of Miel’s dolls so she could get away. Her father, frustrated, finally reached down with both arms, scooped her up and slammed her chest down on the table against the wall. Iris’s cheek smarted as it slapped the wood of the table. Hands thick and coarse like tree roots reached up into her dress and quickly pulled away her undergarments. Her only thought was the curse, the spell her mother placed on both her and Miel. She could still remember the words: To protect, change the mouth of life and pleasure to jaws of pain and death.
He entered her, thrust deep into her dry cavity and moaned with each rocking motion. Iris held her eyes tight, tears burning her face as they streamed down. In that small part of her mind not occupied with the pain of her father inside her, she was confused. She hated him for what he was doing, for what he did to her mother, but she still loved him. So, on some level, she held back those jaws, that ring of tight teeth, within her as long as she could. But she thought more about it, and thought about how her sister would be next, and relaxed her muscles. The teeth released from inside her, clamping down hard on his penis. Her father screamed, and Iris rolled over to see him fall flat on the floor, his hand covering his crotch trying to keep the red inside of him. It flowed out, like some liquid birth, he was not able to stop it,to hold it in. Iris watched as her father’s head twitched one last time and the color ran out of his eyes.
It was decided later. Her mother would take the blame for his murder. She would be executed the next morning, leaving her children alone, and the king’s land would be divided in half between the two children. Miel would own the eastern half, and Iris the west. The mother only left two things to help her children: to Miel, her pair of magical slippers lovingly carved generations ago from the purest rubies, and to Iris, her library, filled with the sum knowledge of witches for the past several hundred years.
Iris had read about it as a child in her books, and heard rumors from the nomadic Winkies who wandered beyond her western lands and into the Deadly Desert. The rumors spoke of violent storms, storms that almost seemed to act by will, pushing back any who traveled too far. What hid on the other side of those storms, no one knew for sure. But Iris suspected, no, knew somehow, that the lands she read of as a child were in fact reality beyond those storms. She longed to see this other world, to see their machines and fantastic knowledge she could only dream about.
She rode the broom harder and faster than ever before. She pushed past stretching mountains that hugged the borders of her land and into the nameless desert. The land changed, turning from lush greens and dark rocks to a blinding stretch of sand that never seemed to end. Briefly, she admired the Winkies who made it this far; not owning means of travel as speedy as her own, the way must have been difficult. Iris turned her head skyward; eyes closed, the hands of the sun reached out warmed her face as they stroked it.
Everything went dark. She opened her eyes in time to see herself plunging into the darkening mouth of a cloud that appeared from nowhere. Moisture stung her sensitive skin, and her body almost shook off the broom as thunder clapped and tried to push her with its stiff arms. Clutching her broom between white knuckled fists, she flew blindly.
She broke through, and the storm ended. Looking below, she saw the land was still flat, and thought for a moment she merely turned around and headed back towards her lands. But she saw the colors were softer, a more golden brown instead of the harsh whites of the sands. The lands stretched out below, laying covered by tall shafts of grain. The sun was beginning to set, turning the colors of the sky from blue to a soft purple.
Iris hears something in the distance, a roaring like the sound a giant lion screaming his death’s throes. Flying in the direction of the sounds, she came upon a road covered with a black substance hard as obsidian. She saw the source of the noise, a man straddling a metal device with two wheels that thundered across the blackened road almost as fast as Iris rode in the sky. Thin trails of dark smoke pour out its back; even from the distance above, the smoke scraped inside her throat, choked her. This was one of the machines she read of, this monstrosity. It lacked any of the magic, the fantasy that she imagined. Reaching out with her mind, she pulled the word out of the rider’s mind: Motorcycle.
She landed on the ground, and realized she needed a disguise. She casted a spell of illusion, something to cover up both her appearance and that of her broom. While she would remain the same physically, any looking at her would see someone like the rider of that motorcycle, dressed in dark denim and leather, with her hair pulled back into a pony tail. The broom would appear to be another motorcycle. Off in the distance she saw the glow of city lights, and guided her broom in that direction.
After much investigation of the city, she found what had to be the most important building. It stood several stories high, sculpted entirely out of the purest white marble. Large columns supported the heavy roof, and giant sculptures of lions flanked the doors like the most stalwart of guards. Iris smiled as she read the chiseled words on the pediment: Kansas City Library. She bounded up the steep steps with excitement and entered the building.
Upon entering, she saw something that astounded her: books. Books on shelves at least seven feet high stretching as far as the eye could see. In Oz, Iris owned the largest library. All of her mother’s books plus the others Iris acquired on her own would only make up one fourth of this floor alone. To think there were other levels!
She approached a woman behind a desk; she was old, with bone white skin, pale hair pulled into a ball behind her head. She wore a dark green dress, and a pin of silver dragon rested above her breast, its red jeweled eyes flaring in their sockets. A small sign on her desk read Tia Matte.
“May I help you?” the woman asked.
“This building. All the floors. They all have books?”
The woman pursed her lips even tighter. “Of course. This is the library.”
Iris smiled and walked on, filled with excitement at reading all the knowledge housed in the building. As bad as things were in this world, things were not all bad. A society that could produce this must have other things worthwhile. She ran her fingers across the spines, taking in the titles quickly as she walked down the aisles. Lord of the Rings, Prydain Chronicles, How Like a God.
A firm hand grabbed her arm from behind. Iris turned to see Tia, the woman from the desk.
“I know who you are,” Tia said.
“What do you mean?” Iris was confused. There should be few here who could pierce her disguise.
“You are more then you appear to be. It is easy to tell. I am more than I seem to be as well. Or, at least, I used to be.”
“Who are you?” Iris asked.
Tia smiled, showing twin thin rows of jagged teeth behind her lips. “Many, many years ago, I was proud and powerful. I ruled over this world that was once a paradise. Until, that is, my own children and grandchildren rose against me. I gave them life, I cared for them, but they wanted more. They turned my brightest and strongest against me.”
Tia paused a moment, stared off with her obsidian eyes, like she was focusing on something far away. “Brave Marduk. Brave, deluded Marduk. They lied to him, told him the world would be better without me. He believed them, and came to kill me.“We both fought bravely, and we both weakened. In desperation, I opened my mouth wide to breathe my fire at him. But he forced himself inside me and tore me apart, inside out. They stretched out my skin to make the sky, my bones to form the lands, my blood drained for rivers and oceans. My own death created the world you now see.
“But a god does not die. Not really. They left me my heart, and it sat and festered in the desert like an old wound. Over time, it grew into this body. Now I wait and watch, collecting knowledge until my time comes again.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Iris asked.
Tia clutched Iris’s arm, plunging her nails into Iris’s skin like tiny knives. Iris tried to pull back, but she couldn’t break the grip. This old woman was really a creature of power.
“I waited too long,” Tia continued. “I could not conceive of my children rising up against me, I could not believe that things would change. But it is not too late for you. Trust no one. For those you trust the most will be the ones who hurt you the most. Now go. Go home, before it is too late.”
Frightened, Iris ran out the library, down the steps and to her broom. She hopped on, and flew her broom hard back towards the storm that brought her here, towards the doorway home to Oz.
It would only be a few short days later when Iris would get reports of an unknown man suddenly appearing in the sky in a giant balloon, a man who claimed to come from another world far away. After a short time this man, who would later call himself the Wizard, would usurp a large area of territory and begin warping the lands and minds he ruled over. Iris often wondered if her going to that other world somehow opened the door for the Wizard, giving him a trail to follow.
Crossing of the Threshold
Even as a child, Iris held a deep connection with her western lands. It was almost like an extension of her own body. She felt the Munchkins as they tended and watered the farms. Pride swelled within her each time the dwarves ventured into the caverns, seeking out treasures that would benefit all in the land.
This connection to her land made it that much easier to feel the Wizard as he pressed out of his southern territories and penetrated beyond, into the borders of her own land. He was on the edge between his land and hers. To his side was one of the large horseless carriages his new factories were churning out. Iris knew they had something similar where the Wizard came from, something they called a car. But this was much larger, and more intimidating. It stood half as high as a small house, and almost seemed to absorb the light around it with its pale grayness. Iris could feel the trees around him already choking on the pitch black smoke pouring out of the back end.
“I knew you’d come,” he said as she landed a few feet from him.
“You’re a smart man. I suppose, then, you also know you’ll be leaving.”
The Wizard ignored her; instead he pulled something out of his pocket, placed it in his mouth and lit it with a flint. Smoke flowed out of his mouth, coming out in plumes almost as thick as those flowing from his car. Iris recognized it as a cigarette, a bad habit the Wizard brought with him from his own world.
“I just finished speaking with your sister, Miel. She is quite stubborn. Confused, but stubborn.”
“She will fight your advances. Along with the rest of us.”
“So it seems. But your sister, despite the power she holds, really does not make decisions, does she?”
This surprised Iris. While Miel really was just a figurehead for her land, allowing Iris to make all the real decisions, she didn’t know anyone was aware of it. “Why don’t you just head back to your own world?”
“I like it here.”
“You don’t seem to. You’ve changed nearly everything in your land to resemble your former home. Now you want to do it to the rest of Oz.”
The Wizard looked her in the eye for the first time, as if now Iris was worthy of his full attention. “I suppose we all create things within our own image. And it’s difficult, almost impossible, to separate yourself from your upbringing. Besides, I see them as improvements.”
“Excuses. I’ve been to your world. I didn’t enjoy it much, and I wouldn’t like to see it recreated here. It is three against one, Wizard. You are powerful, but we will stop you.”
“Three? Oh, you must mean the witch of the north. Don’t be so sure about her alliances. Did you enjoy her company the other night, by the way? You can consider it my gift of good will to you.”
“Liar!” Iris screamed. “Liar!”
Rage exploded within her. It started in her heart and swelled up to her cheeks, to the tips of her slender fingers. She pushed the rage out into her land, and the land responded to her desires. The grass around the Wizard grew, wrapping tight around his feet in tendrils stronger than iron. In moments, the Wizard’s body would be covered and his body would serve as a healthy mulch for her soil. Glinda would be mad at first for handling things this way, but in the end she would be glad to be rid of this tyrant.
The Wizard reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small crystal vial with a spray nozzle attached. He squeezed the bubble for the nozzle, squirting a clear liquid onto the grass. It quickly dried out, died and flaked away into dust, into nothing.
“Really, my dear witch, I expected more craft than rage from you. Please, feel free to contact me when you are ready for a civilized discussion. Good day.” The Wizard tipped his hat to Iris and climbed back into the monstrous carriage. He drove away, trailing a jagged scar behind him.
Iris Has a Dream
Iris flew on her broom, hair streaming behind her like flames black as midnight. Up there with the clouds, she felt free. All shapes were there. Animals, children. Clouds that looked like children or, possibly, children that looked like clouds.
Looking below, she found herself over Glinda’s northern kingdom. Small dots ringed around another dot in the center, a dot that glowed with a soothing red nimbus. The red dot could only be Glinda, and the others her always grateful Munchkins giving her thanks.
Iris circled around as she moved lower and lower. The ring of Munchkins opened up to let her in as she landed. Stepping off her broom, Iris then walked over towards Glinda and pulled a box out of a pocket in her black dress. Iris handed her the box and watched Glinda’s diamond cold eyes as she opened it. In those eyes Iris could see the contents reflected; it was the red flowering jewel of her own vagina.
Putting her hand on Glinda’s soft arm, she said, “Marry me.”
At first, Glinda didn’t respond. Then she laughs, laughs a shrill, high pitched laugh that stabs sharply into Iris’s ears. The laughter ends after what seems an eternity, and Glinda hands back the box.
“Sweet dear. You offer me something I already have, something I can have whenever I want. But I can’t marry you. Not now.”
The nimbus around Glinda changed from rose red to a crystal blue and grew outward, pushing Iris away. Glinda rose off the ground, slowly at first, and then flew off to the south, off towards the land of the Wizard.
Iris awoke sharply, awoke to the soft brown eyes and blue fur of Hanu. His tiny firm hand was shaking her.
“I’m awake, I’m awake,” she said. A thin droplet of cold sweat dripped down her nose and to her lips. She tasted salt. Rubbing her hands together, they felt clammy, cold. She must have been moaning in her sleep. Maybe worse. Maybe screaming. Reaching out, she ran her hands through the thick fur on top of Hanu’s head.
“Mistress okay now?” Hanu asked.
Iris smiled. “Yes, child,” she lied. “I’m fine. It was just a bad dream. Thank you for waking me.”
Hanu nodded and went back over to sleep in the corner. Iris thought back on the dream, and what it obviously meant. So there was only one thing she could do so she and Glinda could be fully together. She had to steal or destroy the source of the Wizard’s power. No matter what the cost.
Simply changing how one looked was an easy spell. Like when she traveled to the world she would later know as the Wizard’s, her disguise was simply a matter of illusion, an artistic method simply tricking everyone through force of will that she looked different than she really did. But the Wizard was smart, and with the level of physical contact that would likely take place between the two of them, more extreme measures would have to be taken. She searched through all her precious books, diving into the swirling miasma of their twisting letters and words. In the end, they offered no hope, no support, beyond what she already knew.
The tincture for physical change was actually fairly simple. A melange of herbs and animals parts, it merely needed to be cooked for a few hours like a stew in its base. Unfortunately for Iris, that base had to be a source of purity, it had to be water.She carefully dipped a sponge into the gray liquid, pulled it out and patted it to her face. Once, as a child, she reached up to a pot of cooking oil her mother was heating for a recipe. The pot tipped, overflowed onto her hands, down her arms and chest, searing and scorching every nerve ending it touched. She was bedridden with pain for almost a week.
This was worse.
The water burned into her skin, melting it into a loose putty. Reaching into the back of her mind, Iris pictured Glinda’s face and found the strength to move beyond the pain and finish her task. Before her skin dried out and rehardened, she pushed at it, shaped it carefully like a sculptor, molding it until her face became a perfect replica of Glinda’s. She raised the cheekbones, puffed out the lips, rounded the chin. After the face, she continued the procedure across the rest of her body, reshaping her arms, her legs, her breasts. After several hours, the job was complete. Some powder and hair dye would make the necessary changes of color.
Finished, Iris looked at herself in the mirror and admired her own handiwork. As well as she knew Glinda’s face and body, she could scarcely tell a difference. The only telltale difference was eye color; Iris’s violet instead of Glinda’s pure blue. Iris doubted the Wizard would even notice. There was only one thing left, and while she hated to do it, she knew it had to be done. Reaching into her vagina with a small tool, she plucked out the teeth set by her mother, one by one.
Iris landed her broom almost a mile away from the Wizard’s Emerald Palace. While the Palace guards might wonder a little why the witch of the north was walking to the front gate instead of flying within her crystal nimbus, it was worth risking since the broom would be a dead giveaway to her real identity. The Emerald Palace was a work of total beauty, Iris had to admit. But at what cost? As she flew over his land, following the gash left by his new golden road, she saw the factories and workers in them, felt their exhaustion and the sickness of the land itself, and a land once green and lush turning as gray as his machines.
The orange dwarf let her in right away, and immediately led her up to the Wizard’s private chambers. They were lush and extravagant, to the point of being gaudy. A red woven rug covered the marble floor while brightly colored tapestries illustrating the achievements of the Wizard decorated the walls. A large bed with a canopy took up nearly half the room. The Wizard stood at the far end at a small table, pouring a glowing blue liquid into a glass.
“Glinda,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting you tonight.”
“I didn’t think you’d mind extra company.”
“No. Of course not. Would you like a drink?”
Iris almost said no, but stopped herself. Realizing Glinda would probably accept, she nodded yes.
“A new libation they are making here in Emerald City,” the Wizard said. “I have grown quite fond of it.”
“It is quite good,” she lied after tasting it. The drink was bubbly and sweet, but too sweet. It was something a child might enjoy.
The Wizard came up behind her, licked the back of her neck with a thick tongue. A trembling, a quake of fear ran though her whole body. “A little nervous tonight, Glinda?”
His hot breath crept across her flesh. Iris nodded. “Yes. A little.”
“That’s a switch. Usually you are a little more aggressive.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me tonight.”
“That’s quite alright. I find your nervousness, your timidity a little exciting. But enough with the formalities. Assume the position,” the Wizard commanded.
Not knowing exactly what he wanted, Iris dropped to her knees and began to undo his pants.
“A nice thought, witch,” the Wizard said. “But you know my preference. On the bed. On all fours.”
Biting her lip, it took all of Iris’s strength to not run out at that moment. Her thought fled back to her father, and she wondered how Glinda had endured this treatment for so long now. Turning, she climbed onto the bed, faced the other way, and got down on her hands and knees. She stared with terror as the Wizard pulled out a long object wrapped in leather from his coat pocket. He unzipped his pants, pulled out the object and attached the penis to his groin. It instantly came to life, throbbing and already thrusting on its own. Iris bit her lip harder, tasted blood, as the penis entered her. It twisted up into her like a snake, scraping every inch of her insides. She imagined the penis crawling farther up into her, past her uterus, beyond her stomach and heart, and into her brain. She began to panic, thinking the Wizard would see her thoughts, learn her identity. She closed her eyes, and once again pictured Glinda in her mind to keep from screaming.
After what seemed like hours but she knew was really only moments, the Wizard moaned and withdrew. Relieved it was over, Iris passed out on the bed.
She awoke sometime later in near total darkness. For a moment, she forgot where she was, why she was there. Turning her head, she saw the sleeping form of the Wizard, apparently satisfied. His breathing was heavy, raspy, grating like one of his engines. She quietly slid out of the bed, being careful not to wake the Wizard. She walked around the bed to other side, and looked at the Wizard’s nightstand. As she hoped, it was there, what she knew now to be the source of his power. It sat there straight up, still throbbing, still ready for more although the Wizard himself was worn out.
Iris picked it up in her hands, squeezing its fleshy firmness in her hand. She looked at it, its veiny bulging twists, its fattened cap resting on top. To think so much trouble came from something like this.
Feeling bold, she patted the Wizard on the top of his graying head, only getting a grunt for a response. Iris reached out with her mind, and called for her broom. It was already waiting at the window, ready to take her home. She stepped out carefully, sighed, and began her flight.
The sun was just beginning its first steps into the sky as Iris flew out the Wizard’s window. Emerald City lit up behind her, shimmering green with the first rays from the sun. She headed north, north towards Glinda’s land to tell her the good news that the Wizard’s reign would soon be over.
Near the border between the Wizard’s land and Glinda’s a storm was forming. Blackened clouds appeared out of nowhere, closing off the sky. The wind was especially strong, whipping Iris and her broom in wild circles across the sky. Iris held the broom in clenched fists, knuckles turning white from the stress. At one moment the wind blew and twisted her around, she became confused between the directions of the sky above and the ground below.
Finally, the storm ended and vanished as quickly as it arrived. She could see the blue glow of Glinda’s nimbus in the distance, and headed towards it. Glinda was with a small girl, standing in front of a small house of a type she had never seen before. Something rose up in her, a sense of panic she couldn’t explain. And then she saw why. Peeking out from below the house were a pair of legs, legs that wore ruby slippers on the feet. She watched as Glinda bent over, removed the slippers and gave them to the child. She knew at that moment that Tia Matte was right, that she had been betrayed, perhaps tricked all along. Her heart burned and crumbled into something small, something wicked, knowing that Oz’s hope for the future lay with her alone. She flew off to the the west to prepare for the battle that she knew would probably take her life.