The Artists Pentaptych

by Jason Erik Lundberg


1. batik

Komang looks on as her wares are pored over by the American tourists, as they pick through the fruits of her livelihood and determine whether she will eat this night. The American woman eyes an intricate scarf that took Komang the better part of a month to craft, running her thick indelicate fingers over the fabric, not truly appreciating the artistry that went into creating such a thing. Both the tourists reek of Western wealth and privilege, and Komang knows in her soul that they will be stingy in their purchases.

Hers is the skill of batik tulis, the artisan who works in fabric and wax. In her youth, royalty throughout the Middle East and Asia clamored for her designs. Her hand, from a very young age, was the most steady of any that had been seen in a hundred years. When she drew her canting over cotton or silk, she needed no charcoal guidelines, and her strokes and curves flowed like perfection. She would outline the leaves of bougainvillea, or trace scenes from The Ramayana, and her praises were sung throughout a dozen lands.

But those days are over. Komang is now an old woman, attempting to survive in a land wracked by poverty and disease. Her artwork is only seen in the airport gift shops and her own ramshackle road stand. The American woman has picked up a batik coin purse, the least expensive product Komang has to offer. She wants to accost the tourist, tell her about the terrible living conditions all over Bali, describe the pervading air of hopelessness, implore her to give more, to share the good luck she has enjoyed. But Komang knows the argument would be fruitless, so she forces a smile, and accepts the American's pittance for the purse.

Later that evening, after she has given her day's earnings to her grandchildren so that they might buy rice for dinner, Komang sits at her stool, attempting to bring some beauty to a place that has turned ugly. She dips her canting, a gift from the Sultan of Brunei, into the bowl of hot wax, peers at the rectangle of rough burlap in front of her, and begins.

2. surrogate

Susan first thought having a surrogate was great. She wasn't pregnant, like most of the couples who used surrogates, but her sex drive wasn't quite up to the level of her husband's. After five years of marriage, Brad still had the libido of a wild rabbit, and she just wasn't up to the task anymore. She needed a rest. After talking to her friend Jennifer, who was four months pregnant with her second child, Susan found the company in the phone book and made the call.

Cassie had been a regular surrogate for almost two months, coming over four times a week sometimes. She was in the house now, pleasuring Brad loudly in the upstairs bedroom while Susan tried to watch a television documentary on ocelots. Cassie had gradually gotten louder as the weeks had progressed, which set Susan's nerves on edge. If she was going to screw Brad, she could at least do it respectfully.

Then it occurred to Susan that maybe Brad liked it loud and raucous. She had always been fairly tame in the bedroom, never making much more noise than heavy breathing. When Brad tried to spank her one time, she wouldn't talk to him for a week. Maybe she didn't know her husband at all. If he liked his sex rough, what else was he hiding from her?

After the noise died down, and the special on ocelots had given way to The Crocodile Hunter, Susan heard two pairs of footsteps descending the stairway. Brad and Cassie stood in the living room entryway, dressed in bright colors and holding suitcases. Brad informed Susan that he and Cassie were going away, maybe to a tropical island, anywhere away from here.

Susan sighed and remembered that she was the sole breadwinner in their partnership, that it was she who supported him while he tried to make a career as a performance artist, which he always managed to screw up by laughing or scratching or moving in some way as to totally destroy the illusion. She would cancel all his credit cards later that afternoon, and transfer all the funds from their joint bank account into one that was solely hers. Then, she would leaf through the Yellow Pages again, and this time request a surrogate who was male.

3. scrumtralescent

They huddled around the rugby ball, heads down, grabbing, hitting, elbowing, anything to get possession, to feel the polyurethane kid grain and synthetic leather rubber compound material in their hands, crushing against each other, crammed so tight that molecules shifted and mingled and bled into each other. Instead of ten individual, manly, sweating testosterone factories, there was now one organism with ten heads, twenty arms, twenty legs, one hundred fingers and one hundred toes. The scrum shrieked with self-knowledge and attempted to tear itself into its ten original components, but the damage had been done.

It was then that the ball began to glow and shift and iridesce. Under those ten pairs of hands, the ball transformed to hydrated silica, infecting the scrum quickly, traveling up the fingers to the arms, coating skin with opalescent light, over chests and legs and heads, glowing and hardening and making beautiful.

And that is how we got the statue that resides in our town square. Underneath is a plaque that lists the names of the ten brave men who gave their lives in order that we continue to appreciate art.

4. lepidoptera

You pass over your credit card without a second thought, not caring how much the special exhibit in front of you will set you back, only impatient that it takes so long to make the transaction. A swipe, a smile, a rip, a hurried signature. One gentleman in a sharp Italian suit hands you the receipt as another pulls back the heavy velvet curtain and waves you through with a bow. The temperature immediately plunges twenty degrees and you shiver in your thin tee-shirt and cargo shorts. The lights are dim here as well, and bluish, reinforcing the atmosphere of coolness.

The main attraction lies in front of you, an enormous semi-permeable barrier enclosing a virtual forest. On every tree trunk, every leaf, every available surface are the iridescent purple lepidoptera you came to see, big as a human hand, endangered and nearly extinct. Their wings open and close slowly, a false impression that they are waving at you. Despite the sign on the wall that prohibits flash photography, you dig your camera out of a hidden pocket and raise it, eager to capture these majestic creatures in halide silver. A click, a flash. The sudden intrusion of light evaporates the barrier, and the butterflies erupt from the enclosure, fastening onto your clothes, your hair, your skin, shrieking all the while, the noise pitched so high that it blinds you. They flap hard and a glittery golden dust puffs from their wings, choking you, making you sneeze until you pass out.

When you awaken in the hospital three days later, the doctors say there is nothing they can do, and when they provide a mirror you see skin purple as a bruise, eyes nothing but iris, and thin translucent wings that itch where they join the flesh of your back. If you had listened while they were scanning your credit card, you would have heard that there is a reason you shouldn't use flash photography, that the way this species reproduces is quite special, and that if you are not careful, one day soon you will join your brothers and sisters behind the barrier, to be gawked at and trivialized.

5. matryoshka

Sergei, the last of the matryoshka masters, sat in his workshop, putting paint to his final masterpiece. He was the only artisan left in the world to craft his embedded dolls by hand, and after this one, he would retire. The post-Singularity world no longer made sense for him, where anyone could create anything by the slightest whim; art was no longer valued except as a curiosity. Things had no permanence when matter was manipulated at the nano-level.

Sergei's grandson Nikolai burst through the front door of the workshop, audibly surrounded by a cacophony of sound, of a dozen different musical pieces being played simultaneously. Nikolai stomped over to the almost-finished matryoshka doll, rolled his eyes and exhaled.

"Aren't you done yet?"

"Patience," Sergei yelled to be heard over the din. "It is something you never had. Great art requires patience."

"Not anymore," Nikolai said. He stabbed a finger into the still wet paint, then licked it off slowly. "The days of toiling over art are over, Grandfather. Just this past month, I've created four new symphonies, all brilliant."

Sergei looked up slightly. "How have you done this?"

"Brainbox upgrade."

Sergei shook his head. "Your generation has no soul."

"Maybe," Nikolai said, "but your generation never did anything with theirs. What's worse: not having a soul, or having one and wasting it?"

Sergei turned back to his work and smoothed out the paint that Nikolai had disturbed.

"I'll be back in the morning," Nikolai said, stomping back out the door. "Have this shit ready by then. I have ten other deliveries, and I don't want yours making me late."

The door slammed and Sergei was alone in the silence again with his creation. He would finish his last matryoshka doll, hand it over to the Mexicali Museum of Static Art, then find a sparsely-inhabited island in the Mediterranean, and live out the rest of his days in peace, hoping that someone somewhere would find value in his vision.

One last brushstroke to the outer shell of the doll, then a fine mist of anti-deconstructing lacquer, then his name laser-etched to the underside. He knew that his art would not be appreciated like it would have been had he been born even fifty years earlier, but he still took pride in his work. He boxed up the three-foot doll, left it on his porch for Nikolai to pick up in the morning, then turned out the light to his workshop, and went home.

"The Artists Pentaptych" copyright 2004 by Jason Erik Lundberg

Photo copyright 2004 by Eric Marin

About the Author:

Jason Erik Lundberg was born in Brooklyn, a mid-seventies baby. Since then, he grew up, moved a bunch of times, settled in North Carolina, graduated high school and college, moved out on his own, got shot at, worked in the real world, went to Clarion, fell in love, got married, and published some fiction and nonfiction. Currently, he's in graduate school, a Master's candidate in Creative Writing at NCSU. With his wife--the artist and writer Janet Chui--he runs Two Cranes Press, a small press out of Cary, North Carolina. His fiction is surreal and weird because life is surreal and weird. Anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves. He's slipstreamy and vervy, a zinester and proud of it, a Trickster in disguise. His favorite color is blue, and no, he's not Jewish, but thanks for asking.


Lone Star Stories * Speculative Fiction and Poetry * Copyright 2003-2004


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