Sluice Warrington was growing more and more annoyed with Rez, especially the man’s side-street studio with its clitter clatter of canvases and layers upon layers of dust and paint-pocked floors as mindless as a Jackson Pollock. But worse, he hated how the man’s oil canvases would sell for upwards of five grand; how entropy spawned celebrity. It seemed the more Rez became a mess of a human being, the more potent the paintings he pushed into galleries and living rooms and furniture stores and government buildings, while Sluice kept a tidy space—white and rounded as an Apple Store, clean and clinical as a nurse’s ass—debarring his passion only on canvas, releasing himself like a frothing inmate given knife and vein—and made nothing.
Not a quarter on skulls fading into moons, not a dime on robed figures biting into babies, not a nickel on statues wearing human skin, not a penny on nude women exhaling trails of beetles down their necks. But no one wanted truth anymore. No one wanted darkness. They wanted lazy pleasures that took a heartbeat to decipher. Rez’s slurred landscapes, his blotted horses, the slop he called wildflowers and slabs of meat he called people, that sold.
But no longer! thought Sluice as he nailed up a shelf in his studio. Onto this shelf, Sluice piled the most obscure books he could find—travelogues of strange seas, manuscripts by madmen, maps, codices, scrolls, books of lost alphabets, ideas, and animals, illustrated stories about historical monsters, portents, prophecies, addendums to the Bible and Koran, alchemic recipes, pamphlets from an English secret society called the White Cloak, the lost diaries of Turriciano, Alan Moore’s Providence (it was a good read), and heaps and heaps of spellbooks—any Sluice could find—from scratched out equations on toilet rolls to black blood volumes with poison green titles to crackling leather barely protecting crinkling vellum slips. It was in this search that he finally found what he was looking for: an edge.
The time was opportune, too, for Rez had reached a new tier of nuisance. The Bed Springs Fine Arts Museum was exhibiting a collection entitled: “Rez, Resurrected,” featuring his series of graveyards that looked like gray teeth on green lips. During the opening ceremony, Rez had attributed little depth to his works, describing them as: “Pretty, aren’t they?” and focusing instead on process. This was the worst of it, that someone with such talent would be an idiot. Only Sluice recognized “Rez, Resurrected” for having all the subtly of ape excrement.
But finally, inspiration. In a manuscript made from animal skin—the pages scrubbed so thinly they were translucent—Sluice found a text black as burns and slashing wildly as knife strokes. The manuscript’s language had been lost in the loams of Persia, but he could read it legibly, although this induced migraines. Into these petrified layers of Sign and Sorcery, he peered. Most of it was murky as a cauldron, but here and there surfaced insights into the nature of magic, and the entire work seemed to promise to end the reader’s sterility and that half-abominated world of near-but-never fame. Instead, the reader would be elevated to Subcreator, to really shape a Work from the materia, to make art that lives and pumps. Every artist before had been a neanderthal, grunting through the rubbish of language, smearing shadow people and spears on ill-lit caves.
So Sluice read and read, and read all over again. His day job at an IT firm assisted his mediation; the dull, tedious investigation of a computer’s interior workings and those codes which can bring configured metal to life helped him understand how script might Signify; how language could lunge from petty black symbols into systems of reality. He read through swollen eyes and a thunderous cavern of bone and finally he was ready and went to his wife and said: “It’s time we had a child.”
He did it. There were certain preparations. The candles were bloodmeal; the paste between the mattresses a viscosity of crushed raven, frog bile, and peaseblossom. He drew sigils in notebooks which he carefully placed about the room—the diagrams’ energies not deterred by the roofs of their binding. The Endless Words were uttered under his breath, and in the throes of passion, when the muttering would have discouraged the mood, he thought the Endless Words articulately, repetitively. The process gave him headaches, prolonging the creative process and letting him dive deeper and deeper into her folds. When he was done, he laid lustily in perfumed sheets as she sat on her back, legs in the air.
The early days of her pregnancy were normal. He read the book often. It stayed, this manuscript, by the bed, and he consulted the text as if it were a child-rearing guide. The words were less legible now, revealing only glimpses of truth which devolved into blaring, world-tearing headaches. Sometimes he felt the thinness in the air, or the quiet sound of movement, or a gonging noise like the heartbeat of some alien pressing its chest against his ears. But the reading wasn’t as helpful anymore. The process had been completed: the canvas had been her, the paint the black text, the brush his tongue slapping against teeth. The Great Work, hidden beneath her bump, needed to ferment like alcohol.
His wife was always hungry—she would eat loaves of bread in the check-out aisle and could never keep a stocked fridge. She also felt impressions of the art within her. She complained of dreams that there was a parasite in her belly—sometimes it appeared like a squid thing with the face of a spider, or a plated beetle coated in slimy horns, or a bundle of worms whose heads ended in an array of needle-roots piercing the womb lining. Did all pregnant women feel this way? Feel slowly eaten alive from within? Her stomach swelled larger and larger but her legs, butt, neck, etc., all remained thin. The baby was gorging itself on her—sipping her nutrients through the straw in its belly. Sometimes it pressed against the womb, and the impression pushing out of her skin wasn’t a foot, but something like a sliding eel. But Sluice didn’t want an ultrasound. “We can’t afford it,” he said. “You lost your healthcare and most of our income is going toward student loans and I’m afraid in three months we’ll be out on the streets or moving in with your parents.” But Sluice said this with a gleeful intensity and his eyes didn’t match the sour news. Instead, the narrow bands of blue around his engorged pupils glittered in anticipation and she thought—he’s excited about the baby.
But she was worried about Sluice and the darkness of his appetite. Sluice avoided his friends, especially Rez. His nights were spent at home, dozing, or reading the crumbles of paper he called “the Manuscript.” There was a smugness there despite the black bags bordering his eyes and the strained, rashy complexion of his skin. And a patience, too, which exceeded all compassion and bordered on the stoicism of a scientist cultivating a petri dish. They did not have sex—he didn’t feel comfortable pressing against the bulge too harshly.
Sluice kept reading, and the book kept revealing new layers of text until he thought he must be at the organs of the thing, or digging against the bones. The further he pressed his face into the Manuscript, the more Signs he uncovered, until he realized this book was an autopsy of sorts—an unraveling of the corpse of the cosmos.
The day came when he was dreaming about ruins that a text buzzed on his phone: [Hurry. Now. Having contractions.] Sluice rushed out his cubicle past confused glances, his phone pressed to his ear. “Sluice,” she moaned over the phone while he stood in the elevator. “This doesn’t feel right.” “There’s blood, Sluice,” she said as he pulled his car from the lot. “And—And something else.” The exit by the toll booth was accompanied by a series of moans, almost in pleasure. By the freeway they’d curdled into fulsome screams.
When Sluice pulled up to his driveway, the house was like an egg cracked open and poured into a pan. The wall to the living room had shattered into tufts of concrete and insulation foam and the veins of electrical wires. Coating it all were smears of what could have been jelly, only they stank of umbilical fluids and maggots. Sluice examined a series of craters on the driveway and, with the satisfaction of an artist who, masterpiece complete, must put away the tools, went inside to put away his wife.