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The Artist & The Octopus

Updated: May 14

Stephen T. Vessels, an extraordinary writer and human, left this realm on August 27, 2021. I am so grateful that we were able to feature one of his best stories, "The Artist and the Octopus" as the heart of Volume 7. The story features his own art, and it was in honor of this story that an octopus found its way to the cover of the volume. I'm featuring the story in its entirety below, so that everyone can enjoy it.



Edmund pried thumbtacks out of the hard gallery walls, took down his drawings, and thought about killing himself. Eight years to produce these pieces and not one had sold; not a single reviewer had bothered to pan them. He’d canvassed a hundred galleries to find one that would represent his work, driven himself past exhaustion to prepare for the show and mount it, and his first exhibit in thirty years might as well never have happened. He couldn’t imagine the universe giving him a clearer sign to quit.


A month ago he’d turned sixty.


He laid the fifteen by twenty-two inch charcoal drawings in his portfolio between sheets of glassine, street scene on still life, self-portrait on skyline at night. Franc, the old Polish gallery owner, relic of a bygone era when art was more about sincerity than statement, watched him with concern. “Is no big disaster, Edmund. This is very hard business. You work very hard and have show in Manhattan. Is accomplishment.”


And in another thirty years my career will take off. “Thanks, Franc. You’ve been great.”


“You are very great artist, Edmund.”


“Have them chisel that on my headstone, will ya?” Edmund forced a laugh, but Franc looked away.


Edmund bore his portfolio homeward down streets so familiar his skin knew them by the texture of the air. Along the way he doled out a few bucks to panhandlers. He was not always so generous. There was an old guy on Seventh and Forty-second who got belligerent if you didn’t give him anything, and Edmund always made a point of stiffing him. But tonight he forked over all the cash he had left in his wallet—about thirty bucks.


The old bum didn’t miss a beat. He stuffed the bills in his filthy overcoat and strode off without a word. Edmund sighed and forgave him. No one got that bitter without a rotten history behind him.


He picked up a fifth of Jameson at the corner liquor store, paid with his bank card, made his way up the four flights to his minuscule studio and surveyed the glory of his home. Thirty years he’d lived here, and even with rent control he could barely afford it. The small dining table was coated with charcoal dust, as was the floor around it. He hadn’t changed the sheets on his bed in months. He poured himself a deep one and sat down at the table to contemplate the mistakes he’d made, neglecting his aspirations to get by, squandering opportunities, never really taking a risk. One of the unwashed millions, a mote in the sandstorm of human ineptitude.


By the head of his unmade bed sat a gallon of archival PVA glue he’d bought for mounting paper on panels, thinking to experiment with drawing on a harder surface. Something else he’d never gotten around to—the can served as a pedestal for an ashtray. He was on his third drink, staring at the glue, when a brutal notion seized him. Swaddled in the sibling comforts of alcohol and despair, amid the befouled wreck of his home, he made up his mind.

This was no way to live.


He wiped down the table, mopped the square of vinyl floor surrounding it, stacked his thousand-plus drawings, including the twenty he had exhibited, on the kitchen counter. He hated how much he loved them. They were the wardens of his solitude, gatekeepers of his estrangement from the world. All month long, as the days passed and nothing sold, he’d wondered if he should have turned his efforts to painting or worked larger or chosen different subject matter. More than anything, the available space had influenced his decision to work small. Finances had determined the medium: charcoals were cheap. The simplest thing had been to draw what was around him, render the banal components of his directionless existence distinct and precious. Details of pavement, glasses on tables, faces in windows, trees and people, views down endless streets—everything he’d produced now seemed insipid and derivative.


He shook up the gallon of PVA, poured some into a paint tray, rolled glue on the face of a drawing of an old pine in Central Park, smearing the charcoal irreversibly into a grey soup, put a drawing of a urinating Pekingese on top of it and smoothed it down. Once he’d started it were as if he’d cast a spell on himself. He couldn’t stop. With cynical determination, his face sloppy with tears, he glued his drawings together, one on another. Finish it, he told himself. Finish and be free. Drink coffee in the morning and get drunk at night, work through the days like everyone else, walk where you want ‘cause you want to, save money and travel, get laid when you can. Live a simple, happy life while you still have time. Free of hoping and hurting and longing and never getting no-fucking-where. He glued his drawings into six equal stacks, each with a self-portrait on top, placed art books on them so they’d dry flat, sat down to cry and drink some more.


It took a couple of hours for the glue to dry, leaving him with six paper boards, each about two inches thick. With a box cutter he cut them all square, beveled their edges to forty-five degree angles, and glued five of them together, with the portraits facing inward, making an open-topped box. He chopped up the cut-off ends and put the scraps inside, then glued on the sixth side, with a portrait facing inward again. He strapped belts around the box and again let the glue dry. Once it had, he erased all blemishes from the exterior and burnished it, winding up with a white cube about fifteen inches square.


It was just after midnight and he wasn’t anywhere near done drinking.


He took the box down to the street. He didn’t want to leave it by the curb. It could sit there indefinitely; the garbage collectors might not pick it up. Someone might snag it for another use—a footrest or a little end table or something. He didn’t want to leave his art to an uncertain end.


He went to a neighborhood bar that stayed open until three, sat in a corner with the box on the bench beside him. A couple of people asked him how his show had gone. He laughed and didn’t answer.


He drank until closing. No amount of alcohol could drown his acute awareness of how terribly he had just mutilated himself. He patted the cube consolingly. He’d joined the legions of the mad, who amputated their hopes and dreams in acquiescence to fate. There was no turning back.

The bartender cut him off and herded him outside. There were few cars on the street and no pedestrians. Edmund remembered a dumpster behind a restaurant, a few blocks away. Trying somewhat pointlessly not to weave on the sidewalk, he carried the box there. The dumpster was full, mounded with garbage propping up the lid. He didn’t want to leave his art on top of that, either. He set the cube down, lit a cigarette, and drifted off a few yards, thinking. A transient odor of sewage stung his nostrils. It came to him what to do. He would take his art to the waterfront and chuck it in the river.


Quick footsteps sounded behind him. Edmund looked back to see a hooded figure make off with the box.


“Hey!” Edmund ran after him.


The thief was young and fast and Edmund was drunk but he was angry. He wasn’t going to let some punk determine the fate of his work. Nevertheless, he tired and the distance between them grew. Just when Edmund thought he’d lost the chase, the thief looked back, shouted some taunt, and tripped on a curbstone. The box flew from his grasp as he fell.


Edmund pushed himself and closed the distance before the thief could recover. The box had landed on the steps of an upscale apartment building. The thief got back up, looked at the box and at Edmund; for an instant their eyes locked. He was just a kid, maybe fourteen years old. Edmund hurled a savage cry and the boy bolted to the end of the block and around the corner.


Edmund leaned on the railing by the steps, catching his breath. His heart pounded triple time; it felt like his chest would explode. He steadied his breathing, shook his head at the absurdity of what he’d just done, and lit another cigarette.


The kid reemerged from around the corner, accompanied by two older and much bigger youths. Edmund stared at them a beat, flicked the cigarette away, and snatched up the box, preparing to run. He didn’t expect to get far.


A doorman opened the door of the apartment building and leaned out. “That the thing?” he asked.


Edmund blinked at him. Any port in the storm—“Yeah, it’s the thing.” He leapt up the steps and ducked inside.


“They said you’d be coming.” The doorman secured the door and pointed across a wood-paneled lobby. “Elevator on the left.”


Edmund let the doorman take the lead and glanced back. The three hoodlums reached the entrance and glared at him through the glass doors. He followed the doorman past the reception desk to the elevator bay, along the way catching a glimpse of himself in a gold-framed mirror. He’d never seen himself look so wretched.


The doorman pushed the button for the elevator. “I have to key you in.”


Edmund couldn’t think how to explain himself. “You want me to deliver it?” he asked inanely.

“I’m not going up there,” the doorman said.


He’d already lied; if he came clean, the doorman might kick him back outside. His three pursuers still watched from the street.


The doors opened and he boarded the elevator. The doorman leaned in, turned a cylindrical key in a slot, punched the button for the penthouse, and left Edmund to his fate. The doors closed and the elevator rose.


Edmund sometimes yielded to random impulses intentionally, on the premise that an artist had to, now and then, invite new ideas.


He wasn’t an artist anymore.


The elevator opened onto a small vestibule with olive-green walls, facing tall double-doors of dark wood. Edmund stepped off and the elevator closed behind him. Gilded foliar sconces with flame-shaped light bulbs flanked the doors. Mounted above a peephole in the left door was a small brass medallion bearing a hexagram.


Edmund decided to wait there awhile—let the young thief and his cohorts tire and seek other mischief.


The door opened and a huge, bald-headed man, well over six feet tall, stared down at him. Muscles bulged in the man’s blazer. The room behind him was dark.


“Did he bring it?” called a voice from inside.


The giant frowned at Edmund’s white cube. Before Edmund could react, he took it from him and pried at the edges. “He brought a box,” he answered in an East European accent.


“What?”


“A box! How does this open?” he asked Edmund.


“It doesn’t—”


“Bring it here,” said the voice.


The giant withdrew and Edmund haltingly pursued him into a vast, darkly shadowed room with big sofas and armchairs, low tables, and large paintings on the walls—one might have been a Boccioni, an abstraction of a gyrating figure. To the left, through a broad entry, a standing lamp dimly illumined a strange tableau in an adjoining room. Two silhouetted figures stood by a wheeled hospital bed, blocking Edmund’s view of the person lying on it.


“Show it to me,” said the person on the bed. “Open it.”


The giant held the box up for the person to see. “He says you can’t open it.”


“Bring him here.”


The giant stomped back, seized Edmund by the arm, and propelled him forward. Edmund stared about in inebriate daze. As he crossed the threshold into the far room, his attention lolled left to shock him with the spectacle of a stone Buddha fifteen-feet tall.


“Hullo there,” called the voice from the bed.


Edmund couldn’t imagine how they’d gotten the statue up here. It had to weigh tons.


“What’s this box, some riddle? Where’s the Neuro-Galactic Cross?”


The Buddha had been shocking, but the man on the bed was a phenomenon of another order. His face was streaked with blood and he had an octopus on his head.


“I—” Edmund was bereft of words.


“Speak up. What’s in this box?” The man had an upper-class British accent.


“My creativity,” Edmund answered without thinking.


“Your what? Signe, raise me up.”


Beside the man with the octopus on his head stood one of the most narcotically beautiful women Edmund had ever beheld. She wore an ultra-short, form-fitting dress that wound down her body in a spiral, like a ribbon, exposing about half of everything. “Mendel, who is this guy?” she asked the giant. “This isn’t Sulek’s courier. He doesn’t know what we’re talking about.” She pushed a button on a control box, and the back of the hospital bed rose.


“He was at the door,” the giant said.


Signe gave Edmund a skeptical look, grabbed a spray bottle from a side table, and misted the octopus. A clear plastic bladder of water enclosed the mollusc’s mantle and gills, and catheters were affixed to its syphons. Two thin hoses were attached to the bladder, one which fed into a tank of liquid, the other to what looked like a small oxygen cannister. The creature’s tentacles clung tightly to the man’s head.


The man was fixed on Edmund. “What do you mean, your creativity’s in it?”


Edmund blinked at him and took an unconscious step backwards. “I...it’s...it is.”


“Interesting,” said the fourth person in the room, a short, wiry-haired man in a dark, three-piece suit.


“Mendell, bring our visitor a drink,” said the man on the bed. “You want a drink?” he asked Edmund. “Bring him a whiskey, Mendell.”


“He’s had enough already,” said Signe.


“He’s going to need more, I think,” said the man on the bed.


“This is no time to indulge your whims, Archie,” Signe said.


“It is no whim when a man with his creativity in a box arrives at my door while I’m being trepanned.”


“He may be a guide and not know it,” said the short man. “He may be an agent of the Elysian plain, or a visitor from the Core.”


“Exactly, Doctor,” said Archie. “In which case, alcohol will not occlude his deeper faculties.

The Jura, Mendell. Be liberal in your pour. Signe, bring our friend a chair.”


“You make friends too easily, Archie.” Signe put an armless, cushioned, Edwardian chair by Edmund. “Sit,” she said.


Edmund sat. He felt light-headed. “What,” he swallowed, “what’s going on?”


“A great many things at once, I should say,” Archie replied.


Mendell handed Edmund a cut-crystal whiskey glass, half full of dark, amber fluid. Reflexively, Edmund drank from it and rich flavors of artfully refined Scotch bloomed in his mouth. He couldn’t think how to re-frame his question. “I mean...” He gestured at Archie in high bewilderment.


“What am I doing with a cephalopod on my head? Yes, I must look a spectacle. But tell me about your box.”


Edmund had forgotten that Mendell had taken it. “Can I have that back, please?”

“Of course. Mendell, the man wants his creativity back, and we shan’t deny him, there’s a good fellow.”


Mendell gave Edmund his box. A couple of corners had been blunted and it was scuffed up. Edmund put his glass on an oval end table edged with a perforated brass fence, dusted the box off, and clutched it in his lap.


“What is your name, sir?” Archie asked in a softer voice.


Edmund muttered his name.


“Edmund, is it? Hello, Edmund. Allow me to introduce myself and my motley companions. I am Archibald Hayweather, also known as Lord Bristol—you may call me Archie—and it is my New York residence in which you presently encamp. The ravishing young woman who brought you your chair is my secretary and companion, Signe Sköld. The gentleman here attending me this evening is Doctor Friederich Keinhaus, scholar of the occult sciences and psychic physician extraordinaire.”


The short man bowed, streaks of grey flashing in his hair as the light caught it.

“And the formidable person who greeted you at the door is my manservant and guardian, Mendell.”


Edmund nodded uncertainly.


“How old are you, Edmund?” Archie asked.


Edmund cleared his throat. “Sixty.”


“Ah, we are peers. And yet just now there’s something quite childlike about you.”

Edmund swallowed.


“I perceive that you need a moment to collect yourself. Very well, I shall answer your question first. But then you must answer mine, and tell me about your box, agreed? A tale for a tale?”

Edmund nodded in vague acquiescence and stared down at his box—an abstract thing, incomprehensible.


“Do you know what trepanning is?” Archie asked.


Edmund shook his head.


“In the broader sense, it is a term for drilling. More specifically it refers to the very ancient practice of creating an opening in one’s skull.”


Without raising his head, Edmund peered up at Archie. He was seized by a coughing fit and downed a slug of Scotch. He’d stumbled into a nightmare, with gargoyles come to taunt him. He cleared his throat again. “You—you’ve drilled a hole in your head?”


“I have. Or rather the doctor here has.” Archie nodded at Keinhaus and the octopus wobbled.

Signe squeezed Archie’s shoulder. “Careful.”


Archie patted her hand; “Thank you, my dear. Yes,” he told Edmund, “directly through the anterior fontanelle of my cranium. It is an especially delicate procedure. Trepanning is usually done through the frontal or parietal bone, avoiding the sutures. The intention is to accelerate blood flow to the brain, thereby heightening one’s perceptive and cognitive processes. The fontanelle is generally avoided because it can fracture and compromise the integrity of the skull. It is also, however, situated directly at the locus of the seventh chakra. For one seeking to establish a cosmic link, it is therefore the obvious place to drill. The Doctor, here, is the most skilled trepannist extant, and I undertook him to perform the procedure.”


Edmund swallowed. They were barking mad, all of them. “Uhhmm, octopus?”


“That is another of the Doctor’s protocols. You see, where other trepanners avoid compromising the sutures of the cranium, I am attempting to compromise mine, ever so slightly, to expand the cavity inside my skull and afford my brain room to breathe, as it were. A minuscule increase can effect extraordinary results. Any sort of suction device might exert undue pressure on my brain. An octopus’ tentacles are very strong. They can pry open a clam. The octopus’ beak is held shut by a rubber cone in the trepanned opening, simultaneously sealing it, while the tentacles reflexively grip my head, creating outward stress upon the sutures. Over time, with repeated applications, a micronic increase of cranial capacity can be realized.”


“A suction device could, in fact, be designed to similar purpose,” Keinhaus interjected, in a heavy German accent, “but would not satisfy Lord Bristol’s metaphysical objectives. Octopi are highly intelligent creatures. They can be trained, and I have subjected this one to rigorous instruction. I have also injected it with a mild sedative; one does not wish to separate Lord Bristol’s skin from the underlying musculature. And, of course, I have also dosed it with a tincture of psilocybin. You see how its skin changes color.”


“Psilo-lobin?”


“To facilitate commune between the octopus’ mind and Lord Bristol’s.”


Edmund snorted.


Keinhaus’ chin jutted with indignation. “Lord Bristol is attempting to interlocute with Divine cosmic consciousness. As elucidated in the writings of M. Blavatsky, K. Huysmans, and others, this requires opening the primal conduit to one’s past lives. Other researchers, such as myself, have determined that the conduit descends, neurologically, through the hippocampus and cerebellum. The octopus’ primordial psyche stabilizes the gateway.”


Edmund nodded. “Okay, I should probably go.” He tried to stand, unsuccessfully.


“Come now, Edmund,” Archie said, “we have an agreement. Leave if you must, but won’t you tell us about your box, first? You come unbidden to my door, and we have treated you cordially. Surely we merit some explanation.”


“I, uh...” Edmund tried to stand again, but couldn’t manage it holding the box, and didn’t want to let go. The incomprehensible weirdness of the situation cast him into a fit of laughter that climbed to hysteria before plummeting to tears. The bizarre crew he’d fallen in with regarded him soberly. Signe’s frown deepened. The doctor peered at him as if he were an enigma. Archie, through blood and tentacles, watched him with concern. Mendell remained impassive.


“Dear fellow,” Archie said softly.


Maybe it was the whiskey, maybe the outrageous circumstances, maybe the warmth in Archie’s tone. Edmund found himself liking Archie, hard as it was to look at him, and was overcome by a craving for kindness and a need to unburden himself. Once he’d started, the floodgates of self-revelation burst, and the frustration and pain he’d hidden for decades spilled out. He told them about a life spent in isolation, in moribund denial of his gifts. He told them about his failures with women, how he’d suffered from every one. He told them how his parents, whom he’d loved dearly, had fought to suppress his artistic urges. He told them about starting to draw again, and how he’d hidden, even from himself, his frail hopes for success. He told them about the exhibit, and what he’d done to his drawings. He couldn’t look at them while he spoke, but when he’d finished, and did look, even Mendell seemed moved.


“You have done yourself a very grave injury, my friend,” Archie said.


Edmund nodded.


There followed a silence in which Edmund experienced his isolation viscerally, while his mind lolled empty of thought. Somewhere a clock ticked and the hose in the water tank burbled.

“Your tale is incomplete,” Archie said. “What brought you to us?”


Edmund sighed, and told them about leaving the bar, chasing the young thief, and the doorman mistaking him for a delivery man. “Accident brought me here. Sheer, dumb accident.”


Archie hummed skeptically. “I’m not sure I agree. It strikes me you cast a kind of spell on yourself, with intuitive magicks, and may have set in motion alchemical forces.”


Edmund chuckled grimly and shook his head.


“But think about it,” Archie said. “You render your art invisible, and fashion it into a sealed vessel. That is a remarkable thing to do. Can you not sense the power in it? Think about where you were a moment ago, chasing after someone who’d stolen from you the very art you had yourself destroyed, and a moment before, engaged in its destruction, and a moment before, removing it from the walls of a gallery where it had been displayed. And now here you are, in a circumstance you could hardly have anticipated, sharing your tale with, well,” Archie chuckled, “four, it cannot be denied, somewhat unusual personages, drinking twenty-one-year-old Scotch in front of a twelve-hundred-year-old statue of Lord Guatama Buddha. It is a curious series of developments, wouldn’t you say?”


“What brought you here?” Edmund asked defensively.


“Planning, forethought, and an ineffable conspiracy of invisible forces.”


“Leaving you with an octopus on your head.”


“And you with your creativity boxed. I must say, that is an interesting objet d’art.”


“It isn’t art, it’s destruction.”


“By what criteria is it not also art?”


Edmund couldn’t think of an answer.


“What is the function of art? Leaving theory and politics out of it.”


Edmund blew out a breath and shook his head at Archie. “I don’t think I want to...”


“Indulge me,” Archie urged.


Edmund sighed and shrugged. He’d never tried to think of it reductively and surprised himself with the clarity of his answer: “To provide objects for reflection.”


“Just so. Is that not what you have created? If only to be reflected upon by yourself?”


“I created it to get rid of it.”


“Yet still you cling to it. Someone tried to take it from you, and you pursued them to get it back.”


“I didn’t create it to be reflected upon.”


“Are you certain? Have you reflected upon it?”


“All too miserably.”


“And what does your misery tell you?”


“It told me to make the fucking box.”


“Ah, a two-dimensional conundrum. But even a Möbius strip is mathematical chicanery, which in physical figure indeed possesses a third dimension. The fact is, despite seeking to destroy your work, you created something in the process, and fashioned it most assiduously.”


“You’re making too much of it.”


“I did not make it, you did.”


“That’s talking in circles.”


“Geometric figures the interior dimensions of which cannot be precisely defined.”


Edmund tired of banter. “I’m sorry, I don’t—you can’t expect me to take you seriously. That—what you’re doing—it’s ridiculous. What kind of Rube Goldberg thing—I mean, you want to improve your mind, read a fucking book.”


“I’ve read a great many.”


“Much good it’s done you.”


“There it is! Parry and riposte, spirited repartee. Do you not marvel how quickly we’ve got there? But tell me, do you really imagine reading a book to be a simpler process than what I’m doing? Think of the millennia it took language to evolve, from the verbal traditions to hieroglyphics, ideograms, letter fonts, handwriting, the printing press, all the technologies and innovations and intellectual processes required to produce a book, the discipline and study required to read one, let alone interpret and comprehend it—Rube Goldberg, indeed.”


The elevator sounded faintly and Mendell left to answer the door before the bell rang. A muffled altercation ensued and Mendell returned. “The doorman is here with the courier. He wants to know about this guy.” He gestured at Edmund.


“Say we failed to inform him of a second delivery and extend my apologies. Assure him that Edmund is our friend and give him a tip for his troubles,” Archie said. “Of course, I understand your skepticism,” he said to Edmund. “Much in the realms of metaphysical knowledge smacks of insupportable conjecture. Many of Madam Blavatsky’s pronouncements, meaning no disrespect, Doctor, are dubious in the extreme. It is also true that she led an extraordinary life, traveled the world with impunity at a time when few women could, believed in a kinship of humanity without regard for race, creed, or sex, and held truth superior to religion.”


Mendell returned with a small jeweler’s box, opened it clamshell style and held it out for Archie to see.


Archie pursed his lips and eyed Keinhaus. “Doctor?”


Keinhaus, extracting fluid from a small glass vial with a syringe, glanced at the open box and nodded.


“Give the courier the envelope, Mendell,” Archie said. “Doctor, would you please show our guest the Cross? I believe at this point he may be considered participant in the proceedings.”


Keinhaus put down the syringe, took the box, and held it out to Edmund. “Do not touch it.”

The jeweler’s box contained a small stud composed of a gold ring, about half an inch in diameter, inset with four crystals, polished flat, divided by a thin gold cross. The perimeter of the stud appeared to be threaded.


“The crystals, Edmund,” Archie said, “were extracted from a meteor that fell in Sumatra in the late seventh century. They were at one point installed in the crown of a Buddhist monarch.”


Keinhaus withdrew to his preparations.


“You’re going to screw that into your head?” Edmund asked Archie.


“I am.” Archie nodded. “And you shall bear witness.”


Like entering the eye of a storm, Edmund visited the rare clarity that sometimes accompanies drunkenness. He saw the people he had fallen in with as players on a stage, eminently human, engaged in an unwitting fiasco. They were not dangerous, only peculiar. Archie was in particular an innocent, questing after a state of grace. He was burdened by hereditary guilt, as the rich often are, seeking absolution through transcendence. Signe might be avaricious but also clearly cared about Archie. Mendell, for all his brutishness, was childlike in his loyalty. Only the “doctor” was truly dubious, but his imposture was benign, self-deluding, and lacking in malice.


Edmund puffed out a breath. “Archie, I am bald-ass drunk, and I have done some sketchy shit, but your elevator has left the top floor and jitterbugged straight off into the cloud ranch of waltzing turkeys.”


Keinhaus injected the octopus with something and its tentacles relaxed. Without ceremony, he removed it from Archie’s head and dumped it, bag and all, into the tank of water. The crown of Archie’s head was revealed to be shaved, and there was, indeed, a hole there, welling with blood, which Signe gently sponged away. The stiffness in her expression told Edmund she didn’t like what was going on one little bit.


Edmund downed more Scotch. He couldn’t help feeling bad for the octopus and hoped it would be okay.


“You would not be alone in questioning my sanity, Edmund,” Archie said. “Perhaps I am impaired by too much inbreeding in my lineage, too much insulation from the world, too much freedom to indulge my whims. I ask you, though, what is life for? We are born to our myriad circumstances without rule book or guide, left to rely on those born before us to train us to their ways. But we never acquire any real understanding of our place in the cosmos, never learn where we come from, where we are going or why we are here, and drudge through our days telling ourselves that we are living as we should, engaged in activities, professions, attitudes, and beliefs that are practical, ethical, and sane. You would be hard-pressed to find a licensed physician who, upon learning what I am engaged in this night, would not only try to dissuade me from doing it but likely seek to restrain me from making the attempt. And yet, they would not declare incompetent or unbalanced anyone seeking to join the military or race a car at death-defying speeds or ski off a thousand-foot cliff with a kite strapped to their back. Am I not entitled to place some merit in my own intelligence, and discover truth for myself? Trepanning has been practiced since the time of pharaonic Egypt and before. I find it curious that it has survived so long if there’s nothing to it.”


“Lord Bristol,” Keinhaus interrupted, “time is short. We must complete the procedure while Orion’s sword is overhead.”


“Proceed, Doctor.”


Keinhaus secured a cranial harness to Archie’s head. Attached to the harness was a drilling mechanism from which he removed a coring bit. He replaced the bit with another fitting, then donned surgical gloves. He sterilized the fitting and the gold and crystal stud and secured the stud in the fitting.


Signe raised the back of the bed so that Archie sat upright. Keinhaus climbed a stool and positioned the drilling mechanism. With great care and concentration he screwed the stud into Archie’s head. He removed the harness, examined his work, and muttered approval. The surface of the stud was now flush with Archie’s cranium.


Keinhaus stepped down from the stool and leaned close to Archie. “What do you see?” he whispered.


A palpable quiet settled over the room. Archie frowned and shook his head. Then a profound change came over him and his eyes grew wide. “Oh my,” he breathed.


What happened next Edmund would have trouble recalling with clarity. He remembered watching the color drain from Archie’s face and crying out in alarm. A kind of shockwave, like a blast of wind, radiated from Archie and knocked the rest of them to the floor. The standing lamp went down, and the room plunged into darkness. Edmund was blown backwards in his chair.


Prone and disoriented, he had a vision. He saw concentric and interlocking rings of glowing symbols mill through infinity on elliptical courses. At their center was a great, glowing eye. A low, thrumming drone, like the slow heartbeat of a God, filled his ears.


The eye drew closer and filled his view. He sank into the pupil and saw, in a cascading and recursive flood, his life intertwined with that of the cosmos, destroyed and remade, all of it, instant to instant, and he was overcome by a terrifying impression that it was all him, that there was nothing else but this endless cycle he could never escape, and that all he had ever done was hide from himself this awareness.


But then, abruptly, he was somewhere else. The firmament grew calm, and he found himself looking onto a panorama of space more beautiful than anything he had ever imagined, an exhilarating display of cosmic events, brightly colored nebulae, galaxies, flowing curtains of star fields, among them, in the near surround, an armada of islands suspended like icebergs of stone afloat in an invisible sea. The upper surfaces of the islands were mountainous and verdant, and on many were gleaming cities of wondrous design, and Edmund realized that he was on one such island himself.


He stood up and looked around, filled with a sense of enchantment and awe he had not known since childhood. No city could he see on his island, but he noticed that he was not alone.


Some distance away, standing at the precipice of their island, gazing out, was a young boy. Edmund went to him, and they smiled at each other. The boy wore dark grey slacks, a burgundy-colored smoking jacket, and a white ascot knotted at his neck. His mirror-polished shoes reflected starlight. He extended his hand and Edmund shook it, realizing that the boy was Archie. Noticing how small his own hand was, Edmund understood that he had been restored to youth himself.


The two stood side by side, gazing out among the star-flung islands.


“Where are we?” Edmund asked.


“I used to want to understand things,” Archie said. “I confess, as I grow older, I have an increasing fondness for just being blown away.”


The vision vanished. Mendell had turned on an overhead light, casting the room into hurtful brightness. Broken glassware and figurines were scattered across the floor, in company with a spreading pool of water and a writhing octopus. The tank had ruptured. Paintings hung askew on the walls or lay dislodged on the floor.


Somehow Edmund had fallen without spilling his drink. He labored to his feet and downed it. Archie was a new shade of white. His eyes rolled back in his head and he began to convulse.

“Mendell, look at him,” Edmund said.


Before Mendell could react, a shudder passed though the room, and a creaking screech split the air. Edmund turned to see the stone Buddha lean right, its base sinking into the floor. The statue opened its eyes and looked at him.


Mendell scooped Archie off of the bed and headed for the front door. Edmund, following the others, noticed that a few inches of water remained in the bottom of the ruptured tank. He scooped up the octopus and plopped it in, glanced back at the leaning statue. Its eyes were closed.


The doorman was waiting at the bottom when the elevator reached the ground floor. Signe told him to wake up the people in the apartments under the statue and evacuate them. Edmund called for an ambulance on his cell phone.


Keinhaus did not accompany them to the hospital. Signe filled out the admittance forms. Archie was carted off and she, Edmund, and Mendell sat together in the waiting room.


Mendell looked like a lost child. Edmund noticed Signe attracting unsought attention from others in the room and went to the nurse’s station to ask if he could borrow a doctor’s smock. An elderly nurse seemed to understand and got him one. He took it to Signe and offered it to her.


She flared. “Do you think I am ashamed?”


“No.” He shook his head.


“Do you think I should be?”


“God, no.”


She hesitated, stood to put on the smock and sat back down, hugging herself. “Archie likes to look at me.”


Edmund sat beside her, nodding.


“I like it too,” she said.


“You care about him.”


Signe studied with sadness some inward prospect. “People say unkind things about Archie. But he never says anything unkind about anyone.”


A couple of hours passed before a doctor came to talk to them. Mendell and Signe went to see Archie, and Edmund stayed in the waiting room. He wondered why he did so but couldn’t bring himself to leave, stared about wearily at the taupe-colored walls, the grey, stained carpeting, the much-fingered magazines and children’s books. Awhile later, Mendell returned and told Edmund that Archie wanted to talk to him.


Archie was still wan, but some color had returned to his face. His head was bandaged. Signe released Archie’s hand and moved aside, making room for Edmund.


“They take that thing out of your skull, you old loon?” Edmund asked.


Archie favored Edmund with a lopsided grin. “The consensus seems to be that it’s safer to leave it where it is.”


Edmund grunted. “Not sure about that ‘doctor’ of yours.”


Archie chuckled. “We all see the world differently. Which I suppose makes us all a little mad.”


“Yeah, well there’s different and there’s...different.”


“You remind me of a joke about a man balancing a pecan on his erect penis.”


“What’s the punch line?”


“I can’t remember.” Archie’s expression turned wistful. “I feel bad about the octopus.”


“It might be okay. There was some water still in the tank, and I put it back in.”


The two men regarded each other with found affection.


“Listen, Archie—” Edmund cleared his throat. “I don’t know what happened last night, but I’ll always remember it and I’m glad that I met you.”


Archie took Edmund’s hand. “I am glad, too, my friend.”


Edmund nodded.


“We create memories, and chances for happiness.”


“Maybe so.”


Archie squeezed Edmund’s hand. “I know what is inside of your box.”


Edmund grinned and shook his head. “There’s nothing in there, Archie. Just some scraps—”


“No, no, I saw it. Six portraits of yourself, facing each other.”


Edmund stared.


“I am right, yes? I can see it in your eyes.”


“How..?”


Archie smiled, a benevolent gleam in his eyes. “But can you not see the power in that, Edmund? The alchemy? The magick you cast?”


Edmund couldn’t think what to say.


“We do not know what we are to each other, any of us. What invisible forces led you to me? But, Edmund, I think I saw what is inside your box because it is inside of me.”


***


Edmund took the subway home. At the corner near his apartment the cantankerous old panhandler was at his station. He spotted Edmund and came towards him.


Edmund was shot, the booze was wearing off, and he didn’t have the energy to deal with this guy.


The old bum’s gaze shifted away, and it seemed he would walk by. As he came abreast, he put his hand on Edmund’s shoulder, gave it a squeeze, and said softly, “Get some rest, brother. You need it.”


Edmund turned to watch the old man walk away. We do not know what we are to each other.


Edmund dragged himself to his apartment. Going inside, he looked at his empty hands and realized he had left his cube in Archie’s apartment.


It was like this day would never end. Edmund fell on his bed and passed out.


***


A week later a deliveryman brought him a package. Edmund unwrapped it and found his white cube inside. It had been cleaned and the corners repaired.


An envelope was taped to it. Inside was a check for more money than Edmund had ever had and a note from Signe that read, “Archie wants to see what you will make next.”


Edmund sat with the note in his hand and stared at the cube a long while. He called Franc and told him that he had destroyed his drawings. When Franc stopped moaning, Edmund arranged to have another exhibit with him in a year. Then he taped a large sheet of paper to the wall and began a drawing of an open-eyed Buddha with an octopus on his head.






Stephen T. Vessels

Stephen is a member of the pre-Joycean Fellowship and a Thriller Award-nominated author of science fiction, dark fantasy, and cross-genre fiction. His stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and collections from Grey Matter Press and ShadowSpinners Press. His story collection, The Mountain & The Vortex and Other Tales, was released by Muse Harbor Publishing. The Door of Tireless Pursuit and The Ruptured Firmament were published by ShadowSpinners Press. www.stephentvessels.com.

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