Then Then Then (an excerpt)



The only remaining option is to eat the painting. To bring every brushstroke, every gesture, every canvas thread, every wood splinter, every sharpened nail, back into me. The painting took five years to complete, one year to listen to. I had emptied myself.

To call it the painting as though it is only one painting is inaccurate. There are layers, six in all: collapsed, buried, breathing. Alive, each of them, in the sense that they hold secrets and quiet moments, contain contradictions, desperation, nightmares, touch, time. But I did not intend to create a painting that is alive like a person is alive, but alive like Navanri wanted, with the power to rewrite the code of the continuum and open a passage for breakage to the beyond. I had failed.

Strolling the rows of Emory University’s art library, I ran my fingers over the spines and discovered a thin, gray-covered book hiding in a gap behind two thick volumes about the life and work of Georges Méautis. Thinking a careless student failed to reshelve the book properly, I extracted it and looked for the author’s name and call number. But there was no name, no call number, no title, as well as no cover page, no publication date or publisher information. The only mark on the cover was an embossed S surrounded by three sets of parentheses. I didn’t open the book immediately. I held it. I brought it to my ear, thinking I heard it chitter, then to my face to whiff varnish and charred skin in the canvas cover. I fluttered the fragile pages to the middle:
All movements, even rote and trivial motions, manifest the secret formulae of our physical world, but a specific gesture, or series of gestures, made at the exact right moment can reveal the shadowy existence of unknown entities.
I flipped closer to the beginning:
Those who architect images demonstrate they have the courage to peel back the false mask of existence and encounter the true shining cosmos.
And then to the first page:
All energy and, most importantly, all thoughts and emotions are absorbed by the sun.
I searched for acknowledgments but only found the author’s name beneath the last line:
It is difficult to know exactly how or when this rearrangement could manifest and so we must continue our diligence in discovering the breakage code and observing our environs for its effect.
—Katarina Navanri
I put the book in my bag. With no sensor or barcode, it did not trigger the alarm. As far as the system was concerned, the book did not exist.

Studio empty. Blank walls. Swept floor. Just the painting and me. Its top edge grazes the studio’s twelve-foot ceiling. It extends twenty feet from the door to the window. Beneath the light-facing façade of pale-blue housepaint are rough and thickened splotches of concrete, glass shards, thread, seeds, needles, rips of leather, paper from so many sources, my own hair, glue, lacquer, and oil and latex paint by the slab. All the materials chunked and unbalanced though I’d sanded the surface to near smoothness before each new iteration.

Navanri, page 7: Paint can mediate a more real presence and realign the geometry of energy patterns that constitute physical material to create fluid movement through the terrestrial sphere, into other dimensions outside of time-space—a breakage from our encumbered condition.

A breakage from our encumbered condition, a breakage from our encumbered condition. I repeated the phrase daily, carved it into the walls and ceiling while considering what to paint. Painting, for the first time in a long time, had meaning, possibility, the ability to make new, but to pick up a brush again, I had to shun my doubt and ignore the fear and emptiness that had slowly crystallized over several years. The heavy truth was that the blank canvas at some point built the skin of a familiar enemy and antagonist. I flinched and folded in its presence and instead took to teaching because in the classroom I could demand of others what filled me with endless dread and anxiety: giving images permanent placement on the canvas.

Everything I thought I knew about painting diminished under Navanri’s theories. The creative power she talked about could reconstitute the spectacle of existence. I didn’t tell my students or my gallerist, Anton, about Navanri because I needed to hold her ideas close and let her words build in me new forms I couldn’t imagine. Was it possible Navanri wrote the book for me? That she held me in her imagination when she revealed her instructions? Before I stopped sleeping, I would doze clutching the book, and when I woke it would be gone, only for me to find it later buried in my front yard or spackled in a wall crack or under the floorboards, covered in roach turds. One morning it was soaking wet on my roof, and I held each page to the sunlight until dry.

I stood before my class unbathed and speechless, shaking my head while trying to determine what images might fit the need Navanri mentioned. The students abandoned the room well before class was over and I stayed amongst the drying brushes and canvases for hours, marking symbols—mathematical, religious, scientific—on the dry-erase board that I thought might fit. I cancelled the next class, didn’t show the day after that, unable to lift myself from the studio floor. I eventually built the energy to walk the city streets, where I examined the cracked sidewalks for some echo of the thrumming inside me, and in that meeting place possibly locate some seed of inspiration. 

In that time, before my old life ceased and my new life had not yet been realized, I believe the painting started dreaming me.

I scoured the library’s online databases for materials on Navanri. She had no record or archive or evidence of existence. Google spit back lists of Did-you-means—Katherine Navarro, Katarine Naismith, Katrina Narran, Katarina Neuberg—which I also pursued to dead ends. I stacked books on metaphysics and painting in search of Navanri’s name in footnotes or indexes before asking myself why I needed to know anything more about her. I had the text I needed, I had the assignment, but I did not have the will to open myself to the work yet.

I grip the edge of the frame and, with a lunge, stand the towering painting on end. The structure balances in perfect syzygy of sun, painting, painter. I fear it will be immovable from its new position of power but scurry when the air rattles and the painting staggers then slams to the floor with a smack that jolts my throat. Looking at the painting on the floor gives me some sense of triumph. The painting developed an acute hatred for my incompetence and conveyed its hostility by striking me with searing headaches that attacked the left side of my skull and deafened me for days. My body’s left side sweated and dragged, and I only felt relief when I committed every second of the day to the painting.

In the fabric, a writhing silence slowly matured into a pulse over time. It all exists, everything I suspect, in and beyond that surface. My task was to cull it from where it lurked. But—

Nails pried and canvas loose like a rotting skin. Teeth sink into the corner, and I wrestle away a chunk. Chips of paint clog my gums. In my throat, the sweet-pine taste of turpentine and the sharp stabbing of crushed bits. Each bite reduces into an impossible little tumor that refuses to be consumed, forcing my gnashing to grow in resolve until I work my jaw numb. My tongue blisters. An unbearable burning swells in my stomach and rises from my eyes to the top of my scalp. My fevered skin begs me to stop, so I take a break to breathe and cool. Then continue. In the corner, the palm-sized camera rolls, recording every movement, steadfast and staring, unrecoiled. Seconds gather into minutes, minutes build hours.

I press myself to the floor. Sweat soaks an outline of my body into the wood grain and I scream until my throat goes ragged. My fingers thicken and stain with paint. I tear bites with the fervor of the starved as the canvas cakes in my molars again and again, but I chew until it softens to swallowable mush, which eventually climbs down my throat into my gut, then rub the stabbing swell just above my navel and howl in pain while my jaw continues gnawing.  

The camera records me rolling on the floor while the excruciating hope, ambition, and desperation in the paint slip back into my bloodstream and back into my muscles, back into my eyes and brain and skin, where it all came from. I cry. I cum. I wake with drool soaking my shirt, bury my teeth and wrench away another toxic chunk.

Navanri, page 16: It is through crafting images conjured from the abyss that we pry apart the disintegrating form of our world and see beyond the border to the beginning, the place where constellations are born.

The day I started the painting, I received an envelope in the mail—stamped with the parentheses-locked S I’d seen on the cover of Navanri’s book—and inside found a card of thick seed paper that reeked of dead wood. In the center of the card, embossed letters: live feed.

As a child, I became convinced paintings held entrances to hidden worlds. I stared at the print of Remedios Varo’s The Creation of Birds taped to the wall behind Ms. Winder’s desk for entire class periods, fixated by eggs transforming the night into blue, yellow, and red paint. In the grasp of wondering what process occurred inside those eggs, I forgot about my work. The classroom and students faded into silent shadow. My family and my home no longer existed. Sometimes the clouds moved. I felt vibrations pulse from the moon’s beam and heard the painter’s brush on the paper. Ms. Winder often startled me by touching my shoulder and asking if I was okay.

Chris R. told his mom that Ms. Winder had a satanic picture in her room, and our principal, Mr. Sierra, scolded Ms. Winder in front of us, his belly hanging over his belt and Ms. Winder turning redder with every breath. He made a show of trashing the print. Mr. Sierra apologized if we were offended by the image and promised it would never happen again. But the print had taught me everything I needed to know—that an existence could breathe beyond the surfaces we saw and touched, that secret openings could lead us to those places, and that painters showed us where those openings were. I needed to believe there was another existence beyond the sad and violent world I saw around me. I searched for the entrances inside closets, behind walls, beneath floorboards, in potholes, through strangers’ windows. Eventually I let it go.
Last I heard, all but three students from my class had died by overdose or suicide.

I planned my own demise as well after stringing together three failed exhibitions over three years. Each public humiliation stood as confirmation. My death required the ocean, a rowboat, heavy stones in my pocket, and a clear night so I could see the stars dome around me one last time before letting the hagfish pull away my meat. I booked the bus ticket to the coast, chose the perfect stones. Two days before I was scheduled to board the bus, I found Navanri’s text and felt a jolt of purpose that drove me out of bed the next morning to work again. The fear evaporated because I wasn’t painting to satisfy the public or gallerists or collectors, not even myself.

More painting swallowed:
One heartbeat, I drown in scream.
Two heartbeat, where the painting pierces there is stabbing.
Three heartbeat, my kidney clenches and pain cascades.
Four heartbeat, blinding blinding blinding.
Five heartbeat, all I taste is black.

It is impossible to eat the painting. My mouth is cracked and melting. My underwear is crusted. I recalibrate my approach and slice finger-length slivers from the painting with a box cutter and suck each strip to a softer state so my teeth can grind the fibers until they swallow smooth.

What I marvel at most is how the light in the studio swells the more I eat. How the light presses the walls and windows, which sing in the gray dawn about the grip growing between the sky and the pumping gaps that make my body. The sound is a scratch of rhythm so tiny but enough to become the only music I hear as I choke the paint-chunked canvas.

A prickling light is born through my creation. And my destruction. That is what the music tells me. I sit on the toilet for hours and fill it with blood. My bulldozed organs flex with grief and future. The painting half gone, my mirrors glow with a murky luster from a light I cannot name.

The summer after I found Navanri’s text, I deactivated my email. I did not formally resign from my university position. I did not sign any documents or meet with deans or directors or HR reps or colleagues or students. I did not tell Anton I would never exhibit work again. I pulled my phone apart. Refused to acknowledge the knocking at my door and listened to the painting, which drew me close and told me to keep seeking. Once I understood something beyond what I could ever understand before, I could not stop.

In a room inside a room, I stand. Long-dead paintings, sculptures, drawings by the thousands, sterilized and guarded. The pain in my stomach is an opera of stabbing and fuck, that bends my knee and nearly sends vomit through the air onto the shining floor. I breathe the pain to ease. The vents hum. In the corner of a darkly lit gallery hangs a painting of mine titled Beneath Your Earth, Another Earth. Part of the museum’s collecting frenzy of promising local artists. How old was I then? Thirty-one? It’s mostly black thicket with violet shapes of morning sky pushing through. A scene I’d dreamed. I listen. How old am I now? Forty? So long adrift. Standing before the painting is like waking a ghost. My name is there and the year of my birth. And for my death a blank space. I step closer. Sir, please step away from the painting, the security guard warns. I tongue the painting. It remembers me. It tastes like my long-dead self, my hair and tears. Maybe I am the ghost. Step away! I step away.

The city sprawls away at every angle—miles of rough sound and reflection. I ask myself what I had hoped to achieve with the painting and ask myself further what I hope to achieve now, and it is clear, as I walk the traffic-jammed streets, blaring horns and flashing lights, that cancerous code has seeped into earth’s pores and given it a rotten taint that can’t be shed without the major restructure that Navanri promises. And from here it seems the future can be achieved, as if I can peel away layers of road, wipe away cars, shatter the buildings. If I did that, I wonder, what would take its place? If I unzipped the sky, what would tumble out?

Paint in my teeth, night outside my studio windows, always night somehow. All through the wires and bulbs and wood, murmuring transmissions. Surrounding surfaces echo and absorb fuzzed hymns. Others might regard the muffled buzz as meaningless detritus, but those serrated tones have increased in frequency and volume over these days of devouring. My eyes water from the thrill that my guts and bones glisten with agitated pigment. I look at the camera tracking me, watch myself in the convex black lens, beaming. I bash apart the wood frame and cleave the large pieces into dissectible shards, that I knife into splinters, then grind the splinters into a pulp I nibble to nothing. I failed the painting, but I will not fail at this even if I continue convulsing on the ground until my skin sloughs off in liquid sheets, even if my hair continues turning white and shedding by the fistful, even if this rash continues spilling and scabbing and spreading.  



Scott Daughtridge DeMer is a writer from Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, Shirley Magazine, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, Midwestern Gothic, FANZINE, matchbook, and other places. You can find him online at www.scottdaughtridgedemer.com.

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