I handled the sketchbook as if it were a sensitive explosive. In a way, it was more than that. Substantially more. My hands have grown beyond the size of a normal man’s, certainly beyond the youthful hands that had once caressed the ragged book—yet they remembered each imperfection etched into its cover. This was the tale of my art, told between dying pages of flax and hemp. I opened to the first picture. The world began peeling back in tandem, to a time dimly remembered, nearly dead and fleshless.
Rivers of red flowed across the pages—in crayon, colored pencil, charcoal, watercolor, oils. Formless and vague, at first. Then shapes began to cohere from the bottomless crimson, crowding the singular color into narrow streams moving around emergent black figures. My mind mirrored the images with forgotten recollections, and I heard the softest words tumble from the broken spaces that once bridged my earliest memories.
“I’m so sorry, tiny one. But what must be done must be done, and you are a prodigy, this much I can see plainly. I’ve made so many, but they were all just distorted permutations of the archetype, the source. You. Clearly there will have to be others, as I can never be sure, but you are the darkest flower I’ve ever plucked. Your eyes are older than the skin that proffers them, burning through the eons, to arrive here, now. Your every bone, each scrap of flesh, each dutiful organ—all for the sake of those black eyes. But I found you first. Poor child. You will never forgive me the terrible things I will do to you. Nor should you. I can barely forgive myself.”
These were primal memories, buried beneath the earth and frozen in stone. And yet here they were, naked and wincing in the light of recollection. These drawing were from the time before she came to me, and yet the voice…it was the same, and it wasn’t. The mystery of her was different, sorrowful.
Turning the page, I was confronted by a lone shadow, small against the rising tide of scarlet and darkness. Each subsequent drawing showed the red flowing into the tiny silhouette, pouring down its minute throat. Finally, the little thing had taken on the color of pages and pages of straining shapes and the red that drowned them. Of course, the tiny shadow was nothing less than myself. And the red was Bloodshed, a sea of it. It had filled me up—become me. Made me.
Suddenly the room changed, the silence flinched. Something moved against the carefully woven cobwebs that outlined an absence that had endured decades. A voice, distant and diluted, as if being dragged beneath the silence.
“It raises the question of freedom, does it not, Family Man? Specifically, that you may never have known it, not really. Not how you’ve figured it, anyway. Were you simply produced, as if from an assembly line, cog after widget? Did she construct you and then simply fill you up with her will? That leaves precious little room for free will, yes?” The voice came from around a nearby corner, where stretched a tall and jagged shadow. I followed the voice around the turn, encountering a massive statue, scraping widely spread grey wings against the vanishing ceiling, where darkness gathered like crows. The name engraved upon its base read, “Deliriael, Angel of Madness.”
The statue rose from the floor like piling smoke, pouring upward and outward, feasting upon the plump shadows that hovered closely, chewing their dark secrets to dust. There was no reason to question the source of the voice, as it was surely the towering figure, which cackled at my confusion as if it were a brand of comedy. I chose to address the speaker calmly, remitting the traditional bemusement with which one might feel obliged to repay such blatant oddness.
“And so, it must be madness that solely acquits one of oppression, I suppose. And perhaps so. But what is freedom without wonder, angel? No madman ever wondered. The mad only take fantasy for fact, as if pink elephants have been scientifically calculated, genus and species. Theirs is the twisted logic of chicanery, birthing beliefs no less solid for their silliness. I’ve known a great many lunatics, all of them glorious company in fact, but utterly dim to the dreams that begot their terrible freedom, and all of them utterly unwilling to ponder the question.” At first, the statue stared absently into the never-ending shelves of chronicled madness, although I knew its silence was not from want of response, merely the indolence of endless creatures. I was received of a reply soon enough.
“You don’t even know what you’re missing, so who are you to say what madmen do or do not know? You’re a kept animal, grazed and fattened, awaiting the slaughter. You’re hardly qualified to reflect upon the world beyond the barn.”
“In fact, I am obliged to wonder, as much as apples are compelled to fall from trees. After all, I owe my existence to wander and wonder, despite what children’s journals might say to the contrary. What eye ever glimpsed a wall that the mind had not, rightly or wrongly, already spied beyond? You see, mystery is the music to which our imaginations dance. Thus, the unseen world demands our imagination, if not our attention. I am both the barn and the unknown that stirs beyond its crooked fences, and I accomplish the latter by dreaming.”
“But what is a dream if not sequestered madness, Donald? Surely you must see that dreams have never been more truthfully described since William Dement stated, “Dreams permit each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.” We are closer than skin and bone, you and I. Far closer than you and that pretty red woman, in fact. And yet you’ve never once offered me so much as a backward glance. I’ve let you wander and kill to your heart’s contentment, playing at being an artist from another world, a calculated pink elephant if ever I’ve ridden atop one. All the while I’ve offered you purest freedom, and yet here you are, talking back to me. What a splendid boy, indeed! Mark my words, Donald of the Dead, you have been duped. You are not free, not yet. And like it or not, you will come to me after this game of yours has ended. After you see her for true, you will have no choice. And in that moment of reckoning, you too will be revealed. Like the apples of the trees, you will be compelled to fall. Have no worries, however, I will be there to catch you…and eat you. You will have all the delightful freedom a broken mind can know, Donald, and you will have only me to thank for it.”
Suddenly it was as if the library, the journals and the Angel of Madness had never been. I was standing next to a window within the lunatic tower, a beam of moonlight laying cool across my face. My hands were still open, holding only darkness where once a red journal had been. This was the madness of the crowds, the hand that wrought the City of Willard. But was it truth? Had I been…designed? Was I merely my mother’s art?
Was I but the corpse of a dream?
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