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art by Tais Teng

The Junk Artist

Lavie Tidhar is the author of The Bookman, published by Angry Robot, and forthcoming Camera Obscura. Other works include novella "Cloud Permutations", linked-story collection HebrewPunk and many others. This is Lavie's second story for Daily Science Fiction. His first story was the first DSF published: Butterfly and the Blight at the Heart of the World.

There were two sea stars in the rubbish that morning.
They lay on the ground alongside an opened tin of pickled gherkins, two paperback books with the covers torn off, a bunched-up newspaper with last week's headlines, an empty box of tampons, and a chair missing two of its legs.
One of the sea stars had one corner broken. Both were about the size of a palm. Joshua picked up the unbroken one. It fit almost perfectly in his hand, and felt warm from the sun. He admired the sea star's colours for a moment, moving his hand gently from side to side, watching how the surface of the star caught and reflected the sunlight.
It would do, he decided. Over his shoulder he carried a worn-out leather bag. Like everything else in Joshua's life, it too had been found in the great flea market's rubbish heaps at closing time. He had found the bag two weeks before. Prior to that he had a blue Adidas bag and prior to that a Gucci handbag which drew some stares when he carried it around. Not too many stares: this was, after all, the Jaffa flea market, and the general sentiment of everyone involved was that it took all sorts to make a world.
And of course, he wasn't the only junkie around.
He picked up the other sea star and slipped them both into the still-light bag and nodded to the elderly Russian immigrant lady who was looking discerningly through a pile of thrown-away books in the next rubbish dump along. It was Friday, the best day for the junkies. Friday the market closed early and would not be open again the next day, since it was the Shabbat. And so the sellers and the merchants and even the hawkers with their rugs of rubbish on the floor, they all closed early, and they didn't bother carrying with them what they couldn't sell.
Hence books; paintings; chairs; mattresses; toys; parasols and backgammon boards and candle holders and wooden doors--what the market threw away the junkies sorted through, with the hungry eyes of a select group sharing a deep and dark secret.
"Get me that one, please, dear," the old Russian lady said. Joshua had moved on to her patch and, as usual, she gave him a sharp glance before grudgingly acknowledging he, too, had a right to be there.
Just as long as he knew the rules.
She'd claimed rights to the patch, for the duration of her occupancy.
So he might as well help, but not touch.
He retrieved the book for her. The title was in Cyrillic letters, he didn't know what it was. It showed a dark demon dancing with a beautiful, pale-skinned woman, obviously Russian, on a moonlit veranda. Probably some Russian Mills & Boon, he thought. He passed her the book and she snatched it from his hands, then smiled shyly. She added the book to her growing pile on the public bench.
"Nothing for you?" she asked.
When she smiled half her teeth were missing, the other half were gold. Her smile caught the sun and seemed to lift her up a few feet in the air. Joshua opened his palm but, of course, it was empty--he had already put his find away. Self-conscious, he shrugged. "Still early," he said.
It was. While most of the shops had already closed, the heart of the market--the yard where the hawkers brought rugs and junk every morning and sat down on the floor to sell them--was still emptying. The man with the used electric goods was packing up. Joshua always thought he was a little strange, even for the market. Amongst the second- and third- and tenth-hand VCRs, DVDs, computers, televisions, microwave ovens, and the like, the man also sold--lined up in a neat row like wounded soldiers--used dildos. Watching them, Joshua found himself wondering which was better--circumcised or not, veined or smooth, battery-powered or manual? It didn't seem to make a difference, no one, to his knowledge, had ever bought one of the things, and every day they lay there, a little more grimy, these elongated, worn-out, flesh-coloured things, and waited, patiently.
"Take this one," the woman said, and startling Josuha, shoved a book into his hands, causing him to lose his balance. He rocked on his heels but found his purchase again.
"Goodbye," the woman said. The books on the bench had all gone into her wheely-bag, a strange contraption favoured by the elderly. She began to pull it after her, not looking back, heading for the rubbish tip Joshua had just come from.
Joshua waved at her retreating back, but of course, she couldn't see him. He turned the book over and looked at the cover. Some sort of an airship on the cover, and a violent struggle in silhouette below. Trash.
"You taking that one?"
The speaker was, of course, another junkie. Joshua didn't know his name but knew him from the rounds: he was immaculately dressed in a very old, but carefully pressed suit, and his white-and-grey moustache was trimmed and neat. Mutely, Joshua shook his head: no, he would not be taking that one.
The man took the book from Joshua's hands and tossed it over to a smaller pile beside the main one. Joshua ran his eyes over the man's collection: three paintings of various sizes, one depicting a dog frolicking on a background of black-and-white tiles; a drawer; a door handle; an empty milk bottle; a pair of jeans.
Half-heartedly he browsed through the garbage but he could already tell there was nothing there for him. At last, disheartened, he nodded to the man with the moustache and moved on. At least he had the sea stars. And the day wasn't over yet.
From the nearby mosque the Muezzin began to call out for the faithful, his sing-song voice filling up the darkening day. It was Joshua's favourite time of the day. A hush was falling over the market, shop fronts shuttered closed, a last game of backgammon ending, all the tourists gone. At those moments he imagined the market as a vast and beautiful kingdom that belonged only to him. He knew each cobbled street, each shop and what it hid inside, every café and every trader, and he was their secret king.
Walking slowly up the hill he entered the open-air area. A few lonely sellers still sat with their rags of merchandise--pots and pans, nails and pliers, screwdrivers, chopping boards, books, curtains, African masks, porn DVDs, heads of the Buddha, Jewish prayer books, pestle and mortar, candles, T-shirts--you could buy anything there. But most of them were gone, and the others were getting ready, reluctantly, to follow. At night the small square turned into a party place, night-time bars opening where the rubbish had been in the morning.
Friday, with the sun setting, but before the rubbish collectors came by. And everywhere on the ground, abandoned junk. He picked his way through it, slowly, fascinated as always by what he could find.
A headless He-Man doll, a pink ladies belt, two volumes of the Hebrew translation of Churchill's The Second World War in a red leather binding, a stuffed teddy bear missing both eyes, the stuffing spilling out of the blind sockets. Joshua felt the tips of his fingers itch. It was maddening. The need came on him unexpectedly, day and night, the sudden knowledge that, if only he found the right pieces, he could--
The sea stars were right. And back at home were the other pieces, items he'd salvaged over the past couple of years, mostly on Fridays but sometimes during the week, too. Jaffa was the kingdom of rubbish, a place of obese street cats and thin, care-worn people, polished by hunger and poverty into small, bright objects. It was the itch, the tips of his fingers tingling, as if he were dowsing, searching for those mismatched, thrown-away pieces that, together, would form--
There. He had made his way past strewn junk and debris to the main dump, a giant rusted-metal container over-burdened with material. Like a ship's container, it could have been carried up by the giant cranes still in the harbour of the old city, placed lovingly on a boat together with crates and crates of Jaffa oranges, shipped to Liverpool or Hull, off-loaded there and offered in the Exchange--
But the British had their own junk. They still bought the oranges, though despite the label, they no longer came from Jaffa but from some orange groves far beyond the city. And the giant dump reeked of piss, and a junkie was sorting through books tipped in an ungainly pile, holding a handkerchief in his hand as he turned the reeking books over. And another junkie was looking at paintings, stripping the useless images out and carrying away the frames. Another had found a desk missing only one leg and the drawers, and was attempting to drag it away, while the old cat woman stood nearby and threw food on the ground. The street cats congregated around her in a halo, approaching slowly, worshipping at her feet. She smiled without dentures and murmured to them.
The junkies ignored one another. Joshua walked around the dumpster and came in through the other side. He waded through sickly-smelling, sweet and sour junk juice, thinking he needed to get a new pair of shoes. He had a quick look at a pair of leather boots but they were too small and he tossed them back on the heap. The rules of his life were simple. To achieve purity, to find what he was looking for, he had to sustain himself entirely on that which was left behind. Just as the thing he was seeking to make had been left behind, long ago, and could only be found again through simulacra, in words or art that, in themselves, meant nothing.
There. The tingling in the tip of his fingers intensified, as if he were about to experience a heart attack. So close--he could feel it. It hadn't been nearly as strong with the sea stars.
A hat.
A floppy, dark, mottled hat. Only slightly moth-eaten. When he picked it up and sniffed it, it didn't smell too bad.
The tingling was so strong it was almost painful. It shot up his arm and he almost dropped the hat.
"What have you got there, partner?"
He didn't need to turn. "Cat," he said.
A sound of displaced air, and a short wiry body landed, feet first, by his side. Cat looked sideways at him, a sardonic smirk on his dark, stubbled face. "Nice hat."
"What did you get?"
Still smiling, Cat reached out his hand. In his open palm lay two buttons, one black, the other ivory.
Joshua's fingers seized up and he cried out in pain, clamping his other hand on the hurting fingers.
Cat made the buttons disappear. The pain eased--a little.
He didn't know what Cat's name was. He was a little like a street cat, prowling the market, pawing through the rubbish--a junkie, same as Joshua, same as the elderly Russian lady, same as all of them who roamed the Jaffa market, searching for their little bits and pieces.
"Can we trade?"
Cat shook his head. "Sorry," he said.
The taste for searching had abandoned Joshua. The hat was still in his hands, and it would suffice. He put it carefully, reverentially, into his bag. "I better head home," he said.
"Yes," Cat agreed. He was carrying a plastic shopping bag, Joshua saw, crammed with rescued refuge. "It's getting late."
It was late. The sun had set behind the ancient hill and the sound of the rubbish collectors' truck could now be heard, slowly approaching. It was dark now, a couple of street lights turning on. And he had what he found. It would have to suffice. For now.
"See you," he said--but Cat was no longer there.
How would have Cat's buttons fit into his work? Joshua wondered as he walked back slowly along the main avenue of the market. It didn't matter. There would be other objects, other signs. There were many roads all leading to the same place--or so he hoped.
At home, he put down his finds and washed his hands. He approached the corner of the room slowly, looking at the figure standing there with a critical eye. His fingers spoke to him, the tips warming as they traced a human shape. He brought out the sea stars--and now the figure had eyes.
With the hat it was –
It was very warm in the room, and his fingers itched terribly. The buttons would have been better, he thought, but only momentarily.
Alive. Almost alive. It spoke in whispers. It told of long-gone things.
It had candles for feet, and plastic skeletal hands, and dark trousers torn at the bottom. Its stomach was filled with books. Its eyes were sea stars. A dark hat shaded its face.
It felt right. It was not yet complete. But there was time. He would find just the right objects, the lost, the abandoned, the discarded, and add them to the work.
It would be--
It would become.
There was time. There was plenty of time.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, January 10th, 2011

Author Comments

What is it about the flea market in Jaffa? It's like a world within a world, self-contained, run on antiques and brick-a-bracks and pure rubbish. You can imagine anything there, from ghosts to robotic beggars wandering the alleyways. I think anything's possible at the Jaffa flea market....

- Lavie Tidhar
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