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Art by Melissa Mead

The Artwork of the Knid

John Parke Davis lives and fights/defends crime in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife and their obligatory fur-bearing children. His work has previously been published in Baen's Universe, Ideomancer, Shimmer Magazine, and Flashquake, among others.

By the time I was twenty-five, I had grown used to the knid, seeing them standing alone at a bus stop, a small cleared out circle around them; watching them sitting by themselves in the park contemplating ants or trees or the paint peeling on a bench. The stooped, fragile little creatures had grown more prevalent in those days, but were still fairly rare, even in the larger cities.
I had spoken to one once, and of course, "spoken to" is the right phrase, since they don't speak back. It was at a college party, one I was too old to go to. The knid was there as some kind of joke among frat brothers, and when I was drunk enough to approach it as it huddled in a back corner, I asked it how it felt about that. It turned its eyes to me and nodded its head, as they do. I smiled at it, and it waved its mouth tentacles lightly in what I took to be a friendly gesture.
I encountered the same knid some time later at a gallery review for an artist friend of mine, a talented girl who painted portraits of imaginary things in charcoal with dabs of watercolor.I'm not sure how I recognized it--I didn't know then how to tell one knid from another. they have no distinguishing features beyond the length of the feeding tentacles and the shade of blue in their fan-shaped eyes, and to this day I cannot tell them apart without serious examination. I approached it and asked it what it thought of the show. As always, it nodded its heavy head, and its tentacles flared slightly.
"What is it saying?" asked Sue, the artist, who had wandered over when she saw me standing next to the little creature.
"The same thing they always say," I told her. "It thinks it's very interesting." The knid looked back at me and blinked, then slowly nodded its head again.
"Thanks!" Sue said, chipper as always. "I think you're interesting too," and she winked at it. Sue was cute then, in the days before she got involved with harder drugs. She had a vaguely Filipino cast to her features that gave her an ineffable sense of the exotic, and she played herself up with bright skirts and new-bohemian accessories, though she was anything but unkempt. I think it was the coke that ruined her, but I never really got close enough, at the end, to find out.
She hooked my arm and dragged me over to one of her works, a lopsided portrait of a man's face crying. A dab of cerulean accented each tear, and the lines they left behind were rainbow trails down his rugged face.
"I like this one," I told her.
"You should," she said. "It's you in forty years. See the resemblance?" I squinted at it.
"No," I said.
She slapped my arm. "You wouldn't. The knid likes this one too, you know. The little guy has been looking at it all night long."
I glanced over, trying to be unobtrusive, but met its eyes dead on. They were the same shade of blue as the tears in the picture. I turned away quickly. "I guess they have good taste," I muttered. "You're a hell of an artist, Sue."
She smiled. "Glad you think so," she said. "But I've got nothing, none of us have anything on them." She looked back at the knid, then turned to me and cupped her hand over her mouth conspiratorially. "Have you ever seen knidi artwork?" she whispered.
I shook my head. As far as I knew, knidi didn't make artwork, they didn't make anything of any value. They would work manual labor, any job that benefited from having someone small and pre-lubricated. Lots of plumbing, lots of manhole work. I had heard they were incredibly good at math, but none of them seemed interested in doing it, aside from correcting human errors if you tracked one down and asked it nicely. They certainly couldn't, or at least wouldn't, write anything other than equations. Besides, they had little use for money; most everything they ever earned went to rent, they drank nothing but salt water, and god only knows what they ate.
"It's amazing," Sue breathed. "It's… it's just amazing." She licked her lips seductively and her eyes twinkled. "Maybe…" she said. I raised an eyebrow. "Maybe, if you're nice to me…"
"I'm always nice to you," I said. I glanced back at the knid again. It had turned away and was staring intently at a picture of a chimera falling from the sky, the feathers on its outstretched wings accented with red and gold as if on fire. As usual, a circle in the crowd had formed around the knid; no one wanted to get too close, even now. It looked pathetic, standing there with its white button-up shirt stuck to its skin by slime, which now bled slowly onto its ragged dinner coat.
Sue grabbed my chin with one hand and turned it back to her. "Maybe I'll take you to see some," she said. "That little guy over there, he has a great studio at his house." Her hand was resting gently on mine, almost not present, and my heart quickened a little. Sue and I hung out, but we hadn't really hung out by ourselves. Together.
"Let's do that," I whispered. "Sounds… exotic."
"Awesome!" she said and clapped. "I'll pick you up tomorrow." Then another friend caught her eye and she was gone.
"What time?" I said to no one. A warm feeling made its way up out of my belly and crawled onto my face, leaving me grinning like an idiot against my will. I glanced over to find the knid, but he was gone, too.
Sue showed up around two the next day wearing dark glasses and ducking her head against the midday sun.
"Long night?" I asked.
"It was a gallery show," she said. "You know how it is." I pretended like I did.
We took the 76 freeway south onto the peninsula and into the warren of old houses where the crackheads live. The neighborhood lay just outside the ring of gentrification that had swept the inner city clean of poorer folk. Even now, the college kids, ever the vanguard, were moving into some of the homes on the outskirts.
"It lives here?" I asked her.
She nodded. "They don't care much for material things," she said. "They're pretty cool that way."
The knid seemed unsurprised to see us, though I'm sure it didn't know we were coming. It ushered us into a narrow hallway where you could see the ground through the loose floorboards, then out into a large, dirty living room with massive light-blocking curtains on every window. The smell of rotting fish and acetone filled the air, the scent of the knid, but a thousand times stronger than the faint odor that attended everywhere they went. I gagged without meaning to, and Sue smiled awkwardly, but the knid, as always, just nodded.
"Can we see your work?" Sue asked. The knid blinked, big red reticulating membranes snaking out over its eyes, leaving behind the cloudy mucous they see through. I gagged again, and Sue looked nervous.
"Come sit over here," she said, pulling me to the room's only furniture, a little couch in the corner whose sole purpose, I guessed, was seating for human visitors. The knid scurried over to the wall and flipped off the lights, and the room plunged into total darkness. Sue squeezed my hand lightly. Something shuffled in the dark. And then everything began.
It is difficult to describe the artwork of the knid to someone who has never seen it. At first, there is a light, a single light shining in the darkness, but it illuminates nothing. This is constant, in the thousands of times I have seen the play since. The light may vary in color, intensity or duration, but there is always a light to begin with, before the knid can work. Then the knid moves into it, a single tendril or finger, maybe something else I still do not understand, and the light splinters in a thousand directions, filling the room but again, somehow, illuminating nothing, focusing all eyes on its own interplay across the floor and ceiling. For the first time you notice that every surface in the room is inlaid with something of indeterminate origin--crystals, perhaps--that captures the light and spreads it back, changing its color and intensity. Swiftly, deftly, the knid moves, capturing the light and shaping it, focusing it into points and pictures, building a world from nothingness.
Then the variation begins, the real artistry. Each knid builds his own world, each knid weaves his own themes into it. Some focus light into balls of fire and spread out galaxies and solar systems in midair, each detail stunningly rendered through means unknown, as though the universe existed in miniature before you. Others I have seen create stylized images, a rough cartoon of heaven and a firmament below it in biblical allegory. Still others begin with the four elements of Empedocles, or separate night from day, and from these beginnings, all of history unfolds.
The knid, our knid, created a single being, a single part of a being, an eye, two-dimensional and drawn in charcoal like Sue's pictures. A cerulean tear formed in that eye, and traced down a rugged face. The rugged face moved, and it had a body, there was earth beneath its feet. It looked up and there was sky. It looked to the right and a plain stretched out to distant mountains. It looked left, and the sea lapped at distant shores.
I sat there with my mouth open, staring vacantly at the play in front us, not knowing what to say. "It's a whole world, Ger," Sue whispered in my ear. "He's created a whole world out of my drawings."
As if in response, the charcoal figure pointed, and we were flying, the room gone entirely. Fields of drawn wheat, each with a dab of amber at its tip, waved in the wind beneath us. The mountains, their dark lines streaked with accents of blue, passed beneath, and a city tore from the earth on the other side. Giant chimeras, taken straight from Sue's pictures, soared in, landed, and peopled the city. We moved onto one of its streets, and focused on a bistro that appeared from nowhere. There, sitting at the table, was the man with cerulean tears, stroking the neck of a small, timid looking chimera.
"It's almost real, isn't it?" I said. Sue's head slipped to my shoulder. I put my arm around her, and we sat like that, watching the knid's world unfold before us, for hours.
The knidi are protective of their work, and show it to very few people. Each one has his own world, and many have several. No one knows how, exactly, they bend a single beam of light into all those images, how the worlds seem to persist perfectly from one viewing to the next. Not that the knidi don't change things, because they do, constantly--they are perfectionists of the highest order, and the biggest flaw of knidi art is that it is rarely, if ever, completed. Revision, for them, is a way of life.
Our knid showed me his charcoal universe because of my connection to Sue, I'm sure, and that's why he showed it to me again when I came back alone the next day. And afterwards, it sat with me as I pontificated on what it had shown me, and it nodded its little head, its mouth tentacles waving, as I talked to myself. The day after that, it found me on the street, wrapped its frail fingers around my hand and pulled me back with it to its home, and together we watched the world it had created. This time, though, I could see some of my own thoughts reflected in the new scenes played out before me. It listened to me again after the viewing, and again it incorporated my thoughts with its own into the artwork, and soon, though it had never spoken a word to me or once changed expression, I thought of it as a friend.
"Did you ever notice how there are more of them these days?" a mutual friend asked, his legs crossed on the floor of my apartment, his hand lingering on Sue's calf.
"I did not," I said, my eyes turned to the floor.
"It seems like there are," he told me. "I'd swear there are more of them, but maybe there always have been."
"Yeah, maybe," Sue said, giggling. "Maybe they're invading!" She winked at me.
"I don't know," he said. "I just don't like it, that's all."
The knidi are not social animals. Though you could hardly go a day without seeing one by then, you never saw them together, either. My knid did "introduce" me to others, though, and occasionally, not often, they showed me their own worlds. Some were fantastic, like a cartoon come to life, some were darker and blacklit and painted in spectra my eyes could not comprehend. Usually, my knid left me alone with the other, but sometimes it stayed and they both played in the light. These occasions seemed to occur only when something in the world seemed stagnant or off, like mine was helping the other work out some kind of unknown problem it might have had.
And when they touched, the rare occasions when they touched--I could never tell what was accidental and what intended--the most fantastic thing happened: everything, the whole art world, the interplay of light and shadow, buckled and vibrated. And for a moment, just a moment, you almost believed it was real.
I found a knid on a back alley a week later, a gang of men standing around it, shouting angrily. You couldn't walk down a street without seeing a knid then, and though no one could remember the world being any different, there was a strange anxiety in the air, a discomfort that boiled over in dark moments into violence. It wasn't just punks and reprobates; the fear, the aimless, uneasy fear, got the better of everyone. By the time I stumbled upon them, the knid's dirty flannel shirt was matted with a deep yellow ichor darker than its slime, and the same thick fluid trailed from the stump of a torn tentacle by its lipless mouth.
I plowed into the first man before I knew what I was doing. My fist stung as my knuckles slapped against his face. Hands grabbed me and I struck out against them, kicking, clawing, biting like an animal. I never had much chance. They broke my nose, bruised my ribs and left me crawling on the asphalt, gasping for air. An angry-looking man of about forty wearing a business suit spat in my eye before stumbling off into the warm night.
I crawled over to the knid and grasped its arm. It felt cold and clammy, but they always did. I didn't know how to check its vitals. I didn't even know if it had vitals to check.
"Hey," I said. "Hey, are you all right?"
Its mouth tentacles fluttered slightly and its bright blue eyes slid open. Painfully, it nodded.
"Do you remember when the first knid showed up?" Sue asked. Her hand traced an image on a blank page, a silhouette of a woman from a distance as an enormous tree dropped fruit in the foreground.
"No," I said, "do you?"
"No," she said. "It seems like they've always been here, doesn't it?"
I put my hand on her shoulder, tentatively. "It does seem that way," I said.
She reached up and touched my hand, gently pushing it away. "We have a groovy kind of friendship, you know?" she whispered. I swallowed hard and nodded.
The knidi came to me in a pack of four, more than I had ever seen together, and they wrapped their hands around mine, each one grabbing a finger. They led me down a different street than we had ever taken, to a different part of town, and they brought me to an old warehouse up by the polluted part of the river where more of them waited, how many I could not tell. I recognized the knid from the street, with its missing tentacle, and I knew my knid, the first I had met, was there too, somewhere.
A single light shone in the darkness of the warehouse, and the stink of rotting fish and acetone seemed palpable. In the center of everything, a universe floated, ornate in every detail, detail beyond human reckoning. A knid pulled me over and showed me a pearl of shining blue, suspended in the ether. As I stared at it, it grew larger, expanding by orders of magnitude until it surrounded me completely.
Its streets brimmed with humans and knidi, walking next to each other, sharing their lives together. There was happiness and sorrow and anger and pain and failure, and love, and everything you could possibly want, all poured in together, and it was not perfect, but it was beautiful. I saw Sue there, dabbing red onto the eyes of a rough self-portrait, a circle of friends, people and knidi, watching her as she painted. I saw my knid in there, sitting alone in its home, crawling on its hands and knees, putting duct tape on the holes in the floor where the light crept in. And I saw myself there, beaten and bleeding, helping another knid to its feet as another gang of scared little men disappeared in the distance. I saw myself watching worlds grow to germination, and some of the knidi disappeared into them, too, growing new worlds of their own imagination again and again as they always had from the beginnings of time. And I saw myself going with them.
I stood there and watched the blue planet for what seemed like hours. Then I turned to the knidi and smiled as they all joined hands, ready for their next revision.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 24th, 2011
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