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••• The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes fiction

The Book About ELI
• Julie McSmith
All the bottles of oil in the kitchen turned rancid and all of the produce in the refrigerator went moldy the day that the boy named X.E23 opened the book about Eli. His mother complained as she was cooking, blaming the spoiled produce on the change in weather.


Spring was turning into summer. The putrid fumes from the neighbors' vents collected in the living room, too, and he began to choke. Thereafter, whenever he tried to read the above-mentioned Eli, the fumes would re-convene to harangue his contemplation. The fan on the neighbors' air conditioner began to squeal and seemed to go on for days.

X.E23 countered by retreating to his bedroom and donning a dust mask and earplugs to undertake the task of reading Eli. His mother plugged the kitchen vent with a dishtowel. Indeed, the resistance he felt whilst experiencing the fore-mentioned spurred him to the task.

He knew his mother would never admit to the cause and effect going on. How could encountering a book could cause food to spoil or bad air to enter a house? On arriving home, his father droned on to X.E23's mother in a kind of detached monotone of the house smelling like rancid cooking oil and nothing edible being left in the refrigerator.

In the following weeks X.E23 parsed through the whole volume. The book was one of these pieces of incendiary, counter-culture propaganda the government goons left lying around out to test the mores of this most recent generation. It's themes shifted between pornographic encounters and gratuitous violence. It was all a tale for the purpose of producing instinctual reactions measured by the cognitive-networking scheme that modulated all forms of sentiment. A sample here will do well to illustrate the kind of vapid content its authors had concocted towards that utilitarian end: "Eli, after taking her handbag and placing it on a shelf nearby, thrust the nozzle of his electron-disintegration-modulator into the woman's sternum and demanded that she prostrate herself before him as he grasped her hair in one hand and spanked her with the other."

It was some decades before that the technocracy in place behind city hall agreed that it would be best to rid the planet of emotion once and for all. Strong affect had caused the loss of so much productivity and been the rationale for so much haphazard waste, everyone agreed the subsequent dearth of feeling was superior to the previous zoo of relationships. After all, they had already determined that shopping habits and genetic reproduction could be controlled by psychosomatic symptoms instead of advertising.

X.E23 wandered into his art studio, which was in a kind of sun room, and he perused his latest work, a collie in oils for his grandmother's neighbor. He was a prolific artist. X.E23's paintings of pets, portraits, and flower bouquets hung on the walls of all his friends' and family members' homes.

He picked up one of the gaudy packages of half-consumed candy on the tableau. Expecting to savor over-sweet peanut butter, he encountered a petrified texture that made him retch. X.E23 peered out from between the heavy curtains, and he saw the luminous crescent of the moon rising in the gap between the brick wall of the next house. He clicked on an antique, ceramic lamp with a manila shade, lit some candles, and began to dab paint on the canvas.

He usually painted from observation, though he knew well enough of the abstract. X.E23's great-uncle had imparted the secrets of painting to him from the time the boy could barely clasp a brush in his hand. Much later X.E23 signed up for elective art classes in high school, though he wondered if anything he became conscious of there enhanced his style.

Turning from the collie, he contemplated the chrysanthemums on the other tableau, beyond the lamp. The stems and leaves which he rendered appeared photo-realistic, and yet the painted petals looked like lumps of color, heavy and shapeless. Adding more paint, he squinted his eyes. He kept daubing on paint, and soon there was a cramp in his hand and sweat trickled down his neck. X.E23 wrestled with painting flowers. He simply could not do it, and never had, even before he ever started reading Eli and that affected all his other work.

Portraits, he used to paint with exquisite detail, however. Yet, since he commenced reading Eli there was always some inaccuracy about the eyes and mouth in his paintings. The sense of light, too, was lacking. No one else seemed to notice, however, at least not the people he gave or sold his paintings to. All lauded him for the quality of his work. He himself knew he could and had done better.

One day he tried to paint a woman with brown eyes. Before this he had only painted men and women with blue eyes, of whom there were many where he lived. His subject looked fresh and vibrant, and she wore a white shirt and lipstick. X.E23 found, however, that he could not paint her picture. Her eyes looked dead and flat, and her hair was a dark mass in his rendering. X.E23 tried to focus his eyes, but they felt tense and his hand could not find the correct lines to describe her features. Despite the limitations on his emotions he felt frustration, briefly. He wondered if his inability to paint was because of the book called Eli. Was it a networking issue, something regulated by the satellite truck behind city hall? It was not a problem related to his expertise, he knew, since he had painted enough pets to know the method.

The afternoon that he found the recruiting letter in the black metal mailbox in the stairwell, X.E23 was painting a bouquet from one his mother's real estate clients. The note invited students to register for a meeting in the guidance counselors' offices at three o'clock on Thursday the next week. X.E23 scanned the words and tossed it aside. What did an artist have to do with army recruiting?

Yet, that day he discovered, for the first time since he began reading the book called Eli, his eyes and hand moved with an effortless grace. The planes of color defining the mass of the petals contained a lucid light, and the painting progressed with an astonishing alacrity. The contrast of shadows and lights was perfect in his estimation.
X.E23 set the canvas on the screened side porch where it could dry, and he turned on the fan by the window screen to admit some fresh air. He marveled at the dexterity of his brushwork. This level of technical adeptness surpassed the summation of his prior efforts. What had given him this inspiration? X.E23 retrieved the recruiting letter he had crumpled and tossed in a corner, reasoning that this could very well be a serendipitous arrival concurrent with his sudden progress.

One grand slam followed another in his studio that week, after X.E23 registered for the recruiting meeting. He rendered the bouquet of roses again and again until the flowers withered and the petals fell off. Each painting was a masterpiece of glazing, its layers of pigment revealing a world of subtle light and form. His parents saw these works drying on the screen porch on the side of the house, and they remarked at the appeal of these recent pictures. He explained that he had registered to attend an army-recruiting meeting the next week, but they just replied that was nice, without seeming to make any connection.

Twenty gregarious seniors crammed around the two plastic tables in the conference room next to the guidance counselors' offices. Posters showing people in uniforms were hung on the beige-painted, cinder-block walls, and on the tables there were piles of pamphlets, booklets, and promotional pens. The students' chatting subsided as the uniformed recruiters finished their introductions, turned off the light, and began playing a video. X.E23 learned about how by offering to do this duty he would serve his country and perhaps even the world. At the end of the session each student had a chance to meet with one of the military staff.
"I like to paint," X.E23 explained to the man with the nearly shaved head in the crisp uniform.
"Well, there have been artists in the army for years," the man said.
"There have?" X.E23 asked.
"Yes, of course, and we will help you develop the work ethic and dedication to succeed."
"I don't know. I'm not sure how I'd feel about being in a war."
The man paused and seemed to be suppressing a kind of wry grin, "As you know war no longer exists as in the past. There are all kinds of positions in the army these days. If you decide to join we can promise you that we will take care of you every step of the way and that your career will be built on your motivation and technical training." Then the man's smile faded, and he continued, "I didn't want to bring this up, but government records show that you have been reading the book about Eli. That book has been banned in all but two states, and this is not one of them. In fact, anyone could start a case against you and your friend who gave it to you right now, but since you are a minor if you join then we will let it slide. Minors do a lot of things to experiment."

X.E23 swallowed hard. He began picturing his history teacher saying that this was about the reptilian mechanisms of post-industrial human culture and the business of governance. He wondered how the civil social regime had found out that he was reading Eli, had his friend informed on him? The volume was a paperback and something he'd never mentioned to anyone else or discussed online.

The exchange with the recruiter remained fixed in X.E23's mind for hours after the meeting. He could not turn his thoughts to anything else. It was with astonishment that he realized this, for he could not recall, usually, many conversations.

The day he got accepted into art school, X.E23 also submitted his application to the army recruiters. His grandfather's brother chortled when X.E23 told him about everything, "What do you need art school for? What do you need to join the army for? You already know how to paint. I taught you. You'll just study too much, and then you'll get distracted." X.E23 wondered if his grandfather was right since his guidance counselor and art teacher said that going to art school was the thing to do. In art school he could make professional connections and learn about art history and art theory. He also knew that joining the army was allowing him to paint better than ever before.

Much later X.E23 found out how at last the world of the future had solved the problem of artistic rebellion and the violence of revolution. Not ever again would there be the din of the world exterminating both those too far ahead of their time and others simply repeating the past. The solution was proactive redirection, a gradual process aided by computer-based behavior modeling heuristics. Unseen eyes and distant minds, biological and mechanical alike, analyzed the emotional impact of new artworks being developed. Invisible hands modified the work in progress or intervened in its eventual use. This electronic architecture had created the political homeostasis that reigned for the last two hundred years.

A rule of thumb in this system was for revolutionary works to remain hidden for at least 50 years, although many experts advised 100 years or more. If a theme was considered indispensable for the moment, than it must be commissioned as a revelation from the past. The implementation of this system at first caused discord amongst the ever-truth-seeking historians, but at last even the most stalwart had to concur that, as far as commerce, progress, and the reign of peace was concerned, it really did not matter. The greater concern was managing the emotive calculus of political stability for the happiness of an infinite number.
© Julie McSmith May 2016

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