THE STARVING ARTISTS: a short story by Howard Casner


No one was shocked when it happened. At the same time, it took them all by surprise.
Rumors had been spreading for some time that something was going to be done. No one knew what exactly, and they only spoke and speculated about it in very low voices and covered their mouths with their hands or whispered into their phones when they did speak about it, because they didn’t want, well, those they didn’t want to know that they were speaking about it, to know that that was what they were doing.
And when it did happen, it didn’t happen overnight at first. But one evening when everyone went to bed, suspecting nothing, though with some sort of inkling at the back of their brain, by the next morning, within eight to twelve hours, it was over. It had been done.
And then it really began.

 

The first real sign that something was going to happen was the army arriving. No one could say why they had come or why they were there. But it all had a certain predetermined quality to it, almost as if their arrival was long overdue.

And the soldiers paid no attention to the citizens except perhaps when they wanted a coffee or needed a drink or a good time on leave.

The soldiers set to work erecting a circular set of walls made up of thick bullet proof see through glass. No one knew exactly how they knew the glass was bullet proof, but then again, they said to themselves, what else would it be?

People would ask the soldiers what they were building and they would replay, We don’t know, Lose lips sink ships, and we’re only following orders. And the people found that a very satisfying answer in a very unsatisfying way. But what else could they do but just accept it as it is what it is?

But it didn’t really matter. Everyone knew, kinda, sorta, what they were building and why, though they never told each other what they thought in case, well, “someone” heard them say something and no one knew where that would lead except they knew it couldn’t be anyplace good.

And though it seemed to take forever to build it, seeing no real change in the structure from day to day, thinking that at this rate it would never be completed, the people woke up and left their houses for work one morning and suddenly it was there, finally, finished and fully formed, and inside they saw soldiers Windexing every square inch of the glass, both inside and out, spraying and wiping away as if their lives depended on it, which for all the people knew, they did.

The people studied the dome. Walked around it. Almost reaching out to touch it, but drew back for fear of getting fingerprints on the glass, which they knew would make the soldiers angry since they would have to clean that spot again, and besides, something in the air told them it was probably best not to leave their fingerprints there, or anywhere, for that matter.

But there it was. Complete. Solid and smooth glass except for some holes at the top which were presumed to be there to let air in, what else could they be for? And a door, of course. A large see through door with no knob or keyhole, which seemed strange, but didn’t take the wind out of their sales either.

And at the end of the day, the populace went to sleep, uneasy, but not being able to pinpoint the cause of their restlessness and thinking it was maybe better not to pinpoint it when all was said and done.

 

Early the next morning, just as the sun was coming up, the people heard bells and sirens and klaxons ringing throughout the city. They all looked out their windows where the soldiers were marching down the street, guns in hands, driving everyone to the dome. They were all ordered to follow. Immediately. They weren’t even given time to dress. Many were in pajamas, or robes, or their underwear—and the few who went to bed au natural went to the dome the same way.

And when they arrived at the dome, they saw a line of people being marched inside. Just all sorts of people. Old and young. Male and female. Sick and well. Rich and poor. Handsome and ugly. There seemed no real rhyme or reason to who was in the line, but everyone could tell that they had been carefully selected.

Some of the people in the line some of the people recognized. They were friends (or, now, ex-friends who they barely had ever known and spent almost no time with), or people they passed while in their daily constitutional (and that’s as close as they had gotten to them), or people whose faces they recognized on social media (but never liked their pages or IM’d them because they didn’t know them all that well and who knows why some people end up being on your friend’s list, but knowing what they knew now, though they didn’t exactly know anything, they would block them immediately).

But what was it about them that put them all into the same group?

And then the whispering started, people buzzing to one another, passing on vague tidbits of exact information–

He’s a novelist. I read his book.

I saw her painting at the museum.

Isn’t he the one who wrote that play that won all those awards?

At the same time, one could also hear–

Is he still alive? I thought he was dead.

So that’s what she looked like. I always wondered.

God, his last film was a real stinker.

But as soon as they began the buzzing, they stopped. And when they started again, they said-

I never finished his book, it was terrible and so against everything.

Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever saw anything by her. No, in fact, I’m certain of it. Only people who are unsatisfied would have and I’m completely satisfied.

And they began talking this way louder and louder to make sure those who could hear them would really here them and with no mistake.

But that’s who the line was made up of. All of them. Every single one. Of all shapes, sizes, creeds and dispositions.

They were all marched as a group into the dome, one by one. And when they were all inside, the only exit was sealed shut.

And no one knew what to say or perhaps more accurately, what was wise to say. And so they said nothing.

 

The crowd stood there for a while. They weren’t exactly sure what they were expected to do though they suspected they were expected to do something. They weren’t even sure they knew what had just happened, though the one thing one could definitely say about it was that something had happened.

Then the soldiers backed away and slowly, but with increasing speed, the crowd made their way to their homes. On the way, they said nothing, but did give knowing looks to one another and then stopped because they thought it might be wise to look like they knew absolutely nothing.

They all went home and had their breakfast. In silence. Even the snap, crackle and pops were left to soak in milk long enough to take the crunch out. No one wanted to do anything to draw attention to themselves.

 

As they went about their day, soldiers appeared handing out flyers inviting everyone in such a way that everyone knew that they had no choice, to come to the dome that day at noon and the government would provide a free lunch, which excited everyone though they still suspected there was no such thing as a free lunch.

Everyone went of course, hungry or not, dieting or not, because if they didn’t they were concerned that their breakfasts might be their last meal.

There were we numerous food trucks at the dome, so there were a variety of choices, except all the trucks looked exactly the same and served exactly the same meal. But everyone ate because the government providing a free meal was interesting, even if the food wasn’t. The government also provided benches and tables so they could be comfortable no matter how much they weren’t.

An announcement was then announced telling everyone to come back that evening and bring blankets and a picnic basket and that entertainment would be provided. They were also told to bring everything that they owned that they watched or that they looked at or that they listened to. Every single thing, no matter how many they were.

So the people ate and watched the inhabitants of the dome. They didn’t know why they should be or what they should be looking for which in some ways didn’t matter since nothing of any real appeal was going on inside there-the people were just sitting around doing a lot of nothing-but it seemed obvious that this was to be expected of them. So they did.

And when they were finished eating, they went back to their days.

 

That evening as the people brought their picnic baskets and blankets along with all the other things they were ordered to bring, they arrived to find a huge pile of wood next to the dome. As they arrived, they were told to put the things they watched or looked at or listened to on the pile of wood. And then some soldiers set it on fire. And as more people arrived, more was put on the fire until the flames seemed to reach the moon.

And the people in the dome watched and cried and watched and cried or sate mute as if numb. And one clawed his own eyes out and the people thought at last something not boring was going on inside of it, though they weren’t sure they should act as if they were interested.

And there was entertainment. A military brass band was playing and once the stars came out there was a grand, simply grand, fireworks display and they oohed and they ahhed for a while. And then as soon as it had begun, it was over, and everyone returned home.

 

This continued on for a few days-the free lunches (always the same), the brass band (always the same tunes) and the fireworks (always the same routine). One time there were air force planes doing tricks and leaving trails of smoke the color of the nation’s flag and that broke up the monotony a bit. And it was only once.

So fewer and fewer people came and ate and watched those in the dome doing nothing because picnic and bands and fireworks and the occasional air show were perfectly fine and very entertaining, they wanted to make sure the government knew they thought that, but doing it every day was becoming a bit boring, if not monotonous. So the novelty wore off as did the size of the crowds.

It wasn’t until the third day that the crowd noticed something.

They had never seen the inhabitants of the dome eating anything or being given anything to eat. Now this aroused their curiosity and they started coming back to the dome to be sure they were correct. And when they realized they were, the crowds came back to watch the domers, as they started calling them, grow more and more gaunt and malnourished and weak.

But after a day or two, even this had lost its freshness and the crowd, as crowds are want to do, dwindled in size like the bodies of the domers.

 

Then one day a young woman was walking through the park when she saw something colored on the inside wall of the dome. It was red and one of the domers was using their fingers to apply it to the glass and it was in the most intriguing shape and form.

I mean, the young woman said to her friends, it was ugly and vile, and even more so as she realized the one doing it had punctured a vein to get the materials. Yes, she continued, it was vile and ugly, yet she had to admit to herself, talking out loud, that there was something aesthetically pleasing and challenging about it. She simply couldn’t stop looking at it and had to leave the park right away to tell everyone about it.

And when her friends came, they couldn’t stop looking at it, and when their friends and the friends of the friends of their friends came, all they could do was stare in awe. They couldn’t speak it was so beautiful, they told one another.

Others then noticed the domers doing some sort of pantomime or dumb show, and though they didn’t exactly understand it, they thought it very funny and tragic at the same time.

Then more and more of the domers made more and more of these creations, all different, all, well, unique and so original. And they used everything they could-their sweat, their blood, their piss, their shit, the grass, the mud, building the most challenging and creative and fascinating, well, the crowd had simply never seen anything like it, nothing remotely like what they had seen before.

They didn’t know what it meant. They just knew it meant something.

And when one of the domers fell to the earth and stopped moving and was still, the others took the skin and the bones and the hair and the hearts and the lungs and the brains and created even more incredible creations. And as more domers fell to the earth and stopped moving, more skin and bones and everything else was used.

And the crowd simply could not look away. And the uglier the creations got, the more they pressed each other closer to the glass to see what was next, because there was something so beautiful about it. They were so entranced they even forgot to eat and the food trucks ending up throwing away perfectly good food as it spoiled.

 

Unsurprisingly, the government were caught unawares. They thought they had it all under control. That their implied message was clearly received,

But the crowds kept crowding, more and more every day until it seemed like there were more people than lived in the city, which there were as citizens from all over came to look at the domers here while some of the crowd there went to other cities to see what was being made there.

 

The government panicked. They brought bigger and louder brass bands, free suppers as well as lunches, twice as many fireworks and air shows every day. But the crowds didn’t care. They had no interest in anything their government provided.

Even when the army lined up behind them, guns pointing at their backs, orders being screamed at the top of the screamers’ lungs, the crowd was so enraptured by what was taking place inside the dome, they didn’t even know that anything was happening behind them or heard anyone else’s voices.

When the government ordered the soldiers to remove the domers, the crowd was so thick, the soldiers could not even get past the last circle of people. There was little they could do but watch and wait.

And then the last domer laid down and stopped moving and didn’t get up.

 

With that the government breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

But the crowd went silent. You could hear it everywhere, even into the next country and city and border. The crowd stood their stunned, not knowing what to do. Then slowly and with increasing speed, like an electric circuit, it spread from one person to another, around and around and around like the concentric circles of the shape of the crowd, until they knew exactly what to do.

They all turned as one and faced the army still encircling them.

And with hate and fury and intense calm fully forming inside of them, they each individually took a step as one and moved in the direction of the soldiers…and then they took another…and then they took another…

And there was nothing the government could do to stop them.

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