~ Erik Kollmer
As my head prattles against Father’s station wagon window to the cadence of the engine, I picture a massive green-scaled, three-headed snake sliding out of the wheatfields onto the single-lane road Father and I trace daily. Maybe it could grab the station wagon with its fangs and jostle it like a helpless cybernetic rabbit. Father would scream and I would laugh because that would be the most exciting thing that has ever happened to us.
The wheatfields have surrounded me my entire existence. The golden grain occupies every square meter that is not a building nor road in Damsel. A common point of conversation among families and neighborhoods is when children have their first inquisition as to what is deep within the wheatfields, colloquially called “W. moments”. Ask any other nineteen-year-old what they remember about their W. moment, and they will respond with a scratch of the head and a shrug of indifference. It sears my heart.
“Lucina, you do understand how important today is for me, correct?” Father’s apprehensive tone drags me back to the confines of the station wagon. He grips the steering wheel so firmly that his veins look ready to escape his skin. “Please be courteous and kind to everyone at the Community Center, especially Mr. Wingal. He has . . .”
“A silvery handlebar mustache and abnormally long eyelashes. His color is lime green, #3CFA3E. No child because he’s on the Council. I remember him from the last Exhibition.”
Father expels a soft sigh, then wipes his brow with the sleeve of the only tweed jacket he owns. It is a darker shade of burgundy, #6C011C, specifically matching my dress. Without it, there would be no other way to identify us as parent and child.
I turn my attention back to the wheat blurring together outside. A transmission tower looms over its agrarian subordinates, asserting its industrial dominance as electricity cackles through its wires.
The Community Center is a unique building. Many parents bring their children here after their W. moment to show them the parking circle, as it is the only piece of road in Damsel that defies the town’s cartesian street grid. Once inside the Center, guests have the choice of entering either the theater or the ballroom. Of course, this is an Exhibition, so Father and I proceed into the theater and find our assigned seats. As I sit down, the rigid wooden slats rib my exposed back, but I’ve convinced myself that these seats are uncomfortable by design. As more people fill the theater, it becomes noticeably redolent of sun-kissed wheat.
As soon as the last seat in the theater is occupied, the audience’s eyes snap towards the screen at the front of the room. It is a perfect square, 1300 pixels by 1300 pixels, mounted in front of a backdrop of gray curtains. In the center of the screen, the standard preliminary message is spelled out in blue pixels:
B. waterways. Iteration 4003029.
Designed by Resident 6C011C-1.
The audience blinks, and an image with a top-down aerial view of three parallel aqueducts appears on the screen, a thin coating of water flowing across the top of each. Underneath the three aqueducts is a riverbed, which disappears off the top and bottom edges of the image. Then, everyone in the theater begins to stand and clap with an unbridled passion. A spotlight showers down onto the seat next to mine. Whether Father was crying before they displayed his iteration on the screen, I am unsure. I stand up and perform the customary hug, then wipe Father’s tears away with my thumbs for sentimental flair. I disgust myself.
At the previous Exhibition a month ago, a woman received a similar standing ovation for changing the pixel that is part of the central aqueduct’s wall from a dry, dirty shade of brown (#bb5101) to a slightly darker, earthy brown (#934306). Father had essentially mirrored this color change at pixel (635, 799), which was part of the leftmost aqueduct’s wall.
“Brilliant choice, Maxwell! Brilliant!” a gaunt-looking woman in purple drab says behind me, still furiously clapping.
Another woman from a couple rows back joins in. “Such poise in selection, and such beauty in parallelism!”
“This is one of the most intelligent iterations I’ve seen in quite some time.” Over Father’s shoulder, I catch a glimpse of Mr. Wingal. My self-loathing only grows as I force a smile and extend my hand to the man outfitted with a pair of lime green circle-framed glasses. He shakes my hand with a mix of tenderness and assurance that, to my displeasure, puts me at ease. Father then turns and clasps Mr. Wingal’s other hand in both of his. “Mr. Wingal, I hope this iteration is everything you’ve been hoping for.”
Mr. Wingal grins. “Maxwell, your work is incredibly insightful. Many of the Council and I thought you would return to the contemporary trend of darkening the water pixels, but your adaptation of Gretchen’s recent wall-focused idea underscores something . . . awe-inspiring I couldn’t quite pinpoint before. Surely you will be remembered forever as one of the early adopters of dirt-brown wall pixelism. A renaissance is afoot!”
I watch as Mr. Wingal’s words dismember Father. He staggers back from Mr. Wingal, and I notice a feral smile creep into the seams of Mr. Wingal’s mouth. I pity them both.
Feigning affection has never been an issue for me, but I cannot bring myself to express appreciation for a process I find revolting. “Mr. Wingal, why do grafters only change B. waterways one pixel at a time? Is there some sort of rule around it?”
Mr. Wingal’s eyelashes recoil as far away from his pupils as his eyelids permit. “Lucina . . . are you truly your father’s daughter?”
My question also snaps Father out of his torpor. “Mr. Wingal! Please, for the love of Damsel, forgive my daughter. She doesn’t quite understand the parameters of grafting yet.”
“I see,” Mr. Wingal says. He brings his thumb and forefinger up to the corner of his mustache, simultaneously pulling at and twirling the left end. “Let’s do this. Lucina, for the Exhibition next month, you shall be in charge of grafting B. waterways.”
Father and I slowly turn towards each other, our faces paralyzed with an unholy mélange of horror and shock. Father places his hand on my shoulder to steady himself, then turns to Mr. Wingal.
“With all due respect, Mr. Wingal, I do not believe she is ready for such an important task,” he says, quivering.
“Maxwell, I appreciate your concern, but I have made my decision. I trust Lucina will surprise each and every one of us,” Mr. Wingal declares, pursing his lips and narrowing his eyes in my direction. “With that, I must bid you both adieu. Maxwell, congratulations again on a job well done.”
The silence hanging in the station wagon is finally pierced by the crackling of wheels on gravel. A soft tunk floats into the night air as the car’s lights turn off. We sit in the darkness, staring straight ahead at our house, the wheatfields an omnipresent backdrop.
“Tell me why you don’t think I’m ready,” I finally say.
Father clears his throat with a practiced ahem. “I’m trying to protect you, Lucina. There are millions of pixels to choose from on top of millions of color palettes. The combinations scale exponentially. Six months passed until I realized how to best improve B. waterways for the future, inspiring others to find the beauty in the miniscule. For you to do the same in only one month, and at your age . . . I just don’t want you to begin your life labeled a derivative.” He whispers the final word with sacrilegious precision.
“It did not take you six months to decide on which pixel to change!” I exclaim. “You knew which one you were going to pick the instant you were appointed for this iteration seven months ago. The rest of the time you just spent second guessing yourself.”
Father stares at me, mouth agape. “Lucina, I . . .”
“You’re afraid to ask the bigger questions, Father. You always have been. How did B. waterways even come to be if no one in Damsel has ever seen water? Not a single person understands its physics. The concept of water is so abstract to us that we admire it initially, but have you ever wanted to actually experience water? How it might actually degrade the aqueducts over time, changing B. waterways as we know it?”
Father goes quiet, staring blankly at his palms in his lap. He begins to knead his thumbs together. “Lucina, you’re really beginning to worry me. All I ask is for you to make me proud at the next Exhibition.”
I kick open the passenger door and step out into the darkness. It’s only now he pays attention to what I have to say. “Whether I make you proud is your choice,” I mutter, shutting the station wagon door with more force than the old car would have liked. As I walk towards the front door, my fingers rub the middle of my bare back and make acquaintance with the impressions the theater seat left etched into my skin. They always linger longer than I expect.
It is only when I reach my bedroom that I allow myself to laugh uncontrollably. Defiant as I am, the opportunity to have an Exhibition all to myself is surreal. For as long as I can remember, I have partaken in the ritual of Exhibitions, but only out of reluctant compliance. Month after month, each iteration tampers with my soul, tempting me to bury my W. moment in a reality plagued with mundanity and the people who proliferate it.
I stare at my posterless bedroom wall, dilate my pupils, and allow Father’s version of B. waterways to project itself through my eyes. I then tap my right temple to allow my eyes to move freely around the image. They instinctively dart to Father’s most recent change at pixel (635, 799), where Mr. Wingal declared a “renaissance is afoot.” I shudder. Could changing one pixel in an image really be the genesis of an entire art movement? I focus on the other wall pixels around Father’s chosen one and use my pupils to draw a virtual perimeter. In my head, I calculate the hex code of the average color across the different shades of brown: #66484a. I search my memory for what I learned in my browns class in school, and recall that #66484a is a red-tinged brown. The color of Father’s pixel, #634547, is only slightly darker. Fitting for him to take as small a risk as possible. He didn’t even try changing the color to something more interesting.
Despite all my misgivings with Father’s work, I thought I would have a better idea about what I wanted to add to B. waterways. My teachers in school had always dictated that Exhibitions are solely about improving the aesthetic appearance of the whole image. At my core, I always knew that my iteration would break that unspoken rule. But now that I finally had the chance to do so, I found myself struggling to come up with what exactly would establish me as a derivative.
What’s beneath the wheatfields?
The thought felt internal, as if something dormant had just awakened within me. An incredible compulsion overcomes me. Whether this thought is going to drive me to madness or inspiration, I am unsure. But I soon find myself walking barefoot in the backyard towards the seemingly impenetrable wall of yellow grain. A friendly full moon assists my hands as they begin to dig at the base of one of the stalks.
About three hand-lengths deep, a cool liquid greets my fingers. I bring my hand back out of the hole and see that my fingers are covered in a viscous, dark liquid. I begin to tremble uncontrollably. Is this . . . water?Knowing that I can only verify the color under proper light, I dash back across the lawn and wrap my forearm around the backyard doorknob to open it without tainting the handle.
Under my bedroom light, the dark liquid becomes a deep shade of crimson. From a quick calculation, I can tell it is, on average, #a81117. This is not water. My senses continue to investigate: a soft, metallic scent. A thick texture that does not disappear as I trace my finger along my arm.
Shadowy notions of despair begin to crawl into the back of my consciousness. The Council could have invented this ink to brand those who had the derivative idea of digging through the wheatfields. While only a moment ago being a derivative seemed like liberation, feeling this viscous substance seep into the cracks of my skin makes me pause and consider a new potential reality: social exile.
I consider showing Father, but decide that confiding in him is the same as telling all of Damsel. Instead, I return to the backyard and try wiping my hands on the lawn. To my delight, the crimson liquid begins to adhere to the grass, and I direct my hands to make large sweeping motions, turning them over intermittently to eliminate the foreign substance. After verifying the cleanliness of my fingers and palms by moonlight, I return to my bedroom. B. waterways is still projected on the naked wall.
Fear not, Lucina.
An overwhelming sensation of warmth reverberates throughout my entire body. Once again, its source feels entirely internal. The very fiber of my being tells me the sensation can only be one thing: unconditional love. I try calling out to the source with my thoughts.
Are you my savior?
The only reply is the humming of the power lines that pass close to my bedroom window. I cast an unwavering gaze at B. waterways, allowing the image to etch itself into my eyeballs. I shut my eyes tight and allow the patterns of light to appear on the back of my eyelids.
Fear not, Lucina.
Mr. Wingal’s condescending smile no longer feels as condemning. The opinions of the Exhibition audience no longer fetter me. I try to explain away every possibility that this overpowering sensation could be some type of ploy by the Council to let my guard down. And yet, it is as if this notion had always been present within me, simply waiting to be untapped.
Is that you, Mother?
Whoever is responsible for the sensation does not respond. A pang of loneliness shoots through me, but is quickly erased once I flutter open my eyes. B. waterways is not the same as when my eyes last left it on my bedroom wall. Every single pixel that used to be a watery blue had suddenly recolored itself to a deep crimson – the very same crimson I had just wiped my hands clean of in the backyard. My arm hairs defy gravity for the first time in their life. I blink, and B. waterways returns to Father’s iteration. No matter. A glimpse is all I need.
The morning of my Exhibition arrives quickly. Father and I don the ceremonial burgundy, and he doesn’t even seem to contemplate asking me if I want to drive before he sits behind the steering wheel of the station wagon. Once again, my head finds its familiar resting place between the roof and the passenger seat’s headrest, while my eyes silently observe the wheatfields blur together into their trademark soft yellow, #F9EB27.
Father maneuvers the station wagon into our assigned spot in the parking circle. I step out onto the street and prepare to simulate my typical brooding demeanor, but am surprised at how difficult it is. Excitement is not something I have experience concealing.
“Lucina,” Father calls from behind me. “I just want you to know . . . ” he trails off, a sheepish expression overcoming his pale face. “I just want you to know that whatever your iteration might be today, I will be proud of you.”
“You’ll regret saying that,” I say without hesitation. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the edges of Father’s lips descend simultaneously. I turn and walk into the Community Center before my lips do the opposite.
As I sit down, I catch Mr. Wingal’s gaze from far behind me. He and the other Council members are the only ones who are aware of my assignment, which explains the fourteen other eyes I feel relentlessly dissecting me. I quickly make note of where they are all seated so I can compare their reactions after I present my Exhibition.
Father is one of the final residents to find his seat. The curvature of his spine is more pronounced than usual, a sign of his utter exhaustion. He does not look at me as he sits down.
The lights dim, and the standard message shows itself once again.
B. waterways. Iteration 4003030.
Designed by Resident 6C011C-2.
A millisecond after the message disappears, I focus my eyes directly forward and use them to project my iteration onto the screen, hearing a soft whrr come from my temples. I gently tap my right temple, freezing my iteration on the screen for the entire theater to see.
At first, I am unsure if I projected my iteration correctly, as an anticipatory silence still hangs in the dusty theater air. But then an array of sounds begin to surround me: sardonic chortles, frightened cries, uncensored gasps. The spotlight finds my seat, and I slowly rise. I thought I would be able to withstand any sort of audience-led persecution, but tears begin to nestle themselves inside my eyelids. A few seats to my left, a girl my age rolls her eyes and slightly shakes her head. You dumbass, she mouths to me with lips painted blue.
Father does not stand to hug me as I did for him. He remains seated, his lips slightly parted while he gazes forward in a petrified state. Realizing now that he would be the only one to support me, I bite my lip and cast my eyes to the side. Tch. Why am I expecting to be rewarded after all my unrelenting bitterness towards him?
There is only one thing remaining in the room that can console me, and I am still projecting it on the 1300 by 1300 theater screen. I consider terminating the projection, but that would be admitting defeat. I admire the way the crimson liquid splashes across the aqueducts the way the water once did. It was difficult for me to illustrate the heaviness of the liquid in only two dimensions, but I tried to minimize the number of waves in the river that runs underneath the aqueducts . . .
Lucina, this is called blood. B-L-O-O-D.
“Mother!” I exclaim to no one.
I collapse into my seat. There is no way for me to verify Mother’s claim, but there is something about it that feels inherently irrefutable. I cannot stop myself from laughing. Infantile as it may seem, Mother’s acceptance is the only thing that matters to me now.
And then I realize that the auditory assault towards me has completely halted. I look around and see that all of the other Community members are seated, their heads compressed between their palms. Their shouts are no longer directed at me.
“Father, is that you?”
“Mother, is that you?”
“What exactly is blood? Why is it like that?”
Gradually, like how the wind chooses which wheat stalks to shake first, the heads around the theater turn towards me. Their faces all have the same expression: awe.
“Lucina, you’re a prophet!”
“Such beauty in elegance, such composure in form!”
“How did you do that? How did you know that replacing water with blood was the key?” an authoritative voice asks from behind me, urgency at its heels. Mr. Wingal.
I turn around, placing my knees on the seat—a difficult accomplishment in this dress.
Feeling confident as ever, I answer Mr. Wingal’s question with one of my own. “What do you mean, ‘key’?”
Mr. Wingal clears his throat and centers his lime green glasses. “Lucina, surely you must have wondered at some point what the whole point of B. waterways was. Having pixel-by-pixel iterations of the same image without an end goal serves no purpose. We at the Council observed your frustration building at each Exhibition. Allow me to explain why Exhibitions even exist to begin with.
“The creators of Damsel founded the Council to determine what constitutes the most objective definition of art. We know this is accomplished when the internal parent microchips—what you know as ‘Mother’—are activated. This only happens whenever there is sufficient electrical current directed towards them. We Damselians are designed to allocate electrical current to our parent microchips only when we are inspired. Clearly, your iteration of B. waterways elicited enough inspiration to awaken several of the audience members’ parent microchips.”
I look around at the theater crowd again, then cross my arms. “If you knew this much about how we operate, how are you not frustrated time and time again after each Exhibition like I am?”
“All Councilmembers undergo a certain training before they are appointed. We learn that when Damsel was created, everything was generated based on a template. Damsel as we know it is just one random variation of this template. Certain new features were added, like blood underneath the wheat stalks, and certain features were removed—water being the most notable. Everything about Damsel, from the parent microchips to B. waterways itself, is to accomplish one goal: to determine which environment is best suited for inspiration.”
Mr. Wingal nods with a sort of acknowledgment towards me that I never thought he would be capable of. “No one knows who designed us, or how they were able to codify inspiration as electrical current,” he says. “But do not dwell on that for now. Look around—you have enriched the Community’s lives with a beauty they never even thought as possible.”
He was right. The same Community members who had crucified me seconds ago were now glowing with an undeniable happiness. I allow myself a smile and look above the crowd at my iteration on the screen one final time. It does not fascinate me anymore. Interchanging water for blood is too simple of a transformation to be called “art.” My parent microchip must require a lower amount of electrical current to activate it. Inspiration comes easily to me, but leaves just as quick. Damn whoever programmed me into this vicious cycle.
I turn to Father. He is sitting complacently in his seat, eyes still fixated on the screen.
“Father.” He pivots his head slightly towards me. “Did you hear a voice inside you when you saw my iteration?” I ask.
“A voice . . .” Father goes quiet. I have never seen him this calm. There is no more urge to appease hiding beneath his beady eyes.
“Lucina . . .” he says slowly. “Today, you allowed me to fulfill my function as your Father. I serve no more purpose. You have made me undeniably proud.”
A soft smile rests on Father’s face, and his eyes go still. I watch as the soft light behind his pupils gradually dims. My eyes instinctively avert themselves, and they find my hands. I rub my fingertips together, still flecked with the dry blood from digging beneath the wheatfields.
This is Erik Kollmer’s fiction debut. He tells stories with data for a living. That’s what he tells himself anyways. He feels that his data storytelling work does not allow him full narrative control, so his fiction seeks to reclaim that.