Luna Station Quarterly is a speculative fiction magazine featuring stories by emerging women authors.
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Into the Starfish Heart

What remains to be said about Ledo? Between the retrospectives upon retrospectives, the steady flow of monographs spooling from the critics these forty-odd years, not a leaf is left unturned in the artist’s gardens. I am looking out on them this afternoon, in all their verdant blush, sipping iced tea in the bright light of sunlamps while my old acquaintance sketches the icy peaks of their personal mountain range beyond the great glass dome in the distance. Acquaintance is the term I will use, for though we first met years ago I feel I know Ledo no better or worse than those who have skimmed over their strange life’s details in the tabloids.

In the end, only one entity in the cosmos will know the privilege of a greater intimacy with the artist, a greater understanding. The void that lies at the heart of our galaxy is waiting, silently, ready to welcome into invisible arms its first living citizen in several billion years. Ledo in their small craft, drifting steadily to oblivion, performing till the end – when they will be promptly rendered apart, in an automatic and indifferent act of murder.

Change the subject, of course, and it is a suicide. Although Ledo does not see it that way, some weeks before the performance is scheduled to occur, as we sit on the terrace high above the gardens, bathed in electric daylight and turning under the dome of eternal night. The artist’s studio and residence is located in a climatologically isolated dome on the ice moon of Wreade, a construction that was supervised by Ledo’s longtime patrons, the Fanfax siblings, Helena and Clem, heirs to their family’s agricultural empire. Where we sit it is pleasantly, summerishly warm; the sloping green valley before us is filled with flowering trees and running brooks. Beyond that there is ten meters thick of glassy forcefield, and beyond that are black mountain peaks ravaged in permanent snowstorm, next to which this habitat has been dropped like an enormous fishtank.

“I was made to last five years. And today I am twenty-seven. Obscene!” Ledo puts down the pen and paper and knits together small gray-skinned hands, gleefully. “So it is fitting, something quite obscene.”

With their boyish soft face and black knit cap, they are a compact and rounded-seeming, like a strange doll, smiling slightly in a way that nonetheless betrays a great well of mirth. Observers of Ledo have oftentimes remarked on the strangeness of a scarecrow that smiles, that has an expression at all.

I ask if it is the upcoming Starfish Heart performance that is the obscenity. Ledo shakes their head. “No, no. This.” They flick their wrist, tightly buttoned in black sleeves, out onto the landscape. “All this. A present for me.”

Their tone turns half-mournful, half-mocking. Their eyes are still laughing, always laughing – at what, only Ledo can know.

***

Twenty-seven years ago, on a sunbaked day – the way of all days on Yadley VI, the sixth planet from the binary star in the Fanfax system – a child was born, in the fallow season. That is, one hundred children were born together, in the industrial compound at Y6-D in the southwest hemisphere. Thousands in total were born that day, across the seven compounds jointed together by checkerboarded field roads, running the planet’s thick crops like scars on a green apple. While the Fanfax Corporation neglects to release the official numbers for the other side of its yearly harvest, the annual cloning and hatching of its agricultural workforce, estimations by our leading economists for the year of Ledo’s birth saw a twofold jump from the previous ten, the beginning of a long upward tick in scarecrow production.

It was the hundred scarecrows in Ledo’s cohort, companions and colaborers from birth in the fields of Yadley VI, that famously offered a subject for much of the artist’s early work. Perhaps the most overt example is the well-known sculpture Untitled (One Hundred Faces), which appeared in Ledo’s second gallery show. While art students may note this was largely an exhibition of painting – the artist’s first, some say finest, medium – it was the quite literally splashy centerpiece that charmed the cognoscenti and casual viewers alike. A whole room in the gallery was devoted to the piece, its walls blank apart from one hundred faucets running the perimeter in a perfectly straight line. Every few days Ledo would come in after-hours and turn on a new stream of water, leaving them to run day and night. Gallery-goers were obliged to don first rubber booties, finally wetsuits and airtanks as the installation progressed. Antifluid fields at the doorways protected artworks in adjacent galleries. It was simple; it was elemental. Children laughed and splashed about. Other patrons wept for the scarecrows, or said that the water was brined with tears, that they had tasted this as they swam.

I first encountered Ledo at this moment when the scales tipped, on the cusp of their arrival in the art world. They were more somber then, and still learning a faculty for language, so they spoke slowly. But they told me that day – a very young critic, and still quite somber myself – how the scarecrows were hydrated twice over the course of Yadley VI’s thirty-five hour days, at first light and at sundown, with the long day of harvesting in between. I still have the tape from the recorder I was carrying, as we walked in the empty gallery, Ledo’s halting voice as they described the contents of the solution they were given: “Eighty percent hydrous, six percent lipid, ten percent carbohydrate, trace amounts of various minerals, drugs.” Fifteen years later, Ledo would serve the same concoction in cocktail shooters to crowds of eager patrons at the Quadrennialle. (It was pink, sweet, presented without explanation. Depending on their anatomies those who sampled remember a brief surge of elation, or a venomous distrust of those around them, or a simple yearning to lie limp on the floor, which this critic will attest to.)

Today, at the studio on Wreade, we walk down from the terrace into Ledo’s gardens, and as their fingers linger on the purple blossoms lining the path they hum a tune, something atonal but distinctly repetitive. They have told me they did not hear music until they were taken from Yadley VI, that they are still getting the hang of it. Genetic engineering for contemporary Fanfax scarecrow models has phased out the phenotypical presentation of the oral cavity, teeth and vocal chords. When Ledo was born the scarecrow’s mouths were still sealed shut shortly after birth with a biochemical adhesive, a false skin that sealed over the lips. Sustenance, then as now, is mediated entirely through a port each scarecrow unit bears in the abdomen. Today there are scarcely visible scars on Ledo’s boyish face, from the corrective surgery that created their mouth. But the abdominal port they have never removed. At certain angles it is revealed as strange ripple under the thin fabric of the tunics they favor.

***

“How many years can you spend looking for something truly exciting, truly genius? You can waste a lifetime.” Helena Fanfax glances out the window, into radiant starfield, and takes another drag of her cigar. “My father had established certain standards with his collection that my brother and I were given the duty to maintain. And yet the work that was being produced, before Ledo, was, by and large, pure shit.”

We are on the stardeck of a low-orbit cruiser gently circling pink-and-blue-clouded Mylanthe, where the Fanfax estate occupies much of the central continent. In the last century the family’s engineers have terraformed it into a huge island, circled by endless bathtub-warm seas. The moon Wreade, and Ledo’s studio, bob somewhere in the distance. I have been pedaled over for the afternoon by a Fanfax transport to conduct the interview.

“It was all the same,” mourns Clem Fanfax, walking over in his long peignoir; he says he is recovering from a full skin transplant. The age of the Fanfax siblings is not a matter of public record. He plucks another highball from the arm of a mechanized attendant. “System after system, the parade of dealers peddling these so-called ‘folk-artists’—souvenir makers, I’d say…”

“Embarrassing,” Helena scoffs. “Self-aware, hollow, meaningless—if there is not a spontaneous honesty at the beginning of the career, the genuine impulse to truth, then there really is nothing at all. And yet that was the nature of the work we saw for years, in every city, on every rotten little moon. In the schools it was the worst. There they’d studied our father’s acquisitions, fetishized them. Endlessly predictable, year after year. For decades, nothing but astral projection, nanoconstruction…”

“Thought control,” Clem chimes in.

“Knickknacks and trickery.”

“Derivative. Awful.”

“Can you understand, then, what it was, the moment we learned of this performance?” Helena rises, turning to stand before the glass, as Clem sits, eyes trailing his sister over the rim of his drink. “To see this impulse, this performance, from a mind that had no sense of art—could never have possibly— and therefore no sense of deception.

“In our own backyard, so to speak,” Clem drawls, and drinks.

“We were bound to Ledo,” Helena says. “My father loved artists all his life. And he helped them, all his life, those that he saw possessed the true spirit. The scarecrow was the way he made his fortune. To have genius arise spontaneously from that lifelessness—this is the greatest seed of his legacy, bearing fruit in the unlikeliest manner.” She turns around, smiling. “Ledo was to be exterminated, you know, before we learned about their talent. We saved them. We named them.”

I ask where the name came from. Clem leans back and looks at his sister. “What was it? A dog? A fish? A dolphin?” He laughs. “Only some nonsense, a name for a pet. From when we were children.”

Previously it would have been difficult to imagine the Fanfaxes as children; the joyous ripple in Helena’s voice proves me wrong, suddenly, as she responds–the sound of a child opening a gift.

“Of course! I must have forgotten.” For the first time she hints at a smile. She sighs. “That was where the name came from, a very innocent time in our lives. There was such innocence in that first performance.”

The original video is still on display on a loop at Ledo’s studio. It is stitched together from several security feeds at different angels, the same form it took in Ledo’s first showing on the contemporary wing of the Galactic Institute. On Wreade I watch it several times, although Ledo never joins me.

In the video, it is night on Yadley IV, and a scarecrow walks, naked as all scarecrows, through the door of a squat concrete building. The feed then cuts to the interior, where a number of small bodies—the shot informs us of seven—are laid out on metal tables, unmoving. It is not clear whether they are living or dead. The standing scarecrow turns away, for a moment, to a desk at the front of the room, where a kit of surgical tools is spread open. When the scarecrow turns back around its mouth is wide open, bleeding. It holds a scalpel in its small gray hand. It shouts, silently on the feed, smiling. Black-looking blood is dripping out of its mouth, and it takes its hands to it, wiping them first to make dark marks on its body, then walking among the bodies on the tables, painting them with its fingers. Eyes on their foreheads, mouths on their chests. Thumbprints up and down their limbs. It fades to black as the scarecrow circles and circles the parts of the room we cannot see, before the guards come in, before its body is pinned to the floor.

Ledo has little to say on the subject of their early career. They claim to remember it poorly, that this is a defunct of the scarecrow brain. They often point to the cheapness and shabbiness of their body, taxed far beyond its years of optimal utility. They say they feel ancient, at twenty-seven.

I ask what they know about the fate of their fellow scarecrows, those born in the same year on Yadley VI. Ledo is certain that they we all repossessed in the months after the Fanfax family took interest in the video. This is the natural fate for scarecrows at the end of their time, for their matter to be broken down and sown back into the soil that was their world.

I ask Ledo about starfish, and they say they remember a tidal pool, some portion of the massive shoreline on Mylanthe, where thousands lived. They were standing in the water looking at the colony when a young Fanfax cousin came splashing down to pick up handfuls of the creatures. As Ledo stood watching she tore their limbs off and threw them back into the water, over and over.

“I asked the child why,” Ledo says, leading me gradually to the studio, over the stone path throw a shallow pond that connects it to the living quarters. “I suppose she was an amateur biologist, as she told me it was quite all right, that the arms grow right back. That it really wasn’t a trouble to them at all.”

***

The work, in its current form, is a small room inside of a small space-ship. The room is furnished with a simple bed, a table, a chair. There are no windows. There is a door that, once closed, will not open again. The walls are white. Ledo invites me to sit on the bed, and it is firm, with tight-creased white sheets. They sit before me in the white chair opposite the bed, and tell me about a second room being built inside of a second ship.

“A living room,” Ledo says with a little laugh. “For the observers.” The observation chamber is being constructed at the Fanfax residence on Mylanthe, by a crew under Ledo’s supervision, along with the vessel that will contain it. The two ships—Ledo’s, and the second, being built for the Fanfaxes and invited friends from the art circuit (it is a most coveted invitation), are said to be identical save for one detail. One is engineered to withstand the gravitational warp of the singularity in space, at the safe distance at which it will be positioned. The other has no such special qualities, and will in fact be aiming for the heart of it.

“The traveler may perish.” Ledo smiles again. “And yet the journey will be infinite. At the threshold, I believe, there is a kind of time that slips inside of time, boxes in boxes in boxes, like this.”

We go out into the bright glow of the lamps that light Ledo’s home. There is a wilder garden here, tall grasses and vines that twist into thick boughs. Throughout their travels in the galaxy Ledo has collected plants, cultivating those they can in the dark soil that was found under Wreade’s ice and snow. When it is all over, Ledo tells me, once the performance has occurred and the studio is left without its artist, the garden will overtake the grounds, spread though the buildings, grow unfettered under the dome and create what ecosystem it will. A clause covers this for a millennium in Ledo’s contract with the Fanfax siblings, who are delighted by the prospect of yet another aspect to the commission – a living memorial, from organic chaos evolving a mind of its own.

***

Today I have been invited to bear witness to the Starfish Heart performance, as to provide a suitable conclusion to my article. I write these words in my eyepiece from the backseat of a Fanfax transport, which came floating down before my condo this sunrise. It has sped through the dark of space for several hours when it finally slows, going past a small flotilla of newsvans that have parked on the far periphery of the performance area. My transport is given the silent clearance to go on, closer to the event horizon.

My transport docks, and I am received through the threshold of the spectator ship, where a silent attendant leads me into the observation chamber. I am handed a glass of cordial, for toasting, and a pair of coated observation lenses, for the glare, both engraved with the entwined initials of Clem and Helena Fanfax.

The Fanfax decorators have had their hands on the interiors, which are reminiscent of the finer and more debaucherous hotel lounges—fat satin couches, an internal—organ color scheme, long, mirrored tables crowded with drinks and elbows. Laughter and conspiratorial murmurs fill the air, chatter and anticipation—of what, though? Very few of the invited spectators, for now, are viewing the spectacle on hand.

For we are drifting slowly forward, as I write these words, into streaming starfield innocuous but for a radiant, pulsing blemish blinking in the distance, smaller than a sun, larger than a distant star and growing in size, slightly, by the second. Its colors queasy, glaring green and gold, shifting constantly, difficult to look at even with the special lenses – beautiful, all the same.

Beside the great observation window are dual screens, each displaying Ledo’s room, in Ledo’s ship. In the feed Ledo sits, motionless, unclothed, on the bed, the lumpy gray scar growth of their scarecrow port fully bared. Their face is in profile, licks of thin, sparse black hair covered normally by the cap sticking flying off of their gray forehead. Then the camera angle changes, head-on. Ledo blinks, twice. Ledo smiles.

The ship is gliding forward, more swiftly now it seems, as I turn back towards the party, feet sinking into the padded velvet carpet. I see Clem laughing, and Helena beside him, drinking, their invited revelers circling and circling, glasses clinking. They will go on for hours, days if they can. Their minds will be slowed by drink, and then the world will seem to warp and break. And it will. People will make confessions on the altars of each other’s breasts, as their organs degrade, as their cry and claw at their slurring hearts, as everything is drawn impossibly thin, as if through a needle’s eye, into brightness ever-growing.

Tears cloud my eye-typing apparatus, as I send these final words. My regret is that my testament cannot come any later, that I will never truly capture the artwork as it happens, what is sure to be counted among the most magnificent performances of our time or any. Yet soon it will inhabit its own time, its own infinite dissolution. Such is the signature of our greatest artists.

And now on the screens Ledo is rising, and smiling still, as if they can see us, as if it is they who are watching. The light is rising, with that huge darkness at the center. The work will soon incorporate us, and we should be so honored, as Ledo stands to watch.

A bit about the author:

J.M. Wetherell lives and works in New York City. She is a 2015 graduate of Clarion West. Visit author page