Questions Asked in the Belly of the World

By A. T. Greenblatt

For the residents of this mycological ecosystem, creating art feeds the World around you and requires working in harmony with your inner voice. When one artist’s voice begins screaming, he’s forced to travel farther than he ever has before to reconcile with the noise in his head and find his true place in society before it’s too late.

In the darkness, the voice in his head is screaming again.

Kenji crushes his knuckles into his temples, even though that’s not where the pain—or the voice—really is. But the agony is unrelenting, unspecified; it’s coursing through his body, making his muscles clench and his molars grind. And the screaming, oh God, the screaming. The voice in his head is screaming loud enough to drown out the raging metal band on the front, center stage. Painful enough that Kenji squeezes his eyes closed, shutting out the audience around him—all those glowing people, jumping to the time of the music, like a stuttering heartbeat.

Then there’s a moment, just a second, when the voice pauses in its shrieking and Kenji opens his eyes, only to find Eva standing next to him looking concerned. The bioluminescent mushrooms she picked on the way to the concert decorate her hair, giving her an unWorldly look. She can’t hear the screaming voice in his head, but she can read the expression on his face.

She knows something is wrong.

“Air,” he mouths, and points toward the door. Eva begins to shoulder her way out, pushing against the illuminated bodies of the audience, but he waves her back, shouting: “I’ll be okay.”

The voice in his head starts screaming again.

Stumbling toward the exit, pushing against the crowd of glowing people, it’s a struggle to keep putting one foot in front of the other when his muscles seize and his head’s ringing with strings of incoherent syllables, and none of this should be happening. But Kenji keeps pushing on. Pushing through.

By the time he’s outside the venue, the episode is almost over. His muscles are relaxing, breathing becomes easier, and the voice in his head sounds hoarse. It’s already mumbling “Sorrysorrysorrysorry.”

Kenji sags against the building, sweating, gulping down lungfuls of air, warm and muggy, like a half-drowned man. He feels some of the polypores growing on the building break and rupture under his weight. This is not the first time his voice has pulled a stunt like this, and if this is like those other times, he’ll feel normal again in a few minutes.

In a few minutes, it will be like nothing happened at all.

Which makes Kenji want to vomit. It’s the lie, the doubt, the false sense of security that scares him most, because if there’s something wrong with his voice . . . If it’s . . .

People in this World can’t survive without the voices in their heads.

In the darkness outside the concert venue, he feels the music throbbing through the boards of the road. It’s now background noise to the sound of the Endless River rushing by a hundred paces away. Which is to say, everything seems abnormally quiet now that the screaming has stopped.

Kenji’s relieved to be alone, to have this moment to himself before returning to the concert and living the lie—the one that says everything is fine. The towering fungi trees growing randomly on the road shush gently in the breeze. There’s no one else around.

Except for a girl, clearly a student, on the prowl. She has that stance that looks like wanting, like minor desperation. She’s glowing only slightly. He notices her too late.

By comparison, Kenji’s own skin radiates like a damn beacon. I need to take care of that tonight, he thinks. His glow is almost indecent. The girl spots him easily and smiles like a hunter striking lucky, quickly weaving her way around the fungi trees, vanishing the space between them in a breath.

“Sorry to bother you,” she says, though her tone apologizes for nothing. “Do you mind? It’s for school. What do you think?” She thrusts a button into Kenji’s hands, and he’s tempted to make an excuse or tell her off. The last thing he wants to do right now is talk about art.

“Doesn’t everyone want to discuss art?” the voice in his head whispers conspiratorially, even though he’s the only one who can hear it. “Isn’t it what you live for?”

Yes.

Or least that’s what everyone says.

Kenji stares at the button, fights to keep his hands steady. The button is a common brown mushroom cap, treated and painted aqua and lavender, with an elegant luminous script that says Given/Give Back. It’s pleasing and well executed, on its own. But Kenji has seen it before. Too many times.

“Good work,” he says. “Clean lines and nice color contrast. Maybe ease up on the background details, though. It detracts from the text.”

It’s a weak critique, uninspired. But Kenji doesn’t feel particularly moved by art tonight. There are a thousand other buttons like it in the World. A thousand other artists with the same message.

The girl nods seriously, diplomatically. She peppers him with other questions, asking about composition and the overall effect of the message. But Kenji gives her terse answers and her friendly demeanor shifts into wariness.

“Thanks for the feedback, mister,” the girl says quickly. Too quickly. She’s already backing away.

“Good luck with the assignment,” Kenji says, though he knows what she’s thinking.

A reluctance to talk about art is a sign your voice is dying.

As soon as she’s out of sight, Kenji empties the contents of his stomach at the base of the nearest tree.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/09/29/questions-asked-in-the-belly-of-the-world-a-t-greenblatt/

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