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The Art of Claywork Is Dead

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At 5 pm in the afternoon, the All Day Art Festival in New Orleans was beginning to live up to its name. It was, from what I understood, only supposed to last until 4:30, but was dragging on and seemed as though there were no signs of slowing down. My sons had dragged me here: the little one, at age six, because he wanted to check out the toys that some of the crafters had on display. The elder son, age 16, because because he wanted to see all the ‘voodoo’ and inevitable fortune tellers that would be there. How anyone could believe in such nonsense was beyond me.

Sure enough, within the first two hours of the festival, we came across people offering their psychic services of all sorts. Tarot card readings, ‘enchanted’ crystals, even one woman claiming to be a witch. Of all things, a witch. Needless to say, I was rather unimpressed with the whole show, and figured it a waste of a trip. We lived out of town about half an hour, and it was half an hour longer than it should have been due to traffic. My eldest son, James, had received wind of this event from a friend on Facebook, who happened to live in the Big Easy.

My youngest son, Peter, overheard James and I discussing going, and James managed to string him along with the promise of toys, and other wonderful goodies. Sure enough, as promised, Peter was drawn in as soon as we arrived by a small tent full of model trains. Street performers caught his eye at every corner, stopping our progression for a moment as I faked amusement. “Of course I don’t mind, Petie. Daddy loves mimes.” I lied and smiled, reassuring him that he was no bother, no matter how much I simply wanted to leave.

At six, the festival finally started to slow down, and I couldn’t wait for it to end. Sighing, I took Peter by the hand and began to look around for James so that we could leave the event. “Hey, dad! Come check out what I found.” I cringed as I heard James call out to me, and turned around to face a tent. It was small, and its stock was representative of that. ‘Claywork’, read the sign on the tent, and James’ head poked out from the center, beckoning for me to come inside. I entered, and was greeted by a macabre sight. Immediately, I was assaulted with the sickly sweet smell of several incenses. Seven statues, all made of a hard red clay, in different positions and sizes, with portraits hanging above their heads. Each of the portraits was simply a colored in version of the statue, made from what appeared to be watercolors.

“Howdy, Thomas. Like what ya see?” I looked to my right, noticing the flannel shirt, overalls and coke-bottle glasses wearing, thin haired man that I assumed ran this stand. Dismissing the fact that he knew my name (I assumed James had told it to him in an awkward attempt to make me believe in the paranormal), I acknowledged him with a nod of my head.

“Well, it all looks well made, I’ll give you that. Are you a professional?” I asked him, crossing my arms and inspecting one statue in particular. It was a man, about my height, with his hand to his chin and head cocked as though he was looking at a fine piece of art and loving it. His other hand rested gayly at his hip, and his legs were straight and stiff as though he were originally standing at attention when something caught his eye. Though the statue was of a naked man, the portrait depicted him in the same stance, but wearing a plain white robe stereotypical of a Roman emperor. The other statues were distant to me, and I hardly noticed them. This one seemed to speak to me, and I actually sort of liked it.

I turned to the owner, realizing he had been speaking to me while I inspected the statue, but I had tuned him out in my intrigue. He smiled and laughed, as though this wasn’t the first time. “I’m as professional as they get, sir. In a trade like this, we don’t have too many practitioners anymore. The art of claywork is dead, or so they say. I carried on the craft from my dad, who learned it from his dad, and so and so on all the way back to the first Clayworker in England.” When the man said that claywork was dead, I was confused. I had no idea if ‘claywork’ was even a real term or profession, but I had seen statues of clay many times before. None so perfectly sculpted as this, but still works of clay nonetheless. “I see you’ve taken an interest in this one here. The portrait and the statue are a set, and they’re both yours for just 50 dollars.” Peter was off, inspecting the other statues and whatnot, but James was, sure enough, at my side with 25 dollars in his hand. I surprised myself by, without much hesitation, handing over a full fifty dollars to the owner. “Great! Need any help carrying it out to the car?” He asked, snatching it up in a heartbeat.

“No thanks, me and my boys can carry these out ourselves.” I was suddenly off put, thinking it strange of myself to hand over money so quickly, and even more for his over excited smile and tone. I let Peter haul off the portrait, while James and I moved the statue. It was surprisingly light for its size, as though it were hollow inside. It took a little work to fit it into the back seat, but we got both it and the portrait home with no real difficulty.

“I know you are not putting that thing in my house.” My wife complained. I was busy placing the portrait on the wall in the computer room, just above the statue. I admired how soft the canvas was, much to my surprise, as though it were cured with some odd substance.

“Well, then you must not be too wise, because that is exactly what I am doing.” I stated as I finished hanging it up, before turning round to smile cockily to my less than amused wife, Sally. It was a bit touch and go, but after some debate, she agreed to allow me to keep it. I was ecstatic, and so was James, in our victory. I went to sleep that night, thinking about heading to the next festival to get another.

My dream was dark, and all I saw was the statue I had bought earlier that day, holding the portrait of himself. A gruff voice began to speak. “It all started when he was just ten years old, and his mother let him watch Silence of the Lambs. He was inspired by the serial killer, Buffalo Bill, and noticed that with all humans could become useful, just as his dreadful hero Buffalo Bill had made them.”

I woke with a start to the sound of Peter calling my name. Groggily, I checked the clock. 4:24 in the morning. Muttering to myself, I walked to Peter’s room, and jumped a little at what I saw. The statue, portrait tucked neatly under its arm, was standing at the foot of Peter’s bed, looking at him with the same interest that was always conveyed in his posture. “Ha ha ha, very funny. Goddammit, James.” I mumbled, lifting the statue and returning it to its former post in the hallway.

I decided against scolding James that following morning, thinking it would only encourage him to do it again. The day progressed as usual, and as I returned home from work, I saw my two sons hanging about the piece of art, mocking the way it stood. It was later that night that things began working on the same track as it had the night before, but different. The statue in my dream this time was a little boy, one that was at the very back of the stand. He was laying flat on his stomach, hands on his face and feet in the air, and the portrait above him depicted him in a sailor suit. A soft, almost frightened voice spoke to me.

“He noticed how humans were always so soft, and he didn’t like it, however, and that was when he decided how he could make them useful. He could immortalize them, and make them hard.” I awoke at 4:24, same as the night prior, but not so much in shock as I was flustered. I dismissed it as a coincidence, and rolled over to sleep. The next morning at breakfast, we paused to see James carrying the statue out of his room.

“Whoever put that there, good job. You got me, it freaked me out. Now who was it?” He said sarcastically, placing the statue down in the hallway. He stopped, and sniffed the air for a moment, as though something bad was in it. “Ugh. Found it at the edge of my bed, watching me with that stupid face.” James muttered. My wife looked to me, but I was just as confused as she was. I went to work, and returned to find the kids inspecting the statue.

“Maybe it’s haunted?” Peter suggested, to which James shrugged.

“It smells terrible, whatever it is.” He responded after a moment’s thought. I shook it off and went about the rest of the day as usual. Unfortunately, what was happening at night seemed to be usual by now as well. This time, the statue was of a woman, striking a pose not unlike Marilyn Monroe, with one hand propping her hair, and the other down at her dress. Her face was different, though. I don’t know why I didn’t notice before, but rather than a face, this one wore a mask as though it were the phantom of the opera. Dull, expressionless, and lacking the flare the other two statues had. In the portrait she held, she wore a long, ruby red dress, with a jade necklace. It sounded as though she were crying as she spoke.

“He made us pose. He drove wire into our skin to make us pose while he sculpted us.” As her words grew quieter, I could hardly breathe. Deep, stabbing pains shot through my feet, arms, hands and legs. After she finished speaking, I awoke with a yelp. I turned immediately to the clock and cursed as I stared dully up at the ceiling. 4:24 am, once again. It was then that my attention was drawn to the white elephant in the room. A growing sense of dread came over me as I slowly turned to look at the foot of the bed. The statue was there, staring at the sleeping frame of my wife, the portrait in his arms.

I did nothing but look at it for a long time, waiting for it to sigh, or breathe, or chuckle, or acknowledge me in some way. But, it was just a statue. Standing there, bare for all to see, just staring. I moved it out into the hall and returned to sleep, making up my mind that I would return it in the morning.

True to my word to myself, in the morning I stuffed the objects into my car, called in sick to work, and made way for New Orleans. The Art Festival was going on for a week, and all the tents would still be there, so I dragged the accursed object through hell and high water to get back to that stand. When I got there, however, the tent was empty, and a plane white, whereas before it was velvet purple. There were no signs of the man who sold it to me at all. After looking around for some time more, I had to give up the hunt and return to my home.

The day was hot, and unnaturally so. On the drive back, I was suddenly hit with one of the most putrid odors I had ever experienced in my life. I didn’t know at the time what I was smelling, but no matter how long I kept the window open, it would not disappear. It smelled of steel, and skunk. Well, maybe not skunk, but that’s the closest way I can describe it. I left the sculpture, along with the painting, out by the curb, not wanting to bring that smell into the house. I noticed that the painting was beginning to chip, but thought little of it. It took me a while in the shower to get the smell out of my hair, and my clothes would almost have to be burned. I went to bed that night frustrated, confused, and maybe just a little frightened.

The dream that night will never leave me. There were no statues, and no paintings. Only a television, with a grim looking newscaster. “Today, the manhunt for Gregory Arkansas has ended. Charged with the disappearance of a family of seven, Gregory Arkansas was charged with seven counts of murder and kidnapping, all of which he admitted to. He was apprehended this morning at an art festival in New Orleans.” That was when my heart sank, and everything began to make sense. The seven statues from the store all walked up in the dream; a boy, a girl, two men, a woman, and two dogs, all staring and pointing accusingly. I tried to wake up, but their gaze held me in a nightmare of my own creation.

“Our skin was his canvas, our blood his paint, and our bodies his foundation.” Was all they said, chanting it rhythmically, louder and louder until they shouted. “We’re all dead inside.” I woke up screaming, bolt upright, and immediately wished I hadn’t. My head swam, and I almost fell back over. Placing a hand to my temple, I let out a tormented groan, amazed I had not awaken my wife or my sons. My head hurt, and I had no sweat.

“You’re dehydrated, Thomas. That’s it.” I laid back down and shut my eyes. I almost checked the clock. The AC always cut off manually at 7, but tonight it wasn’t on, and it couldn’t have been seven. I didn’t look at the clock, though, because I knew exactly what time it was. 4:24 AM, and I knew that if I looked, that that is what I would see. It hurt, however, and I desperately needed water. Grinning through the pain, I challenged myself to look at the clock.

My heart jumped into my throat as I looked into the abdomen of a man molded from red clay. Black streaks ran down the chest, and the putrid scent of steel and rotten meat followed. I looked up, following the stale, rotten blood, slowly until my face met his. There was no anger in his glance, like in the dream. Only curiousity, as was always shown by the statue. I heard the cracking of some substance, and I began to weep. The arm that was up to his chin snapped and swung down to his side. His elbow and wrist were the next to break, all rushing down to his side.

Dripping with gnarly black blood, I saw the limp arm of the statue, swinging post mortem and knew that its owner really was dead inside.

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