Aeone Ex Machina
The Matryoshka Principle
Lucian Bureau sighed as he flicked off the ignition of his hybrid. The sound of the exhale was tainted by inner machinery and came out as a more a quiet weeze. Lucian always felt an awkward melancholia whenever he visited Penelope Black. He had to of course, it was good for him to maintain some connection with her troupe, even if she was the resident cloud-kook-koo lander, and the others had likely been warned away from him by Aleshire.
Lucian also knew he continued to visit out of a slight feeling of guilty sympathy. She was not unique in that her time in the hedge had damaged her, but Penelope was rare in that she was severely damaged yet still managed to escape apparently on her own. This was more than an ill omen to most of the Lost in the Freehold of Columbia, as their inherent paranoia led many to question how one so distant from reality could have escaped without the help of the Gentry. Lucian on the other hand had found himself unable to be suspicious of the girl, perhaps because of how much of herself she poured into her artwork, perhaps he thought, her art had convinced her she was not to be feared.
She was just a girl really, barely into her twenties and small for her age. Lucian had once wondered if Aleshire treated her unfairly but Big Jack had made sure to explain to him at length that in spite of how rarely Penelope was useful she was well looked after. At the time Lucian questioned whether Aleshire knew someway to easily decipher Penelope’s mad prophetic rambles but then Lucian realized that Aleshire no doubt was bound by contract to take care of her, no matter how much help she ended up being. Aleshire also was no doubt pocketing all the cash Lucian was paying for Penelope’s artwork.
This fact actually irked Lucian more than the idea of Aleshire under feeding the young woman did.
Lucian left his car and walked around the Steel Henge building, oddly large for one which functioned as simply a club. He found the rickety, rust ridden staircase on the alley adjacent side of the building and made his assent. The door always unsettled Lucian. It was thick, old and wooden, like most of the doors that hadn’t been replaced from the church building, but at a distance it appeared black. As with all things that Penelope Black touched the truth was less simple than it first appeared. A hundred or more broad brush strokes marked the door, layered upon each other, each a different shade that varied between deep gray and black. Each stroke was of an ever so slightly different shade, each and every stroke. The effect was unnerving not because Lucian expected it to be some esoteric way Penelope’s madness riven mind might attempt to communicate some prophecy but the dedication such a tedium must require, especially with the alarming frequency new shades seemed to be added.
Lucian knocked, electronics like a door bell seemed unnerve Penelope, and waited.
When she finally answered the door Penelope Black’s face was marked by flicks of paint that had clearly run in places as tears ran down her cheeks. She wore a black dress in the style of Elizabethan England, clearly a costume of some sort, that had already been ruined with paints of varied hues that stained patterns across the patterns of thread in the black. Her sleeves had been pushed up and her lower arms and handed were so caked with paint that Lucian doubted that even the stray bits of white he saw were her skin. For a moment her face, staring at him distantly, seemed a mask of confusion. He could almost see her brain try to appreciate and assimilate his presence, in spite of the fact that he came at the same time every fortnight.
“Hello Penelope, may I come in? It’s Lucian remember,” Lucian tried to be calm, but amiable. He had long ago learned that his natural demeanor since his return, of calm and emotionless, unsettled people.
“I. I’m Penelope,” She made a wide motion for Lucian to enter, but said nothing about the same.
Awkwardly Lucian paused for a moment before following her into the apartment. It was stark white except for scattered trinkets, her paints, supplies and paintings in one corner and a couch that was covered in stuff animals and a large quilt that was likely the ugliest he had ever seen, clearly hand stitched by a half-mad fae girl.
Lucian continued, hovering near the door, ignoring that she hadn’t noticed he used her name and that she acted as if they hadn’t met before “I’m here about the paintings. Last time we spoke you said you’d be done two more by now can I-”
Suddenly Penelope’s paint covered index finger was at his lips “Shhhh…”
She took a step back and examined Lucian as if seeing him for the first time “You look like a machine.”
Lucian nodded, humoring her “Yes. I’m like you.”
Penelope shook her head fiercely and sat down on the floor, in the center of the room “No. I look like a goth extra from A Midsummers Night’s Dream that has disemboweled the subject of a Picasso painting.”
Her more lucid moments always seemed to be snaps or jabs Lucian considered “I suppose. Anything I can get you while I’m here?”
“Tea,” said the petite girl who was now sitting cross legged on the floor, picking at the paint on her arms.
Lucian expected that, and had already began to prepare a pot. Penelope had a fondness for tea, it was one of her few consistent characteristics. Aside from other duties Penelope had had to prepare her Keeper’s tea when she was in Arcadia, but she was never allowed drink any. Whatever this had entailed had left her emotionally unable to even endure making a pot of tea, but also ardently obsessed with consuming the beverage as often as she was able.
After a minute of silence Lucian sat down on the couch, an odd scene among the plush toys, and handed Penelope her cup “So. Penelope. Are you on time?”
She nodded and sipped at her cup of Earl Gray, once again timid and submissive.
“You know I’m referring to the paintings?” It helped to be clear with Penelope, Lucian had learned.
She nodded again, this time more hesitantly, as if she had to pause to consider the question.
“Can you show them to me, the paintings I mean?” If Lucian was lucky this would be his shortest visit yet, and most productive.
Penelope nodded curtly and paused. Lucian was about to speak when Penelope bent her neck back and poured her tea down her throat, clutching the cup in one hand. When she had finished she placed the cup down on its saucer and discarded them on the floor. She raised her hand, silently requesting assistance as she uncrossed her legs. Lucian rose from the couch and took her hand, and with she rose with all of the sudden poise of the sort of lady her costume suggested. They remained there for a moment, the robot in the blazer and the elf in period dress before their hands disentangled and Penelope made the slow trek into the corner of the room scarred a rainbow of colors by unrestrained art supplies.
The first canvas she pulled from a wall depicted a strange beast looming over a young blond woman.
The beast possessed a wooden torso, finely carved with a circular empty space in its chest, and wooden legs. The pattern of thorns dominated these components. The arms were formed of intestines and a scattering of other organic material. The claws of the creature were formed by fused phalanges embedded in the flesh of ends of the hideous arms. The head was the skull of a large dear, or perhaps a de-horned Elk, with the faintest of red lights ebbing within the darkness of both sockets.
“What is it?” Lucian asked reflexively.
“Who,” Penelope replied softly.
“Yes. Who. Just because it’s a monster doesn’t mean it’s not a person.”
Lucian considered pressing the point, it was easier to sell a piece the more he understood of it, but the craftsmanship of the piece was impressive and even the monster was beautiful in its own strange way.
A few moments passed as Lucian examined the piece, assimilating and appreciating it, before Penelope finally moved again. She tossed blank canvases aside with a look that boarded on scorn. She checked over the second piece, which had been left almost hidden in the back, and paused again. She glanced back at Lucian “We’ve met before?”
“Yeah, I own the gallery your work goes on display in,” Lucian said with a smile he hoped wasn’t coming off as creepy, he’s terrible at faking smiles.
Penelope fiddles with her hair, nodding and pulls a cloth from a pile in the corner and leaves the second piece to lean on a wall hidden under the fabric “I know. I know. Lucian Bureau, owner of the Bureau Gallery. One of the Lost, Spring Court, thinks Aleshire is an Asshole.”
Lucian nods uneasily “So that second piece, is it-”
Penelope cuts him off by running over to her fridge. Her sudden movement almost made the mechanical French man jump “Wha-”
She pulled something small from the fridge and slammed the door. A moment later she places the item on the counter beside Lucian, as if expecting a certain response. Lucian glanced at it.
It was a Matryoshka doll, one of those Russian dolls that popped in half to reveal more of the same within.
“Am I-” For a third time Penelope cut Lucian off.
“The Matryoshka principle,” she said with a smile pointing to the doll.
“Am I . . . supposed to know what that is?” Lucian asked with a raised eyebrow, or at least the illusion of an eyebrow.
“It’s a design principle. Designing several items so they can placed within each other, leaving only one functional item as a container for the others.”
In a blur her hands disassembled the doll into a half dozen versions of itself, each layer a clearly different person “lots of parts making one whole, each part an independent useful part of the whole.”
“Penelope . . .” Lucian moved hesitantly towards Penelope “. . . I really just wanted to pick up the paintings . . .”
Penelope snapped around and pointed her finger angrily at Lucian’s face “did you sleep with Vogue?”
Lucian stumbles back surprised “Wait . . . who . . . what? Vogue . . . Vogue WILSON? The woman who wanted to buy your paintings?!”
Penelope outstretched her arms shouting “NO Vogue BUSH Jr.? Yes, Vogue Wilson! How many other Vogues do you know Lucian?!”
“I . . . No. I barely know the woman! Anyway she has a boyfriend,” Lucian snapped back.
“Wait, Aeon was with her already?” Penelope asked with a knowing smirk.
“Who the hell is Aeon? No, the guy was called Cain.”
“Cain . . . ?” Penelope paused for a moment taken aback “Odd, but not uncommon. Early.”
“Penelope I don’t understand . . .” Lucian said with a sigh, exasperated with her spirited gibberish.
“I know,” Penelope with the same sort of exasperated exhale, as she leaned against the wall and slid down it “no one understands me, I’m fuckin’ bonkers. I try to pretend I’m not but I’m old and senile.”
Feeling a pang of sympathy Lucian went down on one knee to speak to her at eye level “you don’t look old to me. You don’t even look like you could drink.”
Penelope smirked at that “I’m older than I look.”
“Aren’t we all,” Lucian replied with a grin.
Slowly at that Penelope reached over and pulled the cloth from the second painting. Lucian glanced at the painting “Is that . . .”
Penelope nodded “Vogue Wilson.”
Lucian nodded “And her boyfriend Cain. Did she ask you to paint this?”
Penelope shook her head “She didn’t.”
“Who’s that guy she’s got her arms around?” Lucian asked curious.
“Her boyfriend. Finn.”
Lucian tried to hide his reaction to that, he didn’t recognize the handful of others. Cain was in the back with a tall black youth who was messing a far more human looking Penelope’s hair, who wore large black glasses. Vogue and the boy Lucian didn’t recognize dominated the foreground.
“Are you and Vogue friends?”
“Not anymore,” Penelope said wistfully, glancing to the painting.
“What happened?” Lucian asked, more than willing to dismiss whatever Penelope said as delusional.
“They forgot who they were.”