Night fell without the sculptor's return. His apron had slid off the marble long ago, and now a blue moonlight bathes the half-carved block. The marble considered the earlier conversation and was compelled to test the sculptor's conviction. It tried through the night to push and pull itself apart, and nothing happened. It tried to shiver in the chilled air. Nothing. It hummed, nothing, its voice too soft, powdery. It swallowed a deep breath, held it, and nothing. Perhaps the sculptor was right.
-Maybe, the marble considered, maybe I am the rare perfect block. And maybe he will take that chance, and then we'll see what we see.
The marble thought and drifted through its pale glittering veins toward sleep. Slowly, it began to dream: a dim haze whitened to a bright shadowless light that dissolved into a dim haze. Shining, twisting surfaces appeared; a glittering radiance glanced off rippling curves and faded. Showers of light falling, fading blue to black and exploding, showering, falling, fading.
When the marble awoke the sculptor was well into his work. The sunlight was bright and the marble wondered whether the morning had passed or was about to.
-Hello, it said in a sleepy whisper.
The sculptor glanced past the head of his chisel. He nodded, his face blank.
-Hello, he replied.
The marble imitated a few short breaths and a thin yawn. -You know, it said, pitching its voice slightly, I've been thinking. You know what I think? I think you might be right. I am the ideal block for you and you the sculptor suited to me.
The sculptor glanced again over his thick hand at the chisel point just beyond it. After forty-three years of carving, he knew marble's tricks. From his teachers he learned how marble's surfaces deceive an untrained eye. His teachers taught him how to distinguish impure veins of limestone from true grain and how to work the soft pith between. Experience taught him to trust his instincts.
He paused, glancing past his thick hand. -Yes, he replied, I might be right, and resumed lightly tapping the chisel with the flattened side of his mallet.
-Why, of course you're right, yes, of course, bearing the palm of all the ages, eclipsing the indissoluble chain of your brotherhood, the marble continued, elaborating its faith in the sculptor, in his transcendence of mere craft and in his place in the narrow halls of artistic genius. As the voice of the marble leveled into its lengthy discourse, the sculptor tended other voices crowding his head, the voices of his teachers repeating Never trust the stone. Never! Especially this one that's talking! The sculptor listened to these voices as he concentrated on his work, on the broad range of tools and techniques and the subtle adjustments made to peel from the sawed block a solitary Danaid crouching at the water's edge.
The crease of a hip emerged from the shrinking block. The sculptor shaped it with files and smoothed it with pumice and sand, caressing it with his cracked fingers. He belied nothing as the marble began exclaiming -Oh, my! Beautiful! Such a beautiful shape, so individual, how lovely it floats out of my simple bulk. Yes, you're right. The voice paused, the sculptor ignored it. -Well, you know, you were right about us. Together, I mean, the combination, master and perfect stone. Perfection, yes, composite perfection, yes, yes we are. You know I've heard . . . the marble prattled on, ignored.
Evening drifted through the workshop and paled. A three-quarter moon lit the room with a light that glowed on the dust brightly. The sculptor hadn't noticed that night had fallen. His eyes had fallen shut with the strain, lids heavy from the dust. His teachers replaced his eyes guiding his hands along the descending curves down to where they joined ridged block, his hands patiently handling the impartial tools, patiently raising the gentle form from the rough stone. He hammered blind, asleep sometimes, through the night, gouged, scraped and polished without hesitation or second thought. That his hammering grew louder was the only indication that he heard the voice of the marble as it gradually rose in volume.
As morning light crossed the workshop, the marble continued its incessant speech, spoke so much that it exhausted the sculptor's language. It shuffled random pieces of other languages, modern and ancient, into its soliloquy. First a word or two would slip into a metaphor, the soulnacht, or at excited moments whole phrases would drop in, joie d' vivre. There seemed no limit to the marble's effort, but the sculptor showed no shift in his concentration, not the slightest hesitation in his movements. By the afternoon of the second day, the marble tapered its sprawling polyglot chatter to a single word: bella.
The sculptor's face was by then masked in the dust. The sockets of his eyes were filled. Around his ears the fine dust collected, as in his hair, to smooth the features of his head. Only his mouth kept its shape, a pink split in the mask.
He hammered, gouged and sanded, hammered, gouged and sanded, shaped the shrinking block nearer its perfection, his masters echoing yes and yesyes and ignore the tricks. The fine dust drew the moisture from his fingertips, etched them until the deep cracks ruptured and wept pale red blossoms through the clotting dust. As the days and nights passed, from the bleeding and clotting as from simple fatigue, the sculptor's grip froze. Changing tools became impossible except by sliding their handles through his clenched grip.
And the paralysis spread quickly. He continued working as his spine stiffened. Stooped on his knees, he felt his shoulders stiffen and lock. He worked low to the ground, his hips still flexible, on what little remained of the block. At last his hips seized, and, on the morning of the fourth day, he worked lying on his side, straining, scratching the remaining lump to completion, the marble repeating bella, bella, bella.
The sculptor's wife found him later that day. She barely recognized her husband in the chalky silhouette collapsed on the floor. That he was working, indeed that he had worked himself to death, stunned her. Usually, drunkenness and women were to blame for his prolonged absences. His agonized body, bound in its shell, was warm where a shaft of afternoon sunlight rested on it. Though she was not moved to any emotion, she remembered a drawing he'd given her when they were young. It was of an old man lying in the midst of a wreckage, and it was beautiful.
About the author:
Keith Baughman is finally learning to play drums. He would rather paint than write and finds that percussion lies somewhere in the middle. Everyone hates this. He currently has work posted on GeneratorPress, Word For/Word and the Muse Apprentice Guild. He has the distinction among his friends as the youngest curmudgeon they know.