“The Maquette” by Nicole M. Taylor
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He thought he heard her whispering in the night. A low, rasping murmur with no real language. It might have been the trees, the wind, people passing on the little lane outside the sculptor’s home. It might have been.
Once, it roused him from his bed and drew him over to her pedestal. Her face was just the same, just as he had made it. Tranquil and lovely, a slightly superior expression blued with moonlight from the open window.
Her lips, though, her lips were a coral color. No true red, but neither the swirled gray of marble. He touched them with the edges of his own mouth. They were as smooth and cold and lifeless as they had always been. He could feel the slick chill of his breath condensing in the little valley where they parted, so sweet and expectant. He brushed her hand and curled his fingers underneath hers, eternally bent, eternally waiting for a hand to slip into them.
In the little makeshift pallet on the floor of the workroom where the sculptor had been sleeping more and more, he turned one way and then another, eyes prickling and restless. He could make out her shape dimly, head turned down, eyes unseeing. A strand of her stone hair fluttered into her mouth. Pink, orange-pink. So much softer than stone. Finally, he reached down between his legs and took himself in his hand. The pallet moved with him, hissing and scraping on the floor. He looked up at the ceiling and tried to think of nothing at all.
The next morning he worked on her right hand, the one that rested on her sternum. Her fingers kissed her breastbone, delineated with lines and grooves the sculptor had planned and dreamed months ago. With a fluted instrument much stronger than it looked, he carved out the curve of her fingernails and the creases of her knuckles. She had a lifeline, a love line, a marbled map of veins.
She seemed to watch him as he worked, her expression demure, eyes hidden by the sweep of her stone lashes. He held her unfinished hand tenderly as he carved out dexterous fingers, balanced on the rise of her breast. Sometimes, without thinking, he would squeeze and crush her fingers in his. Though, of course, they never gave or compressed in his grip.
Maria, who sold woven baskets in the market, was thought to be very beautiful but the sculptor noticed the way her ears stuck out from her head. Her eyes were spaced too widely. She had clear flaws and asymmetries and yet she stared at him every Thursday over the mounds of her baskets with a sloe-eyed superiority. She slumped her shoulders forward and rested her elbows on the table, the neck of her shift rippling and gaping, revealing the shadowy cleft of her breasts and the curve of one pale shoulder.
The sculptor looked at her as he passed and felt nothing but a faint disgust, an even fainter pity.
He had a woman who laundered his clothes. She bundled them all up neatly and had them waiting for him every Thursday afternoon, smiling hugely at him and revealing the teeth missing from the right side of her mouth. A childhood accident,he had often wondered, or a fight with her hulking spouse?
“Thank you,” he said, as he always did, and counted out the coins she took for a fee.
“Get yourself a lady and you’ll save yourself this hassle,” she joked every week. It was a safe sort of conversation, like the weather or the latest village scandal, and she had no fear that he would take her up on her suggestion and leave her without his business.
It was common wisdom that the sculptor would never marry and he confirmed this, answering every time they met: “Not this week, madam.”
He stared at her, standing frozen with the laundry bundle tucked under one arm, groceries for the week under the other. She did not look at him, of course. The girl on the pedestal looked eternally downward, contemplating her slim knee or the dusty rubble beneath her. But her cheeks, it seemed, were…different.
There was the faintest pink color, like the far edge of the sky at sunset on the slopes of her cheekbones. She was blushing?
The laundry bundle dropped to the floor as he reached up to cup her face in his hand. A part of him was expecting a tender radiant heat, the soft give of flesh under his fingers. But all he felt was a roughness where her face was yet unfinished. He explored it with his fingertips, learning its dimensions and borders, cataloguing it with his artist’s brain.
He devoted the rest of the evening to sanding it smooth.
“Do you use models?” asked Maria. She cycled slowly around the workroom, staring avidly, even critically, into the faces of the women and men half-finished there.
“We’re both artists,” she had told the sculptor.
The sculptor felt twitchy and unsettled from the moment Maria crossed his threshold. She did not belong there. She did not belong in proximity to the stone woman.
Maria seemed unashamed, almost unconscious of her nudity. The sculptor stared at her, at the heaviness on her hips. The way the flesh there dimpled and sank into itself. The rounded sag of her breasts, lying heavy on her ribcage. The dark hair that curled down the tops of her thighs, turned into a thin, coarse line dividing her soft belly lengthwise. If she were one of his, he would smooth her legs, lift her buttocks, narrow her broad nose. When he touched her, he rubbed his palms hard against the protrusions of flesh that outlined her flanks and she smiled at him, no doubt thinking that his was an appreciative sort of touch.
She looked at him over her shoulder in a way he knew she must imagine to be coy and appealing. If he had made her, he would do careful work to outline the ridges of her spine, the hard half-circles of her ribs. Those were lovely things on a woman and hers were buried under flesh. The sculptor wondered how old she was: 24? 27? 32?
“Would you ever use me?” she said. The sculptor did not want to tell her no, and so he went to her. He circled his arms around her waist and drew her close until the only thing he could see was her dark hair. He took her hand in his, directed it downwards, curled it around him. Warmth and pressure. That, the sculptor thought indistinctly and with the smallest portion of his mind, was how all stone was made.
She smelled like sweat and the sculptor closed his eyes.
Mr. St. Lawrence arrived unannounced on a Wednesday; the sculptor was less than pleased. He’d brought his sullen daughter Madeline with him and the both of them settled uncomfortably on the small, spindly chairs that constituted the majority of the sculptor’s furniture.
Being the day before market day, the sculptor could find nothing for them but two mugs of plain water. Mr. St. Lawrence sipped politely at his while Madeline only stared blankly into hers as if critiquing her dark reflection.
“Sir, I would like to commission from you a bust of my daughter in celebration of her sixteenth birthday,” Mr. St. Lawrence said; he looked awkwardly around him, searching for a coffee or end table to rest his mug on. Finding none, he set it on the floor. The sculptor said nothing and only watched him.
“My daughter is very beautiful, don’t you think?” Mr. St. Lawrence said, too loudly. He touched Madeline’s arm and she obligingly lifted her head and presented her face to the sculptor. She kept her expression carefully neutral, as though she had been directed to do so. “Don’t you think?” Mr. St. Lawrence asked again.
The sculptor thought that Madeline had an awkward, jutting neck and unfortunately equine teeth. She had affected the fat, pendulous curls that were currently fashionable, but they flattered neither her hair nor her face. She clearly paid attention to all the modern trappings of prettiness, but had not, as his mother might have said, been blessed by nature.
“I’ll take the commission,” the sculptor said.
“Will I have to be nude?”
Madeline St. Lawrence was an hour and a half early on the first day of her sitting and thus had already conspired to annoy the sculptor.
“No,” he said, not looking up from the delicate work he was doing on the little divot between her collarbones.
“She’s nude,” Madeline pointed out, gesturing towards the statue underneath his hands.
“She’s not nude,” the sculptor brushed gray dust tenderly off her chest.
“I can see her bosoms,” Madeline argued.
The sculptor set down his chisel with a grim resignation and turned around to face the girl.
“She is rendered in the Classical style. Hers is the nudity of the artist and the scientist, not the harlot.”
Madeline was silent for a moment. “Will I have to be clad in the Classical style?” she asked.
The sculptor glared at her and shook some of the dust from his hair.
“Sit on the stool and look to your right,” he said. Madeline did this without comment.
The woman who had lived in the sculptor’s little house before the sculptor had planted pale pink roses in the garden. Under the sculptor’s supremely negligent care that garden had gone to rot and ruin. Now it was a tangled mass no different than the rest of the overgrown yard. But the roses survived. They sprung up fresh every year, and seemed to grow more dense and wild with the passage of time until they appeared an entirely different species than the demure flowers that that long ago wife had once weeded and pruned and displayed in tall glass vases.
He noticed them one night, sleepless like all of his nights now. The roses glowed in their bower in the dim moonlight. Their thorns were small and only mildly curved; they pulled almost playfully at his flesh as he picked a bundle of the flowers and cradled them in his arms like a child.
He rested them in the crook of her folded arm and they spilled out over her stomach. He appreciated they way the color drew his eye and matched the faint, ghostly tint of her mouth and cheeks. He touched the hard spirals of her hair, the ridge of her eyebrows.
“Lovely, lovely,” he said to himself, or, perhaps, to her.
“Why does she have flowers?” asked Madeline, concentrating on the curve her neck presented and not looking at him.
“This will be easier if you don’t speak,” the sculptor answered.
“They’re dying,” Madeline said.
“That is generally the way with flowers.” The sculptor made note of the light sweep of the tendons in Madeline’s throat. He considered it a special kind of talent, finding the appealing parts of even the most unfortunate women.
“She’s bleeding,” Madeline said, still unmoving.
And indeed, there was a little coil of red in the crook of elbow where one thorny stem was nestled close to the skin. It could have been paint perhaps, or red tint rubbed off from the dew-damp flowers. The sculptor wanted to reach up and touch it. He wanted, in fact, to wipe it from her and suck the red from his fingers. But to do so in front of Madeline would be inappropriate. Even blasphemous.
“Tilt up your chin, please,” said the sculptor.
He finished her at 3:36 in the morning on a Sunday. He carved out the curve of her smallest toenail and then blew the powdery dust away in a tiny swirling cloud. He understood immediately that he was done; he felt the familiar lightness in his head and an altogether new sort of sinking emptiness in his stomach. Gone unfulfilled.
He looked up at her, at the whole of her. She looked downward still, one foot extended as if to step off her pedestal at any moment. A bundle of dead flowers was gathered in one bent arm; the other handfluttered shyly about her throat. Her hair spun and piled atop her head and her mouth opened very slightly. As if to speak or laugh or trill like a bird.
And suddenly, it seemed imperative that he join her on her pedestal. He balanced carefully on the edge of her platform, he wrapped his arms around the serpentine curve of her waist, pressed himself close to her. He could feel the hard protrusions of her breasts, her flat, sharp hips, the edges and angles of her bent arms. Her skin grew clammy where it touched his, his warmth only resting on her surface.
“I love you,” he said, burying his face in her shoulder. He could still smell the dry and crackling roses and he felt unashamed. And it seemed to him somehow that there was a sound, a rasp, like stone on stone, as if her lips had quivered or knocked uncertainly together.
“Who is she for?” Madeline wandered rootless around the work room, brushing various half-finished projects with disinterested fingers.
“She’s not for anyone,”
Madeline turned to stare at him with her flat eyes, “Isn’t that a bit of a waste?”
“No…,” he answered. “No, it is not a waste.”
Madeline shrugged. “It’s just another statue of a woman,” she said, “the world’s full of those.”
The sculptor did not answer her but only said, “Will you take your seat please?” and took up his pencil.
He was drunk in a warm, pleasant way. He felt as though someone has slipped a thin skating of liquid between the bones of his kneecaps. He seemed to glide from place to place and his normally predictable limbs suddenly moved in new and startling directions.
Eventually, he made his way to the bed, crashing down upon it sideways. He lay there and stared at the ceiling and the black square of sky that was visible out the distant window. His eyes slid easily past the empty pedestal and dry, half-formed footprints in the white dust that ringed it.
It was the sound of the water that eventually drew his eyes to her.
She held the water jug upturned over her cupped hand and a steady stream of it flowed over her fingers, wet her knee, and pooled around her foot. She turned her hand over and studied it carefully and then, sensing his attention, tilted her head up to face him. Her hair was black and shining, her lips were dead-rose petal pink and there was a thin line of brown freckles that moved across her cheekbones and vanished into her hair. She regarded him seriously and expressionlessly with eyes that were gray like stones.
“I’m hungry,” she said.
He only watched her as she ate, carefully tearing the hunk of bread into small individual pieces and only then chewing them with a contemplative expression. He occupied the chair next to her and occasionally he would find himself leaning towards her almost inexorably. Similar to the way that, as a boy, he would crowd around the squatting cook stove on winter nights.
“You are even more beautiful than I had hoped,” he told her.
She swallowed and said, “Thank you.” He reached, perhaps to take her hand, and she merely stared at him.
“My name is Galatea,” she said, and did not extend her hand for his. The sculptor ran his hands distractedly through his hair instead.
“Are…”he began, and realized he was not sure what question he intended to ask. “You…like it? You are happy? With the shape I have given you?”
“Yes,” she said, and finished her last piece of bread, “I am sorry, I should have thanked you. I like my outsides.”
She nodded and ran her red tongue around the white of her teeth. “I’ve got nothing in here,” she said, and touched her forehead. “Or here,” pressing her fingers to her breast. “I am unfinished.”
“You’re perfect,” the sculptor argued. “I made you. I don’t do inferior work.”
She looked at him and then she, creature, thing, laughed at him.
“Your images are faithful.” She stretched out her hands, turned them palm-up in front of him. “Look,” she said, “these are a person’s hands, aren’t they?” Life line, heart line. “But there is no work that they know. Nothing of value they have ever made, ever even held.”
She paused and smiled again. Color rose up in her cheeks.
Ah, still he wanted so dearly to touch her. He could not help but consider the physiological nature of the blush. He imagined the blood puddling up against tender flesh. He wanted to taste her with his tongue.
“Except for the flowers,” she said, “I liked those very well.”
“They cut you,” the sculptor argued.
She bent her bare arm. “Yes,” she agreed, “it gave me marks.” Red, a slender line no more than half an inch long. She beamed. The sculptor’s hand hovered over her, two fingers quirked downwards. He traced the trajectory of her scar with his fingers. If only he could touch her, smooth her, fix her.
“No one wants marks,” the sculptor said. “I don’t think…I don’t think I understand.”
“I am sorry for that,” she said. She sounded sincere. She stood up, brushed bread crumbs off her legs and on to the floor. “I must go now.”
“Go?” asked the sculptor, butshe was already moving towards for the door. For a moment, his horror at the thought of her leaving was overridden by a fascination with the movement of her hips. He had never thought of the motion of her. She was stillness, that was all. He could see her legs brushing one another, her feet flattened and pressed against the floor. She had picked up dust and she wore it around her ankles.
“Thank you again, the bread was very nice.”
He moved to her and caught up her bare arm, it was very warm, and she did not react, though he held her tightly. “You shouldn’t go…”he said, “You’re to be mine. I dreamed you.”
She laughed, very lightly. “I’ve watched,” she said. “There are no women in your dreams.”
She pulled away from him with what appeared to be very little effort. His hands seemed to lose all their strength. He could feel his calluses catching on the impossible softness of her skin. Peaches at the end of summer, so sweet and so ripe, minutes before rotten. It was the rarity that made them perfect.
She stopped in the garden before she left. He watched her bend and move her hands among the roses. She ignored their faces and touched the hard green stems. She pressed tender fingertips to the points of thorns. She was very white, she was a flutter like a moth. She was the last broken memory of a dream in deep sleep. The sculptor wondered if she was a ghost.
“Your lady is gone,” said Madeline St. Lawrence, with her head tilted to the right and a corona of sunlight around her.
“Yes,” answered the sculptor and slid his finger around a stone curl of the bust’s hair.
“Madeline?” he asked, and it suddenly seemed very important that he touch her real hair, feel the weight and texture of it exactly. “Do you think this bust of you, do you think it’s faithful?”
Madeline looked startled by the question. “Faithful?” she said, “I suppose so.” The sculptor felt a familiar weary frustration rise up inside of him.
“Is it truthful?” he demanded, “is it you?”
Madeline leaned back on her stool and ruined the line of her chin and ear. “I…don’t know…I imagine…”
The sculptor sighed and stood up, moving over to touch her hair. She went very still as he moved his fingers roughly, close to her scalp. Carefully he logged the movement of it, the way it splintered and slid around his hand. How was that to be rendered? What of delicacy could one carve? The intangible. The sculptor had always had difficulty with the intangible.
“How much me can it be,” she whispered, “it’s only stone.”
The sculptor stood back and looked at her face. Her mouth quivered, as if she had words yet to say, but no way to say them.
The sculptor returned to his stool, and touched the stone curls in front of him. Felt again and again their heaviness, their sharp, flat edges. The contours that cut.
|Nicole M. Taylor is a writer, ghostwriter and occasional mummy-writer. Her fiction has been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Her six-book YA series Bots will be available Fall 2015 from Epic Press. She bloggerates here: www.nicolemtaylor.com.|