Entry for second round of the NYC Midnight 2015 Short Story Challenge (http://www.nycmidnight.com/Competitions/SSC/Challenge.htm)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Subject: An unveiling
Character: A seven year old boy
“Hands of Stone”
Plot: Cassian, apprentice of the recently deceased Cyprianus, knows the beauty of his master’s sculptures. Cyprianus’s works could move even the hardest heart in Rome. But with Cyprianus dead, what can crack the stone barriers Cassian has built around himself?
My master’s hands were not beautiful.
I had rehearsed my speech the day before, spending endless hours on the words I was to recite at the deceased sculptor’s funeral. Words that marched from my pen like black, stiff-legged ants. Hollow, insincere words. Empty words. Giving polite condolences to a crowd was the least I wanted to do, but I knew that I would be there anyway to honor my master.
So when these words came from my mouth as I stood before the people, I was surprised. This wasn’t what I wrote yesterday. I was not an eloquent speaker, and did not enjoy standing before large audiences. It would be insanity to even suggest that I try an impromptu speech, especially at this time.
I was momentarily paralyzed, and the world seemed to stop before me, the sounds of sniffling fading away.
I didn’t want this. I didn’t want to let my master, Cyprianus, to die. I didn’t want my apprenticeship to stop abruptly. I didn’t want to attend this funeral.
My master was not a man to tolerate excuses, however. If he were here – if he were here – he would scold me for my cowardliness.
My apprentice would know better than to whine about his circumstances, the old man would’ve snapped. If you do not like your circumstances, change them yourself!
“But how?” I ask before I can stop myself. Before I can think properly. Before I realize that Cyprianus won’t ever answer. I stare at my hands, willing myself to open my mouth and recite my speech, my last goodbye.
Yes, my master’s hands were not beautiful.
They were callused and cracking at the seams. After every commission he completed, they would be dusted with grey from the stone. He had thick, leathery palms and swollen knuckles, hardly the appearance of a sculptor who could breathe life into stone. Yet despite this, his fingers were always gentle, as if his works were so fragile and frail that they could snap at the slightest touch. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, and still had the light of youth within his eyes. But even though his heart was young, his body was not.
I have been an apprentice for many years, long before Cyprianus’s hair had turned white as the stone he worked with. I was seven when I started my apprenticeship: far younger than any of the other apprentices, but I did not start learning stonework until I was no longer a child. Cyprianus found me as an orphan, seven years into this world and completely, utterly lost. He had taken me into his rough, not nearly as timeworn arms. And as he reminded – had reminded – me every day, I should prove to him that his taking in of me was worth something.
Cyprianus had a hard, harsh heart – a heart of stone, if I may say so, but it was a heart nonetheless. His disgruntled words and frowns were merely an attempt to shroud the heart that existed. And if anyone ever asked him why he was so cantankerous toward the world when he was genuinely affectionate toward it, he would merely harrumph.
His face was just like his hands: neither beautiful nor breathtaking. Hard lines had engraved themselves upon his cheeks, and his thin mouth was curved in an eternally sour frown.
Beauty is a matter of heart, he was fond of saying.
It is, isn’t it? the other sculptors would laugh, almost derisively.
“They’re just jealous of you, Cyprianus!” I had said, when a particularly stinging remark had made its way to his ears. “They can’t sculpt nearly as well as you can! They can only sculpt things that are passive to the eye, but you can move people with the things you make!”
And I was right. Cyprianus’s sculptures possessed an air of life, as if they could rise and begin to speak at any moment. Their smiles were sincere, their eyes portraying emotion. You could not have found a better sculptor in Rome.
It had been my idea to sculpt the god Mercury for Mercuralia, a celebration of good trade and commerce. But it had been Cyprianus’s for me to sculpt it myself. Show me that you remember what I’ve taught you, the old man had said when I protested. You have the potential to sculpt better than me. If you need assistance, ask. I will watch you sculpt.
True to his word, Cyprianus was next to me as I began my first real statue, my first official work that would be unveiled to the public. My hands shook as I told our model, a young, flaxen-haired boy, how to stand. I trembled as began to carve the general shape of the boy. I quavered as I slowly outlined Mercury’s nose. My sculpture looked like the work of a child: crude, disproportionate, and ungainly. I did not dare to look my master in the face. After my mediocre demonstration of my skills, he would surely dismiss me in his disappointment.
But to my surprise, Cyprianus merely put a hand on my shoulder and gave me another chance.
Stone is able to be carved and shaped, he said, but only with hard effort and concentration. With practice, you can turn even the ugliest piece of rock into a work of art.
Cyprianus had always meant to live a long life, to die surrounded by that which he worked with, but it had been stone that killed him. The pillars of an ancient temple had collapsed when he was studying a recently made statue, not but three days after we had revealed Mercury to the public. It was ironic, that a man should die because of the thing he loved the most.
All these thoughts run through my head as I stand there, under the sun, exposed to the eyes of everyone. There are so many things I want to say and so many things I can’t, and for a moment, I am frozen. Then, as if my mouth is moving on its own, I hear myself say:
“My master’s hands were not beautiful.”
– – –
Stone, comforting as it is to me, is not a proper replacement for Cyprianus. As much as I enjoy stone sculpting, it is a silent companion. Even though it brings me many memories of the past, of my apprenticeship, it also reminds me of Cyprianus, and the fact that I will never feel his large, rough hands guiding my own again. Three years after the funeral, as I walk along the street, the sun is shining brightly: as if nothing had happened, as if everything were back to normal, as if Cyprianus had not died.
It should be raining. The skies should be weeping, and the sun should be shrouded by grey clouds. But it is a beautiful day, and the birds are rejoicing.
I am opening the door of my house when I notice someone already sitting on Cyprianus’s workbench, marveling at the half-finished figure I had stopped sculpting. It is a young boy: no more than seven, his feet barely reaching the floor, his hands grasping a chisel, turning it over slowly. His curious eyes flash in alarm as I cross the floor in three strides, and ask him why he is here.
“Grandmother told me to say good afternoon,” said the boy. “She says she knew Master Cyprianus when he was younger. I’m sorry for intruding in your workshop, Master Cassian.”
My workshop. This stings. But I shake this off and force myself to return to the present.
The boy looks so guilty and ashamed that for a moment, I am reminded of myself years ago.
“Never mind, er – ” I say.
“Marcellus,” he said.
“Right. It’s fine, Marcellus. I see you are interested in how sculpting works. May I demonstrate?”
I find myself a small stone, and begin to outline the shape of a bird. As the wings and the beak begin to take shape, Marcellus opens his mouth to ask me a question.
“Yes?” I say while tracing the curve of the neck.
“Why don’t you ever smile?”
I freeze for a moment, my fingers trembling around my chisel.
“My master is dead,” I mumble.
“But why don’t you smile?”
“Because I can’t see him again, Marcellus,” I say impatiently. “Haven’t you ever – ”
Before I know it, I am engulfed by a flurry of limbs and cloth.
“Marcellus, what are you – ?”
“Grandmother says it’s good to smile!” the little boy says fiercely. “She says only lonely people don’t smile!”
I blink. Am I lonely?
“Grandmother says being lonely is bad! Being lonely means you need someone to hold your hand!”
I feel a small, soft hand slide into mine. Marcellus squeezes my hand and I notice through my blurring vision that it’s only half my size.
And as Marcellus embraces me tightly, I gradually become aware that the encasement of stone that I built around myself – the distance I created in order to keep my tears from the world, the heart of stone that I have created, has slowly begun to crack.
– – –
After all this time, I still am my master’s apprentice, though I now have an apprentice of my own, Marcellus. As I approach my fiftieth year, I can still remember Cyprianus’s hands, and how his mouth had twisted in a rare smile as he surveyed Mercury. And in order to continue remembering, I have sculpted one of my finest works, The Sculptor. It is as if Cyprianus now stands before me, his stone eyes regarding me levelly, his mouth set in an irritated frown. Even with his face radiating annoyance and exasperation, I can see the affection set into his face. Cyprianus is not really gone, I realize. He has always been here.
As if Marcellus can see it too, he smiles. He claps the stone dust off his hands, and goes to prepare dinner.
I walk until I am mere inches away from the sculpture, and stare at the hands I had sculpted. They were as true to my memory as I could possibly make them, awkwardly large and almost eroded. They have cracked fingernails and deep lines, flat fingertips and inerasable creases. They are the complete opposite of beautiful.
But I soon find myself thinking that I have been lying to myself all this time.
My master’s hands are beautiful: worn and tired, but beautiful, even if it is in their own way.
After all, as Cyprianus likes to say –
Beauty is a matter of heart.