The soft breeze was illuminated orange by the setting sun, close to touching the finite horizon of the sea. There the sculptor walked, waiting for her to arrive.
He removed his black shoes and gray socks and stepped barefoot onto the sand, giggling as the minuscule pieces of eroded sediments tickled his toes. He basked in the euphoria of an excitement that he had never felt before.
He shook his head at how baffled he was. He had been sick all over her, but she had cared for him. He had said almost nothing to her at the hospital, but she had stayed. He felt a hope rising in him that love could be predestined.
When he had asked her to have dinner with him said had said yes immediately. He thought about if a second of hesitation had passed before her response. He searched his mind for some discernable pause, but there had been none.
He picked up a handful of chilly sand and threw it into the air, watching the orange clump fall apart as it was drawn back to the ground, broken gently by the wind. He wanted to jump into the ocean, to swim across the sea, the distant shores seeming in this moment so close. Out of sight but not out of reach.
He dug his fingers into the damp sand to keep himself from flying off of its surface out deep into the heavens. He beamed and talked to himself. He knew that he needed her, and he knew that he needed her to stay.
She was watching the whole thing from a cafe on the boardwalk of the beach, wondering at this artist. The world had labeled him as a son of darkness. A tortured soul who never strayed from his work. Yet in contrast to his rigid reputation she saw his excitement, and it grew inside of her. His unexpected exuberance, they way he threw sand in the air, it was like the destruction of the obsidian had freed him. His newly-found lightness lifted the corners of her lips into a smile.
She stood and unbuckled soft leather straps of her shoes. Every other man at the bar followed her movements with their eyes as she left the cafe, each of them harboring a secret disappointment that she should exit so quickly from their lives.
There was more than amusement in her regard when she floated onto the sand and over to where he was seated. She knelt down, picked up a clump or sand and threw it at him. It hit him square in the ear. He jumped up in indignation, prepared to fight.
Knocked out of his happiness hammock, suddenly all the nervousness he had rationalized away came flooding back. His teeth clenched and he dug the sand out of his ear, clearing the way for a soft sound that slowly eased his rigidity. Her laughter.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I wasn’t trying to get it in your ear!”
He looked up at her smiling figure, glowing orange in the horizontal sunlight, two sandals hanging from her slender fingers, the tips of her dark hair rustling. She gazed in him, through him, waiting for him to unfreeze.
And thaw he did. The smile that arose in him started at his toes in the sand, which suddenly forgot how cold they were, followed by his knees and legs that forgot how heavy he was, followed by his stomach which unclenched and his heart which fluttered, finally the smile arrived at his lips, and his ears pulled his face back into a huge grin.
“Good evening,” she curtseyed, exaggerating a gracious bowing movement to the artist.
He walked to her, “good evening,” and he bowed nearly in half mimicking her, in reverence to her beauty.
They embraced and the sun kissed the sea.
Walking along the boardwalk, next to the gentle deep blue waves she recounted her life, about her father as an artisan tool maker, a man who was deeply passionate for what he did, but who disdained the artists that he sold tools too. He felt bad taking their money, knowing that almost none of them would ever realize even a part of their dream. He had insisted that she find a man who was a worker, with a career, a doctor maybe. Anything but an artist.
The artist blushed. His mind had already wandered to the future, imagining her family, and the thought of meeting her father wracked him.
“He’s no longer with us,” she said. Relief – the wrong feeling he knew – rushed over.
“I’m sorry,” he said. She nodded that she was sorry too, and she started to explain the story behind the file that she had given him.
Her father made tools, made metal parts for files, saws, chisels, hammers. There were many files that he made, but none of them compared to the fortune behind the file that he now possessed. It was her father’s masterpiece.
It was in his pocket of his jacket, and he touched it.
They strolled and she took his arm in her hand, pushing him forward and into a better posture physically, the touch so exciting that he was inflated internally. Rushing air levitated his head and shoulders, hoisted above a body that could have been sprinting in place.
They arrived at a small restaurant overlooking the violet bay, the dots of lights atop masts among the reflections of Venus and the brightest stars making their presence known in the establishment of twilight. Vines trickled down the striped awnings suspending pink flowers. Plates that smelled of roasted garlic topped red table cloths. Knives and forks clinked culinary swordplay.
A candle hardly flickered in the open sea air. She ordered two glasses of champagne, and sensing his vulnerability after their first episode, gave him a reassuring smile.
“Just a little bit,” she promised.
The scene was fabulous, a level of extravagance that he had never known. But he never once looked at the darkness of the bay, at the glimmer of the hotel signs on the beach, at the movie stars that ate quietly around them. He was fixed to her, unwavering, wondering how it was possible that she could be interested in him, which she surely was – the way that her bare foot touched the back of his calf from time to time under the table, in what was the most sensual moment he had yet experienced in his life. Shudders ran through him like earthquakes.
He was not going to ask her: please explain to me why you are here, and not with that tall gentleman over there who I believe I saw on a few different film posters? Or that man laughing with enough charm to woo a dragon? Or come to think of it, anyone that you could possibly desire? You know I’m just a one-dimensional artist, a sculptor who inspires fear in his work, who has never been with a woman, who doesn’t know how to be chivalrous, doesn’t know how to be charming. Who doesn’t know how to eat an oyster!
She squeezed a few drops of lemon into an opened oyster, and with a deft motion of her fork, liberated the mollusk from its grasp and seemed to inhale it. He watched her and tried to mimic the motion.
He squeezed some drops onto his oyster and he brought it to his lips. She was watching him with amusement. “Have you eaten oysters before?”
His differentness was creeping up his spine, and he could feel now as he had for his entire life, how he was not like other people. Every bone in his body told him to lie. He tried to suck the oyster but it didn’t detach and he got the sea lemon juice which twisted his face. She laughed goodwill, and despite his embarrassment he could feel her compassion.
“I guess not!” She said.
“That was almost my first one.”
He was quickly realizing his shortcomings as a person. His utter lack of social manners was revealing itself. There was one crucial thing that he remembered from when he was a child, and his aunt and uncle had come for dinner. His aunt was a socialite, who even for their family standing could easily float between social groups and always be welcomed back. “There is one rule,” she said to their family, mostly to his father but also so that the boys could absorb the information, “you are boring, the person you are speaking with is interesting, ask them questions.” His father had always scoffed, he was not interested in other people, and he didn’t care if other people were interested in him. The artist had never been interested in other people until now, and he wanted to know everything.
He looked into her eyes that were as dark as the sky behind her head, yet as infinite as any universe. “Tell me more about yourself, did your father have a shop?”
Her eyes descended slowly, a flitter in her otherwise perfect table manners. “Yes, he did,” she said. “He made tools for workers, as well as for artists. It was the family business, started centuries ago by our forefathers. They were blacksmiths, making horseshoes, swords for crusades,” she winked to allow him to understand that now she was joking, a fact that had been lost in his monomania of attraction.
“The family legend,” she said, “grows longer with each generation, on both ends!” They both laughed.
“Do you have a similar story?” She asked him.
“In a way yes,” he said, “my family has a butcher shop, from when I was old enough to hold a knife, I was cutting flesh.” She shuddered with the image.
“Is that why you became a sculptor?” She asked.
There was a moment of introspection. “Probably, yes.” Though always thought about it, he knew. The cutting, the killing, rotting meat in the sun, fly-covered and impregnated with maggots. He never talked about it because it was so dark that it was impenetrable. But something in her reassuring face broke honesty from him.
“There is something horribly temporary about flesh, about organic things.” He struggled with his words, with philosophy, which never sounds as good out loud as it feels in the heart.
“Stone is permanent, at least for us. When you make something, it’s very comforting to know it will last. When you touch it, it doesn’t move. It stays long after we are gone.” His thoughts were leading him deeper, opening an abyss with no end.
“I saw myself in those animals.”
There was a long pause. She regarded him. She was seeing into who he was, not who he wanted her to see. He was different from the flashy, gaudy, famous artists who felt it necessary to woo women like her with impressive promises and competitive lifestyles. That was all she ever heard from men: how grand they are. She slowly realized that it was one of the most honest things she had ever heard. She loved him for it.
But her silence set off panic in him. He froze with the uncertainty of having gone too far, been too honest.
“You must forgive me,” she said, breaking the pause as she looked at him with deep sympathy.
“Why?” He asked, secretly thinking that this was the moment she would get up and leave him.
“Normally when I meet men they talk about grand subjects, beauty and literature and they try to impress me with their projections of themselves. The masterpieces they created. They tempt and they buy. But you don’t, you have opened yourself to me, and you have told me about who you are, your fear. You are not afraid of that?”
I’m terrified, of everything, you above all else, he thought. He only shook his head contemplating the question.
“My father,” she said, “was not artistic. When I was a young girl I was in love with music, and whenever there was a concert of Vivaldi, I would lie to my father, sneak in, and listen to the music from under the stage.”
He imagined her as a young girl, lying under the stage, eyes closed letting the notes envelop her young imagination. He wished so badly to have been there with her, feeling the hope that exists in beauty, transported from the cold dead meat of the butcher shop, holding her warm hand instead.
“My father,” she continued, “hated the artists that he sold his tools to, they were all rich or under patronage, not contributing anything to the true functions and needs of this life. He respected the workers, the men whose grit gave people what they needed with no glory. A worker builds a house and then moves to the next one. Someone lives there, a purpose is achieved. An artist builds something useless, and then spends time admiring it. Where is the admiration of the worker? In a way, he was right. We are never appreciative enough for the things we need, until we don’t have them.
“And I, I loved everything that was beautiful. I spent hours admiring the statues atop the theater, the paintings hung in the offices of school administrators, even the delicate touches of an ornate fountain pen. For me, the love came from inside. I would ask my father, what is the point of having what we need, if we cannot dream about what we want? Why live if there is no hope?”
“Reality is not enough in itself,” he finished for her. She stopped and looked at him, some sort of equal; her: small, simple, in front of a true master. Him: small, simple, in front of true beauty. She didn’t need to pretend. He didn’t need to impress. The hairs on every appendage of his body were charged vertical with excitement.
“Vivaldi was my favorite, because of the Four Seasons. Do you know The Four Seasons?” She asked taking a sip of her champagne between her two fine red lips.
“Yes,” he spurted, “though I don’t know the music very well,” he corrected.
“It’s beauty captured as sound, surely you know the melody of Spring?” She hummed the famous opening, and he smiled. Finally, a piece of culture that he knew. Something sprung inside of him and he hummed along with her for a few bars.
“Yes! It’s a complete masterpiece, usually consisting of multiple parts, that when put together so well does it represent life that it breaks us from life’s limitations, frees us from time by its attraction. It is the rarest of art forms, the apex of human capability.”
“A cycle.” He said.
She was caught a bit by his answer. “You know about cycles?” She asked curiously. He nodded his head. “So you would know that when I listen to it I am transported away. To this day I have no idea of how long the music actually lasts. It feels like a second and an eternity.”
“Yes,” the young artist smiled, “a cycle, the highest achievement of art, to break free from time through the power of beauty.” He smiled at this secret connection forming with her.
“It’s such an abstract idea, whenever I mention it to people, no one knows what I’m talking about.“
“I think it makes a lot of sense.”
Food arrived and plates disappeared. Glasses were delicately filled and emptied. Their conversation stayed buoyant, floating between points of art history and modern themes. The young artist realized that the woman sitting before him had an impressive range of knowledge relating to art. She knew about cycles, but also about creation, inspiration, conversion. Someone of this beauty with this experience must be a muse for someone, already had been, or maybe still was. Jealousy sprouted. He hadn’t considered that. The conversation continued, and she mentioned the names of a few well-known contemporary artists. Jealousy flowered and overbore him. He needed to ask.
“Have you ever,” he dug for the right words, “inspired?”
“Inspired,” he improved, “art?”
She inhaled and calculated. He had been honest with her. So would she with him. “No. Not seriously at least.”
“You’re not a model?” He cringed by how corny it sounded but it was objectively unbelievable.
She exhaled and laughed a bit. “Not of consequence.”
“How is that possible?”
“I guess I just fell in with the wrong artists. Men who weren’t serious enough about art, or worse, those who were too serious about it.”
How many were there? He thought, clinching with jealousy and fear, there was no way he
could compare. She didn’t know the truth about the obsidian. She had an outsized expectation of him. Those other artists were actually successful, he was merely lucky.
And yet, despite the odds, they had all failed to capture her. Maybe he would get the chance. He burned for it inside, he would discard their dinner violently and start sculpting the wooden table with the bread knife if he had to.
She thought back to those other artists, the ones that had seemed interesting. Men who railed against political ideas, who wanted to re-invent the world without going through the steps of making it better. She had heard things that only the most beautiful women hear. She had been
promised islands, territories, vast treasures of wealth. She only wanted art, and none of those other men had been able to deliver. Once they had courted her the promises stopped, and she had become just another jewel on the crown of wealth. She hated all of them for it.
She refused to believe that the artist in front of her was one-dimensional. It was just that he didn’t fit into the normal mechanisms of social life. She had been frightened by the obsidian like everyone else. She had wanted to ask him about it tonight, how someone could make something so dark.
When she saw him giggling in the sand in the last direct rays of the sun she knew he was not some hedonistic artist abusing the world. The air of relief that hung around him since she broke the news to him proved her point, he never wanted to terrify the world. He wanted to capture life and beauty in stone. She could help him do that.
“I like your story,” she affirmed and the fear receded in his heart like the dark waves from the line of dampness in the sand on the beach below. She looked into him. “You’re not like them.”
They promised to meet again, before he was scheduled to leave. By this point he had forgotten about the obsidian, the events from the week before and nearly everything about his past. He was radiating passion, awash in its glow. When he laid in his bed he could feel it around him, cupping his brain like the softest pillow.