From her mouth exhales some warm magic that sweeps the marble dust away, and this is the first thing he sees, though he does not quite understand that he sees: her lips with their red stain worn away, paled in a utility light’s blaze. Below her chin a dust mask snares her throat. Another breath and she sets the chisel again, raises her mallet, and delicately, deliberately, she chips the scales from his eyes.
Sometimes there’s only a range of floorboards, slats of dust-dulled wood with starred prints from her shoes tracking diagonals across. Light reaches over, fading from left to right throughout the day, from nothing to a distorted symmetry of eight bright rectangles, to nothing again.
At some point in this daily progress, preceded by the slap of bare feet down stairs, the burble of a coffee maker, she appears. Sometimes she passes with only a glance. But normally she stops, levels a worn gaze over the rim of her coffee mug in greeting. In her stained T-shirt and cut-offs, her hair curling out of its dark braid, she looks crumpled, undefended. Often she touches him, traces some line of his yet-undefined anatomy for now visible only to her: the one she will create later, in her hours by his side, clearing the excess away.
One day something grows in his awareness, a feeling alien as another mind moving within his own, an increasing telepathic glow behind her mallet’s stuttered tap. In wonderment he waits, and it’s only when she stops that he realizes, that he’s certain: she’s been humming as she refines his newly made ear.
When she works she spreads drop cloths, weights their corners with fist-sized hunks of raw stone. She looks more than she carves, her eyes steady above the mask as she plans every small movement, every alteration to his form. Sometimes she sketches, molds clay, readies tools, tests them on some small rock before finally she turns to him.
Later when the light lessens, she gathers her tools and disappears. Then humidity weights the dust, clings to his surface with the same nutmeg scent that lingers on her skin, until she re-emerges in black pants and white shirt, hair tamed into a knot at the back of her head. She hunts and gathers all the small, necessary objects that she carries with her, that always manage to escape: keys, cardholder, pens, lighter, wine service. “Shit,” she says as she digs through her bag, flings it over her shoulder and brandishes a key. “Shit.” And then she’s gone with a slam. The empty studio echoes with her absence, its shadows condensing in the corners, spreading outward to encompass the floor.
“So this is what keeps you busy lately,” says the man who’s come home with her tonight: an angular man in glasses, wearing a worn blazer over T-shirt and jeans. He bends in close, a braised scent in his dark hair, cigarettes on his breath. “I like it.”
“Oh, well—he’s not done yet.”
“It is lots of work? The marble?”
“Yeah, well, it’s soft stone, but it’s easy to fuck up.”
“The eyes are—man. It’s good, Jen.”
“You think so?” A smile warms her voice.
The man steps back to receive a wide-bowled glass of wine. “They will follow you around the room, I think. This is the hand?” A faint touch, through sediment, without warmth.
“Like this. Orpheus, right? Trying not to look back.”
“Like that Rodin,” the man says, curling a hand outward, index finger a beckoning hook. “That group of men with one leading the others—you know it.”
“Oh, sure, Calais… Maybe. I guess.”
“But not the same, I mean, it’s way more—modern, of course—”
She laughs. “Come on, I’ll show you the others.”
The man follows her out of sight, towards the window. There are other shapes there, in a row under the stairs, small ones on shelves, large ones on rolling pedestals like his. Wood, marble, other stones, all hidden under dust cloths like ghosts. Next to the window stands an easel bearing a pad of newsprint, three wine cases stacked and full of tools. Jen starts to name these things, but after a minute the conversation peters out. The air changes somehow, grows dense, mutes her laugh. They go upstairs.
In the morning Lorenzo gets up first, spends a few minutes in the bathroom, then leaves in a rush. An hour or so longer and Jen descends as usual—smiling though, a slight smile that’s settled over her lips where occasionally, distractedly, it blossoms. She gets her coffee, gathers her hair into a loose knot, approaches. Her fingers play over the outstretched chunk of marble below his head, searing their traces into his still surface.
“Rodin, Rodin,” she says, as if teasing a well-loved child, and then, leaning close with a tap on his nose: “Dan.”
She’s making his hand in her image, pausing continually to model the same stricken gesture: fingers upheld and open, tensed in crooks. The tendons radiate from her wrist in straight lines to her knuckles. She sighs a fretful curse and modifies her sketch, stares from the stone to the paper and back. Finally, she drops the pad.
“It’s because you’re a guy,” she says. “You need guy hands, that’s all.”
He wants hers, though.
“We’ll get Lorenzo.”
He doesn’t want Lorenzo.
She stands, disappears, and in a minute he hears her talking again.
“Hey, it’s me… Wanna help with something? If you’re not too busy… Well, I just need your hands—” She laughs, a bright silly-sounding laugh. “I need a hand model, god—”
She’s back, resting her hand on the rough outline of his future finger, her smile wide.
“Sure, tomorrow works… A couple hours, maybe.”
Her hand is hot, burning through the stone, leaving a flush on his unrefined surface when she paces away.
“I’ll order something—no, you cook all night… Well, if you want. I got a hot plate.” Another laugh. “Yes, chef. Okay.” She clicks the phone off, then grins again. “See, Dan, I got you a guy.”
He doesn’t want a guy, or a guy’s hands. He wants her hands, their energy; wants them graven into him so he’ll have them even when she’s gone.
But she’s done for the day, packing up her pencil and pad, the clay she hasn’t touched. Humming and shaking down her hair, she heads to the shower to wash his dust from her skin. He watches the floor, listens to her careless splashing and brushing, smells her shampoo. She’s not in a hurry for once. Instead of dressing and leaving for work, she fusses in the kitchenette. Smells of toast, eggs, and pepper waft to him. Not for the first time he imagines moving his head, turning it to see her settle on a stool, her plate on the counter, fingers flipping casually through a magazine.
He pictures them stretched out and enlarged within his visual field, her long slim fingers with their short, unpolished nails. Callouses roughen her index finger and thumb; here and there heal small cuts and scratches, a bandage covering the most recent (“Blood, sweat, and tears, right, Dan?” she muttered, as she wiped an acid red smear off him). Her hands are full of heat, full of power. They change things by their touch, define shapes, melt stone. He needs them.
At the counter she’s motionless, the magazine lying open. Above it her hand hovers, its pose relaxed, the fingers curved as if freeing some ephemeral, floating thing, diaphanous and moth-winged, fluttering at the edge of vision. The palm creases: heartline, headline, lifeline.
“Oh,” she says, and sits quietly for a long minute. Then slides off the stool, her hand held still before her, to stand next to Dan, aligning her arm with the protuberance of stone that will be his. “That could work, right?”
She disappears to her easel and sketch pad, her pencil an impatient sweep across the paper. “Yes, okay,” she says to her sketch. She clicks on a lamp. “Okay, that’s it, that’s right—Oh, shit.”
The sunlight’s faded, her time run out. But he can feel her energy simmering there by the window, shining with the brilliance of the right answer. She can’t go now. After a few seconds’ indecision she finds her phone, swears at it. “Hey Marie? I was wondering, you know, I’m really not feeling good… Yeah, I got some bad Chinese or something, I’m just—well, no need for details, right… Could you? That would be great… You’re the best. I owe you big, okay?”
A few minutes later the easel rolls up to his side. Jen’s back in her dirty T-shirt and shorts, feet shuffled into old sneakers with compressed heels, a fat lump of clay in her hands. Lamplight outlines the fine muscles of her arms, the pleased curve of her cheek.
“All right, Dan,” she says. “Just you and me tonight.”
In the night Jen dreams Eurydice, faded in her dead zone gray: how the song calls her, faint and familiar and beloved; how she follows, chasing the notes with increasing speed. How she wants to see his face, that lost glimmer of sunshine echoed in his iris, on his lips—the greeting, the promise her presence etches there—but she wakes before he turns.
Below her Dan watches over the draped form of his future hand and arm. Under the cloth the still clay fingers open and let go. The long evening with her, the skin of his wrist revealed—it’s like he’s all fresh membrane, aching with new senses. Jen’s dreams wash over him in restless vibration, and he doesn’t know the names, he doesn’t know the stories, but since she does, he knows what they mean.
It’s almost noon when her buzzer sounds. She’s been working for three hours, intent, humming her crooked song as she taps away: mallet to chisel, chisel in a controlled skitter over the marble, parallel scratches digging to find his skin. Now she stops, listens for the buzzer that snarls the air a second time, then remembers: “Oh, Lorenzo—” And drops her tools to answer the door.
“Hey, you don’t look so sick.” Lorenzo thumps in with his big feet, a grocery bag on one arm. “Give me a kiss, I have soup.”
“Oh—just a second.” She darts off to the bathroom.
Lorenzo sets down the bag, picks up the clay hand to examine its fingers, longer and finer than his. “You still need a hand model?” he says when Jen returns with mint breath and clean face, work T-shirt now underlaid with a bra. “This looks nice.”
“Yeah, well—I still need you, I’m making some smaller pieces for the art crawl. Some hand studies. I figure they might sell easier. They’ll be—well, not cheap, but cheaper. Dan won’t go, I don’t think.”
“Sort of. I got a deal on the marble, at least. This professor from my MFA program had it in his studio when he died. His family was getting rid of everything.”
“It will sell, it’s good.” Lorenzo grabs Jen’s waist, leans over her, gets his kiss. “Okay, work first or soup first?”
Jen chooses work. For two hours she twists Lorenzo’s hands into various poses, laughing when he protests (his fingers don’t do that way) or sneaks them onto her breasts (just for a minute, to rest, they’re so tired). As she prods and sketches, she tells him how her mom’s neighbor cut down a black walnut tree a year ago and gave her all the wood. So she can practice, get everything right. Totally different material, of course, different technique, but the form. And then she’ll finish Dan’s hand.
“For the show? You will finish everything?”
“I might get a really bad case of food poisoning. Like a week off work, at least.”
“That reminds me, you should eat, right? It’s minestrone, the vegetables, they fix everything, I promise—”
Everything’s covered in dust cloths, Dan included, so he can’t watch the days as they pass. In his old place at the center, where the light is best, now there’s a table with a wooden hand clamped in a vise, a box holding a jumble of gouges and knives. That he doesn’t mind so much; in his new spot, tucked under the stairs next to the kitchenette, he can hear Jen rustling in her bedroom above, enjoy her proximity as she waits for the coffee maker or sits at the counter with food or wine. When he’s uncovered, he can see almost the entire room. He’d even like it, if it weren’t for Lorenzo—nights in bed with her, mornings in the kitchenette, distracting, interrupting, slowing her work with his elaborate breakfasts and endless conversations. He shaves truffles over duck eggs, layers gravlax and kale under hollandaise.
“Gonna make you fat,” he tells her. “You work too hard, you don’t eat, you get skinny.”
“Come on, you know how I eat.”
“You got the tapeworm or something then. You should be fat.” Lorenzo bangs a wooden spoon against the lip of the frying pan. “Like a little Italian grandmother. Nice and round.”
She smiles, stirs her coffee, her tools lying shiftless on the table as if she had all the time in the world, as if Dan weren’t sitting there waiting with his blocky stump of a hand held out. And Lorenzo goes on and on, imagines feeding her the fattest, most decadent things—figs stuffed with foie gras and wrapped in prosciutto, he says, papardelle with tomatoes and cream—and how beautifully plump Jen will become as a result.
But Lorenzo isn’t the worst; it’s the little manual sander that Dan hates. It fills the studio with its burnt scent, its tanned wood-dust that gets everywhere. He’s dried out by it, itchy and alone under the cloth’s inadequate protection while for hours she grinds away, smoothing the hands’ wooden skins. Now and then she mutters to them, coaxes or chides. The hands don’t have names, though. They don’t respond to her at all.
He stretches into a neglected corner of her mind where his thoughts might sound, calls her constantly; he’s so irritated, so chilled by her distance, and he can’t even tell if she feels it. Come here, he thinks, over and over. Come here and come look and come touch.
Sometimes he’s so tired with calling he thinks he might crack.
But sometimes she does come, when her other work is done for the day, when he’s been calling for hours, plaintive and low. Then the cloth sweeps off and there she is, covered with tiny specks of wood, or, better, fresh from the shower, half-damp and wrapped in a towel, her skin’s freckled glow unmuted by makeup. Her eyes, her fingers caress his face, find the million parallel grooves and lines she’s made there. And the contact transfers her light, flows through his pores, enough so he’s light, too, satisfied for now, for the moment.
“Your turn soon,” she tells him. And with her hand burning on his, he’s patient, infinitely patient, he’ll wait forever if he has to; a stone can do that, after all.
Until she’s gone again. Until the next day.
Jen dreams Persephone, bored, alone, so hungry that even months and years of winter seem fine against implosion. And the pomegranate’s cracked juice is worth it—it is worth every stain, to taste every one of those seven seeds.
Dan stretches to call her from sleep, down the stairs, to his corner under the stairs. She folds his dust cloth back. The streetlights cast their yellow and bronze shadows across her skin, her eyes hazy and blinking.
“It’s okay, Dan,” she says. “I’ll get back to you soon.”
Her fingers brand his wrist. Through them her dreams surge like intoxicating fire, and he pulls her, inhales and devours her, until, dazed, she lets go. He’s mute, savoring, almost glowing when she returns to bed. And there Jen dreams Echo, forever sounding love songs through the dark.
There’s a few days of staining and polishing, of sharp scents and chill air, then she rolls Dan on his pedestal near the open windows, facing out over the street. Outside a skinny tree waves its last leaves down, other windows catch the sky, cars streak past too swift for comprehension. People hustle by, their swift movement from appearance to disappearance a disorientation that he cannot quite master.
Jen barely notices, doesn’t even look outside. She’s taken the whole week off from the restaurant so she can work without distraction. Even Lorenzo’s practically banished, his visits reduced to gifts of food and brief kisses before she says that she’s sorry, he can’t stay.
She’s so close now, close like before, her hair a dark cloud over his hand as she cuts out his fingers—and for hours, whole days uninterrupted. He watches the light grow, the shadows shift along her cheekbones and collarbones, the tendons of her hands and throat. Sometimes as she twists for the right angle her cheek, divided by the elastic strap of her mask, presses against his forehead, or her shoulder against his shoulder. He tries not to take too much, to absorb only what warmth surfaces on her skin and transfers to his without effort. But it’s difficult, this forbearance, when her mind is right there, so million-colored and shining with music; when he’s almost sure she can feel his, too—bare and seeking as it is, a jumble of her reflections. Despite himself he needs more, pulls more; and some days she stops short, some evenings she looks tired.
On the bench below the window, the wooden hands glisten in their new coats of oil. When she’s finished with Dan for the day, Jen picks them up, checks them over. In her mind she wrestles numbers, adds a hundred here or there, subtracts back down to zero and below. It’s not easy, this math; even done correctly, the answers are always wrong.
Sometimes when she looks at him, the numbers jump and change color, from red to black. Just for a second. He’s good, well-made, worth all her effort—the headaches, the long days, the sore muscles and scraped fingers. Dan basks in her approval, ignores the calculation’s edge.
And in the night Jen dreams Arachne, deft and artful, challenging the gods with her webs.
He stretches, so happy, her light so strong it surfaces on his skin, gleams in the polished opalescence of his face and fingers, blending into thousands of tiny clawlines, into rough stone.
Earlier in the evening, she pulled a half-sized bottle of Prosecco out of her refrigerator and muted its pop, and with the wine fizzing in its narrow glass on the counter, she spun his pedestal in a slow circle, taking pictures with her phone. “Done,” she said. “Done enough, anyway.”
He didn’t want to be done, though; like the hands are done now, packed in a box, dismissed from her attention. And still so much stone—he could have a second arm, another shoulder blade, inches more spine—no, not done. His protest struck her, must have, because her smile faltered, went out of her eyes.
“I’d miss you.” She leaned her head against his ear, remained there while she drank her wine, fingers rubbing a recurrent pain between her eyes. “But I guess you’re not going anywhere.”
It’s these last words especially that suffuse him now, that luminesce across the marble in the dark. Normally he’d conserve this energy for evenings when she’s gone, but after all these days and nights of her presence the need seems distant, irrelevant, so instead he lets himself glow. Jen’s upstairs, asleep but dreamless for now, her mind a low hum that swells and subsides like waves, a calm lake, the moon a million flickers on its surface. And he stretches towards her, infinitesimally elongating the lines of his throat, his head just lifting—a millimeter, three, but lifting, to catch sight, finally, of her mattress, her fingers spread quiet on its edge.
A flash of pain, rapid depletion, crack—and Jen sits up, her hand flying to her throat as she looks around, her mind erupting with questions. He’s too frightened to call. The pain’s gone but leaves its edge, an internal fracture, a hollow line under his jaw.
But she sees: the light fading across his surface, the blanks of his eyes seeking hers. Slowly she rises from the bed, descends the staircase, touches his neck. In his panic he seizes her confusion and her care, pulls hard enough so she must feel it, pulls back as if burnt—and even when he’s calmed to darkness, until the first light of morning grays the room, she simply sits and stares.
The floor shines, its rectangles of sunlit wood glowing unfamiliar gold. Up in the loft Lorenzo’s replenishing trays of snacks and playing ridiculous Italian pop music while Jen, dressed up in a loose wool shift and high heels, greets visitors below.
Their curious faces flick in and out of Dan’s sight. Most only stare; a few touch, surreptitiously; others read his title and mutter opinions to each other, coo compliments and questions to Jen. Over and over she explains tools and methods, talks about the marble, its type and size and weight, its odd shape that gave her the idea of a figure reaching out, pulling itself free of the stone. Like Orpheus out of the underworld, she says to those who ask. Trying to preserve love against death.
“Classical material, classical subject,” she says, several times throughout the day, and rests her hand on his shoulder, where her tension burns in heavy lines, belying her smiling exterior. Dan sends her images of herself intent and haloed in the sunstruck dust, sings her the little tune that she hums without thinking when they’re alone; her nervous energy soaks into him, and she calms, lets go. She has to explain the other works, too, the smaller figures in wood and stone. But they can’t comfort her, and she returns, always, to him.
When the evening’s settling, the last visitors leaving, a narrow, sparse-haired woman appears. Her gaze travels the length of Dan’s arm, into his half-submerged chest, over his polished forehead and eyes. Her skin’s porous, hanging from her cheekbones like slack dough; her eyes blur in the magnification of thick lenses.
“Can I answer any questions for you?” Jen asks, as if presenting a menu.
The woman rubs her lips with bone fingers, twists to appraise Jen. “This marble. What do you know about it?”
“Oh—the Venato. I got it through an estate sale. A former professor of mine—”
“Richard Ulster’s estate?”
“Yes—did you know him?”
“My former professor, too. But it’s not Venato.”
Jen’s professional hospitality thins. “Actually, I’m quite certain it is.”
“But it wasn’t labeled.”
“Well, no, but—”
“Then you don’t know. But I’ve worked in this marble before, and I do. Now Miss…”
“Esti. Look, I’m not sure why you think I—”
“You’ve lost weight.”
“Excuse me?” Jen’s voice sharpens. Lorenzo turns off the music, drags aside the curtain concealing the lofted bedroom.
But the woman continues: “I work with a geologist now. He’ll buy it. What’s the price?”
“It’s not for sale.”
“You’ve been sick, haven’t you? Do you know why?”
“That is not your business,” Jen says, but her anger’s a weak flare, damped by confusion.
“Listen,” the woman says. “I made one. I kept it. For three years I fed it. I know.”
Jen’s silent, watching Dan’s face, the still white surface of his eyes.
“You’re the host. You’re feeding it and without you it falls apart. It crumbles. In two months it’ll be dust.”
The planes of his face—all those careful hours spent polishing his cheekbones smooth—his hand, so nearly perfect, the long fingers eternally releasing. The chisel-marked shadows of his throat.
“We take it, we study it until it’s done. We’ll give you twice your cost. You can make another one. In Venato.”
“Get out,” Jen snaps.
“It’s a parasite—”
“Okay!” Lorenzo’s voice comes calming down the stairs. “We’re closing now, right?”
The woman looks at Dan again, her lips wrinkled tight. For a second he can feel her mind, not warm like Jen’s, but sharp and acid like vinegar. In it there’s a picture: a woman, skeletal and still, caged in the brittle-stretched curve of marble arms.
Jen, he calls, bewildered.
She turns, reaches without thinking, and the woman slaps her hand down. “Don’t touch it.”
“Hey hey hey, don’t do that,” Lorenzo says, alarmed, but the woman’s stepping back, retreating.
“I’m leaving my card here,” she says. “Keep it. Call me when you need to. You will need to. Sooner is better, Miss Esti.”
The door closes, leaving the studio quiet in her wake. Jen’s staring at Dan, her cheeks flushed. In her right hand she’s holding her left, rubbing its startled surface.
Lorenzo takes her arm. “Jenny, I don’t understand—”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t either. Let’s go somewhere. Get some dinner. I’m hungry.”
“Your place. Okay?”
Jen’s already got her jacket and her purse, and even as Lorenzo’s asking shouldn’t they clean up, she’s halfway down the hall, leaving him to close the door.
Days and days. Even the sun is muted now, diffused through clouds, and the windows rattle against the gusts of winter. He’s never been so cold. Cracks shiver open, convulsed along fault lines. Everything’s aching. Everything dims.
Aside from a brief visit from Lorenzo, who came to clean Jen’s kitchen and gather her things, the studio’s been silent, full of shadows and still forms: the bodiless hands, polished wooden birds trapped in flight, stones of all colors warped into stylized shapes. If any of them hear or feel, there’s no sign; they’re even colder than he is.
So when she comes, finally, after all these days—as few as four, as many as forty, he can’t tell—he can feel her outside, at a distance, as an eye trapped in absolute darkness might detect even the faintest light: unsure at first, suspecting some wishful hallucination, some cruel trick of the mind as it’s breaking. He’s too cold to call, can’t waste what little energy he has left. But as she approaches, her warmth grows—in the entry, up the stairs, in the hallway. Outside the door where she hesitates, fumbles with keys before fitting one to the lock. It’s evening, and on the window glass reflects the open rectangle of light, her figure framed within and then closed into the darkness. This close she’s more like a fire.
She passes quickly, crouches in the shadow behind the utility light as she searches her shelves.
“I know,” she answers. Tools chink and thump together. She stands. “I know, Dan. And you can’t help it. I mean, can you see—she showed me pictures—”
And he can, in her mind, he can see them, too: bodies depleted, flesh and stone twisted and crumbling in their final embrace, human eyes closed and shrunk into sockets, marble mouths broken wide—in mourning or in hunger, it’s impossible to tell.
“So it’s not really—not like a choice.”
Jen steps into silhouette, her hands hidden inside boxy work gloves. In her right, she’s holding her largest mallet. In her left, her pitching tool, made for roughing out shapes, removing large chunks of rock quickly.
“And she said it hurts, the cracks — like when teeth crack, so I—” She rubs her eyes against her forearm. “So I decided to do it myself.”
At that he stretches, with his last reserve of energy, not to call or beg or feed, but only to feel her: as if he could raise his hand, feel the tremble of her lip, the flutter of her eyelid under his fingers—her own fingers, remade by her. And with his effort they shine, a blue light that warms and concentrates in the tips, briefly illuminates her face, its thin stripes of tears. Even without touching, he can feel the dream nascent in her, the one she’ll have tonight, for the first of many nights, for the rest of her life: Galatea, shining warm and marble white, naked as spring sunshine in the newness of her love.
A crack deep in his wrist, a shudder of pain that echoes through all his empty pores; the light goes out.
The determined line of Jen’s mouth quivers before she snaps a dust mask over her face. She sets the pitching tool at the base of his hand, above the new fracture; she raises the mallet.
Unlike creation, this work is done fast.
Lia Swope Mitchell is a native Minneapolitan and a PhD candidate in French literature at the University of Minnesota. She writes fiction in bursts of furtive, joyful procrastination.