This story is by Michael A. Hemmings and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A gritty, rumbling pre-thunder voice in his head drove him to the ancient grove. Shambling, muttering, the just-a-little-mad artisan burst in from a trail that had not felt travellers and their scattering its wood chips for some time; some running, some shuffling in, all driven.
He burst through. A plaintive voice shouted: ‘Watch out for the platanus tree!’
Muttering, ‘Alright, alright, sorry, I’m coming! I’m…here. What’s the rush?’
‘You know what the rush is; you forget so easily, or is it more comforting that you forget?’
‘Yeah, yeah, only one life, one set of minutes, hours, days. I bloody know. I’m here, now are you going to be cooperative?’
‘You know the rules the voice remonstrated. You show up alone but not lonely, isolated but connected, like that old story of the wisdom teacher who went by himself into the desert. If you give me your all, no less, I will grant you what you seek.’
‘Pah!,’ he spat with a bitter cry, ‘I’ve seen little evidence…’
‘Then you have not torn your flesh upon my stone enough, roughened your hands with sweat and stress, until your eyes being so tired you barely see the chips fly! You have not mixed your sweat with the dust that blows off the work, mixed and spattering back on to the form you see in this stone. You have not wept enough with both frustration and awe, your time wasted on irrelevancies!’
Pausing at the entrance to the grove, his back sweaty from bearing the haversack full of tools he quivered between going back down the trail he knows so well and the grove that always beckons.
‘Do not turn back,’ pled the voice, softer. ‘The form inside strains for your touch, for you to carve it into the world before it is too late. It is as hungry to be free as you are to break it open, and thereby bless the creation with a vision that only you have seen.’ A weight heaver than the sack pulled in both directions.
Then chose, stalked over to an ancient bench, threw the haversack on it and rummaged. ‘Imperious bastard,’ he mumbled. ‘Ah!’ He held up hammer and chisel, grim smile mixed with craving.
There was a lightening between he and the stone, then he started in on it. Slowly, at first hesitant and then, quickening, the form fully re-appeared before the inner eye and moved his hand and chisel in real time. For hours all that was heard was tapping.
Stiff, reaching high noon, the hand loosened on the chisel striking the stone with an awkward blow, knocking more off than intended. ‘Ahhhhhh!!’ He stomped back to his sack, pulled out a sledgehammer and stomped toward the stone. ‘You want blood? You want sweat? You want tears?’ He lifted it with both hands to strike, again trapped between competing forces…dropped it. He sat at its base and wept, hands holding his head up.
There was quiet, then he stopped, reached out and gently touched the striated stone, felt warmth and aching yearning. On the bench he sucked blood from his thumb, bandaged it from cloth in his sack then sat gulping his water, wiping the sweat from his face.
‘Are you just going to sit on that scrap of stone you call a bench all day?’
He froze, a new light filled the grove, felt a hidden heat that desecrates and kills, and then his heart restarted.
Without looking up; ‘You’re past due. I will remind you that this bench has had many a famous butt upon it, trying to see the form in the stone. I am waiting, with intent. Now why don’t you go back to whatever crevice you come from?’
It sniffed, a short, plump little-man creature smoking a cigarillo. ‘I am not a scuttling rodent living in a crevice. I have been circling the world, your world of course.’
He looked up as the creature wandered and turned and wandered and turned again, facing the stone. It turned slightly appraising the artisan, smirked and stubbed its cigarillo out on the stone.
Leaping off the bench he grabbed the little thing, throwing it against the resistant surface. It grinned. ‘If you hurt me you hurt yourself. I thought we learned that lesson?’ He dropped it, straightened its clothes, brushed itself off as it followed the artisan back to the bench, speaking all the while.
‘You know, it is hubris to think you are any different than the rest of humanity…You can’t do it. Why set yourself to be disappointed? You must admit you’ve failed at everything else…its too painful, why not choose the easy way?’
‘What? And quietly disappear into a potter’s grave? No.’ He looked up at it: ‘you have no idea what it is like.’
‘It is a hunger, something deeper than lust, more powerful, compelling, demanding. It is a pain whose necessary isolation is a requirement for the job. One craves isolation, separation from the noise, confusion and demands that linger outside like wraiths. The world within is more alive, present than the one outside. If one does not or have it or once did but has become lost, it cannot be understood by another.’
It snorted at the artisan trying to quell the artisan’s passion.
‘But if you have it you will not be satisfied as a banker, a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker. Nothing will satisfy. Unless you respect the call to create out of nothing a singular thing that is similar to others of its kind, but different, and beautiful and somehow changes the world a little.’
Sardonic, it smiled. ‘But,’ it snorted, ‘you know you are a loser, a fool. You can hardly expect success.’
The artisan, shifted, sat up and stared into the face of his enemy, himself.
The grove grew quiet, the kind that blooms and fills a space between with a sudden, heavy gravidity.
He stared at it and then shouted: ‘Vaffanculo!!’
Its newly lit cigarillo drooped, the voice became as hard as the stone behind it: ‘you cannot keep me away forever, I am with you always, you will never be rid…’
A sword had punched though its chest from the back. It scowled and disappeared with the sword still tucked neatly into where its heart should have been.
Older than the stones, and smiling was a child, but not a child, something incarnate, ancient.
‘It is correct, you know.’
‘Was wondering if you would come. About what?’
‘I too wander the world, chasing that thing. Like it, I am always with you. It is right that it is hubris to believe you can do this. But it intends a narcissistic hubris. You have the kind of hubris that needs to make something of beauty, of wonder, of demonstrating the best and most poignant of the human spirit.’
‘So you say,’ he stood up and wandered, anguished. ‘Sometimes you seem like such a Pollyanna.’
‘Really? I’ve never been called that before. But to succeed you need to continue to hear something for courage.’
‘You have made it this far, to this grove, this granite stone that stands before you, waiting, begging to release its heavy burden. And only you have the chemistry to set it free. It has been offered to many, and many do not get here: for many reasons they lose their way and forget.’
‘That sounds…lonely, isolated, small.’
‘And some don’t bleed, except others. Some don’t sweat-they have others do that for them. Some don’t weep-they only have rage and cunning. What these create is not beauty, images that challenge; what they have is sterile, money to buy food which does not satisfy. Their hunger is not your hunger. You must continue. None can make you succeed; only you can bridge the distance between that creature and I and make the stone’s form breathe and become a living thing. ‘
‘How do you know this?’
‘Because, as with our friend, I am always with you and I can see the light without heat within. I know you can do this.’
He bowed his head. ‘I will try.’
The child came forward, reached out its arm and lifted the artisan’s head. ‘That is all that is asked. Now, it’s time to go; I have some chasing to do. Farewell, but I am always here.’ It faded. He was alone.
He gathered his tools, walked to the path. He turned and saw his sledgehammer in the grass. He shivered, took the path, and the grove was silent.