by X. Luma
It was well past midnight when Elise laid her hammer and chisel aside. All the town was in slumber but she, a young sculptress in her studio, awake with discontent before a bust.
“How lifeless,” she said to her sparrow. “Like everything I make.”
The sparrow chirped with its own dismay at the hailstorm raging outdoors. Elise blew the bird a kiss, covered its cage with her cardigan, and then fed the fireplace. Seated before it, she was beginning to drowse when came a knock at the door.
She answered. “Miss? It’s very late.”
“Yes, sorry—could I?”
Elise looked the visitor once over amid the icefall. She’d a dog with her, and though drenched, she was smartly dressed. Her coat was a lovely blue that billowed in the wet wind.
“I’m to stay at the guest house down the street,” the woman explained. “A gentleman—Willard something—was waiting up for me but there’s no answer at the door.”
“Yes, Willard. He’s my—I can give him a call.”
Elise invited her inside. The woman entered and waited patiently by the door while her dog wove its way toward the bust that had occupied Elise’s evening.
“Willard’s very sorry,” said Elise as she hung up the phone. “The hour did get the better of him.”
“No trouble. I’m glad to have found you awake.” The woman gestured toward the bust. “Your work is very interesting.”
Elise’s eyes flickered with disappointment. “Thank you.”
The visitor smiled for several moments without speaking, examining Elise’s expression. Then she reached beneath her scarf and removed her necklace. “Here, a token of thanks for your help. It isn’t much, but it’s been a charm of sorts for me.”
She handed Elise a weathered hoop of twine without attachment or amulet. Elise received it like a pointless piece of litter.
“Perhaps it will find you fortune. Anyhow, I should go before Willard dozes off again.” The woman called her dog to heel.
“Yes. Before he does. Goodnight.”
The hailstorm yawned, enveloped the woman. Elise tossed the piece of puzzling jewelry aside, resumed her seat by the fire, and passed the rest of the night nuzzled up there. Come dawn came Willard at the door on his morning break.
“Very nice,” he said of the bust upon entering.
Elise, still blinking the sleep from her eyes, smiled faintly and beckoned him to her side. Willard sat and shared her space. She lay her head across his chest.
“Odd woman last night.”
“Yes. After you called, she still never came.”
Elise wondered how this could be as she rose to revive the fire, though Willard wasn’t much bothered. Then they rested in warmth for a short while. When Willard rose to leave, he kissed her goodbye.
“Good luck today,” he said.
“See you tonight.”
Then she washed and dressed and readied the new bust for display. She’d an appointment with several visitors to show the piece that afternoon—two curators and the model on which she’d based the bust. It was to decide if her piece would be shown in their prominent gallery. Elise would have to disguise her regret with the figure.
Across the room, her sparrow flapped its wings and distracted her from her disillusionment. Elise pulled the cardigan from atop the bird’s cage and whispered the bird good morning, catching sight of the twine necklace on her desk as she did so. She inspected the band and found it curious in this new light. Despite its shabbiness, it showed no signs of severance; it was a continuous, unbroken circle of string. She held it out before her and saw the birdcage framed in its circumference. After a moment of deliberation, she donned the necklace, retrieved a small block of stone, and began working on a figure of the sparrow.
The bird’s likeness seemed to liberate from the stone by its own will. Elise roughed and refined it in a matter of hours and lost no momentum as she detailed the feathers and wings. The sun curved out of morning in the course of her concentration. She soiled her clothes with chips and dust and hadn’t time to tidy up again before her visitors arrived.
The curators were sisters, identical twins, not only indistinguishable but also swarming in unified action. The model and they gathered at the bust and nodded in routine approval. Despite the severity of their voices, they paid Elise the expected politeness and remarked to the model how well her likeness had been captured. Standing amid an impotent silence that then ensued, Elise knew that she’d not been accepted and did her utmost to hide the mounting dejection in her demeanor. Then the sisters noticed the stone bird to their rear.
“What’s this?” they said, scooting toward it.
“Such a big bird.”
“But not so big.”
“Yes, there’s something about it.”
To Elise’s surprise, they swooned over the figure, and it was then that she too recognized its brilliance. Never had she been so moved by something she herself had made. Admiring its precision of craft, its concurrent intensity and gentleness, she questioned whether the figure was truly the work of her own hands.
Though the model hung back, begrudged by the attention shifting to a likeness other than her own, there was still a glitter in her eyes as she looked on the sculpture of the bird. When the curators proposed it be shown instead of the bust, they gestured for her opinion.
“Yes,” she said, reddening. “It should be.”
They showered Elise with compliments as they left the studio. Their excitement drew the attention of passersby on the sidewalk, and soon Elise had to close the shades to disperse the gathered heads at her window.
Overjoyed, she skipped over to the sparrow as if she herself could fly. Looking between it and its depiction, she saw all her love for the bird contained in the sculpture, which seemed just as alive as its inspiration, just as deserving of her affection. The necklace still hung on her neck, and she grasped it in curious gratitude.
Then the sparrow gave a sudden song as it hopped along its perch, quivering its wings in earnest. Elise was first delighted with the sound but soon grew impatient with the ceaseless noise. She sat near the cage and tried to soothe the bird without success. It moved with an unusual lethargy, as if submerged in water, and continued its cries into the evening when Willard arrived.
“You’d think it were dawn,” said Willard.
Willard approached the birdcage to examine the sparrow’s distress. “He’s struggling to open his wings.”
Then, while looking up at Elise, he caught sight of the sculpture. His expression of concern dissolved into wonder, and he moved toward the figure as if drawn by its gravity. “What’s this? It’s—”
Elise blushed and pawed at his shoulder as he stared in speechless admiration. She whispered from behind that she’d been accepted to the gallery, and he took her beneath his arm, looking as though he were going to cry. They stood that way, in the spell of the stone, until the sparrow’s cries suddenly relented. Then they heard a thump across the room.
They hurried to the cage and found that the sparrow had fallen from its perch. Willard pulled the bird from the base of its enclosure and hung his head at the creature’s motionless state. He presented it, brittle-bodied and breathless, to Elise. She handed it back to him both somber and perplexed.
“He lives on in your image,” he said, turning to the stone. “It’s beautiful because you loved him so.”
“Yes. Because I loved him.”
“One wishes one would be so fortunate.”
Then they sat by the fire. In hopes to lift her spirits, Willard asked what she meant to sculpt next. Elise still wore the necklace. It burned at her chest, collar, shoulder, back.
X. Luma is a fiction writer. He lives and works in Virginia.
Photo: Clay Banks/Unsplash