CLOSING NOTE: BEST OF 2016:
Laura Resnick is the author of a dozen fantasy novels, including the popular Esther Diamond urban fantasy series (Disappearing Nightly, Doppelgangster, Unsympathetic Magic, Vamparazzi, Polterheist, The Misfortune Cookie, Abracadaver, and the upcoming Goldzilla). Before turning to fantasy, this award-winning author wrote more than a dozen romance novels under the pseudonym Laura Leone. You can find her on the Web at LauraResnick.com.
by Laura Resnick
Once upon a time, there lived a gifted sculptor named Pygmalion. A handsome man, he was desired by many of the local maidens. But Pygmalion lived only through his art and had no interest in love or marriage.
Among his many projects, he worked long and hard on a marble statue of a young woman. When the statue was finally complete, she was so beautiful, so perfect, that he fell in love with her. The maidens of the village laughed, because now they had their revenge on the sculptor who had rejected their affections. And Pygmalion, who was desperately in love with a lifeless statue, grew more and more unhappy with each day that passed.
As was the annual custom, the people honored Aphrodite that season with a great festival, decorating their temples with the most beautiful flowers and making generous offerings of the sweetest fruits. And Aphrodite, the goddess of love, noticed the unhappy young sculptor who was unable to celebrate or enjoy human love.
Taking pity on Pygmalion, Aphrodite breathed life into the statue, and transformed her from cold, inanimate stone into a warm, living woman of flesh and blood.
Almost mad with joy, Pygmalion embraced his love, whom he named Galatea. They married and lived happily ever after....
“Look, I didn’t expect to live happily ever after with her. So I don’t need you to favor me with yet another recitation of my many faults and defects. Okay?” Riley Barrow made an emphatic gesture that he obviously hoped would end the conversation. It didn’t.
“You’re blaming Carla for this, aren’t you?” Lisa said.
“I’m not blaming anyone. Carla and I have split. That’s all. Drop it.”
Lisa paid no attention to that. “Split? The way you and I split? The way you and what’s-her-face split? The way you’ve split with every woman who’s ever loved you?”
“No. This was a little more dramatic.” He grimaced before continuing, “You know the sculpture I’ve been working on?”
“The piece for the new lobby of Natural Woman Cosmetics?”
“Yeah. Well, she—”
“Riley,” Lisa interrupted. “Please, tell me nothing has happened to that piece.” She forgot about her former roles in Riley’s life, first as beleaguered girlfriend and later as rejected lover. As an art dealer, as his dealer, she zeroed in on the fate of the half-completed sculpture.
He looked away and shifted his weight. “I’m afraid, uh.... Carla.... Well, we were shouting, and she was really mad, and I, well, I thought maybe she could put aside her personal feelings long enough for me to complete the sculpture—”
“Oh, Riley.” Lisa could see it coming.
“Well, she was the model for it, after all. I mean, I would just have to waste a lot of time trying to—”
“And that made her pretty mad.”
“What—that you were more concerned about finishing a sculpture than you were about splitting up with her?” Lisa asked coldly.
Riley shrugged and looked blank. That look had once captivated Lisa. Those wide, clear baby-blue eyes blinked at her with childlike innocence. His flaxen blond hair shone like corn silk in the mellow, dusty light of a New York City afternoon. That expression had once made her wrap her arms around him and snuggle against his hard chest with great affection and yearning. But not today.
“I’d like to hit you,” she said.
He spread his hands wide—those long, sensitive, calloused hands. They were the hands of a brilliant artist—and, when he chose, of a skilled lover. “What did I do? What did I say?”
“Riley! You had just finished breaking the girl’s heart—”
“Wait a minute! She was leaving me.”
“Yes! Because she was tired of you breaking her heart! Believe me, I know how this works. I’ve been through it with you, and I’ve watched a few women endure it since then.”
“If you’re so sorry for her,” he snapped, “then you’ll be happy to know she took a goddamn sledgehammer to the sculpture.”
“No!” Lisa collapsed into a chair in her art gallery whose delicately embroidered fabric was so exquisite she had never before permitted anyone to touch it, let alone sit in it. She didn’t want it damaged before sale. Riley had come here right after closing time, and they were holding this conversation in the middle of the showroom. “No, no, no....”
Riley perched on the arm of the chair. “I’m afraid so.”
“Get off this chair or I’ll stab you.”
He slid to his feet again. “It’s not my fault. She went berserk. Turned weeks of hard work into a heap of rubble.”
“Oh, Riley.” Lisa sighed. “Of course it’s your fault. I feel ill.” She groped around in her pockets looking for a tissue. “I may cry.”
“No more tears,” he protested. “I can’t handle any more tears today. Carla cried a bucketful already.”
“And you don’t even know why, do you?”
“Lay off, would you? I only came here to tell you—”
“Okay, yes, I know.” Lisa had gotten that commission for him, so this setback involved her, too. “What’ll I tell Natural Woman? Oh, Riley, just once, couldn’t you have kept your personal life separate from your work?” When he looked at her blankly, and she sighed again, this time in resignation. “No, of course not. You have no life except for your work. Who do you ever meet besides dealers, artists, and models?”
“I meet too many people as it is,” he muttered. Lisa was still fumbling around for a tissue, so he dug a hand into the pocket of his faded jeans and pulled out a handkerchief. “Here. It’s almost clean.”
She took it. “What do you plan to do?”
“I plan to stay out of my loft until Mama Strega’s people have finished cleaning it up.”
“Mama.... Oh—that old witch who owns your building?”
“Mama’s okay. She leaves me alone.”
Lisa shook her head. “Is that your notion of an ideal woman, Riley? One who leaves you alone?”
“It is today. You should see my place. It looks like the wreck of Carthage up there.”
“You’ll get no sympathy from me.”
“Yeah, I figured that.”
Recovering, she returned his handkerchief to him and focused on her most pressing concern. “Are you going to start all over?”
“On the sculpture? Yes. I want this commission, Lisa.”
“Do you think you can finish in time for the opening of Natural Woman’s new building?”
He frowned absently. “I’ll have to find another good block of marble. And I’ll need a new model. I’ll probably have to make some new sketches....”
“I’m worried about the deadline, Riley.” She had promised Natural Woman that the costly marble sculpture by Riley Barrow would be ready on time.
He shrugged, which wasn’t very reassuring. “I don’t miss deadlines.”
“No. Just birthdays, anniversaries, and Christmas.”
“Enough, Lisa. I’ve already been through this once today.”
“Yes, and we already went through this eight years ago,” she agreed wearily. “All right. No more recriminations. Just please, please, try not to ruin your next model’s life until the finished sculpture is safely out of your loft, all right?”
“Gimme a break.”
She let him out of the gallery, locked the door behind him, and watched him walk down Spring Street. Even after all these years, her personal disillusionment with Riley, and the objectivity she had finally achieved about him, she knew why she had fallen for him in the first place. She knew why there was always a woman in his life. Despite his complete disinterest in meeting anyone new after each failed relationship, despite his grudging ill-grace about letting a woman into his life, and even despite his consistent failure to ask a departing woman to stay with him, there was always a woman in love with Riley.
Certainly, genius had something to do with it. Talent was a sexy commodity, and Riley Barrow was the most gifted sculptor on this side of the Atlantic, as far as Lisa was concerned. Indeed, her belief in his talent had helped make her a very successful art dealer. If you loved art, you were probably half in love with Riley after seeing just one of his sculptures. He had been compared more than once to artists like Rodin, Bernini, and Michelangelo. Who could look at a Barrow piece and not be love struck? He brought magic to every line, every curve, every crease. The gentle flow, the raw power, the aching tenderness in his work captured more than the eye or the senses; it ensnared the heart. He brought clay and stone and bronze to life, a life more perfect, more intense than that which nature itself could create.
She watched Riley round the corner as he turned onto Greene Street, and then he was gone. She sighed. Although she was engaged now and in love with her stable, devoted fiancé, a woman just didn’t watch a man like Riley walk away without sighing. Talent wasn’t all he possessed. An inch or so under six feet, he was lean and graceful, his body strong from hauling loads of clay, metal, and wood, his muscles well-defined from years of working on marble and granite with steel tools. The ash blond color of his thick hair and the blue innocence of his long-lashed eyes gave him a curiously angelic appearance, one which was at odds with the sexuality he unconsciously exuded.
Lisa drifted through the gallery and sauntered into her office. She debated whether or not to call Natural Woman. Perhaps there was no need. Although the schedule would now be tight, she well knew the obsession Riley brought to his work, and the speed and intensity with which he was capable of completing a sculpture. As long as he felt like it, that was; one time she had found him neglecting an important commission to experiment with a new idea. He had raged at her for her intrusion, then condescended to explain, “I can’t work on one thing with my hands and another with my brain. Particularly not in marble.” Then he kicked her out of his studio. She had, by then, grown used to his ways.
Perhaps the most seductive thing about Riley wasn’t even his talent or his sexual magnetism. When Lisa looked back on the two tumultuous years she had lived with him, she thought that the thing that had really made her keep trying, even more than the thrill of his genius and more than his tempestuous skill as a lover, was the fact that he so obviously needed a woman in his life. Riley didn’t eat right unless a woman forced him to. Riley never bothered to buy new jeans or get his shoes re-soled. He could never find his wallet or his keys or his cell phone. He had plenty of money, but he forgot to pay his bills and had probably never balanced a checkbook in his life. Riley worked too hard, frequently driving himself to the point of collapse, unless someone was there to tell him when it was time to rest or to come to bed.
At first, caring for him was its own reward. In the beginning, attending to mundane matters for him and nurturing him selflessly was satisfying. But sooner or later, any woman who loved and cared for him that way noticed that Riley didn’t give a damn. There you were—cooking, cleaning, paying bills, choosing new clothes for him, ensuring he didn’t starve to death or drive himself into physical collapse, creating space and serenity in his life so that he could work in harmony and peace—and the sonofabitch didn’t even notice!
Being taken for granted was even worse than being resented. When caring for Riley had stopped being its own reward, when Lisa started wanting him to appreciate her presence and acknowledge her influence on his life, it was the beginning of the end. A sane and supposedly mature woman, she eventually found his indifference to her tender loving care so unbearable that she started going out of her way to provoke him. She reached a point where anything, even a raging fight with bitter recriminations, was better than Riley’s habitual lack of involvement with anything besides his work.
And one day she finally realized that not only would he never change, which was hard enough to accept, but he would never want to change. When she tried to explain to Riley that living with him was like living alone, only much lonelier and with twice as much laundry, he looked at her like she was speaking in Klingon. When she said she wanted intimacy from him, he said, “Well, sure, Lisa, maybe after I finish working on these sketches.” When she said she was afraid he was incapable of love, he said, “I’ve told you I love you.” And when she said she was leaving him, he said, “Oh.”
“Oh,” Lisa said softly, locking her file cabinets and preparing to leave the gallery. “Oh.” She remembered the vaguely puzzled look on his face. It was the expression of a man who noticed something unusual was happening, but who had too much on his mind to pay any attention.
The following year had been tough for Lisa, since she continued to believe in Riley’s talent and chose to maintain her professional relationship with him despite the emotional devastation this wrought. Funnily enough, it was during that year that he seemed to grow sensitive to her feelings for the first time. Now that she no longer lived with him, cared for him, or expressed her love for him, he was mildly considerate to her and even sometimes went out of his way not to hurt her. And with a wisdom that came of fruitless sorrow, Lisa knew that his thoughtfulness, and even his occasional displays of affection, would evaporate if she ever tried to reestablish her position as Riley’s lover. During the eight years since she had left him, she’d seen enough women wind up like Carla—insane with grief and frustration—to know that Riley’s love would always be jealously reserved for his work.
He loved women. He just couldn’t seem to live with one.
Ah, women, Riley thought, sauntering back toward his drafty loft on Grand Street. He had never seen a plain or homely woman. There was no such thing. Women were all that was beautiful and earthy. They were life in all its borning potential, passion in all its varied flavors. They were the essence of sensuality. They were his inspiration.
If only they would just stop moving in with him.
In the abstract, women were the nourishment of every dream. In the flesh, they could be the fulfillment of every desire. But in daily life, they always seemed to be resentful nags who were obsessed with his character defects.
He passed an old Chinese woman who was selling silk slippers in the street. Her face was so wrinkled that her features almost disappeared in the folds of her skin. Her shoulders were stooped by a lifetime of hardship. Her hands were clawed with the onset of arthritis. And in Riley’s eyes, she was beautiful, enduring, resilient.
He walked slowly, not wanting to arrive home before Mama Strega’s two strapping great-grandsons had cleaned up the mess in his studio. His bruised and battered heart couldn’t bear another glance at the dust and rubble that had once been his sculpture.
Oh, Carla, he thought, did you have to do that? Why didn’t you just break my legs or set fire to my bed? Why did you destroy my sculpture?
He would long mourn its loss. The memory of that horrible moment, when he had realized Carla’s intentions, still made his chest tighten with panic. He had thrown himself between her and the half-formed statue. She had numbed his senses with a glancing blow, destroyed the marble as he staggered away, and continued to pound the ruined sculpture to bits in a frenzy. And though his creation was irrevocably lost, he had still tried to stop Carla—but getting a sledgehammer away from a woman gone insane with rage was no easy task.
Then she wept hysterically over the cut on his cheek and the pain in his shoulder. “Did I do that?” she cried.
The woman was crazy! She had destroyed his work, turned beauty into rubble, and thus torn his heart out of his chest—and she was upset because his cheek was bleeding and his shoulder was a little bruised?
“Finish packing up your things and get out,” he’d told her. “Don’t be here when I get back.”
He’d left the loft then and walked for at least twenty blocks, trying to cope with his grief, trying to accept what had happened. My sculpture! Then, realizing that Lisa would need to know about this, he’d gone to the gallery. Fortunately, her lectures about his character flaws got shorter every year, and she had grasped the essential point quickly: He’d have to start all over.
Just thinking about it made his belly clench. It was like trying to choose a new puppy three hours after your dog died. No interest in the new possibilities could break through the veil of sorrow.
A tall, shapely black woman walked by, her hair falling around her shoulders in thick, heavy dreadlocks. The fullness of her lips and the broad expanse of her hips proclaimed her womanly comfort and capability, to kiss, to embrace, to bear. She was plump, voluptuous, and very slow, too regal and serene to keep pace with the frenetic activity around her. He would sculpt her in bronze. Yes, and he would model the Chinese woman in clay.
But would he find another good block of marble soon, and would he know what to do with it? Or would he be haunted by the image of the piece Carla had destroyed?
Riley winced as he rotated his aching shoulder. This was the limit. Other women had shed tears, hurled angry accusations at him, shouted loud enough to wake the dead, and occasionally broken some crockery. But today’s events had finally convinced him of one key thing. No more women. He’d sketch them, model them, and carve their images, but he wouldn’t get involved with another one. He was making himself a solemn promise about that, and he intended to keep it.
His steps were slow as he approached the old brick building on Grand Street, where he had lived and worked for the past five years. It wasn’t as splashily renovated as most of the other buildings in Soho. Mama Strega didn’t waste time and money on non-essentials. But she gave Riley good rates, never disturbed his privacy, and kept coyly promising that she would one day let him sculpt her. Indeed, it was the desire to do so, rather than the loft itself, which had made him sign a lease with her in the first place.
As usual, Mama Strega was sitting in her sturdy, ancient wooden chair, perched right in front of the door of her restaurant, which took up the ground floor of the building. That was another advantage of living here; the food at La Strega was good, and one of Mama’s many descendants would carry a tray right up to Riley’s door when he didn’t feel like coming out to eat. So why the hell had Carla insisted on cooking for him, especially when it infuriated her so much that he didn’t appreciate it enough?
No more women.
“Buona sera,” Mama said as Riley approached her. She was from Sicily, and for some reason, she always greeted him with “good evening” if it was any time past noon.
“Hey, Mama. Are the guys done with my place yet?”
Small and slight as a bird, Mama turned her head and lifted her chin with a queen’s regality. “They have taken away the mess. The signorina is gone. You are safe now.”
He smiled a little at her choice of words. Mama was the only person who ever sympathized with him in the wake of a woman’s tears. “Thanks. I’m sorry about all this.”
She shrugged, her strong-boned, elfin features revealing tolerance—and perhaps a secret amusement at the passions of the young (Riley figured Mama was nearly ninety). She said, “The woman will be happier without you.”
She had a gift for saying things like that without sounding critical or insulting. And, of course, she was right. “Mama, I think every woman would be happier without me. And I’d sure be happier without them.”
She chuckled, a wispy, dry sound. “No. It is not women you mind, my dear. It’s love that you fear.”
He looked at her beautiful, lined, sallow face, the severe style of her white hair pulled back into a bun, and the intriguing charm of her crooked teeth as she smiled.
“Love?” he repeated. “Carla loved me so much she smashed my work to pieces with a sledgehammer. Lisa once loved me enough to hate me.” He shrugged. “What’s love, Mama? As soon as a woman starts to love me, she wants to change me. And failing that, she grows to hate me.”
Mama Strega’s black eyes gleamed mistily. “Ah.” She sighed and looked away. “Of course they grow to hate you, Riley. How could they not?”
He got annoyed. “Gee, thanks, Mama. I’m so glad we’re having this conversation. I feel much better about myself now.”
She chuckled again. “I thank God I am old.”
“I hate it when you say things like that.”
“So does everyone else. But I don’t care, and that is one of the privileges of living so long.”
He leaned against the cast iron railing by her chair and wondered whether he felt ready to go upstairs and look at the scene of the crime. “I’ve got to find more marble,” he murmured.
“Yes,” Mama said. “It is time. Now is the moment.”
“What is the moment?”
“Come,” she said. “Come with me.”
Bracing her gnarled hands on the arms of her chair, she pushed herself to her feet with the wiry strength that always amazed him. Then, with the gliding grace that belied her age, she preceded him into the building, through the restaurant, past the kitchen, and down a dark corridor that led to the cellar door. When she opened it and started descending the steps, slowly but without difficulty, he asked, “Where are we going?”
He frowned. “Obviously. I mean, why are we going into the cellar?”
“I have a gift for you.”
He thought she intended to give him one of her better bottles of wine to drown his sorrows, or maybe a wheel of her favorite imported cheese. But they passed by these delights in the well-kept cellar. Then, behind stacks of dry goods, she revealed another door, set deep in the wall and covered with dust. She reached into the pocket of her heavy, old-fashioned mourning dress—her husband had died some twenty years ago—and pulled out a key. The lock was old and rusty, but she refused Riley’s help to open the door, managing to do it herself.
“Wait.” He put a hand on her arm and looked doubtfully down the steep, dark staircase that lay beyond the low doorway. “What is this?”
“My secret place,” she said, reaching into the darkness. A moment later, she turned toward him with a hurricane lamp she apparently kept handy at the top of the stairs. He looked questioningly at the flame; he hadn’t seen her light the lamp.
She said, “The children think there is no key to this door.”
He knew that “the children” encompassed all her descendants, including those who were old enough to be Riley’s parents. “Then why have you unlocked it for me?”
“Because there is something here that is for you. It is time to give it to you. I wasn’t sure before.” She continued talking as she turned and began descending the stairs. “Despite the years, the visions, the signs...one is not always sure.”
“I don’t under—Mama, be careful! This is slippery.”
“Yes. The way is slippery, the path is steep. But do we risk more by being too careless or by being too cautious?”
“Stop talking in riddles and hold onto the railing,” he said, getting a little worried about her. She sometimes made no sense, but she had never before sounded so strange. Perhaps she was just enjoying her moment of mystery as she led him to her “secret place.”
The stairs twisted around and around, as if they were in a tower. He began to wonder how Mama would make the climb back up; even he would be winded after the first fifty steps. The stone walls pressed in on him, and the air was dank and heavy. He started to feel uneasy. “Maybe you’d better tell me what this gift is.”
“When you see it, you will know. In your heart, you will know it is for you. The day you first came here, five years ago, I wondered if you were the one,” she said, her voice echoing in the darkness ahead of him. “Since the day I first found it, I have known it was not mine. I am only keeping it safe for its true owner. Now I offer it to you, for now I am sure that you are the one.”
“But what is—Ow!” He tripped and stumbled as they reached the bottom of the staircase and stepped onto a hard, slippery, uneven floor. She led him through a narrow doorway that opened into some kind of underground cavern.
“Whoa….” He looked up at the high, vaulted ceilings revealed in the dim light of Mama’s lamp. The walls around him displayed layers of geological time, streaked by rust and soot, eroded by floods. The room was apparently confined to the area directly under Mama’s building, since it was no bigger than Riley’s loft. It was filled with an abundance of strange objects, most of which he scarcely noticed—because one object caught his eye immediately. He knew with certainty that this what she had brought him here to see.
“My marble,” he murmured in awe, brushing past cobwebs and a large dusty heap of mandolins, violins, and other instruments, to approach it. Without asking, he took the lantern from Mama and raised it to study the marble more closely. It was a huge piece, much bigger than anything he’d worked with before. And even in the inadequate light, he knew it was the best quality of stone ever given into his care. “Oh, Mama.” He sighed like a man falling in love.
“Do you see?” she murmured. “Do you see that it is yours?”
“I see her,” he replied. “And she’s so beautiful....”
Michelangelo had once described the art of sculpture as that which is done by subtracting—per forza di levare. To chip away all that was non-essential, all that was in the way of the figure which was trying to escape its stony confinement. Riley had experienced that process a number of times in his own work, but he had never looked at a piece of wood or stone and instantly seen the figure within, crying to be released. Not until this moment.
Circling the marble, he saw the woman within it as surely as if he were studying his finished sculpture of her. Her presence was as real to him as that of Mama Strega, who stood nearby with her hands folded, beaming at him.
The sight of the old woman pulled him out of his reverie.
“Mama, you must let me buy this from you.”
“It’s too valuable to just give—”
“But I can pay—”
“No. It is yours. It has always been yours. I have only been keeping it for you.”
He rested a hand on the stone and thought he felt it pulse with life. “Then I have just one question.”
“How the hell will we get it up to my place?”
The shrill ring of his phone woke him. It took him some time to find it amidst the chaos of clothes, newspapers, and sketches that littered his living area. Fortunately, anyone who knew him was used to waiting for him to answer, so the caller didn’t give up. He finally found the phone and muttered a sleepy, “Hello?”
“Where have you been? I was starting to think Carla had come back and used that sledgehammer on you,” Lisa said. “I’ve been trying to reach you since yesterday evening!”
Riley glanced at the clock. “Lisa, it’s not even nine in the morning yet. Why are you bothering me?”
The long silence that followed this question suggested she was trying to control her temper. Then she said, “I went to a show at Victor’s gallery last night. I thought you might be interested to know that his boyfriend ran off to Europe with someone else—”
“You called me to gossip about—”
“—and left behind everything in his studio. Including a piece of marble that just might work for your—”
“Oh, I get it,” he said. “Well, thanks Lisa, but that’s taken care of.”
“It is? Already?”
“Yeah. No problem. And it’s gonna be perfect for the Natural Woman sculpture. I mean,” he added sleepily, “it’s a woman. Which is what they want.”
“It’s a woman?” she repeated. “I don’t understand. Are you going to try to use material that someone else has already worked on?”
“No, of course not.” He was insulted. “I mean, I know what this is marble has inside of it. I know exactly what to do.”
She was obviously pleased and made all the appropriate supportive noises. Then she asked, “You sound good today. How are you doing?”
“I just told you,” he said. “I’ve found this beautiful piece of marble that—”
“No, I meant, how are you doing otherwise?”
“Otherwise?” he repeated blankly.
“Yes, Riley.” It sounded like she might be gritting her teeth. “Your girlfriend walked out of your life yesterday, and I was wondering how you’re feeling today.”
“Well, you know. I wish she hadn’t smashed my sculpture.”
Yes, he could tell she was definitely clenching her jaw.
“You have that tone in your voice again,” he said warily.
“The one that tells me this would be a good time to say goodbye.”
He ended the call and dropped the phone in a pile of laundry. Then he climbed down the ladder leading to the main portion of his loft and entered the kitchen, where he made some coffee. As he drank it, he looked around with a peculiar feeling—which he finally recognized as relief.
Now that Carla was gone, no one would force breakfast on him, thank God. Or lunch or dinner. Or friends and relatives and colleagues. With the feeling of someone putting down a heavy load, he realized that no one would make him to listen to stories about neighbors and problems at work when he just wanted to be thinking about sketches and designs. No one would drag him out to the movies when he really wanted to model clay. No one was here now to burden him with all the meaningless, annoying, distracting trivialities of life that bored him or drove him nuts.
“That’s what I can’t stand,” he muttered. Lisa was wrong to blame him every time. And Mama Strega was wrong, too. He had nothing against love. Love was fine. He just couldn’t abide all the baggage that came with it.
Thinking of Mama Strega made him recall the exhausting night he had spent trying to work out a way to get that marble out of the underground cavern. She had been adamant that he must not tell any of the “children” about her secret place. He agreed to honor this request. He wanted to respect her privacy and show proper gratitude for her magnificent gift. He also doubted that telling the children would do him any good, anyhow. Even Mama’s strapping great-grandsons couldn’t get that heavy stone up that steep, endless, winding staircase, or maneuver that huge piece through that narrow space with its low ceiling.
Nevertheless, the marble had gotten down there somehow. But how? He searched the entire cavern and the little passageway to the stairs for some means of egress—a tunnel or shaft, maybe. He looked for secret passages, for a hidden door, for another underground chamber with access to the street above. Upon finding nothing, he made Mama wait while he left, bought a powerful industrial flashlight on Canal Street, and came back. Then he spent more than an hour searching the high ceiling for some sign of a trap door.
He was forced to give up the search when Mama insisted it was past her dinner time and the children would grow worried if she didn’t appear soon. After that, Riley had left the building and searched the neighborhood until well past midnight, looking for some concealed or forgotten means by which someone had once, long ago, gained access to that cavern. Mama had lived in this building since coming to America nearly seventy years ago. According to her, no one else had been to her secret place since then, and the marble had already been there when she first discovered the cavern.
The question of how it had gotten there plagued Riley for half of that night; the question of how he would get it out of there took up the rest of the night. He’d finally fallen asleep around dawn. He was still groggy now, despite three cups of strong coffee. However, sleep was irrelevant next to the passion that consumed him now. He had to get his hands on that marble. She was waiting inside. As he rummaged around the floor of his bedroom for some clothes, the obvious solution presented itself. Fully clothed, he went downstairs to find Mama Strega.
She agreed with his plan to work in the cellar, and he was relieved she ignored a rather important issue: Even after his work was done, how the hell would he get the completed sculpture out of the cavern? Mama asked only that Riley continue to keep her secret. So she gave him her key to the ancient door, and he agreed to move his tools and equipment down there late at night, after the restaurant was closed and the children had gone. He would have to be discreet about his comings and goings, too. If anyone saw him entering or leaving the cavern, the children would demand to know what was down there.
“All right, Mama,” he agreed. “But can I at least ask why? I mean, no one would try to stop you from...doing whatever it is you do down there. And it’s not as if the, uh, children would steal from you.”
“They mustn’t go down there because it’s not safe for ordinary people,” Mama said simply, squinting against the morning sun.
“What do you mean, not safe?” When she didn’t respond, he asked, “Are you afraid of floods? Of the ceiling collapsing on them? Of the stairway caving in?”
“At my age, Riley, I am afraid of nothing.” She smiled. “And you? You are afraid of only one thing. You will meet your demons in the cavern, as you were meant to do.”
He crouched before her and took one small, wrinkled hand in his own. “I don’t understand you. Is there something you’re not telling me?”
She smiled. “Of course there is! Carino, did you really think this silly old woman would tell you everything?”
“I know you’re not a—”
“I know why you must go down there; but you will never know why I had to go down there, so many years ago.” She patted his hand. “You have what you want. Your marble and the chance to work on it. Now leave me. It’s time for my nap.”
He gave up, recognizing that she had closed the subject. “All right, Mama.” Then, in a gesture of affection which was unusual for him, he kissed her forehead. “And after this work is done,” he said, “I will make you a prisoner in my loft so that I can sculpt you at last.”
“Perhaps,” she murmured absently. “Or perhaps everything will be different by then.”
The restaurant closed late, as usual, and Mama’s sons hung out forever with a bottle of Chianti. Consequently, it was nearly dawn by the time Riley finished lugging down to the cavern everything he would need: several hurricane lamps, sketchbooks, modeling clay, and all his tools. He slept like the dead that day, paced around his loft impatiently all evening, and slipped into the cellar like a thief that night.
The circumstances made it impossible to employ a model, but he didn’t care. He didn’t need one. Every time he looked at the marble, his vision of her was stronger than the time before. In fact, after conscientiously making a few preliminary sketches, he threw aside his sketchbook. She was calling to him. Why wait or hesitate? He knew exactly what to do.
He picked up his boucharde, a square hammer with a steel head covered with pyramidal points. His heart pounded with excitement and anxiety as he approached the block of stone. He couldn’t believe he was doing this. He, the most uncompromising and meticulous of artists, was about to start chipping away at a block of marble with no planning or preparation. He normally began such work with an exhaustive series of sketches, followed by models in wax and clay. He was obsessed and passionate about his work, but never impulsive. With a trembling hand, he stroked the rough surface of the stone.
She was life-sized in there, not diminutive as his recently destroyed sculpture had been. He saw her so vividly that he didn’t even think of what he was about to do as sculpting. He would merely be peeling away layers until she was revealed. It was crazy, but he knew—he knew—it was the right thing to do when he used his mallet and his punch to chip away that first piece of marble.
After that, he forgot his initial doubts and worked steadily, untroubled by the sweat that trickled down his face, coated his arms, and soaked his torso. After a while, he removed his shirt, wiped his face with it, then threw it to the floor.
It was sheer exhaustion that made him quit hours later, pleased with his progress, impatient to do more. It was only then that he glanced at his watch and realized how little time he had left, if he was going to escape from the cellar without discovery.
Several weeks passed this way. Riley slept most of each day, woke up at sunset, waited impatiently for the restaurant to close, then slipped down into Mama Strega’s secret place to continue his work. He thought of nothing else and resented even the slightest distraction.
He should have realized, though, that ignoring all messages would only prompt Lisa to visit him in person.
The pounding on the door woke him around noon. He found a pair of pants, tugged them on, and stumbled down the ladder. He didn’t even bother to say hello to Lisa when he opened the door, but simply turned away, mumbled the word “coffee,” and staggered toward the kitchen.
“I was starting to think you were dead! Where have you been? What’s happened? I’ve been trying to get hold of you for over a week! And since I know you never go out of town or leave your studio for more than a few hours at a time—”
“I’ve been working,” he mumbled, too sleepy to be irritable yet.
“Why haven’t you answered your phone?”
“Didn’t want to.” He finished pouring water into the coffee machine and turned it on. It gurgled reassuringly, promising him a rejuvenating shot of caffeine in just a few minutes.
“Riley. Don’t you understand? You can’t simply—” She stopped in mid-sentence, sat down abruptly, and put her head in her hands. “I’m doing it again. I thought I had finally learned to stop doing this.”
He set out the sugar. He smelled the milk, winced, then poured the globby mess down the sink. He scrounged around for some powdered milk but found none. “Sorry. You’ll have to take it black.”
“That’s how I take my coffee,” she said tersely. “That’s how I’ve taken my coffee every morning since the day you met me, over ten years ago. That’s how I took my coffee every morning that I lived with you, Riley. Every day for two solid years, you had coffee with milk and two teaspoonfuls of sugar, and I took mine black. And you don’t remember.”
“Am I supposed to?”
She sighed. “Never mind. It’s not important.”
“No, it’s not,” he agreed.
They were silent for a while. She seemed to have run out of steam. Finally, in a friendlier tone, she said, “So show me what you’ve been doing.”
“What?” She blinked. “You’ve never been shy before about showing me work in progress.”
“That’s not the problem.”
“Then what do you mean, you can’t show it to me?”
“It’s not here.”
“Then where is it?”
She just had to start asking tough questions first thing in the morning, he thought irritably. It hadn’t occurred to him to think up a credible lie to protect Mama Strega’s secret. “It’s someplace else.”
“Where?” she asked curiously, pouring more coffee for herself. “You haven’t worked anywhere else since you moved in here. Why now?”
“Oh, I just thought it would be easier than trying to move the marble here. It’s a pretty big piece. Why move it here, when it’s only going to be moved again to the Natural Woman building uptown?” He paused and then said sickly, “Oh, God.”
“It’s nothing. Just, uh, coffee on an empty stomach.”
“Here, let me make you some breakfast.”
“No, I don’t want—”
“Riley, you look terrible. You’ve lost weight. You’re pale. I’m cooking you breakfast.”
He didn’t try to stop her. He was too preoccupied with his own worries. The realization had just struck home for the first time; that piece in the cavern essentially belonged to Natural Woman. “I’ll have to give her up,” he murmured.
Lisa turned and looked at him. “Is that what’s bothering you?”
“Well....” He nodded.
“I see.” She did see. She’d gone through this with him before. A writer or composer could sell a work and still keep the original materials. But as a sculptor, Riley gave himself heart and soul to his work, only to watch each piece leave his studio forever when he had finished it. And she had seen him suffer for it before. “At least it won’t be in a private collection, Riley. You can go look at it any time you want, right in the lobby of a public building.”
“Uh-huh.” He recognized Lisa’s technique. Sure enough, she launched into a comforting and shamelessly flattering speech about how millions would view and enjoy this sculpture, becoming better people in every way for having been touched by his artistic genius, blah blah blah. He hated it when women stroked his ego. Why not just let him wallow in his misery and get it out of his system?
“So you still haven’t said where you’re working. How’s the piece coming along?”
“Well. Very well,” he said honestly. He had never worked so fast or intensely in his whole life. “It’ll be...good.”
Lisa got excited. Riley hardly ever thought work in progress was good. He usually told her it still wasn’t right or he wasn’t sure. Sometimes he’d say it was okay. So she was obviously eager to view something he described as good. “When can I see it?”
“Um. When it’s done.”
“Can’t I see it now?”
“The truth is, it’s at a friend’s place.”
He improvised, knowing that he’d better nip this in the bud or she would just keep nagging him for a peek at the piece. “And we’ve agreed that no one else should see it for now.”
“Is this friend your new model?”
He seized on that. “Yes. And she’s very shy. It’s a nude, you know, as they requested, and she doesn’t want anyone else to see her naked.”
“Well, fine. I don’t have to watch you work. I just want to see the—”
“She’s also still shy about anyone seeing the piece.”
“Uh, Riley, are you sure this is wise? I mean, lots of people are going to see it after it’s finished. And there will be photographs in magazines, online—”
“She’ll get used to it. Don’t worry. It’s not a problem.”
“The way Carla wasn’t a problem?”
“Hey, I never said Carla wasn’t a problem.”
“Are you involved with this friend?”
“None of your business.”
“When your model becomes your lover and turns your latest sculpture into rubble, Riley, that makes your private life my business.”
“We’re not involved,” he said.
“Can you please try to keep it that way?”
“I’m definitely going to keep it that way. In fact, I’m committing to celibacy.”
Lisa smiled. “Good decision.”
She forced him to eat breakfast, then left after saying, “If I know you, you’re chomping at the bit to get back to work.”
He was, but he had to wait until after midnight to return to the secret cavern beneath the streets of Soho...to see her again.
To be continued in Issue Two…
Copyright © 2017 by Laura Resnick.
Heart's Kiss Magazine: Issue 1: February 2017
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor