Flesh and Stone

Issue #256

Perrin took a bride in the dark midwinter. With any other sculptor of his talent, the wedding would have rivaled that of the Count de Roche-Sur-Terre, held the week before. But Perrin chose his wife at dusk, swept her off to a priest by moonlight, and locked the door to his cottage before dawn. No amount of knocking by the curious baker or passing tinker could pry that door open.

He emerged a month later at the first thaw. Before dawn, with the village still quiet, he escorted his bride through the deserted streets to his mother’s red-roofed cottage. “Please let this work,” he whispered. He knocked.

His mother, the good widow Thérèse, flung open the door with a familiar smell of vanilla.

“Perrin! You scoundre—”

He flushed and ducked his head so his prematurely white hair shielded his face. “Mother, this is Marie. I’d like you to take her with you today. She doesn’t know anyone in town.”

The woman at Perrin’s side might have stepped out of a tale—hair black as rook feathers, skin pale as snow, lips red as strawberries. Yet Perrin had judged his mother correctly. She didn’t stare.

“Of course, dear.” Thérèse beckoned Marie inside where salted oatmeal boiled on the hearth. “Would you like a bite to eat before we head out?”

Each spring, tradition sent the women of Roche-Sur-Terre into the hills to collect baskets of flowers. Their men waited in the village square, ready to don the single flower wreath each woman braided.

“That’s a nice shade of yellow.” Marie nodded solemnly to the kerchief tucked around Thérèse’s salt-and-pepper hair.

Thérèse preened. “I dyed it myself.”

“It’s pretty, like the sun.”

“What a sweet thing to say. Come in, come in.”

No sooner had Perrin settled Marie in the hearth-side rocking chair than Thérèse pulled him aside.

“Where on earth did you find her?” she whispered behind hanging ropes of onions. “How did you get her to marry you?”

He shot a glance at Marie across the room. Alone, she ate her oatmeal with dull, plodding movements. “Mother, please—”

“Don’t ‘mother, please’ me.” She waggled a finger under his nose. “You didn’t find fit to tell me you got married! You are properly married, aren’t you?”

“Of course. Father Guise—”

Thérèse snorted.

“I didn’t want a fuss. I love her.”

Thérèse let her finger drop. “I’ve long prayed that you would marry. It’s my burden you can’t even do that with any semblance of normalcy. At least you picked a good match. Where’d you find her?”

He spoke quickly. “Last summer, outside the château.”

“While you were carving the count’s wedding present?”

“Yes.”

Her sharp gaze pinned him in place. “You haven’t gone and done something foolish without thinking it through, have you? Rushed into something difficult, just to answer your silly old mother’s prayers?”

Perrin spread his hands. “What can I say? I love her. I think—I know—we’ll find a way to make it work.”

Thérèse pinched her lips as only a mother could. “Very well. I suppose she has no family?”

“That’s right. Only me.”

“But she makes you happy?”

He nodded, the flush returning to his face. “Deliriously so. Only—” He ducked his head again, his shoulders sagging.

“Only?”

His face was haggard. “She doesn’t love me.”

Thérèse clucked her tongue. “I’d hoped for you to avoid that.”

“I know,” Perrin said. Quickly he added, “She wants to. She thinks I’m kind. But she doesn’t love me.”

“You haven’t known her that long. These things take time and effort.”

“Please, talk to her while you’re gathering flowers. Tell her how you came to love Father.”

“That won’t make her love you.”

“Just talk to her, please.”

She pressed a hand to her heart. “I’ll do my best.”

“Thank you.” To her surprise and delight, he pecked her on the cheek.

So Thérèse pulled an extra basket from some well-ordered corner of her cottage and, with Marie’s arm tucked in her own, set out for the village square. Perrin, like many a sleepy-eyed young husband, stood in the doorway and watched his wife leave without him. Marie, unlike the other young wives, walked away without a look back.

After the sun rose above the rooftops, he wandered down to the square. Already the other half of the village was there, joking and sharing bottles. Perrin lingered by the bake house, enduring a few crude congratulations on his marriage. He’d always been more comfortable with stone than people. As a child, he’d happily talked to the pebbles and boulders along the river. For years as a grown man he’d rather sculpt than speak. Now he’d rather whittle or read by his fire. But Marie had asked to meet Thérèse, and he’d harbored some hope that braiding a flower wreath for him might quicken her heart. So here he was, tipping his hat to some graybeard whose name he couldn’t remember.

Finally a chorus of high voices sounded at the edge of town. The square quieted as the women, baskets overflowing, streamed in. He searched every face until his mother’s yellow kerchief came into view.

Her face was drawn. She hurried to his side, her knuckles white around her basket handle. “I lost Marie.”

He seized her by her shoulders. “What do you mean?”

“We were at the château, by the gardens. I turned around, and she was gone.”

“Gone?” His voice cracked. “I must find her.”

He ran, leaving Thérèse to clutch her basket of petals and the other women to stare as he dashed past. By the time he rounded the château to the far quadrant of the gardens, where few people ever went, he was gasping for air. No flowers bloomed here. The river, swollen by the thaw, roared past with its clutch of branches.

Standing in the middle of the deserted muddy field, Marie was dwarfed by the garden walls, which towered above her on her left. Undaunted, she pointed to a little niche at waist height. “Is this where I was?”

He had to catch his breath and calm his racing heart before he could answer. “Yes, love. You stood there for months, until I finished the count’s other statue and spoke your true name.”

“It’s so quiet.”

“All the better. No one saw me visit you, and no one’s noticed that your statue’s gone.”

She sighed. “I thought I’d feel something if I came here. Joy, grief, hatred. Something. But I’m still empty inside.”

He wrapped his arms around her. “It’s all right,” he said, though he squeezed his eyes shut against the threat of tears. “Thérèse said it would take time.”

She sucked in her breath. “The flowers! I was going to put the wreath on your head.”

He stroked her back. “We’ll find another way to stir your love.”

“How?” She leaned back to look him in the eye. “We’ve tried making love, praying, talking until our throats are dry. Every day I act as if I love you, as if I feel anything. I’ve been trying so hard to experience love for real.”

“I know. You’re the most amazing woman. My masterpiece, the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. I’m not ready to give up. We’ll find another way.”

She bit her lip. “I do want to love you.”

“You will.”

He tucked his arm around her. All the way home, she pressed herself close, as if he could gift love through his skin.

For the first time in years, spring came early. Along the river sparrows sang, and in the gardens behind the château, violets sweetened the air. The village men rolled up their sleeves and walked to the fields, leaving their wives to chase children released at long last from indoors.

One brilliant afternoon, Thérèse stuck her head inside Perrin’s window. “Woohoo, guess what I’ve learned?”

Perrin glanced up from his whittling. Marie paused in her embroidery. Before they could answer, Thérèse opened the front door and bustled inside wearing a brilliant frock of blue and yellow, smelling of vanilla. With motherly precision, she collected cheek kisses from both Perrin and Marie.

“The count and his bride are back,” she announced, untying her bonnet. “The flags will be going up over the château soon.”

Perrin stiffened. He tucked his whittling under his chair and stood. Sure enough, the window showed blue and purple pennants flapping over one château tower, indicating the count was back in residence.

“Now that they’re back,” Thérèse said, “how long do you think until they make an announcement? It’s never too early to start a family, I say.” Neither son nor daughter-in-law responded, but Thérèse’s hopeful gaze never strayed from them. She forged on. “I always like a good christening. It’d be a fine occasion for you to make a new statue.”

“I carved my last statue last year.” His right hand curled into a fist.

“So you say.” Thérèse plopped down in his vacant chair. “But if the count asked—”

“My studio is closed. I carved my masterpiece for him. Nothing I do will surpass it.”

Marie joined him at the window. “Could I see one of your statues?”

He blinked. “You’d—you’d want to see one?” He’d never thought of that. He’d been whittling a dog for her, in the hopes she could love it. The wood with the head and one front leg done lay under his chair.

“Of course.” The thoughts behind her eyes were clear: Maybe by seeing the things you loved, I will love them, and you.

“What a fabulous idea!” Thérèse beamed. “Perrin’s statues are so exquisite they make everyone who sees them hope for love.”

Perrin ducked his head, embarrassed by such motherly praise, but Marie pressed her palms together, eager. “Everyone?”

“Everyone, absolutely,” Thérèse said. “Now, which statue should you see? There’s the one he did for—oh! Or the one that’s outside the—ack, so many to choose from...”

“What about,” Marie asked, brushing Perrin’s arm, “the one you did for the count’s wedding?”

“That one?” Thérèse looked askance at Perrin. “I didn’t think that one was available to be seen.”

“I heard that, too.” Marie clutched his arm. “I heard it was too beautiful to be on display, that its beauty was why the count and countess keep it for themselves. Please! A wedding present of exquisite beauty, what better way to stir love?”

Perrin exhaled. He fixed his mind on the question of seeing Penelope. He should be jumping at any chance to kindle emotion in Marie, yet— “The count has never let anyone see that one. Maybe one of my other statues—”

“Perrin!” A voice boomed, cutting him off.

The hair on Perrin’s neck prickled. He knew that voice.

Outside, a lone horseman cupped his hands around his mouth. The count, in a tunic of blue and purple. “Perrin!” he called again.

Perrin went rigid. What could the count possibly want of him now?

Marie pressed his arm. “Go on.” She forced a smile. “Maybe he doesn’t want another statue.”

“I wish I could believe that.” He bent and kissed her forehead. Then he squared his shoulders and walked outside.

“Ah, Master Sculptor.” Sunlight glinted on the count’s black hair. He spread his hands in welcome. “Congratulations on your wedding.”

Perrin looked up at him coolly. He remembered the count’s voice, taut with eagerness when he realized that Perrin could do more to stone than merely carve it. “Thank you, my lord. What brings you here today?”

The count glanced to the window, where Marie and Thérèse peered out. He swung down from his horse. “Walk with me.”

Perrin walked beside him, the horse clomping behind. A soothing sound, that clomping. He tried to focus on it instead of what the count might say.

By a little copse, out of sight of the house, the count swung around to face him. “There’s something wrong with my wife. Penelope. She doesn’t love me.”

Perrin took a deep breath. He should have guessed. “Marie is the same.”

“You said you could bring her to life.”

“I did bring her to life. But I’d never done that to a person before. Humans are not frogs or birds. It will take time, years even, before she might love. Be patient.”

“I can’t. The countess is beside herself. She said there’s only one thing that will bestir love in her. She wants a child.”

Perrin felt his ears turn red. “My lord, that’s between your lady wife and—”

“You misunderstand. She wants a child like her.”

The world seemed to rock. He steadied himself against a tree. “My lord, no, I will not—not a child.”

“I don’t like it any more than you do. But I’m desperate. Carve me a child, sculptor.”

“No.”

The count frowned, a dark furrowing of brows. “I’ve been quite indulgent with you. I asked for a bride, and you fell in love with the first statue you made. Did I fuss? No. I simply asked you to carve another and to wait until my new bride and I were away until you woke your wife. But I will not bend on this. Carve me a child.”

Perrin clutched his hair. What would Marie say if she found out? Would she demand her own child, too? He thought of the loneliness of childhood, the cruelty of children towards a playmate who was different. He shook his head.

“I’ll pay you,” the count said, “half again what I gave you before.”

“I don’t need money.”

“Land then, a nice plot along the river.”

Perrin shook his head. “All I want is time to enjoy with my wife.”

“Enough. I want a statue, and you will tell me the price. Understand?”

Perrin’s shoulders hunched. “I understand.”

“Good. Now, if it’s not money or land you want, what else?”

Perrin would have preferred to cleave off his own fingers rather than accept the commission the count asked of him. But Marie was waiting, and she had made a request. “My wife believes that by seeing another of my statues, she might love me. If you would let her come to the château, see one of them...”

The count’s frown deepened. “Will that work?”

“I have no idea.”

“That’s all you ask?”

Perrin tilted his head, affirming. “One wild hope for another.”

“Christ,” the count swore. “What a mess. Which one do you want to see?”

Something he loved, Marie had said. He chose quickly. “Hephaestus.”

The count raised his eyebrows. But then, he might not remember that Hephaestus was god of sculpture as well as ironworking. “Very well. The two of you should come to the front door tomorrow at the third bell. You may see the statue then.”

Perrin bowed his head. “Marie will be pleased.”

The count mounted his horse. It turned, its tail flicking rough against Perrin’s cheek. As he rode away, the count called over his shoulder. “You’ll have your marble by sundown tomorrow.”

Perrin woke at dawn.

“Three more hours,” Marie whispered beside him. She clapped her hands. “I can’t wait.”

Perrin squeezed his eyes shut. To walk into the château, to risk coming face to face with the woman who demanded he carve a child, it made his gut churn. If only—

He sat straight up. Marie regarded him wide-eyed until he said, “Are you excited to go? Excited, happy? Are you feeling something?”

She opened her mouth, closed it. She hitched in her breath.

“I think so. It’s like bubbles in my chest. I’m sure that seeing the statue will make me love you, and I can’t wait.”

He laughed. He pulled her into a hug. “I thought seeing my statues would upset you. If only I’d known—”

“We know now.”

“But it doesn’t make sense.” He stroked her hair. “How will seeing stone make you feel anything?”

She leaned back until she could rest her forehead on his. “It’s you. Your love for the statues that I’ll feel.”

“I did love them, all of them, but none of them as much as you.”

She patted his arm. “That doesn’t matter. Your love for them is enough. Trust me.”

“I trust you.”

He traced her cheek with his fingers. So smooth. How his heart had hammered the morning he’d finished carving that cheek, when he’d first looked on the face he’d made. He had been so afraid that the count would claim her. But that morning, so many months ago, he’d made up his mind to trust that somehow he’d be able to keep her. Now he did the same thing. He didn’t understand how seeing a lesser statue would help, but in that moment he made up his mind that he would trust Marie. He would believe.

He rose from bed to a morning made beautiful by belief. Starlings and larks warbled in the hedgerows. Petals floated on the breeze, adorning the grass with a carpet of pink and white. The world smelled fresh, clean and promising. He savored an extra spoonful of honey with his oatmeal.

When Marie stepped from the bedroom dressed in blue silk, he gasped.

“Beautiful.” The blue accented her black hair and white skin and set his heart to thudding.

She twirled, her skirt flaring. “Thank you.” She took his arm. “Let’s go.”

The sun warmed his back. He whistled as he walked, matching tunes with the starlings and larks. Marie pressed her hand against his arm, her hair smelling of roses. He leaned close, breathing deeply. Surely the whole world was in love that morning, from the birds to the rabbits in the meadow. Soon, Marie would be, too.

The third bell struck as he rapped on the front door of the château. To his surprise, the count opened the door.

The count startled at his first look at Marie. His eye twitched, like the memory of some private pain, but he recovered quickly. “You’ve come to see the statue.” Mint spiced his breath.

Marie stepped forward. “Yes, please.”

The count led the way over polished wood floors, up a carpeted staircase, down a hallway lined with portraits—no statues—until they came to a sunroom. Tapestries of baby-faced cherubs covered the walls. Expansive windows showed the courtyard, outer walls, and swollen river. A small breakfast table sat before the windows, a sweet-smelling bowl of flowers in its center. To the table’s right, on a low shelf, stood the statue of Hephaestus. Functional as well as decorative, it held the poker, tongs, rake, and shovel for the room’s fireplace.

Marie marched up to the statue. “May I?” She stretched out her hand.

“Yes,” Perrin said at the same time as the count.

Marie thumbed its cheek. Her eyes went wide. “Oh.”

Perrin swung around to the count. “May we have a few moments?”

The count nodded. He shot Perrin a sympathetic look then withdrew, closing the door behind him.

Perrin went to Marie, hovering at her side. “What do you feel?”

She shook her head, her bottom lip between her teeth. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

“Marie?”

He’d never seen her cry before. Were they tears of joy? Her thumb still stroked Hephaestus’s cheeks. There was nothing particularly moving about the statue. Hephaestus sat on a roughhewn rock, his lame legs crooked, the fire-tending tools cradled in his arms. It was a smaller statue, not life-sized as Marie and Penelope had been. Perrin had been proud of it once, but now he found it a little too stiff, a little too formal. How could it move Marie to tears?

“Marie? My love?” He touched her elbow.

She brushed Hephaestus’s cheek. “He’s happy here. Don’t you feel it?”

Dutifully, Perrin stroked his fingers down the statue’s arm. It was cool, the grain smooth beneath his fingers. “What should I feel?”

“He’s happy. He’s the right size and shape for this space. He fits it perfectly. And he’s doing what he was made to do, what you made him to do.” She turned to face Perrin, pulling her arm free. “But I’m not.”

He swallowed. “You’re not happy now?”

She dashed away her tears. “I was stone. I loved the sun, the wind, the wall at my back.” She pushed a finger towards him. “You took that from me.”

He stepped back. “I—you said you wanted to love me.”

“I can’t. Don’t you understand? You made me from stone.”

“Of course you can. You’re my heart, my love.”

“I’m a statue, with a heart of stone.” She pushed past him.

“Marie!”

“I’m sorry.” She ran from the room.

He spun to stare at Hephaestus. What had the statue done to her?

Hephaestus didn’t answer.

Perrin growled and ran into the hall. “Marie!”

Empty. Where had she gone?

He jogged left. The carpet sank under his feet. Portrait after portrait passed by—had the hallway been this long before? His lungs felt shrunken; he couldn’t catch his breath. One moment Marie had been so hopeful. The next she’d fled. What had he done wrong?

The hallway opened. On the right was the stairway that the count had brought them up. Would Marie have taken it, headed for home? He took a heavy step down.

“Perrin!”

The count’s voice cut the air. He beckoned from the base of the stairs. “Come quickly,” he said, stricken. “Your wife fell.”

Perrin found himself beside the count without remembering going down. “Fell?”

“She was on the walls, overlooking the river.”

He braced a hand against the banister. “Is she dead?”

“No, she’s asking for you.”

Hope, he told himself. Believe. But all was quiet behind the château. Even the birds were silent. Half a dozen men in blue and purple clustered at the base of the towering walls. They turned silently to look when Perrin arrived. The count kept close, as if Perrin too might fall.

One of the men in blue and purple came forward. “I’ve sent for the surgeon.”

“Thank you,” the count said. “Perrin—”

Perrin wrenched away. He pushed his way through the wall of men.

Marie lay in tall grass at the base of the walls, in the center of the blue-and-purple cluster. Someone had covered her with a cloak. Purple, it spilled about her, smelling of mint. The count’s, then.

The cloak had soaked up much of the blood. So much blood. Under her head, in her hair, on the shoulder of her blue silk dress. Not even mint could cover its brittle smell.

Her lips parted. Perrin dropped to his knees beside her. The rest of the cluster stepped discreetly away.

“I didn’t jump,” she said, hoarse. “I leaned too far.”

The fall, it should have killed her. That she still lived was a miracle. He would never believe she had a heart of stone, but some part of her must not have become human.

He clutched her fingers. “I know. You were looking for your niche.”

She tried to nod. She gasped. Her hand spasmed in his.

“Don’t move. The surgeon’s coming.”

“No surgeon. He’ll figure out what you’ve done. Please, turn me back.”

He reared up. “No. Don’t make me give you up.”

“I can’t love you, and you deserve someone who can.”

He hunched over, her hand in his. “But I just found you.”

“You did not find me.” She enunciated each word. “You made me.”

His head came up, nostrils flared. “No one makes a statue. You were already there, waiting to be released from the stone.”

“Yes. Stone.” She gripped his hands with both of hers. She held on, panting from the effort, even as he tried to pull away. “That’s what I’m supposed to be. And you’re a sculptor, a brilliant one. Turn me back.” She held on—how long could she hold on?—until he stopped struggling, and then she held on longer.

In the château gates behind, the growing crowd murmured. Thérèse pushed her way through, her yellow kerchief like a beacon.

She knelt opposite Perrin, Marie between them. He stared at her bleakly.

“I hoped,” Thérèse said quietly, “that if anybody could make a statue love them, it would be you. But you’ve only set yourself up for heartbreak. You have to undo what you’ve done.”

Marie’s hand in his had lost its grip. “Yes,” she whispered, “turn me back.”

He shook his head back and forth, back and forth, like the pendulum of a clock.

“She’s in pain,” Thérèse said, low, “and your spell keeps her from peace. She’s your wife. What will you do for her?”

He tucked his chin into his chest and pulled his shoulders towards his ears. It would be easier to simply let her die. To let her body return to ash and stone. There would be no statue to gaze blindly upon him, no statue to tempt him to whisper her true name again.

He breathed deep. “We need to be alone for a little while.”

“You’ll turn her back?” Thérèse asked.

“Yes.”

A sigh, slight as the breeze, came from Marie.

“Half an hour, no more.” Thérèse stood and squeezed his shoulder. “Come home, after this is over.”

He kept silent. Thérèse approached the count and the murmuring crowd, coaxing them back through the gates.

The day was mild and clear. Somewhere a dove called from the meadows. In the warmth of that spring day, no one watched as Perrin wrapped the purple cloak around Marie and lifted her into his arms. Head bowed, he made his way steadily past the high walls of the château, his boots leaving little indentations in the fine, red dirt. Not once did he stop to weep or rend his clothes or give vent to any other emotion that pressed behind his eyes. In his arms, Marie breathed sharp and quick as a bird.

At the base of the garden walls, he laid her on the ground and unclasped the cloak from her throat. He unlaced her boots and lined them up against the wall. One by one he plucked the pins from her hair. A few he dropped in the grass and never recovered. The rest he let fall into his pockets, a remembrance. Only then did he stoop to kiss her on the forehead.

“Thank you,” she whispered. Her eyelids barely fluttered.

“Enjoy your sun and wind, my love.”

He lifted her into her niche and whispered a secret word. The change came at once. A breeze blew up, smelling of stone, and Perrin sank to his knees in the grass.

For a long while, all was still.

In time, Perrin unbent his stiff knees. He looked up at Marie, at her unseeing eyes and frozen smile. He thought of the years upon years she would stand there, alone except for the sun and wind. He thought of what he would give to stand beside her, stone beneath his fingers. Then he buttoned his coat and smoothed his hair and climbed up into the niche. There was room enough for both of them. Barely.

He wrapped his arms around her, pressed his cheek to hers, and whispered his secret word one last time.

That evening, Thérèse made the first of her nightly visits to the garden wall, to the muddy field where few people went. On that evening, unlike the ones to come, the count joined her. He scowled at the two statues in the niche.

“Turn him back.”

“I can’t.” A lie. “I’m sorry.”

“I need the new statue he promised me.”

She gazed up at Perrin. The white marble of his face looked more peaceful than it ever had in life. “I can’t,” she said again, though she ached to say it.

The count stomped away. The château gates slammed shut behind him.

In his wake, all was quiet.

Thérèse stroked Perrin’s shin, since she couldn’t reach his shoulders. “Oh, my boy,” she whispered, “what fools we are for love. Be at peace. Now you’re back where you belong.”


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Kathryn Yelinek lives in Pennsylvania, where she works as a librarian. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Deep Magic, Metaphorosis, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Visit her online at kathrynyelinek.com.

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