Before it hardens, stone boils. In the mountains where I was born, it flows through rocky veins, oozes like blood from the earth’s wounds, and erupts from great gashes. We fled there, to a cave of hardened lava.
“You will be safe,” my mother said. “Men fear this mountain.”
I was a mere hatchling, my snakes no more than worms wriggling on my scalp. I asked what ‘fear’ meant.
Her serpents answered, for when she kissed me they coiled around mine, so tightly that she had to disentangle them with her fingers.
“Stay ’til I return,” she said.
I had never been alone. I waited, eating mushrooms and ferns and making play by tossing pebbles at the bats overhead. An hour seemed a year; the afternoon, eternity. Thinking she had forgotten me, I left to find my way home.
She lay in a quiet glade, sprawled between two petrified hounds, one crouched with its gums drawn back, the other halted mid-leap and lying on its side. Her body was unscathed, excepting her head, which was gone. All that remained of it was one snake, cut away by the sword and writhing in the grass. I remember the coolness of its scales as it died and the lingering warmth of my mother’s body when I curled up beside her.
It might have been a day, or longer, when I woke to a hand pressing my face into the soil.
“Do not look at me, boy.”
Another man would have killed me. Piero, as I learned, never met a wounded beast he did not try to save. He pulled a sack over my head and took me to his home.
I thrashed and wailed when he plucked the snakes from my scalp. But when the plucking was done, and he took the sack from my head and wrapped me in a blanket, crooning, I clung to him. For children in distress will be monsters, but unlike true monsters they are quick to forgive.
I grew up in the cabin Piero shared with his other foundlings—a wounded goshawk, a crippled fox, and countless abandoned fledglings he would nurse until their wings gave them flight. My serpents did not grow back. I was like any boy, unusual only for my baldness and an odd affection for snakes, which would not strike at me or flee but twined around my arms and wormed into my pockets. To feed them I trapped mice, placing crumbs in a narrow-necked jug against which I would lean a twig so my victims might climb to the lip and drop in.
Piero lived off the mountain, quarrying marble and slate from its sides, which he sold to stone traders who carted it to the valley. His workshop was littered with chunks of broken stone, which along with the snakes became my toys. When I was old enough to use a hammer and chisel, I started chipping figurines and carving images of snakes into broken slabs of marble. My talent at this proved a surprise.
“It’s as if you see the pictures hiding inside the rock,” Piero said. I remember that because it surprised me to learn he did not.
Soon Piero was trading not only blocks and flagstones but the bowls and small sculptures I made. The traders began to request larger pieces, and a shed behind our cabin became my studio. When I turned sixteen, Piero gifted me a fine set of tools and a bag of the coin my carvings had earned.
“Calvino,” he said. “You must not spend your life chiseling gravestones in this forest. In Orcina they are building a palace for the king. Go. You will find your fortune there.”
If a geode could be a city, it would be Orcina. The buildings, churches and markets glitter like crystals of every color, nestled inside their basin of eroded hills. At the heart lies the piazza, an expanse of granite cobbles flanked by palazzos tiled in marble and travertine, churches with windows of translucent alabaster, and banks with doors of hammered gold.
The wars of succession have now stunted commerce, but in my youth Orcina was growing as fast as King Vincente’s realm. I made my way to the site of his new palace, glutting my eyes on the feast of stone around me.
There I introduced myself to Massimo, the sculptor and architect overseeing the palace’s construction. I presented him a small ruby and a letter from Piero. He asked me to demonstrate my skill. First I dressed an ashlar so precisely that, once placed, the laborers could not budge it. When he saw this, he had me carve the date into the block. I ornamented the numerals with a border of twining serpents.
Massimo took me aside. “I see an artist in those hands. You must come to my studio tomorrow. But first”—he pointed across the piazza—”go and see what won me the king’s favor. Someday you might do the same.” He gave me a fatherly push and turned back to the construction, shouting orders to his men. I, smitten with pride, hurried across the square, shooing addled doves before me.
The statue stood twice the height of a man. It was a naked youth leaning on a gigantic sword. I recognized the face, for the straight, elegant profile was the same as on the coins in my pocket. The prince, the hero who would become King Vincente, seemed deep in thought, his eyes weary, his seamless brow knit with manly wisdom. The chest seemed almost to breathe, the stone limbs polished as if slick with sweat, the toes and fingers honed dull as dust. One hand rested on his sword, which was planted in the pedestal. The other held aloft his trophy—the severed head of my mother.
Tendrils of marble hung from her neck, matching the tangled serpents on her head. Her eyes had been cut away, dark pits deprived of power even in effigy. The mouth twisted in cruelty, nothing like my memory of the lips that had kissed me every morning.
It came without warning: a coldness heavier than water, a quicksilver ice that boiled up my neck and flooded my eyes. I clenched my lids, too late, for a dove that had been strutting on the pedestal fell to the ground and broke in two.
For many breaths I fought the urge that possessed me, to sweep my gaze across the piazza, entomb in cold crystal the steaming flesh that bustled all around. Piero had lied, had told me the serpents he had plucked from my skull were the monsters, that I was a simple boy he had freed from them. Yet how could he have known? Each curse is born of a singular wound. No two monsters are the same.
I might have acted, but a voice broke through the rage.
“You modeled, am I right?”
I turned to find a man in the garb of a merchant peering into my face.
“The resemblance,” he said. “With a wig...” Of a sudden he raised his hand and backed away.
I thought he had seen the dove. In an instant he would scream for the guards. Everyone would know what I had only just learned. An image came of my headless corpse lying in the piazza, and fury gave way first to fear, then to denial.
“How dare you liken me to a monster,” I said in the most indignant voice I could muster.
“Oh, no. That is not... It was nothing. Please forgive.” He bowed and hurried away, glancing back with a frightened look.
I turned again to the statue, my urges warring, my body as rigid as a man facing into a gale. At last a decision came, though I should not call it that. Decisions presume choice. Nature merely exists. It cannot be unlearned.
On its surface, Massimo’s sculpture was masterful, though the toes were too large, and the hair on the hero’s chest lacked definition. But looking deeper, I perceived shapes forced into the marble, curves and planes that did not rise from within. The raised arm ran counter to the flow of crystal. A swirl of chert marred the opalescent chest. This was not the image of a man, only of his skin, a polished surface without organs, skeleton, or a brain behind the handsome, murdering face.
My work would be perfect.
King Vincente had four sons, hardy youths with shining hair and clear eyes, proud and indulged. I worked in Massimo’s studio by day. By night I followed the princes.
One evening, eavesdropping from a nearby table in an inn, I heard them argue about a boar they planned to hunt in the mountains. The beast had killed several men already.
“I will throw the first javelin,” one said. “I am the eldest. It is my duty and place.”
“No,” said the loudest and drunkest. “I’m the strong one. I’ll plant my spear to take the charge. Once I’ve skewered the monster, the two of you can poke it from the sides.”
“Javelins are for cowards,” a third prince said. “I’ll take off its head with my axe.”
Then the youngest, a boy whose voice had not yet broken into manhood, stood from his seat. “Take your turns, brothers. And when the boar’s nigh dead, I’ll finish it with an arrow through the eye.”
At this the other three laughed, and the eldest said, “Eduardo, you’re coming along because father won’t deny you anything. But if you take so much as a scratch to your face the three of us will pay for it. We’re not letting you anywhere near the beast.”
Their debate continued, while I slipped away to pack my tools.
I followed the princes into the mountains. When they made camp for the night I hunted the boar, following its cloven tracks to the entrance of a cavern. There I stepped into a grotto lined in dripping marble, still the most beautiful vista of stone I have ever seen. But I did not admire it then, for at the rear of the cave a massive form pulsed with animal heat.
The boar was tall as a man, wide as an ox. Bristles rose like a palisade of spikes down its back. When it snorted, the reek turned my nostrils. A chill tightened my skin, not fear but icy quicksilver, just as in the piazza. This time I did not close my eyes.
The beast charged, and when it was almost upon me I unleashed my ice. The boar stopped mid-stride, throwing up rock before its hooves. Color faded from its massive head, the white tusks darkened, and down its back in a wave from neck to tail, bristles hardened into needles of green stone. Then with a sound like a boulder breaking free from a mountain, the beast crashed on its side.
I clambered onto its corpse and sat astride its stony neck, looking to the entrance. Before long, a python that had followed me into the cave slithered up to my lap and wrapped about my waist. A whipsnake joined it, and then a small viper, and others, until a dozen snakes festooned me. The smallest wove themselves into a wreath about my head.
Thus, the princes found me.
I blocked the cave entrance with stone before I left. The king’s men searched for a year. I waited another before presenting my gift. The palace was finished. Massimo’s celebrity had grown, and my work as a carver with it. I bought a wagon and drove it to the countryside, where I hired four sturdy peasants. When they saw their task, one tried to flee. The three who witnessed his fate agreed to load the wagon. I left all four to commune with the boulders in a rockslide and drove back to Orcina alone.
There I engaged two of Massimo’s apprentices to mount the statue in the piazza and cover it in cloth. When all was ready, I sent a message to the king. As I waited, citizens drifted forward, clumped in groups about the shrouded statue.
Vincente arrived with a clutch of his retainers. No longer young but still muscular beneath his embroidered robes, he waited while his steward demanded that the artist Calvino come forward to present his gift. I knelt, staring at the ground to control the coldness rising in my face, and gave the speech I had prepared. Then I rose and unveiled the statue of the boy archer.
Vincente stood as if a stone himself, and then dropped to his knees, covering his face. In the silence that fell over the crowd, the great campanile rang angelus. When it was done, the king rose and embraced me.
“It is Eduardo,” he said, choking back the tears in his voice. “Truly, exactly my youngest. You have read my heart, young man. I prayed that my Eduardo might at least have perished with his bow in his hands.”
“I am sure he did, your highness. As I am sure his brothers died valiantly as well. If it would soothe your soul, I shall sculpt a memorial for all your sons.”
“Make it so,” Vincente replied. “I commission you. And if that work is as perfect as this, then you surely are the finest sculptor to ever touch stone in my kingdom.”
I waited a suitable time before delivering my masterwork. The king kept his promise. He honored me with rich commissions and gifted me with my home overlooking the piazza.
Vincente divorced his wife and took a young queen who bore him another son and a daughter. But they, too, were lost on a journey to see her family. The party disappeared in the passes, every soul—the queen, prince and princess, their armed escort, and several servants. It is believed they were attacked by monsters and devoured, for not a bone or shred of clothing was found. My memorial is in a loggia the king built to house it.
Vincente left no heir but sank into a darkness and died before his time. A legend sprang up, in which I had no part, though I think Piero, so long dead, must have. It told that in his youth Vincente came upon a woman while hunting, a lovely, naive girl who lived alone in the woods with her father. Seeing her beauty, he ravished her so brutally she transformed into a monster. The prince fled his sin, but later he returned to slay her and the bastard child she had born him. With her dying breath she cursed his line.
I am old, my bones turned to flint, sinews to shreds of gypsum, skin scaly and hard as mica. I spend my days on the palazzo’s terrace, watching visitors to the piazza below. They come to see the palace, which now has housed three kings, each of them warring with the next. They walk the great boulevard. They visit the tombs of heroes. Above all, though, they come for the art, the statues of men and beasts, kings and princes, all captured in uncanny, lifelike detail.
Massimo’s The Gorgon Slayer was removed years ago. The sculptor is dead, and the art suffered by comparison to my own. Some of my students have statues here, but the work of Calvino is unmistakable, not only for its stark realism but for the exotic, green stone from the maestro’s secret quarry. Of all my works, the most beloved are The Youngest Prince and Death of the Queen. But no one leaves the piazza without pausing a long moment before The Sons of Vincente.
The boar attacks, its tusks out, head low, forelegs bent to the charge. The three princes face it, each perfect in his fury. One lifts an axe. A second hoists a javelin to his shoulder, his muscles tight for the throw. The third is ahead of the others, almost upon the boar, his long spear gripped in his fists. Serpentine beads of sweat rise from his brow. One leg pushes off the toe; the other swings forward with his thrust. His eyes fix the beast. His mouth gapes in a shout.
The visitors point and whisper, awed by the monstrous boar and brave hunters, the ferocity of the beast, the beauty of the masculine form, the strength and fluidity of the captured motion. Then, very often, they fall silent and simply stare into those fierce, handsome faces. They see the terror inside the rage, and beneath that terror, almost buried, a glimmer of surprise.