Everyone knows of the clifftop workshop. Though few have seen the creations except in passing, the rumors of stone chipped fishbone-thin and white as the purest pearls are a constant tide over the village. Ema knows the incessant drum of chisels and hammers that coexists with the marvel of stone turned to a fine cascade of cloth or plump skin but if she only tells of one and not the other then who would blame her. Stories she lets slip amongst the washing tubs are all she has to show for her day’s work of hauling and cleaning.
Stiff bristling hairs scratch against the stone floor in a simple rhythm while the last fingers of the sun still hang onto the windowsills. Corners warrant a pause, a wiggling along the joined edges for those little chips that refuse to leave their new home of a few hours. Slowly, piles of chalky powder coalesce as she sweeps between the half-finished works she’d shrouded in cloth—she lies and tells the masters that it’s to protect their work, but they are not the ones who need protecting.
Their forms struggle out of the impassive blocks, an arm or a leg emerging alone, heads floating severed over misshapen lumps; she can’t bear the pleading she reads in their grasping fingers and stony eyes. Until they are finished, her skin crawls and her shoulders itch from their incompleteness. But once they are done, she loves them and their disorganized queue at the back, waiting to be taken and admired and wanted.
Her favorites, however, are the ones who’ve stayed, either through a patron’s change of heart or an evaporated commission sum. The hero in the back corner, with a broken shield and split helmet and a smile like her mother; the old fruit vendor, facing the wall and offering it an apple with hands as gnarled as the one who’d pulled her from the water; the girl pulling a sheet close around her body, hair half unbound by the rigors of the night and a curl down her temple just like Angela from the laundry. Ema keeps her face turned toward the floor, the broom hazy as her eyes yearn to slide onto the group and their motley poses.
The loop back to the workshop’s entrance takes too long. Sharper grains that escape the broom prick her feet and dust her skin as if to gift her the pallor of the rest of the creations, but she has too much color to be washed so pale so easily. She finds it in her hair some nights, drifting out of the fringe on her forehead like gritty snow and seasoning her dinner. Iulia has warned her of the danger in her naked feet but the boots she offers are big enough to sit in and Ema has grown proud of calluses over the years. The marble dust is softer than the cliffs of the beach; her feet will be fine.
At last, the final sweep. She pushes the fragments and filth out the door, abandons the broom, and sneaks to the back on silent feet. The figures wait, unchanged as always, painted with the scattered recollections of her life that she scrabbles to hold on to. Brushing the dust from the apple and the cobweb from the rent in the shield, she moves through the crowd with a touch to every one, coloring them with her memories as if her ministrations now could reach back in time to those that they’ve replaced. Until she reaches the back of the crowd.
She’s never known what to do for the girl, never a spot of dirt on her stone folds or any insects caught in her hard curls. Never knew how to touch her in the year since Ema started this habit, simply admiring the arch of her brow and cold cheeks, the way her lip is pinched under the peek of her teeth. Ema’s caught in the hesitation, scared of the hard beats that quicken inside her even when this isn’t the real one standing before her, water-reddened hands folding linen with the speed of a swallow.
The girl’s the oldest of the many by far, placed in the shadows by a corner before Ema even stepped foot in the workshop for the first time. All the other sculptures had flocked around her, covering her thick fingers and wilting form. Shy in a way Angela never is.
The sun’s finally let go of the old window by the time Ema brings a chalky hand up close, so close, cupping the cheek and pressing dry lips against dryer ones. It doesn’t feel like how she’d imagined it with Angela and her smiling, always-chattering mouth, but Ema can dream and wish and hope.
A cold hand grabs her elbow. The stone moves against her tongue and she’s pushed back by an unyielding force. She pulls away—tries to—and can’t break the hold of the pristine marble that snakes around her waist and holds her close. Rearing her head back, she breaks the kiss with a gasp and stares at chalk-white eyes that blink back at her.
“I’ve wanted to do that for so long! Oh, you tasted so funny!” The girl’s voice is rough, grating, and deep enough to vibrate inside Ema’s bones. She squirms, the dig of stone fingers uncomfortable against her spine.
“Let me go.” She should be questioning the veracity of what her body is telling her but she simply wants to slip out of the unbreakable circle of the girl’s arms.
“Of course, of course, show me everything.” Opening up her embrace, the girl lets Ema step back onto the floor before catching her hand again. “Let me lean on you, I’ve never taken a step before.”
The weight sends Ema stumbling as the girl steps off her marble base with a lurching lunge that threatens to end with them both on the floor. Ema’s familiar with the crashing of marble against hard floor and her body angles itself into the path of destruction before she can think better of it. There’s no need for it; the girl catches herself with a hard thud of her other foot and smiles down at Ema, her newly torn sleeve, and her bloody elbow.
“I could give you my robe; it wouldn’t split apart so easily,” she offers, the shadow of her stone folds looming over Ema. Ema quickly shakes her head and a cry escapes her.
“No! No, I don’t need it, I can mend this. Keep your robe.” Angling her eyes away from the sloping curves of marble that had been bared above her, she doesn’t resist when the girl drags her up by their still-joined hands.
“Where’s the water? I can hear it on the nights that rattle the windows,” she asks, looking around the workshop. Her every movement should make a sound, the crack or splinter of marble in unnatural motion, but everything but her steps are as quiet as Ema’s.
Ema, holding her arm close to see the wound still weeping onto the floor, says, “You mean the waves? It’s not safe at night, the tide hides all the rocks and slicks the stairs on the way down.”
“We won’t fall. Lead me there.” The girl shakes Ema’s trapped hand, the gesture rough and more of a yank despite her excited grin and innocent eyes.
Steep steps in the dark and the crashing rumble of waves drawing closer; Ema drags her feet at the memory, though the girl doesn’t seem to be slowed at all in her stride towards the door. Spying the last of her forgotten chores, Ema points, exclaims, anything to deter the girl when she doesn’t have the strength to stop her.
“There! It’s clean,”—a lie, but what is marble dust filming the top to a statue—“a master brought it up this morning. From below the cliffs.”
The girl thankfully turns and follows the line of Ema’s injured arm towards the pail of water sitting outside, waiting to be poured out. Leaning down with Ema’s hand held close against her side in a vice grip, the girl dips stone fingers in the water and frowns.
“I can’t feel it.” She cups her hand and brings it to her mouth; Ema can’t tell if she swallows or not, but her plaintive voice comes again. “I can’t taste it.”
“Water itself has little taste,” Ema says, trying to wiggle her fingers in the hope that she can slip free. The movement pulls the girl’s attention away from the pail and she looks at Ema with eyes that are dull outside the circles of lamplight shining inside.
“But you did.”
Ema laughs, the sound escaping desperately from her mouth as she tries to pull free. “I don’t—”
“Yes, you did.” The girl pulls her close, grabbing her other arm, and runs a smooth, cold tongue over the rivulets of blood weaving over Ema’s skin. This time, Ema does see her swallow. “You do. I can taste you.”
Ema yanks at her hand, feels her bones squeeze together and she doesn’t know if that’s because of her or the girl’s closing grasp. “Let me go!”
“I said you tasted funny,” the girl says, ponderously slow despite the frantic jerks of Ema’s hand in hers. “But it’s better than the water.”
“You haven’t tried seawater, I’m certain it would taste more interesting!” Ema twists and twitches against the girl’s hold on both her arms, but she dangles from the girl’s grip like a wriggling fish.
“Seawater?” Tilted head and errant curls, the girl is a picture of carved virtue. “You said it was dangerous. And isn’t this water the same?”
“But it’s stale, and old. The waves taste different.”
“I don’t need it.” The tongue glides over Ema’s skin again, drops of red against the paleness, and the girl’s fingers dig into the wound in her eagerness. Ema kicks, flails, thrashes against her hold but her feet slide off the hard curve of the girl’s leg or leave her with tears at the pain in her heel and toes.
“Oh, what about these?” Releasing her uninjured arm, the girl leans in close and licks the tears from her eyes. “Hm, you have so many different tastes.”
“Wait, wait,” Ema pants, her breath heavy as she tries to speak, “The sea tastes like my tears. A whole ocean of it.”
The girl finally pauses, looks into Ema’s eyes with more consideration than she’d spared before, and smiles. “I’ll keep you safe on the way down, don’t worry.”
Ema grimaces, but points with her free hand towards the path down the cliffs, its stairs dark under the moon. Her arm throbs with every step, the girl’s hand is still closed around her elbow, smearing her blood over the marble like a stain. Peeking into view, the ocean stretches out a welcoming spread of its own attempt at white-capped stars and whispers up the cliff in a susurrus of waves.
Staring down the switchbacked steps, Ema hesitates at the top. She’d made it down once, when sent in the sleeting rain, and fallen near the bottom. She’d never gone without sunlight since and though she knows the girl’s hold is as solid as the cliffs themselves, she doesn’t wish to test how little the girl knows of human fragility.
“Come,” the girl says and steps down with an unbalanced sway. Ema’s chalky feet brace against the ground as she leans away, her bloody arm slipping free, and she lands hard on her back. Before her instincts can betray her again, she kicks out with enough force to tip a teetering stone over the edge and doesn’t look down from the shreds of clouds above as the night settles into the gentle crash of waves.
The next day, the apprentices’ whispers of a statue’s shards are all she hears as she helps haul the newest block into place.
It’s only when she sits to wash her face that Iulia interrupts the murmuring knot with a sharp frown.
“You little fools, with your talk of thieves and ghosts, seeing faces where there are none. Those pieces were hollow. They may look of marble but they could not have come from our workshop. Worry over your own work, not the misshapen oddities carved by the sea.” The master’s eyes find Ema’s and she thinks for a moment that Iulia knows all. But she merely beckons Ema close, the day’s errands the only matters on her tongue.
“…Be quick about it; he’s already impatient to see our progress,” Iulia finishes, before adding, “The laundry is on the way.”
Ema flushes at the expectant look, murmurs a farewell, and begins her run to and through town. Her feet slow near the laundry, the routine tugging her toward the open door venting steam and bright laughter into the alley between the houses. Angela bends over a wooden tub, face turned away from the work of her hands, and Ema’s heart quickens.
But the sight of eyes and hair so similar only makes her taste marble and fear.
Copyright 2022 Izzy Varju
I’d been in the process of trying to write horror when I saw a piece of art by Shrylia and was inspired to write something based around the idea of Pygmalion and Galatea instead. Maybe that’s why the story took a darker turn than it might’ve otherwise, but it was also around Halloween so it could’ve just been the general spookiness in the air.