The Listener

full beer glass on table

Contrary to popular opinion, it’s a rigorous and demanding art, turning people into statues.

Oh it’s simple to freeze people, I grant you that. It’s not at all complicated to kill a human being by transmuting all their molecules into ice or quartz or marble or whatever. But let’s be honest with ourselves: that’s not art. That’s murder.

Unfortunately, that’s how popular culture paints us: some frigid sorcerer-queen waving a wand and turning a cowering villager or a band of heroes into stone. I’m aware of the Narnia situation and the damage it’s done to all our reputations. Don’t even get me started on the Nome King. First of all, he was making trinkets—knick-knacks, without a shred of shame, like some kind of country craft fair hobbyist. He obviously didn’t care about art at all and it’s an outrage that he’s considered a member of the profession.

But I digress.

I know you appreciate real art. And that means transforming a person from uninterrogated flesh into a new medium, showing their true self as interpreted through our understanding of them. Statues reveal our essential relationships: the maker to the statue, the statue to the unyielding core of the person it was before, the statue-maker to the universal network of human connection and interaction. A sculptor shapes a figure out of a block of stone. A statue-maker—a real one—draws the imperishable essence out of a living figure, finds the limestone or marble or bronze or ice, the unyielding material that lies within their soul. You have to know your subject deeply, intimately. You have to know their contours, internal and external. You have to know them well enough to love them or to know why you don’t. It’s an exacting, punishing craft.

For the artist, I mean.

It’s not about doing away with your enemies. If you just want to kill someone, there are dozens of cheaper, easier ways. Statue-makers aren’t just dramatic assassins. To a true statue-maker, death is a failure.

Oh yes, you heard that correctly. If I’ve done my job properly, no one dies from becoming a statue. They’re just as alive as they are when they’re in their own skin, maybe even more so. They’re fully capable of appreciating the masterpiece they’ve become. But let me be clear: they aren’t immortal except in the artistic sense. See, this is exactly the problem with letting popular culture define our craft.

Have I ever done it to someone I care about? Please. Knowing me as you do, how can you think I would ever withhold that gift?

I made a statue of a lover once, a woman of the minor nobility that I met at a winter carnival. We took each other to bed for about six months. She was one of those pillow talkers, you know the kind I mean? She enjoyed the sex, but what she loved was being stretched out in bed next to another person, pouring her deepest introspections into their ear. I’m not sure why she wasn’t married; I suppose she liked the idea of having edgy flings with itinerant artists, but she would have done better to find someone who enjoyed snuggling up for a confessional. Anyway, I made her while we were in bed together. She didn’t even notice it was happening until it was almost done. I just laid a hand on her hip and said “mm-hmm” at the appropriate points while I watched the stone bloom up her legs and across her belly. She revealed a beautiful creamy marble veined with blush-pink, elegant and intimate. I called the work ‘Heart to Heart’ and I keep her in the winter garden next to my studio. I thought she’d appreciate that, finally being as close to another person as she always wanted to be.

Should we get another round? It’s on me. You’ll want the seasonal ale, I assume. I know you can’t resist a new sensation.

I’m told that the process is mostly painless. There are accounts from a few people who weren’t fully revealed—that’s our term of art, please understand the respect that implies for the subject, for what we do—statues whose makers lost their nerve or were interrupted. They say the physical sensation is like your limbs falling asleep. You just get numb and heavy, except in your mind. Mentally, they all describe a certain feeling. The accounts are so consistent I believe that mindset is actually essential to the process. Just my humble opinion, but it aligns with everything I’ve seen in my own work.

You know that feeling you get when you’ve just had a life-changing realization, but the implications haven’t sunk in yet? The moment when you remember you did leave the oven on, when you see the child’s bicycle slumped alone against the bridge rail, when you realize it isn’t just a funny coincidence that your father and your lover’s father have the same name? That frozen feeling. For a second everything stops: you don’t breathe, you don’t blink, sounds recede, your eyes focus on a fixed point, your muscles seize and even your blood seems to hold up. That’s the moment I’m looking for. That’s the revelation I catch my subjects in.

You say: what a terrifying moment to be trapped in forever! I say: how amazing is it that an artist can capture that moment of perfect vulnerability? I assume my subjects don’t keep feeling that way. I like to imagine they experience a briefly horrifying revelation followed by wonder and finally a deep serenity as they accept that this is who they always were. An inner evolution that eventually aligns with the outer transformation, if you will.

So how does it actually work? I figured you’d ask. Well, for instance: how long have we been meeting up at this bar? Two years? Every other Friday, give or take a few, you and me here at this table for a couple of pints and the kind of conversation we can’t get in our usual circles. I’ve actually been coming here longer than that—you remember, that’s how we met in the first place, trying to choke down that awful fall seasonal the year the brewer’s niece was “in residence.” Anyway, the point is I know this place well.

The barkeep who works Fridays is a personal friend; I actually got invited to her birthday last year, but I was out of town on business. She lives down in the grittier part of the Palisade near the open-air market with her sister’s family. She likes the gig here, although she’s always toying with going to school or taking an apprenticeship, something that will give her a stable income with better hours. She won’t do it, though. I think that’s more her sister’s dream for her than it is hers, you know? She feeds off the novelty here. She lives for meeting new people, hearing stories she hasn’t heard before, taking small acceptable risks.

I know her almost enough to make a statue of her. I’d want to take her away for a weekend, see what she shows me of herself just after she wakes up, when she’s a little sore and tired, when she’s hungry. Then I could draw her out of herself anywhere. I’d lay a hand on her bare skin—her wrist maybe, just like this, or if we’d been a little more intimate maybe her shoulders, like I was about to give a massage. And I’d feel for a sort of firm tension running under her skin. Smooth or textured, rough like pumice or a whisper of cold like ice, waiting. Just waiting.

Or take those two, our favorite regulars. Regular disasters, like you always say. We’ve heard them argue and slur over each other’s words for a year or more, telling the whole bar all their secrets and weaknesses. It doesn’t take much effort to know them intimately. Vices like alcohol are frustrating to a true statue-maker; they strip so much out of a person it’s hard to reveal any vivid truth. They always come out looking like they’ve been topping a grave for five hundred years: weathered, pockmarked, all the vital details worn away. So those two wouldn’t be satisfying, exactly, but I could do them, no trouble at all. Sling an arm around their quibbling shoulders, find that waiting potential, and just draw it toward my fingertips. Once the bloom begins—sorry, technical term again, once you can see the skin changing—it has its own momentum. It’ll continue unless I lose contact.

Or you. For two years we’ve been sharing confidences, discussing philosophy and current events, telling stories about our lives. I’m actually surprised we haven’t had this conversation before, although I understand now that you thought I was a more mundane sculptor until recently. We’ve spent hundreds of hours together. We’ve shared the kind of secrets that you can only exchange with someone to whom you owe nothing: no filial duty or family tie, no bond of love or hierarchy of power. Either of us could have decided never to see the other again. It wouldn’t even have needed a conversation; all we would have had to do is just not show up at this table, in this place, at this time. But we did show up. We chose to be here with each other. Everything I know about you comes from what you chose to share with me.

You chose to tell me about your family: your parents who love you vaguely but have a hard time looking past their own immediate needs, your brother whom everyone likes but no one respects, your status-conscious sister and her ghost husband who is always coming home just after he finishes that next important contract. You trusted me with other things, too: with that recurring dream you have of coming to a party but no one can remember who you are or where they know you from. With your struggle to feel valued at work, or rather to demonstrate your value versus your louder, more assertive colleagues. With your abiding love for cheap fried noodles drowned in soy sauce.

You showed me truths about yourself when you told me these things. Just like you showed me that you’re looking for a partner who will be able to see what’s worth loving in your family but who won’t fall for them more than they fall for you. You’ve told me about your past lovers—I’ve watched the last few come and go myself—and I see how you cherish them as long as they move at the pace you want, neither slower nor faster. We should talk about that sometime, because I think you make yourself unhappy by assuming that any disappointed expectation is the beginning of an irreversible trend. But not right now.

See what I mean? I could write a book about you. That’s how well you have to know someone if you want to make a truly representative statue. Of course, you don’t have to sit with someone in a pub every other week for two years to get to this point. My clients usually hand me a dossier of information and I do my own personal reconnaissance after that. What I want people to understand is how much effort, time, and passion it takes to reveal the purest representation of a person to the world. To themselves.

I can see you’re a little taken aback by how honest I’m being. It’s a mark of my respect for you. I want you to really understand it, what my art is about. You have so many qualities that drew me to you, but especially your capacity for listening, your desire to understand. You always ask good questions that cut right to the heart of an issue. Even when you’re talking to someone you don’t know, some tipsy traveler who invites herself to our table and dribbles her drink across your sleeve, you have a way about you. You lean forward, just like that, hands cupped around your own glass, head tilted with just the tiniest inquisitorial furrow in your brow and the hint of a fascinated smile dancing around your lips. You’re a natural listener. Everyone who talks to you knows they’re being heard.

This is the statue I’d make of you, just as you are right now. Right on the verge of figuring out something important, maybe not something you’ll enjoy knowing, but you can’t stop engaging. The desire to make a connection radiating out of you, almost as tangible as the soapstone splashes blooming on your wrists and forearms. No, don’t move now. This is just how I pictured you. Here, let me set your hands back around your glass a little more comfortably. Just as I suspected, you are carrying the most beautiful stone beneath your skin, crisp enough to render every little detail of your posture and expression, so silky that no one will be able to resist brushing their hand across your shoulder, your fingers, the nape of your neck as they sit down to tell you all their secrets.

Now you understand the feeling I was talking about, don’t you? That imminence—knowing that an irreversible thing has happened, but it’s still too soon to process what it really means. I was planning to wait until the end of the year, but you asked me about statue-making tonight and whether I ever take on personal projects, and your face was too perfect just now to resist. An artist has to seize the moment when they see it. I know you understand.

You don’t have to say anything. In fact, it’ll be hard for you talk in a few seconds, and I don’t think either of us want you immortalized with your mouth open.

I’ve seen how you yearn to be essential to others. You want people to tell you their secrets—not so you can own secrets, but because you want to be seen as a trusted repository. You want people to tell you about their lives because you’re genuinely curious, but also because you want their eyes on you, their hearts drifting into your hands. You’re an excellent listener, a natural attender to others, but you don’t value that for itself.

You’re the perfect listener now. One look and anyone would know you’re good for a secret. They won’t be able to resist approaching, won’t be able to take their eyes off the blue and amber planes of your body, those tones that seem to glow with their own warmth in this dim lighting. You’re the friend we all come to the bar to find, the one who’s always there, always has an open ear, never judges.

There. Quick as that, and I’ve made a work of art that reveals your essential self and creates space for future conversation. That’s what true mastery is. That’s why my clients pay so well and clamor for a spot on my waiting list. No sorcerer-queen would take this kind of time with you. The Nome King would have turned you into a sappy poodle figurine and forgotten to dust you. I’ve put you somewhere you’ll always be valued and you’ll never be ignored. Anyone who comes in this bar can see your true self now, and they’ll find it irresistible.

Oh, and don’t worry that I’ll abandon you either. I could never. Others can see it now, but you were my Listener first and always. I’ll see you Friday after next, usual time, right here at our usual table. I’ll make the conversation and together, we’ll make art.

Copyright 2022 R.E. Dukalsky

Photo by Elevate on Unsplash

Story notes

As a child, I was always transfixed by the parts of stories where villains transformed beloved characters (or the loved ones of beloved characters) into statues. The idea of being conscious, present, and yet unable to act felt worse somehow than whatever happened to the (active) protagonist. Years later, I was thinking about what a recurrent theme this is in classical children’s fantasy when the voice of the narrator, an artist who does this kind of work for a living, leapt into my head. I’m both horrified and fascinated by someone who deliberately robs people of their agency, calls it art, and genuinely believes that his victims/clients end up grateful to be eternally preserved the way he chooses to see them.

R.E. Dukalsky

R.E. Dukalsky writes speculative fiction about memory, change, conflict and what happens afterward. She has been told that she has School House Rock charm and that she would make an excellent rebel leader, among other dubious accolades. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and perpetually needs more bookshelves. You can follow her on Twitter @tiltingwindward.

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