Stone Eyes

STONE EYES

by Tanner Britton

Approx. 2,600 words


Insatiable in love, as in work, he allowed time to move on without him. Days and nights were spent alone, chasing and chasing without anyone to show the old artist what was passing him by. It was just as well, because if Ashley Castillo had ever looked up from his work, he may never have again looked down to finish what he had started.


Ashley was not a driven man in the sense that his goals were always well-defined, but more-so in that he was completely obsessed with his work and had fallen into the trappings of concentration that plague the passionate and disassociated. 


For the better of thirty-one years, he had labored as a sculptor in a small studio within the scrubby outskirts of Taos, New Mexico. And although he usually stayed close to his workshop, his sculptures had taken him around the world to fantastic destinations. Among these, the ancient thoroughfares of Bath in the U.K. and the oozing structures of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona were his favorites; not just for the their histories of turning stone into masterpieces, but also for their vivacity in the preservation of their culture. By comparison, Taos was rather lethargic about its legacy. 

But the Southwest had permeated Ashley’s imagination, and because he had made his living working with stone, it made sense to him that he should live in the New Mexican desert; a perfect setting in which geology dominated the landscape.


Grey slate had been laid to form Ashley’s studio floor and the walls were fitted with cream-colored slabs of alabaster. This made his studio inviting and perfect for concentration, but also left the workshop emotionally sterile. Like an athlete that had toned their body for a specific task, all superfluous things had been removed from Ashley’s environment. Direct sunlight shone down from a large central skylight to illuminate Ashley’s workspace.  The natural light-source was zesty, direct, dramatic, and its warmth brought a comfortable inspiration to his work. But on the rare days when the sunlight was diffused by overcasted skies, his sculptures were lit in a soft, even, and useful manner. Shadows and highlights became fluid in their transitions, and all of a statue’s flaws were revealed to the master sculptor. 


Today was such a day and rain softly patted on the skylight above a half-finished sculpture of Shakespeare’s mythic king, Macbeth. The statue, once completed, was destined for a new theater under construction in Perth, Australia. After visiting the theater’s raw steel skeleton, and finding its architecture agreeable, Ashley was confident in Macbeth’s larger-than-life scale and believed the sculpture’s classical composition would contrast sufficiently with trendy modernist ideals that current architects seem so beholden to.   


The old artist shuffled into his workshop with a tray that carried a hand-made coffee mug, a decanter of milk, and a stainless steel carafe, and placed it on the studio’s well-used sculpting table. Calloused hands added milk to dark coffee. He enjoyed the habits of the morning and admired how the rough form of Macbeth emerged from the marble base, waiting to be further revealed. Ashley set his coffee down and retrieved a roll of blue painter’s tape. Around the statue he went, tearing and sticking small cerulean squares to the amalgamation of stone and human anatomy. A cloudy day was a gift, and as such, not to be wasted.


Now that the first cup of coffee had been finished and his statue was sufficiently critiqued, Ashley poured himself another cup of aromatic dark roast. Even when the hours were long and he had forgotten to eat or drink, there was no one to insist on his well-being. His body had suffered for this and, while he was not malnourished, his skin was stretched tight on its frame and many of the normal wounds a stone-worker receives had healed into obvious scars. So entirely alone, Ashley again laced his coffee with milk and set his mind to the day’s work.


A gallery of stone spectators watched the old man make precise subtractions from Macbeth’s lower torso with a hammer and toothed chisel. Once enough material had been removed, the microscopic flecks of stone —kicked up into the air by his activity— shimmered in the sunshine emanating from the skylight. The cinematic beauty of Ashley’s work would have been coveted by a filmmaker or photographer, but no other creator had entered Ashley’s studio for over a decade, and the hermetic man had no intention of making an exception. 


Months, marked by gallons of coffee and pounds of white dust passed, and the King Macbeth was nearly finished. It was on all accounts a masterful work of sculpture. Ashley sat down the rasper he had been using to smooth out the slightly malformed calf of Macbeth’s left leg and surveyed the stone as it was: raw material shaped and honed into a series of concepts that, when perceived as whole, created the illusion of life and emotion. 


Macbeth gazed down at Ashley with the eyes the master carver had created for him. Ashley stared back. He wondered if he had meant to give his creation such a forlorn look. For inspiration, he had after all, taken Macbeth’s own dialogue to guide his process: 


“I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” 


“Does this expression not fit?” He wondered to himself and he stepped back further to observe the statue’s complete gesture.  


Macbeth’s bare feet stood on a marble pedestal of the classic style. The geometry of his stance denoted strength and grace, and Ashley believed he had captured the subtle way a jaguar stored energy in its paws before pouncing on its prey. 


A traditional Scottish kilt stopped above a set of crisp knees and covered the thighs and groin.  Ashley had studied the old Scottish cloth thoroughly, and not only had he succeeded by carving the correct plaid pattern into the stone, but had also added a fine texture that mimicked the genuine material. The kilt stopped below Macbeth’s navel and the King’s naked torso implied that a set of well-formed muscles lie just beneath the surface of ivory flesh. Ashley did not need to overemphasize these muscles to create the desired effect of beauty —the piece of stone he had so carefully selected would see to that— and Ashley believed he had successfully sculpted the strong body of the mythic warrior-king. 


Macbeth’s left hand rested on his hip bone. In his right, Macbeth held aloft an ornate crown that was both enticing and sinister. The King’s shoulders were tensed and the stress of Macbeth’s situation had been carved into visible veins that protruded from his stout neck. The pose of the sculpture’s body told the story of the character, but the statue’s face was the only feature that could truly convey emotion. 


A strong, clean, jawline had been cut at a precise angle. Important aspects of the face were symmetrical to minute fractions. The nose was square, long, and elegant. But what really breathed life into the statue were Macbeth’s grand stone eyes. These eyes contemplated the crown in Macbeth’s hand with persecution and despair. Ashley wanted to capture the exact moment in which Macbeth had lost his humanity, and he believed he had. 


Now when the sculptor stood below his creation in the correct position, it looked as if Macbeth stared into the observer, pulling and prodding to draw out the same emotions that had been preserved in his gaze. Ashley stared into these stone eyes and became lost in their implication of guilt, fear, loss, and of course, regret. Then something akin to a sudden sadness found its way into Ashley’s old heart; he realized the eyes of his creation were his own.


The hurtful feeling spiraled deeper into his mind and crystalized into hard frustration across his breast.  He knelt on the floor at the base of Macbeth, supporting himself with one hand on the King’s foot. 


“I am in blood stepped in so far…” 


The poetry echoed through him. Earnest tears overflowed from his eyes and mixed with the leftover stone dust on the tiled floor, looking not unlike white-speckled fungi had sprouted from the dark stone. In seeking comfort, Ashley looked to his other creations for hope in their expressions. A Madonna and Child, a famous actor whose beauty had been preserved, a Norse shield maiden and her mate. He believed surely one of his creations would convey joy or inspiration or love within their eyes, but all were the same in their look of awful loneliness. He had sculpted each with the same expression, and each had the same eyes that he knew were his own. But this realization of how truly lonely he was had come too late. 


He was nearing fifty-four quickly and had no prospects of a family other than his stone creations. Fear took over as an opaque emotion, and without extraneous thought, he took up his hammer and chisel from where they rested on the ancient work table and set about destroying his creations. 

Hollow eyes were chiseled out with satisfying strikes and limbs were separated at joints to ruthless effect. Stone shattered on the floor as priceless works fell from their pedestals and the once exquisite sculptures returned to rough, meaningless shapes as they had been in nature. This maelstrom continued until the entire studio had become littered in the refuse of the stone-carver’s cruel and destructive work. 


It was in the early hours of dawn when exhaustion finally overtook Ashley. He returned to the base of Macbeth’s untouched figure and his sobbing resolved into heavy breaths. The hammer and chisel were cast aside and without reflection on his deeds, Ashley laid his head against the cool stone tiles and quietly fell asleep. 


The next morning, Ashley sat up and surveyed the damage.  He found himself in shock at the amount of work he had destroyed during his fit of frustration, but the grasp of remorse did not squeeze his heart; instead a lightness lifted him off his feet in a way he hadn’t felt in years. From his face, he wiped the marble dust that had accumulated throughout yesterday’s transgressions, and standing upon two sturdy legs, he looked up into Macbeth’s eyes. The King’s permanent expression persisted, but now it had no power over Ashley. Now that the statue existed on its own, and no other faces remained for his expression to feedback upon, Macbeth’s gaze returned to being his alone. 


Ashley worked as he normally did for a week and in this time, Macbeth was finished.


“A perfect sculpture amongst the ruins of a squandered life.” Ashley thought to himself while examining the studio he had yet to clean up from the night of broken stone. But his great King was finished and he sipped his coffee with a glimmer of pride for his creation. That evening and the following day, he removed the broken sculptures and cleaned his studio to clinical standards. He marveled at how sparse his workshop looked with only a single, solitary figure in its center, but was satisfied for the first time in years. After the long day, Ashley allowed himself to retire to a seldom-used bed and slept without dreams nor distress. 


Another day came. Ashley stood his studio wearing a finely made silk jacket and floral-patterned tie. The clouds were thick in the sky and a rare sprig of rain dampened his home, speckling raindrops onto his skylight. The shadows of these droplets casted grey jaguar spots across Macbeth’s face and naked torso. He anticipated the arrival of a representative from the Perth Theater that day, and wanted to remind himself of Macbeth’s finer details before their meeting. The craftsman ran his fingers over finely carved planes and strove to remember every ounce of stone that he had removed.  And then all at once, the doorbell announced a rare visitor to the studio and Ashley opened the old front door to a bristling Australian woman in her late forties.


“Hello, Mr. Castillo. My name is Jacqueline Wright.” Her accent tickled Ashley’s ears.

“It’s a pleasure to be able to work with you.” She extended a hand in friendly gesture. Her eyes shone brightly, and despite Jacqueline’s age, Ashley saw only wonder and intelligence in her expression. 


“The pleasure’s all mine…” his voice was dusty and felt like an unused muscle. “…and please, call me Ashley.” He shook her hand and invited her into his home. 

 

Later that night, after Jacqueline had scrutinized and ultimately complimented the quality of Ashley’s work, their conversation evaporated the afternoon into evening. After they said goodnight and the old oak front door closed against the desert moonlight, a new obsession developed in Ashley’s mind. 


The sculptor sat alone at his work table in front of fresh block of rustic brown clay. Next to the three-dimensional canvas, he neatly placed a variety of wired tools and took to creating the clay reference model for his next sculpture. The profile of a woman’s face took shape quickly. A perfect brow, a wonderfully curved nose, delicate lips with attractive wrinkles at their edges; all were drawn out from the clay block and brought to life. 


And then Ashley’s hands paused. 


He stared at the incomplete face for a ladened moment and then deciding that his direction was correct, adeptly sculpted Jacqueline’s resplendent green eyes. Within those delicate clay curves, he captured her personality and the hope in her expression rejuvenated him. As what was typical for Ashley, he fell asleep in the early hours of the morning hunched over his worktable with a tool in his hand. 


A sunny morning shone through the windows of an artist’s humble kitchen. A fresh cup of coffee waited for an addition to make it tolerable to drink. The milk had already rested on the countertop, but Ashley had spent the last five minutes scouring the many cabinets for a specific bottle of alcohol that had been recently gifted to him. 


“Hey Jacqueline… Hi Jacqueline… Hey! It’s Ashley… Would you want to go out with me before you leave?” His voice was losing its gravel, so he continued to rehearse. 


“Would you like to get dinner with me sometime?” He spoke softly to himself while rummaging through miscellaneous kitchen accoutrement . 


Finally, he found the estranged bottle of Irish cream behind a set of festive plates and pulled open the sealed cap. Milk and alcohol swirled about together in the fresh cup of coffee. He smirked and took a large swig of the sweetened lukewarm liquid. The alcohol was mild, but the burn in his mouth was exciting and the warmth it caused in his chest removed the anxiety he had about speaking again to Jacqueline. 


He stepped through a sliding door from his kitchen and onto a small exterior patio. It was the first time in a year he had been outside for pleasure and laughed at how thoroughly he had neglected the upkeep of his backyard; indicated by the minute flora that crisscrossed between the cracks in the concrete tiles. 


“Well, something new to work on between sculptures.” He thought while smelling the fresh desert air. Ashley smiled and finished the last splash of spiked coffee in his mug. He retrieved an ancient cellphone from where it was buried in his hoodie’s middle pocket. Each keystroke was a little shock of nervous excitement. After a few heavy rings, the call connected and Jacqueline’s wonderful voice danced in his ear.


THE END

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