Still Life

Adam Stemple

           

 

            The cathedral loomed over the wide Edinburgh street, its gothic architecture all vaults and spires, gargoyles and chimeras. Despite its foreboding presence, it went largely unnoticed by the passing crowd more intent on revelry than reverence. I felt an affinity with the old building. We shared the same corner, standing stock still, waiting for the fickle Fringe-goers to drop their coins into our collection plates.

            Today, I was Rodin’s Thinker. Fist on chin, right elbow and left forearm sharing my left knee, bare feet at slightly different elevations as I sat forward on my small wooden stool. My skin was darkened to bronze with theatrical make-up; bicycle shorts the same color gave the illusion of nudity.

            I was immobile.

            “Wow. Is he real, Mum?”

            “Don’t touch him!”

            “Think he’ll move if I do?”

            “I said no!”

            A few coins clinked into my cup.

            Unlike some in the living statue craft, I never went for the cheap laugh, jumping out at tourists after mere minutes of stillness. I never broke for the bathroom or lunch or tea — if it was daylight during the Fringe, I was a statue on High Street. And I never thanked the punters for dropping coins into my cup. Breaking character for a mere 50p?

            Not me.

            “Take my picture with him, Jimbo. Wait, wait, OK, now!”

            Click. The jingle of more coins.

            I learned stillness young, like a rabbit freezing in the tall grass, predators soaring overhead or slithering along the ground. Or living in your house. My reflexes were to freeze, though my father would have preferred fight, my mother, flight. Those were certainly their tendencies.

            Sometimes, I thought I was part stone. I’d have to be.

            “Olé, olé, olé, olé…”

            Football supporters.

            “Oy! Look at the git in the shorts.”

            From the south.

            “Think he’ll move if we tip him over?”

            “You tip him. I’ll piss on his head!”

            Real original thinkers, too.

            “All right lads. Move along.”

            Enter the constabulary.

            “Bloody pols.”

            Police 1. Arsenal 0.

            The shadows were stretching all the way across the street now, just tickling my feet, and I knew the day didn’t have much left to it. These were the hard minutes, fighting the shakes and twitches that had been building all day.

            One of the shadows broke away. A long thin silhouette. The shadow’s owner took a position behind my right shoulder, unseen unless I turned my head sharply.

            Obviously, I didn’t.

            “I have been watching you.” The voice was old, graveled, but it triggered a memory from my childhood: a dark corner where my father never looked, an unseen voice soothing me, “Be still, child. Be still and it will be all right.”

            It was not the same voice, but it was of a type.

            A lot of people have been watching me, I thought, unsettled by the memory, though it had not been an unpleasant one. And most of them were polite enough to toss a few pence into the cup.

            The shadow rejoined its fellows as the speaker returned to the crowd. As the sun ducked out of sight, I creaked and popped to an upright position, took my tip jar, and headed home. The Shadow and the crowd were long gone.

 

            A few days later and I was on to my second pose of the festival, a standing one this time. I was Michelangelo’s David, anxious about his coming battle, left knee cocked, right arm almost straight at my side, left hand holding an imaginary slingshot over my shoulder. My hair was curled into Grecian ringlets. I was alabaster from head to toe.

            “Feck’s sake, look at ‘im. Is he naked?”

            “Cover the wee ones’ eyes!”

            “Christ, the flippin’ Fringe.”

            I wasn’t naked. But the illusion was, shall we say, alarming. And my take was down, accordingly.

            “Ooh. Nice body on that one, eh Lizzie?”

            “Give him a few bob then, why don’t ye?”

            Clink. Some patrons of the arts still out there, it seemed. If they’d been with the World Living Statues Championship in Holland, maybe I wouldn’t have had my title stripped for being a “poor ambassador of the art form.”

            Enough, I thought. Don’t obsess over past grievances. Don’t worry about individual reactions. Just. Be. Still.

            Then, with the sun once more sending shadows slanting across the cobblestones, The Voice again.

            “I have been watching you.” Old and cold. It went on this time. “You understand stillness. But do you understand stone?”

            No pleasant memories accompanied it this time.

            I understand you’re a cheap bastard, I answered silently. I couldn’t help myself.

            Shadows merged. Footsteps faded. I was alone.

        

            I played out the David saga over the next two days. Bernini’s David, lips thin and determined, body twisted, having just released the sling’s stone; then Donatello’s post-1432 David, cockier than the others, perhaps because his foot rested upon the severed head of Goliath. Continuing in the same vein, I followed with Cellini’s Perseus, right hand holding the head of Medusa aloft, before going in the other direction completely with Vecchietta’s Christ Risen.

            With each new pose, I could feel myself closer to the ideal. Breathing slowed, eyes blinked rarely, heartbeats grew separate and weak. And when breath was too soft to mist a mirror, when I couldn’t remember the last time I’d blinked, when I could no longer feel the imminent tremors and pain — then I would make the attempt. I would stop my breath, freeze my eyelids open…

            And try to stop my heart.

            Then for one brief moment, between one beat of that treacherous organ and the next, I would be completely, perfectly, still.

            Until the next heart beat.

            The next breath.

            The next blink of an eye.

            And at night, as I lay in my bed, I asked myself, I understand stillness, but do I understand stone?

 

           On the eve of the final day of the Fringe, the image of my father’s gravestone came to me, as solid and serene as the man never was, and an inspiration for the profession he had unthinkingly beaten into me. But had he? Had he given me my profession? The voice from my childhood came back again, and this time I recalled a single cold finger touching my chest.

            Be still, child.

            It couldn’t have happened this way, but suddenly I had a clear memory of a sliver of cold breaking loose from that stony finger and lodging in my young chest.

 

            The final day of the Fringe came and I was a doomed saint. The Execution of John the Baptist was a tricky pose: half-crouched, torso twisted, head turned back over my shoulder. I was practically inviting cramps and seizures. But it was worth it. This Fringe had been a journey toward true stillness, the closest I’d come. And I’d brought the crowds with me. There were no more snide comments, no more threats. Just awed silence and the soft clink of coins. To end with a simple pose would be a disservice to them, to me, and to the art itself.

            Saint John spent the day waiting for the headsman’s axe; I spent it waiting for The Voice. It came at sunset.

            “I have been watching you.”

            I know.

            “Do you yet understand stone?”

            I thought about the cathedral towering behind me. It was the true stone on this corner: immovable, unchanging.

            Unchanging? I resisted the urge to turn my head the few inches necessary to see the cathedral. There was no need; I knew how weathered and worn it was. In my mind’s eye I could see how the years had softened its lines, blunted its spires, drawn tracks in its ancient stone walls. How very different it was from the rough rock dug from the ground! And after being carved and set in place, did it not keep mutating, though its speed was imperceptible to the eye?

            I finally had an answer for The Voice.

            Stone is immobile but not immutable.

            “Yes! Never moving, ever changing.”

            I nearly leapt from my pose. Nearly.

            “Meet me tonight,” The Voice rasped. “Behind the cathedral. After the moon goes down.”           

            My heart beat fast but unnoticed beneath the folds of my toga. My breath quickened, but my chest stayed firm. Ten minutes remained till sundown.

            I kept still.

 

            I lay sleepless in bed, staring out my window as the stars began their slow march across the heavens.

            Had The Voice really read my mind?

            It had certainly seemed so. But it would be dangerous folly to meet a total stranger behind a deserted cathedral in the dead of night.

            Never moving, ever changing.

            The moon made its entrance, robbing the stars of their brilliance. I tracked its passage across the night sky and when it just touched the horizon, I rose.

            I dressed, slipped down the steps, and was on the street. A slow walk to Princes Street Gardens, passing the piked stone monolith of the Scott Memorial darker black against the night sky. Then up the long stone stairs to the Royal Mile. High Street was abandoned. The echoes of my footsteps in the soft silent night air brought with them the memory of my father’s footsteps in the hall, after he’d locked the dog in the basement, sent my mom to the store. I was frozen in my room, listening to his approach, trying to stay so still I would disappear.

            Be still, child. Be still and it will be all right.

            And the soothing voice had been right. Eventually. My father was a force of nature, a wild storm of a man. But like a stone, I weathered him. And eventually, he battered himself to death on the rock face of my stillness.

            The thought of myself as a stone buoyed me. No longer weighted down by memories and regret, I quickened my pace. The moon disappeared behind the hills just as the cathedral rose from the darkness. I circled towards the rear, through an iron gate, and into a walled courtyard of old graves. Shadows and silence greeted me. Then…

            “You came,” said The Voice.

            This time, I spun around. Scanning the darkness, my eyes came to rest on a squat figure standing by the cathedral wall. Gray and still, almost a part of the building.
           I nodded. The figure took a slow step forward. I could see now it wore a voluminous cloak with a Benedictine cowl that covered its face with blackness. I took a step back, my earlier buoyancy making a swift and cowardly exit.

            “I have an offer,” rasped The Voice.

            I didn’t want to hear any offer. I wanted to be back home in my bed.

            “I offer you stone.”

            The Voice took another step forward but I held my ground this time. What terror could this creature hold that I couldn’t stand before? I was sure to have been still in the face of worse.

            Be still, child.

            My body was a rock as my eyes tried to pierce the darkness in the shadowed folds of the cowl.

            “True stillness,” The Voice continued. “The silence of centuries.”

            Be still, and it will be all right.

            One more step, and I could almost discern features beneath the hood. But their alignment added up to something I wasn’t ready to accept.

            “I offer you the passage of time as a furrow the wind carves in your cheek,” said The Voice, low and slow.

            Be still.

            They were not the same voice, but they were of a type. Somehow, this hooded apparition was linked to the voice from my childhood. Linked to me.

            It was just yards away now, the shadows clearing from its face.

            “And what do you want in return?” My voice sounded thin and fearful compared to their basso profundo confidence.

            The Voice lifted unnaturally long fingers to its hood and pulled it back.

            Beautiful.

            She was gray and worn, with lichen spotting her cheeks. Canines, dulled by centuries of wind and rain, still extended well past her cracked lips. She threw off her cloak, revealing broad veined wings. She spread them out, pumping them in the still air. I felt the rush of wind on my face. It smelled of rough-hewn boulders and hidden caverns deep below the earth.

            “Companionship,” she said. Folding her wings, she leapt forward, landing catlike on all fours in front of me. “Even stone gets weary of being alone.” She sat back on her haunches and ran a taloned finger down my jawline.

            I searched her eyes for a spark, a glint. There was nothing. Eyelids, iris, pupil–all stone. The passage of time as a furrow the wind carves in your cheek…

            I nodded to her. “Yes.”

            “Then be still.”

            Be still, said the voice in my memory.

            I froze as still as I’d ever been. Stiller than the frightened child. Stiller than the broken youth. Stiller than the lonely man.

            She placed a heavy stone paw on my chest. I heard the snick of claws extending and felt five sharp points pierce my skin.

            She locked her stone eyes onto mine. “Be still.”

            Then she raked her claw slowly down my chest and I could feel my skin peeling away. The pain was immense yet somehow I knew moving would mean my death.

            I kept still.

            My chest open, I felt her paw on my sternum, then my ribs, and through the haze of agony I felt her forcing herself through. I swallowed a scream as she touched my heart.

            Hot pain turned cold as the one part of me I’d never been able to fully control finally stopped. And did not restart.

            “Look,” she said.

            I looked down at my bleeding torso and saw gray spreading from my quiet heart outward, ribs petrifying one by one. I felt hips, legs, arms, all turn from bone to stone. My flesh curled away like paper before a flame and granite grew in its place. She released me, and I fell forward onto hard knuckles, felt my shoulder blades crack and split as wings sprouted from my back, creaking and groaning.

            Then silence.

           I spread my wings gingerly, feeling the wind breathe across them.

           She sheathed her claws. “Come.”

            She leapt toward the cathedral and I followed, stone wings defying gravity and dragging my new bulk high into the air. We alit close together and settled against the cool wall. Stone on stone, my eyes ground in their sockets as I looked her way, admiring the strong lines of her feline form, wings half-folded, predatory grin on her long face.

            Be still, child.

            I was still. But not for fear and not for my father. I was still for her and for myself and for what I had been transformed into.

 

            Moments passed, or possibly years, as there was darkness and light and the cold touch of snow on forehead, the blaze of summer sun on my face. The damp ground scent of spring filled my nostrils and the sweet rot of autumn, too. I saw the stars shift in the night sky and the moon flash past, taking its Sisyphean journey around the earth. Then, bitter rainwater sluicing through my mouth to the street below, I hear her call to me again.

            Reluctantly, I move.

 

 

“Still Life” © Adam Stemple, first published on Hallowe’en, October 31, 2019, here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores
Adam Stemple is an award-winning author of fantasy and fiction. He can be
found online at adamstemple.com.

 

Illustration by Fran Eisemann stock used public domain and creative commons images.

You can comment on this story and podcast at The Forums
You can Subscribe to receive notifications on future publications,
and to help us bring you more stories, artwork, podcasts, and articles.