“WANT TO SEE SOMETHING that will change your life?”
Felix was looking over his wire-rimmed spectacles at me with an intent, piercing stare. I grinned, and took another swig from my beer.
The wrinkles of his face behind his shaggy grey beard folded into a sly, amused smile, and, with a grunt, he heaved himself up from his chair on the porch. “Then let’s go.”
I’ve known Felix for years: ever since I first picked up the tools of my trade, in fact. Felix is a sculptor too. I suppose you could say he’s been kind of a mentor to me, and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be half the artist I am now. Anything I know about my craft that’s worth knowing I got from Felix. These days we meet up every couple of weeks to drink a few beers, shoot the breeze and wax philosophical about anything and everything. When Felix has something to show me, I know I’m in for a treat.
We trudged through his old house, a warm little nest of a place filled with throw rugs and curios, and Felix led me down into his basement. It was as black as pitch down there, but Felix took me down through the darkness and stood me carefully in a particular spot before turning on the lights.
People usually don’t mean it literally when they say something took their breath away, but I must have stood there simply starting for at least a full minute before I realized I’d forgotten to breathe. Held in a delicate spiderweb of thin steel wires were a number of white marble fragments, each exquisitely capturing a part of a woman’s form: here a tremulous hand, there the soft sensuous curve of the sweep of the back of the neck; a naked ankle, an exposed breast. The wires held each broken fragment in its correct anatomical position, so the overall impression was that of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle, formed as much by empty space and imagination as by the isolated shapes that hung in the empty air.
“Well?” Felix grinned impishly. “What do you think?”
I was utterly spellbound, my attention held fast by this remarkable creation as securely as the stone pieces were by the wires. I had never before seen stone worked as finely as this – it was as if every pore of the skin lived and breathed, as if at any second the figure would sigh and turn away.
I struggled to find the words to express what I was feeling. Felix chuckled to himself.
“She’s quite something, isn’t she?” Felix had a gift for understatement.
“She’s… mesmerizing.” I moved closer, walking around the pieces to examine them more closely in their individual pools of light. “Where on earth did you get her?” Skilled as Felix was, work of this unsurpassed quality could not have been his.
“Here and there.” He looked like the cat that got the cream. “I’ve been slowly tracking down the fragments over the years. In a way, you could say she has been my life’s work.”
I stood eye to eye with the shard of sculpted face: an exquisite eye, framed in a rough triangle of brow and cheek, the first blossoming of the swell of her lips, which abruptly sheared off into nothing, like the memory of a stolen, illicit kiss. “I don’t understand. Why have you never shown me this before?”
“I wanted you to see the whole. Well, as much of a whole as I could manage. I’ve encountered her slowly, made her acquaintance one part at a time – found a sliver of shoulder in a barn in Hamburg, a section of hip in a private collection in Taiwan – I fell in love with her piecemeal. I wanted to see what her impact would be when viewed as a single figure.”
“I’ve never seen anything like her. She’s in a league of her own.”
He gave an excited little clap of his hands. “Isn’t she? I knew you’d appreciate her.”
“You’d have to be blind not to.”
He burst out laughing at this. “You’re more perceptive than you know.”
“So what’s the story behind her? Who’s the sculptor? Why is she in pieces like this? Come on, Felix, you can’t keep this to yourself.”
“The story is almost as remarkable as the work itself. I don’t know for sure how much of it is true and how much is exaggeration and conjecture.
“The artist’s name is Edgar Cayce, born sometime in the early eighteen hundreds. He was a peasant, back when there still were such things, but apparently self-educated to a very high standard. He was an itinerant stonemason who eked out a living wandering from place to place repairing and maintaining churches.”
“Oh, it gets better. He only took up sculpting proper in later life, after he lost his sight.”
“You mean he was blind?”
The sculpture seemed more alive than ever, the shining stone an impossible reflection of the darkness it had been born from.
“But how is that possible? To create something like this without even eyes to see it?”
“Nobody knows. Cayce kept his methods a closely guarded secret. This is the only full human form he ever produced. The subject is his wife, Lillith. Apparently she disappeared not long after the sculpture was completed.”
The void between the floating pieces seemed to sing with suggestions of the form it had once contained.
“What happened to it?”
Felix shrugged. “Smashed to pieces. Cayce did it himself. The fragments you see here are all that remains, rescued by someone who didn’t recognize their true value but just sold them on to anyone who seemed interested. Since then they’ve languished half-forgotten in drawers or even outhouses, with a few notable exceptions – the face, hand and ankle – which were squirreled away by private collectors from all corners of the globe.” He chuckled. “Yeah, she’s led me a merry dance over the years. And cost me more money than I care to count.”
“But worth every penny.”
“And then some.”
We both lapsed back into appreciative silence in the pristine stillness of that small, darkened room.
Felix knows me better than anyone else – maybe even better than I know myself – and he was absolutely right: she did change my life. His obsession quickly became mine. Every time we met up from then on we’d always end up huddled in that tiny, cramped basement, sipping our beers in front of the statue like two men drowning their sorrows over the memory of a shared lost love.
At first my work improved: inspired by that vision of excellence I reached new heights of artistic excellence myself, as if that fractured figure had shown me what my chosen medium was truly capable of. But slowly things began to decline as I grew disillusioned and disappointed by the realization that I would perhaps never create anything that even approached that sublime masterpiece.
It wasn’t long after that that Felix died. He’d hidden his illness from everyone: kept up a facade of normality while he was being slowly eaten away from the inside. It was a real shock not to have him around anymore, and for a time I felt utterly lost, cast adrift in an alien world that had lost all meaning for me.
He left me the statue, which I had installed in a private room in my own home. I felt ambivalent towards it now. On one hand it was a kind of tangible symbol of my link with Felix, something private that we had shared together, but at the same time its perfection seemed to mock me in my current creative desert. I often drank alone now, pacing round and round the statute for hours on end like a beast trapped in a cage.
I started experimenting. I would blindfold myself while I worked, trying to hone my sense of touch, to see my subject wholly in my imagination and use only my hands to bring it to life. The results were mixed. It was liberating to no longer be a slave just to what I could see, but my pieces became more stylized and abstract as I relied more and more on my idea of what the subject should be rather than what it actually was. This was the exact opposite of what I was aiming for. I wanted to be more true to my subject, to capture its very essence and make it live through the stone in the same way Cayce had done, but instead I was just imposing my own preconceptions onto my work.
Depressed and dejected, and with new commissions drying up as quickly as my confidence, I received a telephone call from one of Felix’s contacts: a sketchy character who was half art dealer and half confidence trickster. He told me he had something that might interest me – something that Felix had been on the verge of tracking down himself just before he died. Lillith’s diary. My heart turned somersaults in my chest.
We met the very next day, and I received the tattered and faded manuscript with trembling hands after handing over a sum of money that I could ill afford. Maybe this long-forgotten document would at last shed some light on the miraculous statute, and reveal what had happened to Cayce’s mysterious muse.
I took the diary home immediately and began reading. It was strange to think that the loose, flowing writing that covered the pages had been written by the same hand that I had spent so many hours scrutinizing in stone. It seemed to fit her character perfectly.
Her deep love for Cayce and his art shone out from every page. She laid bare her heart in those brittle, off-white pages: it was soon clear that she felt herself unworthy of his love, and that she wished she could give him something as sublime and enduring as the sculptures he created in his secret, shuttered studio.
She spoke of the studio with an odd mixture of far and awe. It had no windows, and no fire or candles – why would it? Cayce didn’t need light to work. It seemed that he would work in concentrated bursts, spending days at a time in there, finally to emerge pale, haggard and almost on the verge of collapse but with another masterpiece completed. At this time his subjects were small animals – cats, birds, rats and the like. After he had finished, Lillith would spend hours cleaning the studio from top to bottom, a task which she evidently loathed.
For all the love between the two of them, their relationship was also a stormy one. Arguments echoed through almost every page of the diary, and I got the sense that they were both passionate people for whom love and hate were two sides of the same coin. Most of their fights centred around some project that she wanted Cayce to begin – it seemed to be of the utmost importance to her, and yet Cayce would dismiss it out of hand, which would send Lillith into a rage.
There was no sign of the argument being resolved until Lillith suddenly mentioned a new scheme in her diary: she planned to tell her husband that she was dying, and that her final wish was for him to complete this project she so desired – a sculpture of her.
I continued reading deep into the night, locked away in the room which housed the remaining fragments of Cayce’s final masterpiece. It was as if Lillith herself was watching over me as I read her private words. Utterly heartbroken when Lillith told him her news, Cayce agreed to her request, but on one condition: she would have to sit through the creation process of another sculpture first so that she knew exactly what it would entail before she sat for him herself.
My heart was pounding as I read on, devouring the words with an excited urgency as I realized Cayce’s secrets were about to be revealed. Lillith explained: “I lit four candles in the studio, one in each corner of that murky room, and watched by their guttering light as Edgar led in a small dog on a leather leash. He set the dog on his large stone workbench and tied it there, rubbing its head absent-mindedly as he withdrew his leather pouch from his apron.
“He fed the dog a few of the scraps of meat that we had laced with opium earlier. Its tail wagged happily. He ran his hands over its closely-cropped coat, his long, delicate fingertips dancing over its entire body. It was an honor to watch him at work, his head tilted back and his face utterly impassive as he lost himself in his art.
“It didn’t take long for the drug to take effect. The little dog stumbled woozily on uncertain paws, licked his hand once, then settled down as if to sleep. Edgar reached for his pouch and unfolded it. The tempered steel blades of his razor-sharp knives gleamed in the warm glow of the flickering candles.
“He set to work with the skill and dexterity of an expert surgeon. The dog barely flinched as the first incisions were made: Edgar’s hands were sure and swift as they peeled back the skin and sought the secret spaces beneath bound in bone and sinew. Slick with blood yet still as deft and sensitive as ever, his fingers traced each and every subtle contour of the animal’s internal structure. Even as the life ebbed out of it it was coming alive in Edgar’s imagination: it was a truly wondrous transformation.
“Hours later, with the remains of the dog carefully laid out before him as delicately as the unfolded wings of a butterfly, he set his hands palms down on the table and gave a deep, careworn sigh. A single tear rolled from his eye as he neatly and methodically replaced his now-bloody knives back in their pouch. The real work already complete, he took up his hammer and chisel and approached the pristine block of stone on the far side of the studio…”
My mind was reeling. This was what Lillith had submitted herself to? This was Cayce’s secret method? Yet in a way it made perfect sense – only by fully understanding the complex interplay of muscle pulling against muscle, only by feeling for himself the intricate mysteries that lay beneath the flesh could Cayce have achieved the ideals of artistic perfection which he had undoubtedly attained in his work.
There was one more entry in the diary. “Edgar has agreed. Tomorrow he will sculpt me. I shall become immortal.”
Their commitment, their dedication to their art was astonishing. Lillith had written about it elsewhere in the diary, although I hadn’t understood what she meant then: “All great art must be a matter of life and death. Anything else is just playing.”
She was right, of course. It put everything into perspective for me. I realized that, despite all my achievements, despite everything I’ve learned and the years I’ve spent toiling away at my work, I’m still only playing. I’ve only ever been playing. But now that I’ve had a glimpse of how things could be, I know that I can never go back.
Some questions still remain unanswered, and probably always will. Why did Cayce destroy the statute shortly after creating it? After all, it had cost him so much: the one thing in all the world he loved the most. Perhaps he had found out about Lillith’s subterfuge, and smashed the statue in a fit of rage. Maybe it served as a constant reminder of the love he had lost; or perhaps he simply didn’t want to share his Lillith with the world. After all, he already possessed her wholly and completely within the dark labyrinth of his own mind. She had given herself to him utterly, and he had received and transformed her. Perhaps anything over and above that was simply unnecessary.
I sat alone in my room in complete silence once I had read the diary’s final words. Time seemed frozen, although I must have sat there for hours. Lillith watched over me, the empty spaces in her fractured form keeping their enigmatic secrets as steadfastly as ever. The time for playing was over.
Eventually, without a thought in my head, I took the tools of my trade from their resting place in my bag, closed my eyes, and with two swift blows of my hammer on my chisel I entered that same darkness which Cayce had made his own.