Authors: Madeline Miller
Tags: #Speculative Fiction
T WAS ALMOST
sweet the way they worried about me.
“You’re so pale,” the nurse said. “You must keep quiet until your color returns.”
“I’m always this color,” I said. “Because I used to be made of stone.”
The woman smiled vaguely, pulling up the blanket. My husband had warned her that I was fanciful, that my illness made me say things that would sound strange to her.
“Just lie back and I’ll bring you something to eat,” she said. She had a mole on the side of her lip and I liked to watch it while she talked. Some moles are beautiful and distinctive, like dappling on a horse. But some have hairs in them, and look pulpy like worms, and hers was this kind.
“Lie back,” she repeated, because I hadn’t.
“You know what I think would be good for my color? A walk,” I said.
“Oh no,” she said. “Not until you’re better. Feel how chilled your hands are?”
“That’s the stone,” I said, “like I told you. It can’t get warm without sun. Haven’t you ever touched a statue?”
“You’re chilled,” she repeated. “Just lie back, and be good.” She was rushing a little by then, because I had mentioned the stone twice, and this was gossip for the other nurses and a breathless reason to speak to the doctor. They were fucking, that’s why she was so eager. I could hear them sometimes through the wall. I don’t say this in a nasty way, for I don’t begrudge her a good fuck, if it was good, which I don’t know. But I say this so that you understand what I was up against: that I was worth more to her sick than I was well.
The door closed, and the room swelled around me like a bruise. When she was here, I could pretend it felt small because of her, but when she left the four wood walls seemed to press towards me, like lungs that had breathed in. The window did not help, for it was too high to see from the bed and too small to take in much air. The room smelled sweet and sour at once, as though a thousand suffering people had lain sweating in it, which I suppose they had, and then ground roses into the floor with dirty feet.
The doctor was next, and he made noises at me. “Chloe says you have not been lying quietly.”
I said, “I’m sorry.”
He liked that, but he was also suspicious, because I had been apologizing to him every day for a year. For his sake, I tried to vary it—looking down, biting my lip, twisting my fingers. Once, I burst into tears, and that had been his favorite time. I was working on trying to faint, but didn’t have it quite right yet, for I needed to spend a long time breathing very fast first and I hadn’t had enough warning that he was coming. But as soon as I did, that would be the new best time. And the doctor would tell my husband, who would shower him with golden coins, and everyone would be happy, except for me. Though I supposed I would be a little happy, for thinking of it.
“What are you doing?” he said, severely. “This is exactly why you are ill.”
I had gotten up, you see, while I was thinking about the fainting. The room was smallest of all with the doctor in it, and he had had garlic that day, and what smelled like every day he’d ever lived, so I had gone to breathe by the window.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just love the scent of the narcissus.” It was the first thing I thought of, but it only made him frown more, because there were no narcissus there, since we were on the rocky edge of a cliff over the sea, so that if I tried to climb out the window, I would not escape but die. Also, I was not even sure narcissus had a smell.
“Lie down this instant,” he said. Then, when I obeyed, he took my wrist and held it. “Your pulse is slow,” he said.
Of course my pulse is slow, because I used to be made of stone, but I didn’t say that. I just made a sound,
that tried to be contrite and interested at once. I thought that if I’d started breathing fast the moment the nurse had closed the door, this might have been the time I could faint. But I had not done it, and now it was too late.
I said, “I think I would feel better if I could walk.”
“You are too weak,” the doctor said. “What would I tell your husband if you hurt yourself?”
“I used to be stone,” I said. “I can’t hurt myself from just a walk.”
“That’s enough,” he said, in that voice that meant he was going to send for the tea. The tea is the thing they give me when I won’t lie back, and I hate it, for they sit beside me until I drink it all, and then my head aches and my tongue hurts and I piss the bed.
I lay back. “You’re right, this is better,” I said. “Mmmm, that feels good.” Through my lashes I watched him. He was suspicious, so I snuggled down closer. “You’re right, I was so tired and I didn’t know it.” I hoped that this was enough to save me from the tea.
“Be sure you stay there,” he said. “Your husband’s coming to see you today.” And I thought, I should have saved the snuggling bit, because they don’t give me the tea when my husband comes. He hates the smell of piss, and he likes me to be able to use my tongue.
I lay down and arranged myself in the right way. It’s easy, because I’ve had a lot of practice, but also because I think there’s some part of me, the stone part, that remembers and is glad to settle into its old lines. The only hard thing is the fingers, which my husband likes to say he spent a year on, making them look real instead of still and limp, like lazy sculptors do. So I have to concentrate and hold them just the way he likes, or it ruins everything.
Time passed, I wasn’t sure how much. Then through the door I heard the jingle of coins and the nurses exclaiming. My husband is quite rich now, and has enough to pay for a thousand more doctors who all tell me to lie down. He is rich because of me, if you want to know, but he doesn’t like it when I say that. He says it’s the goddess’ gift first, and then his own since he was the one who made me from the marble. After I was born—and maybe that is not the right word, but if not, then I don’t know what is—woke? Hatched? No, that is worse. I am not an egg.
I will say born. After I was born, he tried to keep me inside as much as he could, but there were servants, and people began to talk about the sculptor’s wife, and how strange she was, and how such beauty comes only from the gods. Some people believed that, and some people didn’t, but suddenly they all wanted statues from him. So he chiseled maiden after maiden, and I said, Do you think any of them will come to life? And he said, Of course not, these people are not worthy of the goddess’ gift. And he told me again how well he had cared for me, dressing me in silks, and draping me in flowers and jewels, and bringing me seashells and colored balls, and praying to the goddess every night. Would it not have been easier to marry a girl from the town? I asked. Those sluts, he said, I would not have them.
The door opened. “Leave and do not disturb us,” my husband said to the maids, which was unnecessary, since they’ve never disturbed us, not in a year’s time. But my husband thinks himself a potentate these days.
There was silence, because he was looking at me, checking my fingers and all the rest. I didn’t open my eyes, because my job was to lie on the couch without moving so that he might murmur, “Ah, my beauty is asleep.” A few times in the past, I had let out a little snore at that moment, just for verisimilitude. But he did not like that at all.
“Asleep?” he said. He stepped into the room. “I am a fool to say so. She is marble and nothing more.” He knelt beside the bed, and lifted his hands. “O goddess! Why cannot I find a maiden such as this for my wife? Why must such perfection be marble and not flesh? If only she might—” Abruptly, he covered his eyes. “No, I cannot say it.”
I thought about making a little snore right then, but that would have been even worse than before.
“I dare not say what I desire. But O great goddess, you know my secret heart. I beg you, release me from this torment.” His head slumped to the pallet, and I opened my eyes, because he couldn’t see me while he wallowed in the covers. His hair was thinning, and I counted the bare spots on his scalp. Three, like always.
I closed my eyes, just in time. His head lifted, and he said, “No, it cannot be. I must resign myself.” But his hand had fallen conveniently against my forearm, and he pressed it a little in his agony.
“What is this?” He stared at my arm. “Can it be? I would swear that she is warm.”
Warmer than regular stone, anyway.
He shook his head, as though to clear it. “No, I am imagining things. Or perhaps the sun has fallen on her and warmed the marble.”
There was no sun in the room, of course, but it wasn’t the time to say this.
“Goddess, do not let me be mad!” He began kneading my hips and belly, hard, testing my stoniness. I prided myself on not flinching.
“Yet I will swear it, I will swear on my life, she is warm. O goddess, if this is a dream, let me still sleep.” And then he pressed his lips onto mine. “Live,” he said. “Oh live, my life, my love, live.”
And that’s when I’m supposed to open my eyes like a dewy fawn, and see him poised over me like the sun, and make a little gasping noise of wonder and gratitude, and then he fucks me.
against his damp shoulder. I said, “My love, I miss you.”
He said nothing, but I could feel his impatience. The sweat was drying on his front, and his back was a swamp. Also, the reed ticking scratched through the sheet, and he’s used to a padded bed at home.
“What are you working on?” I asked. Because it is the one thing I know he will answer.
“A statue,” he said.
“Ah!” I closed my eyes. “I wish I could see it, darling. What is it of?”
“It will be beautiful,” I said. “Is she for one of the men in town?”
“No,” he said. “I’m tired of those. This one is for myself.”
“How wonderful,” I said. “I hope I may see it when you are finished.”
“Maybe,” he said.
“I will be so good,” I said.
He said nothing.
“How old is the girl?” I asked.
“Ten,” he said.
I had expected him to say “young.” When I had once asked him how old he meant for me to be, he had said, “A virgin.”
“Ten,” I said. “Not twelve, perhaps?”
“No,” he said.
“I do love girls at fifteen,” I said. “The other day the nurse brought her daughter, and she was so beautiful. Her whole face was filled with light.”
“I have no interest in fifteen,” he said. “Or the nurse’s daughter.”
“Of course not.” I stroked his chest with my perfect fingers. I tried to make my voice loose and easy, like a yawn. “How is Paphos, my love?”
“Fine,” he said. Just that ugly, nothing word.
“Is she happy?”
“How could she be, after what her mother did?”
I was ready for this, and tipped the tears onto his chest. “I am so sorry, my darling. I wish I could make it up to her.”
He pushed me off him and sat up. “You grovel for her, but not for me.”
I wanted to say, What do you think I have been doing? But of course my husband would not appreciate that. He is a man who likes white, smooth surfaces. I knelt on the floor, my hands pressed together over my breasts. “My love, there is nothing more in the world I want than to come home with you. Just today I wished that I had something of you to comfort me. A painting, maybe. A painting of you.”
This surprised him. “A painting,” he said. “Not a statue.”
“Oh my darling, a statue would torment me too much,” I said. “It would be too much like you to bear.”
“Mmm,” he said. I let my hands fall a little so that he might see my breasts better. They were very fine, he had made sure of it.
“Do you not miss me? Even a little?”
“It is your own fault if I do.”
“It is, I know, I know it is. I’m so sorry, darling. I was such a fool, I don’t even know what I was doing.”
“A fool,” he said. He was looking at my breasts again.
“Yes, a terrible fool. An ungrateful fool.”
“You should not have run,” he said.
“I will never run again, I swear on my life. I can barely stand when you leave me. I live every day yearning for you to come. You are my husband, and father.”
“And mother,” he said.
“Yes, and mother. And brother too. And lover. All of these.”
He said, “You say this only because you want to see Paphos.”
“Of course I want to see her. What kind of mother would I be if I did not? Cold, and shameless. That is not how you and the goddess made me.”
I was breathing very hard, but trying to pretend I was not. The floor was hurting my knees, but I did not move.