Pygmalion stepped back, dizzy. He wondered whether it was his senses or his common sense deceiving him. He had not felt warmth under his lips, had he? Of course not. He stood shaking his head to rattle out the nonsense. He didn’t see a tint of flesh-pink blushing her lips, did he? Of course not.
There. The hallucination passed, and her features were white marble again under his cool glance. He poked at her flawless lips with his coarse finger: cold as stone should be. The doubt—or was it belief?—flickered and went out.
Once faith had flared inside him. Once he had almost believed in miracles. But he had rallied his manhood and snuffed all that. His fingers were singed from pinching out the sacred flame of faith—but he had not been fooled. Had not Aphrodite tricked him with one woman’s body after another, always promising perfect beauty? Hadn’t she always laughed at him when he stumbled, hopeful, past the veil of vestments only to discover ugly flesh, time after time?
But now he had subdued even Aphrodite with the skill of his sinewy arms. He had bested her. Not even she could steal this Ideal from him. There it stood, solid stone, with curves so graceful they gave back the dusty light as if illuminated from within. He had, in spite of deity, created the perfect woman. Hadn’t he?
Down the corridor of his mind, past the columns of tradition that held its roof, past the chambers in which he kept his separate lives—father, sister, teacher, friends, food, prayer—past the closets in which he packed his stone-carver’s skills, he had worked his way along his mental hallways in the preceding year, and faced up to the fog. At the end of the hall, the cool white lines and sharp angles of his internal architecture were always obscured by a mist floating in his mind. He could not see through it, but he knew his masterpiece waited there. If only he could break through that fog! Then he would see it—see her—and then he would be the greatest artist this side of Olympus.
He had done it. At least, he had done something so difficult, and so apparently wonderful, that it felt just as good as if he had, and he did not stop to question whether he had really broken through.
Dedication to sleepless nights of sweating, mind-cracking, body-bruising labor had brought his creation to the point of birth. Single-minded concentration on the sketches and the sandstone model had paid off at last. He had seen her.
Past the mist in his mind, there she was. Solid (maybe a bit hazy around the edges), perceptible. There stood the woman he dreamed about most nights, the one with the beautiful body. This was the one he had imagined under every woman’s clothes. Here, at last, was his object.
Then he set to work in earnest, switching from sketch and model to the final block of stone. By forcing his body over the edge of endurance (taking nothing but water, standing until his knees shook violently, scowling while perspiration stung his eyes) he nearly ruined his physical sight, but he matured his spiritual vision.
With his sight blighted, he worked the marble nose-to-chisel, feeling his way across the surface with his fingertips, testing proportion and dimension by instinct and touch. He often kept his eyes closed for hours at a time to ward off the fatal marble dust, working with the image before his imagination and pressing it onto its three-dimensional copy.
Once he was assured of her shape, he slept long nights, on a cot near the sculpture. Every night he dreamed about her over and over, but calmly now. The mad passion of the early sketches cooled into professional judgment that appraised and analyzed. No attraction or affection drew him. He drew her. He analyzed her lines and angles like those of an architectural structure; he critiqued her form and color as he would a tile mosaic or frescoed wall. She became his field of study in his sleep.
Morning woke him late, full of calculations and barren plans. He did not complete her in the fruitful dawning of his mind, but in his twilights and nightmares. He felt aged past his thirty-three earthly years, dragging a sack of disappointments on his hunched shoulders. He carved her savagely. She was an act of revenge, not regeneration.
But when she stood before him, she had another plan. Cold, flawless, and unresponsive, the sculpture’s uncaring eyes fell on her creator, and turned him inside out. All the soft faith of his youth churned again restlessly in his bowels; all his contained and entombed desire stirred like something unsettled, undigested.
“Galatea,” he whispered, “Galatea.” He reached out and pinched along the ridge of her collarbone. “Galatea.”
For the rest of that still afternoon, while the air hung motionless over an unstirred floor of autumn leaves and the sky stayed in one place, while the heat faded out of the sand and the sun-touched waves, Pygmalion sat still in front of his marble idol. He was utterly exhausted. And yet, for the last several months, since he had first seen her shape beginning to emerge from the marble, he had slept long and deeply, eaten when his body hungered, rested his hands when the tools became too heavy. But his eyes were damaged, and a new brutal longing shook him. He sat heavily while some new animal tore inside of him.
Something bothered him about his statue. Something was not quite right. He wondered if Aphrodite was having the last laugh after all. Because although this statue was certainly the most beautiful he had ever seen, and although it captured the vision he had seen in his mind, he had a nagging suspicion that it was not, after all, perfect. Something was wrong or incomplete. There was something odd and unsettling about the face.
Or perhaps he himself was incomplete and longed for a comforter. He had completed the work, yet had no sense of consummation. He stared at the figure, adoring and despising it. This stone woman sapped him of strength and took from him his frantic purpose. She was altogether vengeful, altogether desirable, and he must possess her. His creation must not be allowed to stand in cold serenity, or indifferent senility, while writhing burned his insides. He had made beauty, and he must absorb it into his own being. He must—devour it.
Suddenly, he snapped. He jumped up and began wildly, senselessly caressing his statue. He put his arms around it and massaged its shoulder blades as he pressed his chest against its beautiful breasts. He stroked its waist and hips, he licked its lips and kissed it crazily. Over and over, desperately, he mashed his mouth against its unyielding stone lips until his own were cold and bruised. He threw his body against it, moaning, until he felt it totter on its stand.
Its rocking startled him back to some sense, as his hand automatically steadied the statue against danger. But he was frightened, for he did not know what beast gnawed inside him, nor what was wrong with his art. With a wild noise, he staggered back and stumbled into the streets. He must get to the temple, he must pray. Perhaps Aphrodite was real after all; perhaps this was her revenge.
He blundered through the streets, walking firmly to control his raging hunger to possess and assimilate beauty. But the thought nagged: something funny lurked in the pretty face of his marble girl.
He carried his bewilderment into the temple. He paid for a minor sacrifice and offered it up in the usual manner. Then he began to pray. His prayer circled around and around the periphery of his real intention. He thanked the goddess for blessing him with some talent; he confessed his arrogance in trying to surpass her power of creation; he begged for forgiveness; he groveled in self-abasement; and he prayed for something.
That was the fuzzy part. What he was praying for was not even clear to himself, for he would not let it come into focus. It seemed to have something to do with being content now that his work was complete. Perhaps it was related to appreciating real, fleshly female beauty. He even tried to pray about finding a real woman as beautiful as his petrified Galatea, but he had to give that up. That was pure hypocrisy. He had spent almost two decades looking for that woman; why should he even pretend to hope to find her now? Wasn’t that the whole reason he had made a stone goddess in the first place? Then he heard that he had called her a “goddess,” and had to begin the confession and forgiveness bit of his prayer all over again. This was getting ridiculous.
He left the temple and barely remembered not to slam the door. He sighed, slamming doors in his mind instead. He refused to look at his own craving, just as he refused to look at the sordid playback of afternoons spent objectifying female models, nights bribing harlots to pose for portraits, and that most recent scene of shame: kissing a chunk of rock. He was a mess.
So he went home. He thought he would make a meal, then walk in the garden and clear his head out among the flowers. But after eating, he found he had to see his statue again. This was reasonable, he thought. He often needed to look at works over and over when they were completed, sort of memorizing them before they were taken to the market. But he usually felt an objective distance from his sculptures. Once they were finished, they were no longer his. They belonged to whomever would buy them, to whomever would gaze on them with joy. He had never had troubled letting a work go; especially since they always fell short, always wore something of the fog they carried with them from the inside of his head.
Galatea was different. For one thing, he had never come up with a name for his sculptures out of his head like that. They were always named after mythological, religious, or historical characters. He had no idea where Galatea’s name originated. It was simply her name, the same way that he was her—her what? What was he thinking? His thoughts hinted that he belonged to her instead of the other way around; as if he had to walk into her presence so that she could gaze on him, or require some service from him, instead of the other way around. Terror took him. Perhaps he was losing his mind. He glanced at her: she was getting decidedly creepy, with that flicker of something not quite right on her otherwise adorable features.
Tiptoeing across the studio, he began to circle Galatea, pacing warily. The time had come to critically assess her symmetries and find the design flaw or errors in execution. He gazed at her back, her buttocks, her legs. He didn’t see any mistakes. But something was still wrong, as if the lady were tired, or weak, or ill. He walked around to the side, and felt a strange heaving in his stomach as the rich, plump tip of her nipple peaked over her curved arm. He just had to touch that curved shoulder, that gentle elbow, to see if it were right….
And a moment later, he was kissing her again, madly, with a sick feeling at his heart something like what he had felt when starting to make love-talk so many years ago to his sister before he knew she was his sister, to the only kindred of his heart he had ever met and the one he could never see again—and what in the world made him think of her now? And what on earth could it have to do with this stupid statue? What was wrong it?
Well, for one thing, he must have chosen a poor piece of stone. This one didn’t have nearly the pure coldness of most marble, nor did it have the impermeable solidity of the really good pieces. It almost felt soft—no, that wasn’t quite the word—pliable or something. Certainly, he thought with professional precision, this piece of marble is far too tainted with veins of an inferior mineral. He was even able to step away mentally and notice how weird it was that he could process these technical details in his consciousness while simultaneous rubbing his palms over her stomach and thighs.
Stop, just stop! he thought, but did not stop. He cupped his right hand over her right breast, and it fitted exactly. Terrible. He thought he might vomit as his left hand gripped the round of her left buttock. Beautiful, and forbidden. But why did he feel the tension of a muscle under the bones of his left hand? And why did he feel the soft yielding of flesh under his right? And why were his lips no longer bruised against her tomb-stone lips?
Her mouth most distinctly moved; he gagged. Her breast conformed to his hand, her buttock tightened and relaxed. He moved his arms around her waist and back, embracing her as if to hold himself steady. She stirred, and he felt the pink warm life bloom all over her skin.
Twelve years earlier Pygmalion’s concentration on some minor work had been shattered by shouts in the marketplace.
“Aphrodite has fallen from the sky! Aphrodite has cast her image down from Olympus! Come and see, come and see! Come and gaze upon the beautiful image of Aphrodite herself! Praise be to our great goddess!”
He had watched his hands begin to tremble. He followed the track of the thrill, the shudder from his clenched fingers up the ropes of muscle on his arms, into his brain, down his spine, through his loins, out along the dust smudging his feet, the floor, the road, everything. And he was with them, one of the uplifted thousands, his voice was up in the single-hued sky somewhere with theirs, his footsteps flapped against the stone streets with the dozens of hundreds of pairs of theirs, his sight darted down along rows of columns to the pillared vanishing point with the sight of so many other worshipers, his cloak streamed its faded colour with the many faded colours of theirs—they were a river of lust and a fountain of devotion, thousands of men going to devour the goddess through their foul sight, thousands of women going to degrade themselves with their poor bodies set up against hers in the small chambers of their minds.
“O great Aphrodite,” he had prayed in a murmur beneath the many-murmured throng, “are you the one who feeds weak men’s passion? Do you teach us to direct our desires into the pure river of worship? May even my body praise you? Goddess, have mercy!”
He had felt again, as always, tranquility sinking through him. Some vast smooth surface (heavy as basalt, but smooth and sunlit as marble, the queen of stones) pressed the voices inside of him into calm silence. The whispers that gnawed at truth, the shrieks that slashed assurance into shreds, the madness mumbling about failure, the insane gibberish of blasphemy: these were slowly silenced the way olives are quieted into oil, the way grapes are stilled into wine.
His youth leapt up, and there she was. A cloth veiled her, a cloth that shone with light from the surface of an unbroken waterfall. Her figure was set upon a rough-hewn pedestal in the center of the courtyard. Pygmalion’s habit of critique appraised the shrouded shape inch by inch. The cloth followed, even expressed, every curve. Something seemed wrong, but he suppressed the feeling. Tilt of the head, perfect. Shoulders, superb. Line of the arms, magnificent. But the torso, stomach, legs—well, he would wait until the cover came off. For a time, he was scarcely aware of the bodies of women pressing around him in the crowd. He saw them, as always, as if they were before him each in her own unveiled glory, but they filled only the corners of his thought. Even they could not distract him from a single conception: She, the one great Female, Aphrodite herself, stood before him imaged beneath that shining cloth. Perhaps.
The foolish ceremonies unwound in complex tedium. He laughed inside, because he knew that she loved simplicity. She loved the sweet gesture when the sheet was pulled aside and the bride lay revealed. She reveled in ease of love, in limbs that came together without questions, in consummations as innocent as children plunging into the Pedieos river to cool their bodies under the open sun.
But what do I know? he had thought suddenly, savagely, I who have never known a woman! Though I see them all, know them all, I am always turned aside at the last moment by the lie.
But the moment of the unveiling was near. One of Aphrodite’s disciples, a slender priest, glided forward reached out his graceful fingers, and Flourish! There she stood.
There was a silvery-gray figure of a woman. It was clumsy and poorly executed. Its breasts were far too large, far too round, and set too far apart. Its belly was oversized and rounded. The legs were spindly—any real woman with that bust and tummy would fall over on those sticks, or snap them at the shins.
For all that, though, he knew the flaws were just subtle enough to deceive most. He had one moment of adoring desire before he had saw the flaws. Indeed, he only saw the errors of proportion because of his training in visual critique. Always finding fault, always aggravating his own restless mind with dissatisfaction. Perhaps he was the only person there who felt his stomach go hollow, tasted something watery and green on his tongue, felt bruises somewhere where his heart should be.
“Another sham,” he growled, turning away.
In the moment that Galatea’s marble lips breathed warm sweet breath, Pygmalion remembered his dream. When he was a youth he had dreamed it every night, sometimes many times in a night. Throughout the last hideous decade, the dream had come more and more rarely. Then, finally, it had come again on that glorious night, bringing with it the inspiration that led to Galatea’s creation.
It always happened the same way. Aphrodite herself came to him. All she did was walk by. She came into his vision from the left side and walked slowly across. He was somehow fixed in place and could not turn to follow her. She moved very slowly, deliberately, with stately motions. She stopped directly in front of him and looked straight into his eyes. And, as always happened with women in his waking hours, he saw her through her robe. He saw every curve, line, and contour of her form. He saw every color and shade of her skin. He saw every inch of her body, and her flesh was seared on his memory. Each morning when he awoke from that dream he could recall every detail, as plainly as if he had sculpted her himself and was turning the work in his hands. But no, not cold marble: living, tinted, pulsing, flushed flesh, warm over moving bones, soft under stretched skin. And the colors and the folds of her!
He had tried time and again to sketch her, to paint her, to fashion her in clay. But he did not have the skill.
Yet that was not the entire dream. There was more, a little more. Aphrodite walked past him, slowly. When she got to the edge of his vision, she reached out her hand beyond his sight—as if she were plucking fruit from a tree just beyond. But it was not a fruit. She was taking someone’s hand: the hand of a maiden, a mortal girl, and leading her into his sight. Then Aphrodite began walking backwards, leading this unseen woman into his view.
And there it had always ended. He had never seen that mysterious woman from beyond the dream’s frame. He had always believed that this woman was the one whose body he always imagined through other women’s clothes: his one true soul-mate, his beloved, his wife, and one night she would finally step into his dream-frame, and he would awaken to find her the following day. But the dream always ended there, and he had found no wife.
Finally he had given up hope, and given up faith. He had blasphemed Aphrodite with coarse words and coarser doubts, had violently jettisoned all that part of him that had worshiped and adored. He had rejected all women and all thought of love in one gesture, tossing earthly passion out with its divine patroness. He emptied his mind of every loveliness connected with that imposter, as he now called her. The height of his sacrilege came when he decided that in the dream, that had not been Aphrodite after all. It was just some chick. And he would have her: have her down in marble, degrade her with heatless, heartless material existence. And he would also cast her perfection in the face of all other worthless mortal women whose bodies had fooled him. No one looked like that. Not even the non-existent goddess. Only his lump of stone looked that good. And even that had something wrong. He wondered what it was that was wrong, even as her lips pulled away from his.
Her mouth most distinctly moved; he gagged. He clutched at her to hold himself steady. She stirred, and he felt the pink warm life bloom all over her skin. Something exploded into his brain. Alive!? ALIVE?!? He grasped at her again, this time to embrace, to shatter into ecstasy. Prayer and passion surged through his gut. He moved to hold her out at arm’s length, to admire and adore—and lurched to catch her as she sagged.
Her whole full-grown woman’s weight fell against his chest and on his arms, and she wailed. She just opened her beautiful lips with unconscious abandon and let out a cry. He staggered to support her, for she could not stand. She went on wailing high-pitched, loud, eerie cries—the squalling of a newborn. He struggled to hold her up, because she could not stand. There was no expression in her gorgeous eyes. They were completely devoid of any scrap of knowledge. She seemed an animal. A blank. A baby.
A baby. That was it. That was what had seemed funny in her face and in her posture. His arms gave way, and she fell on the floor, screaming and screaming the cry of a newborn babe from the lungs of an adult woman. He had carved her to possess the strength and beauty of young maturity, but she was an infant. Of course: this was the moment of her birth. She came into the world as a blank and had all to learn. This was what he had fathered: a child, not a bride. So this was his miracle; this was what he had to love. He looked He looked on her sprawled, flailing limbs with disdain. All the fog and pain and desire died.
Pygmalion shrugged. She was probably hungry.
Sørina Higgins is an English teacher, writer, and editor with two volumes of poetry: Caduceus (David Roberts Books, 2012) and The Significance of Swans (Finishing Line Press, 2008). Her website is http://sorinahiggins.wordpress.com/, and you can follow her on twitter, @SorinaHiggins.
The Ekphrastic Review
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